The International as an Object for Thought

Yet Foucault’s fabricated posture as a “subversive intellectual,” at least ontologically and epistemologically, does not in itself explain the multiple convergences on and appropriations of his name, his concepts and his methods. Perhaps, and this would be my view, the “enthusiasm” for the work of Foucault, as much as the skepticism which it encounters, stems from the ways in which Foucault interrogated and problematized modernity and what he called the “threshold of modernity,” [1]

threshold the European discourse has developed gigantic universalizing powers. Today, in its fundamental notions and its basic rules, it may be carrying any kind of truth, should this truth be turned against Europe, against the West. Basically, I have only one object of historical study, the threshold of modernity. Who are we, we who speak this language inasmuch it has powers that are imposed on ourselves in our society, and on other societies? What is this language that can be turned against us, that we can turn against ourselves? What is this formidable bolting transition to the universality of Western discourse? That’s my historical problem. 8

For Foucault, to take modernity as a historical problem first implied not (only) looking at modernity as a mere “historical period” and the very concept of modernity as simply a category of historical periodization.9 Certainly, Foucault did come with his own mode of periodization, yet by backing it onto his concept of episteme he suggests that temporal limits or, better, limits in time, cannot be apprehended independently from the limits in and of knowledge.

In this perspective, perhaps “modernity” can be approached as a radically contingent set of arrangements and combinations which, under the impetus of the scientific and spiritual revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries10 (even possibly until the early twentieth century and the work of Poincare and Einstein) eventually settled as a complex system of limits that has demarcated the secular from the religious, the scientific from the spiritual, culture from nature.11 It is within this particular system of limits that the production of knowledge and truths (about Man, nature, the world, etc.) on the one hand, and political practices on the other were made possible, and thus for Man— that elusive figure—to appropriate and configure its immediate environment.

It is still under this historically situated and contingent system of limits, for which everything seems to indicate its radical mutation, that intellectuals and scholars wishing to overcome the disciplinary organization of knowledge are still struggling when trying to make sense of contemporary mutations of social and political life. In this regard, discussions about our possible entry into a new era (be it called postmodern,12 liquid,13 the anthropocene14 or the “Earth System Regime (regime du systeme terre),”15 “post-Westphalian,” “global,” the “world,” “neoliberal,” “biopolitical” or whatever) in which time and space, the human and the non-human, the living and the non-living, human beings and Earth collide at the same time as “geographical borders” are said to collapse, are all expressions of the intense work of abstraction and reconceptualization aiming at making sense of what modernity as a system of limits enabled and that now seem to surpass it.

In this picture, here drawing more specifically on Walker’s work,16 maybe the International can be understood as the specific regime of spatio-temporal limits deeply and firmly rooted in a geometrical and telluric model inherited from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and within which political life has come to settle. Although it has become deeply unsatisfactory, especially regarding the particular way it has organized our practical engagement with and in the “world,” the fact remains that as a regime of spatio-temporal limits embodied in the modern system of fixed borders, fixed territories and fixed individual (citizenship) and collective (national) identities, the International seems to have developed as a solution for human communities to cohabit on the planet—sometimes pacifically, sometimes not and always giving rise to relations of domination and exploitation. In this perspective, Walker might suggest, it seems especially difficult, perhaps impossible for those who want to make the world, the planet or the earth the new site(s) of/for politics (after the modern territorial state and the modern international), or bring the world into the realm of politics.

Whatever the concept of the International might refer to, it seems urgent to re-appropriate it, to interrogate and problematize it, in order to (possibly) re-orient and reconfigure the practices that have constituted the “international” as an abstract space distinct from the national space and supposedly governed by its own rules of functioning. For the most challenging phenomena of our contemporary era seem to establish transversally to the division between the “national” and the “international” (transnational violence, environmental degradations, economic financialization, etc.), they demand a better diagnostic, which itself calls for more than just reproducing the International. Foucault’s concepts and methods might possibly help in this task even though Foucault himself never directly engaged with the International.

  • [1] am not of those watchmen who always claim to be the first to have seenthe sun rise. I am interested in understanding the threshold of modernityone can spot somewhere from the XVIIth to the XIXth century. From this
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