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?”

Continue reading “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Thomas Nail – Michel Foucault, Accelerationist”

Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Johanna Oksala – Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us?

Johanna Oksala is currently Academy of Finland Research Fellow (2012-2017) in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, USA (2013-2015). Oksala is the author of Foucault on Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), How to Read Foucault (London: Granta Books, 2007), Foucault, Politics, and Violence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012), and Political Philosophy: All That Matters (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013).

Daniel Zamora’s recent interview in Jacobin titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?” has sparked another discussion on Foucault’s alleged endorsement of neoliberalism. For those of us who did not know Foucault personally, the evidence for such a claim can only be found in his writings. I, for myself, have not found any such evidence yet. Zamora’s revelations that Foucault met with Lionel Stoléru several times seem inconclusive at best.

More importantly, this debate itself seems misguided to me. Whether Foucault had some secret sympathies for neoliberalism might obviously be of some biographical or historical interest, but theoretically the answer to this question would only be relevant if it disqualified his thought as a useful toolbox for the academic left today. Zamora’s aim seems to be to show that this is in fact the case. In a follow-up article to the initial interview he claims that Foucault was not asking the “right questions” due to his neoliberal leanings, and that his thought has therefore contributed to the disorientation of the left and to the dismantling of the welfare state.

In this short response I want to suggest that it is Zamora, and to some extent us too, as participants to this debate, who are not asking the right questions. We should not be asking whether we can criticize Foucault, nor should we be asking whether he endorsed neoliberalism. The answer to the first of these questions is an obvious yes: we have criticized him repeatedly and we should continue to do so. And when the answer to the second question is supposed to determine the theoretical and political relevance of his thought today, we are ultimately engaging in biographical speculation and ad hominem reasoning, the problems of which I do not need to point out here. Continue reading “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Johanna Oksala – Never Mind Foucault: What Are the Right Questions for Us?”

Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Gordon Hull – Why Foucault is Still Helpful on Neoliberalism

Gordon Hull is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Professional and Applied Ethics at The University of North Carolina Charlotte. His Hobbes and the Making of Modern Political Thought was published by Continuum in 2009.

The conceptual core of Daniel Zamora’s “Can We Criticize Foucault,” in which he argues that Foucault’s late writings end up advocating the same things neoliberalism does, seems to me to be the proposal that Foucault “seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.” In a follow-up piece, Zamora concludes that Foucault “doesn’t advocate neoliberalism, but he adopts all of its critiques of the welfare state.” That’s clearly a problem, though I am aware that I’ve got the benefit of a generation of hindsight about neoliberalism. I also don’t know many of the writings in question, and so I’m reluctant to say anything about the (for lack of better terms) sociological and biographical questions at play.

However, I have no trouble saying that if Foucault thought neoliberalism wouldn’t project its models of subjectivity onto individuals, he was mistaken. I’m also not sure he (consistently) thought that: the Birth of Biopolitics lectures emphasized that one of the main innovations of neoliberalism over classical liberalism was precisely the awareness that markets weren’t natural, and had to be nurtured by the state (Bernard Harcourt underscores the point here), and he emphasizes entrepreneurship of the self as a neoliberal vision of subjectivity. Whatever he thought about social welfare programs, phrasing things this way allows us to focus on the important question: Foucault says that “writing only interests me to the extent that it is incorporated into the reality of a battle.” Does Foucault’s writing offer any weapons against neoliberalism, even if he didn’t realize it?

Continue reading “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Gordon Hull – Why Foucault is Still Helpful on Neoliberalism”

Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Verena Erlenbusch – Neoliberalism and the Genealogy of Biopolitics

And now our AUFS Event on Foucault and Neoliberalism begins.  -MWW

Verena Erlenbusch is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis. In much of her research, Erlenbusch brings to bear Foucault’s genealogical method on the phenomenon of terrorism. She has two noteworthy pieces forthcoming: “Foucault und die Realitätsbedingungen leiblicher Erfahrung” (Foucault and the Conditions of Existence of Embodied Experience) in Leiblichkeit und Politik, edited by Thomas Bedorf and Tobias Klass. Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2015 (forthcoming) and “Terrorism: Knowledge, Power, Subjectivity,” in Terrorism as Practice: Using Critical Methodologies for the Study of Terrorism, edited by Jacob Stump and Priya Dixit. Routledge, 2014 (forthcoming).

Daniel Zamora’s edited volume Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale (Criticizing Foucault: The 1980s and the neoliberal temptation), published in November 2014 with Éditions Aden, has been hotly debated over the past few weeks on the philosophical blogosphere. My contribution to the conversation here has two main purposes. First, since the volume will remain unavailable for English readers until later in 2015, I want to give a brief overview of the chapters assembled by Zamora. Second, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an aspect that appears to me to be largely absent from discussions of Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism, namely the hermeneutical salience of Foucault’s methodology. This is to say that Zamora et al.’s failure to engage Foucault’s methodology leads to a very specific reading, a misreading to my mind, of Foucault’s project. As opposed to their interpretation of Foucault as interested in the political claims made by neoliberals, I suggest that Foucault is concerned with the production of neoliberalism as a regime of truth (thanks to Andrew Dilts for his helpful comments here).

That Zamora’s collection has caused quite a stir has, I believe, more to do with Zamora’s interview with Jacobin Magazine, provocatively titled “Can We Criticize Foucault?,” than with the book itself. For many of the arguments presented in the volume are neither as revolutionary nor as provocative as the interview would make it seem. Continue reading “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Verena Erlenbusch – Neoliberalism and the Genealogy of Biopolitics”

Mini-Series on Foucault and Neoliberalism: Responses to Zamora

Around the New Year, AUFS will be hosting a 4day mini-series on Foucault and neoliberalism. What precisely is Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism, particularly as expressed in Foucault’s writings/lectures on governmentality and biopolitics? In some ways, this is an old question; but, new answers have emerged, namely with Daniel Zamora’s recent contributions to Jacobin. Our tentative list of contributors includes Verena Erlenbusch (Memphis), Gordon Hull (UNCC), Thomas Nail (Denver), and Johanna Oksala (Helsinki).

For those unfamiliar with this particular topic, you may want to take a look at the following: Stuart Elden 1, Stuart Elden, 2, Foucault News, WP: Why Foucault is a libertarian‘s best friend, and Foucault and Becker (an older piece).

UPDATE: Here are links to all the relevant posts for the Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event:

Verena Erlenbusch: Neoliberalism and the Genealogy of Biopolitics

Gordon Hull: Why Foucault is Still Helpful on Neoliberalism

Johanna Oksala: Never Mind Foucault

Thomas Nail: Foucault, Accelerationist

Daniel Zamora: A Reply

Reading group at Bay Area Public School

I have officially arrived in San Francisco for the summer, as part of my ongoing effort to never stay home long enough to feel settled. I’ve mentioned previously that I was interested in doing a reading group, and I’ve been asked by the Bay Area Public School if I would like to host it there. I was honored at the invitation and immediately accepted — but now the question is what to do.

The two options I am most interested in currently are either to work through Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: On the Event or else do one or two early Agamben works (Language and Death and maybe something else). It strikes me that the first would obviously be much less immediately accessible and would probably require a format much more like a “class” where I would need to do some kind of lectures to get people up to speed — but maybe people would like that.

Bay Area denizens — would you be interested in participating in either or both groups? Do you have any advice for me as to which option to prefer? Should I be thinking in a totally different direction?

Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?”

A quick internet search reveals that John Williams’ novel Stoner has become something of a literary phenomenon since its re-release by NYRB Classics a few years ago. Appreciated if not adored when it was originally published in 1965, today it’s become an international bestseller. I suppose I want to start my meandering thoughts on the novel by asking Why now? That is to say, what does it say about the novel and the times that it’s now captured the literary imagination. Obviously, some works of art just take a while to find their audience. Moby-Dick famously needed some seventy or eighty years to gain its momentum. It seems all the more obvious to me, however, that such works do not simply lie in wait like Prince Charmings turned toads, quietly minding the years, puckering for every princess who walks by before finally being picked up and smooched by one of the maids. The novel, and by this I mean any novel, is somehow different “now” than it was “then.” Strictly speaking, there is no “then” to speak of. It’s funny to me that we can say what appears to be the opposite and mean the same thing: “then” is only ever spoken of.

Perhaps then, better than Why now? I should pose the same question differently. Who now? That is, who now is reading Stoner, and finding in this story of a single, rather cut-and-dry life of a middle class, unremarkable English professor, something not nearly so homogenous? Well before David Foster Wallace was extolling the hum drum as a medium for a life’s worth of passion, and ultimately failing in his attempt to render this message in a novel, it seems to me that John Williams did so in Stoner. This isn’t to say it cannot be done again, or that no other artist worth her salt should try — no new things under the sun, etc. My point, maybe a little clumsily expressed, is rather to unite the questions: who are these readers looking for a different perspective on the mundane? and why are they now so ravenous? Again, I refuse to think the answer is so so banal as we’re somehow more mundane now than they were then. Continue reading “Book Discussion [Stoner]: “What did you expect?””

And the Winner is . . . .

Thanks to everybody who weighed the pros & the cons between choosing William H. Gass’ Middle C and John Williams’ Stoner as the subject of our late-summer reading group. If you’ve not checked, I am excited to inform you that the winner is . . . . John Williams’ Stoner! Sorry, Billy — maybe when you’re in paperback next year.

Anyway, I’m really excited to get your input on this. If you’ve not yet read Stoner, you should be able to do so in the matter of a couple of days. It’s not particularly long, and I found it reads quickly. With that in mind, would August 5th be a good time to begin? I (or anybody who volunteers) can post something — some introductory thoughts or reflections — about the book, and we can begin banging things about in the comments. From there, we can fluidly work out who wants to write a formal post and who wants to keep their participation to the comments. Sound good?

I should add, though I’d hope it’s obvious: everybody, whether you voted or not, is invited to participate in this. The novel is pretty fantastic, and I’m more than convinced it will resonate (for good and ill) with a good many of you plodding & peddling through the life academic. It’s a pessimistic novel, but not cynical; and even in the end, the whole is not nearly as pessimistic as the constituent parts. Ah, but I’ll save further comment for later.

Book Discussion, Anyone?

So, we’ve not done this in a while . . . anybody up for a book discussion series? Not one of the smarty-pant kinds we do around here regularly. But of a novel, poetry collection, etc.. If so, any suggestions? (Only about a month or so left of summer, so something of reasonable length and ambition would be nice, if we want to include the academically engaged/employed.)

Since I’m the one posting I’ll throw out the first suggestion: having recently read it, I’d love to discuss John Williams’ Stoner. It’s a pretty densely male novel, I admit, but the academic setting is appropriate to a lot of our interests here; and the sheer density of the masculinity, I find, is worth talking about. (I.e., I really want to write something about Williams’ portrayal of Stoner’s wife.)

UPDATE: Okay, a few of you have piped up, and a recurring comment has been “Stoner or Middle C would work fine.” (We apparently have the means available to get the latter to you, if it is chosen.) A few other books have been mentioned, but none of which have particularly interested me. So, there you have it. We’ll let this poll decide it for us.

The Blast From Passing Gass with a Lit Match to My Ass

The Reverend Jethro Furber is a poet unto himself until he is nothing but a poet unto others. This is Madness. Henry Pimber is a poet unto himself until he is a poet unto the trees. This is Sorrow (and Suicide). Israbestis Tott is not a poet but he clearly heard a poem and remembered it. This is Triumph.

Dwelling in the consciousness of “The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart” was in many ways like dwelling in my own. The reasons are different, but, Jethro – he and I – we are constantly composing our sing-song. And I, too, had my Pike, mine if only for a night in the garden of Ault, where wandering off, I saw the giant concrete Stephen Collins Foster and circled him with slurred speech until I climbed him and swirled ‘round his body, and, ornery, swirling my dick so swirled the piss, bracing my relief straight-arming his shoulder like old men do the wall above a urinal, drenching his inscription in our obstinacy…then, cup to his lips…Come on, drink this…Statuesquely stubborn, heh?…into the ovals of his eyes… You stupid fuckin’ Haunt… a taunt was rhymed:

You’re on the wrong side of the river, you know
Cast to look but never touch home
That’s the fate of late men commemorated in stone
So be a late man and hold your pose
While I laugh aloud about the place they chose
Here, on the wrong side of the Ohio

Abuse Your Muse. That’s one for Tott if he could grasp it. Foster speaks:

Mr. Lilly, my donor
Had a boner for my folk songs
But boy did he fuck me
If only somebody
Would pluck me
From where he stuck me
And set me up
In my old Kentucky

Stephen, it’s unbecoming of great men celebrated in stone to bitch and moan about being unlucky. Another one for Tott.

Speaking of Tott, did everyone follow the advice of Mr. Minto and reread Israbestis after you’d finished? Re-buy, Bob! Do you get it? No. Re-buy, Bob! Do you get it? No. Well, I’ll add my two cents to Robert’s sense, too, so you can fro and back, nose to the scents, forth and to: After you’ve reread Tott, go back to Furber; then back to Tott; then back to Furber; still Furber; Furber again; then back to … Now do you get it? You don’t if you didn’t … Hold on, Bill speaks:

Youthfully to the bench soars, torches around him, vibrating arms: oh this is His greatest triumph—to turn dung into a monument.
Ah well, too bad. I’ve given the game away.
Um? I have? Pity.

… play along. Bill gave the game away so you could play the game. The name of the game is called name-calling is knowing: Jabberer; Pencil-licker; Local oracle; Village idiot; Town pump; The greengrocer; Determined gabbler; Hallfoot shuffler; Windy comedian; Lazy looking young fool; Button collector; Museum director; Digger of dry earth; Peeler of print from old paper; Feeder upon the past; Despoiler of the slain; Bugger of corpses; This peasant Trimalchio; Chinese water torturer; Master; Disciple; Host. … old Hidego and Seek playing hide and go seek with the key with me.

The lock is rusted now and the double gates are bound. Ivy and weeds squeeze what they’ve long been given and words chipped on headstones erode, re-wrote illegibly. This is the state we found it in. Then, Furber clears the overgrowth, carefully scrubs clean the markers, and lays the walk with his own hands, giving what little order he can – positively refurberishing! – Tott’s garden. Or was it more like: This, though, I would like to have remain: these pieces of shade; is that asking too much? Mem. Mem. Memory. And is it asking too much to ask who’s the father, who’s the son, and who’s the ghost? May I match-make a match made in the Heavens of Birth? … and not in that order … but in that order … but not. Party on, Gerth! This is, after all, a matter for Theology, not for Feeling, isn’t it? But, wouldn’t my naming be the opposite? Oh, shut up. Shit the dialectic already. I’ll clean it up, but only because you host me. You host me. I fill your skin and flutter in your undies. You host me. I please you with my divers wet wipes. You will never stop. You’ll never stop. Never never never. Skid marks. My host, My host! Why have you not heard Me clearly! My host, My host! Why have you digested bits and pieces of Me! Remembory! Please … Remember Me! No, no, no … Remember My Songs!