Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Thomas Nail – Michel Foucault, Accelerationist

Thomas Nail is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012) and The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, forthcoming). His publications can be downloaded at

The Debate: So far the debate over Foucault’s relationship to neoliberalism is split between two positions. On one side there are those (Daniel Zamora, François Ewald, Michael Behrent, and others) who argue that Foucault’s “sympathy” for neoliberalism marks his later work as at least partially “compatible” with neoliberalism. On the other side many more (Stuart Elden, Peter Gratton, Steven Maynard, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and others) argue that although “Foucault’s mode of reading texts often makes it look like he is agreeing with [neoliberal] arguments, he is really trying to reconstruct them, to understand their logic, and so on.” Furthermore, given Foucault’s commitment to Leftist groups like Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons, GIP and others, the argument goes, Foucault could not have been a neoliberal.

But perhaps this debate has been made unnecessarily polemic. The question of the debate is not, “was Foucault a neoliberal or not?”. As far as I can tell, no one is explicitly arguing that he was, only that he shared “some sympathies” with neoliberal theory: some anti-statism, some anti-authoritarian values, and so on. Is it not possible to share some points of interest or critique with a position that one does not fully accept? Thus, the more interesting question I think we should be asking is, “what commonalities or shared interests might exist between Foucault’s political thought and certain neoliberal ideas, and to what degree?”

Accelerationism: Posing the question in this way points us to a third position in the debate: that Michel Foucault was an accelerationist, or least expressed some accelerationist tendencies. Accelerationism is the political belief that the best way to combat capitalism is actually by accelerating capitalism’s own inherent tendencies toward anti-statism, decentralization, constant novelty, and experimentation. To be clear, this position should not be confused with either resignation (the hope for capitalist apocalypse) or dialectics (the hope that capitalism will transform itself into communism through contradiction). Accelerationism does not simply affirm capitalism or neoliberalism: it only affirms some tendencies in it. Much has been written recently on the history and theory of this position as well as criticisms of it. Michel Foucault, to my knowledge, has not been included in these discussions. But perhaps he should be.

I do not have the space in this short piece to mount a full defense of this position, but it is not very hard for me to imagine that Foucault might have been influenced by French accelerationism in his 1978-1979 lectures on neoliberalism, The Birth of Biopolitics. For instance, several of his colleagues at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes had been espousing accelerationism for years. Deleuze and Guattari published Anti-Oedipus in 1972 where they write that our “flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. [The task then is] Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’” (AO, 239–240). Foucault wrote the preface to this accelerationist work. Two years later Jean-François Lyotard published Libidinal Economy, where he writes that “We abhor therapeutics and its vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. And don’t wait for our spontaneity to rise up in revolt either” (LE, 116).

Even if Foucault did not fully adopt these positions at the time, it seems like more than a coincidence that after their publication he is suddenly inspired to begin a new research program analyzing the features of twentieth century capitalism—something he had never attempted before, and something Deleuze himself had only just begun in 1972 with Guattari.

Accelerationism in The Birth of Biopolitics: In his new research program, Foucault located several points at which neoliberalism and Left wing struggles share some similar biopolitical features. First, they share a “state-phobia.” “All those who share in the great state phobia,” Foucault says, “should know that they are following the direction of the wind and that in fact, for years and years, an effective reduction of the state has been on the way, a reduction of both the growth of state control and of a ‘statifying’ and ‘statified’ (étatisante ou étatisée) governmentality born in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (BB, 191-192). Anti-state anarchists and neoliberals, despite their differences, have been working to reduce the power of the state for over a hundred years—and this tendency is winning.

Second, they share a valorization of previously non-economic phenomena like affect, leisure, intellect, desire, and other forms of so-called “immaterial labor.” As Foucault says in his lectures, “How is this capital made up? It is at this point that the reintroduction of labor or work into the field of economic analysis will make it possible, through a sort of acceleration or extension, to move on to the economic analysis of elements which had previously totally escaped it” [my italics] (BB, 226). Foucault is correct to describe this process of real subsumption as an “acceleration,” since it is precisely this tendency within capitalist production that keeps deterritorializing farther and experimenting with new markets (social capital, intellectual capital, cultural capital, etc). But it is also this same tendency that describes the revolutionary task of “moving beyond” the current order. The difference between the two is that capitalism is slowed down by the requirements of commodification, while the revolutionary has already moved on.

In the context of accelerationism, what we are witnessing in this renewed debate about Foucault’s relationship to neoliberalism is all too familiar. Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard have all been praised both as revolutionaries and so-called “post-modern capitalists.” Slavoj Žižek, for example, even argues both in the same chapter. “Deleuze,” he says, “more and more serves as the theoretical foundation of today’s anti-global Left” (OwB, xi). Eleven pages later he then argues that this foundation is only “masquerading as radical chic, effectively transform[ing] Deleuze into an ideologist of today’s ‘digital capitalism’” (OwB, xxii). But there is no contradiction. This is the point Žižek and others miss. Accelerationism is an affirmation of capitalist deterritorialization, but without the need for commodification and its axioms of exchange. Foucault was well aware of this theoretical position and even makes several points that are entirely “compatible” with accelerationism in his 1978-1979 lectures.

Foucault was not a neoliberal, but he may have experimented with accelerationism.

23 thoughts on “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Thomas Nail – Michel Foucault, Accelerationist

  1. Would you say that Foucault and/or accelerationsism are up to something akin to Marx, namely, that neoliberalism (like capitalism) must run its course? By running its course, it will implode upon itself due to its own logic. For Marx, capitalism is a necessary moment in world-history and in the progression toward communism. It need not be cut off immediately; rather, it ought to keep expanding until it reaches its own breaking point. This all might be true for Foucault (maybe?), but it seems to me that Foucault’s concern is elsewhere–based on _History of Sexuality_ and the last few lectures on the self–in so far as he is concerned with one’s own practices within a given social-political-economic regime. These practices might be forms of transversality or deterritorialization but on a the level of the self. In short, it seems to be the problem of the state and neoliberalism set up in the late 70s lectures get some sort of Foucaultian resolution in the 80s lectures.

  2. This is somewhat tangential to your larger point, but I do wonder if it isn’t a mistake to equate neoliberalism with a reduction in the state? Put simply, it seems to me that what the welfare state and the neoliberal state share in common is a coordinated effort by the state to ensure that all citizens are consumers. They achieve that goal through different means, but state regulation is central to both. To give one example, companies like Uber are absolutely dependent upon securing favorable local and national regulations that allow them to operate. This is not a simple shift from state- to private-controlled transportation, but rather an intensification and proliferation of regulatory regimes.

  3. I think its basically wrong to say neoliberalism is plainly for a reduction in the state. It is for a different kind of state. A strong state that is for the creation and maintenance of markets.

  4. Thanks for your comments folks.

    Mark, I think you are right that Marx is also an accelerationist to some degree. But accelerationism is not simply capitalism “running its course,” exactly. “To be clear, this position [accelrationism] should not be confused with either resignation (the hope for capitalist apocalypse) or dialectics (the hope that capitalism will transform itself into communism through contradiction). Accelerationism does not simply affirm capitalism or neoliberalism: it only affirms some tendencies in it.”

    Stephen and Alex: I agree here too. Neoliberalism is not simply the “reduction of the state.” It is a reduction, with a strong minimal protection to secure the conditions of private property and exchange. But, as Foucault writes, it also shares in a kind of “state-phobia,” just like the left. Although, that is not to say there are not other differences that distinguish neoliberals from anti-state leftists.

  5. I would say that they are mostly unique to liberal-capitalism: state-phobia plus real subsumption. But perhaps there are other historical precursors. . . .

  6. I wonder if the term accelerationism does any helpful work here. It appears to have a sort of magical function on the internet right now, much like “speculative realism” did a few years back. But defenses of it suggest it too lacks a coherent identity. When one attacks its positive definitions (like the notion that it’s about accelerating contradictions or technological progress towards… something), then the accelerationist lurches into negative characterizations (what accelerationism is not). I realize that Ben Noys, whose work on this I do find helpful even if I don’t agree with the broad church he makes of accelerationism, has called the work of Lyotard and Deleuze accelerationist. I don’t know if Lyotard stuck with his guns through his later work after Libidinal Economy, but D&G very much turn away from the somewhat puerile “need for speed” of AO in ATP. That Nick Land and those who want to build a Cthulu-Capital Death Kvlt around him have sutured themselves to this prooftext and become increasingly popular with a certain self-proclaimed avant garde is, in my view, lamentable. There are other notions of speed and a certain Spinozist caution and weariness in ATP and even in the appeal to fugitivity via George Jackson and other radical Black thinkers. I wish this was being given the same fevered attention as the dark theological reterritorialization was.

    All of which is to say: what does it add to claim that Foucault “experimented with accelerationism”?

  7. I’m also having real trouble understanding how the use of the term “acceleration” on 226 of BB has anything to do with accelerationism or the accelerationist project. If it does, it would seem to contradict your thesis that there is a some qualitative difference between neoliberalism and accelerationism. He intends there to discuss a kind of subsumption of human beings under a regime of economic reason, transforming humans into human-capital. Nowhere am I seeing in that section a sense that this is particularly a good thing, mostly it is presented as a description (though there is some, I think uncritical remarks on contemporary genetics anxiety and racism) and specifically a description of how human beings are accounted for in neoliberalism. We see the usual sense of metrics and probabilities that pretty much form the harassment we all experience in the world today in our jobs, with our health insurance providers, smart phones, etc. How is that a particularly deterritorializing effect that leaves the capitalist behind? I don’t see the figure of the “revolutionary” anywhere (though I am also unconvinced that such a figure is automatically “good” specifically from a non-conservative, leftwing perspective).

  8. I guess I don’t understand what accelerationists are wanting if “To be clear, this position [accelrationism] should not be confused with either resignation (the hope for capitalist apocalypse) or dialectics (the hope that capitalism will transform itself into communism through contradiction). Accelerationism does not simply affirm capitalism or neoliberalism: it only affirms some tendencies in it.” Is it speed for the sake of speed?

    An anecdote to illustrate my worry. During the peak of the Occupy movement there were criticisms from the mainstream that Occupy had no consistent demands and that its form of direct democracy was too slow to be productive. What mainstream had in mind was that real politics [sic] should move like Washington, which moves faster and faster as we gone on. What I find curious is that critics of Occupy and defenders of the mainstream assumed that politics should move at the speed of the stock market. (It was a very illuminating comparison that reminded us how economics can drive politics.)

    I know you’re not supporting mainstream politics, but I’m not sure that I see how accelerationism avoids being employed to critique “on the street politics.”

  9. Well, they call “on the street politics” “folk politics” (the analogy being folk psychology) so… it has been used to dismiss these movements. Most of that has been funny memes online, but a more scholarly approach is forthcoming with Ve®so.

  10. Clarification question for Prof. Nail: do you intend for the term “accelerationism” to resonate with the contemporary, primarily internet-based political philosophy that goes by that name, or are you using it in a general sense that is not necessarily connected to the online movement?

  11. I really have trouble accepting that neoliberalism is state-phobic. I think that’s because I’ve worked for a long time on intellectual property, which is one of neoliberalism’s favorite kinds of property, and it’s totally 100% a creation of the state, and it is of ever-increasing extent and intensity. I thought Philip Mirowski’s argument (in Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste) was interesting on this. He says that there’s an exoteric, libertarian aspect to what he calls the “neoliberal thought collective” (to allow for a fairly big tent of not-necessarily-internally-consistent theories to qualify for the NCT, and also to distinguish it a bit from neoclassical economics), which is what makes it into public statements, as well as the esoteric, more statist side, which drives policy. Having said that I found it interesting, I should also add that I’m not sure what to do with it, and I try hard to be careful not to slide into Straussian explanations too quickly. But it’s certainly got some explanatory power in terms of neoliberal rhetoric and policy.

  12. I agree that both Lyotard (post-LE) and Deleuze and Guattari (in ATP) do not maintain their original enthusiasm for acceleration, and that this is probably a good thing. But there are two things that the historical moment of “accelerationism” helps to explain.

    1) It helps explain that a coherent theoretical position (held at one point by Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, Land, and others) exists that is “sympathetic” to “some aspects” of neoliberalism without “being neoliberalism.” Since this is basically what Zamora et al are claiming, it seems relevant to mention that this is not the first time this kind of theoretical position has surfaced in French post-structuralism about so-called neoliberal “sympathies”.

    2) It also helps explain a historical biographical question: Why was Foucault all of a sudden interested in contemporary capitalism? There are many reasons, but one of them I think was that his colleagues were making quite a big deal out it at Vincennes. I am not endorsing or rejecting accelerationism, but only suggesting a historical connection between these thinkers and their “ambiguous” interests in capitalism that no one has mentioned yet in this iteration of the debate. I think it is not out of the question to suggest that they influenced each others work in this way.

  13. @Gordon: Perhaps Foucault means by “phobia” not that neoliberals want to eliminate the state but simply that they “fear the state” and want to keep it as minimal as possible (to secure its property).

  14. @Adam: I am using the term “accelerationist” based on my understanding of Lyotard, Deleuze, and Guattari’s claims to “accelerate the process.” But yes, I think the term should resonate with that used by Noys and Srnicek since they have put the most time into connecting the historical dots in this theory (if we can call it a theory). That said, I am not endorsing their positions or critiquing them. I am just trying to put this debate about Foucault into that conversation, since it seems quite similar to the ones people have already had about Deleuze, Lyotard, and others. I think there is a point in history (France, 1970s) when this stuff was in the air.

  15. Neolibs aren’t known for their consistency. They’ll consistently damn and blast the state so as to wear welfare services down to a nub but are more than happy to go crying to it when things go wrong, when they need a bailout, when they need property rights enforced. It’s a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ kinda thing. Important, then, not to just read their books but also to follow their practices.

    But, on the topic of the post, while Foucault may have something to say re accelerationism, I’m not convinced that accelerationism has much to say about our present situation. To date everything I’ve read on it has been a bunch of self-congratulation bravely immolating a series of ridiculous straw men. In its milder versions its verging on common sense, in its extreme versions it’s self-indulgent nonsense.

    Although, I’m always willing to concede the possibility that it’s me who’s missing something.

    Is it so strange that Foucault might have been interested in *some* neoliberal thinkers and might have thought them worthy of more than mere dismissal? Is that any more remarkable than almost every left thinker I can think of reading Schmitt? William Connolly’s The Fragility of Things has a whole chapter on Hayek where he more or less washes Hayek’s hands of any political involvement with anything. Complexity, dontcha know…

    So, the issues I’d raise would be: First, right wingerness isn’t contagious. Just because you’ve come into contact with some doesn’t mean that you are absorbed by it. Second, it’s hardly just Foucault who has smoked from this particular pipe. It isn’t at all surprising that left and right libertarians have a lot in common. The fact that they wouldn’t define themselves as libertarians, however—that’s interesting.

  16. Interesting post. It made me recall one of Virilio’s remarks that he never was a Marxist, but has always considered himself on the Left. I find this somewhat tangentially related to the whole discussion. since 1. Virilio seems to be “the” acceleration theorist to me (interestingly enough, Virilio’s Christianity is interesting here, as – as far as I’m aware – the idea of acceleration comes from the French theological debates over eschatology from the times of the Crusades – I can look up the bibliography) and 2. he apparently, just like Foucault, owes a deal of debt to Bataille’s political economy, in particular the concepts of general and restricted economy, but also – and this seems proximate to Deleuze, a certain concern with joy/jouissance in order to “correct” Bataille’s somewhat nihilistic anthropology of destructive joy (the one that people like above-mentioned Land seem to me to be trying to push forward). Anyways, my question – how to relate Foucault to accelerationism, if he seems to critically follow Bataille, whose own conceptual apparatus relating logos to the political economy (and religion) might in fact be more helpful for understanding acceleration than, for example, Marx who seems to be proportionally reiterated to a much greater extent in the discussion above?
    [A side note: It’s perhaps because of a personal experience, being from post-communist Slovakia and somewhat feeling that Bataille was probably right in many of his diagnoses of Soviet Communism as an example of restricted economy that was even more ‘accelerant’ than capitalism in the West (that is, orienting all the surplus toward production instead of consumption, which in its consequences seems to perfectly confirm Bataille’s line from The Accursed Share III “Communism has opposed and still opposes the pursuit of differences of rank, but is facing a dilemma: peaceful policy is causing it to shift from a frantic accumulation to modes of consumption [consommation], which in the current framework are bound to foster, in everyday life, not a rise in the standard of living, but a fight by every one for a higher standard than his neighbor.” which completely resonates with some data on how people in SK are able to live on the edge of starvation just in order to save up for a new Sony Xperia cell phone, or a BMW parked in front of a half-collapsed house.)]

  17. @Philip: I agree. I too am not sure accelerationism is a desirable position. But Foucault still may have experimented. Maybe Foucault “smoked but did not inhale”? Also, I think you are right that there is a larger question at stake here as well: What does the radical left have in common with neoliberalism in general? Its easy to be reactionary when that question is asked, but I think we should still ask it. As to the answer…. that would require space than a blog post, I think.

    @Lukas: Thanks. I think it would be interesting trace the historical origins of this trend in French philosophy toward accelerationism. I posted the link to an edited volume on this history (above). But please do share if you have additions (vis a vis Christianity). As to Foucault’s reading of Bataille / Virilio, I think this is another interesting connection to French accelerationism, but not one that I have any particular insight into. Foucault clearly had a lot of exposure to French accelerationism.

  18. Hi. As with medieval eschatology, it is quite beyond me, but a friend has written his PhD in Strassbourg on it. Anyways, the crucial historical text should be ‘The Deeds of God Through the Franks’ from 1107 by Abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy Guibert availiable here, apparently documenting the temporal contraction in the consciousness of time… With Virilio, the most interesting book on this subject seems to be Grey Ecology – at least quite a useful, non-repetitivee summary of his views – it was a series of interviews after the death of Baudrillard, where Virilio indirectly talks a lot about his Christianity and plays on the idea of acceleration, temporal contraction, the disaster and the apocalypse as the threshold of finitude and revelation. I find that the more interesting, as I’ve always had a bit of a problem in understanding his politics and his work, while this book is very much an evidence of his belief that a kind of radical change is possible. (Not sure if you know Marcelo Hoffman’s recent book, Foucault and Power, which, through ‘correlating’ F’s activism with his writings makes a powerful case of a commitment to a revolutionary subjectivity until his very last breath.)
    Also, for the most interesting link between Bataille and Virilio, there is a special issue of the journal Parallax, Vol. 7 No. 1, 2001 edited by John Armitage (one of the major Virilio scholars in anglophone academia) on the subject of ‘economies of excess’ with contributions from people like Wilson & Botting, Saskia Sassen, Zygmunt Bauman, etc. and a piece co-authored by Armitage himself linking Bataille and Virilio on the subject of speed. It’s not 100% directly answering the question of Foucault-the-accelerationist, but might give a few methodological / conceptual tools of thinking about acceleration in connection to Bataille and Virilio. I brought it out in particular, because to me, there is quite a lot to say about Foucault and religion, in particular, since people like Mick Dillon have been very much pointing at some of the theological / katechonic logics present in the concept of biopower that also seems to go back to some of the matters such as the concern with confession, etc. such as Elden suggested. It’s quite an interesting thing for me, since I seem to encounter two kinds of ‘poststructuralists’ – one group somewhat suggesting, that there is nothing from ‘before’ capitalism that should concern us as whether what matters is only how to bring it down and another, which, while certainly seeing capitalism as a problem, still think there is a whole history of political experience beyond capitalism, which will not cease to end / matter after/whether capitalism is overcome (OK, I’m now a bit confused whether I put it out sufficiently, what I wanted to put is, whether ‘the political’ as some quasi-mysterious object yet to come to terms with has been completely absorbed by capitalism / liberalism or not).

  19. Hi Thomas!

    Thanks for a timely bit on Foucault! I definitely agree that Foucault’s ethos of curiosity puts into contact with a lot of discourses with which he doesn’t identify in the least. Nevertheless, you raise a few questions for me…

    What, to your mind, is accelerationist about Foucault’s claim that there had been, since the early parts of the 20th century, “a reduction of…a ‘statifying’ and ‘statified’…governmentality?” Do you take Foucault’s phrase “following the direction of the wind” to be an accelerationist metaphor? And does it change things to also acknowledge that Foucault includes Nazism in this camp of ‘state-reducers’ (insofar as they privilege the party over the state as the foundation of their politics on Foucault’s read)?

    I also wonder, why one would look to accelerationist tenedencies in Foucault’s intellectual milieu in order to understand his concerns with neoliberal capitalism? BB comes seven years after Anti-Oedipus and five after Libidinal Economy, so this seems to be a little late in the game. There are a lot of more pressing issues that bring neoliberalism to the fore. Here are three main ones that I can think of off the top of my head. (1) the genealogy of governmentality and the problematization of liberalism, which began the year before in STP and which raised a series of problems concerning conduct and counter-conduct (Foucault’s often missed critique of neoliberalism its subjectivity, ‘homo oeconomicus,’ “is someone who is eminently governable” or ‘conductable’ (BB 270). (2) biopower, which brings neoliberalism into relief since the latter effectively identifies the life of its subjects with the activities of working and selling. And (3) the anthropological problematic that goes all the way back to Foucault’s secondary thesis on Kant, where you have the concept of man put forward as an ’empirico-transcendental doublet’ (man is that being whose empirical contents serve as quasi-transcendental conditions for the knowledge that will be obtained of him).

    Finally, I agree with Anthony that the line that you quote about “acceleration or extension” refers primarily to the extension of the domain of phenomena that neoliberal theorists consider intelligible according to economic rationality (‘the allocation of scarce means to competing ends’). Still, I wonder if you think there is anything pertinent to accelerationism in Deleuze’s description of Foucault’s notion of the ‘present’ in What is Philosophy?, where it’s understood to mean the becomings that characterize our current conjuncture (similar to defining a socius or a regime of signs by what escapes it in ATP). The task of the present and its history is one of the things that defines the entirety of Focuault’s work, so if he has anything to do with accelerationism, maybe that’s the place to look?

  20. Thanks for your great comments Neal. They certainly made me think more about this. I will try to answer your questions in order.

    1.Yes, I believe it is part of an accelerationist position to “reduce the state.” I had not thought of “following the direction of the wind” as an accelerationist metaphor, but now that you mention it, yes, I think it is! On Nazism: that is an interesting point. I suppose I would need find the place where he says this and look a bit more carefully since that argument does not immediately make sense to me. I am not sure how a “party” would maintain any power without the state?

    2. I agree. There are a lot of motivations for the BB lectures. I just think accelerationism is one, among other, influences. But five to seven years is not a lot of time in the scope of how long ideas take to make an impact and then end up in a published work or lecture. On the three influences you cite: 1) STP. yes, the problem of liberalism is already at work, but this date (1977-78) actually pushes it closer to the hight of accelerationism 1972-1974 and makes the influence even more likely. 2) Agreed. 3) Agreed, but this point only has to with neoliberalism in a very general way.

    3. The line I quoted shows that neoliberalism, for Foucault, is an expansion of economic rationality to previous non-economic areas. Foucault calls this an “acceleration” precisely because it defines the process that neoliberalism uses to deterritorialize the previous categories of classical economy. Unfortunately, it also ends up reterritorializing them back into an economy of self-entrepreneurs. But the acknowledgment of the value of leisure time and social networking, etc, is shared by certain leftists and neoliberals. Its just that neoliberals quickly reterritorialize it back into market values and so on. So I think we can isolate two different trajectories in deterritorialization: it can either push ahead or fall back into the market. Acceleration is the former, neoliberalism the latter.

    4. As I mentioned in my agreement with Anthony, I think that Deleuze and Guattari do abandon the accelerationist thesis after AO. In AO they claim, “we can never deterritorialize too far.” But in ATP, “deterritorializing too far” is described as a “line of death” or “the worst thing that can happen.” This is why Nick land hates ATP with its “injections of caution.” Since by WP? D&G are no longer accelerationist my hunch is that they have some other idea in mind when talking about Foucault and the present.

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