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Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


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, Grenoble, 168-11

Foucault’s Genealogy and the Pillar Tool

The Pillar Tool for critical analysis of the possibility of overturning unjust systems of oppression is read together with Foucault’s genealogical method of revealing the contingencies that uphold systems of oppression

One thing is to establish when and if structural violence is present in certain parts of society, another question arises around the critique of this state of affairs. In attempt to address this latter question, Shelley Anderson and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation have developed the “Pillar Tool”. This tool, or mode of analysis, has as a main objective to understand the reproduction of structural violence and by that planting the first seed to challenge them. The question is to understand what supports systems of repression and by this understanding to give rise to a systematic critique of them. In many ways, this approach is similar to the French intellectual Michel Foucault’s reactualization of the Nietzschean method of genealogy. Too, the objective is to analyse the structures upholding systems of domination and challenge their legitimacy by making their contingency, i.e. the fact that states of affairs could have been differently, visible.

In what follows below, I shall first elaborate shortly on the Pillar Tool in order to frame the setting. Moving then to Foucault’s genealogical method, his critique of Marxism will explain his methodological framework which will direct the angle from which I am to develop on his genealogical method.

Introducing the Pillar Tool

The Pillar Tool originally has three steps: “Analysing the Situation”, “Building a Constructive Alternative”, and “Finding Allies”. Since I am here targeting the critique and resistance to structural violence, I shall leave out the parts of finding alternatives and allies and instead dive into the analysis of the situation.

The over-all objective of the Pillar Tool is to understand sustained structural violence in order to challenge it. The underlying premise being that states of affairs that include structural violence are inherently unstable, the strategy is to target the pillars that uphold and make possible the structural violence. The idea is that by weakening or all-together removing these structures, the system of oppression will fall and make space for an alternative system to arise. This analysis has three steps. Firstly, one is to analyse exactly the structural violence that one wishes to confront. Secondly, one is to identify what is supporting this structure: which pillars that help the injustice to continue. Finally, the task is to destroy or weaken the pillars upholding the system by mev ans of critique.

Foucault and Genealogy

Making the Pillar Tool the fundamental approach to the critique of power – the idea that exploitatory systems rest on a set of pillars that guarantees its reproduction – we may inquire further into the critique of the pillars. Evidently, it is not always easy to identify which structures in society are upholding an unjust system, and given that they often appear on a norm-basis it can be difficult to challenge them.

It is with these difficulties in mind that I will in the following engage with Foucault and his notion of genealogy to try to find a way to critique the system of oppression – not by directing the critique directly at the people in power but by trying to challenge the structures, the pillars, that make their continuous rule possible. In order to do that, I will first comment shortly on Foucualt’s critique of Marxism, which will prepare the basis for an analysis of the approach to history, which separates genealogy from the Marxist class analysis. After developing on the method of genealogical analysis, I will comment on the imperatives that it gives to the critical process.

In order to better explain Foucault’s critique of the way of doing critique that targets identifiable subjects as oppressors, a relevant point of departure is his critique of Marxism. Central to Marxism is its objective to overthrow the people in power: the capitalists and the system that they uphold. A personified target is found and the critique is pointed towards this with the aim of removing these people from power. As a fundamental feature of the historical materialism that Marx proposes, the economic base and the clashes between societal groupings gives the society that we live in today: “the historical raison d’être of political power is to be found in the economy”1. This means that power must always be analysed by reference to the basis of economy. The purpose and optimization of economy becomes the determinate factor in the development of political and civil society.

Whether this is a good analysis of the development of contemporary society has long been an object of discussion internally in Marxist circles, and I shall here not try to intervene in this discussion. Instead, I have introduced the Marxist economical basis to better comprehend what Foucault’s own account should be seen as a reaction. On a Foucauldian account, what happens when one tries to write history in the Marxian sense as the results of class struggles through history, one automatically omits all the ruptures, counter-developments, accidental developments, etc. that actually characterizes historical development. The historical narrative of class struggle covers over the manifold processes that in their contingency have created the contemporary society. Through letting the history work as one single narrative, the impression is given that the people in power inevitable obtain the position. The key is for Foucault exactly to show the contingency by which such a state of domination is instituted and reproduced.

Thus, Foucault’s develops a non-economic analysis of power: genealogy. By this Nietzschean term he understands “the union of erudite knowledge and local memories which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and make use of this knowledge tactically today”2. What the genealogical approach aims at is exactly describing these “local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchies and order them in the name of some true knowledge”3. The linear view of history that, too, characterizes Marxism is what a genealogical account should try to destabilize.

This is done in genealogy through a historical analysis (over a short of long period of time), which aims at showing how chances or accidents in history have been considered useful for certain purposes, and how a state of affairs has congealed through its repetition and thus achieved the status of a ‘natural law’. There is no naturalness in white supremacy, in patriarchy, in class exploitation, but these systems of oppression have been developed, not as a systematic and necessary chain of events as Marxists may claim, but as the consequence of a plenitude of developments, counter-actions, ruptures and backlashes that have benefitted on chance and utilisation of miniature workings of power. It is the task of genealogy to bring out testimonies of these instances both by showing knowledges that failed and are thus forgotten in the writing of a linear history, and the ways knowledges have been reformulated and co-opted for some purpose. This includes speaking of development even where it was not visible or actualized and it includes investigating subjugated knowledges, deviations, reformulations and errors even in the most unpromising spaces.4

Consulting Foucault’s methodology we become aware that domination seems at large to be a phenomenon that builds on micro-workings of power. His approach to the constitution of social structures and power relations is not from the standpoint of domination, i.e. structural violence, which is the visible result of social processes, but rather to ask for the multiple causes that responded to certain needs in the miniature workings of power relations. The operation is not to ask how for example the bourgeoisie imposed certain dominant relations to the exploited classes through history, but rather to ask how agents on a much lower level (families, parents, social entrepreneurs, etc.) established structures to respond to immediate and non-coherent needs, and then on top of that analysis show the way these agendas have been co-opted and transformed by the bourgeoisie to be economically advantageous and politically useful.5

The Pillar Tool and Genealogy

Returning now to the framework of the Pillar Tool, we must ask ourself how the genealogical method of Foucault can be utilised in the critique of structural violence. Let me draw two conclusions that the framework of genealogy adds to the Pillar Tool.

Firstly, Foucault invites us think the identification of the pillars in terms of norms rather than institutional settings and explicit consent from identifiable actors. Which political cultures, norms for political engagement and valorisation of human time and labour, make it possible for the dominating class to sustain their oppression? How are tactics of gender exploitation and marginalization of non-conforming subjects used to achieve dominance? Which discourses are used to solidify such norms?

Secondly, the genealogical method offers a way to the critique of the norms, holding the people in power. The core idea is to attack these norms on their naturality or evidency by showing their root in contingent power plays and chance in history. By that the foundation of power, the pillars is actualized as problematic and alterable. The genealogical critique is historical by nature, and the extensive work on historical re-description runs, in my view, the risk of being over-intellectualized. If it is not people facing the oppression and exploitation that define the struggle/critique, Foucault seems to break with his fundamental insights that these resistances always work locally against the immediate adversary 6 because we cannot expect that such local resistances would take up the extensive historical, genealogical work. I do believe, however, that the framework and approach of genealogy as a non-elitist mode of critique is pursuable. The focal point must remain the rendering unstable the norms that support systems of exploitation and domination by making them visible as contingent and thus discardable.


This article has used the framework of the Pillar Tool, which targets the structures that hold people in power, to frame a discussion on the possibility of a social critique in Foucault. By aiming at showing the contingencies by which a regime holds certain people in power, the way is prepared for thinking those structures differently. For this purpose Foucault’s genealogical approach invites us on the one hand to think the structures that hold people in power in terms of social norms, and on the other hand to rethink the way of critiquing these structures by attacking the naturality that they have instituted in the linear historical development, leading to the given system of oppression.


1Two Lectures: p. 89

2Two Lectures p. 83

3Two Lectures p. 83

4Nietzsche, History, Genealogy

5Foucualt 1976a: p. 100ff

6HOS: p. 93 and 98