The Field of IR and Foucault

Although Foucault remained silent about IR, IR has not ignored the philosopher-historian, his methods and concepts. It is not my intention here to recall the multiple ways in which Foucault has been appropriated in this field. Others have done that already,20 and some in this volume will do that again better than I would do it myself. Rather, I want to briefly recall the somehow initial subversive function Foucault’s work inspired in the field of IR.

Indeed, as already suggested in the beginning of this introduction, Foucault is, in the Anglo-American world, one of those—with Derrida, Baudrillard, Virilio and more recently Bourdieu and Latour—whose work helped shape a somehow radical critique of IR. Starting at the end of the 1970s, some within IR found in The Order of Things and the Archaeology of Knowledge—that is, in the least positivist Foucault—as well as in his conceptualization of power as relational and productive, the arguments for a critique of the onto-epistemological options that had underpinned the different theorizations of “international relations.” Now associated with the names of Shapiro, Ashley, Onuf, Dillon, Campbell, Connolly, Jabri, Walker and Der Derian among others, this critique worked within and called for a pluralist ontology, insisting on multiplicity instead of unity, difference instead of identity, heterogeneity instead of homogeneity. From an epistemological point of view, the archaeo-genealogical mood that was progressively being articulated in IR enabled various interrogations of the universalistic assumptions of epistemic realism that had, that far, come to dominate the field of IR.21 Hence, it became possible to shed light upon the historical practices as well as the conceptual and discursive operations that have enabled the concepts of state, sovereignty,22 diplomacy,23 foreign policy24 or security25 to work unreflectively within IR.

The foucauldian line of this critique helped to raise questions about how “international relations” had been constituted as an object of knowledge, along with IR as a specific field of study within an academic discipline, even though its archaeological study remains an incomplete project. Overall, this critique helped establish the historically contingent character of the discipline itself, highlighting especially how the theories developed within IR were more an expression of a particular and historically situated spatial and political imaginary than of the explanations of world politics they purported to be.

By then, the works of Michel Foucault were performing a heterotopical and virtually emancipative function for critique, though they served more as a resource for a political critique than to mobilize any sustained archaeological study of IR. The political critique nevertheless contributed to open spaces in which many others, coming from various disciplines and fields of research, have developed other ways of using Foucault in order to renew the study of “international politics.” From the 1990s on, and even more since the 2000s, uses of Foucault for the study of the “international relations” and “international phenomena” have shifted and pluralized. In order to study a world often taken to be “neoliberal,” “biopolitical” or “global,” it is no longer Foucault the epistemologist or Foucault the archaeologist of “discursive monuments” who is called in, but Foucault of the rationality of government, governmentality and the “dispositifs of security.” The toolmaker philosopher who had wished to be used as a toolbox seems to have been heard, although not necessarily fully understood—especially when some unreflectively appropriate the concept of “governmentality” to simply transpose it and apply it to the “international” still perceived as something above and/or broader than the local sites of materialization of power.

With this multiplication and diversification of the uses of Foucault’s concepts, a more critical reading of his work also came to emerge. Indeed, since the 2000s, Foucault is no longer just a resource for the critique but also an object of critique. Following Gayatri Spivak and others, some reproached him for having limited his analyses of power to the “western sphere.” Others have come to regret not finding in his analysis the tools that may help understanding the increasing “virtualization” of the contemporary forms of violence or globalization.26 These critiques draw our attention to the (urgent) need to reassess Foucault’s thought, not so much, however, in the form of the exegetic commentary that would establish (again) the conditions of possibility of its emergence and uncover a thought that would have been kept secret to us, and even possibly to itself, but by trying to “update” that thought, its concepts and method(s) based on the multiple uses that have been made of them.

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