Field Statement – Concepts and Critiques of Power

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the choice of the terms is never neutral”

Giorgio Agamben, in lecture to European Graduate School, August 2003


This field statement addresses a constellation of ideas and arguments that cluster around the operations of power in, and out of, historically contingent settings. It demonstrates their cohesion as a field of study for cultural theory, and by setting them in combination and opposition, organizes their contributions to that field. The statement is arranged roughly chronologically proceeding through literature reviews by author but grouped by their logical and political positions on what power is and how it works. These snapshots of major concepts relate to one another through their significant contributions to a relatively narrow topic of cultural theory; to that point, the field skews towards the work of Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault, and Africana studies. In so doing, it lacks the perspectives on power from explicitly feminist, queer, theological, and many other traditions. Finally, the statement lays part of the groundwork for a forthcoming dissertation related to the field.

Reviews of Literature

Dialectics and Historical Materialism

G.W.F. Hegel

Thesis on the Philosophy of History reframes the concept of a dialectic from the Classical notion propounded by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, of a dialogue aimed at discovering a truth through reasoned argument, into a more generalized form. He frames this as conflict between two opposing forces.i Hegel relates universal history to power in that their processes are equally dialectical:

the development of the consciousness of Freedom on the part of Spirit… implies a gradation — a series of increasingly adequate expressions or manifestations of Freedom … the dialectical nature of the Idea in general… is exhibited in the department of Logic. Here we need adopt only one of its results, viz. that every step in the process, as differing from any other, has its determinate peculiar principle.ii

That repeated opposition between thesis and antithesis, leading into a synthesis, is the very design of history, for Hegel. By way of example, and to relate the general pattern to concrete issues of power, he introduces the notion of a specific dialectic, between a master and a slave (understood metaphorically to apply to social formations at large). What Hegel recognizes in this case is the possibility of a conflict between two opposing forces in which neither can completely destroy the other, because without the slave the master is no master at all, but the slave cannot remain a slave. The slave struggles to overcome the master, and because the master cannot kill the slave for risk of losing them, the slave prevails and becomes the master. The new master’s position still depends explicitly upon the existence (and opposing struggle) of the new slave. Extrapolating from this scenario, Hegel posits the consequences of this struggle over power resulting in various forms of negation, or “sublation,” in which one pole of the struggle overcomes another, changing their essential relation permanently. Indeed, he argues that this type of dialectical motion and resultant aufheben drives history as such.

Where later dialecticians break from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is on the question of some final, ultimate, determinate negation, a last aufheben, in which History might end. Subsequently, those later thinkers reject the concept of a teleological origin for power. For Hegel, History must come to an end, and the end of that history depends upon a messianic resolution to material dialectics. On the contrary, argue these later writers, there is no end to History, nor transcendence of the material planes, for power. The work of Karl Marx exemplifies this materialist turn in dialectical theories of power.

Karl Marx

Marx specifically addresses issues of social power in the early work Grundrisse and in sections throughout the first volume of Capital.iii In the Communist Manifestoiv, Marx, along with Engels, posits a specific dialectic as the driver of industrial capital’s history – that of class struggle. The trajectory of the development of capital intensifies its methods of domination and exploitation alongside its improvements in the ability to provide for its producers. In Capital, Marx explains how the exploitation of labor produces surpluses in variable capital and the money that expresses it, in addition to securing the surplus of fixed capital made available by reserves of labor and technical capacity. He argues that, because there are only material dialectics, not determinate negations, the continual unbalancing of power relations (as observed through conditions of production compared to relations of production) leads to unrest on the part of laboring classes against capitalist rulers, rather than continuing until a divine or messianic moment ends History as such.

Power, then, derives from either consensus or violence in the material world, not by any grace or curse. The state holds power in the sense that it controls the conditions of production, wherein power is negotiated and formed among rulers on the basis of capital. It is held by capitalists, individually or as a class, in so far as they control the means of production. Consequently, power is available to a revolutionary proletariat precisely to the extent that it appropriates the material means of production and changes the structural conditions of production. To maintain stable control over their sources of surplus labor, Marx argues, capitalists rely on the propagation of false consciousness among workers. This false consciousness obfuscates workers’ understanding of their real conditions of exploitation through the distractions and untruths of cultural institutions, particularly religious ones. Where Marx’s fundamentally dialectical logic is adapted or challenged by theorists of modern and postmodern conditions, those adaptations mirror the maintenance of dialectics themeselves: through modification, inversion, or even erasure of the active poles of struggle.

Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School, especially Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, concentrate on the culmination of dialectical logic, establishing the tradition of critical theory in the process. The Dialectic of Enlightenment posits the acceleration, intensification, and eventual inversion of the State-Capital relationship as expressed through political and economic development in industrial societies. Their work has been adopted by critical theorists in large part for its scathing critique of culture industry, but a key contribution to theories of power comes in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, where they observe the transformation of knowledge into science and of sovereignty into state capitalism. Adorno and Horkheimer demonstrate how knowledge lies at the root of power relations, evidenced, for example, by industrial modernity’s subsumption of cultural artifacts and the conditions of their creation into technical, rationalized spheres of production. They argue that the principles of Enlightenment not only share the same roots, but drive forward the justifications, for modern atrocities such as the Holocaust. Yet they see this duplicity and Horkheimer’s lament, On Science and the Crisis, concludes with a reproach to the failings of governance during economic turmoil of the late 1920s.v In it, he argues that the “productive force” of science has been limited by historical processes, and that, being inseparable from general economic crisis, the inability of scientific knowledge to ameliorate worldly suffering demonstrates the precise contradictions and dialectical relations of crisis present in society.Adorno’s later work Minimi Moralia meditates on the impact that this macro-level tendency has had on smaller-scale social relations and cultural This attention to crisis and change forms a running thread, across underlying logical frameworks, of critical theories of power.

Ideology and Hegemony in Praxis

Antonio Gramsci

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci elaborates on social relations of power by adding a category of analysis to more orthodox Marxist critiques of political economy: hegemony.vii Organized according to his view of historical blocs, Gramsci issues a fragmentary but cutting argument. He observes that an awakening to political consciousness and subsequent revolution of the proletarian masses, so deeply anticipated by Marx and Engels, have failed to come to pass – indeed, situations for workers worsened into the early twentieth century, through fascism and dictatorships – but that there is an element of social organization missing from Marxist predictions. History and class co-extend here: Gramsci characterizes the primary relations of class (and relations of production, by extent) as those of rulers and the ruled. He outlines three major classes: there is an elite, or dominant, ruling group, who act as the hegemonic arbiters of the modes of production. The ruled include the subaltern classes, those who work to the benefit of the ruling class, often through coercive measures, and what he calls the emergent, who are more likely to negotiate their being ruled by consent rather than coercion.

Where Marx’s concepts of social power focus on the means and the modes of production, proffering false consciousness as the reason why exploitative systems of power consolidate their hold on class, Gramsci introduces the notion of hegemony to explain how populations inure themselves to the dominant ideologies and practices of their social contexts. Hegemony folds the ruled subaltern and emergent classes into social niches, whereas false consciousness or ideology implies broader categories of power, for example, by excluding criminal or artistic modes of work from the political elements of class. Through the lens of hegemony, peasants’ or artists’ roles in social orders become clearer, and Gramsci also notes their revolutionary potential.

Moreover, production and consumption are placed in the context of an increasingly complex process of the reproduction of the conditions of production. For Gramsci, this reproduction no longer reduces to leisure time. Class domination becomes enveloped in a more complete process of acculturation, including not only violent coercion, but also elements of spiritual, ideological, and cultural practice, leading to the establishment of consent of the ruled to hegemonic structures. Gramsci’s political program relies on a sociology of knowledge to help produce critical consciousness. This marks its relevance to later analyses of power discourses: hegemony is not only a relation of production but a mode of power, through its continual absorption, as niche groups, of potentially radical dissenters into the structures of dominance themselves. This understanding of soft power’s role in shaping world events has strong implications for theories and critiques that follow.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe take on the challenge of describing a possible organized resistance to this accretion of dominance, in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.viii Their crucial logical intervention against orthodox Marxism is precisely its reliance on, and ontological privileging of, the base-superstructure model for social formations. Though other theorists have put forward this critique, the importance of this particular argument is its clear understanding of the impact that base-superstructure ontology has on epistemologies of truth in political practice – that is, on the conditions of possibility for an actually-existing praxis.

For Laclau and Mouffe, hegemony provides an analytical framework that destabilizes class-based essentialism, opening a path towards a critique based in antagonisms between not only classes but other historically shared experiences of oppression, such as racial, gender-based, or ethnic struggles. They move beyond Gramsci’s thought by taking primarily discursive, rather than organizational, objects of analysis. Their conception of power, as the grounds of this notion of hegemony, comprises a political relationship between a dominant hegemon and a subordinate collective, towards the performance of social activities. Alongside this political, discursively constituted basis, military and economic conditions combine to reinforce cultural hegemony.

Louis Althusser

Louis Althusserengages in an extended analysis of power by way of ideology, combining theoretical elements stemming from Marx and Gramsci with psychoanalytic concepts from Freud and Lacan. Five features form the backbone of his theoretical contribution, expressed most directly in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”ix First, ideology itself has no history. The appearance in a specific cultural context of repressive or ideological state apparatuses, concrete institutions, indicates the existence of discrete ideologies with historical boundaries, but the general form and action of ideology remains outside of historical particularities. Second, ideas are material, having impact on lived experience; that is, ideology operates people, rather than the reverse. Third, Althusser describes a doubled abstraction, the “representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” This multiplication of the unreal emphasizes that our fantasies – that is, our imaginations of what and who we are – do not just mask a real existence, they constitute the closest thing we have to realness as such. Fourth, ideology has a material existence, existing (that is, knowable) through its practice – or its apparatus. In this way, the ideological role of acts like rituals and proper behavior come into focus as modalities of power. Finally, ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as subjects – it turns individuals into subjects by means of calling them out, even (perhaps especially) if not by name. And yet, individuals are always already-subjects, since specific examples of interpellation are preceded by an individual’s being born into already sedimented social formations such as families. This is the basis for his extended critique of the apparatuses of ideological and repressive state power. Repressive apparatuses include the police, jails, and courts; they operate by means of punishing wrongdoing. Their ideological counterparts include religious institutions, cultural groups, and (especially) schools; these operate by means of indoctrination, incentives, and convincing individuals to uphold their subjectivity. As institutions, but more importantly, as sedimented sets of practices and behaviors, these apparatuses work continually to maintain the illusions and fantasies that feed ideology’s hold on social formations.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes’ “Myth Today” also conceives of a holistic system that works to control how people think in the course of mundane activities. This semiology concentrates on the signs and signifiers that appear around us daily. Barthes argues that myth explains how meaning-making depends not only on denotation or connotation – more literal modes of interpretation that reflect the internal contents of a message – but on associative practices that connect us to larger tropes, such as patriotic nationalism, colonial and imperial drives, consumerism, and other mediated desires. These more comprehensive systems of belief draws subjects into a process of signification in which the sign becomes a secondary system of signification, rather than a primary system controlling signification as such. This account exemplifies a turn among Marxist and other closely related critiques towards the importance of specific media and mediations – and the study thereof – to the reproduction and propagation of social power structures. When Barthes claims to produce a “science of myth,” he marks the attempt to construct a rigorous, formal study of the expressions of meaning, rather than an intuitive interpretation of such phenomena, precisely because of their importance to social and political formations. This requires attention to the historicity of myth, which marks it as a break from Althusser’s ideology. However, in so doing, it connects the semiotics of myth to the political economy of media, another crucial aspect of the understanding of nationalism and citizenship in the formation of subjects of power.

Sovereignty, Citizenship, and their Mediations

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas, a second-generation member of the Frankfurt School, concentrates on the discursive elements of social power. His seminal work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, traces a tradition of the communicative constitution of the bourgeois public sphere from the late 18th century in French salons through its apparent death (if it ever existed as such) through the dominance of mass media in the mid-twentieth century.x For Habermas, the public sphere is built by inclusive, critical conversations among peers and citizens. These practices of discourse morph alongside the changes to liberalism itself over the period in question. As liberalism developed from from universal political ideals propagated among small groups of like-minded citizens, isolated from economic concerns, to reach more people, so did the public sphere’s scope. The critical shift over this period, for Habermas, is the move from non-economic inclusion, without regard for social status, to a mass-media model, supported by industrial capital, controlled by few, speaking to many. The role of a purist’s rationality is expressed by the concept of a domain of common concern. However, social groups fractured along increasing inequality, and the dominance of market concerns in public discourse continued to intensify. Meanwhile, the level of control of the state (in concert with capital) led to a focus on impulses of consumption rather than politics as the locus of discourse. Habermas calls for another structural transformation of the public sphere, driven by measured, democratic deliberation rather than profit- and electorally- driven prattle.

It is worth noting, in passing, the corollaries between Habermas’s concept of the relationship between media and state sovereignty and Benedict Anderson’s argument that the imagination of such sovereignty, accelerated and propagated by the printing press, led to an historical naturalization of the nation-state as such. While Anderson conceives of the mediation of ideas as driving political change, Habermas calls for changes to the political and economic structures surrounding media in order to change mediated discourse recursively. This interplay pushes forward critiques of contemporary public spheres as still-exclusive, rather than democratic, undertakings.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

In their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue that contemporary media formations irrevocably stifle creative and critical thinking, especially about the structures of power that maintain those formations. They trace mass media to the root of how and why the status quo of corporate power is maintained in modern society, to the dominance of neoliberal agendas of free trade and subsequent ignorance of alternative approaches to global economics, and to the skewing of dissident perspectives. Hegemony is crucial to their understanding of social power, as they argue that it operates through widespread indoctrination of ignorant publics, and through over-mediated discourse. That is, because most people garner an understanding of not only current events but valid public discourse through the mass media – in some cases, their entire understanding thereof – the scope of those media’s impacts on the practices and structures of power is actually disproportionate to the size of their organizations or budgets. Chomsky and Herman advance a propaganda model of media, as crucial to democracy’s status quo as is violence to dictatorship’s. At its core, theirs is a model of editorial distortion stretched to extremes.

They identify five constraints on what counts for news. First is that of ownership: because large congolmerate corporations control the means of producing news, they de facto influence the newsworthiness (or lack thereof) of any critiques of their most profitable enterprises, especially those predicated on exploitative or destructive practices. Second is that of advertising, long the dominant revenue model for major news organizations: the most lucrative advertisers must be kept mollified with a pattern of reporting that does not offend their profits. Third is that of sourcing the news itself: the authors excoriate the systemic over-reliance for reportage on official sources, especially in relation to the simultaneous hedging and discrediting of statements from unofficial or dissident sources, when those are even gathered. It should be noted that a parallel trend is to report using increasingly dubious and anonymous sources, so long as those sources can be claimed as connected to the official sources such as governmental offices or corporate spokespeople. The fourth, they call ‘flak’. This is comprised of pseudo-grassroots, or populist but elite-founded, campaigns to discredit harmful reporting. These may come from PACs or from lobbyist groups, but often result from PR departments unwilling to withstand negative reporting on their sponsors’ activities. Later writers such as Robert McChesney have shown the continuation of these very patterns, and even increases in their efficacy. Finally, and most recognizably on a daily basis, they note the demonization of external enemies and internal dissidents alike, in the style and tone of reporting on relevant topics. For the authors, anti-communist rhetoric is the keynote case of this behavior; today we might point to anti-terrorist values. From their examination, the authors conclude that either a popular uprising to take back control of public discourse will change these patterns, or that there will be nothing left to change in terms of public opinion – that the very notion will no longer make sense. The crucial relevance of these studies to the topic at hand remains that these media are not merely examples of those in power showing off; they actively constitute the means by which people form their concepts of proper behavior, acceptable political action, and legitimacy in the realm of social structures. This turn in the implementation of hegemony indicates a broader suppression of creative activity and critical thought than the impact of coercion for its subjects.

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu takes a broader view of the interplay between mediation and power in The Field of Cultural Production, outlining four deployments of capital: economic, cultural, social, and symbolic.xi Mass media form one part of the latter. What he calls the logic of practice is advanced in opposition to the logic of rational action, in that subjects are constituted in cultural, economic, and other such fields not by pre-existing rationalities that govern our every choice, but according to a more complete, subtle, and pervasive condition: the habitus. This concept includes the impact of physical environments, including the conditioning that socioeconomic class undertakes upon peoples’ bodies, along with the development of intellectual understanding and aesthetic taste. For each conscious decision made by subjects, the machinations and conditions of habitus take effect.

In Distinction, Bourdieu also presents a corrolary to the concept of deliberative politics broached by Habermas and extended by Chomsky: symbolic power. Like false consciousness, symbolic power helps explain how cultural and social positions wield more effective control over specific beliefs and behaviors, such as proper conduct in social settings, than does economic status. As such, one part of symbolic power is symbolic violence, replete in what Bourdieu terms “strong discourses,” such as those of neoliberalism in popular economics. These are totalizing arguments backed by the symbolic force of authority, rather than by their purported objective benefits. Symbolic power can impose hierarchical order in social organization by enforcing the idea that social inequalities exist because they are just. This sublimation of the means of obtaining consent to inequality into the components of non-monetary capital, such as status, allows cultural power to be brokered among agents and structures as in a market. This situation is explained differently by more directly political thought, such as that of Iris Marion Young, who contends that the means of propagating justice (itself the purpose of democratic institutions) is the inclusion of voices, and that the exclusion of specific parties rather than their unbalanced inclusion is what reinforces conditions of inequality over time.

Frederic Jameson

Turning from directly political understandings of cultural power to the aesthetic realm, we encounter Frederic Jameson’s argument, in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, that structures of power stem from ideological and psychological phenomena, expressed (and learned) through the cultural production of artistic objects, especially literature. Jameson interrogates the structure of literary narratives, working towards an interpretive framework for producing narrative as such. He delineates historically bounded conditions of interpretation for literary and other aesthetic choices. In this explicitly structuralist approach, his interpretations emphasize artistic labor, the activity of creative production, as a driving factor in the cultural significance of artworks under analysis, particularly of the audience’s ability to understand social conditions of power based on those works. This does become a reductive approach, often condensing broad categories of creative endeavors – larger, even than genres – into grandiose generalizations. However, it draws a clear link between ideology and the psyche, clearer than those drawn by more elliptical writers like Althusser, and in the process building on earlier theoretical work by Julia Kristeva and Valentin Voloshinov, to produce an analysis of an artistic mode of production that can systematically recognize both dominating and dissident, hegemonic and subversive efforts. More importantly, it demands that interpretations of cultural, creative work historicize their interpretive claims. This practice allows reflexive attention by scholars and theorists to their own conditions of intellectual production, a critical element of the post-structural turn in concepts of power.

Biopower, Biopolitics, and Governmentality

Michel Foucault

Foucault describes power as produced through social practices of truth-making, and thereby through discursive regimes.xii In so doing, he introduces not only the theoretical traditions mentioned already, but also Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of power. Foucault articulates the systemic functions that constitute those regimes through the complex of power/knowledge. Power/knowledge does not equate with Althusser’s schema of repressive or ideological state apparatuses, due to its attention to unexpressed potentiality in discursive regimes, rather than an emphasis on totalizing structures. In it, discourses of power are so radically contextualized – historically and conceptually – that their baseline assumptions connect them to myriad practices of veridiction.

Power/knowledge asks its critics to obtain explicitly local information, positing (but by no means bound only to) a traditional archive alongside a set of speaking subjects who comprise a traditional population. The clear problem in adopting Foucault’s themes for empirical research on a contemporary issue, rather than speculative philosophy or historically minded investigation, is that whatever questions are raised by such a situation refer to emerging data, not to an established archive replete with apocrypha and ephemera. And so, the impulse to construct counter-narratives to hegemonic history must defer to a descriptive rather than analytical approach, at least in its infancy. However, social practices of veridiction certainly continue into our contemporary circumstances.

Biopower, passingly mentioned in Foucault’s early monographs but explored at length in his lectures at the College du France, follows on the heels of forms of power such as regulatory, disciplinary, and sovereign power. What biopower makes possible is an inversion of active and passive roles regarding life for the state. It turns the state’s need to kill in order to secure sovereignty into the ability to allow those people to die; it turns the sovereign right to allow subjets to live into a responsibility to keep them alive. Likewise, the conditions under which a population gains freedoms manifest themselves through and in direct relation to the level of control that members of the population exercise over one another.

This valence to power relations, more dependent on freedom than on control, makes tangible a regime of institutional and ideological biopower – biopolitics. This formation relies on security apparatuses to direct and manage the behavior of populations. As a social-political formation, it breaks from earlier machinations of power, across bodies, by organizing itself between those bodies.

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.

In “The Birth of Biopolitics” lectures, Foucault derives the character of neoliberal society along these lines of power and politics of populations.xiii In one early talk, he cuts to the heart of this description as it relates to both his earlier work and to the methods by which he arrives at his analyses. The market, he argues, is not just a realm of rules and regulations, trade and commerce. It also, and more fundamentally, comprises the grounds on which truth is tested for liberal government. Marking the emergence of this totalizing market at the end of the eighteenth century (perhaps to be expected), he then goes on to show how “regimes of veridiction” comprise the historical objects that bind his studies of sexuality, unreason, and penal systems. The important points of contact between those interests and the higher-order system of truth-telling under examination here raises a theoretical contradiction between the processes of market intervention versus legal jurisdiction. But, Foucault goes on to explain, neoliberalism “is not an economic government, it is a government of society … An enterprise society and a judicial society … are two faces of a single phenomenon.” Here we find the crux of neoliberal society, a form of government so consumed with the management of its population that it erases those ancient distinctions between judgment and action.

Governmentality, or biopower written at the level of the State, traces the power relations and historical changes that allow governments to form. It identifies the tendencies and techniques of governing, hence its alter ego, “the conduct of conduct.” Governmentality takes populations as its “targets” and determines how they choose internally to be governed, as well as how they are controlled externally. The term is introduced by Foucault during his Lectures, in which he describes the modern state as contingent upon historical trajectories of power relations, eventually including governmentality.

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. He defines it in three broad strokes. First, as the ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security. Second, as the tendency which, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led towards the pre-eminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline, etc) of this type of power which may be termed government, resulting, on the one hand, in formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of saviors. Third, as the process, or rather the result of the process, through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages, transformed into the administrative state during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gradually becomes ‘governmentalized’. This line of argument allows Foucault to delve into questions of his contemporary political and social spheres. For example, he asks after the lived effects of the culmination of governmentality, identifying these as the advent of neoliberalism. He interrogates the role of the contemporary, neoliberal State; of its constitution and sustenance, of its weaknesses and strengths, of its intentions and the threats towards its continued existence. In the pursuit of these concrete questions, he reintroduces matters of discipline, showing how a population reproduces its conditions of biopolitical organization through economic and social patterns.

Governments introduce and control its mechanisms of discipline, framed as regulatory measures but disavowed against the intention of liberating capital from those same regulations.

The tension between consolidation and multiplication of power relations also brings about the rhetoric of self, family, community, and state that undergirds the further need for more complex state institutions, and a more technically adept security structure. In this way, the same forces that drive governmentality to continually include the bodies and lives of those needing salvation among its populations drive it to develop repressive or exclusionary mechanisms by which to control those populations. It is here that we see the critical ties between governmentality and biopower.

The differences come first: biopower remains a firmly historicized notion of the administration of biological life, deployed with the goals of optimizing and multiplying that life. Meanwhile, biopower’s provision of the conditions under which governmentality can flourish keeps it at a slight remove in the terms of analysis here. For example, while biopower helps explain how governmentality operates on and through historically marked bodies, it does not explain the longer-term formations of governmentality or biopolitics, for example, neoliberalism or globalization as we speak of them today.

Instead, the connections between the three should be seen as meta-systemic: biopower operates in historically concrete situations through processes of governmentality; governmentality’s expression requires biopower but the specific development of biopower also necessitates a unique form of biopolitics. The juncture between power and knowledge expressed by governmentality is biopower written at the level of the State.

Foucault focuses on what he calls local, or subjugated knowledges, as the object of that analysis. The articulation of local knowledges as opposed to systemic formations leads to a hybrid of the approaches that he has spent so much intellectual effort to outline in his longer books. Archaeology takes on the role of a research method in the governmentality project, in order to reveal those local knowledges. Then, genealogy comprises the tactics by which that knowledge, once revealed, is deployed in contrast to dominant forms of knowledge, such as the political economy that buoys governmentality’s own epistemological constructs.

In this way, Foucault approaches the problems of governmentality with a mind to their inversion into non-totalitarian solutions to those problems. The implementation of those solutions, as ever, is beyond the realm of critique, however pointed. Instead, he focuses on the development of a course of political action. Foucault’s treatment of the notion of human capital bears special consideration where questions of power are concerned. He recognizes the concept not as a quantification of the laboring subject as such but rather as a complex of the elements inherited or acquired by the body. This interrogation of the term troubles the waters of entrepreneurial and innovatory rhetoric – the self-empowerment or deregulating freedoms espoused as gospel by neoliberalism’s proponents.

Nikolas Rose, in Powers of Freedom, takes up further elaborates how power operates in contemporary society through and as against this value of freedom. He identifies seven categories of operation: governing, freedom, the social, advanced liberalism, community, numbers and control. In so doing, he lays out a framework for the analysis of governmentality within neoliberalism based on Foucauldian principles. He shows how the liberal-individual concept of freedom in neoliberalism is directly tied to practices of power, for example, not by punishing wrong behavior but by incentivizing and planning for the conduct of proper conduct. Autonomy, as described here, is a function of consumption, organization, and political action in the sense of participation in acceptable discourse, as opposed to one of opposition to status quo or dominant tendencies. In other words, resistance as such cannot be identified with the same logic as that which identifies repression.

A corresponding tendency identified by the analysis of governmentality, to generalize economic rationale to all functions of life, finds a pointed critique on this account. Where growth is held as collectively desirable above all else, including even profit (ignoring consequences of monopoly firms or the deskilling of labor, for example), power’s concatenation becomes divorced from capital as it was known in the formative conditions of the same firms that produce such values. In other words, the need to grow – for individuals, firms, and governments alike – belies the need to reproduce the conditions of production. Taken out of context, such claims might suggest an irreparable crisis of capitalism. Yet as other analyses show, crises often intensify, rather than undercut, capitalist systems of power.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari forge their critique of “arborescent,” center-peripheral, models of power through an extended examination of an alternative formation, which they call rhizomatic, indicating distribution and a lack of centrality. This clearly links their approach to Foucault’s, at least at the conceptual levels of anticipating multiple, diffuse origins of power. Their seminal two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia addresses a vast array of topics and theories from historical, literary, and philosophical sources, yet weaves around this relation between power and centrality in contemporary capitalist societies to a significant degree. Comprised of Anti-Oedipusxiv, which concentrates on desire and the machinic in the development of capitalism, and A Thousand Plateausxv, which examines violence and the machinic in that development, the work stands among the most-cited works of continental critical theory, in no small part for its intransigent insistence on a coherent supplemental logic.

On the subject of their logic, Deleuze and Guattari disavow “units (unities) of measure” in favor of “multiplicities,” precisely on the basis of a decentralized rationality. They contend that unities presuppose a power takeover within multiplicity, and that unity operates “in an empty dimension supplementary to that of the system considered (overcoding),” whereas multiplicty does not overcode.xvi This notion of coding, along with those of flows, rhizomes, schizoanalysis, and deterritorialization, impacts the thought of power more directly than might be supposed from its high-flown wordplay. Its abiding interest remains how we live and conceive of our lives in the context of totalizing constrictions on language and labor.

Deleuze’s attention to themes also present in Foucault’s work demonstrates the cohesion of their common intellectual lineages and interaction. Deleuze’s reading of Foucault’s body of work, and Foucault’s introduction to Deleuze’s thought, along with their discussion on the topic of intellectuals’ role in power struggles, all speak to the interplay between their philosophical undertakings.xvii Yet perhaps their most trenchant interaction comes when they break paths.

In his Postscript on Societies of Control, Deleuze argues that social forms based on disciplinary power, which Foucault outlined as overtaking regulatory power as the mode of dominance and presaging biopower, are instead transforming into or giving way to societies of control, in which indirect and highly mediated operations of markets govern subjects’ daily lives.xviii The program set forward by Deleuze indicates a shift in his late logic much closer to that of Althusser than that of Foucault. That is, he returns in force to questions of ideology and structural power relations. In the works mentioned above, as in Difference and Repetition, he concentrates not on the targeting of populations of biopower, but on the labors and (importantly) desires that precede a given individual to constitute that individual in social context.

Giorgio Agamben

In Homo Sacer,xix Giorgio Agamben takes up the demarcation of the subject of biopower, by defining it against its limit, the non-subject of bare life. Sovereignty depends on its biopolitical subjects; however, it constitutes the political community’s life, that of bios, by means of excluding those who merely exist in bare life. The latter appear throughout history in Agamben’s text, as that form which the maintainers of power relations, particularly sovereigns, can identify as outside of legal and political rights. The practice of identifying bare life is sovereign exception, often expressed as the decision to kill without sacrificing. Indeed, politics depends on bare life, as the sovereign must be able to identify the life that can be taken without it constituting a sacrifice, precisely in order to draw the borders of political and moral community. This approach to the problem of dehumanization differs from Foucault’s approach to the same subject because, rather than folding individuals into totalizing and totalized populations, resisted by irruptions of other forms of power, here population itself can only be defined in so far as it excludes its outside figure, homo sacer.

Like the Frankfurt School’s identification of the inversion of Enlightenment rationality at modernity’s culmination in the State-Capital doublet, in State of Exception, Agamben pursues the consequences of sovereign exception for contemporary social-political formations.xx Here, he argues that this practice of deciding on the external to biopolitics has turned on itself, that leaders of sovereign states draw on exception not only to define their civil population but in the course of governing itself. To put it bluntly, Agamben argues that in modernity, exception becomes rule. The most cutting example of exception at work in modern war/governance – chosen not by accident, but in the context of contrasting between Carl Schmitt’s constitutionalist rendering of state violence’s justifications on the grounds of sovereign decision and Walter Benjamin’s conception of pure violence at the revolutionary moment outside of historical time (which Benjamin developed during his tenure with the Frankfurt School, particularly Ernest Bloch, but read here through a Heideggerian lens as closer to something like dasein), is the Nazi concentration camp. xxi He also levels a poignant critique of the American “war on terror” and its resultant shifts in the governance of democratic society through the very revocation of humanity applied, for example, to inmates at Guantanamo Bay prison and the concomitant revocation of civil liberties in the name of preserving liberal liberties. This culmination of exception-sovereignty in the machinations of nation-states is at its most troubling when invoked as serving the protection of so-called universal or human rights.

Agamben’s consideration of the means and modalities of power do not begin and end with political theory. In The Signature of All Things,xxii he takes a reflexive, intellectual-historical approach, reading the methods of Foucauldian archaeology and genealogy with Blanchot’s unavowable community still in the background, and hinging on a familiar inversion. That is, in order for objects to systemically identify themselves to the archaeologist, there must first come a subsumption of the presumptions of positive rationality, since signatures are drawn from a hidden, essential meaning embedded not in the material but in the metaphysical characteristics of an object, and explicable only through the recognition of their difference from any other object or condition around them. It is no surprise that Agamben draws this concept of the signature not only from Jacob Boehme’s mystical-Christian writings, but from Hegel’s later reinterpretation of the same phenomenon as the thesis of the dialectic. Agamben’s contribution to this tangled genealogy of critiques of power not designed to confuse, but rather to tease subtle connections among the roots of concepts of control and its analysis out of vastly disparate conditions of intellectual production.

Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Ian Hacking

Kaushik Sunder Rajan addresses a very different condition of intellectual production in Biocapital: The Constitution of Post-Genomic Life. That is, Sunder Rajan is concerned with the collision and collusion between corporate capitalist structures, scientific research, and technological development, particularly as concerns the biological realm. As an ethnographic study, it ranges between San Francisco, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and New Delhi, observing genomic research and drug development laboratories and markets. As a theoretical contribution, it introduces us to the concept of biocapital, the conditions of “the co-production of economic and epistemic value in the life sciences today.” Sunder Rajan argues that the effects of combinging capitalistic market forces with biotechnology occur far beyond the specific realm of research and development. He also traces the economic and epistemological trajectory of the life sciences from the late twentieth century onward, showing how capital is the context for the development of life sciences that in turn generate these institutions and practices of biocapital.
Whereas biopolitics works on populations, biocapital
treats of the molecular, cellular, genomic realms of inquiry. Rajan distinguishes whole worlds of biocapital: genomic science constitutes a rarified high priesthood of scholarly condescension, while pharmaceutical and technological development demonstrate a more industrial approach to totalizing economic progress through the application of those advances in knowledge. Crucially, each part of this spectrum takes advantage of older (for example, colonial) structures of power. The quiet appropriation of poor peoples’ bodies for experimental testing of new products before their release into open markets is but one example of these endeavors wrought through biocapital’s growth. As Sunder Rajan observes the intensifying commercialization of the production of knowledge in the life sciences, he also denotes the emergence of both technological and epistemological innovations in those fields. Genomics is primary among these, as Rajan’s account bridges Gramscian emergent classes, Marxist conceptions of labor, and biopolitical regimes of power, along with a detailed attention to the study of the technologies and sciences themselves.

Ian Hacking also pointedly addresses the intersection of sciences, politics, and life, in his essay “Making Up People” (previously entitled “Moving Targets”). The essay condenses the social aspects of his earlier work on the philosophy and history of science, such as in Rewriting the Soul, here targeting the concept of classifications. Hacking sees an iterative process here, wherein the practices of classification of people affect those whom it targets, thereby changing later classifications. Beyond classifications and people, this process involves institutions, knowledge, and knowledge producers, i.e. experts and professionals in the fields of life science. His particular examples include diagnoses of mental illness or psychic conditions, as well as conditions such as autism and obesity sometimes purported to have genetic bases. In keeping with the skepticism on such accounts expressed by Foucault, Sunder Rajan and other observers of medical claims to ontological authority, Hacking keeps his attention on historical changes to the practice of diagnosis rather than examples of the specific conditions under question. He argues that the “human sciences, from sociology to medicine” are sustained by ten “engines of discovery,” which “are also engines for making up people,” that is, for constructing the social figures of the classified, in addition to determining proper classification for any given subject. In this way his work is an analysis of the process of subjectification as such. His list of engines is worth quoting verbatim for its clarity, and to emphasize his intellectual links to Foucault’s methods:

The first seven engines in the following list are designed for discovery, ordered roughly according to the times at which they became effective. The eighth is an engine of practice, the ninth of administration, and the tenth is resistance to the knowers.”

1. Count!

2. Quantify!

3. Create Norms!

4. Correlate!

5. Medicalise!

6. Biologise!

7. Geneticise!

8. Normalise!

9. Bureaucratise!

10. Reclaim our identity!

These engines produce real effects, he argues, on the individuals on whom they operate, but also on the types of people they can name, that is, they organize people even as they separate them into types. The claims to scientific objectivity notwithstanding (and even despite their internal coherence and/or validity), those targets of the engines – classifications, people, knowledge – shift due to the very process of producing them. In this way, the structures of biopolitics and biocapital merge on the human-scale body, and the process of subjectification is folded into to the practices of power contingent upon historical particularity.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Taking a more global, less historically bounded approach to the question of biopolitics, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued for the recognition of a global imperial order for contemporary society, based in American-style constitutionalism and liberalism, yet stretching through multinational corporate structures and the destabilization of cultural boundaries to settle itself in history. The first work in their collaboration, Empire, traces the high-order historical systems that lead to that system’s rise, considering modern imperialism as both centered on and decentering sovereign nation-states.xxiii Their examination of nationality and war as both structured and supported by ruling classes echoes earlier tenets proposed by authors like Laclau and Mouffe. They separate themselves from those earlier works by suggesting the feasibility, not of counter-narratives to hegemonic structures, but irruptions of inversions of the values of Empire at its points of greatest concentration. That is, they point out moments where globalized capital, intensified to an extreme, produces ruptures within itself, and opens opportunities for dissent and countervailing struggle.

Multitude, the second volume in the series, places the same argument in more colloquial terms.xxiv But in the final volume, Commonwealthxxv, Hardt and Negri pose the figure of the Commons as an alternative social formation for power relations to Empire. In their terms, the Commons finds its origin in collectivist, autonomist values. Here, they juxtapose institutional logics against the challenges present in the attempt to govern revolutions to suggest that, despite the totalizing characteristics of modern global capital (perhaps even because of them), and despite the continual failure of Marx’s predicted proletarian revolution to materialize, capital remains surpassingly fragile, in constant crisis, and susceptible to uprising on myriad fronts. Their concrete examples of globalization overtaking the stability of nation-state sovereignty through the processes of capital itself remain largely speculative. For example, they extrapolate from, and sometimes overstate the impact of, autonomist movements and anticapitalist protests, to argue that the conditions of possibility for breaking up of globalized capital already exist.

Postcolonial, Anti-Imperial, and Subaltern Struggles

Amie Cesaire

Where the poststructural turn in critical theory, towards biopolitics and biopower, emphasizes the body as marked by discursive or abstracted regimes, such as obtuse law and high science, a concurrent postcolonial turn emphasizes the physical inscriptions of the machinations of power on living bodies, including bodies politic, and pointedly makes the case for how to change this situation.

Amie Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism highlights this inscription in his excoriation of colonial subjugation of non-Europeans globally, especially in African and Caribbean colonies. Cesaire demonstrates how colonialism relies on a relationship of naked, brutal oppression of the colonized by the colonizer. He argues that this relationship is founded on the same exploitative basis as capital, but demarcated explicitly along racial lines. Tracing in detail the dehumanizing processes of colonization, and their ideological reliance on barbarism and racism, brings to light the abject lie of the narrative that colonialism is a civilizing impulse, undertaken to better its colonies and those who live there. In this text, Cesaire’s method of argumentation wraps in a polemic, poetic style, itself an oppositional tactic and one through which he seeks to engage the reader affectively and psychically. Before its concluding call for an outright global revolution of colonized peoples, the work unravels the core paradox of colonialism: its justification of horrific violence and rampant destructiveness on moral and ethical grounds. Its critique of power relations not only sounds a call for anti-colonial struggles; it also establishes the theoretical grounds on which to comprehend contemporary, global imperial exploits.

Frantz Fanon

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon combines Marxist critiques of political economy with Freudian psychoanalysis writ large to analyze colonialism’s effects on “natives,” and on national culture. In both cases, he argues, there is a double operation of violent disempowerment. On individual colonized persons, both physical and psychic violence is systemically perpetrated. And on colonized peoples, colonial conduct smothers local culture in the present while local histories are categorically warped, if not erased. In this context, Fanon diagnoses the moment as ripe for anticolonial struggle, identifying, in geopolitical struggles and moral contradictions, weakness in overbearing colonialist power structures.

The program set out has straightforward priorities: “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” That principle carrys throughout the argument, as Fanon targets his analysis of the machinations of power in colonial context towards its physical overthrow. He notes that the Cold War and its its manifestation on African battlefields like the Congo wanes in comparison, however, compared to a more general issue: “the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”

One such consequence, is a change in the the relations of reproduction of the conditions of production, expressed here as the resurgence of damaged national culture, both past and future. Fanon argues that the psycho-affective impact on both persons and peoples is not just pervasive but existential: “By a kind of perverted logic, [colonialism] turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.” Re-valuing such history, and rehabilitating national culture, is the work of intellectuals in times of crisis, he adds. To accomplish a military victory over colonial forces, however, he suggests that anti-colonial movements turn to their corrolaries of the lumpenproletariat, such as the rural peasantry, because their relative independence from colonial structures of power provide them with greater ability to resist those structures in an organized, disciplined way. The connections between this concept and the revolutionary potential of “emergent” classes in Gramsci, or of the political boundary-making enabled by homo sacer, cannot be overlooked.

Crucially, Fanon emphasizes that anticolonial struggle is not a metaphorical shift in power relations. Just as violence is the means of oppression, so is violence the means of liberation. “Violence alone,” he argues, “provides the key for the masses to decipher social reality. Without this struggle, without this praxis there is nothing but … a slight readapting, a few reforms at the top, a flag, and down at the bottom a shapeless, writhing mass, still mired in the Dark Ages.” Although Sartre’s introduction to this book draws criticism for its focus on this point, he may in fact understate the case. Fanon’s concept of violence is very close to Benjamin’s, that of “pure” revolutionary violence, outside of historical time, thereby providing momentary clarity untainted by false consciousness or ideology; the phrasing here suggests that such “deciphering” or clarity is the precondition for attaining historical consciousness.

Paul Gilroy, Kwame Anthony Appiah

Historical consciousness and counter-hegemonic understandings of power relations are also key ideas for Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, his exploration of the impact of transatlantic practices of subject-formation among African diasporae. Adapting W.E.B. DuBois’s concept to the context of the forced intercontinental emigration of slaves in the middle passage, Gilroy argues that double consciousness is not merely about belonging to both an inscribed racial identity and a nationally or culturally dominant one, but about entering into an historically grounded conceptual connection to an African homeland. Tied exclusively to neither a nation-state nor a particular he continues, the “modern political formation” of the Black Atlantic stems from collective desires to “transcend” those structural factors. He suggests that in order to counteract the essentialist discourse (particularly pronounced in academic work) about black identity, concepts of subjectification must account for the transformative, constitutive, generative interactions between displaced or diasporic groups and surrounding cultures. In so doing, he argues that the conflation of national with cultural identity is crucial to the maintenance of exclusivist discourses. So, double consciousness cannot be traced to any historically accurate essence, since both nationality and cultural identities have undergone fundamental historical changes during the same periods of dispersal.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture asks a complementary question to Gilroy’s: rather than how diasporic Africans’ identities are collectively negotiated, but how we (have and do) conceive of Africa itself. His analysis of the discourses about Africa as such demonstrate the range of racial, ethnic, political, and social formations that are associated through artistic and philosophical works with Africa. Appiah identifies, in endeavors to establish uniquely African literature, politics, and philosophy, the recurring influence of Western impositions, as well as a proliferation of cultures within Africa as such. He suggests that the foundational tension for these attempts is not between a lost or hidden essence and protracted intercultural negotiation but rather between impulses towards modernization and appeals to history. Yet in both these studies, a central concept of power relations is that political, social, and cultural pressures operate in concert and in real time on the processes of the formation of collective identities. That multivariate operation, further, depends upon a discursive extrapolation of the idea of Africans or Africa from conflations of ideological and biopolitical essences. It is worth noting that although dialectical logic is at work in much contemporary Africanist critical theory, it is rarely named as Hegelian, a reflection of Hegel’s own failures to acknowledge the historicity or cultural importance of African peoples.

Daniel Kendie

Turning from dialectics to hegemony, Daniel Kendie asks, “How Relevant are the Theories of Gramsci to the Study of African States?” His review of extant literature on that subject provides a fitting coda here. Kendie identifies three themes in Gramscian theories as applied to African states, or in African state theories referencing Gramsci’s concepts, broken out by the historical periods of their attention. First, those concerned with the post-colonial era; second, those attending to the same subjects during colonialism itself, and third, those who consider both the colonial and post-colonial periods as a unified period (like a bloc). Arguing that hegemony and domination as established during colonial times has “been extended” to contemporary African conditions, Kendie sides with the third group, but avers that something between coercion and consent would be required to explain long-term historical patterns of historical social change. To this we must add that the long, complicated regional and national histories broadly swept into “African States” here also trouble simplistic epistemologies, such as those that ascribe social structures to any of: the slave trade, colonialism, neocolonial import-export economies, neoliberal restructuring and modernization, or globalization; without also accounting for internal statism in those nations’ more recent consolidation of what must be called power.


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viTheodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: Verso, 1978); Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

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viiiErnesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed. (Verso, 2001).

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xiPierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University, 1993); Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: The Social Critique of Taste. (London: Routledge, 1984); Pierre Bourdieu, “The Specificity of the Scientific Field and the Social Conditions of the Progress of Reason,” Social Science Information 14, no. 19 (1975): 35–50; Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge University Press, 1977); Nedim Karakayali, “Reading Bourdieu with Adorno The Limits of Critical Theory and Reflexive Sociology,” Sociology 38, no. 2 (April 1, 2004): 351–368, doi:10.1177/0038038504040869.

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xiiiLemke, Thomas, “‘The Birth of Bio-Politics’: Michel Foucault’s Lecture At the College De France on Neo-Liberal Governmentality,” Economy and Society 30, no. 2 (2001): 190–207; Michel Foucault, Graham Burchell, and Colin Gordon, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991).

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xviDeleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

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xviiiGilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3–7.

xixAgamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel (Stanford: Stanford University, 1998).

xxGiorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005).

xxi“The Camp as the ‘Nomos’ of Human Life’,” Part III, section 7 of Homo Sacer

xxiiGiorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method (New York: Zone Books, 2009).

xxiiiAntonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire, 2001.

xxivAntonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, 2004.

xxvAntonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2009).


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