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:
“Genealogy… must expose a body totally inscribed by history, and history’s destruction of the body.” (my translation)
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
These weeks I’ve turned from biographical and summary readings to Foucault’s early works. From here on, these posts will proceed at conceptual levels as much as is possible. Today, we turn to archaeology. In its simplest reduction, the concept denotes a history of discourse. In books such as the History of Madness, the Archaeology of Knowledge, and the Order of Things, Foucault undertakes examinations of discursive formations ranging from health and madness to scientific understanding to aesthetics and perception. Throughout each of these, he frames the conditions of knowledge in a given time period as constrained by the characteristics of that period, a general way of organizing and thinking about the world in each that he names an episteme. So, archaeology is the study of “epistemae,” and an episteme places discourse in historical context.
This first post in a short-term regular series of essays on Michel Foucault deals with his most famous influences. I begin with the precursors to Foucault’s own production of knowledge because their work and tutelage form the conditions of that production. This requires that I oversimplify some of their contributions to cultural scholarship and critical theory. I hope to maintain a baseline level of respect for their importance without fetishizing their names, just as I intend to maintain the tension between the familiarity of Foucault’s own name and the irreducibility of his intellectual production to any single certain thought or text. Enough lingering on qualifications and breast-beating, then. Let me turn to the names and their significance for Foucault’s emergence as a theoretical producer – and event.
- Michel Foucault – image via Creative Commons.