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In the meshes of power: Dispositives, strategies, agency.

by Judith Revel
5 Oct 2015 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Border Struggles [12] | Article

I would like to start from a quite obvious consideration. The multiple meanings – and in French the multiple translations – of the word agency are very well known. And the tensions between the definitions of what, according to the case we perceive as a grammatical agency, as a power to affirm one’s own capabilities, or as a power (puissance) to act, are also much discussed, namely as the necessary affirmation of an autonomy that even before being political would be moral.

Actually, it seems to me that it’s not possible to get out of the ambiguities of this polysemy if we don’t go back, upstream, to what has characterized the way in which some multiculturalist analyses took hold of the idea of agency in order to break with what was presented as an alternative between methodological individualism and holism, namely, an alternative between prioritizing the pure development of the individual on the one hand, and prioritizing the unitary and necessarily undifferentiated ‘whole’ of the political community on the other hand.

Now, this ‘upstream’ seems to me quite problematic, at least on one point. It is the assumption that accounting for the differences and their recognition in the widest possible way, the definition of identities as relational, and the importance of the dialogic dimension of democracy  would reactivate, relaunch and reaffirm the dream of a democracy actually conceived on the basis of its modern definition. I’m voluntary using the conditional. Indeed, it seems to me that in the 18th century democracy, conceived as the political construction of equality, is actually grounded more in the making of an absolute commensurability between citizens – better, an absolute equivalence between citizens, a permutation in principle between each of them – than in the gesture of taking into account the differences of everyone through the recognition of what they are in themselves, even if this recognition takes the form of the universal.

And for that reason, we do need to question this modern foundation of democracy in light of a multiculturalism instead of considering it as its base – although it is a base revaluated anew.

I think for instance of how Charles Taylor refers, in his text on multiculturalism, to Rousseau reworking his thought starting from the necessity of recognition of everyone by all the others: it’s not surprising, Taylor says, to find in Rousseau some ideological principles concerning the dignity of the citizen and the universal recognition – although it’s not in these terms – that I wanted to identify as one of the sources of the modern discourse on authenticity.[1] Rousseau is a fierce critic of the hierarchical honour, or of the ‘preferences’. In a meaningful passage of the Discourse on Inequality, he underlines the decisive moment when society degenerates into corruption and injustice, when the people starts to desire preferential attention. On the contrary, he sees the source of social health in a republican society where everybody can equally share the public attention.[2]

An equal partition of recognition, that is to the access to an equal recognition: this is the way in which multiculturalism tries to situates itself within a “Rousseauiste” genealogy. But Taylor, who quotes in a significant way, in this passage, the Considerations on the Government of Poland and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, does not refer to The Social Contract. Now, if The Social Contract is interesting — and eminently problematic for a multiculturalist approach to democracy — it is because it describes the entry in the political, juridical and social space of the contract as the passage from the person to the citizen; as the abandonment of prerogatives of the person as a person, that is as singularity, in favour of the political and juridical construction of the citizen. And such a construction of the figure of the citizen actually relies on two criteria and a presupposed element: first, every citizen must be posited as equivalent to another in order to be equal to him in terms of rights and duties. Thus, equality relies on the possibility of a virtual permutability of everyone with all others; and this implies that any difference, any particularity, any subjective specificity is suspended or pushed back in a space that is precisely not the space of citizenship conceived as the field of political action, but another: a space, in which people can continue to matter as such – the private space of domestic economy.

Consequently, we have to come back to this necessary abandonment of the “person” – that certainly every one of us is also – in front of the doors of the contract: the problem is to rethink citizenship in a different way than by starting from the opposition between a ‘public space’ and a ‘private space,’ an inside and an outside of the contract that would trace for everyone the space of the game – or of suspension – of what he/she is in himself/herself, (certainly with the others and through the others, but despite everything differently from the others).

It is here that the squaring of the circle upon which the multiculturalist approach tries to intervene immediately emerges: how is it possible to construct equality –  whether formal or real – on the basis of an irreducible difference, that is, starting from a recognized non-equivalence of everyone regarding to any other? How can one disarticulate the connection between the equality of everybody with all others, on the one hand, and the equivalence of everyone with all the others, on the other hand?

Or to put it the other way around, how can we reinvent political equality starting from the paradoxical affirmation of the incommensurability of everyone in front to all the others? How is it possible to transform the community of equals into a community of differences – of all differences with no criteria of preference – and make it in a way that this community could, despite everything, still produce something of common?

It seems to me that calling into question the construction of equality through absolute equivalence (namely, through the suppression of all the predicates of the subject as a person, in order to let possible the real making of the citizen),[3] requires a wide step around the kind of political construction that characterizes a contractualist approach, such as Rousseau’s. This is therefore the first point that I would like to quickly stress, in particular referring to the Taylorian argumentation. To think difference and democracy together means establishing a twist with respect to modern political thought; a twist of which we are used to experiment the effects, even if in a unbeknown way, and  often being subjected to its deep contradictions. In the last decades, the growing claims – of course absolutely legitimated – of differences which were not not-recognized (for instance, I think of all what we called the “colour line”), or massively rejected to private space (for instance, gender difference), and at any rate subjected to a principle of hierarchization that produced oppression, exploitation, and silence — claims to equality and possibility of speaking, self-determination and rupture of chains — were laid — at least initially, through juridical equality. Now, the subjects of rights imply, it seems to me, at least two things: they are subjects who present in themselves at the same time a unity and a statutory definition; they are equal subjects to the extent that they are equivalent. To posit that the law is the same for everybody implicates that this “all” is not susceptible to internal differences, except if one generates specific status that always correspond to something like an alteration of the integrity of the subject or of its ‘full’ consciousness. Otherwise, it is necessary to take the risk, for instance by displacing ourselves from the juridical to the cultural level of modulating this equivalence in the name of equality, in order to grant equal access to recognition; but this would mean generating a terrain that is ultimately what a fully modern perspective would consider as propitious to differences, segmentations, namely to the implosion of the unity of the community of everybody.

The answer that multiculturalism has attempted to provide to this problem is quite well known. And this answer is not powerless in itself: it consists in arguing that the risk of the segmentation of society into sub-sets, micro-societies – that the detractors of multiculturalism stressed in order to corroborate their hypothesis[4] -is ultimately counterbalanced by a new approach to democratic universality. In fact, it is a question of enacting collective identities differently than how they are assumed by the nation-state in a dynamic wherein the recognition of dignity displaces the problem of democracy towards a social world taken in its cultural expressions. It is a question of rethinking democracy as a world lived in the name of democratic equality of many voices, and of replacing juridical equality with  recognition so that the latter calls into question the former.

For instance, this is the problem of quotas: what is needed is a new articulation of the law starting from common principles such as reparation or compensation. And in turn this raises new questions, for instance, the fact that it contributes to maintaining certain differences within a status of paradoxical subalternity, since “different” subjects are too often considered exclusively as victims to whom, as victims, we owe something; or, at worst, they are considered as subjects in needs of assistance. History teaches us that guiltiness in itself is never an adequate ground to grant everybody’s equality: it is certainly a necessary condition, but it requires other elements, such as the possibility of an autonomous speech on the part of those “different” subjects, well beyond their victimization or the recognition of their vulnerability. After all, the ambiguity of the notion of “vulnerability”, included as it is used in a very productive way (I have in mind, for instance, Judith Butler’s work) is there: from a formal point of view, the reciprocal recognition of our fundamental vulnerability is a powerful element to try to build, starting from interdependence and the form of relationship, a society that is not grounded in dominant normed models or in principles of internal hierarchization.  But concretely, vulnerability is also the way in which the dominant positions qualify, objectify and appropriate their “other”; that is, dominant positions recognize differences once they have defined them. What the topic of vulnerability leaves in the shadow is the reality of social domination, included when it is expressed through the language of differences. To put it differently: there are different forms of recognition – it depends precisely on who builds, expresses and fixes the differences as differences.

I would now like to insist that on the grounding of this issue of the construction of the differences – coming back to my initial questioning of the idea of agency.  It seems to me that one of the fundamental bonds that we should undo is given by the notion of difference itself and the way in which we think of it. A first possibility consists in thinking the differences that are at the basis of the community, and not in the backdrop of the community, as what is allowed through the recognition in advance of the indissoluble and indefectible unity of what makes differences possible; and this is a Copernican revolution in itself. To put it in a schematic way, the passage from the “I” to the “we”, that is from the claim of the recognition of one’s own singularity to the composition of these singularities within a community of composition and coexistence, can be thought in two ways.

The first way is to introduce, upstream, different “I”’s, or collective specific identities that are “different” and thus even partial. What emerges, then, is the principle of a co-belonging that transcends and traces similarities before any possible difference.

Community of nature, community of reason, community of humanity: actually the variants are certainly multiple, but their functioning always consists in granting the construction of the common  of differences, starting from an element that is already known as universally shared. This can play at the level of the community of all differences – in the name of a common nature, of a humanity, of a faculty of language or of a universally shared reason. It can also play at the level of a differentially determined community, for instance a community of women that would be defined as such starting from the recognition of specific natural traits – the fact of having a womb, the capacity to give birth to a baby, a certain regime of affectivity, an inclination towards relationships; such a perspective can be framed in different streams — the Feminist thought of sexual difference, the Italian ones in particular. These are certainly two levels but with the same tautological principle: the political construction of the community cannot be thought without the preliminary recognition of something that is on the order of the common.

The second way is radically different from the former:  it involves refusing the existence of some pre-political dimension and in positing by consequence a radical political constructivism. From such a perspective the community is the invention of a common of the differences as differences. The difficulty of going from the “I” to the “we” is by the way complicated here, unless we decide to suspend differences or to veil them with a voluntarily declared opacity. In fact, in order to allow the constitution of an egalitarian co-belonging,[5] it is hard to understand how it is possible to build an egalitarian community of  differences that are in themselves incommensurable to each other, namely that cannot be reduced to a common measure. I use here on purpose the term “measure”: the refusal of a common measure is also the refusal to be necessarily situated as a result of a measuring gap, that is through the evaluation of one’s own distance in relation to a given landmark, to a yardstick-norm.[6]

What interests me here are the second perspective and the difficulties that it raises, because I believe that the notion of “agency” can be fully rethought and that, at the same time, it is extremely useful.  This analysis is grounded on a constructivist analysis. In this regard, I would like to quote a passage of a text by Michel Foucault, published in the US in 1984 Polemics, politics and problematizations.[7] This is an interview conducted by Foucault one month before his death and that is situated in the framework of the debate with American neo-pragmatists, and in particular with Richard Rorty:

Richard Rorty points out that in these analyses I do not appeal to any “we” — to any of those “wes” whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought and define the conditions in which it can be validated. But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a “we” in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a “we” possible by elaborating the question.[8]

I will come back to this citation shortly, and in particular to its last sentence, that seems to me opening important tracks.

But before pursuing these, it is necessary to recognize that despite the constructivist hypothesis defines the “we” of social and political coexistence as the result of the composition[9] – actually refers this composition to the existence of elements that we should connect together; elements that are primary, singular, different in themselves, irreducible and incommensurable.

And it seems to me that it is exactly on this point that the detractors of multiculturalism focus when they foreground the impossibility to take all the given differences together without generating an internal segmentation, resulting in the best case in a lack of cohesion. Thus, according to them, the risk would be to produce an internal delimitation of the community, and at worst an internal hierarchisation of society through differences and particularisms.

Starting from constituted unities, differences that are recognized as differences, and first of all maintained as differences in order to recompose a whole of differences, means threatening the Whole with the permanent risk of its decomposition, and of the return to initial differential unities. It means living under the threat of a kind of “endogenous balkanisation” – if we can call it in this way – of the community of different beings; and this seems to be also one of the ways in which the disappearance of the nation-state has been translated into recent globalization: multiplication of minority claims and particularisms – linguistic, ethnic, religious, cultural and historical particularisms –and a decomposition of the forms of the living together.

That said, if it is not a question of promoting the return of the nation-state – as many do, unaware of the fact that history does not repeat itself – we need to tackle the issue seriously. In this regard I would like to come back to the conclusion of the passage of Foucault’s interview that I quoted above. He says: “it seems to me that “we” must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result and the necessary temporary result — of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it”. What is important here is the idea of a provisional character – that is an always necessarily new one – of the constructivist dynamic. And such an idea can be taken in two different ways. One approach consists in saying that the community needs to be continuously reworked, even in its juridical formalisation. (Actually, this is quite an old idea: it was already expressed in 1789 by Jefferson in a letter to Madison, in which he argued that a constitution ideally needs to last no more than nineteen years, that is a generation.)

The second approach involves, rather, thinking that if the character of mutability applies to the form of “we” that has been built and that implicates an incessant political and social reformulation, then it follows that it can apply also to the differences that must be assembled in the form of the community.[10] The issue consists of conceiving differences not exclusively in terms of what is irreducibly singular (and at any rate as singularities that claim an equal access to equality) but also as what is in a differential relationship to oneself. That is to say, what redoubles the critique of the neutralising unity of the nation-state in its republican formulation – which is the starting point of multiculturalism – through a critique of the unity of the “self” that, nevertheless, is put forward in the form of minority and of particularism. Foucault has come to sustain a differential approach to differences, criticizing the unity and the closure – as well as any coherence and fixity that remain unquestioned – of the differences through his work on ethics and on the Stoic sources. The relation to the self that is at stake in spiritual exercises could not be analysed as an ethical individualism, not only because it always entails a relational form but also because, and in a deeper way, it is grounded on a movement of permanent differentiation of this “self” in relation to oneself. That is, it involves a will of permanent reworking of oneself that redefines precisely the “self” as opposed to an identity or a position: rather, it is conceived as a becoming, as a becoming different. And it is only at this price that the relation to oneself, as Foucault points out in The Ethics for the Concern of Self as a Practice of Freedom, can work paradoxically as a real intensifier of social relations”.[11]

Therefore, in the context of this reflection on the concept of agency, I give the following hypothesis: the power of acting exercised by the differences, their capacity of agency and, simultaneously, their capacity to build a community together with other differences is directly determined by their ability to situate themselves in a dimension that is reluctant to any position and any identity. That is to say, it is a question of thinking agency as the means for deconstructing the link between differences and identities, as a way to grasp differences through their paradoxical ability to relaunch beyond themselves.

Beyond that, it is also a question of thinking any person not only within a specific becoming but also as dependent on something else than on a difference. Thinking any person as being a community in itself – sometimes difficult one, sometimes a contradictory one, other times a formidably synergic community – of differences as plural. That is, woman and Muslim, or black and migrant, or lesbian and precarious, or socially declassed and culturally silenced, it doesn’t matter: these are different combinations of possible predicates of the subjects, and they are infinite in number. Gender, ethnic group, social and cultural determination, age, sexual preference, religion, language – only to quote the commonest ones: why should we be only one of these things? Why not allow them to live in us in a simultaneous way, recognizing this multiplicity of differences that make us be what we are? As far as women are concerned, it seems to me that this imbrication of differences would open multiple possibilities of recognition; but it would also allow, and here lies the main stake, an image of the community that is quite far from the one that we usually have; in fact, it would ground the refusal of a neutralising unity of the community in the refusal, beforehand, of another objectivized unity that corresponds to the monism of identity.

If we need to deconstruct the reign of the One, we need to do that everywhere and in a full way. Indeed, there are not primary elements, there are only compositions of differences, included in what we name the reference to the self; thus, it is everywhere a question of the structure of the relationship.

This does not exclude the fact that sometimes we need to choose, according to the circumstances, one difference in the place of another one: there are contexts in which it is necessary to define oneself “woman”, other in which instead the racial determination is likewise much important; then, there could be other contexts where the social determination is absolutely fundamental (proletarian woman/socially dominant woman), or others in which the political determination is quite evident. (Woman who has not access to citizenship/woman who is fully citizen).

To this purpose, it is important to remember the Strauss-Kahn/Nafissatou Diallo affair. The agency of Nafissatou Diallo is represented by her capacity to act starting from the strategic choice of what she is, at a given moment, regarding the power relations in which she unwillingly situated. More broadly, it could be argued that if there is no agency without the multiplication of subject predicates – that is, without the recognition of the infinity of the plural differences that define us – this agency implicates always a strategy, based on a diagnostic of what is convenient to me to foreground in a certain place and at a given moment. This strategy could be defensive, as in the case of Nafissatou Diallo. But it could also be constitutive: building a community ultimately means trying to create the space of an equalitarian coexistence and of freedom of expression of this permanent strategy grounded on the differences as differences.

A community without power relations is an illusion; since long, power relations have no longer been conceived as exclusively narrowed to the sphere of the state and they are by now recognized to be, in the form of micro-powers, in any place where there is a relation between differences: in affects, in knowledges, in the institutions of the social , at work, in partner relations, in teaching relations etc. power is not something bad in itself: it is simply the intimate network of the relation. To recognize this does not mean to abandon the ideals of equality and freedom but to situate their possible construction into the materiality of human relations, into a factory of the political, and not in a metaphysic of the ideal community. It’s within such a network that agency must be conceived as a strategy – both constitutive and defensive at the same time – constantly redefined, situated and relaunched. This involves conflict – but since Machiavelli we have known that democracy depends precisely on the possibility of a conflicting dimension. This also risks abandoning a certain number of reassuring certitudes, starting from that which anchors us to what we believe to be a difference and that it is actually an identity.

It is undoubtedly there that the women’ voice – historically used to be women, and sometimes mothers, and sometimes sisters, and always daughters , sometimes wives and sometime workers, is useful. To survive as women in a world in which the dimension of patriarchate – and of the white patriarchate – is still present, means permanently playing the strategic agency of one’s own plural difference.

Who am I today – speaking to you? We know Foucault’s answer: “don’t ask me who I am, this is a moral of civil state. This is a moral that governs our documents: hope it leaves us free at least when we are writing” [12]. But such a refusal of the identity does not mean anonymity. On the contrary, it involves the proliferation of what everyone of us is in oneself: a constellation of plural differences, as a condition of possibility of this other constellation of plural differences that we are calling for and that is the democratic community.


1. C. Taylor Multiculturalism: Examining The Politics of Recognition, (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1994). [↑]

2. C. Taylor(1993) ‘The Malaise of Modernity’, Ethics, 104( 1), pp. 192-194. [↑]

3. (si l’on y pense, par dé-prédication du sujet en tant que personne, pour rendre au contraire possible la véritable fabrique du sujet-citoyen) [↑]

4. Namely the reactualisation of the republican hypothesis, the necessity of a unique and indivisible society, grounded in the refusal of differentialism and the affirmation of a network of equivalences without any remainder as the fundamental characteristic of the public space. [↑]

5. Coming back on the old schema according to which there is not equality without a strict equivalence of elements. [↑]

6. The expression “norm-yardstick” represents a good example in itself of what is always conveyed by the normativity, as shaped by the necessities of physical measures, of the time or of the weight. [↑]

7. Entretien avec P. Rabinow, mai 1984, DE IV, texte n° 342. [↑]

9. et, puisque c’est ici cela qui nous intéresse, sous la forme d’une composition où se vérifierait l’égalité des voix. [↑]

10. et même, encore une fois, juridique, sous la forme de la révision constitutionnelle. [↑]

11. M. Foucault, The Ethics for the Concern of Self as a Practice of Freedom, in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, vol. 1:  Ethics:  Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, 1997, New York:  The New Press, pp. 281-302. [↑]

12. M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Preface, French edition. [↑]

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Judith Revel is a professor of Contemporary Philosophy and Epistemology of Social Sciences at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre-La Défense (Sophiapol, EA 3932). She is also member of the Centre Michel Foucault (Paris). Her last books include Michel Foucault. Une pensée du discontinu (Fayard, 2010), Dictionnaire politique à l'usage des gouvernés (Bayard, 2012), Foucault avec Merleau-Ponty. Ontologie politique, présentisme et histoire (2015).
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