Stuart Elden | From Dynastics to Genealogy

By Stuart Elden

I’ve written about The Punitive Society course by Foucault before, particularly in a review essay which appeared in Historical Materialism, and then in my book Foucault: The Birth of Power which appeared with Polity in 2017. That was a book based on both textual and archival research, an attempt to trace how Foucault moved from The Archaeology of Knowledge in 1969 to Surveiller et punir, Discipline and Punish in 1975. I did this by privileging two main sources of information – his early courses at the Collège de France, and his political activism.

With the courses, I was particularly interested in how each of the first three courses took a particular schema of power-knowledge as its principal focus: measure, inquiry, examination; in Lectures on the Will to Know, Penal Theories and Institutions, The Punitive Society. And then how they were explored through a range of historical topics, even as the contemporary moment was not very far away. The opening of the second course, Penal Theories and Institutions, begins with the suggestion that those looking for the “reason for these lectures” need “only to open one’s eyes” (PTI 3/1). In a Latin Quarter still scarred by the 1968 events, and remaining heavily policed, Foucault’s audience would have surely known what he meant. Bernard Harcourt and his colleagues’ editorial work on this volume and The Punitive Society is invaluable in situating these lectures back in that and other contexts.

With Foucault’s activism, in the book I do discuss the work of the GIP, the Prisons Information Group, of course. This is on the basis of the group’s publications; the valuable archival and documentary work of Philippe Artières and his colleagues, of which a good sample will be at long last in English translation in 2021; and on my own archival work at IMEC which houses the GIP papers. But I also tried to tie Foucault’s work on medicine and mental illness in this period to his activism, particularly in a discussion of his lesser-known work with the Groupe Information Santé. Their work on questions concerning abortion rights, industrial accidents and immigrant health is, I think, an important part of the story, the contexts for these lectures and other academic work.

In returning to The Punitive Society for this session I was struck by one word. The word I want to focus on briefly is the notion of ‘dynastics’.

When people think of Foucault’s shift to a different or complementary approach to archaeology in the 1970s, we usually talk of genealogy. This, in name at least, is indebted to Nietzsche.  Foucault does of course use that term ‘genealogy’ very frequently to describe what he is doing. There are a lot of complexities about that term, but I think we can give a few indications.

Genealogy is mentioned in ‘The Order of Discourse’ in December 1970, where critical analyses and genealogical ones are contrasted. Foucault had lectured on Nietzsche and genealogy before this, but had not used it to describe his own work, except for a 1967 suggestion that “my archaeology owes more to Nietzschean genealogy than to structuralism properly so called” (DE I, 599).

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, genealogy is generally an object of study, rather than an approach to it. In Lectures on the Will to Know, for example, Foucault talks quite a bit about genealogy, but this is in terms of the lineage of kings, ancestors and heroes. He also writes the ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ essay around this time, drawing on earlier teaching. But in this it is very much a description of what Nietzsche is doing. Foucault is not claiming this is his approach, at least not yet.

It is only really in 1974, with the Psychiatric Power course, that he says that his work provides a sketch of the ‘genealogy of knowledge [connaissance]’, which he sees as “the indispensable historical other side [envers] to the archaeology of knowledge [savoir]” (PP 239/239). He describes his approach in Discipline and Punish in 1975 as a genealogy, and in a 1975 interview says that “if I wanted to be being pretentious, I would use the ‘the genealogy of morals’ as the general title of what I am doing” (DE II, 753). From this point on, 1975, Foucault uses the term ‘genealogy’ fairly generally to describe what he is doing.

But between 1970 and these examples from the mid 1970s, Foucault does not use ‘genealogy’ to describe an approach. It was either a notion seen as explicitly Nietzschean, or a general descriptor of a contrast to a critical approach, or an object of study itself. Instead, in the early 1970s, Foucault uses another term, which for a while at least seems to be the more likely complementary approach to archaeology. This term is dynasty, a dynastic or a dynastics.

Foucault uses the term dynastic in both his second and third lecture courses at the Collège de France. To my knowledge the first use of the term is on 15 December 1971 in the third lecture of Penal Theories and Institutions. Foucault is exploring the revolt of the Nu-pieds, and suggests we must analyse this not through “a semiotics of the elements, but in a dynastic of forces” (PTI 47/45). He repeats this formulation later in the course (PTI 199/199), and then in the closing lecture, when he contrasts the history of sciences with the archaeology of knowledge and the dynastic of knowledge.

On 8 March 1972 he suggests we have three levels:

  • the history of the sc[iences] on the basis of which reduction to epistemological matrices enables us to pass
  • to the archaeology of knowledge: on the basis of which the excavation of the juridico-political matrices of knowledge [savoir].
  • enables us to pass to the level of knowledge-power. The level where extra profit, extra power and extra knowledge are linked together.

Study of the dynastic of knowledge [savoir] (PTI 215/215).

So, we have three levels: history of sciences; archaeology of knowledge; knowledge-power. To approach the latter we have a dynastic of knowledge (PTI 215/215); earlier a dynastic of forces (PTI 47/45). One important thing that comes from this is the sense that it connects both knowledge and power, or here forces. It is not archaeology just for knowledge, and the dynastic only for power.

Bernard Harcourt of course, edited Penal Theories and Institutions and The Punitive Society, and the most substantial discussion of what Foucault meant by the term ‘dynastics’ can be found in his editorial notes to these courses (especially PTI 53-55 n. 16/PTI 51-53 n. 16). He gives all the textual indications, both in these courses and in an important 1972 interview given in Japan (DE II, 406; not translated into English). The key thing I’d add is that we need to explore the dynastic alongside the genealogical – tracing the emergence of one and the eclipse of the other.

The dynastic is also a term used in The Punitive Society when Foucault talks, on 31 January 1973:

The problem is precisely to find this apparatus [appareil] of power and to see how the prison form [forme-prison] could effectively be inserted and become an instrument in power relations. Until now, we have been studying the threads [trames, frames] of possible derivations: for example, how within the theoretical and practical penal system, ideas and institutions join up with each other. Now it is a matter of finding the relations of power that make possible the historical emergence of something like the prison. After an archaeological type of analysis, it is a matter of undertaking a dynastic type of analysis, genealogical [type of analysis], focusing on filiations on the basis of power relations (PS 86/83-4).

So, the term in its 1973 use is paired with genealogy. But to get there, Foucault works through a number of stages. There is an explicit nod to the previous year’s course title of Penal Theories and Institutions, but this is now specified in a bit more detail: theoretical and practical; ideas and institutions. He asks what is it which makes possible “the historical emergence of something like the prison”. Foucault is indicating “a dynastic type of analysis, genealogical [type of analysis]” as the mode of inquiry proper to this question.

But a bit later in the course, on 7 February 1973, Foucault explicitly contrasts archaeology with genealogy. He is talking about the relation between two ensembles: “the penal ensemble, characterised by the prohibition and the sanction, the law; and the punitive ensemble, characterized by the coercive penitentiary system” (PS 114/111). Both of these can be examined individually, tracing their emergence from, respectively, the State institutionalisation of justice, and the capitalist mode of production. Foucault’s question, however, extends beyond an archaeological one. “Thus the genealogical problem is to know [savoir] how these two ensembles, of different origins, came to be added together and function inside the same tactic” (PS 114-5/111). Here Foucault does not mention the dynastic; it is a genealogical problem.

After 1973, Foucault tends to use the term ‘dynastic’ to describe relations, rather than as an approach to history. For example, in Psychiatric Power in 1974, he describes “the traditional dynasty of schools, barracks, prisons and so forth” (PS 81/79). There are some instances in The Abnormals in 1975 where it seems a bit more ambiguous: “the dynasty of the extended series of ambiguities”; “the great dynasty of the history of convulsions”; “the dynasty of the different sexual aberrations”, among others (A 19/20, 264/279). By ‘Society Must Be Defended’ in 1976 Foucault uses the term in a more traditional sense of lineages of royalty. Here it is similar to the way Georges Dumézil uses the term “dynastic history”, in the conventional sense of writing the history of a dynasty, in, for example his Mitra-Varuna or Mythe et epopée.

And at this time, by the mid 1970s, especially in relation to the History of Sexuality, Foucault is more explicit in using the label of genealogy to describe what he is doing. A timeline of the uses seems important, because we read these courses in the light of books and other publications which came after them chronologically, but were published long before. Add to this the way that the courses were published in non-chronological order, and it becomes possible to think that there is something there which is not, actually, explicitly stated. Tracing the genealogy of genealogy, the dynastics of this conceptual dynasty requires a different approach.

My one qualification to Harcourt’s notes is that Foucault does not use the terms genealogical and dynastic together very often. “If Foucault often employs the terms ‘genealogical’ and ‘dynastic’ in equivalent ways at this time, the dynastic nevertheless has certain characteristics that it is worth picking out” (PTI 53 n. 16/52 n. 16; see 217 n. 3/217 n. 3; 217-8 n. 5/217 n.4). Indeed, I think there is only one instance when Foucault unambiguously equates the terms. The instance in The Punitive Society is the first time that Foucault uses the genealogical and the dynastic in an equivalent way; and it is also the last time – with genealogy replacing the term to describe an approach from this point on.

This course we are discussing therefore is the moment when Foucault hands the baton to genealogy to stand for what he had previously described as the dynastic. A crucial moment therefore comes in this course on 7 February 1973 where Foucault contrasts the archaeological and genealogical approaches to the analysis of the penal ensemble and the punitive ensemble (PS 114-15/111).

So, in bringing us back to the conflux of the penal and the punitive, the focus of our discussions here, I want to spare a moment to think about the way we might examine them.

References to Foucault’s Work

A          Les Anormaux: Cours au Collège de France (1974-1975), edited by Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Salomani, Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1999; translated by Graham Burchell as Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975, London: Verso, 2003.

DE        Dits et écrits 1954–1988, edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald, Paris: Gallimard, Four Volumes, 1994.

DP        Surveiller et punir – Naissance de la prison, Paris: Gallimard/Tel, 1975; translated by Alan Sheridan as Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin, 1976.

PP        Le pouvoir psychiatrique: Cours au Collège de France (1973-1974), edited by Jacques Lagrange, Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2003; translated by Graham Burchell as Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France 1973-74, London: Palgrave, 2006.

PS        La société punitive: Cours au Collège de France (1972-73), edited by Bernard E. Harcourt, Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2013; translated by Graham Burchell as The Punitive Society: Lectures at the Collège de France 1972-73, London: Palgrave, 2015.

PTI       Théories et institutions pénales: Cours au Collège de France (1971-1972), edited by Bernard E. Harcourt, Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2015; translated by Graham Burchell as Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France 1971-1972, London: Palgrave, 2019.