GOVT 663 

Political Theories of Power

Fall, 1999

Professor Anna Marie Smith


Thursday 2:30-4:25

office hours: 1-3 Tuesdays

web page:


Through reading and discussion of theorists such as Steven Lukes, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, James Scott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wendy Brown, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Biddy Martin, Ann Stoler and Giogio Agamben, we will explore the contemporary debates on the structure of power relations. Seminar themes will include: the construction of social agents' "interests," hegemony, authoritarian populism and the organization of consent, disciplinary regimes, subjectivity and resistance. The assigned texts will span the boundaries between political theory, feminist theory, post-structuralist literary criticism and critical race theory.

Assuming a basic familiarity with the political theory tradition, we will attempt to address the following questions. What are the differences between theories that construct ideal societies as imaginary spaces which have transcended power, and theories that construct the social as permanently centred on irresolvable antagonisms? Does power distort knowledge and consciousness of one's condition, or does the very notion of knowledge outside power become a contradiction in terms? Do hierarchical power relations thoroughly block authentic human interaction, communication, and liberation ? Do even the most institutionalized authoritarian formations always remain open to subversive resistance ? How can authoritarian regimes organize consent through the incitement of apparently neutral or even oppositional interpellations ?

Lukes' "radical view" of power relations serves as our starting point. Lukes insists that the exercise of power consists not merely in causing a subject to do something, or in stopping a subject from doing something, but in encouraging a subject to re-construct her preferences in a manner which is contrary to her objective interests. From this point of view, power relations are not merely negative or deductive; they can exercise constitutive effects on the subject's formation, and on the horizons that define decision-making processes. The consolidation of power entails the productive work of constructing discursive formations in which some choices are normalized as acceptable, while others are excluded -- not only as undesirable, but as wholly incoherent. As Lukes reminds us, power relations work best when their limiting function becomes invisible, when we take the boundaries of a political agenda -- or the very limits of what can be thought -- for granted.


Course Texts

All assigned texts are available on the course shelf in the Government Reading Room, Fourth Floor, Olin Library. This is a self-serve reserve system. Please photocopy the book or article that you need and return it immediately to the course shelf. Photocopy machines are available on the fourth floor, Olin Library. A selection of the assigned texts that are currently in print has also been ordered at the Campus Store.

Course Format

Seminar participants should already have a basic familiarity with the treatment of power in the political theory and social theory traditions. Please see me in the first week if this requirement raises concerns for you. Auditors are welcome, but they must make a substantial commitment to the entire course. Students must attend all the seminars, come to every class well prepared, participate actively and constructively in the discussion, give a short presentation on the readings in one week, and discuss another student's presentation in another week, and write two essays.

Presentation and Discussant's Response

For every class, one person will be responsible for making a presentation on the assigned readings, and one person will be act as the discussant. The presenter will make her paper (approximately 5 pages long; double-spaced) available to me and to other members of the seminar the day before the class. The discussant will then prepare her remarks. Ideally, presentations will last 25-35 minutes, and responses 15 minutes. Presentations and responses should be as jargon-free as possible, with all terms clearly defined. They should feature substantial close readings of selected passages from the assigned readings. Depending on the level of enrolment, each participant may be required to do more than one presentation and response.

Course Evaluation

seminar participation -- 40%

research paper -- 60%

(12-15 pages, due the final day of classes)

26 August


2 September

Lukes' "Three Dimensional" View of Power

Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View, London, Macmillan, 1974

Stewart Clegg, Frameworks of Power, London, Sage, 1989, chs. 1-5


9 September

An Introduction to Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Anna Marie Smith, The Radical Democratic Imaginary of Laclau and Mouffe, London, Routledge, 1998, Chapter Three, "Subject Positions, Articulation and The Subversion of Essentialism"

John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, London, Routledge, 1994: entries on Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida.


Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics

Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, Language and Materialism


16 September

Gramsci's Theory of Hegemony

Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds. and trans., London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971

-- The Modern Prince, State and Civil Society, The Study of Philosophy


23 September

Gramsci Today I

Chantal Mouffe, ed., Gramsci and Marxist Theory, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979: Introduction, and articles by Bobbio, Mouffe, and Buci-Glucksmann

Anna Marie Smith, The Radical Democratic Imaginary of Laclau and Mouffe, Chapter Two, Essentialism, Non-essentialism and Democratic Leadership: From Lenin to Gramsci


30 September

Gramsci Today II

James Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990

Anna Marie Smith, New Right Discourse on Race and Sexuality, Britain, 1968-1990, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, ch. 1


7 October

Gramsci Today III

Stuart Hall and Lawrence Grossberg in Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara and Ruth H. Lindeborg, eds., Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995

Stuart Hall, "The Problem of Marxism," in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, New York, Routledge, 1996


14 October

Nietzsche: Ressentiment and Difference

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, On the Genealogy of Morality and Other Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994

William Connolly, Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.


21 October

Nietzsche Today

Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995


28 October

Foucault's Bio-Power Theory I

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, New York, Vintage Books, 1980, Parts I and II

Clegg, ch. 7

Jon Simons, Foucault and the Political, London, Routledge, 1995; ch. 1-5

4 November

Foucault's Bio-Power Theory II

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Parts III and IV

Simmons, ch. 6-9


11 November

Foucault Today I

Judith Butler, "Sexual Inversions", in D. Stanton (ed.) Discourses of Sexuality, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992.

Judith Butler, "Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of 'Postmodernism'", in Butler and Joan Scott, eds., Feminists Theorize the Political, New York, Routledge, 1992


18 November

Foucault Today II

Ann Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: A Colonial Reading of Foucault's History of Sexuality, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1995


2 December

Human rights and Theories of Power

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998