Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue: Civil War, Protestant Ethics, and the Specificity of the Prison

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The third seminar (video here) on The Punitive Society, with Didier Fassin, Axel Honneth, and Nadia Urbinati, centered on three topics: (1) the model of civil war as a vehicle to analyze  relations of power throughout society; (2) the relationship between a genealogy of morals (or what Honneth referred to as Protestant Ethics) and a political economic analysis of punishment practices and power relations, with a foray into the body-soul dualism; and (3) the specificity of the prison and of mass incarceration in the United States today. Those three topics mirrored the three axes that Foucault used to situate his 1973 lectures: Hobbes, Marx, and Clausewitz [see TPS p. 271-279]. I will try to suggest here some closures and some openings toward future seminars in the Foucault 13/13 series.

I.  The Model of Civil War

Regarding the first theme, the suggestion [at 90:25] to place Foucault’s turn to civil war in conversation with Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political and of the friend-foe distinction, following Étienne Balibar’s parenthetical note at Foucault 2/13, prompted perhaps the most productive pushback. Adam Tooze’s objection [at 126:05] proposed instead to put the model of civil war in relation to Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic—a far more productive rather than repressive hypothesis. Tooze’s suggestion built on Kendall Thomas’ earlier remark about slavery [118:12] and intersected Rosalind Morris’s comments on debt bondage [129:30], as well as Neni Panourgià’s remarks on the reality of the prison archipelago in the rehabilitation camps of the Aegean, Kenya, and Malaysia after WWII [141:15].

The proposal was that the master-slave struggle in the Kojève-Hegelian tradition may fit better with the early 19th century struggles over industrialization and the accumulation of capital—over battles that are about property and wealth more than life or death. Axel Honneth returned to the question fruitfully at 151:15, though strenuously resisting the idea of a “French Hegel” [155:15]. In any event, rather than a “struggle to the death,” the idea here would be to understand civil strife as a productive moment, at a particular historical time when the privileged were establishing industrial wealth as against the popular working classes. Nadia Urbinati agreed and added, in subsequent conversation, that “the way Foucault thinks of ‘civil war’ is truly innovative and not reducible to Schmitt, who thinks that conflict must have an end in a unity (and unitary) solution, which is the state.”

There still remains, of course, the question of the violence of the discourse and practices of industrialization—recall the “monstrous delinquent of 19th century penalty” and the “degenerate race” [TPS p. 163-65], the production of the “criminal as social enemy,” as well as the violent repression of the Nu-pieds in 1639 discussed in Penal Theories and Institutions—as well as what Didier Fassin reminded us about the uniquely oppressive character of American mass incarceration. Perhaps, it is most important here to be precise about the historical period: Foucault was focusing specifically, as he indicated at the beginning on the second lecture of 10 January 1973, on the period 1825 to 1848. If we move to the contemporary American criminal justice system, especially in the Death Belt today, it may be different and we may in fact be facing a struggle to the death.

On all accounts, this rich discussion surrounding civil war laid a remarkable foundation for our forthcoming seminar on “Society must be defended” (1975–1976), which be held on 23 November 2015 and lead by Ann StolerPartha Chatterjee and Bob Gooding-Williams. The theme of civil war is at the heart of those 1976 lectures and so we will be able to return to that discussion in a few weeks.

II.  Moral Economies

The second topic on moralization and Protestant Ethics—namely, whether it is possible to marry a political economic account of power (fully developed by Foucault in TPS starting at p. 227, but also in his theory of illégalismes, see TPS p. 281-289) with a genealogical account of the moralization of the popular classes and their illégalismes (best articulated in Foucault’s exclamation “Go, and repent,” see TPS p. 156 note ** and 289-294)—led to a lively debate about the relationship between acting on the body and acting on the soul, or more generally the relationship between “a biopolitics and psychopolitics” in Honneth’s terms or “political and moral economies” in Fassin’s words. Honneth argued that “you can’t have it both ways” [48:50], which prompted a lot of pushback.  “We are not Cartesians,” interjected Jeremy Kessler, Ann Stoler, and Nadia Urbinati [104:22], pushing the conversation  instead towards concepts like “dispositions” or “ways of doing” as a way to bridge the dualism. Étienne Balibar interjected with a citation to Spinoza in support of the effort to bridge these dualities [105:00], while Joel Whitebook brought the conversation back to Foucault’s earlier analysis in The History of Madness [143:30].

The discussion of moral economies also triggered a productive discussion between Jean Cohen [at 122:45] and Axel Honneth [at 152:03] on the question of the functionalism of Foucault’s account, with Honneth adamantly maintaining, at the end of the seminar, that “Definitely, [Foucault] is not a functionalist.” [at 152:08]

Underlying the discussion was the pregnant question of subjectivity, which had been more on the surface in the first seminar Foucault 1/13 on Lectures on the Will to Know, but which receded somewhat in the texts of Penal Theories and Institutions and The Punitive Society. As we will see in April 2016, Foucault complained in 1984 that he had not paid sufficient attention to subjectivity during the early 1970s and in Discipline and Punish and emphasized that his theory of power-knowledge could not stand without the third element of the subject; the relative  absence of a discussion of subjectivity here may be a reflection of that.

However, the topic will emerge at our next seminar on 26 October 2015, Foucault 4/13 on the 1974 lectures Psychiatric Power, which will be led by Linda ZerilliAlondra Nelson, and Anna Lvovsky. Already on page 2 of Psychiatric Power, Foucault speaks of “an order which surrounds, penetrates, and works on bodies […] but which equally imprints itself on the nerves and what someone called ‘the soft fibers of the brain.’” Foucault 4/13 should give us an opportunity to explore these questions more deeply. The question of subjectivity will also come to the fore starting with The Government of the Living (1980), Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling (1981), and Subjectivity & Truth (1981) and of course throughout the following years of lectures.

Incidentally, Linda Zerilli, of the University of Chicago, is a visiting scholar this year at the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought and will be giving a seminar on “The Idea of a Critical Political Theory” and two other workshops. Please join us!

III.  The Specificity of the Prison

Didier Fassin urgently called on us to address “the singularity of imprisonment, the specific violence of confinement and the particular consequences—social, political, ethical—of the generalization of its use.” Nadia Urbinati equally pressed us for a political reading of the text, as well as to pay attention to the dearth of research on mass incarceration in the discipline of political science today [at 72:00]. Jesús R. Velasco also emphasized [at 1:05] the specificity of Foucault’s encounter with the “machinery” of the prisons, the riots, the movements (including the Black Panthers), and his other political experiences.

Kendall Thomas launched the discussion [at 118:12] with an interrogation of the place of slavery in Foucault’s text (TPS p. 68-70, discussing three models of punishment, infamy, talion, and slavery). Didier Fassin responded [at 146.48] by suggesting that there is something unique about the American prison experience today, different from France because of the history of slavery in this country, but also different from what was tolerated during the slave-plantation Antebellum period and even thereafter.

The problem with isolating, in an exclusive manner, the specificity of the prison is that it does not do justice, entirely, to Foucault’s project in The Punitive Society, which was, in large part, to critically explore both (a) the specificity of the prison and (b) the prison form as a model of disciplinary power throughout society:

  • The second aspect is crucial to the project and explains the very title of the lectures. It reflects a key dimension of Foucault’s intervention—the engagement with Clausewitz and Goffman (see TPS p. 273-276). Contra Goffman, Foucault highlights the continuity between total institutions and the outside world.
  • The first aspect was equally crucial to Foucault. At the time, in 1973, Foucault was centrally concerned with the unique “function of massive elimination in the American prison” and the stakes of the conflict could not have been higher. One of the investigations that the G.I.P. conducted at the time involved the death of George Jackson at San Quentin—Foucault would explicitly jot the reference down in his manuscript of TPS (see TPS p. 184 note 19 and p. 269). The title of the GIP’s Enquête Intolérance was: “The Assassination of George Jackson.” The text, written by Jean Genet who had been in contact with Jackson, is explicit: they described it as an “assassination.” “The death of George Jackson is not a prison accident. It is a political assassination. In America, assassination has been and remains today a mode of political action” (see TPS, p. 184 n.19).

The method that Foucault seems to employ here is to move back and forth between the specificity of the prison and the common thread of power relations more generally. There may be something to learn from this approach. Since we may not be returning to the topic of the prison and the punitive society so directly in our forthcoming seminars, I will post a separate comment analyzing mass incarceration in the United States, taking the dual approach as my guide.