Understanding power

The classic concept of power is based on the use of violence, or  threat of violence, as means of influence.

In most societies those with power are those who control the guns.

In traditional social criticism sociologists, economists, and philosophers have criticized the ”ruling class” (or similar), their motives, and the relationship between money and power, and so on.

However, in the 1950s a new concept of power starts to gain influence. It speaks of power as hidden and implicit, part of language, and part of ”how we do things”. Rather than being something someone has, power is seen as a relationship, a structure, or system.

Michael Foucault is a prominent critic of modern society and the workings of power. Unlike Marx he doesn’t regard power as belonging to a group that masterminds and controls society. He rather sees power as a structure, without a given ”mastermind” who has designed the structure.

In Foucault’s analysis the true power lies in how we talk about things and what we talk about. But also in who judges and assesses what has been said. These rules are called a discourse.

He suggests that we have seen the development of a discourse ofnormality. That there are certain agreed upon truths, or concepts, that we have ended up with. He often sees the Enlightenment and reason as the start of it all.

Both the prison and the asylum (and school) are modern day inventions that he thinks have been designed to control people.

He sees the imprisonment and exclusion of ”the insane” as a process of constructing and delimiting ”unreason”. The insane in society is a reminder of the limits of our scientific thinking and therefore it must be controlled, delineated and removed geographically from the world of reason. So that’s why many of the 18th century asylums lay in remote areas. The insane were not ”us”, they were ”them”, the other. They should be kept separate, at a distance.

He speaks of a ”politics of the body” and by that he means that modern day power works through the organization of bodies. Where our bodies are supposed to be at a certain time is very much part of the control. Also what a body is and how it is supposed to be is part of the system of control.

He also see power as essentially passive. That it is not the person who speaks who has the power but the person who listens and has the power to choose the subject and the system of assessing what is said. It is the doctor not the patient who has the power, it is the judge not the witness, etc.

Also he sees power as working through ”the gaze”. The ones who watch are those who have the power. Those who are being watched are those who are controlled. He describes this in his book The Birth of the Clinic, but also gives a great image of it in his book about the birth of the prison.

Here he shows us the panopticon by Jeremy Bentham, an Enlightenment philosopher.


Concepts like discourse and gaze have become very important to feminist thinkers, and to queer criticism (who both study how concepts of the body and gender are constructed as systems of power in society). The gaze is a process of objectification and pacification. In movies there is a portrayal of women that essentially makes them subordinated to male ideas of women’s bodies. The movies construct an ideal body and an ideal gender. Women are rendered objects to watch in the dark anonymity of the cinema.

In art there has been a reaction against the ”politics of the body” and the ”genderization” of the female and the construction of the female identity. (Through the gaze and the processes of objectification in for instance cinema).

Cuckoo’s Nest
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest we meet a story that can be understood as both a criticism of normality in the same vein as Foucault, but also a stereotypical rendering of women. It is a book critical of ”the system”, and the discourse of normality. At the same time the book has a quite mysogynic perspective, and could also be read as, at least in part, racist.

The Film

The book has been made into a motion picture, starring Jack Nicholson. This film is the film that has been the longest running on Swedish cinemas, of all time. Being shown for 10 consecutive years.


Read the first 30 pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which you can pick up at the library.

Bring brief notes on your thoughts and reactions to discuss next time.

Utprövning – nationellt prov

23 januari börjar vi 13.20 i skrivsalen, med ett utprövningsprov från Skolverket.


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