Michel Foucault and International Relations: Cannibal Relations

Didier Bigo

Introduction: Cannibal Relations

Political science has framed the issue of how people are governed and how they govern themselves by differentiating power within the state and power between states, thereby separating government studies and the study of international relations (hereafter called IR).1 The distinction between an inside and an outside of the state has organized both sub-disciplines as Siamese twins who would hate each other while endlessly await for surgery.2 This has become so “natural” for us—as scholars—that we seem to be forgetting this initial split despite its immense consequences for the study of dynamics of power and politics, and their inscription in space.

Michel Foucault, on the contrary, never considered this split as being relevant. For him, the French political science “discipline” was just something of a follow-up and an extension of a science of government in the service of the “state” and the “raison d’Etat,” not a consistent domain of knowledge (savoir) to study politics. He never seemed to be interested in

D. Bigo (*)

Sciences Po, Paris, France

Kings College London, London, UK e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017 33

P. Bonditti et al. (eds.), Foucault and the Modern International,

The Sciences Po Series in International Relations and Political Economy, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56153-4_3

discussing with IR scholars and was not sure IR could be organized as a specific field of study that would grasp a form of knowledge of its own.

At the College de France, because a large group of students coming from political studies started populating the amphitheater during the mid-seventies, he felt obliged to explain that his disdain and indifference toward the discipline of political science and its rhetoric was the best way he had found to work seriously on the topic of territory, population and security, ignoring their assumptions from the beginning. Engaging a dialogue would have been hopeless indeed. He was, however, absolutely fascinated by the object of political science as a science of government and decided to conduct his own enquiry with other methods: genealogical ones. On several occasions, Foucault also insisted on the necessity to approach and study politics as a (series of) practice(s). “War is too important to be left to military studies, the same is true for politics, avoid political ‘science’ but engage with their topics, with their texts, not with their commentators; engage also with politics as practice and in practice, engage with their effects instead of resorting to abstract generalization, in search of an essence of politics.” It was the same for IR. To those who criticized him—as some post-colonial scholars did (see Esteves & Fernandez in this volume)—for not engaging with the international, Foucault had the very same answer: “You misrecognize what IR is because you always look for comparative politics and other states behavior. This is not what I am doing. But, think how analyzing death penalty, or studying prisons is a way to deal with the issue of the international—even if one does not admit it—by what it revealed about governing in different places.”3

Later on (in 1982), he would insist on the “historical circumstances”4 of his lectures in the seventies and their implicit international politics. As Alessandro Fontana and Mauro Bertani signaled in their presentation of his 1977 lectures (Society must be defended), it is necessary to read these lectures while having in mind Foucault’s permanent back and forth between, on the one hand his activity of writing, and on the other the international conflicts of his time (in Vietnam, in Palestine, in Chile, in Northern Ireland) as well as the post-1968 social and political struggles in France. It was not necessary to give further details or examples. The audience understood immediately the implicit international references, which permeated the tone of Foucault’s lectures, and also explained much of the metaphors he used. As surprising as it may be for some, I will contend that Michel Foucault has been a “politist” and an “internationalist,” but of a different kind.

Therefore, as I will explain in a first part, despite the reciprocal indifference between Foucault and the political scientists of his time, his lectures have left profound traces in IR until today. The importance of Foucault for IR and his legacy for today exist, despite this initial non-encounter, and even hostility, whose conditions of possibility have to be examined.

Although Foucault avoided direct contact with political scientists in France, he nonetheless encountered some geographers while focusing on some of the key texts and concepts they were referring to and on which political science, IR and geography had based their assumptions about, and conceptions of space, war, power, subjectivation and freedom.

In a second part, I will return to the discussion about war and develop on why the conception of war Foucault proposed can be a way to escape today’s extremely controversial, and somehow loosely framed debates on war, terrorism and radicalization. It is also during these formative years (1974-1978) that Foucault partly changed his earlier agenda, initially formulated in terms of an archaeology of knowledge (centered on concepts and discourses)5, to engage more directly and more systematically with issues of politics, sovereignty, discipline and power. In their “Situation du cours,” Fontana and Bertani6 explain Foucault’s intellectual trajectory as being in harmony with his practical engagements, and the implicit references to a political context that everyone understood at that time, but vanished in time and translations since then. For them, this partly explains why, unimpressed by the arguments developed in IR about a balance of power between states, Foucault coined terminologies and intellectual tools such as biopolitics, dispositif, governmentality, diagram of power, that so many scholars now use.

Hence, by proposing different “thinking tools,” his work de facto cannibalized political science and IR by “devouring” their topics, by questioning differently sovereignty, territory, population, as well as criticizing the focus on state power, so often reduced to an essence and conceived as a unified and homogenous “actor.” Foucault challenged and reformulated the dominant narratives without even discussing their (implicit) “theories,” nor using their examples, but by simply showing how to think differently about power, subjectivation, at whatever scale could be imagined: from the self to the chains of interdependences that establish molecular relations in “moles” of molecules (to use Deleuze’s terminology).

The newly institutionalized French political science—which inherited its schemes of analysis from US political science, while also having to cope with the powerful group of French law professors—did not survive the confrontation at a distance. Many French students of the late seventies left political sciences to choose history or sociology. But, more than 30 years later, a new generation of IR scholars (often of different countries), has reconnected Foucault with their discipline, welcoming his legacy of thought. Nevertheless, in return, Foucault’s achievements in terms of thinking differently about how people are governed and govern themselves was made possible via multiple translations—lin- guistically as well as trans-disciplinary, that is from French to other languages as much as in terms of fields of knowledge (savoir): political theory, history, sociology, geography, cultural and gender studies... So, by an apparent paradox, after his death, a doppelganger of Foucault appeared in US political science. This other Foucault was a liberal thinker, apologetic toward Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and, more recently, even configured as a justification for counter-terrorism policies involving surveillance and predictive actions based on algorithms. This de-contextualization dismembered the coherence of his own body of work—even though that kind of re-appropriation might have satisfied Foucault himself who considered that creativity with his thinking tools was by far more important than transforming his ideas into doctrinal statements.

Therefore, as I shall suggest in conclusion, some of the terminologies Foucault developed have been in turn cannibalized by what gradually became known as a “foucauldian field of study,” to be re-incorporated into academic disciplines that had hold him in contempt 30 years earlier, by their inner critics in quite surprising ways, especially around security. Are we therefore in a “cannibal democracy” of mutual eating and devouring?7 Is Oswald de Andrade’s “anthropophagist manifesto” (a narrative created for Brazil’s modernity), the best metaphor to illustrate what happened between Foucault and the French IR inherited from US political science? What kind of “mulato” is French IR today? Has the mutual swallowing and absorbing of what is useful in a culture or a domain/form of knowledge eventually worked? I propose to proceed to Foucault’s “death relevailles”8 urging scholars daring to mitigate the philosopher and historian he was, to do so with a sociology and an anthropology of practices to perpetuate his fight to understand politics in the world against the renewed different disciplinary dogmas that claim to hold the appropriate knowledge of the way living beings are/ shall be governed and govern themselves.

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