Foucault 5/13: Introducing *Abnormal* (1974-1975)

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“This year, then, instead of considering the mechanics of the disciplinary apparatus, I will be looking at their effects of normalization, at what they are directed toward, the effects they can achieve and that can be grouped under the rubric of ‘normalization.’” Foucault, Abnormal, p. 49.

From the careful analyses of the maneuvers of psychiatric power in the previous year’s lectures (1973-1974)—with their intense focus on the psychiatrist’s techniques of questioning, surveillance, control, medication, in sum, the intense focus on those “microphysics of power”—Foucault turns in his lectures on The Abnormals, in January 1975, to the specific element of “normalization” that forms an integral part of the disciplinary mechanisms that Foucault fully articulates only one month later with the publication, on February 9, 1975, of Discipline and Punish.

Foucault’s book on prisons, it turns out, will be released smack in the middle of these 1975 lectures, between the fifth (5 February 1975) and sixth (12 February 1975) lectures.

With the 1975 book off to press, Foucault has already turned his attention to The History of Sexuality, Volume I (La Volonté de savoir), which will be published the following year, in 1976. His effort in these 1975 lectures is to analyze “how, from the seventeenth to the end of the nineteenth century, normalization was attempted in the domain of sexuality.” (Abnormal, p. 52). And at the core of this concept of the abnormal are the sexual monsters of the nineteenth century, the “hermaphrodite,” the perverse, and the masturbating child. The notion of abnormality, in fact, will be developed primarily in the context of sexuality and intended as a direct counter to the repressive hypothesis (Abnormal, p. 42). By sharp contrast to the then-recently published translation of Van Ussel’s book, Histoire de la répression de la sexualité, Foucault emphasizes: “I would like to suggest a different conception of power [than repression], a different type of analysis of power, through the analysis I will be undertaking of the normalization of sexuality since the seventeenth century.” (Abnormal, p. 43).  

To do so, Foucault draws explicitly on George Canguilhem’s work, On the Normal and the Pathological, in order to glean the way in which the norm functions positively in the domains in which it is applied (the family, the army, production, etc.) to bring about correction and transformation. (Abnormal, p. 49-50). Normalization, Foucault argues, erupts on the scene in the nineteenth century neither as a product of the juridical institutions, nor the medical ones. It is, rather, a third element and it introduces a new “field of gradation from the normal to the abnormal.” (Abnormal, p. 41). After rehearsing the history of the political economy of punishment that serves as a recap of Discipline and Punish (Abnormal, pp. 82-92), Foucault launches into a history of the moral and sexual monster. He traces its genealogy back to the early figure of the political monster—to the dual figures of the incestuous monarch (“Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette as monstrous, bloodthirsty couple, both jackal and hyena”) and the cannibalistic popular classes in revolt (Abnormal, p. 97-104)—and then forward to the sexual monsters of Christian discourse, psychoanalytic theory, psychopathology, and psychiatrization.

These 1975 lectures prefigure many of the themes that Foucault will address later, including the diagnosis of monomania (12 February 1975) and the function and practices of avowal (19 February 1975) that he discusses at length in Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling in 1981, as well as the Christian art of penance (26 February 1975) to which he will return in his lectures throughout the early 1980s. We also witness Foucault is moving from disciplinary power to those “arts of governing” that will become so central to his notion of critique in 1978 (What is Critique?) and to his concept of governmentality in the 1978 and 1979 lectures. “The Classical Age,” Foucault writes, “developed what could be called an ‘art of governing,’ in the sense in which ‘government’ was then understood as precisely the ‘government’ of children, the ‘government’ of the mad, the ‘government’ of the poor, and before long, the ‘government’ of workers.” (Abnormal, p. 48-49).

Foucault concludes the 1975 lectures on the question of degeneration and heredity, and racism (19 March 1975). These themes of racism and social defense will form the core of next year’s lectures, “Society Must Be Defended.” “The racism that psychiatry gave birth to in this period,” Foucault says, “is racism against the abnormal, against individuals who, as carriers of a condition, a stigmata, or any defect whatsoever, may more or less randomly transmit to their heirs the unpredictable consequences of the evil, or rather of the non-normal, that they carry within them.” (Abnormal, p. 316-317). Foucault then adds: “I think, then, that these new forms of racism, which took hold in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, should be linked historically to psychiatry.” (Abnormal, p. 316). This, of course, ties directly into next year’s lectures.

For Foucault 5/13, an intense conversation on Abnormal, we are delighted to be joined by Veena Das, Emmanuelle Saada, and Pierre Rosanvallon.  Professor Das will start by interrogating the relationship between Foucault’s idea of biological norms and how they diverge from Canguilhem’s understanding of error, and then push the conversation to explore the new forms that the figures of the monster, the individual in need of correction, and the masturbating child have taken today.

Welcome to Foucault 5/13!