MICHEL FOUCAULT IS our most brilliant philosopher of power. More originally than any other contemporary thinker, he has attempted to define the historical constraints under which we live, at the same time that he has been anxious to account for -- if possible, even to locate -- the points at which we might resist those constraints and counter some of the moves of power. In the present climate of cynical disgust with the exercise of political power, Foucault's importance can hardly be exaggerated. For he suggests that our anger and hopelessness may be at least partially misplaced, and that if our lives are controlled in ways we may not even have begun to suspect, the very omnipresence of networks of social control actually multiplies and diversifes occasions for a kind of frictional revolt, occasions for a surprisingly effective if limited exercise of freedom.

"When I think back now," Foucault remarked in a 1977 interview, "I ask my self what else it was that I was talking about, in Madness and Civilization or The Birth of the Clinic, but power?" The three books under consideration help us to follow the itinerary of Foucault's interest in power. Alan Sheridan, who has translated most of Foucault's development. His book is, however, written in the hagiographic mode; and it consists mainly of quotations and paraphrase. It will be best appreciated by people who would rather not take the time to read Foucault himself. The extremely useful volumes put together by Donal F. Bouchard and Colin Gordon are collections of essays, interviews, and lectures. The essays in Lauguage, Couter-Memory, Practice first appeared from 1962 to 1972. They are less explicitly concerned with questions of power than those in Colin Gordon's collection (the latter includes a very perceptive afterword by Gordon himself), although Foucault's emphases in his early work -- in his writing about literature, for example -- are very recognizably his.

In the 1969 essay "What Is an Author?" Foucault addresses himself to the familiar contemporary theme of "the death of the author" -- that is, the disappearance of the writer's subjectivity in language, the transformation of writing "into an interplay of signs, regulated less by the content it signifies than by the very nature of the signifier." But instead of becoming fascinated by the "transcendental anonymity" of an authorless ecriture, Foucault was inspired by the notion of the author's disappearance to turn his attention to what he has called those general "discursive practices" in a society, which delimit a field of objects to be studied and fixed the norms for elaboration of knowledge within that field. Thus, Foucault speaks of being interested in Freud and Marx less as the authors of their own texts than as "initiators of discursive practices [who] produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts."

How, exactly, is this related to an analysis of power? When he made the remarks just quoted, Foucault had not yet formulated his notion of the power-knowledge network, and yet it now seems clear that the "rules of formation" which govern the production of texts also produce particular types of power. In the awesomely ambitous The Order of Things (1966; translated 1970), Foucault set out to examine two major changes in Western cluture. He takes three areas of knowledge (concerning language, wealth, and living beings), and seeks to determine the underlying sets of discourses in these areas during the Renaissance, the classical age, and the modern period. The Order of Things is not a history of ideas then, but rather a history of the enabling assumptions which govern the production of ideas. And it now seems clear that Foucault's underlying conditions of possibility, what he calls episteme, operate as a structure of power. These "enabling" assumptions are at the same time limiting and coercive assumptions; or more accurately, they control human thought by positively defining the rules of its performance, and their very productivity is the sign of their coercive power.

The originality of these ideas will become evident when the interconnectedness just referred to is made explicit in the study of prisons and in the history of sexuality. Arguing against the common belief that "the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge," and rejecting a view of knowledge as either "reflecting" relations of power or providing a sublimated disguise of such relations, Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (1975; translated 1977): "We should admit rather that power produces knowledge . . . that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations." In the light of these remarks, Foucault's earlier studies of asylums (in Madness and Civilization [1961; translated 1965]) and of hospitals (in The Birth of the Clinic [1963; translated 1973])can be viewed as studies of institutions in which people were treated simultaneously as objects of knowledge and objects of domination. (The locking up of the insane in the 17th century corresponds to a new idea of madness as the radical "other" of reason, an idea which puts an end to earlier dialogues or exchanges between madness and reason.)

Foucault will now emphasize the positive (rather that the repressive) nature of power. In a 1977 interview printed in Gordon's volume, Foucault speaks of himself as having accepted in the 1960s "the traditional conception of power as an essentially judicial mechanism, as that which lays down the law, which prohibits, which refuses, and which has a whole range of negative effects: exclusion, rejection, denial, obstruction, occultation, etc." Now he considers power as "technical and positive" rather than as "juridical and negative." The most radical consequence of this can be seen in Foucault's attack on what he calls the "repressive hypotheses" concerning sexual life in volume one of The History of Sexuality (1976; translated 1978). We are inclined to posit an opposition between the prohibitive voices of social power and our buried desires, inhibited, negated desires clamoring for liberation. Foucault's radical change of perspective on the operations of power involves our asking if the notion of power as primarily repressive and the notion of our victimized desires as prior to the forces which prohibit them are both prodoucts of an exercise of social control. Our sense of some "natural" or "repressed" self may belong to the very exercise of power to which we would like to oppose that self.

Thus, astonishingly but consistently, sexuality itself becomes suspect in Foucault's work. Sexuality, he argues, is not the repressed reality we should seek to liberate; rather, it is "a set of interlocking historical mechanims. . . a great surface network: on which such things as "the stimulation of bodies . . . the incitement to discourse, the formation of sciences . . . are linked together in accordance with a few great strategies of knowledge and power." It is, then, an illusion to believe that we are "liberating" ourselves "when we 'decode' all pleasure in terms of sex shorn at last of disguise"; rather, "one should aim instead at a desexualization, at a general economy of pleasure not based on sexual norms."

But how is anything to be changed in the face of such massively diffused strategies of power? Foucault has insisted "that there are no relations of power without resistances," and this should not be taken as a piously radical confidence in the inevitability of struggles against unjust power. Rather, resistance should, I think, be understood as partially constituting the frictional operations of power itself. Power, Foucault writes in The History of Sexuality, "is produced at every moment, at every point, or rather in every relation of one point with another." This generalizing of the operations of power superficially depoliticizes the discussion of power of using the word to describe the frictions or shocks immanent to all relations or contacts in the world. Furthermore, power in such a view is infinitely more insidious than if it is the result of an individual's decisions, or a ruling class' interests, or the decrees of groups in control of the machinery of government, or the choices of those who make the most important economic decisions in a society. For Foucault, power is exercised rather than possessed; it is everywhere, but it does not proceed from a seat or origin of power.

On the other hand, by divesting the phenomenon of power of its exoticism, by making it immediate and familiar, Foucault invites us to identify and move in -- like military strategists -- on those multiple points where the pressures of power may already be most vulnerable to the counter-pressures of resistance. But acts of resistance are always partial and local. For instance, Foucault responded to prison rebellions in the early '70s by forming with a few other intellectuals an information group whose aim was neither to educate prisoners nor to promote prison reform, but rather to help prisoners themselves speak about what was happening in French prisons -- that is, to help them resist other, official discourses of power about them. As Sheridan aptly notes, "just as there is no center of power, there is no center of revolt . . . no unified class that is the seat of rebellion." Thus Foucault is at odds with revolutionary ideologies which identify effective resistance with the control of the operations of government. He sees, for example, that by making the state an excessively privileged power apparatus, Marxists have been led to the correlative, anti-revolutionary organization of the Party as an absolute, centralized instrument of power. Both our analyses of power and our resistances to it must, Foucault stated in a 1976 lecture, be "ascending" rather than "descending" -- "starting, that is, from [power's] infinitesimal mechanisms, which each have their own history, their own trajectory, their own techniques and tactics, and then see how these mechanisms of power have been -- and continue to be -- invested, colonised, utilised, involuted, transformed, displaced, extended, etc., by even more general mechanisms and by forms of global domination."

How does Foucault's own work offer a model of subversive analysis? He has recently undertaken the project of analyzing "the genealogy of the subject in Western societies," of studying those forms of understanding which human beings create about themselves. In his preoccupation with power, Foucault has gradually de-emphasized techniques of domination and discipline. It is as if he had come to realize that a study of the power-knowledge network must ultimately lead to a dismantling analysis of "the technologies of the self." That is, it must lead to a critical history of those techniques by which individuals have sought "to tell the truth" about themselves. The "first" or fundamental exercise of power over individuals is their own confessional interpretation of themselves. Structures of coercion are effective, as Foucault has recently said, only to the extent that they are integrated into the "process through which the self is constructed and modified by itselsf."

These processes are forms of violence. Foucault has always had a Nietzschean sense of the voilence of interpretationand of Knowledge. Far from acieving "a universal truth" of giving us "an exact and serene mastery of nature," the will to knowledge, Foucault wrote in the 1971 essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" (included in Bouchard), "multiplies the risks, creates dangers in every are . . . dissolves the unity of the subject . . .creates a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence." Foucault's peculiar brand of suspicious scholarship demystifies the claims of pure speculation and scientific truth. He enrages Marxists and Freudians by substituting for their claims to scientific discourse questions about the moves of power which accompany such claims. (What kinds of knowledge does the banner of scientific truth disqualify or diminish?) We need to know not how much truth is actually possessed by the human sciences, but rather the rules by which each of them separates the true from the false.

The activist erudition seems to have a powerful appeal for the young. I witnessed, a few months ago, the enlivening, if startling, spectacle of over a thousand Berkeley students avidly listening to Foucault's lectures on the shift in hermeneutic strategies of the self from Seneca to the early Church Fathers. In those meticulous comparative readings of ancient texts, the attentive young audience might have recognized the work of an extraordinary scholarly scapegoat taking on himself the oppressive knowledge of our perhaps unnecessary selves and--sweet reminiscence of the much maligned '60s--clearing the field of self and perhaps even of sex for the sake, precisely, of new economies of pleasure.