A brief note on biopolitics

Is the “bio” of biopolitics precisely bios in the Agambenian sense? The common reading (at least as far as I can tell) would align it more with zoè — and one could even read the Agamben of Homo Sacer in that way. If we take The Use of Bodies as our guide, though, it could seem that the problem with biopolitics is that it attempts to establish a bios by presupposing and excluding zoè.

After all, what could a political order do with zoè (taken in itself) other than presuppose it? I don’t think anyone thinks modern society has become or even could become a totalitarian baby-making machine. What it has become is an ever more fine-grained system for the production of what we might call life styles — which is to say, the realm of bios. The political order isn’t “making us live” in the sense of literally forcing us to stay alive, but it is constantly trying to make us live in certain ways.

The examples in the end of Homo Sacer are somewhat misleading if we don’t have a handle on this. For instance, putting someone on life support may look like a way of forcing them to live — and certainly it seems that way to many people (myself included). From the perspective of this analysis, though, the problem is that it is treating a raw fact of zoè — the moment of death, which has traditionally been radically beyond human control — as though it were a factor in bios. It includes the moment of death itself in the range of quality-of-life factors that the savvy biopolitical subject can shape according to his or her preferences. Similarly, Nazi eugenics treat the raw fact of ethnic or “racial” heritage as something that can be consciously cultivated — converting zoè into bios (and thereby accelerating the production of “bare life” as that third category that doesn’t fit into the system).

Regimes of feline visibility

Foucauldian cat

For a long time, we have been accustomed to talk about cats. They wander the streets, they live in our homes, and they populate the internet in the form of images and videos. While the latter is admittedly a new phenomenon, it does nothing to shake our firm opinion that cats have existed from time immemorial.

In reality, the cat is a recent invention, which only came into existence within the last two decades. This is not to say that animals with certain identifiable anatomical and physiological features did not exist prior to the late 1990s. Doubtless, people kept these creatures as pets, employed them to hunt mice, left food out for them. Yet what we know today as cat is an unheard-of innovation, which has shaken the entire Western episteme to its core.

The cat’s genealogy is not to be traced through the familiar apparatus of the zoological chart, which would place the feline genus among the mammals. Instead, we must turn to the series of shifts in the technological field that, while small in themselves, converged to create an entirely new regime of feline visibility — an epochal shift that would bring these private household animals into the public sphere for the first time, constituting a radical new concept of cat within whose horizon we still in some way live.

I am speaking, of course, of the deployment of the camera phone. What must be called the camerafication of the cell phone was at first doubtless a marketing gimmick, an attempt to distinguish certain phones from others by providing a differentiating feature that was meaningless and even useless in itself. Who, after all, had any need of a camera on a day-to-day basis? We ask this in all innocence, as though the camera was a familiar tool. We behave as though we can trace a steady development of the camera from its earliest “precursors” over a century ago, through to the handheld model, the Polaroid, the disposable camera, and its digital model. What we are accustomed to view as a gradual accretion of “features” and “capabilities” on a tool whose concept and nature remain constant, is in actuality a history of ruptures, breaks, disruptions, unexpected redeployments — of which what we could also call the phonification of the camera is only the latest and surely not the last.

It would require a quasi-infinite investigation to detail all the many shifts in the history of that related but not identical technology that we call the “picture” — all the discourses surrounding the distribution and visibility of pictures, the power-knowledge that invests their production and dissemination in the form of family albums, newspapers, old shoeboxes, bulletin boards, magazines, and all the other apparatuses that provide us with access to what we know as “pictures.” The decisive step in our genealogy of the “cat” is the deployment of “sharing” in the digital realm.

With the advent of “photo sharing services,” wholly new forms of display opened up, entire regimes of the ocular. And what did we share but our very cats. Those animals that had once been a byword for isolation — and here one would need to trace the vast and complex history of the deployment of the “cat lady” in the field of discourse — were now sharability itself. The cat as we know it was born.

We are the first generation to castigate ourselves for taking so many photos of our cats. The appeal of the figure of the “cat” is seemingly irresistible even as it seems trivial or even risible. The cat is put forward as our savior from boredom — at work, during lectures, on the subway — when in reality the entire technology of the cat is a deployment and production of boredom. And even when we finish reading this blog post, it is likely that we will turn to yet more pictures of “cats.”

Silent partners

Someone once told me that Foucault recommended that everyone should have a thinker they’re always reading but never write about. When I heard that, it struck me that mine is Foucault himself. I started reading him in college, and I’ve been reading and rereading steadily ever since. When I’d gotten through most of his published works, the lecture series started coming out. I kept up with those at first, but as I started falling behind, I started teaching Foucault. Now I’m in a reading group on The Order of Things, which I somehow skipped before.

In sum, Foucault is probably in my top five for authors I’ve read most. Yet it never occurs to me to write on him. I might use him here or there — for instance, I’m planning to do something with him in The Prince of This World — but I’d never sit down to write something thematically on Foucault.

A big part of this is my perception that Foucault is a scholarly mine field. There are so many controversies over his development and the appropriate way to periodize his work that I can already anticipate people dismissing what I have to say with the scholar’s deflationary “it’s much more complicated than that.”

The same goes for another figure I’ve spent a lot of time on but never formally written on: Heidegger. There, however, it’s more a question of not having plowed through as big a proportion of the vast material available. I know that there’s probably some text or seminar — preferrably a late one, judging by the more popular secondary works in recent years — that completely changes everything and shows that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

What about you, my dear readers? Do you have any silent partners of the kind Foucault describes?

words and things

After his critique of the clinic, and as a prolegomena to his theory of power, Michel Foucault outlined a distinct regime of knowledge that pivoted upon a new concept of “representation” – a Kantian sense of the limits of mental representations and the promise of formal representations.  Modern knowledge, for the archaeological Foucault of Les Mots et Les Choses (translated as The Order of Things), is distinguished not only by its representational ethos, but by its agency in generating and congealing worldly relations: once words are thinkable as representation rather than as coincident with things, “discourse” is thinkable as a force of ordering things.

InterCcECT kicks off summer with a multi-session reading group on this crucial moment in Foucault’s thought.  Join us Monday June 1st at 4pm, in the garden at Moody’s Pub (red line: Thorndale).  We’ll be starting with the first three chapters from Part 1 of The Order of Things (Las Meninas, The Prose of the World, & Representing).  Contact us for the readings.

What are your summer ambitions?  As always, we welcome proposals and initiatives for events ranging from reading groups to field trips, works-in-progress sessions to pub afternoons.

In our sights:

Elizabeth Grosz, Nietzsche and Amor Fati May 6

Lee Edelman, with Lauren Berlant and Michelle Wright, May 7 & 8

Elizabeth Grosz, Deleuze and the Plane of Immanence May 8

Jon McKenzie, Remaking the Liberal Arts, May 12

Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His Own Voice?

I want to thank Daniel for offering a reply post. If only we had time for a second round of discussion where we all referred to the exact same source material, but alas. -MWW

UPDATE: Seth Ackerman generously agreed to translate Daniel’s reply. The translation is provided above the original. -MWW

Daniel Zamora is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Later in 2015, a translation of Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale will appear in English. Two recent discussions by Zamora on Foucault and Neoliberalism can be found at Jacobin.

First I would like to thank the four contributors and AUFS for devoting this series to the theme of Foucault and neoliberalism. All the interventions are highly stimulating and take us to the heart of a debate of great current moment. Obviously I am not able to undertake a general discussion of all the interventions and all the central questions they pose. But I am sure that the debate will not end here, that it will continue when the book is published in English. However, I would like to revisit the reasoning behind my argument, and why I do not think that it is a problem of interpreting Foucault’s words.

Continue reading “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His Own Voice?”

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 http://du.academia.edu/thomasnail

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”