Foucault’s Trajectory on Power

It is not possible to identify the day that Foucault first spoke of power in a way that could be described as foucauldian, although it would perhaps be sometime after his inaugural lecture at the College de France in 1970. There, he announced his intention to conduct, as well as archaeological or “critical” studies, genealogical ones that would study positivities, the power to constitute objects about which one could make true or false propositions.12 A kind of “rule” or “law of halves” is quickly found at work in these early elaborations and indications on power: of power and knowledge, of power and truth, of positive and productive power and power as repression, of power and the subject, of relations of power and rituals of truth, power and resistance, and so on. These pieces, tiles or halves are given their methodological enunciation as a microphysics of power and an analytics of power in his major books of the 1970s. Here the pieces come together as an analytical toolbox that allows a diagnostic of the present (see Bonditti in the volume). But Foucault would also seek to assemble the halves of this sumbolon both from a narrative about the past and an attempt to make intelligible the appearance of the new. Like the sumbolon in Oedipus Rex, the questions and answers of Foucault’s approach to power have a precise temporality: they take a diagnostic form that gives us an ontology of the present, a genealogical form that distinguishes that present from the past and a prospective form that asks what the future can bring.

In terms of the relation to the past, Foucault is usually considered to be a thinker who wanted to introduce a fissure or a break in forms of power, and this is certainly true of the first part of his conceptual elaboration. He first sought to show that sovereignty and its spectacular and violent relation to the body had been displaced by the less visible, mute and petty dominations of disciplinary normalization.13 He would soon after contrast a symbolics of blood and an analytics of sexuality, the right of death and the power of life, the deductive power of the sovereign with the productive powers of biopower and discipline.14 But if both the “anatomo-politics” of the body and the biopolitics of the population are defined in contradistinction to sovereignty, they would be bound together as the functionally interrelated axes of biopower. The corporeal body of discipline would find a new half in a power aimed at the population, the species body.

In all this, Foucault would seek to think about power relations outside the vocabulary of juridical-political theory, with its concepts of sovereignty, legitimacy, representation and so on—thus introducing a new breakage. In concurrent lectures in 1976, he would test the historico-political discourse of the “race wars” as a potential model for rethinking power relations outside the proclaimed universalism of the state.15 He would experiment with inverting Clausewitz, or at least returning to that which the latter inverted, so that politics became a continuation of war.16 He would soon find that the law “operates more and more as a norm,” and later as a “technology of government.”17 He would call for the decapitation of the king, at least in political thought and analysis.18 He would provide narratives of the movement of power from its sovereign to its disciplinary and biopolitical forms. He would describe a microphysics of power rather than a theory of the state (see Walters in this volume). There is clearly a process of breaking, of splitting and of cutting, which is quite violent, in Foucault’s search for a characteristic way to think about power.

Perhaps it is doubtful whether Foucault succeeded in putting this sum- bolon back together. But he was aware of a problem this earlier strategy of breaking leads to. Having made a set of distinctions, he would then try to specify the relationships between the terms. Sometimes these relationships are overly functional and integrative, with diverse effects. In the last lecture in 1976, he would suggest that it is the combination of biopolitics and sovereignty that ensures that all modern states have the diabolical potential only manifest in the most pathological of them, such as the Nazi state.19 But soon he finds that this does not seem to lead anywhere and could lend itself to a politics of denunciation practiced by militants and those advocating violent confrontation with the state in Germany and Italy at the time. His excavation of “state phobia” over the next couple of years seems to indicate a concern that his analytics of power could be tied to such a politics of denunciation.20

Thus beginning in 1979, we find Foucault insisting that his concern has been, and will be with “the government of men insofar as it appears in the exercise of political sovereignty”, that is to say, his concern was not the displacement of sovereignty by something else.21 The transformation of political sovereignty would now be accomplished not by the arc of a historical narrative but by a critical ethos invested in liberalism or, at least, in the liberal art of government. This art of government would promote new sites of veridiction, grounded in political economy, of the market and of civil society. Similarly, the analysis of the disposi- tifs would not dispense with sovereignty but turn it into one dispositif of law, among several, including discipline and security.22 What would count now would be “the dominant characteristic” or “the system of correlations” within “complex edifices” made up of “juridico-legal mechanisms, disciplinary mechanisms and mechanisms of security.”23 Law would no longer be the expression of the sovereign will but a mechanism, a device or a technology of power, depriving the sovereign of its claim to transcendence and supremacy within a particular domain. Law and sovereignty would be one heterogeneous and contingent assemblage among many, no longer the expression of a centralized, uniform and supreme power within a domain. Foucault would reverse the critique of liberalism, traceable to German jurisprudence, as an ethical, economic and technical reduction of the political. Liberalism itself would be a critique always concerned with too much governing, which embodies new forms of truth and offers new rituals of veridiction, and makes possible and works through new forms of freedom. Liberalism promises an ethical, economic and technical opening up of the field of the political even as it closes human subjectivity within homo (economicus.

This investigation into modern forms of power comes to a dramatic end, a finis rather than a telos, but perhaps both, with the lectures on neo liberalism, itself divided into two parts—German and American.24 It is the most radical form of neoliberalism—of the Chicago School—that presages a new kind of regulation or power which, though not without dangers, seeks to modify variables in the environment, allows the maximum tolerance and the greatest degree of difference, and regulates without the creation of subjects, without “subjectification” (assujettissement).25 This has given rise to some debate over Foucault and the course of French neoliberalism.26 If there is a telos to this investigation, it is one in which power, now transmuted into governing, bases itself on the “rationality of the governed,” as Foucault himself said or, as some of his followers put it, governs through freedom, through self-governing.27 Some have claimed that it is American neoliberalism and the idea of human capital in which each individual is an entrepreneur of the self that forms a passage to Foucault’s investigations into the care of the self in antiquity (see Gros and Paltrinieri in this volume).28 Whether or not Foucault offered an “apology of” Gary Becker and his economic theories, as Francois Ewald has argued,29 there is certain flattening out of power along a plane of immanence in these investigations of Foucault. The movement from the spectacular and symbolic elements of power, which was found not simply in historical reality but in literature and art, to a certain dull uniformity of the rationalities of government indicates a thesis of disenchantment reminiscent of Max Weber. Nonetheless, the halves proliferate: technologies of government and techniques of the self; relations of power and games of freedom. It is certainly noteworthy that the idea of power as “games of freedom” only appears after his study of liberalism and neoliberalism. But does this movement toward an immanent domain of governing, in which government will be limited by means of its own internal economy, only capture one half of that which Foucault had initially set himself to understand?

Here we can assemble an entire set of references that indicates that the other side of the sumbolon is still present even in those lectures where Foucault offers the most rationalized view of power. First, there is the eminence of theology and religious practice. Consider his long excursus in the lectures of 1978 on the passage of the pastorate in Judaeo-Christian civilization and his later insistence at Stanford on the defining relationship between its shepherd- flock game and the Greek-derived city-citizen game.30 It is the pastorate that allows him to pose the problem of modern expertise, and the theme of government as the “conduct of conduct” is introduced in relationship to Gregory of Nazianus and the oikonomia pyschon, the economy of souls.31 Secondly, there is also the recurrent thematic of eschatology in his narrative of govern- mentality. The “government of men” emerges in between two eschatologies: one imagined as an actuality and the other as potential. There is a medieval eschatology that seeks the restoration of the Roman Empire as it awaits the coming of the Last Days. Then there are also the “counter-conducts” formed around an anti-governmental eschatology based on the notion of civil society in liberal government.32 Thirdly, there is Foucault’s analysis of the science of police and its concern in Mayerne and Hohenthal for the “splendor” of the state, encompassing the “visible beauty of the order and the brilliant radiating manifestation of a force.”33 Here we are reminded of the role of the spectacle and the symbolic in his earlier accounts of sovereignty and of the excessive manifestation of truth accompanying forms of power. Fourthly, there is Foucault’s evident and manifold relation to the state of exception tradition. He analyzes the coup d’Etat in writers such as Naude, Le Bret and Chemnitz as encompassing necessity, violence and theater, and as being continuous with raison d’Etat. Foucault calls the classical theater of Shakespeare, Corneille and Racine a theater of the coup d’Etat, and suggests that the coup d’Etat itself is a form of political theatricality that “brings this tragedy into play on the stage of reality itself.”34 Further, liberal reason itself is described as introducing an exception into the juridical order of sovereignty: the market as a “free space,” or, more exactly, a “free port” (franc port) or what we would call a special economic zone.35 Even in the most “economic” of his thought figures, that of the dispositif, he invokes the condition of “urgency” such as the mass vagabondage of the seventeenth century that shaped the dispositif of discipline, and the famines of the eighteenth century that were the condition of a new security dispositif.36 Underlining his interest in the state of exception, Foucault cites Le Bret, for whom the exception creates a necessity, a force so great that like a “sovereign goddess, having nothing sacred in the world but the firmness of its irrevocable decrees, it ranks everything divine and human beneath its power.”37

In these passages, Foucault connects the study ofpower and government with, respectively, an economic theology, a political eschatology, the question of splendor and glory, and the state of exception. In regard to the latter, Foucault joins with the state-of-exception tradition from Jean Bodin to Carl Schmitt. In all these respects, there is a possible communication with the most recent work of Giorgio Agamben beyond what many of Foucault’s followers would allow.38

Now, we can ask a series of paired questions that illustrate the halves of his thought:

  • 1. Does the arc of Foucault’s investigation of power reveal a thesis of secularization, rationalization and disenchantment, a movement from a transcendent power around the sovereign, and behind him, God, to the immanent practices and rationalities of government? Or does Foucault already suggest a continuing economic theology eminent in our practices of governing today, particularly concerning the role of professionals and experts, inherited from the earliest pastors and Fathers of the Church?
  • 2. Does Foucault’s discussion of the state’s splendor in the science of police and political theatricality in reason of state not indicate a continuing concern for practices of political glorification and acclamation, for the spectacle and symbolics of power, and for its ceremonial and ritual form? Or is his narrative one of the progressive and dialectical emergence, against various transcendent authorities (whether God, the King, the Father, the Expert, the State), of a form of power rationalized according to the rationality of the governed?
  • 3. Are the politico-religious and excessively violent dimensions of power mostly aligned with the genealogically revealed past? Or is the potential for fanaticism and anti-state eschatology made possible by liberal notions of limited government acting through civil society?
  • 4. Does Foucault reveal a concept of the political in his notion of gov- ernmentality that is disconnected from sovereignty and the state of exception? Or, is it only possible to think of innovations of govern- mentality and its characteristic dispositifs in relation to crisis, emergencies, events and decisions?

If, despite their apparent antinomical structure, we can answer all of these questions affirmatively, then we can see that a kind of rule of halves is at work here. Whatever findings Foucault reports at any one moment, his questions about power concern in part the theological and the secular, the glorious and the rationalized, the genealogical and the prospective, the economic-governmental and the juridical-decisionist.

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