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Theories and Debates in Social Research

Power and emotions in Foucault and Elias

This essay seeks to compare the view of power and emotions in Michel Foucault and Norbert
Elias. I will focus on Foucault´s later works, from the beginning of the mid-70s, with a strong
emphasis on Discipline and Punishment ([1975]1991) and the History of Sexuality Volume I
([1976] 1990). In turn, I will pay particular attention at Elias’ work The Civilizing Process.
The concept of emotions in Elias’ theory is central. Elias’ draws a relationship between the
emergence of the modern state and the self-control of emotions and drives by individuals.
Elias is able to integrate emotions and power in a social theory for the first time (Heaney,
2011). The main challenge of comparing the concept of emotions in both authors arises out
of the lack of theory of emotions in Foucault´s works. There are, however, some hints that
suggest that there is a certain relation between the control and regulation of emotions
embedded in the vision of power that Foucault advocates.

The essay is divided in three sections: part one will analyse the view of power and emotions
in Foucault, part two will study these questions in Elias’ work, and finally, the last section
will comparatively analyse the views of both authors regarding power and emotions.

This essay argues that the authors’ visions have several convergences. From the historical
approach of the study of power, to the relational and omnipresent view of power. In addition,
I will suggest that both authors describe the same process from different sides, which makes
their works complementary. Yet, I will state that besides these convergences, there is a crucial
difference in their evaluation of what The Civilizing Process, in Elias’ terms, and Bio-power,
in Foucault’s words entailed, and that comes from their respective differences in the way they
conceive emotions.

Foucault: From Sovereign Power to Bio-power

From Foucault’s viewpoint, power cannot be acquired or possessed, instead, it is exerted over
bodies. In his work History of Sexuality ([1976] 1900), Foucault is opposed to the view of
power maintained by Marxism, positing that power if it is not a possession, it is therefore not
possible to conquer it, nor is it situated in the superstructure. On the contrary, in Foucault´s
perspective, power is relational, it is everywhere, and comes from below (Foucault, [1975]
1991; [1976] 1991). One of the main points of his perspective of power is that it has a
productive capacity, power produces knowledge. In order to explain how power operates in
the present, Foucault analyses how the relations of power have changed throughout time in
Western societies.

With this aim in mind, develops an analysis of the discourse of power by means of using the
Genealogy Method. In his analysis he states that the sovereign power that was distinctive in
the pre-modern period was replaced completely by the disciplinary power in the eighteenth
century in Western countries. The argument advanced by Foucault is that there was a change
from power to give death or let live to power over life in two ways. First of all, bodies came
to be seen as machines, and therefore, they were exposed to disciplinary mechanisms in order
to make them more efficient, what is called anatomo-politics. Disciplinary power is
exercised by certain technologies of control, which aim to preserve and regulate the life of
the body (Foucault, [1975]1991; Hewitt, 1983), that emerged at this time: hospitals, army,
prisons, schools, among others. Secondly, hand in hand with the emergence of rational logic,
there was a development of human sciences that allowed the regulation of populations, which
is named Biopolitics. This new regime of power, in which power is exerted by and through
the bodies was named by Foucault Bio-power. Disciplining bodies implies also a process of
individualization: “It trains the moving, confused useless multitude of bodies and forces into
a multiplicity of individual elements (…). Discipline makes individuals; it is the specific
technique that regards individuals both as objects as instruments of its exercise”(Foucault,
[1975], 1991: 170)

The birth of Bio-power comprises of the rationalization of many other aspects that are related
to the life of bodies. In this sense, sexuality becomes a target of regulation insofar it is related
to the health of the bodies. Thus, there arose a necessity for monitoring and studying sexual

practices and through its study, to establishing the types of sexual practices and behaviours
that are regarded as normal, while describing in detail the variety of practices. The argument
defended by Foucault here in that Bio-power found in the deployment of sexuality a useful
mechanism for the control of bodies by means of generating a new discourse of sexuality
(Foucault [1976] 1990).

Even though Foucault does not tackle the issue of emotions directly, with the exception of
some interviews, it is embedded in his conception of the deployment of sexuality due to the
fact that emotions are implicit in the pleasures and desires that are normalized and controlled.
Foucault states that it is in the family where all the affections and pleasures were confined in
the eighteenth century, providing “permanent support”( Foucualt, [1976] 1990: 108)

Some critics question the ability of Foucault´s approach to provide any means of resistance
to power. (Foucault, 1975). If power is everywhere, it seems difficult to subvert it (Pickett,
1996). For Foucault power cannot be found in the state nor in any specific class, hence he
stresses the everyday practices and relationships that exert power, what he calls, the
microphysics of power (Foucault, 1976; Van Krieken, 1990). In his insistence in not being
programmatic, Foucault appears reluctant to specify ways of resisting power, however, for
Foucault, power is inseparable from resistance: “In power relations, there is necessarily the
possibility of resistance because if there were no possibility of resistance (…), there would
be no power relations at all” (1984B: 292). If there is nothing exterior to power (Córdoba,
2005) resistance must be diffuse (Pickett, 1996), and come from within. Consequently, there
is a claim in the latest insights of Foucault for self-creation and experimenting with
subjectivity, with social relations and with the body (Foucault, 1984a; Pickett, 1996) as a
means of resistance. If the disciplinary power leads to an individualization of social relations,
one way of subverting them, of resisting them would be by means of breaking down imposed
individualization. In this sense, in Foucault’s approach affection and building social bonds
outside the normative patterns can be a means of undermining the disciplining of
bodies.(Foucault , [1976] 1990)

ELIAS: From Social-Constraint to Self-Restraint

Unlike Foucault´s power perspective, that is widely known - and controversial -, Elias’
standpoint on power is less addressed as he is considered a theorist of emotions rather than(?)
power. (Heaney, 2011) Nevertheless, his conception of power and how he connects it to
emotions deserves more attention. Power for Elias is a relation rather than a thing, and, for
that reason, it is not a thing to be possessed or held: “Power, ladies and gentlemen, is
understood today in everyday speech as if it were something that one owns, that one could
put in one´s pocket, so to speak, like a coin or a piece of soap. But power is nothing of the
kind”.(Elias, 2008: 136)

This relational view of power is consistent with his aim of questioning different dualisms
that are embedded in western thought. For him, power is everywhere, it permeates society
and individuals as a whole, which makes it difficult and misleading to separate the individual
from society.

He postulates that the emergence of modern states and the monopoly of violence claimed by
them helped to develop the process of civilization in western countries. The gradual
vanishing of violence in society involves the shift from a direct power inflicted by the state,
what Elias called social constraint, to a less aggressive regime where individuals are able to
self-regulate their emotions and impulses, anticipating or fore sighting the potential
consequences of their acts, or utilising self-restraint. Power, from this perspective, does not
come from outside but from their own consciences, hence the internalization of power and
control mechanisms are one of the central characteristics of the process of civilization (Elias,
[1939],2000; 2008).

The civilizing process started in the Court, where nobles had to think forward, or use
foresight, restraining their drives and impulses in order to act strategically. Court society
became more aware of the others, though the psychologisation and observation of other´s
behaviours. This trend was extended to the bourgeoisie and, then gradually prolonged all
social strata.

In order to question Cartesian Dichotomies, such as mind/body or society/ individual, Elias

convincingly shows the intrinsic relational nature of power by using the concept of homo
clausus, the individual who is completely independent from the society where he lives. This
theory demonstrates that society is embodied in the individual mind, in the inner-self though

the interiorization of self-restraint. Likewise, he proposes that society functions thanks to the
mutually dependent relations of people, or figurations. In addition, Elias challenges the
reason and emotion dichotomy stating that affects and drives that people experience in their
everyday life are socially processed and thus “can in no way be separated from the
corresponding ego and super-ego structures” (Elias, [1939] 2000: 409)

One of the major criticisms of Elias’ theory is that there is an underlying evolutionist view
of power and society that privileges western societies, conceiving self-restraint as the key for
maintaining peace in society“ The moderation of spontaneous emotions, the tempering of
affects, the extension of mental space beyond the moment into the past and the future , the
habit of connecting events in terms of chains of cause and effect- all these are aspects of the
same transformation of conduct which necessarily takes place with the monopolization of
physical violence, and the lengthening of the chains of social action and interdependence. It
is a civilizing change of behaviour.” (Elias, [1939]2000: 370)

Elias and Foucault: Similarities and Divergences

Both authors analyse the shift to Modernity by focusing on the way that power was exercised,
using methods that seek to explain modern social processes by studying the past (Heany,
2011). Both indicate that the negative and direct exercise of power was replaced by a more
fragmented, indirect, positive and productive one in Modernity (Smith, 1999). For Foucault,
the change came with the shift from the sovereign regime to disciplinary power, whereas for
Elias, the transformation of power entailed the substitution of social-constraint for self-
restraint. Accordingly, each analyse power as productive: in Foucault´s view it produces
knowledge and bodies, whereas in Elias vision, power produces individuals. These
similarities in their understandings could lead one to see their approaches as complementary.
Foucault focuses on the mechanisms and apparatuses that discipline bodies; whereas Elias
stresses the process though which social power is interiorized, providing, thus, the concept
of habitus for explaining the process of dispositions embodiment, an aspect that Foucault
overlooks (Paulle and Emirbayer, 2016). The French theorist analyses how power operates

from below and the German sociologist studied how the process of self-restraint was initiated
at the top of society and was gradually extended to the rest of society.

As has been noted before, Elias undertakes the task of debunking the Cartesian dualist view
that has prevailed since the Enlightenment. This dualism consists of conceiving the
construction of reality over dichotomies, such as mind and body or reason and emotion. With
this in mind, he addresses the so-called myth of the homo clausus, demonstrating that society
is shaped by mutual relations or figurations, and showing how such as an independent
individual does not exist. Power is exerted by the individual whose habitus allows them to
control their passions an “primitive” impulses thanks to a reflex process of psychologication
and rationalization (Elias [1939] 2000). In this sense, one of the most valuable and insightful
aspects of his theory is not only addressing for the first time the importance of studying
emotions for social science, but also, how they are actually intertwined with power.

There are, nevertheless, certain inconsistencies that limit the achievement of this goal. The
dualism of reason and emotions that Elias is committed to breaking down is, given his
negative vision of emotions as limiting the individual´s rational judge, reproduced in so far
he sees them as oppositional: “It was enormously difficult for people to extricate themselves
from a situation in which they could not master dangers because of the affectivity and the
fantasy content of their thinking, and in which the great dangers themselves caused the high
level of fantasy and emotionality in their thinking. In the end, scientific thinking was the
answer to this double bind” (2008:138). Thus, the moderation of emotions is a requirement
to shift from a “primitive society” where violence dominates social relations to a civilized
world where rationalization has reduced it. The underlying logic of Elias’ view of a civilizing
process links nature with emotions and violence, and society with reason and peace, reifying,
paradoxically, the dualism that he is committed to countering. This would be one of the main
divergences between the two theorists. Foucault is quite clear in showing his opposition to
the bio-power regime and therefore he invests a great deal of words in describing and positing
how to resist the disciplinary power. In contrast, Elias considers the development of self-
restraint a necessary and positive consequence of the civilizing process in so far it promotes
the development of more peaceful societies. (Paulle and Emirbayer, 2016) There is Elias an

underlying Hobbesian view of nature that makes Elias seen human being as inherently
aggressive, (Van Krieken, 1990) and affections and emotions as violent and negative.

Even though Foucault barely addresses emotions directly, the emotional and affectional
disciplining is embedded in the bio-power that he describes: (Heaney, 2011; Paulle and
Emirbayer, 2016).

“The army, bureaucracy, administration, universities, schools and so on-in modern

senses of these words – cannot function with such intense friendships. I think it can
be seen a very strong attempt in all these institutions to diminish or minimize the
affectional relations. I think this is particularly important in schools. When they
started grade schools with hundreds of young boys, one of the problems was to
prevent them not to only from having sex, of course, but also from developing
friendships. For instance, you could study the strategy of Jesuits institutions to
suppress this. Rather, they tried to use the role of sex, of love of friendship, and at the
same time to limit it” ( 1984 :170-171). The deployment of sexuality is exerted by
means of controlling and confining not only sexuality, but also emotions and
affections that link to them to family: “Since the eighteenth century the family has
become an obligatory locus of affects, feelings and love; that sexuality has its
privilege point of development in the family”.(Foucault [1976] 1990: 108 ).

Therefore, it can be observed that in Elias and Foucault´s understandings of the shift from
one regime of domination to a new one was done by means of controlling emotions. The
discrepancy, is, therefore, in the interpretation. If Foucault emphasizes the grim
consequences of the disciplinary process by examining how control mechanisms exert
power: hospitals, prisons, schools, among others, it is ultimately because he wanted to resist
it (Pickett, 1996; Paulle and Emirbayer, 2016). On the contrary, for Elias, self-restraint is a
positive outcome of the civilizing process insofar it enables autonomous individuals to
control themselves, making the use of direct violence unnecessary in Western Countries.

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