POWER: "[A] way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action" (Foucault, "Subject" 220). Although this term seems as if it should be self-explanatory, it has in fact been inflected by its re-definition in the work of an important precursor for New Historicism, Michel Foucault. In his work, Foucault argues that power is not merely physical force but a pervasive human dynamic determining our relationships to others. (One need only think of how one acts differently the moment someone enters a room in which one had previously been alone.) Power is also not necessarily "bad," since it can also be productive. (We may be willing, for example, to assign to certain people the power to organize an activity because we know they are capable of helping us actually accomplish the task at hand.) We could also say that power is essential to a just society; all people exert a certain power over us insofar as we defer to their needs and desires. The moment we cease to acknowledge this power an other has over us, then we deny that other's humanity (his/her human rights.) As Foucault puts it, "slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains" (Foucault, "Subject" 221). However, power also refers to the (often surreptitious) ways in which a dominant group exerts its influence over others. Though this hegemonic power may (at some end point) rely on the threat of punishment, it does not necessarily rely on actual physical enforcement on a day-to-day basis. (Imagine this scenario, for example: you are driving over a flat country landscape at night and you reach a stop light. There is no one else that you can see for miles, and yet do you not feel obliged to stop for the light?) For more, follow the New Historicism: Modules: Foucault: Power pathway.
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