Home > (neo)liberalism, biopoliitika, diskursus, dispositiiv, Michel Foucault, Stephen J. Collier > Stephen J. Collier “Topologies of Power”

Stephen J. Collier “Topologies of Power”

Collier, Stephen J. 2009. Topologies of Power. Foucault’s Analysis of Political Government beyond ‘Governmentality’. Theory, Culture & Society 26(6): 78-108.

Here, the new case of scarcity and the grain trade proves crucial. Foucault’s analysis revolves around the physiocrat Abeille, who posits that scarcity in grain must be managed not through tight sovereign or disciplinary controls but through modulated interventions into the field of autonomous and mutually corrective decisions by growers, buyers, consumers and traders. In this context, the figure of ‘population’ emerges in a very different light from that found at the end of SMD. It is a field that precisely does not admit to control, that cannot be ‘possessed’ by the state, and that must be left alone to its own mechanisms and processes. In this respect the prior analysis is reversed: population is ‘discovered’ not as a target of state control but as a new ‘principle of limitation’ on state activity. If, in SMD, discipline and regulatory power are isomorphic and functionally interrelated, then in STP they are heterogeneous and in many ways opposed principles. (87)

In sum, if SMD posited a rigid architectonic of biopolitics, in which its elements, though distinct, were bound together as if through a kind of inner logic, then here [STP] we have a kind of analytical decomposition, in which different figurations of the town, of normalization, of criminality, are abstracted, initially, from any specific articulation in broader configurations of power. (87)

In DP Foucault analyzed a shift from sovereignty to discipline; in SMD, from sovereignty to
normalization, where normalization = discipline + regulatory power. Now we have a new series: sovereignty-discipline-security. (87)

In SMD, Foucault saw in the 18th century the emergence of a general logic of biopolitical government that was characterized by the spread of disciplinary and regulatory controls over the entire domain of the bio logical. By contrast, in the 1978 and 1979 lectures, equipped with much suppler analytical tools, Foucault tells a more nuanced story based on a distinction between the technology of power found in physiocracy and the topology of power in which it was articulated. (91)

[…] when Foucault returns to the Physiocrats in The Birth of Biopolitics we find that, in fact, physiocratic thought is not the pre-figuration of liberalism and it does not provide the matrix of a global logic of biopolitics. Rather, it is seen in what Foucault calls its ‘very interesting and very paradoxical’ singularity. The Physiocrats, he argues, presented a ‘strict critique of all the administrative rules and regulations through which the sovereign’s power was exercised on the economy’. Their doctrine of laissez faire proclaimed that the sovereign should be compelled ‘by reason, knowledge, and truth to accept the principle of freedom of economic agents’ (Foucault, 2008: 284–5). But at the same time – and this is crucial – the Physiocrats advanced this principle in the nameof sovereignty, of its aggrandizement and preservation. The ‘interesting and paradoxical’ character of physiocratic programming lies, thus, in the fact that a technology of security, which proposes a new principle of limitationon state intervention, is mobilized in the name of a sovereignty that is more absolute than ever. (92)

In this light, Foucault notes, we can understand how Adam Smith defined his invisible hand againstthe physiocratic laissez-fairedefined by economic freedom in a framework of political totalization. The political logic of physiocracy was critiqued; the technology of power redeployed. (92)

[…] the emerging emphasis on a topological and recombinatorial analysis in the 1978 and 1979 lectures can be linked to what Rabinow (2003: 45) calls a ‘simple but momentous shift’ in Foucault’s approach to thinking, whose beginnings can be traced to the same period. Increasingly Foucault understood thinking not as an ‘anonymous, discursive thing’ but as a ‘dynamic and heterogeneous process’ of critical reflection and intervention. In this view, thinking is not bound by a knowledge-power regime; it should not be analyzed, as Foucault argued in a late interview, as a ‘formal system that has reference only to itself’ (Foucault, 1984: 388). Rather, it is an activity that involves ‘a degree of constraint as well as a degree of freedom’, that makes possible a certain critical distance from existing ways of understanding and acting. In sum, the space of problematization is a topological space, and thinking is a driver of recombinatorial processes. (95-96)

[…] first, the concept of governmentality has itselfprovoked (mis)applications of this work that commit the synechdocal error of confusing the ‘parts’ (techniques and so on) with some mysterious neoliberal ‘whole’; second, the problems of misinterpretation have been multiplied by an overvaluation of the concept of governmentality, which has obscured much of what is novel and important in Foucault’s 1978–9 lectures, specifically his shift to a more dynamic topological analysis of power relations. (98)

The British liberals rejected the physiocratic principle of sovereignty and combined the elements of ‘security’ with a new liberal programming that aimed to reduce the state. Today, by contrast, we find cases in which techniques of advanced liberal government that were invented to reduce an excessive and inefficient governmentality are redeployed either to strengthen the state (as, for example, in post-Soviet Russia, where neoliberal reforms of social welfare have actually intensified during the period of Putin’s rule) or in projects of social welfare that are mobilized, in part, as explicit responses to ‘neoliberalism’ (as, I would argue, is the case with programs like the Bolsa Familiain Lula da Silva’s Brazil). We can trace certain techniques and technical mechanisms from one context to the other. Indeed, such tracing is an essential contribution to rendering these new topologies of power intelligible. But there is no reason to assume that the resulting governmental ensembles can be read as playing out some internal logic of neoliberalism. (99-100)

Since ‘Foucauldian’ work on neoliberalism has been dominated by a concept of governmentality that focuses on ‘conditions of possibility’, thought, per se, appears as a passive thing and thus perhaps not a particularly interesting thing. But in the frame of a topological analysis it is precisely the specific activity of thought that would have to be examined to understand the processes of recombination and reproblematization through which contemporary government – beyond ‘advanced liberalism’ – is being refigured. (100)

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