Robert Gooding-Williams on Foucault and Modern Racism

By Robert Gooding-Williams

My comments focus on Foucault’s analysis of modern racism in Society Must Be Defended. Part 1 explains the “how-possibly” question that motivates Foucault’s analysis. Part 2 explains and evaluates Foucault’s answer to that question, giving particular attention to his thesis that modern racism is racism against the abnormal (a thesis that he initially introduces, I believe, in Abnormal). 

Part 1: Foucault’s Question

 Comment 1.1

Foucault’s analysis of modern racism stems from his observation that the nineteenth century saw a transformation of the concept of political right—specifically that the right to “make live and let die” came to complement, penetrate and permeate (p. 241) the right to “take life or let live.”

 For Foucault this new right—I shall call it “the political right of biopower,” involves a paradox. On one hand, the function of the modern state—the state in the mode of biopower—is to make live: that is, to enhance life, to improve it. On the other hand, the political right of biopower entitles the state to let die. It seems, then, that the political right of biopower exceeds and contradicts the function of biopower. Foucault puts the paradox this way: “Given that this power’s objective is essentially to make live, how can it let die?” In other words, given that the objective of biopower is to improve life, what explains the legitimation of biopower by appeal to a novel notion of political right that sanctions the state’s use of biopower to “call for deaths, to demand death?”

Comment 1.2

Before considering Foucault’s answer to this question, I wish to comment further on the form of the question itself. The question, I suggest, has the form of what philosophers have sometimes called a “how possibly (or how-possible) question,” a rather nice analysis of which Robert Nozick provides in his book, Philosophical Explanations.

Philosophical explanation is a form of philosophy appropriate to answering questions like: how is it possible for us to have free will, given that all acts are causally determined? Or, for example: how is it possible that we know anything given that it is logically possible that we are dreaming? As is evident from these examples, the questions that motivate philosophical explanations tend to involve the identification of what Nozick calls “apparent excluders.” In other words, the questions that motivate these explanations tend to take the following form: how is it possible that such-and-such is the case, given (or supposing) a set of considerations that appear to exclude—that is, to rule out—the possibility that such-and-such is the case. In the first of the aforementioned examples, the consideration that all acts are causally determined appears to rule out the possibility that we have free will. In the second of the aforementioned examples, the consideration that it is logically possible that we are dreaming appears to rule out the possibility that we know anything. Philosophical explanations tend to answer the “how possibly” questions that prompt them by attempting to show how it is possible for such-and-such to be the case, notwithstanding the considerations—that is, the reasons—that appear to rule out that possibility.

In the 17 March 1976 lecture, the “how possibly” question to which Foucault offers a political philosophical explanation is: how is it possible to legitimate, or to justify, modern state biopower (the modern state in the mode of biopower) by appeal to a political right to call for deaths, or to demand death, notwithstanding that the function of modern state biopower is to improve life.

In Foucault’s view, the consideration that the function of modern state biopower is to improve life appears to exclude, or to rule out, the possibility of justifying modern state biopower by appeal to a political right to call for deaths, or to demand death. The point of the political philosophical explanation and answer that Foucault offers to the “how possibly” question he poses is to show how it is possible that modern state biopower justifies or legitimates itself by appeal to a political right to call for deaths, or to demand death, notwithstanding the consideration that the function of modern state biopower is to improve live.

Comment 1.3

Foucault would not have read Nozick’s 1981 book before delivering the lecture we are considering, but he certainly read Nietzsche, and the “how possibly” question that he poses in the 17 March 1976 lecture at once echoes and brilliantly inverts the central, “how possibly” question that Nietzsche poses in the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality.

Having distinguished the worldly asceticism of the philosopher from the life-denying, otherworldly asceticism of the priest (for a good discussion of Nietzsche’s treatment of this distinction, see Alexander Nehamas’s Nietzsche), Nietzsche later suggests that the ascetic ideal of the priest expresses a paradox.

On one hand, Nietzsche remarks that the priest’s ascetic ideal relates our life, including nature and the entire sphere of becoming and transitoriness to “an entirely different kind of existence, which it opposes and excludes, unless, perhaps, it were to turn against itself, to negate life: in this case, the case of the ascetic life, life is held to be a bridge for that other existence.” On the other hand, Nietzsche writes that the ascetic ideal is “exactly the opposite of what its venerators suppose….[it] is an artifice for the preservation of life.” Thus, the “ascetic priest, this seeming enemy of life, this negating one—precisely he belongs to the very great conserving and yes-creating forces of life.”

On my reading, Nietzsche devotes much of the second half of the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality to explaining this paradox: that is, to sketching a philosophical explanation that answers the question: how is possible for the ascetic ideal to function as an artifice for preserving life, given the consideration that the raison d’etre of priestly asceticism is the negation of life—a consideration that appears to exclude and rule out the possibility that priestly asceticism function as an artifice for preserving life.

It is plausible, then, to say that, at an appropriate level of abstraction, Foucault’s question inverts Nietzsche’s question: for where Nietzsche asks: how can a force (the ascetic ideal) that exists to negate life function to preserve life, Foucault asks: how can a force (modern state biopower) that exists to enhance life legitimately or justifiably function to let die and to demand death.

Put briefly, Nietzsche’s explanation and answer to the “how possibly” question he poses is that the ascetic priest, in interpreting human suffering in the perspective of guilt, assigns an end, nothingness, to human willing, and so rescues suffering life from a suicidal inclination to renounce willing. For, as Nietzsche famously remarks, “man would rather will nothingness than not will.”

Put briefly, Foucault’s explanation and answer to the “how possibly” question he poses is to be sought in his answer to another question, to which I shall shortly turn: “What in fact is racism?” (p. 254).

Comment 1.4

Just as it is important to identify the “how possibly” question that Foucault means to answer with his account of racism, so too is it important to identify the questions and concerns that he is not intending to address.

For example, Foucault is not intending to “trace the history of racism in the general and traditional sense of the term” (P.87).

Neither is he intending to explain what in Society he calls “ordinary racism,” which takes the form of “mutual contempt or hatred between races” (p.258), or what in Abnormal he calls “ethnic racism,” the prejudice or defense of one group against another (pp.316-17).

Finally, Foucault is not intending to explain racist scapegoating—what he describes as a sort of “ideological operation that allows states or a class to displace the hostility that is directed toward [them], or which is tormenting the social body, onto a mythical adversary” (p.258). With these remarks, Foucault no doubt means to distance himself from the Sartre of Anti-Semite and Jew, who argued that anti-Semitism is a “mythical, bourgeois representation of the class struggle” that sums up all social divisions in the distinction between “Jew and non-Jew.”

Part 2: Foucault’s Answer

Comment 2.1

Foucault’s question, what in fact is racism (p.254), is, in fact, short hand for two distinct questions: 1) what does modern racism amount to as a doctrine—as a set of claims; 2) what functions does this doctrine serve?

That Foucault is committed to answering the first question is already implied in his acknowledgment that racism antedates the modern state’s deployment of racism as a mechanism of power. Before the emergence of biopower, and before biopower inscribed racism in the mechanisms of the modern state, Foucault tells us that “[i]t [racism] had already been in existence for a very long time. But…it functioned elsewhere” (p. 254). The second question is the question that really interests Foucault, for to say what functions doctrinal racism serves after the emergence of biopower is precisely to say how its deployment as a mechanism of power effectively answers his “how possibly” question.

Comment 2.2

Considered as a doctrine Foucault identifies modern racism with “[t]he appearance within the biological continuum of the human race of races, the distinction among races, the hierarchy of races, the fact that certain races are described as good, and that others, in contrast, are described as inferior.”

At this point in his lecture, Foucault is summarizing and moving quickly, but what I take him to be setting forth here is a rather uncontroversial, ideal-typical account of Western race-thinking—what the philosopher Paul Taylor calls “classical racialism”—as it had taken shape by the end of the nineteenth century. Following Taylor, the key tenets of classical racialism include: 1) that the human race can be “exhaustively divided” into a few discrete racial subgroups; 2) that each of these subgroups is distinguished by a “unique set of heritable and physiologically traits,” most notably, morphological differences in complexion and body shape; 3) that these distinctive sets of physiological traits “vary…with distinctive sets of moral, cognitive, and cultural characteristics”; and 4) that the groups (races) defined by these clusters of traits can be ranked along “graduated scales of worth and capacity” (see Taylor, Race: A Philosophical Introduction, pp. 47-48)

Comment 2.3

Racism’s first function: to subdivide the human species

Here, Foucault is claiming that a) the emergence of biopower corresponds to a distinctive way of describing the human beings addressed by biopower (or “at whom” biopower is directed)—which is to say that biopower addresses human beings not as an aggregate “individuals,” or “individual bodies,” but as a “species” (a global mass) that is “affected by overall processes characteristic of birth, death, production, illness, and so on” (pp. 242-243); and b) that, in the wake of the emergence of biopower, the first function of doctrinal racism (classical racialism) is to “fragment” the human species; or, more precisely, to augment the description under which biopower addresses (or is directed at) human beings by describing them not simply as a species, but, additionally, as a “mixture” of subspecies, or races, into which the species is subdivided by biological type (pp.254-55).

Comment 2.4

Racism’s second function: to justify the state’s call for death (for murder, for extermination).

Foucault’s account of modern racism’s second function makes explicit his answer to the “how possibly” question he has posed.

More exactly, Foucault claims that the second function of doctrinal racism is to make possible the justification of modern state biopower by appeal to a political right to demand death, notwithstanding the consideration that the function of modern state biopower is to improve life.

Doctrinal racism serves this second function, precisely because it is a doctrine on the basis of which the state can justify and make acceptable its “murderous” actions by appeal to the right to demand death. But justify to whom? Who demands this justification? Is Foucault suggesting that citizens would withdraw (would have withdrawn?) their allegiance to the biopower state were it not able to justify or make acceptable its murderous actions by explaining how these actions improved life? If this is his view, what evidence supports it?

In short, doctrinal racism is a doctrine on the basis of which the state can argue that it is entitled to demand the death of some races—of “bad” and “inferior” races—because the extermination of those races “will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer;” or, in other words, because the extermination of those races will advance the cause of improving life, which, again, is the function of modern state biopower. (pp.255-56).

It is perhaps obvious that doctrinal racism could not serve its second function without serving its first function; or, in other words, that doctrinal racism could not serve its justificatory function unless it were the sort of doctrine that served to fragment the human species by dividing it into distinct races. Thus racism’s first function, no less than its second, plays a critical role in Foucault’s philosophical explanation of the legitimation of modern biopower by appeal to a political right to let die.

Note, finally, that Foucault’s account of doctrinal racism’s second function involves two theses, one weaker than the other.

The weak thesis—what I summarize above—is that doctrinal racism suffices to make possible the justification of modern state biopower by appeal to a political right to demand death.

The strong thesis is that doctrinal racism is necessary to make possible the justification of modern state biopower by appeal to a political right to demand death. Foucault asserts the strong thesis when he writes that racism is the “indispensable precondition that allows someone to be killed,” and that “[o]nce the State functions in the biopower mode, racism alone can justify the murderous function of the State” (p.256, my italics).

The weak thesis is plausible, the strong thesis less so.

With regard to the strong thesis Foucault neglects to show there are not other, non-racialist ways to conceptualize populations that could be adduced to justify “the murderous function” of the state in the biopower mode (e.g., with regard to the dangers presented by rates of population growth that exceed certain thresholds, the state could select individuals to kill by lot—thus, not by race).

 Comment 2.5

A further consideration of racism’s second function: a fifth tenet

Foucault’s account of racism’s second function involves the claim that modern racism obtains not only when the state undertakes to murder and exterminate the lower and inferior races, but, in addition, when it undertakes to murder the “abnormal” or “degenerate” members of the superior race.

As philosopher Ladelle McWhorter quite persuasively argues (see McWhorter’s Foucault-inspired, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America), this claim relies on the idea that, in addition to tenets 1)-4) identified in Paul Taylor’s definition of classical racialism, the doctrinal content of modern racism includes the claim 5), that morphological and physiological differences between racial types indicate differences in degrees of development, such that inferior races count as inferior because they are less well or imperfectly developed. In Foucault’s view, it is but a hort step from this fifth tenet to the argument that developmentally deficient (degenerate) members of the superior race—imbeciles, criminals, consumptives, masturbators, deaf-mutes, epileptics, psychopaths, homosexuals and Appalachian paupers—should be eliminated for the same reason that it is desirable to eliminate developmentally deficient inferior races: namely, to make life in general healthier and purer. Thus, if the white (Aryan, Nordic) race is the superior race, then doctrinal racism (fifth tenet included) allows modern biopower to argue that it is entitled to demand not only the murder of developmentally deficient non-white races, but, in addition, the murder of developmentally deficient members of the white race.  “Racism against the abnormal” is what Foucault calls racism directed against the developmentally deficient.

Comment 2.6

Objection 1: Foucault’s account of modern racism is too narrow, for it fails to acknowledge other functions that racism can serve.

To be sure, Foucault remarks that when he speaks of “killing” he means to include “every form of indirect murder: the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on.” That said, we may still worry that Foucault’s answer to the question “What in fact is racism,” overlooks some of the functions that doctrinal racism, or, again, classical racialism, served.

In other words, we may accept that doctrinal racism fragments the species and that, in so doing, it also makes possible the justification of state biopower by appeal to a right to demand death (not only literal death, but figurative and otherwise “indirect” death), yet still wish to take note of the other justificatory functions it has served during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; e.g., the function of justifying chattel slavery and, as Du Bois (Dusk of Dawn), Sartre (Critique of Dialectical Reason), and many others have noted, the function of justifying colonial economic exploitation.  Foucault is certainly right to note that colonialism involved genocide, but that is not all it involved (p.257).

Comment 2.7

Objection 2: Foucault’s account is too broad.

 It is too broad, for it loses sight of the historical, sociological, and ideological specificity of each of the different modes of oppression that Foucault comprehends under the notion of “racism against the abnormal. Taking account of the multi-dimensional specificities of modern anti-Semitism, modern anti-black racism, and modern anti-Arab racism, not to mention sexuality- and gender-based oppressions, or the intersection between different kinds of oppression, is likely to argue against the thesis that all these phenomena always or even typically satisfy the notion of racism against abnormal.

Comment 2.8

A final conjecture: that Foucault’s analysis is at once too narrow and too broad because he tends to equate Nazi racism with modern racism as such.

The thought here is that Foucault’s central example drives his argument, leading him to underestimate the functional scope of doctrinal racism and to overestimate the extension of the concept of racism against the abnormal.


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