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Stephen J. Collier “Topologies of Power”

January 9, 2015 Leave a comment

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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Nicholas Heron “The Ungovernable”

October 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Heron, Nicholas 2011. The Ungovernable. Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 16 (2): 159-174.[…] for him [Agamben] the term dispositif serves simply as the general designation for a particular modality of power, assuming many and varied forms, generating many and varied effects, which has accompanied the appearance of living beings since time immemorial – but whose distinct orientation is nonetheless always specific, always practical (‘‘economic’’ in the precise sense that Aristotle gives to this term). (161)

So we have, according to Agamben, two great groups or classes, as it were separated by a massive partition: on the one side, living beings (or substances), and on the other, the dispositifs in which they are incessantly captured. […] he decisively complicates this schema through the implication of a third element, ‘‘between the two’’; what he terms precisely the ‘‘subject.’’ It is at this point that he advances his second conceptual definition. ‘‘I call subject,’’ he writes, ‘‘what results from the relation and, so to speak, from the struggle [ corpo a corpo : literally, ‘‘body to body’’; in the corresponding English phrasing, ‘‘hand to hand’’] between living beings and dispositifs .’’ (161)

The dispositif is not an external mechanism, intervening as it were from without, entirely separate from the living beings whose conduct it would seek to administer. It is nothing other than its effects, and has no consistency outside of them. The dispositif functions, that is to say, as an index of the living being’s governability : it names both the being disposed (the being ordered) and the disposition itself (the order itself). The first operation of the governmental dispositif, of every governmental dispositif , thus consists in making the living being governable – which is to say, by transform-ing it into a subject . In this sense, the governmental paradigm not only presupposes but also effectively procures – precisely through the attribution of the predicate – the freedom of the governed. (166)

Being a subject thus constitutes the living being’s mode of being in the mesh of whatever dispositif. And the modal category to which it corresponds is contingency. If there is no constituent subject, but only a living being which becomes the subject of this or that dispositif, then the subject is, by definition, a being that can both be and not be; it is a contingent being . The occurrence of a subject, in so far as it can both be and not be, marks the occurrence of a contingency. (166)

In order to perform and to fulfil its function, in order to operate as a mechanism of governance, the grafting of each and every dispositif , according to Agamben, must always involve a concomitant process of subjectivation (in the absence of which, he writes, it risks being reduced to a mere exercise of violence). (168)

[…] the dispositif itself has no separate existence outside of the contingent of subjects which manifest its functioning; by virtue of what is only apparently a tautology, its end is immanent to the subjects it governs precisely in so far as it governs them. The subject is thus the mode that living beings assume in the mesh of this or that governmental dispositif (in so far, that is to say, as they are nothing other than this mesh). (168)

Properly contingent, according to Agamben, are those events that could not have happened, could not have taken place, precisely at the moment in which they did happen, in which they did take place. A contingency is a potentiality that exists: it names the condition according to which a potentiality – that ‘‘amphi-bolous’’ being which, even in actuality, following Aristotle’s definition, preserves its own capacity not to be – can realise itself. The subject, for Agamben, is precisely what marks this taking place of a potentiality as the event – contingit – of a contingency. (168-169)

To be subject means, in this sense, to be the subject of this activity, this praxis; it means to have this activity, this praxis, within one’s capacity . But with this important caveat: that the subject is wholly determined as this capacity and cannot be said in any sense to pre-exist it. Such is, according to Agamben, the operation conducted by the governmental dispositif : the tracing of a caesura in the living being, which separates out in it a capacity to and a capacity not to – which makes of it, precisely, a subject. (169)

Power, in its governmental form, does not therefore merely presuppose the freedom of the subjects it governs, as Foucault had main-tained; rather, as we have sought to demonstrate, it effectively produces it, each and every time, in and through the act of governance itself. But for precisely this reason freedom is not something outside of the subject, like a property, which it may be said to possess or not possess: qua subject it is inscribed in its very being. (169)

Only if the subject could (also) not be, could (also) not take place – only there, according to Agamben, is there a subject. In its very being, the subject thus ‘‘attests’’ to its contingency; it ‘‘bears witness’’ to its being able not to be. (169)

What is a living being? We can now answer with some precision: it is that which receives definition only on account of its inclusion – only on account of its capture – in a governmental dispositif. (169)

The living being is thus included in a dispositif through its very exclusion – which is to say, through its becoming a subject. The subject is the necessarily contingent result of this capture: it is what appears as such when the living being disappears as such. The inclusive exclusion of the living being in a governmental dispositif is what grounds the possibility of a subject. (169)

If it is true, according to Foucault’s inversion of the Aristotelian formula, which Agamben has adopted for his own purposes, that ‘‘modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question’’ 67 and that, henceforth, all politics is biopolitics, we cannot fail to register the follow-ing, drastic consequence: once the oikonomia of bare life itself is installed as the ultimate political task, once bare life itself becomes, so to speak, the subject of politics, this means the impossibility not only of politics (which now subsists as a decision on the ‘‘impolitical’’) but also of a subject in the strict sense. (169-170)

The Ungovernable: it is the beginning, the starting place, the source of every politics, as we have seen, because it is precisely what the governmental dispositif must presuppose, what it must capture at its centre, in order to be able to operate, in order to be able to function. It is the vanishing point, because the task of its exposition is not something that may be accomplished once and for all, is not a state that may be ultimately achieved. Precisely because the living, human being as such is an ungovernable, ‘‘inoperative’’ being, precisely because its existence is without purpose, in vain – this is what triggers, sustains and, indeed, necessitates the incessant activity of the governmental machine. But for this very reason it is also always that which can be retroactively affirmed in order to interrupt its functioning. (170)

Nick Hardy “Foucault, Genealogy, Emergence”

October 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Hardy, Nick 2010. Foucault, Genealogy, Emergence: Re-Examining the Extra-Discursive. – Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 41:1, 68-91

This paper aims to refine Foucault’s position by pursuing two interlinked linesof inquiry. The first is to deepen Foucault’s conception of power by extending theuse of the extra-discursive as a part of his ontological grounding of power. Thismeans that power “relations” come to be understood as contingent and multi-vectored and power “effects” as multi-causal. The second is to show that these relations have a constitutive effect upon the subjects on which they exert influence. Seen in this way, subjects become examples of constitutive emergence —meaning they are neither mere discursive constructs (i.e. “defined”) nor ontologically distinct (i.e. physically/essentially unique). (68)

A discursive formation can be understood as the particular ordering of the four elements that constitute it: things (objects), things said (types of statement), ideas (concepts) and groupings (thematic choices). Each discursive formation is different because each one has particular rules of formation, dictating what can and cannotbe said, whom or what has the ability to speak, what is determined/identified toexist or not exist, and what can or cannot change within its boundaries […] (71)

[…] it appears that thediscursive formation would not be able to operate in the same form without thoseincorporated extra-discursive elements. (71)

Thus the pre-existing extra-discursive becomes co-opted into discursivities and, when a discourse becomes powerful enough, the extra-discursive then begins to be reformed by that discursivity. (72) – pre-existing?

Foucault is claiming that there is structure to discourse(s) and that it is through the various “rules” of discursive formations thatthe world is understood (and, to some extent, also shaped). The extra-discursive,then, forms not only key elements within discourses (objects, entities, etc.), but alsothe external structures that discourse applies itself through (e.g. the pre-existing social institutions that become “surfaces of emergence” for discursive objects) (Dupont and Pearce, 2001: 145; Pearce and Woodiwiss, 2001). (72)

The “discovery” of madness in the prison and hospital system (ibid.: 417–418) is explicitly linked, in Foucault’s work, to the extra-discursive reality of confinement. The isolation of the mad—i.e. their continued incarceration while other groups(beggars, vagabonds, petty criminals, etc.), with whom they were originally con-fined, were subsequently moved out or into other spaces such as workhouses—contributed to the alteration and construction of new discursive formations relating to madness. (74)

No discourse develops against a tabula rasa backdrop; alldiscourses form and develop in situ, influenced, structured and constrained by thecontext in which they exist. The confinement of the mad took place and was only possible because of the (contingent) pre-existence of the empty leper houses. (74)

But, importantly for the discussion inthis paper, the extra-discursive is not a passive, malleable object waiting to be“defined” by a particular discursive position: it continually “bites back”, as demonstrated by the multitude of uexpected events and outcomes that constantly occur. These unexpected outcomes mean that a dispositif  must be continually repaired and/or modified in order to maintain particular relations between knowledge(s) and forces. (75-76)

Dispositifs, in this account, play an importantrole in both creating, consolidating and aiding particular blocks as well as supportingthe particular “relations of force” that enable the reproduction of a particulardominant group at a particular time (CF: 203). A dispositif is as close as Foucault comes to articulating the form and presence of a “meta-structure” present insociety (1976a/1990: 93, 94). (76)