We opened the discussion in the Foucault podcast with the question, “are we really free?” I’d just like to take a minute to clarify this question and to raise some problems for Foucault.
First of all, there’s certainly a sense in which Foucault never denied that we’re free. He even says that “freedom is the ontological condition of power,” meaning that power only works to motivate us toward a particular set of behaviors because we’re free to choose within a field of possibilities. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault points out ways in which we are less free than we thought, but it’s not power in general that makes us less free; rather, it’s a specific form that power takes. Discipline is a dominating form of power, one that creates asymmetrical relationships of power in which there is control over the minds and bodies of individuals. It’s this kind of power that Foucault is worried about precisely because it limits our freedom by influencing the choices we make and what we even take to be the field of reasonable possibilities. I think the question I should like to ask of Foucault is not whether or not we are free, but if there can be limitations placed on our freedom that are legitimate.
Charles Taylor criticizes Foucault on the basis that he advocates purely negative freedom. Foucault is rarely prescriptive, but occasionally, in his later works and interviews especially (see the collection, Foucault Live.)we get a sense of what he’s after, and I'll admit that it can sometimes sound like negative freedom. In this episode, we talked about the aesthetics of existence that Foucault later seems to speak of with approval, in which everyone is free to form themselves according to a personal ideal. The very difficult thing about Foucault's position is that he can't actually be prescribing negative freedom. Negative freedom boils down to being ungoverned, even in the broadest sense of actors being led through a field of possibilities, and Foucault is explicit that he doesn't think that's possible. It's hard to know what he wants. As little government as possible? Maybe.
At this point, you might be wondering, "what’s the problem with negative freedom?" Writing about this issue in Foucault once, I got a margin comment from my prof that just said, “Yuk. Sounds like bourgeois individualism.” It’s the kind of freedom you’re asserting when you say, “But Mom, I don’t want to!!” It’s just unreasonable to think that we can exist in an organized, cooperative society in which no one’s actions interfere with the actions of others. So what is it about disciplinary power that crosses the line and is no longer placing upon us acceptable limitations to our freedom? Keep in mind that we tend to think that there are even legitimate forms of domination, if domination is simply defined as an asymmetrical power relationship, as in the rearing and education of children. I think Foucault has pointed out some very real dangers to our freedom, but he hasn’t done enough to distinguish among legitimate and non-legitimate forms of power.