IR as a Field of Study

To call IR a field of study is to imply that it is not a discipline. In the USA, IR is a field of study in the discipline of political science. Few IR scholars in the USA have the slightest interest in the figure of Foucault. This subject is left to the political theorists, who are themselves a disciplinary outlier. In the rest of the world, IR scholars invoke Foucault’s name with palpable reverence and sing out his signature concepts (Genealogy! Power! Discipline! Governmentality!) with monotonous regularity.

One might wonder then why so many advocates of IR as a discipline invoke Foucault’s name. Have they constructed a figure of Foucault that belongs to them, and them alone, in aid of validating the claim that IR is a discipline in its own right? Their indifference to Foucault’s normalization in other fields of study suggests as much. I forego a literature review to assess the question. Instead, I proceed directly to my impressionistic sketch of the figure of Foucault as normalized in IR.

My sketch picks up the life story attributed to the figure of Foucault. It takes the chapters in this story and links them to developments in IR during the 1980s. At that time, leading scholars in IR were political realists who thought that social science could, and should, conform to the scientific method. They saw the relations of nation-states as dominated by rationally motivated violence. Progressive liberals had always contended that rational people could, and should, find alternatives to violence, most obviously by developing institutions addressing the sources of insecurity. Such liberals found their standing in the field to have all but disappeared by the 1980s. Because the field emerged as such in the USA after World War II, there had never developed a Marxist or critical contingent of scholars. Anyone so disposed went into some other field of study.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, scholars in US universities in such disciplines as philosophy and literature “discovered” Continental social thought. Some few IR scholars, styling themselves dissidents, belatedly took notice. In the first instance, they did so to challenge hegemonic political realism, not as the study of organized violence on a large scale but as a would-be science.4 Obviously, this meant attacking the assumption that people, including state leaders and scientists, are autonomous and rational beings. And mounting the attack meant drawing on a wide and diverse range of critical, post-Marxist European scholarship.

In this context, Foucault was just one of the many figures whose texts were invoked for the purposes of argument and authority. Foucault’s arresting claims about the invention and possible end of “man” in The Order of Things gave many of the dissidents a splendid weapon with which to strike at rationality, slash political realism and salute the advent of the post-modern age. Once dissidents deemed the crusade against realism a success, talk of the end of man faded to an occasional rhetorical flourish.

The dissidents had also followed the so-called “linguistic turn.” This was another, if indirect, way to strike at the rationality assumption, which is expressed in the view that the only function of language is to represent states of affairs. Once we concede that language has other functions, we readily come to see that language use substantially constitutes social reality. In this context, some scholars flirted with deconstruction. Others turned to The Archaeology ofKnowledge and its careful exposition of methods by which to study discourse.5

This, I believe, is the link between Foucault as a young, brash figure, and IR as a field. It is a link, however, that says less about the figure than it does about the field. The young, brash Foucault used many texts to locate discontinuities in discourse and thus in social life. Most IR scholars who invoke the figure of Foucault study specific texts to interrogate discursive practices that seem to be locked in place. I suspect that they do so because their normalized figure of the maturing Foucault has taught them to think small about power. To the extent that discursive continuities imply that small displays of power have big effects, they think they can talk about IR.

On the evidence, however, they find very little to talk about. IR scholars have been obsessed with power from the field’s beginning. When they try to fit Foucault’s conception of “productive power” with their own, they mistakenly think that Foucault identified two kinds of power, one familar and the other Foucault was first to name. A much cited essay is illustrative: “productive power concerns the boundaries of all social identity, and the capacity and inclination for action for the socially advantaged and disadvantaged alike, as well as the myriad social subjects that are not constituted in binary hierarchical relationships.”6 As Foucault so memorably said, “power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.” This is not a distinctive kind of power, one opposed to power that “excludes,” “represses,” “conceals.”7 Power always produces reality and repression—these are different descriptions of the same effect; power also always produces resistance to its effects.

If some IR scholars genuflect to the figure of the maturing Foucault as a power theorist, many more simply wallow in what Foucault’s texts have to say about governmentality and then worry how this concept applies to the globalized conditions of the last quarter century. While Foucault’s lectures at the College de France in 1978 are much concerned with governmentality and his lectures in 1979 with neoliberalism, the textual Foucault offers no unified, integrated treatment of these two concerns.8 This has not prevented scores of scholars from writing as if it were so. Jan Selby has argued that “scaling up” Foucault’s conception of governmentality to suit global conditions has the effect of supporting “what are in essence reworked and reworded liberal accounts of international poli- tics.”9 If this is the case, then it can hardly have been what most foucauld- ian scholars hoped to achieve (see Bigo and Walters in this volume). As I will explain presently, Foucault (and, of course, I mean Foucault as I have configured him) deserves a good deal of the blame for the confusion.

IR scholars have had little to say about the figure of Foucault in his last years.10 This neglect should be no surprise, both because of the obession with governmentality reinforced by the recent publication of lectures Foucault delivered in the late 1970s and because the concerns animating the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality and other late materials direct attention to the self as subject and the relation between aesthetics and ethics—topics claimed by other disciplines.

So how then does the normalized figure of Foucault map onto the story that IR scholars tell about themselves?

  • - Chapter 1, one of many weapons in the struggle against realism, rational agency and science
  • - Chapter 2, an invitation to study discourse
  • - Chapter 3, a reminder that there is more to power than blunt force
  • - Chapter 4, a clumsy way to talk about globalization in the last quarter century
  • - Chapter 5, some murmurs of regret that the figure of Foucault was so wrapped up in the subject of (him)self in his last years that he never got around to talking about imperialism and colonialism.
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