Jesus Velasco | Three Questions on Power

By Jesús R. Velasco

Étienne Balibar and François Ewald have both delved into the complex relationship that Foucault entertained with Marxism, with Althusser, and with the maos. The lectures in Foucault’s Penal Theories and Institutions (PT&I) are a complex labyrinth of tens of passageways that, as François Ewald has suggested, constitute a critique of the State, and, even more so, of the appareil d’État. Now, this appareil d’État is clearly present in other contemporary interventions, interviews, and shorter publications, including his text “On popular justice”, already referred to by Bernard Harcourt.

There are many possible questions that come immediately to my mind, but some of them seem to me more urgent than others. I will simply posit three of them: I do not intend to monopolize the discussion, only to suggest possible questions that we may or may not address.

  1. In the first place, there is the question of power. We still remember very well the elegant and eloquent reading provided by Rosalind Morris on the Lectures on the Will to Know (see the video for 1/13, minute 101:17 and on), focusing on the problem of power as expressed in lesson 10th from March 3, 1971. It is clear to me that power is central, and balance of power will become even more central. But we cannot forget that power and the politics of power are, in PT&I expressed in terms of a complex retrospective juridical analysis. In order to do so, he –as we perfectly know—suggests to study the repressive forms and institutions of the State during the early modern period. He then goes back, not unlike some of his analyses in the Lectures on the Will to Know, to a series of initial states, including the transition from Germanic legal practices to more romanistic ones during the Middle Ages. It appears to me that there is something else going on here, not only a criticism of the State. I am wondering whether what he is actually submitting to critique is something he does not arrive to formulate, something that we could perhaps formulate in the following form: what happens when power becomes jurisdiction? What happens when the complexities of political powers and their dialectical relationships are reinterpreted as jurisdictional powers?
  2. I am interested in the thesis “power becomes jurisdiction”, or even on the thesis “power is jurisdiction” for the obvious reason that this is what my own research revolves around. But it’s also something else: it seems that what really concerns Foucault in this retrospective analysis –a conversation with the historiographers, rather than with history itself, or with historicism, or even with historical materialism—is the study of the processes whereby the concept of Justice and the administration of justice become an appareil d’état. I wonder whether the conversation is not only with Althusser and with other political theorists or activists, or even philosophers, but with something else. What could it be?
  3. Foucault rarely becomes interested in medieval history. He delves into the judicial models of the franco-French Middle Ages by reading bibliography from the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, as well as the enormous La Société féodale by Marc Bloch, whose tragic history completely changed the way medieval historiography was practiced in post-war France. PT&I are difficult to read in part because Foucault seems all too concerned in taking note of the historical details (minutia, even) he does not need to forget to mention. He is engaging with the historiographers of the Nu-pieds revolts (Porchnev and Mousnier, as we know), but, what is the debate he engages in when addressing the Middle Ages? Who are those other historiographers Claude-Olivier Doron does not talk about? In other words, why the Middle Ages –and they occupy half the lectures?

These are simply some of the questions that the reading of PT&I raise. Questions that, in fact, go to the heart of the problem –what is power.