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Essay by
Steven Green.
Website by
David Gauntlett.

How can some of Foucault's ideas and perspectives be usefully applied to the study of the mass media in society?

Steven Green

"Power" and "the mass media" are terms that are closely related in our society. "Power without Responsibility" was the jibe aimed at the press barons (and might still be a component of Murdoch's media empire today). The perceived "power" of the broadcast media has led to a political consensus for its tight control in Britain. Foucault has much to say about power and his ideas can inform a debate about how power might be exercised in and through the mass media. This is not virgin territory. There is a body of theory about the power of the mass media and the power of the audience to resist. The validity of attempts to theorise the media will be examined first against Foucault's perspective that there are no absolutes. Then, given that the perceived link between the mass media and power is so strong, it is pertinent to review Foucault's understanding of the nature of power. This will suggest ways in which the mass media might be involved in the exercise of power but also offer ideas on how this power can be deflected. This will be examined in terms of the possible roles and effects of the media. Many see the media as a source of power - either in its own right or as the tool of dominant forces in society. Foucault offers a different perspective on the sources of power which might suggest ways in which the media might be constrained. These will also be discussed.

This essay is being written for a module in "Communications Theory" so it is tempting to try to construct a "Foucaultian Theory of the Mass Media" yet such a task is doomed to failure by the very nature of Foucault's work. Any theory must be either normative or explanatory. The problem with a normative theory is Foucault's rejection of "truth" as an absolute (indeed, since Foucault does not appear to believe in absolutes at all, he would presumably reject the previous sentence!). It seems pointless to be normative if there is no norm. There is a similar problem with an explanatory theory. His view is that history is a series of fictions and what is interesting is not what happened so much as how people were brought to think what happened. If history is like that then the present must be like that too for it is only the present for a fleeting moment as it strives to become history itself. How, then, can we have a theory to explain reality when there is no fixed reality? As Sheridan puts it, Foucault does not offer us "theory in the sense of a general statement of the truth as Foucault sees it, but rather a tentative hypothesis, an invitation to discussion, which more often than not is startlingly at odds with received opinion." [Alan Sheridan, Michel Foucault, The Will to Truth, (London, 1980) p. 213]. Thus Foucault does not try to determine the outcome of study of the mass media, rather he offers us perspectives to inform discourse and to evaluate the claims of the theorists.

Many of these theories are theories of power on a model of hierarchical domination of the many by privileged groupings. Marxists, to take just one viewpoint, see the mass media as tools for creating a false reality so as to disguise a reality of oppression and exploitation. Chomsky, for example, talks of the media as just one of "a variety of measures to deprive democratic political structures of substantive content, while leaving them formally intact" [Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions (London, 1989), p.vii] and McKibben claims the effect that "the British working class (are) not too bothered by politics, having an entirely autonomous life of its own based on football, pigeons and gambling" [R McKibben, The Ideologies of Class quoted in John Hall, Coercion and Consent (Cambridge, 1994) p. 43]. Whilst not necessarily challenging these effects, Foucault offers another perspective on how power operates. He rejects the simple, hierarchical approach and suggests instead that power is not a unitary concept, not an absolute. Instead he says that "Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix - no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body" [Foucault, quoted in J Bristow, Sexuality (London, 1997) pp. 177]. Instead, he sees power as being dispersed through the network of relationships which make up society and based in discourse. This is not to deny that power struggle might be unequal but to suggest that it is not exercised in a single, downward vector. For Foucault, a critical component of power is freedom since power can only be said to create an effect if the object of power has the ability to resist. As he says, "Power is not simply repressive; it is also productive.…Power subjects bodies not to render them passive, but to render them active. The forces of the body are trained and developed with a view to making them productive. The power of the body corresponds to the exercise of power over it. Hence the possibility of a reversal of that power" [Sheridan (London, 1980), p. 217]. This final point is particularly interesting because it can inform the debate around the power of the media to insist and the power of the person to resist. It challenges, for example, the Frankfurt School's view of the "Culture Industry" as mass deception on two grounds; first that mass culture might not exert an overall and constant pressure on mass society since it has to operate in a complex matrix of different situations and, second, that the outcome in those situations is not pre-determined and, critically, each has the possibility of creating resistance or at least resulting in a different outcome. [Another casualty if Foucault's analysis is valid is Gramsci's views on hegemony and the general ideas about the place of ideology in the mass media. They are inconsistent with the idea of power being contained within a myriad of individual but networked relationships]. The key for Foucault is that these different situations are sites of discourse and, as he puts it, "discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy" [Foucault, quoted in Bristow (London, 1997) p. 178].

Earlier, I drew attention to Foucault's view of history as a series of fictions. If this is so, it suggests the present is a fiction too which further implies that power has implications for knowledge. If we claim to know the present, it can only be power that is causing us to apply the absolute of knowledge to a fictional present. It is certainly Foucault's view that "power produces knowledge" [Foucault quoted in Sheridan, (London, 1980) p. 220] - indeed he sees them as two sides of the same process. At the level of the individual discourse this power-knowledge relationship might create a perceived "truth" which will have significance for conduct in its meaning of being led to action. Even at this micro-level this is interesting for what is this "truth" but interpreted knowledge which might immediately take a new relationship with power. It suggests the possibility of iterative interactions between power and knowledge in discourse such that "truth" is always unstable. If this is so then the effect of power is not just unstable but, as a consequence, unpredictable and this idea has significance for any theory of dominant power through the mass media.

Foucault takes another, broader view of this production of "truth" via power when he says : "Truth isn't outside power … Truth is a thing of this world; it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint…And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true" [Quoted in Stuart Hall & Bram Gieben (Editors), Formations of Modernity (Cambridge, 1992) p. 295]. If this is so, it implies that knowledge and power create what Foucault calls "rules of formation" [See David Owen, Maturity and Modernity (London, 1994), p. 144], an epistemological form which he calls a dispositif or apparatus which, as Lowith says, "lays open reality while at the same time constructing it" [Quoted in Owen (London, 1994), p. 149]. The effect of constructing reality in this way is to apply artificial limits to discourse. Foucault can be seen partly as an archaeologist in that he attempts to uncover these "configurations of knowledge and to highlight the epistemological breaks which mark the movement from one episteme to another" [Owen (London, 1994), p. 144] yet it is just this role that identifies the problem that such analysis is only possible from an historical perspective. In other words (for example), while a Marxist analysis of the mass media might be that it is being used by dominant groups to mask a reality that at least they are aware of, Foucault's ideas imply that at least some of the parameters which define the present day are hidden from all.

Having considered Foucault's views on power and its relation to discourse, it is important to be clear that the mass media is not the only conduit of this discourse. Education, religion, the workplace, the family, state structures - all, with many others, play their part in the process of socialisation and societal control, however it is explained. Given that qualification, Foucault's contribution to understanding the effect of the mass media on society can now be discussed. Foucault's ideas of Power/Knowledge leading to conduct including the possibility of resistance will be deployed. Knowledge is seen as important because our resulting perception of "truth" constrains how we act. As Owen puts it, "… we may say that the actual ways in which we constitute ourselves as subjects of knowledge govern the ways in which we can reflect on others and ourselves and, thereby, define a field of possible ways of acting on others and ourselves" [Owen (London 1994) , p.156]. If this is so, Foucault's ideas about how power/knowledge can be achieved are particularly relevant in the study of the mass media. He gives particular prominence to what he terms "bio-power" which he particularly located in the 19th Century when sexuality was used in "numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations." He uses the examples of the feminine body being analysed as "thoroughly saturated with sexuality"; the "pedagogisation of children's sex" which caused children's sexuality to be denied as a threat; the "socialisation of procreative behaviour" linking heterosexual intercourse to discourses about moral responsibility and the "psychiatrisation of perverse pleasure" giving sexual instincts an autonomous status followed by its scientific categorisation into healthy and pathological manifestations [Bristow (London, 1997), p. 174]. He suggests that such acts created a reality in which (as Dreyfus and Rabinow put it) "Western men will be healthy, secure and productive" [Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, "What is Maturity?" in David Cousens Hoy (Editor), Foucault, A Critical Reader (Oxford, 1987), p.116]. Students of the mass media today might consider to what extent it is still being used to transmit these meanings and, if appropriate, whether the purpose remains to maintain the illusion of reality which Foucault argues was so successfully created as a means of control.

The idea of bio-power as a constructor of knowledge operates, in part, by creating an illusion of normality against which "truth" can be judged. Foucault argues that one way this normality can be created is via a process of problematisation. So, for example, in "Folie et deraison: Histoire de la folie a l'age classique, there was (to quote Owen), "a problematisation of madness and illness arising out of social and medical practices, and defining a certain pattern of normalisation" [Owen (London, 1994), p. 152]. In other words, the norm was defined by reference to the deviant. Arguably, modern mass media provides a rich crop of examples of normalisation via problematisation with the most recent examples being the "outing" of "gay" cabinet ministers by, among others, the "Sun". There is a link here with Foucault's use of Bentham's Panopticon in Surveiller et punir as a "machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen' [Foucault, quoted in Owen (London, 1994), p.177]. Owen comments, "This optical relation makes the exercise of power automatic in that the prisoner, because he cannot be sure as to whether he is being observed, becomes his own supervisor, 'he becomes the principle of his own subjection" [Foucault, quoted in Owen (London, 1994), p.177]. The interesting question is, has the mass media (and especially the Tabloids) become a form of Panopticon in that it constantly scans society for signs of deviance with the threat of punishment by disclosure which is particularly threatening to those in public life. Arguably, one result of that has been a concentration on behaviour by those in public life and a growing element (post-Nolan) of public figures policing their own lives - a predictable response in the Panopticon model.. Whatever, Foucault notes that the normalising judgement has become one of the central elements of our society. He says, for example, "The judges of normality are everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements" [Quoted in Owen (London, 1994), p.181]. The student of the mass media might well ask whether there is a category of media-judge, or whether the media has an important role in communicating these judgements (or, indeed, both). [Some observers suggest that the Panopticon has other meanings for the Mass Media. Peggy Phelan, for example, has argued the Panopticon is a model for television with the television producer as the 'guard' and the individual television viewer as the 'prisoner' who watches in a 'sequestered and observed solitude' (see E Ann Kaplan, "Whose Imaginary" in Media Studies, A reader, edited by Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (Edinburgh, 1996), p. 240)].

If knowledge is transmitted via "bio-power" or by processes of problematisation and normalisation, the common feature is the requirement for discourse and by definition this implies articulation such that Foucault identifies what he terms an "incitement to discourse" rather than censorship. This is what might contain the opportunity for resistance to be registered. So, for example, in the case the problematisation of homosexuality, Foucault argued : "homosexuality became a perversion but the discourse made possible the formation of a reverse discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or 'naturality' be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified" [Foucault, quoted in Bristow (London, 1997), p. 178]. Students of the mass media might well consider that this discourse, conducted through it, created a "stumbling block" which became a "point of resistance." Similarly, in the context of the use of the feminine body, Foucault argued, "For a long time they tried to pin women to their sex. For centuries they were told: "You are nothing but your sex.". …. But the feminist movements responded defiantly. Are we sex by nature? Well then, let us be so but in its singularity, in its irreducible specificity. Let us draw the consequences and reinvent our own type of existence, political, economic and cultural" [Interview with Michel Foucault published in Michel Foucault Politics Philosophy Culture edited by Lawrence D Kritsman (New York, 1990), p.115]. Arguably this is an example of discourse leading to "a starting point for an alternative strategy". Much of this discourse - including the resistance which might result - is conducted through the mass media. Arguably, at times, the effect might be to problematise the "norm". Judith Butler, for example, says, "Inasmuch as "identity" is assured through the stabilising concepts of sex. gender, and sexuality, the very notion of "the person" is called into question by the cultural emergence of those "incoherent" or "discontinuous" gendered beings who appear not be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined" [Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (New York, 1990), p.17]. Indeed, if as Foucault suggests, power/knowledge can be resisted, an attempt to problematise in the media might actually result in an opportunity for the so-called "problem" to be validated as an acceptable norm. For example, arguably, the recent "outing" of Cabinet Minister Nick Brown has resulted in greater acceptance that homosexuality is not a bar to political position. Whatever, the student of the mass media might be drawn to consider not just if (and how) the articulation of "deviance" in the service of normalising messages actually serves to galvanise and structure centres of resistance but also if this resistance then feeds back into discourse both changing the perception of "truth" and re-energising the resistance already created.

It would be particularly interesting to discover if and how new, stable understandings of the norm are created as developing knowledge reduces reaction.


It is not easy to draw conclusions where Foucault's work is concerned. Indeed, Alan Sheridan starts his final chapter of Michel Foucault, The Will to Truth which is titled "Conclusion" with the words, "This is no time for conclusions" [Sheridan (London, 1980), p. 195] while still managing to write thirty-two pages on the topic. Foucault offers no ready solutions to the student of the mass media; he is, in Sheridan's words "a slayer of dragons, a breaker of systems" [Sheridan (London, 1980), p. 225] because he invites the student to engage in discourse in an arena of no absolutes where "truth" can change as a result of the very discourse which uses it as a premise. His central thesis that power is everywhere expressed in a multitude of individual discourses offers freedom from the inevitability of determinate power and allows us to see the mass media as a site of power and resistance where the outcome (while prejudiced by a coalescence of power) might well allow resistance as a necessary condition of the exercise of power. Yet he also offers a bleak analysis of how we are brought to see a form of reality which considerably narrows our view of what is possible and identifies how, in our own time, our perceptions of sexuality might be being used for this very purpose. He shows, too, that despite the opportunities for resistance a normalising process results from the effective problematisation of (arguably equally valid) modes of existence. Therefore, while it might be possible to draw comfort from his view that power outcomes are not inevitable and can be resisted, he offers no revolutionary option (what, indeed, would we revolt against?) His message to those who want to do more than just study the mass media but somehow affect the outcomes is really no more than "It ain't necessarily so" but in an age when arguably a false certainty is a major barrier to change, maybe "It ain't necessarily so" is in fact a particularly potent message.



Bristow, J., Sexuality (London, 1997).

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (New York, 1990).

Chomsky, Noam, Necessary Illusions (London, 1989).

Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Rabinow, Paul, "What is Maturity?" in Cousens Hoy, David (Editor), Foucault, A Critical Reader (Oxford, 1987), pp. 109-212.

Hall, John, Coercion and Consent (Cambridge, 1994).

Hall, Stuart & Gieben, Bram (Editors), Formations of Modernity (Cambridge, 1992).

Kritsman, Lawrence D. (Editor), Michel Foucault Politics Philosophy Culture (New York, 1990).

Owen, David, Maturity and Modernity (London, 1994).

Sheridan, Alan, Michel Foucault, The Will to Truth (London, 1980).


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