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Foucault Now

By Peter Gratton.

Too often an historian is said to be only as good as the year of her book’s copyright. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is still read several hundred years later, but less so as history than as a way into the mind of an idiosyncratic moralist depicting the fall of one empire and the rise of another. The discipline of history plays out, scrupulously and also oddly enough, as a thoroughly modern enterprise, with each new book on a topic expected to surpass all previous ones, only to be bested by the next author with access both to the same archives and newer works since. Michel Foucault’s work has proved exceptional to this tendency. Nevertheless, more than thirty years since his death, the self-proclaimed “historian of the present” falls ever farther from our present and farther from the latest work in the eras he studied. What, then, explains Foucault’s continuing influence, not just on academics nursing some intellectual hangover from drinking the koolaid of too much high theory during the disco era, but on some of our most important social critics, such as Judith Butler? Why does Foucault remain someone central to read whenever we consider some of our most important institutions and ideas, both personal and political, such as sexuality and crime and punishment?

Three recent books provide ample answers to these questions. The first, The Punitive Society: Lectures at the College de France 1972-3, is a record of Foucault’s lectures in Paris that prepared the way for Discipline and Punish, one of his two best-known works, alongside The History of Sexuality Volume 1. The former is a touchstone for critics of mass incarceration and what Foucault rightly calls our punitive society. The latter has influenced several eras of feminists and queer theorists—and thinkers well beyond these fields. Among his well known views from this period is the idea that there is no power that doesn’t produce a whole set of sciences that go with it.

For example, in Discipline and Punish and in The Punitive Society, Foucault argues that it was not theoreticians or philosophers who set the stage for the prison in their theories. Instead it was the workmanlike petit managers who built an incipient criminal science that made the prison possible. For Foucault, there is no prison without criminology and vice-versa, nor are there mental institutions without the medicalization of the mind: no power without certain forms of knowledge and vice-versa. To understand morality—considerations of justice and therefore of crime and punishment—he avers we would do less to look at Kant or Mill than the development of the police. Moreover, power since the invention of the prison, according to Foucault’s early to mid-1970s work, operates less through the top-down machinations of a king and his lackeys than through the conformism of mass society. By pulling together disparate events here and there across our landscape—the discipline involved in schools, the military, and the prison—we find the means by which our seemingly most implacable institutions first crystallized. For this reason, Foucault still remains outside the mainstream of political thinking that predominates on our editorial pages and too often in political theory courses. The state is not the locus of all power in society, whatever the back-and-forth on CNN and the Sunday morning political shows might suggest. Ours is a civilization of constant, localized surveillance, both of ourselves and others, all to bring everyone to heed to unwritten norms guiding the most intimate parts of who we are: our sexuality, our notions of self, and so on.

The Punitive Society offers a front-seat view of Foucault’s thinking just as these ideas were developing, and Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Power, shows just how these ideas came to fruition in the early 1970s. Elden’s second work reviewed here, Foucault’s Last Decade (2016) takes off just after the writing of Discipline and Punish to describe Foucault’s often mystifying shift from the Birth of Power’s description of how from his mid-70s work on modern sexuality to whole years of lectures on the rise of the police, the laissez-faire economists on the rise after World War II, the continued political relevance of the medieval confessionals, and notions of the self in ancient Greece—to limit myself to just some of the topics of that last decade.

The Foucault that emerges in Elden’s books is at once consistent—Elden marshalls abundant evidence to show that a long history of subjectivity holds these disparate interests together—and often maddeningly unpredictable. For example, scholars have long known that Foucault changed plans several times for the series of books to be included in his History of Sexuality series (FLD, 62-71). But Foucault also, in interviews and asides to friends, threw off so many promises for future volumes that would never appear that one could be led to think he bored too easily to keep with a book idea long enough to see it to publication, and Elden charts in excruciating detail just how often his plans would change. The number of different historical periods and authors Foucault surveys in his last fifteen years—we owe much to Elden beyond his archival work for bringing coherence to this long period—can leave a similar impression: his was a restless mind too impatient to spend more than a few months on topics that many academics spend a lifetime on. Elden’s books are invaluable because he cuts through the thousands of pages left over from this period, both as now published in his lecture courses (all from 1970-1984 are available in print), interviews, notes, and asides to friends to show that while Foucault was indeed a thinker always on the move, there are fewer breaks among the different periods of Foucault’s writings (for example, his descriptions of how power is formed in the 1970s versus his depictions of ancient concepts of the self in the 1980s) than previously believed. What’s more, as Elden makes clear, it would not just be later historians who would take some of Foucault’s major claims to task. Foucault himself held off publication of promised books—or destroyed them altogether—less out of a rush to get to a different project than as a reflection of his care with getting his genealogy or history of the subject correct, even if that diligence meant critiquing his previous positions.

This leads to the question of what to make of the materials that Foucault chose not to publish in his lifetime, including his lectures at the Collège de France that began with his appointment there in 1970 and ended with his death fourteen years later. Foucault himself described the lectures as having a “lot of rubbish,” thought he did allow—perhaps condescendingly to future scholars making much of them—that they might prove “useful to the kids” (FLD, 4). Now that all of Foucault’s lecture courses are published in French (all but one are published in English), we can see how many promising paths Foucault took in his lectures, and how many nevertheless lead to dead ends. Elden’s view is that we shouldn’t allow the lectures to supercede our understanding of him based upon those works he chose to publish during his lifetime, especially as the lectures contain seeds of works that wouldn’t come to be, or experimental forays, say, into Greek coinage in 1971 or post-World War II economies in 1978-9. As he puts it, “They are not books by Foucault, but the record of thought in process” (FLD, 208). Nevertheless, at their best, the lectures offer a glimpse into Foucault’s thought as he developed it, often showing him to take up topics, such a political economy or the import of the rise of the state, that critics have long argued he ignored (PS, 140).

The Punitive Society is a case in point. Translated expertly by Graham Burchell, with notes than any reader can use to cross-reference with Foucault’s other works, these thirteen lectures, delivered in the winter/spring of 1973, would seem to be a rough draft of Discipline and Punish. After all, his major claim in The Punitive Society, just as in the later Discipline and Punish, is that far from acting as a natural backdrop to whatever period we study in Western civilization, the prison is without precedent. There were, he can’t deny, places of confinement previously, but the prison is invented, Foucault argues, once these spaces are dramatically expanded and wedded to a penitential model that sought to reform its prisoners, not just take them out of society. Once the techniques special to the prison are mirrored across enough institutions, Foucault is right to call ours, both polemically and accurately, as a punitive society—a term that carries a sharper edge than his terming us a “disciplinary society” later on in the lectures and in Discipline and Punish. For Foucault this is not something centered in the prison, but rather there is a “penalization of existence” and the life process itself (193).

Near the end of The Punitive Society, Foucault sums up the whole of the course with the question: “Why this strange institution, the prison?” (225). Why, indeed, did the West arrive at the prison form such that it was not some isolated phenomena, but stands as representative for our whole “punitive society,” one that is taken as so basic that even many progressive opponents of the war on drugs, for example, take it as a given for those committing so-called non-victimless crimes? Foucault’s constant claim in these lectures is that philosophers and not a few historians rely too often on the history of ideas for describing historical change. However, Foucault demonstrates quite well that theorists of punishment, such as the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria or the British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham or even Immanuel Kant, always wrote about a society that had just past. While they are left in the dusk of the Owl of Minerva, practices on the ground, as it were, had solidified into the institutions that shape our landscapes up until today. Classes in political philosophy or moral philosophy, as well as those on crime and punishment, are still too often taught as a neat set of debates among neatly defined positions (for or against the death penalty, etc.)—with the supposed upshot that today we can simply choose among a menu of options for what is to be done to those we dub criminals.

And yet the machinery of death that is the death penalty continues on; the punitive society becomes ever more punishing through gross uses of solitary confinement that have given us prisons within prisons. Armchair theorizing leaves little room, then, for filling in the actual practices that Foucault argues in The Punitive Society moralized the lower classes and made possible what we would today call mass incarceration (PS, 149). We are a punitive society, Foucault avers, in part due to the fact that we moralize all forms of work—while especially condemning those who refuse to do it. Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic was less a reality than a capitalist norm than then denied as ethically plausible all other forms of living—and thus some feminists today describe the capitalist value created by work at home moms while other progressives push for a “living wage”—which, while critical, gives into the idea that for lives to have meaning there must be some work value attached to it.

Though Foucault would emphasize different aspects of the history of the prison after the course, the lectures themselves are best seen as revealing how Foucault went about writing his histories of the present, the very topic with which he begins the course, and which will be important to all of the materials Elden covers. In the preceding years, Foucault had largely shifted, as Elden describes well in the introduction to The Birth of Power, from describing his working method in terms of “archaeology” to “genealogy,” with the former describing the forms of knowledge that are considered to be true or false in a given period (for example, the truth of a mystic is no longer convincing after the advent of modern science) to how these distinctions arrive out of different formations of power, even as Elden is often is at pains to point out, these two modes of approach are not easily separable (GP, 22).

Elden’s Birth of Power shows how Foucault develops his thinking of power through a series of trilogy of courses, from 1970 to 1974, that follow how power always is implicated in producing a form of knowledge and vice-versa. The first, published as Lectures on the Will to Know, mark not only what Elden takes as the “birth” of Foucault’s considerations of power, but also begin a series of three years of courses on the history and genealogy of punishment as well as the forms of knowledge that came out of them that lead to Discipline and Punish (1975). As Foucault puts it, he was attempting to “follow the formations of certain types of knowledge (savoir) on the basis of the juridico-political models which have given birth to them and which serve to sustain them.” The two additional courses, Penal Theories and Institutions (1971-2) and The Punitive Society (1972-3), cover the middle ages and the great internment of modernity, respectively. In these works, Foucault provides a schematic breakdown of the history of punishment into three broad periods, which he defines in terms of measure, inquiry, and examination, and Elden covers these difficult courses with ease in the first three chapters of The Birth of Power. In these periods, Foucault argues that there is no neutral knowledge that does not itself lie behind or enable forms of juridical or judicial power imposed on ancient, Middle Ages, and modern societies. For the ancient period, Foucault provides a genealogy of how the just measure gave us a hold over the universe in terms of mathematics but also the balance of scales by which we measure criminal punishments and hence justice. In the late Middles Ages, Foucault argues in the 1971-2 Theory of Penal Institutions, knowledge and power were adjudicated by a form of inquiry, the model of which would be the confession, a topic that Elden in both works shows to be a key subject during all of the years of his Collège de France lectures. In the Middle Ages, we poke, so to speak, both nature and the body of the criminal in order to render from them their truth through records and witnesses, and Foucault makes the extraordinary claim that without this, we would not have had the later birth of the natural sciences, especially as found in empiricism (BP, 70-1). The last form of knowledge, examination, is covered most fully in The Punitive Society and gives us the post-18th-century social sciences, which operates not by exclusion but by the constant testing and surveillance of school children, the so-called insane, workers, and so on, according to a norm, where one is constantly under the gaze of the other.

In the years leading up to The Punitive Society, Foucault had described, as have so many before and after him, power in terms of exclusion, an idea that by 1973 he finds “too broad” and “artificial” (PS, 2), and Elden’s works are at their best at describing when and why Foucault changed his view of power and developed a vocabulary to describe it in modernity: discipline, surveillance, security, biopower, and so on. Too many thinkers still rely all-too-easily on the vague notion of exclusion rejected by Foucault. The temptation is to make this into something of an inexorable category of all societies. Foucault cites René Girard’s scapegoat theory, though one could also cite right-wing versions, such as Carl Schmitt’s argument that all political states are founded on naming an enemy. The problem is that this oddly has the effect of depriving anyone of responsibility for the day-to-day ways that groups come to be excluded, since it is the fault of any “society” as such: the Jew was treated as a pariah in Europe in the last century as a matter of course for how societies form themselves by scapegoating some of its members and sacrificing them for the whole. If not the Jews, then modern Europe would have had to find some other group—just as we have Muslims and Mexicans for the Trump supporters, the Poles for the Brexit-voting English, and so on. The problems of these analyses are obvious: such an account divorces the historian from the contingent—and painful acts—that are the stuff of history. For Foucault, this depiction always arrives, so to speak, too late: it represents and provides a model of different societies without describing all the micro institutions that crystallized into what is then described as an exclusion: how did we get what we call the police? How did this police come to be mobilized as a something of a military force within society? What micro-institutions are forming that might be productive of other forms of power and knowledge since Foucault’s death? The notion of exclusion does little to help us with these questions.

Here is Foucault:
[T]his notion [of exclusion] accords society in general responsibility for the mechanism by which the excluded is excluded. In others words, we not only [would] lack the historical, political mechanism of power, but we risk being led astray regarding the instance that excludes, since exclusion [seems] to be referred to something like a social consensus of rejection, whereas behind this maybe there are a number of quite specific, and consequently definable, instances of power responsible for the mechanism of exclusion.’ (PS, 3)

Thus, if we take the example of the prison, we would be led to believe that all those placed into them over time are the “scapegoats” of a given society, with the upshot that we are left without any analysis that traces the radical differences between how those “excluded” came be so, or how the prison, as “exclusionary,” is unprecedented in Western history. The point is not to deny that this or that society can be represented as exclusionary, but that the focus ought be historical and genealogical. We ought, writes Foucault, “to break” a particular mode of exclusion “into its constituent elements and to find the relations of power that underlie and make it possible” (PS, 5). In sum, it’s not a given that exclusions happen everywhere and at all times, but rather we must undertake the painstaking work of historical research to show just how this or that exclusion happened and through what steps, and then show how different forms of power operate in and on one another, a point that Elden makes times and again (e.g., FLD, 56).

But far from arguing that power is everywhere and one can’t help but conform, as his critics have often said, the Foucault of The Punitive Society, as Elden makes clear, recognizes the contingent circumstances and thus the places for where responsibility can be laid for those very norms that shape our societies. This leads Foucault in the Punitive Society’s last sessions to compare his mode of analysis with those others dominant then and now. First, power is not simply oppressive or top-down, with power on one side and innocence on the other. Power, he tells his students, is “exercised in all the depth, over the whole surface of the social field,” which makes any attempt to find a space of transgression outside of its reach all but impossible (228). Power is not “monolithic” or “controlled from a certain point of view by a certain number of people”; there are always “singular struggles” and “local reversals, regional defeats, and victories” (Foucault 228).

In short, where there is power, there is the potential for resistance. This means that the still dominant mode of analyzing politics—essentially all of our everyday commentaries on politics that focus on electoral races, the making of laws, and so on—miss the local forms of power that Foucault describes. Indeed, to those on the Marxist or anarchist left and the libertarian right who dream of an escape from power relations in the withering away of the state, Foucault argues that “the destruction of the State apparatus” will fail to “get rid of a certain type of power” (PS, 229). For example, if the state were to end, we wouldn’t get rid of the power relations, for example, of sexual identity, about which Marxists have historically been as heteronormative as the most reactionary conservatives, or other various forms of conformism. Elden provides one of the nicest analyses yet of these pages (FLD, 56).

Foucault’s Last Decade takes off just after the publication of Discipline and Punish, whose “history” Elden provides, in order to chart both what could have been and what would come to be of the volumes that would consume him during his last years, namely The History of Sexuality. Foucault’s Last Decade is less a book about that book, as he describes it (5), than a demonstration of the fits and starts that Foucault had in making progress in what would only come to be published in three volumes before his death in 1984. Originally, Foucault was to publish five volumes, though even the three he published differed in topics than he originally proposed. As in The Birth of Power, Elden largely goes chapter by chapter detailing each year’s lecture courses, augmented by new materials uncovered in the archives in which Elden spent many hours, especially the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. While the period of 1970-1975 is easily seen as the period during which Foucault looked in both his printed works and lectures to advance a history of punishment and how this punitive society operates on all manner of those at the margins, such as those we dub criminals or insane, Foucault’s last decade contains quixotic forays into the story of a supposed pervert in the eighteenth century, a study of the rise of the police in the eighteenth century, a whole year on what we would now call the rise of economic neoliberalism, and then many years of lectures on Greek and Roman sources, all to provide what Elden convincingly argues was Foucault’s project all along: not to provide a history of sexuality and its practices and our thoughts about them, but rather, a history of the subject: how did we come to think of ourselves as these particular individuals, atomized and cut off from one another in contemporary societies, and what counter-practices can we use to empower ourselves and others given the forms of power/knowledge he had described in the early 1970s and continued to defend in interviews until his last days, which puts the lie to any easy periodization of his work?

The view often offered of these late lectures, especially those relating to the “care of the self” in the 1980s, is that Foucault was making an “ethical” turn in his last years. That is, he is said to have recognized in certain Greek and Roman practices of relating to the self a means for finding an historical counterpoint to the “docile bodies” one finds in the disciplinary societies he describes in Discipline and Punishment. Foucault’s most vociferous critics have always argued that the forms of power whose “birth” Elden charts in the early seventies, one ends up unable to critique the present: we are produced by these forms of power and nothing is to be done except perhaps some Stoic reflection upon that fate. Some supporters of Foucault, argue, however, that he was trying to find in historical counterexamples to the present a different kind of ethos or way of being that we could then enact to counter those forms of power he worked so assiduously to describe. Yes, Foucault can’t tell us what is to be done, since this would be but another philosopher providing a kind of knowledge that masks its own desire or power, but he is at least pointing to ways each self could engage in ways that provide us some manner of agency, especially in his later lectures where he takes up the Greek notion of parrēsia (speaking frankly), which one can take simply as a forceful way of speaking truth to power (FLD, 196-201).

Foucault would go on to publish two volumes in based on his research on ancient and Christian societies, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure and The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self (both in 1984, the year of his death), and the very texts he reads in them, such as Plato’s Apology and works of pagan and Christian asceticism, would seem to lead to an overall interest in ethics as a counterbalance to dominant forms of power.

Elden will have none of this view. He argues that Foucault’s discussions of freedom form an “ontological inquiry” that is “historical, rather than fundamental,” which means that his are “contributions to the history of thought” (FLD, 196). In short, far from offering any ethics, Foucault’s later writings are not to be taken as a “fundamental” ontology that would tell us what freedom ultimately is beyond how it is thought and practiced in given institutions with specific histories. What Elden argues, then, is that Foucault was simply continuing farther and farther back, from the depictions of modernity in the early-to-mid 1970s, in his “genealogy of the subject” (FLD, 204). Instead of instituting a new idea of subjectivity—a free being able to chart sovereignly her own course—in his late lectures, Elden argues convincingly that “we are now clearly able to see that Foucault tried to work out how to circumvent the problem of the subject through its historical investigation,” whether the singular one of the individual or or a population or nation (FLD, 205). Like others of his era, Foucault was a critic of the subject and thus his work was meant to provide a history of what we take to be such a natural entity: that we are free beings who have the power to be more than what history has made of us. But these histories, of course, do have an ethos if not an ethics, since of course, as Elden puts it, they are meant to “circumvent” those kinds of beings we have come to be. The subject, then, is an invention and a historically contingent one at that. We did not have to come to think of ourselves in that way, and indeed, as we chart our history closer to the present, we can see all the ways various technologies, studies in neurobiology, and all that is studied under the banner of “transhumanism” is marking, perhaps, a final shift from that era of the subject that Foucault’s work charts so well.

Elden, ever the modest scholar, as Foucault himself, despite his fame, often was, ends Foucault’s Last Decade somewhat anti-climatically, saying that more work will become available and thus his two volumes are nothing more than an “interim account”—not the final word on Foucault (FLD, 208). This is not just because of the modernism of the field of history I mentioned at the beginning, but because we always come to read a figure differently based on the context in which her work is received. In this way, the famous historian of the present will, whatever his critics say, have a future, especially as we witness, around the edges, a pivot from the very forms of subjectivity whose histories he charted. This does not mean we must simply celebrate whatever comes after the subject, if indeed, that is what is underway, but to follow Foucault and chart the history of that future the celebrants of transhumanism think is in the offing—all to critique the forms of power that invariably will come with it.


Peter Gratton is associate professor of Philosophy at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 11th, 2017.