On the Politics of Concepts

The elusiveness of particular authors is unsurprising. Readers respond to authors, and authors are always vulnerable to re-authorizations that elude their control because authors and readers are only moments among complex transactions shaping both authors and readers. Even so, Foucault was strikingly reluctant to hold onto a consistent self-authorization and refreshingly open to the authorial responsibilities of reading. He seems to have been an unusually generous thinker, and many of us are indebted to his generosity. In the present context, part of the complex transactionality of author and reader has been generated by the practices and authorizations of the specific scholarly discipline (or subdisciplinary field) of international relations/politics. This is a discipline or field that is itself often reduced to a lazy shorthand, to “IR,” in ways that affirm a dubious distinction between an arena of scholarly authority and an object of analysis from which it is set apart. Even engagements with this discipline cast in the name of critique are sometimes drawn to affirm this reification of a depoliticizing academic convention and to worry excessively about the integrity of the discipline. As I have already intimated, I am not so sure that the discipline, that which the discipline claims to know, or the relations between them, are quite so easy to identify.

In fact, neither Foucault nor the modern international are likely to be of much interest if we presume that either name has a clear and unambiguous referent, even though this presumption has had many compelling attractions that are themselves very interesting politically. The essays in this volume work very effectively to affirm the productive legacies of many Foucaults. We come across his provocations, prodigious scholarship, innovative conceptualizations and critical strategies, but no single program of research of the kind endorsed by some accounts of a properly scientific project. As both Bayart and Hibou demonstrate here, this is only one of many ways in which Foucault invites comparison with Max Weber as well as an appreciation of very sharp divergences between them. The modern international, by contrast, remains a figure in the shadows: also a singular name that seems to have many possible referents, though only a few of them come into sharp or sustained focus here.

Foucault’s name is rightly held in great respect in many quarters precisely because it identifies a source of resistance not only to static and universalizing concepts but also, and more substantively, to notions of human freedom resting on a capacity to ground a sovereign law in prior sovereign acts of precise definition. The younger Foucault had clearly thought a lot about Kant, but it was scarcely a surprise to see that Hobbes would eventually attract his attention as a significant foil. Though often read as sharply dismissive of claims to sovereignty, he clearly thought a lot about how sovereignties work. As a disciplined form of scholarship, by contrast, international relations has been enabled by persistent attempts to fix meanings, maintain classifications and affirm the necessary consequences of a sovereign law that is only rarely interrogated. It is a discipline famously known for unembarrassed appeals to a political realism

(sometimes historicist, sometimes structural, often at the same time and without much sense of what is at stake in the conflation of spatialities and temporalities, or necessities and contingencies), as well as to a very tightly constrained understanding of methodological orthodoxies; as if claims about and idealizations of reality are somehow irrelevant to political contestation, and as if claims about methodology are never strategies deployed to shore up highly contentious claims about realities and ideals, and thus about political necessities/contingencies and the delimitation of normative ambitions.

Oddly enough, international relations is a form of scholarship that is explicitly concerned with often radically disorderly conduct, and with extraordinary violence, yet which has been constructed as a form of disciplined scholarship through an almost puritanical repertoire of concepts, great debates and permissible modes of enquiry. This is presumably because it is a discipline that has worked very closely with concepts like sovereignty, state, nation and security that have attained the status of conditions of possibility for modern politics, and are thereby especially difficult to challenge in principle let alone in practice. It is also because it is so closely associated with a small handful of very powerful states and has been gradually absorbed into specific conceptions of social science honoring generalization and replication more than they do the contingency, mutability and spatiotemporal specificities of human affairs. Thus, while Hobbes had relatively little to say about international relations despite his canonical place in so many claims about it (though, and to foreshadow some subsequent remarks, he did say many important things about the spatiotem- poral externality of the state), the more Platonist and Galilean aspects of his thought are strongly felt in structural accounts of some unchanging laws of political motion in a system that may be dynamic in some senses but nonetheless retains much the same structural form of considerable diversity and minimal commonality. Consequently, while all scholarly disciplines rely on reifications and dogmas of many kinds, international relations has perhaps become more reliant than most. The authorizations of the modern state and the modern international are never very far removed from the authorizations of the categories through which we are encouraged to examine the modern state and the modern international.

However, it should also be said immediately that the standard selfportraits of this discipline tend to tell a homogeneous story that has often been exaggerated precisely so as to restore discipline to a discipline that in many contexts has become quite fractured and diffuse, spread across many fields of enquiry and increasingly across many societies. What has become known as “IR” has become a powerful cliche that coexists uneasily with more complex and more fluid patterns of scholarship even while many of its practices impose an over-determining conceptual frame on phenomena that have become ever more puzzling. Moreover, it should also be said that something like Foucault’s resistance to dogmas and reified concepts is not entirely foreign to this discipline, even in its most entrenched forms; perhaps to the contrary. Precisely because international relations has been counter-posed as a negative externality to a positive internality,5 it has often worked as a kind of critique by negation of the received wisdom of an internalized politics; the opposition by many “political realists” to imperializing policies toward Vietnam and Iraq or to claims about a “liberal peace” come to mind in this respect. Moreover, at various times and places, particularistic modes of history and skepticism about conceptual analysis of any kind have been fairly commonplace, and not only within the English School. Older forms of historically oriented empiricism tended to affirm very conservative tendencies, not least in the strong colonial heritage of the English School’s complaints about the more imperializing ambitions of its American counterpart. Nevertheless, it is probably worth noting that Foucault may offer some potential for radicalizing forms of critique that arise from the least expected places.

If there are common threads running through the essays collected here, I would say that the most important even if least explicit involves this underlying attitude of the various Foucaults who have made an appearances in the work of some scholars working on the modern international toward very tightly constrained disciplinary accounts of what this term is supposed to mean: accounts of the phenomena to which the term refers, the procedures through which they must be known, and the practices through which claims about the status of phenomena and claims to knowledge about them have become authoritative.

In some respects, this attitude may have been more important than any of the substantive claims made in any of Foucault’s texts and underlies the various attempts here and elsewhere to say something inspired by those texts about the substantive practices of the modern international. After all, as with Hobbes, those texts say relatively little about international relations or international politics in any direct way, even if the posthumously published lectures of the late 1970s mark some provocative exceptions. As with any thinker focused on the internal life of states and societies, however, with Hobbes being an exemplary figure in this respect, it is always possible to sense the limits within which, and enabling which, analyses of internal affairs have become thinkable, even and sometimes especially when those limits are treated with a resounding silence. Foucault himself was of course one of the most perceptive of the many people of his generation who have had important things to say about political limits.

Beyond this, however, we necessarily confront all those different Foucaults. In part, this is the consequence of the rich diversity of texts, but the range of interpretations of these texts is especially bewildering. Specialists engage with a large archive and may well be able to make sense of the relations between its contents. The rest of us are caught in a daunting array of practices in which Foucault has become a flag, a weapon, a symbolic ally and a caricature as well as a guide to various ways we might think differently about politics and political analysis. Various fields of reception have produced figures who may bear a resemblance to written texts, or not, and may be somehow in line with the spirit of Foucault’s preoccupations, or not. Again, Foucault is far from being alone in this respect.

Moreover, I would say that the struggles in which Foucault is engaged are precisely of the kind that permits much earnest rewriting so as to ensure that Foucault’s attempts to articulate and explore very complex problems are converted back into fairly safe answers; perhaps, given prevailing political conditions, that must be converted into answers that defang his most provocative insights. This is because he is to some extent reengaging with problems that have had a long and contentious life within post-Kantian philosophy and politics. Specifically, I would say, he was especially up against a long history of attempts to make sense of claims about freedom, on the one hand, and, perhaps in an even more fundamental way, up against the difficulty of thinking possibilities of heterogeneity beyond the conventional understandings of pluralism and difference, on the other hand. These twin concerns, whatever the details of his response to them, are arguably sufficient to make Foucault’s work of central importance for thinking about the modern international, which works to reproduce very specific accounts of freedom within a very specific orchestration of relations between universality and diversity. This is why I think it is necessary to appreciate a conceptual problem shared by both Foucault and the modern international before engaging with specific applications of his analysis, or his failure to think much beyond the state, or even his attempts to resist the over-determining effects of specific conceptual inheritances.

Much of the force of his engagement with prevailing accounts of politics comes from his deep but also ambivalent commitment to specificity and detail, a commitment that seems to threaten the very idea that there can be something so generalized as a modern politics characterized by an identifiable field of polarized principles. Read as a kind of historian, or perhaps as a critic of historians, Foucault joins many others in the struggle against overgeneralization, reification, anachronism, myths of tradition and so on. As Paul Veyne puts it, “the task of a historian who follows Foucault is to detect those ruptures that are concealed by misleading continuities.... Furthermore, Foucault the philosopher simply practices the method adopted by all historians, that of tackling every historical question on its own merits and never as a particular case of a general problem, let alone a philosophical question.”6 Still, it is not entirely clear that all historians are in methodological solidarity, or even that every historical question has its own merits. Nor is it clear that Foucault was simply an historian, or that he ever fully escaped from philosophy and political theory through his appeals to history and his meticulous attention to detail. Moreover, although it is easy enough to admire the force of complaints about excessive generalization and presumptions of continuity, many have made similar complaints before; it used to be a specialty of the English speakers, in the manner of David Hume or R. G. Collingwood. There is also clearly more to the wider concern for heterogeneity, which Foucault also shared with many of his generation, than a revival of an ordinary empiricism. Perhaps the easiest response to make about whether Foucault has something to say about an internationalized political order is simply that yes, he is a useful ally in the struggle against the determined presentism grounded in a pernicious myth of an eternal tradition that sustains a very limited understanding of what it means to speak about a modern international. One does not need Foucault in particular to engage in this struggle, but as Machiavelli might say, the reproductive capacities of the conventional narratives suggest that one needs the strongest possible allies for the task.

While it is important to keep stressing the degree to which Foucault participates in the desire to resist universals, it is equally necessary, especially in Anglo-American contexts, to stress the way he does so while maintaining the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena, and thus a longer inheritance of nominalism. He may have called himself a happy positivist, but this description works more in relation to the many precursors and inheritances of logical positivism than of the simplistic empiricisms that have become more firmly attached to this label. This is, of course, why some commentators7 are much taken with his analyses of historical forms of a priori. He wants to pay attention to precise empirical details but keeps something of the Kantian account of the constitutive role of categories in making sense of phenomena. He may be clearly and radically anti-Kantian in the sense that he refuses the abstract and universalizing account of the a priori offered in Kant’s first Critique. He is nevertheless one of those who insists on the historical and socially produced character of all a priori categories (in line with Hacking and others, but also with tendencies that were already visible in the nineteenth century). Moreover, unlike many who also move from universalist to historical accounts of the a priori (the neo-Kantians/neo-Hegelians down through Ernest Cassirer, and those trying to identify a progressivist subject of history from Marx to Weber to Gyorgy Lukacs to Karl Mannheim and so on), he sometimes tries to resist the teleological readings of history given in both Kant and Hegel, famously preferring genealogical and archaeological understandings of historical trajectories—contrast Bonditti and Mattelart here—not least so as to resist conventional narratives about origins. Hibou’s discussion of acts of formalization producing the “reality-like fiction of neoliberal abstractions” makes this heritage especially clear.

This, at least, is how I make sense of the background against which one can understand Foucault’s various attempts to work out ways of thinking about forms of analysis that are sensitive simultaneously to specific experiences and diverse historical/social categories: through his archaeological and genealogical phases and his complex understanding of “discourse” on to his conceptions of a dispositif and problematization as ways of understanding heterogeneous constitutive practices as some kind of de-centered singularity without falling back into transcendental categories or playing out the usual binaries of rationalism and empiricism, or statism and anti- statism. This thinking was clearly a struggle that produced a range of what have come to be called methods of analysis, though I prefer to think more in terms of his analytical tactics. Still, unlike most people who draw on Foucault, I am stimulated less by any of his specific concepts or methods than by the ways in which he is driven to create them. Two sets of questions arise here.

One concerns the coherence of Foucault’s specific formulations, especially about what happens when concepts are historicized and soci- ologized in ways that try to finally break from transcendentalism in the name of immanence, or break from ontotheology in the name of govern- mentality, or break from decisionism in the name of a micropolitics and so on. It is one thing to refuse transcendence and choose immanence, but quite another to resist the effects of a presumed choice between immanence and transcendence. Old debates about the status of secularism remain relevant in this respect, in ways that find many echoes in Michael Dillon’s engagement with the truths of rule and the rule of truths. At stake here, most obviously, is the status of claims about sovereignty, but also the place of claims about equality in formulations driven more by claims about freedom. Or at least, these stakes remain active to the extent that one wants to hold on to the account of “man” that is affirmed by the modern international and modern state, or wants to try to perfect the options available for us to reconcile that concept of man in general with politically qualified citizens in particular. Or perhaps one should say that these possibilities are ultimately what is at stake when it is said that someone like Foucault should be brought into conjunction with international relations.

Another set of questions concerns the use of Foucault’s methodologies or tools by others. As the preceding essays demonstrate, this is clearly a context in which Foucault has had a very productive effect. Foucault’s advice seems to recommend engagements with problems wherever they arise, following dispersals of phenomena, applying methods and techniques wherever they prove useful and paying close attention to how concepts and classifications work rather than naively submit to the work they perform. Many of the preceding essays demonstrate the productivity of his recommendations in this respect. Nevertheless, we also confront the danger of converting procedures cultivated in the spirit of heterogeneity into generalizable methods applicable across homogenized fields of scholarship, with all the promises of normalization and institution building this implies. This is a challenge confronted not only by studies of govern- mentality (especially when attached to the mega-reification of something global) but also by attempts to establish a field of critical security studies, where Foucault’s influence has also been both extensive and productive. Here we might say that it will be necessary to ensure that Foucault’s instincts for heterogeneity prevail over the reification of either his specific concepts or techniques, and that his insistence that security and liberty must be understood as a relation prevails over the usual statist tendency to distinguish “security studies” from “liberty studies,” which tend to be generously funded and underfunded (or just abandoned) respectively, to the point of illiberalism in both cases.

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