Foucault and Slavery:
: Violence, Power and Resistance in Slave Narratives

  • Andrew Slack

Student thesis: Master's ThesisMaster of Economic and Social Studies


Much recent literature on slavery implicitly conceives power as zero-sum coercion of one rational unitary subject by another, emphasizing violence while failing to investigate resistance. To address this, this paper considers Michel Foucault, whose works challenge such understandings of power and the subject. Foucault distinguishes “power” (an exercised relation closely linked to resistance) from “violence” (a relationship without possibility of resistance). The paper suggests Foucault’s theories are indeed useful, though not unproblematic: he himself used “slavery” rhetorically to exemplify the difference between “violence” and “power” without investigating how slavery actually functioned, potentially replicating the resistance-masking gesture that prompted the paper’s initial turn to Foucault.

Foucault’s theories are introduced, and a case made for the theoretical relevance of slavery. The paper then conducts an empirical enquiry into “violence”, “power” and “resistance” in antebellum slavery using the autobiographical narratives of Frederick Douglass. It is argued that slavery involved “violence” and “power”, with many forms of resistance. Power and violence are discussed using Foucault’s analyses of sovereignty and discipline, with consequences for his thesis of a shift from a regime of sovereignty to one of discipline.

Considering Elaine Scarry and Judith Butler alongside Foucault, the paper then argues for understanding self-creation as a performative process of resistance to violence, made possible through gaps in power. This leads to a discussion of the narratives themselves as a form of resistance, which is then extended through a brief reading of Homi Bhabha’s DissemiNation to suggest Douglass’s narratives not only narrated his life, but can also be seen in performative terms as ‘narrating the nation’. The paper suggests certain findings may be pertinent to contemporary slavery, but highlights certain aspects of resistance that were historically specific. Throughout, it is argued that Foucault’s work is fruitful for this and further study of slavery
Date of Award2008
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorRita Abrahamsen (Supervisor)

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