I’ve added new material to the site since the end of this 2012-2013 academic year:
The aspect of power/knowledge best suited for adoption by those dissatisfied with traditional political economy, social psychology, or political theory, Foucault’s concept of biopolitics addresses the machinations of power on the historically inscribed body, as well as the diffusion of actual relations of power between such bodies. In the lecture series “Security, Territory, Population” and “The Birth of Biopolitics”, he delves into the details of the conditions of power relations in neoliberal societies. Cautious to distinguish liberal and neoliberal contexts from the commonsense notion of freedom, and to differentiate power relations from individual rights or privileges, his argument rests on the ideas developed in his edited works such as Discipline and Punish, or the end of History of Sexuality. Here, biopolitics takes on the characteristics of State apparatuses, but extends beyond them into the quotidian practices of material, discursive, and economic life.
Introduced by Foucault late in his career, during the lectures at the College de France, governmentality spawns perhaps the most discussion among contemporary readings of his works. And no wonder:
Let me begin by baldly stating terms. By power, I understand the texts to mean a field, an environmental and systemic set of the conditions of possible relations between entities. By knowledge, we indicate a different set, of directed, formed, and specific deployment of such relations. It is the articulation of conditions with relations that leads us to the complex under discussion here: power/knowledge. And by the critique of power/knowledge, I refer to the gleaned thread of Foucault’s argumentation throughout his books and lectures. With that in mind, I propose an adoption of this critique for more contemporary (as opposed to explicitly historical) research and theoretical undertakings.
“Genealogy… must expose a body totally inscribed by history, and history’s destruction of the body.” (my translation)
Foucault’s second major publication follows the immense History of Madness, and precedes The Order of Things. Its focus on the medical gaze, and on the epistemic shift concurrent with the turn of the 18th century, emphasizes the themes that carry between those two texts. Staunchly archaeological, The Birth of the Clinic traces the moduli of language as evidence and archive, entryways into the probing questions of medical practice and assumption throughout the period. Remarkably, throughout this subtle and sensitive critique of a scientific logic that insists upon the technical objectivity of images and words of the body, Foucault’s own treatment of the body – as historically and socially embedded – avoids direct confrontation with the conditions of possible embodiment of the medical regard itself.
A landmark topical study from Foucault’s early career, History of Madness took nearly forty years before arriving in the U.S. in a full translation. Jean Khalfa’s magnificent treatment of the sprawling text delivers Anglophone readers more than just extra pages. The differences between Madness and Civilization (based on the 1964 adaptation) and History of Madness (based on the original 1961 version) extend to conceptual nuances as well. In particular, the abridgment of the critique of psychiatry, in Madness and Civilization, flirts with a characterization of madness as repressed genius. But the more detailed argumentation in History of Madness, especially its focus on the institutional disciplines surrounding reason, emphasizes a conscientiously empirical archaeology of reason instead. Still, a central lament, for the loss of unreason after the 18th century, remains in force across both texts. Continue reading
Foucault’s methodological treatise, a decade in the writing, dismantles and reassembles historiography and epistemology. Rather than treat its object — discourse — as evidence of contiguous historical phenomena, Archaeology of Knowledge (AK) situates discourse as the rules that govern our organization and understanding of historical (as well as political, social, and other sets of) knowledge. At the same time, it describes discourse as a practice that encompasses the very making of those rules. True, then, that this abbreviated forum, as always, would fall short of adequate recapitulation of the book’s themes, let alone to float critique. But we can try:
The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network. Continue reading
Whether coursing through archival data or meditating on turns of language, Foucault’s early works — the History of Madness, the Birth of the Clinic, the Order of Things, and the Archaeology of Knowledge — each address ways of knowing how and what we think. Based on the approach in those works, we can refocus their efforts onto a tertiary question. While lacking the familiar modulus of power, this approach can still maintain a close attention to the thought of thought as such. It helps elucidate how we conceive of the conditions to this reflexive thought, and thereby to sketch contemporary epistemic limitations. The motivating impulse here, then, is: What exists outside our conditions of possibility of thought, and how can we know it? Continue reading
We have no words for things. Rather, words are things that make other things. Concatenated discourses — words in their material aggregation — actively shape more than signification and syntax. Foucault’s principal argument throughout The Order of Things attacks the commonsense notion that words merely represent, or that mimetic functions are language’s sad destiny as medium of communication, after we enter epistemic formations of knowledge that structure such notions. Granting deeper, nigh on originary, primacy to language, as progenitor of ways of being and of making things in the world, he shows us how such a notion arose in shifts between Western historical eras: the Renaissance, Classical, and modern periods. Continue reading