Posts Tagged ‘Michel Foucault’

Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky “Nothing Is Political, Everything Can Be Politicized”

Deuber-Mankowsky, Astrid 2008. Nothing Is Political, Everything Can Be Politicized: On the Concept of the Political in Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt. Telos 142: 135–161.

[…] the development of knowledge about life, the improvement of agricultural techniques, the observations and measurements of the living, and the use of statistics and probability have led to the result that life has become manipulable and that the optimization of this manipulability of life has become the object of politics. As Foucault thoroughly discussed in his lectures on the history of governmentality, politics has been transformed into political economy. (137)

In contrast to sovereignty, which capitalizes a territory, and in contrast to discipline, which architectonically sketches out a space and poses the problem of the functional and hierarchical ordering of elements in this space, security, as Foucault characterizes this new discursive formation, attempts to deploy a series of events and possible elements as a “milieu”. (138)

Biopolitics shares with cybernetics not just the universalization of the statistical point of view, but also the point of view of a consistent immanence. (140)

While Marx, like many others, pleads for a separation of politics from nature and politics from biology, and insists on the right of each individual over his or her own body and life, Foucault warns against the belief that one could undermine the regime of biopower by appearing to the life and the rights of humans as living beings. For this life, as well as the human as living thing, can only “assume office” through biopower itself. (141–142)

The population, considered in terms of its status as human species and as public sphere, should be understood as a new reality to the extent that both “are for the mechanisms of power the relevant elements and the relevant space within which and with respect to which action can take place.” (144)

Schmitt’s concept of the political refers solely, as becomes obvious, to that political action that he calls “high politics”, or foreign affairs. He has little to say about an analysis of the political dimension of the police at the origins of the modern state as about the analysis of the significance of economic relations for the origins of a plurality of states. Only under the condition of these omissions can he link the model of the plurality of states with the restitution of sovereignty in such a way that he is able to declare, in the first sentence of Political Theology (1922), that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” and, at the same time, can characterize the ideal state as “a political entity that maintains a peaceful cohesiveness within and a cohesiveness of sovereignty without in the confrontation with other sovereigns.” Schmitt’s concept of the political is not only based on an ideal model of the plurality of states, but also on a simplified and mythologized model of the state and of sovereignty. (150)

The politicization of life, and with it the transformation of numerous individuals into a population, is the task that falls to the police as it is constituted in the seventeenth century. (150)

What Schmitt suppresses  […] with his one-sided determination of the political through foreign policy is the interdependence of the reason of state with the continental equilibrium between states and the police. He misses the fact that the state is predicated upon the transformation of sovereign power into biopower and the interdependence of various governmental rationalities. (152)

While Schmitt ultimately bases his concept of the political on foreign affairs and the politics of representation, Foucault seeks the political in the resistance against governmentality. (152)

Foucault: “what is at issue is to say: nothing is political, everything can be politicized, everything can become political. Politics is nothing more or less than that which arises out of resistance to governmentality, the first uprising, the first confrontation.” (153 – F: Birth of Biopolitics)

[…] it is precisely this extremely ambiguous idea of the decision that demonstrates the decisive difference between Schmitt’s concept of the political, based on the figure of the legislator, and Foucault’s concept of politicization. (155)


Jeffrey Bussolini “What is a Dispositive?”

Bussolini, Jeffrey 2010. What Is a Dispositive? Foucault Studies 10: 85–107.

Given the particular choice of this term over against appareil, and the associated difference in theory of state (étatisation in Foucault) from Althusser’s (appareils idéologiques d’État), dispositif has an important specificity in this context—as distinct from the State itself, more distributed, and an important element of the theory of security and governmentality. (86)

In Histoire de la sexualité I: La volonté de savoir, where he first and most extensively develops the notion of the dispositif, Foucault gives an exposition of it in terms of its analytical function and its relation to resistance, but also in terms of its relation to historical processes and the operations of power. Foucault’s usage of the concept dispositif is relevant to an aspect of his theory of history as that which we are no longer or that which we are becoming, a perpetual inventiveness. When considering ‛the multiple relations of force which are formed and operate in the apparatuses (appareils) of production,‛ he writes of a ‛general line of force which traverses local battles and links them together.‛4 If his genealogical approach to history is one that emphasizes continual change in institutions and concepts, the dispositif is an important conceptual
development enabling him to elucidate it. It allows him to evaluate a moving field of continuities predicated on continual change. (88)

One dispositive does not neatly and simply substitute for another, but the very interaction between them is an aspect and signature of the historical change, and mobile field of forces, being analyzed. (90)

The concept of the dispositive in Foucault is also integrated with his theory of power and his descriptions of its operations. As already broached in the previous section about history, the dispositive is a tool for analyzing or understanding a multiplicity of forces in movement and contest. Indeed the way Foucault described the concept, it seems first and foremost a tool to think about power in the perpetually dynamic social field. (90)

Within a heterogeneous and dynamic field of relations, the dispositive would seem to be a kind of moving marker to allow some approximation of a particular preponderance or balance of forces at a given time. It helps to identify which knowledges have been called out and developed in terms of certain imperatives of power, and it aids in the discernment of the many resistances that also necessarily run through the multiple relations of force according to Foucault. (91)

The dispositive is not so much the individual elements which make it up—the long list that Foucault gives in the first paragraph—as it is the particular arrangement and relations between them. It is this distinctive (moving) form that is decisive. As seen in his analysis of the dispositives of alliance and sexuality, or of discipline and security, the same ‛elements‛ or institutions can be part of more than one dispositive. This is an explicitly relational concept predicated on a view of continual dynamism. (92)

Rather than a descriptive account of power, the dispositive is part of an ontological reckoning of it as a multiplicity of forces. It is strongly relational, emphasizing a particular arrangement and conjunction of plural forces. (92)

But, neither is the account entirely relativistic, as if any given force could disappear or cease immediately or simply. Though his view of history and power is based on continual change, there are inertias, partially-formed systems, configurations of institutions and practices that persist over time (though their meaning and the nature of their interaction may change over time). (93)

The ways in which bodies, selves, and discourses are created and shaped are much more far-reaching then relatively simple codes of allowed and banned activities. Identifying what is at stake in his inquiry about power, Foucault remarks that ‛in fact what is at issue is the production of sexuality itself.‛17 Again, given the ontological substrate of the play of forces in his view, perpetual inventiveness and the manifestation of new configurations of forces would be a necessary and regular correlate. (93)

In trying to account for why we have so insistently thought of power as interdiction and prohibition, Foucault says that ‛there is perhaps a historical reason for this. The great institutions of power which were developed in the middle ages—the monarchy, the State with all its apparatuses.‛18 The apparatus here is clearly associated with the State in a way that the broader notion of the dispositive could not be, as it would always encompass a greater frame than the State or cut across its techniques and discourses depending on the particular conjunction of forces. (93)

Although the concept of the apparatus is clearly indispensable to his description and identification of the dispositive, he does not see them as the same thing but as related concepts, such that apparatus is a distinct subset of dispositive. As in Althusser, the apparatus maintains a tie to the State and its exercise of power. Although Althusser’s concept was itself a move to expand and make more diffuse, or encompassing, the operations of power, Foucault’s archaeology of the dispositive goes much further still in looking at diffuse and multiplicitous power relations, and he much more circumscribes the role of the State. (94)

Appareil is a contrivance, telephone, aircraft, system, or apparatus. Dispositif names the enacting terms (of a law or decision), disposition of troops in battle, or a device or contrivance. Similarly, in Italian apparato is a machine, system, military deployment, state apparatus or critical apparatus. Dispositivo refers to an appliance, device or equipment, or to the act of putting things into place, ordering (or deciding upon purview, jurisdiction, or applicability, as in the legal sense). (95)

The main area of overlap between them is in terms of the technical meaning, where both can be used as a general reference to a tool, piece of equipment, or mechanism. (95)

[…] we might tentatively be able to put forward (or ‛set out‛ in the sense of pono) the following provisional distinction regarding their technical significations, especially as informed through the usage in Foucault and Agamben. Apparatus might be said to be the instruments or discrete sets of instruments themselves—the implements or equipment. Dispositive, on the other hand, may denote more the arrangement—the strategic arrangement—of the implements in a dynamic function. (96)

A dispositive acts in part by determining what we can see and say in a certain historical configuration of forces. Deleuze emphasizes this perceptual but also onto-creative aspect, describing the curves of enunciation he says they are ‛not subjects and not objects, but the regimes which must be defined for the visible and the sayable, with their derivations, with their transformations, their mutations.‛40 He situates the dispositive in respect to Foucault’s ongoing interest in the articulation of the visible (seeable) and sayable in a certain time or context. (100)

Deleuze identifies the dispositive as a conceptual tool in accounting for that which we have been, that which we are no longer, and that which we are becoming. As such he sees this as an ontological concept in Foucault and as crucial for discerning possibilities for resistance and for the elaboration of new subjectivities. (102)

Catherine Mills “Biopolitical Life”

April 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Mills, Catherine 2013. Biopolitical Life. Södertöm Philosophical Studies 14: 73–90.

I use Esposito’s discussion as a springboard for reconsidering the role of norms in Foucault’s own work on biopolitics—especially in light of his essay on Canguilhem, in which he emphasises the productive capacity for error internal to life. I conclude that it is in the relationship of error and norms that the connection between life and politics may be made apparent. (75)

The reciprocal production of social and vital norms in the human as living being, and their specific conjunction in concerns such as population health, eugenics and new genetics, precipitates a biological politics that then extends into other domains of living. This point of view suggests that biopower is less a matter of controlling life that it is a matter of managing error—or rather, it is the former by virtue of the latter. It also highlights the way in which the biopolitical state is fundamentally reactive in relation to life. (75)

This correction to emphasise the relationship between the organism and its environment may seem like a relatively minor interpretive point; but I want to suggest that it actually has important implications, two of which I will mention here. The first point goes to the fact that the environment that human beings are located in is necessarily social, and as such, cross-cut with the force of social norms. (83)

This locatedness means that the “normal” is always an effect of a complex co-mingling and expression of vital norms in the midst of socially defined ways of living. Human life is never simply biological; and nor, for that matter, is it ever simply social or political. (83)

The second point to make derives from this, for while the existence of human beings is fundamentally conditioned by social norms, it cannot be assumed that vital and social norms are conceptually equivalent. Rather, what needs to be taken into account is the disjuncture between vital and social norms, and consequently, what requires explanation is the means by which they intermingle. In other words, vital and social norms may well be empirically inseparable, but they are nevertheless analytically distinguishable. (84)

In the postscript to The Normal and the Pathological, Canguilhem argues that while physiological norms are immanent to the organism, social norms have no equivalent immanence. In a living organism, norms are “presented without being represented, acting without deliberation or calculation,” such that there is “no divergence, no delay between rule and regulation.” In contrast, rules in a social organization must be “represented, learned, remembered, applied.”34 Further, while biological norms are geared toward a functional end, social norms are not— speaking of the “health” of a society is metaphoric in a way that speaking of the health of a living body is not. The point of this is that forms of social organisation cannot be understood as analogous to organisms; nor, then, can social norms be simply derived from organic norms. (84)

Foucault suggests that normalisation works in opposing ways in discipline and a biopolitics of population. In the former, infractions of the norm are produced as a consequence of the prior application of the norm, insofar as the phenomenal particularity of an individual is itself identified and calibrated through the application of a norm. Normalisation produces individuals as the necessary mode and counterpart of the operation of norms, that is, as a material artefact of power.43 In a biopolitics of population, Foucault suggests that norms are mobilised in exactly the opposite way, insofar as “the normal comes first and the norm is deduced from it.” (87)

Thus, it is through the notion of error that life is placed in a relation of contiguity and contingency with truth and structures within which it is told. “Error,” or the inherent capacity of life to “err” both establishes the relation of life to truth and undermines that relation by disentangling man from the structures of truth and power that respond to the potential for error. Hence, “with man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to ‘err’ and to be ‘wrong.’”49 From this point of view, the biopolitical state appears as simply the modern response to the possibility of error. (89)

If this is so, the potential for error in life directs us to an important point about the operation of biopower, specifically, that the biopolitical state is necessarily and systematically reactive. The errancy internal to life constantly provokes the biopolitical state, forcing it to respond to the contingencies of the living and the phenomena of life. (89)

Leonard Lawlor “The Implications of Immanence”

Lawlor, Leonard 2006. The Implications of Immanence. Towards a New Concept of Life. New York: Fordham University Press.

  1. Metaphysics and Powerlessness

[…] let me summarize the four similarities between Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s will to power and Foucault’s bio-power. First, both conceptions occur in the modern epoch, which is the epoch of anti-Platonism. Second, both conceptions, being modern, imply a transformation of vision into positing and constant presence. Third, bio-power and will to power are commanding, meaning that the will in each conception super-enhances the power that it already has; bio-will to power is the will to more and more power (super-abundant life). Finally, fourth, both Heidegger and Foucault associate the phenomenological concept of Erlebnis with bio-will to power. (127)

According to Foucault, man is finite in two ways. As an object of knowledge (say, in the human sciences), man is finite insofar as he is subjected to life, language, and work. But as a subject of knowledge man is also finite, since the forms in which he knows life, language, and work are finite. Again, man is finite in two ways, but the two are the same. As is well known, the sameness of finitude means that ‘‘man’’ is in the middle of a series of doubles: the foundation and the founded; the empirical and the transcendental; the thought and the unthought; and the return and retreat of the origin. The doubling (as in a mirror image) implies that we can say, according to Foucault, that I am this life since I sense it deep within me, but also I can say that I am not it since it envelops me and grows toward the imminent moment of death (MC 335 / 324–25). (128)

This nicht ko ¨nnen, this ‘‘cannot,’’ brings us to the essential feature of fundamental anxiety; fundamental anxiety is essentially an experience of impotence (Ohnmacht) (GA9, 113 / 90). Therefore, what Heidegger says in the lecture course about profound boredom holds for fundamental anxiety: ‘‘The ‘it is boring for one’ has already transposed us into a realm of power [einen Machtbereich] over which the singular person, the public individual subject, no longer has any power’’ (GA29/30, 205–6 / 136). To say this again, the essential feature of fundamental anxiety is powerlessness. This powerlessness is how the nothing becomes manifest (offenbar). (133)

Verendlichung implies, first, that death is not an absolute limit; rather, as becoming-finite, death is a relative limit. The limit has been distributed throughout existence. Second, death is not the end—in Being and Time, Heidegger seems to continue to conceive death as an end, ‘‘the end of Dasein’’—rather, as becoming-finite, death has become multiple, has been multiplied indefinitely. We have become the place where ends, where ‘‘de-limitation,’’ Ver-endlichung happens indefinitely. Third, death is not a possibility of no longer existing but rather, as becoming-finite, death is actually life itself. Indeed, with this Verendlichung, we have reached the place of the subrepresentational and the in-formal. In his book on Foucault, Deleuze creates a phrase that we can apply to this place outside of representation and form: ‘‘Bichat’s zone.’’ (137)

According to Foucault, we reach modern biology when the classifiable characteristics of the
living come to be ‘‘based upon a principle alien to the domain of the visible’’ (MC 239 / 227). While the classifications involved in classical natural history related visible form to visible form—for example, the visible form of a bird to the visible characteristic of wings—modern biology relates visible form to the functions essential to the living, functions that are themselves buried deeply within the body of the living. (137)

Bichat realized that at the moment of death one is able to observe the final symptom in a series of symptoms—the final point in the series is still visible—and, in the autopsy opening the body, one is also able to observe the series of lesions, a series that, prior to death, had been hidden in the patient’s body, invisible. In other words, by means of the immediate autopsy, Bichat was able to look at the ‘‘principle alien to the domain of the visible.’’ Bichat made what was invisible when alive visible through the autopsy, through death. This is, for Foucault, Bichat’s first great innovation: the perception of death allowed Bichat to give a more rigorous and therefore instrumental definition of death (NC 143 / 141, 149 / 146). (138)

For Foucault, this idea of a ‘‘moving death’’ is Bichat’s second great innovation in regard to the concept of life. These processes indicate the permeability of life by death. Foucault says, ‘‘Death is therefore multiple, and dispersed in time: it is not the absolute, privileged point at which time stops and moves back; like disease itself, death has a teeming presence’’ (NC 144 / 142). (139)

Thanks to the great white eye of death—the autopsy—disease has, Foucault says, ‘‘a mappable land’’ or ‘‘place’’ (NC 151 / 149). The living is defined by the spacing of disease as a ‘‘great organic vegetation’’ with ‘‘a nervure,’’ with ‘‘its own forms of sprouting, its own way of taking root, and its privileged regions of growth’’ (NC 155 / 152–53). Spatialized in this way, pathological phenomena take on the appearance of living processes. That disease is a living process means that it is inseparable from life; it is no longer an event or nature imported from the exterior of life. (139)

For Foucault, with the idea that life is the ground of disease, we have Bichat’s third innovation, his definition of life as the set of functions that resist death. For Bichat, life ‘‘is not a set of characteristics that are distinguished from the inorganic, but the background against which the opposition between the organism and the non-living may be perceived, situated, and laden with all the positive values of conflict’’ (NC 157 / 154). Defining life as a conflict with the nonliving means that life, being a process of degeneration, is at the limit auto-destruction, and not preservative (NC 160–61 / 157); the degeneration of life always moves toward death. Wear and tear (l’usure), Foucault says, ‘‘is the form of degeneration that accompanies life, and throughout its entire duration, defines its confrontation with death’’ (NC 161 / 158). Therefore, for Foucault—this claim is really Bichat’s third innovation—death is co-extensive with life. The co-extensivity of death with life is why Foucault says that ‘‘vitalism appears against the background of ‘mortalism’ ’’ (NC 148 / 145). (139)

Foucault stresses that it is not the case that disease is the source of death; rather, death, in life, has always already begun; there is always already a process of mortification, in which diseases are virtual. The reversal of what we normally think about the relation between life, disease, and death defines mortalism; mortalism is the virtuality, in life, of dying (finitization). The virtuality of dying, however, means that life, or better, ‘‘a life,’’ is always potentially a multiplicity of diseases, which, as we have already seen,
are themselves modeled on a living individual, on a life: there is a life of cancer. Multiplicity, being the ground of many lives of diseases, contains virtually singularities (NC 159 / 156). (140)

With the project, however, of the overcoming of Platonism, the concept of life itself becomes the background or ground for all other oppositions. This shift to the level of ground implies that the traditional (pre-nineteenth-century) problems associated with the concept of life are pushed to the side, problems such as the unity of life (vegetative versus cognitive), the specificity of life (organic versus inorganic), the opposition between finalism and mechanism, the conceptions of evolution. Instead, replacing being as well as nature, life becomes ultra-transcendental.61 The ultra-transcendental concept of life is auto-affection. What distinguishes the twentiethcentury concept of auto-affection from all previous ones is that now auto-affection takes place across a limit, across a difference,62 across a minuscule but invincible hiatus, across a spacing. Due to the limit, auto-affection is finite; or, since life as auto-affection is fundamental, life is ‘‘originary finitude.’’63 To put this idea another way, below ‘‘life-ism’’ is ‘‘mortalism’’ (NC 148 / 145). The limit in the middle of auto-affection is death. Yet, death is not an absolute limit opposed to life; it is not an end. Rather, death is mobile, a ‘‘teeming presence’’: life, then, is ‘‘finitization.’’ (141)

Finitization means that the power of life rests on a powerlessness.64 The teeming presence of death means that, within the sensingsensed relation, there is always the nonsensible. If the living is defined by self-relation, then wherever there is this relation, there must be a gap between the active and passive poles of the relation in order that there might be two poles at all. The ‘‘auto,’’ then, is always, necessarily, out of joint. (142)

Conclusion: The Followers

Foucault showed in both Words and Things and The Birth of the Clinic that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Bichat’s name is the index of the rupture that opened the modern epoch. When Bichat developed his definition of life, he placed life at a deeper level; he replaced nature with life as the ontological foundation. Life itself becomes the background or ground for all other oppositions. This shift to the level of ground implies that the traditional problems associated with the concept of life are pushed to the side, problems such as the unity of life (vegetative versus cognitive), the specificity of life (organic versus inorganic), the opposition between finalism and mechanism, the conceptions of evolution. Instead, replacing being as well as nature, life becomes ultra-transcendental. Vitalism, therefore, is an idea that does not belong to our present. We can assemble the characteristics that define the new concept of life. It would not be biological in a strictly material sense; it is not natural life (zoo ¯n). Instead, this life, the living, is spiritual. To call life spirit (as opposed to matter) implies conceptualization, information, the virtual, memory. Memory means that language is in life. (144)

As soon as we are born, we are ready to die. That’s life. There is a powerlessness—originary finitude or finitization—within the ‘‘I can’’ of the flesh. This powerlessness puts blindness right in the middle of vision; it puts forgetfulness right in the middle of memory. The eye of representation, the ‘‘eye’’ of recognition, is gouged out. The powerless of vision, the powerless of memory, requires prosthetics, such as spectacles and writing. At the origin of life, we are always able to find technology; nature is always contaminated with culture (language again). Life is always out of joint. (146)

Paul Veyne “The Final Foucault and His Ethics”

Veyne, Paul 1993. The Final Foucault and His Ethics. Critical Inquiry 20(1): 1–9.

Foucault’s books are, strictly speaking, the works of a historian, at least in the eyes of those who have acknowledged that all history is interpretative; but Foucault would not have written all the historians’ books. For the interpretation that is history has as its second agenda the project of being a complete inventory, whereas Foucault played the part of historian only with respect to points where the past masks the genealogy of our present. (3)

[…] in thinking they are seeking the truth of things, people succeed only in establishing the rules according to which they will be said to be speaking truly or falsely. In this sense, knowledge is not only linked to the powers that be, it is not only a weapon of power, it is not even power at the same time that it is knowledge; knowledge is only power, radically, for one can only speak truly by virtue of the force of the rules imposed at one time or another by a history whose individuals are at once, and mutually, actors and victims. Thus by truths we do not mean true propositions to be discovered or accepted but the set of rules that make it possible to utter and to recognize those propositions held as true. (3)

[…] the aim of Foucault the philosopher was not to claim that, for example, the modern state is characterized by a grand act of setting aside, of exclusion rather than of integration, which would obviously be  exciting to discuss; his aim was to show that every gesture, without exception, at the level of the state or not, always fails to fulfill the universalism of a reason and always leaves emptiness outside, even if the gesture is one of inclusion and integration. Similarly, when Kant spoke of the transcendental constitution of space and time, he was not inviting us to proceed with it: the difficult point would rather be that without knowing it we have not been proceeding with it. (5)

The other generous misunderstanding had to do with the famous void; people imagined that the finitude of every discursive practice was only empirical, to such an extent that the metaphorical void became, for some, a real space, inhabited by all the outcasts, rejects, and lepers and buzzing with all the forbidden or repressed words. The historical task was then to allow them to be heard: a rational account of the negativity of contradictories finally reestablished an encouraging philosophy that based our good feelings on reason. And yet, if there is one thing that distinguishes Foucault’s thought from that of some others, it is the firm resolve not to serve a dual function, not to reduplicate our illusions, no to establish as finally true what everyone would like to believe, not to prove that what is or ought to be has every reason to be. The rarest of phenomena, here is a philosophy without a happy end. Not that it end badly: nothing can “end,” since there is no end point any more than the is an origin. Foucault’s originality among the great thinkers of our century lay in his refusal to convert our finitude into the basis for new certainties. (5)

To be a philosopher is to make a diagnosis of present possibilities and to draw up a strategic map – with the secret hope of influencing the choice of combats. Enclosed in his own finitude, in his own time, man cannot think just anything at any time. (6)

Judith Revel “Identity, Nature, Life. Three Biopolitical Deconstructions”

February 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Revel, Judith 2009. Identity, Nature, Life. Three Biopolitical Deconstructions. Theory, Culture & Society 26(6): 45–54.

[…] from the 1960s, the radical critique of identities directs us to the analysis of power that principally takes the form of analyses of knowledges; yet, there is also, inseparably as its other side, an interrogation of the modes of subjectivation that could attempt to escape the objective frame of power and allow non-selfsame (non-identitaire) subjectivities to emerge. Of course, the trace of this non-selfsame is not easily discernible in Histoire de la folie or in Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things), though it is quite explicit in the texts that Foucault devoted to ‘literary’ figures in the wake of his analysis of Raymond Roussel, as I have has argued elsewhere (Revel, 2004). The problem then becomes that of how to prevent a subjective individuation from being immediately identified, that is, objectified and subjected to the system of knowledges/powers (savoirs/pouvoirs) in which it is inscribed. (46-47)

There is for Foucault a clear distinction to be made between what the relations of power construct in the form of an identity (that is, an objectified, reified identity, reduced to a number of definite characteristics, one that becomes the object of specific practices and knowledges), and the way in which subjectivity itself constructs its relation to itself. In the first case it is a matter of a subjection that fixes identities on the basis of a number of determinations that are supposed to ‘speak the truth of the subject’, such as when sexuality is transformed into ‘symptoms’ circumscribing the individual. In the second case, the refusal of this reduction of subjectivity to identity leads Foucault to theorize another form of the relation to oneself and others, namely, in the concept of a way of life (mode de vie). (48)

Foucault: “For me, this notion of way of life is important. . . . A way of life can be shared amongst individuals of different ages, statuses, social conduct. It can give rise to intense relations that are nothing like those which are institutionalized, and it seems to me that a way of life can generate a culture and an ethics. To be gay is not about identifying oneself with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual, but to seek to define and develop a way of life.” (1994c: 165). (48)

It is clear from this statement that Foucault understands a way of life as a set of relations that does not exclude this or that difference but preserves them as such in the process of relating; it is thus the bringing into the common (mis en commun) of differences at the level of difference, and the constitution on this differential ground as foundation of something which is of the order of a commonality, or that partakes of differences. This is at the opposite end of all the theorizations of the relation to the other that essentially operate through a decentring of oneself towards the other – oneself as another. Foucault is trying to work out how it is possible to live the relation to the other in such a way that differences – the self, the other – are neither reified, objectified, reduced to the least common denominator (such as a contrived universalization, or a reduction to sameness), or what one must rely upon to have access to the other. (48)

In this view, the conduct of existence is always inclusive of a relation to others, that is, it is an apprenticeship, a mutual construction and a subjectivation. It both forbids a return to individualism (such as the idea of the individual as the free entrepreneur of him/herself) and resists every temptation towards the naturalization, substantialization or essentialization of the self. (49)

Every singularity is irreducible because its emergence and becoming occurs in a determinate context, inside a web of relations and contacts that necessarily include other subjectivities also in process of becoming. New modes of life emerge as part of that process, but relations of power and the effects of dispositifs continue to operate. Foucault rejected the idea that there could be an outside of power, since resistance can only take place from inside a complex web in which resistance and power, subjectivation and objectification, strategies of liberation and subjection, substantialization and the logic of becoming, are interwoven. It follows from this analysis that nothing can transform the motor of resistance – the process of becoming of subjectivity – into an impersonal force, a ‘third person’, or a disqualification of singularities, as indicated in some readings of Foucault in Italy; the arguments above indicate that such
readings lead to a political impasse. (49)

Because of this, I think that in some admittedly different readings of Foucault by Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito or Paolo Virno, the argument for the passage to singularity by way of a third party (which eliminates attributes), the impersonal or the pre-individual obeys nothing more than a logical necessity and rests on an error, namely the inversion of the relation between commonality and a de-subjectivized singularity. The political cost of conceptualizing the common as the reassuring residue when one removes a layer of individualization from singularity is a new post-modern metaphysics. The common is not the reassuring starting point for the production of the political but its outcome; by eliminating singularity, one eliminates what makes resistance possible. (49)

[…] if biololitics puts to work a new form of regulation, namely the norm, that relies on the idea of a ‘biological’ naturality of life – which social medicine claims to preserve and protect – and if biopolitics inscribes in the norm new techniques of management of both individuals and populations, it means that relations of power in the 19th century have put in place an unprecedented reference to naturality in order to transform the latter into a new instrument of control. (50-51)

It can be seen from the above that Foucault thought it important to make clear three issues. First, life is not exclusively biological, as we saw in the discussion of ways of life as strategies of resistance in his analyses of subjectivity and ethics in the 1980s. Second, this means that powers over life or biopowers are not biological alone but include dispositifs of subjection and exploitation, of captation and regulation, of the control and ordering of existence in the wide sense. Third, this ‘biologization’ of life, now extended through biotechnologies and genetic engineering, appears to be, paradoxically, at the centre of some Italian readings of the biopolitical. (51)

Scott Yates and Dave Hiles “Towards a ‘Critical Ontology of Ourselves’?”

February 19, 2018 Leave a comment

Yates, Scott; Hiles, Dave 2010. Towards a “Critical Ontology of Ourselves”? Foucault, Subjectivity and Discourse Analysis. Theory & Psychology 20(1): 52–75.

Power produces more than knowledge and systems of social apparatus, however. It also “produces the very form of the subject” (Foucault, 1989, p. 158). The individual is not a pre-given phenomenological subject, an “elementary nucleus” (Foucault, 1980) onto which power fastens, or some form of original sovereign will standing opposite its antithesis of a power that constrains and limits it (Foucault, 1984/1988). It is, instead, “one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified and constituted as individuals” (Foucault, 1980, p. 98). (56)

Foucault’s strong emphasis on this dissolution of the sovereign, ahistorical phenomenological subject is what gives rise to readings of his work as denying wholesale the existence of subjectivity (and even, in a wider sense, human agency; McWhorter, 2003). However, as McWhorter (2003) points out, Foucault’s conception of subjectivity is more sophisticated than this, embodying a rejection only of an ahistorical subjectivity alongside a deeper concern for the constitution of forms of subjectivity as actually experienced. (57)

[…] whilst disturbing the concept of the autonomous, self-thematizing subject, Heidegger’s thinking contains a central awareness of Dasein’s agency and experience and its potential for choosing ways of being. As Dreyfus (2004) points out, such a conception had no parallel in the early work of Foucault, but this was something he later came to regret and correct. (58)

Power is “exercised over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (p. 221). Subjects in power relations are “faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions … may be realized” (p. 221). At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that power relations are often “fixed in such as way that they are perpetually asymmetrical” (Foucault, 1984/1997a, p. 292), and there is only “extremely limited” margin for action, freedom, or resistance. (59)

These technologies of the self coalesce around and take hold of specific thoughts, desires, behaviours, or practices, and are related to imperatives to shape one’s conduct in specific ways. It is here that Foucault talked about “government” (e.g., 1982, 1993) in a broad sense to refer to the intersection of strategies by others to govern one’s conduct alongside the actions one performs in relating to and governing oneself. (61)

This is well expressed by Hook (2007). Drawing on Foucault and Rose, he differentiates these technologies of the self from technologies of subjectivity, which refer to broad sets of regulative practices that bring the ambitions and strategies connected to various forms of government of individuals into alignment with individuals’ own ideals. They can be thought of as forms of subjectification that “involve the operation of a type of power that connects the norms of authorities to the motivating ideals we have of ourselves” (Hook, 2007, p. 246). (61)

There is thus a gap between technologies of subjectivity and practices of the self. Foucault’s work implies a degree of freedom in practices of the self, but it must also be noted that they do not entail an uncomplicated zone of liberation” (Hook, 2007, p. 248)—the project of ethical self-relationship and self-formation becomes thinkable only against the background of the systems of thought and the technologies of subjectivity available within a culture. (61)