Conclusion: Which Foucault? Which International?

R.B.J. Walker


So many Foucaults! Perhaps too many; perhaps not enough. In either case, his name proliferates, in this book as in many other settings. Each proliferation evokes ample scholarly possibilities in diverse intellectual, institutional and political contexts, sometimes demanding close attention to the available sources and sometimes not, sometimes driven by the overall shape of a shifting body of work and sometimes driven by specific texts, concepts or intuitions.

Nick Onuf begins the present sequence of essays by responding to the elusive figuration of Foucault when his name is deployed in the analysis of what we have come to call international relations or international politics. I feel compelled to start in a complementary manner toward the end of this sequence, though not with any intention of resolving some mystery behind the proliferating name. Foucault clearly celebrated pluralistic possibilities, not least in his own life, which nevertheless expressed considerable integrity. We might even honor this among his greatest achievements.

R.B.J. Walker (*)

University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

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_18

Indeed, in what follows here, I want to turn what may be an irritating absence of a manageably consistent voice behind the texts circulated under Foucault’s name, as well as an equally irritating desire to impose a singular voice so as to appropriate that name, into a concern with the problems that provoked him. I especially want to pursue problems involved in resisting fixed identities and reified concepts, the art in which he was one of the great masters.

Thus, my present concern is directed less to some specific use of Foucault in the analysis of international relations/politics, or to an explicit evaluation of how others have used him to productive effect, than to note some important commonalities and discontinuities between the problems that have engaged both Foucault and those struggling to make sense of some kind of international. This is not least because my own inclination is to presume that the term international refers to a problem (or set of interrelated and quite profound problems, even a problematization, as Foucault, reworking Kant’s understanding of the possibilities of critique, may have preferred) before it can be understood as anything else.

It is because I understand the terms of international relations and international politics as an expression of a problem that I tend to refer to the modern international and sometimes even to the sovereign international. I do so in both cases to both parallel and invoke contradictory relations with the modern/sovereign state. On the one hand, it is a term that, like the term state, affirms an historically and culturally specific understanding of what it must mean to speak about humanity in the sense of a generi- cally modern “man” defined against the prior authority of some natural or theological order, and thus as a creature in need of its own authorization in secular political terms. This is the context in which figures like Machiavelli and Hobbes have been (mis)appropriated as canonical, foundational and originary sources defining what it must mean to invoke an international. On the other hand, and again like the term state, it is a term that seeks to explain the organization, practices and consequences of a spatiotemporal “order” grounded in that affirmation of what it means to speak about a specific version of humanity and its political qualifications: that is, to speak both about humanity in general and about citizenship in particular, in both cases as a coming into the world of man, into modern subjectivity, in ways that leave all other worlds somewhere beyond, or behind.

We know well enough that the organization and practices of that supposed order together with ordering capacities predicated on a figure of man split both from all its others and within itself are supposed to have had both positive and negative consequences: some kind of liberty, equality, subjectivity, self-determination and subjectivization perhaps, but also wars, colonial subordinations and objectivizations of less than fully human others. We have been a bit slower to acknowledge that these positives and negatives are intimately connected. Thus far, too many conventions of contemporary political analysis still work on the untenable assumption that “liberalism” is somehow the conceptual and historical opposite of both “realism” in some spatial or geopolitical framing and “colonialism” in a closely related temporal or historical framing. Relations between the politics of liberal subjectivities and their spatiotemporal exteriorities, and thus limits, may be very complex, but they are precisely relations rather than ontological, axiological, epistemological and political solitudes, both in principle and in practice. Whatever one means by this conveniently slippery term, liberalism works on the basis of claims to legitimate violence on both spatial and temporal trajectories, which makes its use in the context of an international, or indeed a colonial, especially tricky.

Nevertheless, there are increasing suspicions that the negative consequences pose very serious questions about the most basic assumptions about humanity and its political qualifications that are expressed in and constantly affirmed by the modern international, as well as by the scholarly traditions informing us about its organization, practices and consequences. Something like this suspicion might be identifiable in at least some of Foucault’s texts, mainly in relation to the state, though sometimes also in terms of the external and thus in some vague sense international aspects of states, and especially of their practices of security and colonialism as relations of internality and externality.

One might say that the problems generated by a double affirmation of a specific understanding of humanity in general and sites of political citizenship within specific states that are themselves organized within a constellation of states have been at stake in most or even all forms of modern politics; as indeed they have. If it is possible to assign some specificity to modern forms of politics—a significant conditionality—it would presumably involve both an affirmation of self-constituting forms of human subjectivity and consequent attempts to reconcile humanity in some general sense with particular versions of humanity, both as individuals and as collectivities. Yet while closely related, indeed mutually constitutive, attempts to reconcile competing claims to humanity and citizenship have taken different forms within states than between states. All modern forms of politics are organized both internally and externally, though most forms of political analysis prefer to divide internalities and externalities into distinctive fields of knowledge, thereby leaving the crucial relation of internal and external—crucial to what we call modern man and modern subjectivity—in some kind of no-man’s-land within sites of indeterminacy and determination at the boundaries, borders and limits of modern political life.1

Foucault, like almost all social and political theorists, was also concerned with the figure of “man” and its political qualifications, but very largely in relation to an internalized arena, to a statist polity of some kind, even while he was explicitly (even if unsuccessfully) resisting at least some statist conceptions of politics; Foucault’s treatment of the state was never a straightforward matter. Consequently, to bring the figures of Foucault and the modern international into conjunction cannot be just a matter of applying theorizations from one domain to another on a common and comparable field of domains. It must be to apply such theorizations from one domain to another that has been distinguished sharply from it in order to both divide and correlate their common problem, “man,” into distinct political orders: not just as citizens and/or humans but also as friends and/or enemies. Modern forms of politics affirm many very sharp distinctions, some between “man” and just about everything else, and some within that “man,” understood sometimes as the singular individual, sometimes as a singular collectivity and sometimes as an expression of humanity itself contained within a grand structure of states/nations and individualized/collectivized citizens. In effect, the modern international expresses our standard account of how modern “man,” that fateful name we have learnt to give both to the human species and to particular versions of that species, both is and should be organized, spatially and temporally, internally and externally, pluralistically and universally. It also expresses our standard—hegemonic—account of a political order that must struggle to reconcile claims to individualized subjectivity, to statist/national citizenship and to an internationally specified humanity: three sites of potential but never absolute sovereignty distributed on a scale from small to large but articulated as if on a flat plane of territorialized spatiality; and also distributed on a scale from backward to advanced as if on a straight line of developmental history.

It is in relation to this broad context that I would say that the problems that provoked Foucault are most obviously but also most obscurely related to the problems that have provoked people studying the modern international. Both are responding to historically and culturally specific claims about the status, both generic and political, of modern “man,” of human subjectivity and humanity as such. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to translate engagements with such questions in relation to domestic or statist settings into engagements with them in external or international settings.

There are some familiar ways through which this difficulty can be and has been made to seem relatively trivial, or, more positively, at least made to seem open to negotiation and diplomatic appreciation. Some of these are at work, as well as in question, both in Foucault’s own texts and in various attempts to use Foucault to analyze international relations.

Both the modern state and the modern international might be treated as subsidiary parts of a more encompassing totality, a universalizing capitalism and/or modernity, for example; as if one can speak coherently of a singular and universalizing capitalism, or a modernity, that has not also been articulated as a multiplicity and at least in part as an international. Or one can simply insist that the state is the only significant political reality, that international relations is consequently only a matter of relations between states and that the structural or systematic organization of relations between states is of little or no consequence either for specific states or for relations between them; this option might be traced to the radically nationalist and/or statist formulations of Max Weber and Carl Schmitt and the forms of “political realism” they enabled, but also to the tacit nationalism/statism affirmed by most traditions of social and political theory, which would nevertheless prefer to resist any idea that they share very much with the nationalistic traditions of political realism. Or, conversely, one can insist that the systemic organization of relations between states is the only significant reality, and that the structural configuration or polarity of these relations is the ultimate determinant of political life, including the possibilities open to supposedly sovereign states. This is an option that has appealed especially to scholars attracted to patterns of continuity that might be explained in some socio-scientific manner. It is much less attractive to scholars more attuned to historical practices and contingencies, among whom one might include both Weberian/ Schmittean realists and Foucault, although he clearly has a very different understanding of what it means to engage with history and histories, part of his attraction in this context.

Alternatively, one can simply assume a common ground on which states can be compared, so that the modern international can indeed be treated as a comparative politics in which conceptions of an international order of radical difference disappear in favor of claims about convergence; or the universality of rational or some other kind of behavior; or something like a Kantian perpetual peace that has already become manifest despite Kant’s own acute analysis of its impossibility. Precisely which common ground is to be assumed is of some consequence when examining phenomena that are usually characterized as having minimal degrees of commonality. Not least, this is the contestable presumption that permits social and political theorists to appeal to general or even universal principles in their analyses of sociopolitical formations that work precisely through negotiations of relations between universality and particularity, humanity in general and citizenships in particular. Or, in a common variation on this theme, one might admit a sharp distinction between state and international as an historical condition that has now passed, perhaps even insist that “we have never been international” despite appearances, in much the same way as Bruno Latour has claimed that we have never been as modern as the prevailing narratives have presumed.2

Moreover, even if some sharp ontological or axiological difference between internality and externality is affirmed, tacitly or implicitly, one can nevertheless assume a common ground for epistemology and methodology; this has been the general stance of attempts to shape the study of international relations as part of a generalizing social science: a stance that once generated sharp differences between “the American science of international relations” and the more historically and interpretively inclined “English School.”3 Add a privileging of a comparative politics to a universalizing philosophy of history, and then confirm the conjunction through pretentions to a universalist conception of a scientific method, and one can perhaps understand much of the hegemonic character of the scholarly discipline claiming to know how the politics of the modern international must work.

Rather more persuasively, I would say, one might argue that the modern state and the modern international have together articulated antagonistic but mutually constitutive claims to sovereign authority that are also implicated in antagonistic relations with other practices of power and authority, especially those framed under the rubrics of capitalism and modernity. Here, at least, one might come to appreciate what is at stake in the contradictory character of modern forms of politics, and in the practices through which distinctions between internality and externality, citizenship and humanity, liberalism and political realism, or peace and war also affirm complementarities rather than alternatives, in ways the prevailing structures of scholarly life predicated on sharp and even essentializing distinctions would prefer us to forget. Here also one might appreciate what Foucault was up against when introducing concepts of governmentality in order to understand the increasingly extensive instruments necessary to understand temporal practices and specific techniques of governing without relying on spatialized claims about state sovereignty, as well as to extend concepts of governing into increasingly influential challenges to sovereign states from de facto claims to sovereignty by capitalist markets. It is in this sense, for example, that Foucault might be read less in the context of statist forms of international relations than to forms of international political economy under conditions of post-Keynesian neo-liberalisms, rightly the concern of the preceding essays by Frederic Gros, Lawrence McFalls and Mariella Pandolfi, and Beatrice Hibou. While it is not clear that the term neo-liberalism ultimately gets us very far in understanding phenomena once so easily named as markets and states, Foucault seems to have had a good sense of what might be required to pursue multiple relations between phenomena so named so as to elude the chronic reductionisms that treat each of these as ultimate sites of value or essentialized regimes of truth.

Also more persuasively, and in ways about which Foucault clearly had much more to say, one might argue, with Didier Bigo, William Walters, Michael Shapiro and others here, that, as with concepts of the state, or civil society, or sovereignty, or modernity or capital, we all need to try much harder to resist the over-determining force of generalizing and reifying categories that make it so difficult to identify specificities, processes and relations and that constantly impose a dubious metaphysics shaping what we must find when we examine phenomena we all too easily call an international ; even or perhaps especially when those categories insist on a need to appreciate the constitutive contradictions expressed by a politics of modern man.

All these options have long found at least some minimal expression within even the most conventional parts of the scholarly discipline of international relations. Some have even been portrayed, implausibly in scholarly terms but very effectively in disciplinary terms, as the essential core of international relations theory. Still, while some of these moves may be more persuasive than others, none of them offer a convincing claim that an internal/external articulation of the doubled claim to humanity in general and citizenships in particular has yet given way to something else: to some kind of singular empire, for example, or a highway to globalization, to take the two most recently popular alternatives, though I would certainly say, in ways that speak to the different analytical explorations advanced here by Philippe Bonditti, McFalls and Pandolfi, Armand Mattelart, Jean-Fran^ois Bayart, and Stuart Elden, that the spatiotempo- ral articulation of political life has been changing quite dramatically for a considerable time. Following these lines of thought, and in thinking about the preceding sequence of essays, I want to play out a double argument. In one register, I want to appreciate how the many Foucaults at work in this book do indeed have much to say about the modern international. In another register, I also want to suggest that the modern international may also have a lot to say to figures like Foucault who ultimately presume an international quite as much as they show us how it might be understood, engaged and challenged. Despite the proliferation of Foucault’s name, and despite highly suggestive comments in some of his lectures, Foucault tended to follow a fairly familiar path among the traditions of social and political theory in his relative silence about an international. This is especially so in his systematic texts, perhaps less so in his lectures and more informal texts,4 but even there he tends to affirm much of the statist traditions he was hoping to avoid. The degree to which he offers something more provocative in this respect depends, I would say, on the extent to which the conventional account of a fairly sharp distinction between the modern state and the modern international is still deemed to be significant or not, the extent to which his specific concepts and analytical procedures are deemed to be applicable to both the state and the international in ways that speak to changing relations between them, and the extent to which his analysis engages with practices of subjectivity that challenge assumptions about humanity in general and citizenship in particular that are affirmed by both the modern state and the modern international. My argument moves toward an ambivalent conclusion in all three cases.

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