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Colin Koopman “Two Uses of Michel Foucault in Political Theory”

Koopman, Colin 2015. Two Uses of Michel Foucault in Political Theory: Concepts and Methods in Giorgio Agamben and Ian Hacking. Constellations. doi: 10.1111/1467-8675.12153.

In sum, I shall be arguing that Agamben’s use of Foucault’s concepts, as detached from the methodological constraints of historicist genealogy, evince a project of transcendental philosophy in which it is difficult to recognize Foucault, but that Hacking’s use of Foucauldian genealogy and archaeology evince a methodological use of Foucault that helps us to recognize a critical empiricism at the heart of Foucault’s work. (1)

Methods (or, to use an approximate term for the same, analytics) refer to strictures, constraints,
designs, and strategies for inquiry: the way in which inquiry is conducted. Concepts refer to the ideational material that is developed in the course of conducting an inquiry: that which inquiry produces in doing its work.nThus, methods function as grids or lenses that make possible a coherent practice of inquiry, while concepts function as the materials with which inquiry works, in drawing objects of inquiry through the grid. (2)

Reading Agamben through the lens of his longest standing philosophical commitments helps us recognize that, and also understand why, the biopolitical index through which Foucault reads much (but not all) of modern political practice is for Agamben the transcendental condition of politics as such. (4)

When it comes to biopower, Agamben looks for it, in the form of the state of exception and bare life, everywhere. But in looking for his assumed concepts everywhere, Agamben is forced to see them everywhere — in the camps and at the supermarket, in the gas chamber and on the television. If we had to give a name to the apparent methodological procedure guiding Agamben’s argument, then I would suggest that we call it ‘biopower-hunting.’ (6)

But whereas for Foucault concepts are meant to describe a fairly circumscribed field, Agamben universalizes the concept by making it a paradigm that stands for something as broad as modern
politics itself, or even politics as such. (8)

In Foucault the concept of biopower often seems to have much to do with biology, medicine, and psychiatry. His concern is with the ways in which these sciences gain a tight hold on sex, in part because they manage to constitute sexuality itself. In Hacking the discussion of biopower is tightly focused on questions of the sciences, especially statistics and their impact on human sciences, perhaps most notably the many and sprawling branches of demography. There are two interwoven kinds of processes in Hacking’s histories of biopolitics. The one he calls “the avalanche of numbers” and the other he places under the banner of what he calls “making up people.” Hacking’s avalanche of numbers refers to the solidification and explosion in the nineteenth century of “statistical information developed for purposes of social control.” This period, roughed out at the edges, was witness to the emergence of all manner of demographic data in public health (e.g. numbers about the 1832 cholera epidemic), the rise of census bureaux, education statistics, crime statistics, and all manner of other numbers for very large sets of things. Though these social measures largely began in Britain and France, they quickly spread elsewhere, and soon spread over the entire planet. The result was what Mary Beth Mader calls, closely following Foucault, “statistical panopticism.” (9)

Biopower, which in Foucault had to do with the regulation of life by its apprehension as objects
of population, now in Hacking has to do with the inevitable and none-too-innocent consequence of that statistical avalanche that continues to pile higher and higher every year. (9)

The empiricism of epistemology involves the thesis that experience is the sole or primary source
of knowledge. The empiricism of method involves no thesis; it is a stance. It is achieved by taking up an empirical orientation whereby we might gain a certain kind of grip, however evanescent, on the objects of our inquiries, for instance, ourselves and our present. (10)

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