The Critical Attitude

By Alex Campolo

In addition to the varied and fascinating historical content analyzed by Michel Foucault in his Collège de France lectures—peasant rebellions, demonic possession, and of course Gary Becker—another way to follow the movement of his thought over the course of these thirteen years is through his comments on method. The opportunity to follow these reflexive moments has been one of the many benefits of the chronological reading undertaken in the Foucault 13/13 series. The more open, even experimental style of the lectures allows Foucault to revisit and reflect on his methodological commitments in ways that his published works foreclose—notably the cold and rigid Archaeology of Knowledge. The 1979-1980 lectures On the Government of the Living, which signal yet another methodological turning point, allow us to reflect on this ongoing movement of thought by opening the question of the critical attitude that would characterize much of Foucault’s work in the 1980s.

Beginning with the 1970-1971 Lectures on the Will to Know Foucault sets out a series of ambitious and often unrealized methodological projects. These include the proposed study of juridical modes of inquiry, “illegalisms” and penality in the lectures from the early 1970s, a reevaluation of his work on madness, psychiatry, and abnormality in 1974 and 1975, the striking analytics of war, power, and the newly-coined term “biopolitics” in “Society Must Be Defended,” a methodological interest in governmentality and pastoral power in the 1978 and 1979 lectures, and finally, in On the Government of the Living a call to study “regimes of truth” oriented toward—as Michel Senellart observes in the course context—a new or newly conceived set of objects: the subject, the ways in which truth is manifested, and government (327).

Two key methodological lectures come early in the course: January 30 and February 6, 1980. The latter introduces the more fully-developed concept of “regimes of truth” meant to revise Foucault’s own archeological—now “anaracheological”—method (100). However, I would like to focus on the less systematic but perhaps more suggestive January 30 lecture. After finishing his analysis of Oedipus the King, itself a reworking of material from 1971, Foucault sets out the stakes and method of his forthcoming investigation of Christian thought. He begins by criticizing a representational theory of ideology in a familiar refrain: “It is not the critique of representations in terms of truth or error, truth or falsity, ideology or science, rationality or irrationality that should serve as indicator for defining the legitimacy or denouncing the the illegitimacy of power” (77). Instead, Foucault argues, “It is the moment of freeing oneself from power that should serve as revealer in the transformations of the subject and the relation the subject maintains with the truth” (77). Another familiar move—the displacement of an (admittedly caricatured) ideological problematic with the question of the subject and truth. [1]

What comes next is more interesting, and seems like the emergence of a genuinely new interest for Foucault. He admits that this type of analysis or method rests not on a thesis but on a “standpoint” that involves a certain “attitude that consists, first, in thinking that no power goes without saying, that no power, of whatever kind, is obvious or inevitable, and that consequently no power warrants being taken for granted. Power has no intrinsic legitimacy.” Foucault immediately recognizes the political potential of such an analysis—“the social contract is a bluff and civil society a children’s story” (77)—but I would instead like to emphasize the term “attitude.”

The question of a critical attitude immediately suggests a link to the influential 1984 essay, “What is Enlightenment?” (reproduced in Dits et Écrits II, n°339) in which the question of attitude becomes nothing less than an alternative means for understanding modernity, not as a historical period but rather as the reactivation of an ethos. This claim has provoked some of the most interesting developments in recent Foucault scholarship, particularly Judith Revel’s (2015) Foucault avec Merleau-Ponty, which elaborates beautifully on this point. For our own purpose in Foucault 13/13 I would like to ask how the additional contextual information from On the Government of the Living as well as the preceding lectures might enrich our own understanding and usage of this attitude as a methodological principle.

For example, can the question of a critical attitude help us complicate or enrich the familiar oppositions between archaeology, genealogy, and subjectivity that tend to dominate historiographical and philosophical characterizations of Foucault’s work. While these oppositions are of course defensible—Foucault himself clearly endorses versions of them at different points—they seem inadequate to capture the breadth and motion of methodological styles that developed in the lectures. How might we use the methodological clue of a critical attitude or standpoint to cut across these well-worn perceived breaks in Foucault’s work? As an example: would it be possible to retroactively reread Foucault’s brilliant analysis of classical political economy in The Birth of Biopolitics as a particular historical activation of the critical attitude responding to Raison d’État as well as a genealogy of liberalism and neoliberalism?

Perhaps the broader lesson of a systematic reading of the lectures is to pay close attention to the moments when Foucault reflects critically and self-consciously on his own thought and method. One of the many benefits, even pleasures of the Foucault 13/13 has been following the extraordinary willingness of Foucault to revisit and revise his own work. What new avenues for research will these moments open for a new generation of Foucault scholars?


[1] The question of ideology, the subject, and Foucault’s complicated relationship with Marxism could certainly be developed in more detail and was in part the subject of Etienne Balibar’s seminar this fall at Columbia University.


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