speaking, truth and power

It was recently suggested to me that the expression “speak truth to power” is a bankrupt expression, or, if not bankrupt entirely, a misleading testament to what is intended, required, and occurs in such an activity.  The argument for its bankruptcy, in brief, is that the expression implies that to address or correct the repressive, negative aspects of power what is required is that the reality of power’s actions and policies be revealed to them, that prior to such a revelation power is unaware of the negative, controlling, or repressive consequences of their practices, and that speaking the truth to power will facilitate awareness and in doing so will change their practices.  The argument contends that this is an absurd assumption for a number of reasons, though primarily because power is already aware of its actions’ consequences and this awareness does not and will not result in a change in the policies and practices.  This analysis intends to explore the phrase in light of Foucault’s interest in these concepts.  What will be more closely examined are the concepts ‘speaking,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘power’ as discussed by Foucault, as well as how putting speaking truth to power into practice might operate and if it might be of any merit.

I would like to begin by examining the concept of power, and consequently knowledge, for Foucault.  Foucault makes significant efforts to dissect and identify the many modes by which power can be understood.  It is important that power not be understood as merely one side of a binary.  This reduction is far too limited in scope and an inaccurate representation of the nature of power and how it operates.  Foucault says:


One should not assume a massive and primal condition of domination, a binary structure with ‘dominators’ on one side and ‘dominated’ on the other, but rather a multiform production of relations of domination which are partially susceptible of integration into overall strategies.[1]


Power is not located within a single site, it is not as readily found in the Sovereign today as it may have been at one time.  Despite the insistence of many to locate power purely in terms of Government or State, Foucault insists that “relations of power… extend beyond the limits of the State….”[2]  Instead, power is an elaborate conglomeration of relationships, a diffuse multiplicity of forces at work upon one another and with a myriad of localities and means by which it operates.  Foucault goes so far as to say that “power is ‘always already there’, that one is never ‘outside’ it, that there are no ‘margins’ for those who break with the system to gambol in.”[3]  The image here, of an existence, a frolicking even, without the controlling effects of the influence of power, is an image made possible in a conception of power in such a dominating/dominated binary.  In such a binary it seems possible for one to simply step outside of the struggle, to remove oneself from the attention of the dominating power in order to avoid domination.  Or, alternatively, it is a conception in which the alternative to being dominated is to simply work to locate oneself in the realm of the dominating.  However, for Foucault, power is much more subtle and ever-present, it is at work throughout the dynamics of our knowledges.

Throughout his work Foucault explicated how power, far from being solely negative and restrictive, far from being the entity whose primary object was to say “no,” was perhaps more aptly described as being the entity that defines both what activities and knowledges receive a “no” or are otherwise governed, controlled or ignored, as well as when and what we might say “yes” to.  Elsewhere Foucault writes, “The notion of repression is quite inadequate for capturing what is precisely the productive aspect of power…  [It] is a wholly negative, narrow, skeletal conception of power.”[4]  Part of the argument being made is that if such a narrow conception of power proved to be an accurate representation, power would be much more easily confronted.  Power, as such, would be met directly, it would be known by name, easily identified and located, and it would be hard to imagine that any given incarnation of power would be around, in such a way, for long.  Foucault points out, however, that power, while perhaps desiring or even disseminating this wholly negative conception (so that it may be misrecognized, unknown, and remain hidden), is not so easily recognized precisely because its positive, productive effects are so engrained within our societies as to be often unrecognizable as effects of power.  Foucault writes:


What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.  It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body.[5]


It is not just that power is much more fluid than the rigid negative conception often held, it is that its fluidity is shape-shifting and present throughout society in numerous and often in relatively beneficial forms.  Furthermore, many of the localities in which power is at play are considered integral and essential for ‘proper’ or ‘moral’ governance and functioning of society.  It is difficult to imagine proposing doing away with such institutions as penitentiaries, hospitals (medical and psychiatric), and a standardized educational system, and yet, for Foucault, it is sites such as these that serve as primary examples of the ways in which power operates.  He spells it out explicitly in Power/Knowledge when he writes, “To put it very simply, psychiatric internment, the mental normalization of individuals, and penal institutions … are undoubtedly essential to the general functioning of the wheels of power.”[6]

In returning to the question at hand, that of the viability of “speaking truth to power,” it seems that thus far it is becoming an increasingly difficult activity, at least inasmuch as there is not a single, or simply recognized location from which power operates and to which “truth” could be spoken.  But the outlook grows steadily bleaker in that it is not merely that power is multifarious, but that the mechanisms by which it operates, the wheels by which it functions, are located within, and deployed by, the construction(s) of truth itself.  Consider the following illuminating description of truth for Foucault:


Truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in 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; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.[7]


Truth and power coexist in a symbiotic relationship, and as such are not so simply divided into two separate entities, for power not only constructs and deploys truth, but it is also involved by simply organizing statements and speakers into hierarchies, into more accepted truths, less accepted truths, and their opposites, the outright falsities or the misleading.  This returns us to the power/knowledge dynamic, where it is not so simple as to say that power dictates knowledge, but that these two are entwined, that fields of knowledge allow for operations of power, and power is located within and by means of the development of a given knowledge’s discourses.  Foucault hypothesizes that “’Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.”[8]  In other words, power produces and sustains truth by means of fields of knowledge which power recognizes and creates the space for, as well as approves for content, and which truths thereby, in their status as such, reinforce and provide further means by which power might direct and control.

To “speak truth to power,” appears to be a contradictory or outright meaningless exercise, for to do so implies an opposition of truth to power, and, as was just discussed, such an opposition does not exist.  Truth is wrapped within power and power is extended by truth.  To be considered true is to have power’s blessing, to be true is to be knighted as such and once so knighted, these truths serve and protect the power that created them. The expression to speak truth to power, it seems, is indeed a bankrupt one.  Power not only already knows the truth, as the argument contended; it is connected to it and manufactures it, developing an ongoing and reciprocal relationship.

I would argue, however, that despite appearances otherwise, Foucault’s writing and viewpoint does allow for the phrase to retain its commonly held meaning and intent.  It is not that there is no alternative truth to speak; it is only that a particular speech, in content and standpoint, is not validated and promoted by power.  As Foucault writes, “There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’—it being understood once again that by truth… [I mean] ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true.”[9]  For Foucault there is an ongoing war to both speak and be recognized as valid, as well as a struggle to more explicitly understand, to expose, and then, perhaps, to resist, the means by which truth has been constructed and accepted thus far.

One of the more optimistic points that can be drawn from the conclusion that a battle for and around the conceptualizing of truth is ongoing, is that it makes revolution and resistance possible.  But for Foucault it does not merely make them possible, for to the same extent that he shows power to be multifarious and dispersed throughout the social body, so too does he multiply the opportunities for resistance.  He writes:


I would say that the State consists in the codification of a whole number of power relations which render its functioning possible, and that Revolution is a different type of codification of the same relations.  This implies that there are many different kinds of revolution, roughly speaking as many kinds as there are possible subversive recodifications of power relations.[10]


In every power relation, on the level of his microphysics of power, there exists the potential for a “subversive recodification.”  Power’s codification is power’s formulation of truth.  It is power’s effects, its naming, classifying, cataloging, normalizing, approving and disapproving, an acceptance of a narrative and narrator or a marginalization or a silencing, of object(s) within its given purview.  As such, in every instance of this there is inherent a potential to re-inscribe alternative meaning, to usurp the given categories and discourses and re-employ them, to re-create them as an act of resistance.  In a transcribed conversation between Foucault and Deleuze an example of this is touched on.  Deleuze comments on Foucault’s organizing the “information group for prisons” where prisoners were given the opportunity to speak of their experiences.  Foucault responds, “And when the prisoners began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice.  It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents….”[11]  Elsewhere Foucault will speak of this as a reverse discourse, or a discourse that appropriates the language or mechanisms of power and reemploys them toward alternative and revolutionary ends.

Speaking the truth to power may be seen as speech activity that proclaims, or (re)claims, and insists upon the validity of an alternate perspective, discourse or truth.  Engaging in this activity, speaking out against power and power’s truths, is indeed a resistance, and doing so does place one in opposition to power’s mechanisms and effects.  More importantly, it ought be remembered that given the diffuse, widespread, positive and productive (and consequently, welcomed as socially necessary) nature of power, to put oneself in opposition to it is to be, at least seemingly, in opposition to formidable and powerful opponent(s).  This is an important aspect of this discussion to remember, and one that is considered further in the collection of Foucault’s later lectures titled Fearless Speech.  What is central to this discussion, however, is not the dangers and consequences involved for the individual speaking, but that the speaking occurs in opposition to power, that it is an act of resistance, and that it be viably considered an alternative truth.  Returning to Foucault and Deleuze, the following quote illustrates much that is at work in this activity and is worth quoting at length:


Each struggle develops around a particular source of power… And if pointing out these sources—denouncing and speaking out—is to be a part of the struggle, it is not because they were previously unknown. Rather, it is because to speak on this subject, to force the institutionalized networks of information to listen, to produce names, to point the finger of accusation, to find targets, is the first step in the reversal of power and the initiation of new struggles against existing forms of power.  If the discourse of inmates or prison doctors constitutes a form of struggle, it is because they confiscate, at least temporarily, the power to speak on prison conditions…[12]


For Foucault it can be easily seen that such speech activity, the work of individuals speaking their individual truths to the powers that would otherwise restrict and dictate the narrative of their experience, is oppositional, is resistant or revolutionary and is, at least locally true.  Furthermore, given power’s ubiquitous presence, and that the widely accepted truths are power’s truths, it can be argued that alternative truths are not known by power.  While in the previously discussed binary of dominating/dominated it would likely be that power is aware of the truth both of and in their domination, here it is a much more difficult task to parse the forces at work, the intents of those forces, and the scope of awareness accompanying the applied force.  The parsing of power’s forces is not necessarily an archeology where we discover hidden truths, but a re-examination of what was previously believed or understood to be true, and a comparison of this with what actions are actually committed.  Perhaps it is only that some power relations require reminding of their original intent, or a redirection toward what may have otherwise been the noblest of intentions gone the well paved path to hell.  As such, the ‘speaking’ of truths, the calling out of misaligned behaviors with supposed intents, is exactly what needs to happen for there to be an awareness of a necessary redirection of course.

“Speaking truth to power” may be an expression that today is overused or misunderstood, but this does not discount its ability to be useful in discussion of power relations and in practice as a form of resistance to mechanisms of power.  What is obvious is that for the expression to be considered valid in a Foucauldian sense, a degree of qualification is required.  It must be understood with the accompanying features inherent in such speech activity (c.f. Fearless Speech); it must be heavily examined and explicated in respect to Foucault’s definitions of truth (especially with respect to the ideas of local or regional truths); and it ought to be considered in view of his conception of power and its relationship to both truth, knowledge, as well as the individual speaker’s own place within that relationship.  For speaking the truth to power to make sense as a practice, it must be understood that truth is by and large a construct or a tool, and that as such there may indeed be truths in opposition to or in conflict with one another.  To throw up one’s hands at this point, despairing about the nihilism of relativism, is to give in too easily and to discredit the discussion at hand unfairly.  That truth is man made, that it cannot be found etched in stone by the hand of goD, is merely to begin to better understand the nature of truth, so that one might better address it when it comes time to speak.


[1] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (PK), ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980) 142

[2] Foucault, PK, 122

[3] Foucault, PK, 141

[4] Foucault, PK, 119

[5] Foucault, PK, 119

[6] Foucault, PK, 116

[7] Foucault, PK, 131

[8] Foucault, PK, 133

[9] Foucault, PK, 132

[10] Foucault, PK, 122—3

[11] Michel Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power: a conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault (LCMP), ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980), 209.

[12] Foucault, LCMP, 214


Foucault, Michel. “Intellectuals and Power: a conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, edited by Donald F. Bouchard, translated by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, 205-217. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Edited by

Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.


This paper was originally presented on April 13, 2012 at the Undergraduate Conference on Social Responsibility hosted by Georgia Southern University’s Department of Literature & Philosophy. 

Comments Off on speaking, truth and power

Filed under nonfiction