Richard Wolin in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
In 1975 and 1976, Michel Foucault published two books that single-handedly reoriented scholarship in the humanities: Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Thereby, Foucault fundamentally altered the way we think about power.
For centuries, power had been associated with the negative capacity to deny or forbid. In spatial terms, it stood at the apex of a vertical axis. This view suited our modern conception of political sovereignty as a top-down phenomenon. Power reputedly consisted of a relationship between sovereign and subjects. It bespoke the capacity of rulers to censure or to control the behavior of those they ruled. That was the traditional model of power that Foucault vigorously challenged in these pathbreaking studies. As he remarked laconically: “In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king.” By remaining beholden to an anachronistic notion of power, the human sciences, Foucault claimed, remained impervious to the distinctive modalities and flows of power in modern society, tone-deaf to the diffuse and insidious operations of “biopower”: modern society’s well-nigh totalitarian capacity to institutionally regulate and subjugate individual behavior — via statistics, public-health guidelines, and conformist sexual norms — down to the most elementary, “corpuscular” level.
What would happen if we reconceived power as operating on a horizontal axis, wondered Foucault? What if the traditional vertical focus on sovereignty, governance, and law were diversionary, leading us to mistake power’s genuine tenor and scope? What if power’s defining trait were its productive rather than its negative or suppressive capacities? In that case, power’s uniqueness would lie in its ability to shape, fashion, and mold the parameters of the self, potentially down to the infinitesimal or corpuscular level. Following Descartes, we have typically been taught to conceive of the self as a locus of autonomy or freedom. But what if this autonomy were in fact illusory, concealing potent, underlying, and sophisticated mechanisms of domination?