Mask-Off: The Many Faces of Power


Power structures permeate any regularized society and control the inner workings of its aspects. One way to interpret power is to analyze the means of its execution, especially those that are not exactly obvious at first glance. Sex is a natural human activity and an intimate process. At the same time, sex is often used to transform and boost power dynamics, for which it is required to control people’s sexuality. Another means is surveillance – a constant observation with the purpose of collecting information. This paper discusses sex and surveillance as two of the many faces of power and explores the notion of power from a historical perspective.

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Power and Sex

In ancient times, one of the privileges of power elites was to make decisions about the life and death of their subordinates. At a family level, the right to life and death was reflected in the so-called patria potestas. The father of a Roman family was authorized to dispose of children and slaves to benefit his own interests. On a larger scale, the sovereign could defend their life at the expense of other people – for example, by waging war against the threatening entity. Sending soldiers to war was not killing them per se – after all, they had a chance of survival on the battlefield. Yet, in a sense, it was exposing their lives to the dangers of collision with the enemy with an uncertain outcome.

Over time, the intricacies of the power of death have become much more subtle, especially in the Western world. Today, the philosophy of “killing in order to go on living” is no longer applicable (Calhoun et al., 298). The main reason why people no longer expose lives and cause death is that any war given the level and sophistication of modern technologies would mean all-out destruction. Besides, the approach to human rights has changed: they have gained a more solid standing. If previously thousands of people could be dying to save one sovereign figure, today it is the survival of the people that matters the most. The power of death was substituted with the management and calculation of life. In other words, if one cannot control others through death, a more viable alternative is to control their lives through public institutions and other power structures.

Modern technologies have not only made the danger of global destruction imminent but also prevented death from “tormenting life (Calhoun et al. 300).” The industrial revolution was probably the time when life itself prevailed over death by combating its common causes such as famine and disease. The former was kicked to the curb through the rapid development of agriculture, and the latter – through scientific discoveries in the field of medicine. The power of life has also transformed law as it was no longer reasonable to punish offenders by death. There was a need for another, more sophisticated system in place – the one that would regularize and normalize society.

An example that comes to mind is restorative justice – an approach to justice execution that entails remorse and redemption. Western Correctional Institution, Baltimore, has recently launched a program that allows former criminals to make positive contributions to society (Rachel). If the paradigm of justice was different, the time in jail that these criminals serve would be seen as purely punitive.

Through incarceration, they would be deprived of the right to live their lives as they see fit – that if one approaches the problem in terms of the power of life and death. Today prisoners can partake in a program that trains service dogs by taking care of them. The dogs are later assigned to war veterans suffering from health conditions and mental disorders such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This example illustrates the societal tendency to normalize people instead of imposing “social death” – the total detachment of a prisoner from society and stigmatization of his or her status.

Taking all points into consideration, it is compelling to explore the topic of sex in the context of power. Typically, sex is seen as an intimate process, detached from the broader societal process, but it is not exactly true. In its essence, sex symbolizes and grants access to two important concepts – life and power. Having sex often means asserting dominance, and if certain measures are not undertaken, the end result of the process is repopulation.

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Foucault describes three interlocked phenomena showcasing sex as a means of power. The researcher claims that the importance of blood relations within sovereign circles was at least partly caused by the reliance of the said relations on sex. Blood relations were essential in determining a person’s belongingness to elites; they had to be taken into consideration when it came to inheritance. This led to the medicalization of sex and the systemization of women – the latter had to be controlled to serve the agenda. Lastly, sex was used by eugenists seeking to optimize the human genetic makeup and prescribing ideal family partners in terms of health, race, ethnicity, and other factors.

Power and Surveillance

The means of power are numerous, and as it has already been mentioned, nowadays, they are rarely confined to blunt force. Over time, power has transformed into calculated manipulation, permeating all aspects of society, even those that are as intimate and enclosed as sex. The question arises as to what aids and facilitates the execution of power. In his other article, “Discipline and Punish,” Foucalt embarks on the topic of surveillance – the ongoing and constant observation of subordinates.

The researcher compares the societal order characterized by heightened surveillance to the Panopticon. At the center of the Panopticon, which is an enormous building, a tower that oversees thousands of cells. The dwellers of the cells are exposed and vulnerable – they cannot escape the all-seeing eye. At the same time, the inmates are separated from their neighbors so that they cannot communicate and organize themselves into their own independent system.

Admittedly, the metaphor of the Panopticon is a poetic exaggeration, and yet, there is some truth to it. Foucault outlines the most important characteristics of power:

  1. visible. Power makes its presence obvious by communicating rules and regulations. For example, every person who visits a store presumes that it must be surveilled using CCTV cameras; it is common knowledge;
  2. unidentifiable. Even though people are typically aware of the machinery behind power, be it technologies or institutions, more often than not, it is impossible to tell whether you are observed at this very moment. History had known many examples when totalitarian countries relied on visible but unidentifiable power. In Nazi Germany, Gestapo was a secret body of the police that did not wear a uniform or any other telling signs. They could blend in with the crowd without being noticed and then expose those who they considered being enemies to the state;
  3. disindividualized. According to Foucault, power is not concentrated in certain people as it used to be in ancient times. Today power is rather a distribution of resources and leverage. Not a single person has influence comparable to that of the system of which he or she is part.

Based on this notion of power, Foucault states that today’s society has grown to be disciplinary more than punitive. Punishment is often associated with destruction; discipline, on the other hand, fixes and makes amends. In this aspect, one may presume that discipline is rather proactive: it tries to prevent crimes, dissipates dangerous group of people, and redistribute resources. The question arises as to how it is made possible given the multiplicity and complexity of modern society.

One answer is at the beginning of this section: constant surveillance allows for the collection of valuable information about individuals. Another way to ensure discipline is to reject the simplistic hierarchy of decision-makers and subordinates. Foucault argues that people of power need to be infiltrated at all levels to execute the law. This would allow for power execution at an infinitesimal level, penetrating even the smallest aspects and areas of people’s lives.

Lastly, power and knowledge are interrelated: an increase in one causes an increase in the other. Therefore, a disciplinary society relies largely on science and technology to aid it in its pursuits. A good example would be the use of artificial intelligence in China. China is a country characterized by totalitarian tendencies, and the growth of digital technologies is helping its ideologists to fulfill their ambitions. Today, the country uses a sophisticated system of facial recognition. One needs to subject oneself to a face scan even when applying for phone or Internet services (Mollman). The mass implementation of AI allows for more control over overpopulation.

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Truth and Power

In “Truth and Power,” Foucault ponders a question overarching those that have been discussed in this paper so far. The researcher tries to conceptualize power as objectively as possible, even though he admits that is a very challenging task. Foucault writes that depending on the historical period and societal paradigm, power has always been interpreted differently. For instance, for those on the left, power relied on the State apparatus. The right had its own take on the issue and conceptualized power in terms of sovereignty and constitution. Foucault states that the relevant task would be to write a historical overview of the concept’s development. However, any attempt at understanding power historically ends with giving in to philosophical relativism that the researcher wishes to avoid.

Foucault revises his own views on the power that he held for an extended period of time and criticizes them. First, he argues that ideology is difficult to define because it is typically opposed to truth. Yet, it is hard to say whether this notion should be understood as necessarily adhering to truth or not. Therefore, ideology cannot be explored without a certain amount of circumspection.

One more notion that Foucalt reinvented for himself is that of power as a system of repression. So far, when power was discussed, it has been mostly its negative side that has been highlighted. Truly, it is easier to track its destructive, harmful exemptions resulting in violence and suffering. The question arises, though, as to if power was always a mechanism of repression, how it is possible that it is still in place. At some point, it would have been overthrown had it only brought discomfort and inequality. Yet, history shows us that this is not exactly the case. Power has brought about many good things that have led to the prosperity of some societies. Thus, it is possible that repressiveness is an arbitrary characteristic power and not a mandatory one.

Foucault revisits the notion of sexuality and concludes that it should be free from power constraints. According to the researcher, for a very long time, sexuality was subject to manipulations based on prevailing ideologies. Before Freud, scientists never dared to acknowledge that people become sexual beings at a very young age. Even small children are interested in some aspects of sex even though they are obviously not mature enough to participate in sexual activities. Foucault is convinced that society would benefit from liberating sexuality and stripping judicial constraints away.

Lastly, Foucalt tries to pinpoint the essence of power by excluding its judicial side. By doing that, Foucalt comes full circle and returns to the notion of the power of death that was described at the beginning of this paper. The researcher speculates that power is warlike in its nature: it either wages war or sustains peace, with the latter also being a particular state of war.


Foucault tries to conceptualize power by interpreting it through the lens of sex, surveillance, and truth. The first two are some of the means of power execution that keep populations under control. Controlling sex means controlling genealogies, inheritance, and even the “end product,” given that it is possible to correct the genetic makeup by choosing the “right partners.” The power that employs surveillance mechanisms ensures that it is visible but unidentifiable and disindividualized at the same time. A logical question that might arise is as to what power actually is. In his reflections, Foucalt comes full circle and admits that stripped off its judicial structures, power can be compared to warlike states.

Works Cited

Calhoun, Craig, et al. (Eds.). Contemporary Sociological Theory. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Chason, Rachel. His First Job Was Training Service Dogs in Prison. The Dogs Go on to Transform Veterans’ Lives. Web.

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Mollman, Steve. China’s New Weapon of Choice Is Your Face. Web.

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"Mask-Off: The Many Faces of Power." StudyCorgi, 22 Aug. 2021,

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