I De-disciplining Knowledge About the International

The Figure of Foucault and the Field of International Relations

Nicholas Onuf

Michel Foucault only rarely wrote about specific people and their ideas. He wrote instead about relations among “institutions, economic and social processes, behavioural patterns, systems of norms, techniques, types of classification, modes of characterization,” and the conditions that make a “system of relations” even possible.1 When he did concern himself with individual thinkers, Ian Hacking tells us that he was inclined to call them figures: for example, the figure of David Hume.[1] [2] Of course, he was deeply interested in the texts to which Hume put his name but only as the tips of discursive icebergs in that turbulent sea called the conditions of possibility.

In this essay, I write about an especially elusive figure whom we call Foucault. We might even say that every field of study in the social sciences has its own Foucault—a figure construed to serve the needs of scholars in that field. My field of study is International Relations (hereafter IR). Yet few scholars in IR will recognize the figure of Foucault that I put forward here, for I have configured him—I should say: reconfigured it—to suit myself.

Before I address those needs, I should point out that IR has a substantial and ever-growing interest in Foucault as a textual phenomenon—the textual Foucault. Foucault’s indifference to the field, or indeed to provincialized scholarship, deters no one. By necessity, the field’s many Foucaults are the product of selective textual appropriation. Yet they seem to converge in significant respects. This convergent figure might be thought of as the normalized Foucault for the field as a whole. I also expect that every field in which Foucault is read has its own normalized Foucault. The actually existing Foucault would surely have appreciated the irony as well as the inevitability of this development.

In different fields, writers divide up the foucauldian oeuvre at different points, and sometimes at more than one point. Transcending fields and their specific needs is the textual Foucault mapped onto a stylized life story in several chapters. It looks something like this:

  • - Chapter 1, the young, brash Foucault, focused on discourse and method
  • - Chapter 2, the maturing Foucault, turning his attention to power and resistance
  • - Chapter 3, Foucault in his prime, reflecting on normality
  • - Chapter 4, an older Foucault, dispensing wisdom on diverse matters
  • - Chapter 5, Foucault in his last years, preoccupied with pleasure.

I am not competent to discuss, much less substantiate, the normalization of Foucault within any other field than my own. In the remainder of this chapter, I limit myselt to two tasks. The first is to sketch the figure of Foucault as normalized in IR. The second is to sketch a figure that illuminates what interests me.

I take international relations, as IR’s presumptive subject, to be a pastiche of “institutions, economic and social processes, behavioural patterns, systems of norms, techniques, types of classification, modes of characterization.”3 My concern is the place of this system in the larger, ever transforming “system of relations” that I and many other scholars call the modern world. This too was an enduring concern of the figure whom I call Foucault. For centuries, the former system has framed the latter. The textual Foucault’s evident disinterest in IR is no obstacle to using foucaul- dian texts to explore the relations of systems of relations. It does mean that I will have to supply some of the necessary framing materials myself.

  • [1] am grateful to Philippe Bonditti for teaching me more about Foucault, notto mention the subtleties of the French language, than I could otherwise havehoped to learn. N. Onuf (*) Florida International University, Miami, FL, USAe-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017
  • [2] P. Bonditti et al. (eds.), Foucault and the Modern International,The Sciences Po Series in International Relations and PoliticalEconomy, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56153-4_2
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