Foucault 5/13 | Emmanuelle Saada: From Foucault to Foucault by Way of Canguilhem*—the History of Power

By Emmanuelle Saada

In Abnormal, Foucault studies “the emergence of the power of normalization, the way in which it has been formed, the way in which it has established itself without ever resting on a single institution but by establishing interactions between different institutions (i.e. judicial and medical institutions), and the way in which it has extended its sovereignty in our society” (26).  Thus, Abnormal (as well as the lectures from the previous year) is one of the most systematic explorations of the genealogical approach in Foucault’s work, after the 1971 “turn” from archeology. Very much like Bichat who had, according to The Birth of the Clinic, made “the medical gaze pivot on itself” in order to call death to account for life, Foucault here calls the “abnormals” to account for normative power. To grasp the importance of this move, one must first account for what might appears as a series of tensions in the demonstration, related to the way in which Foucault discusses power.

First, the historic demonstration of the pathologization of masturbation, so central to Foucault’s genealogy of normative power, is, if I may say so, a little anticlimactic. In his critique of the “repressive hypothesis”, he offers an apparently similar analysis when he explains the pathologization of masturbation by “a political and economic interest in the child’s survival. (…) The State demands from parents, and the new forms or relations of production require, that the costs entailed by the very existence of the family, by the parents and the recently born children, are not squandered by the early death of children.” (A, 255). At this point, “biopower” (the word does not appear in Foucault’s lectures) seems barely distinguishable from old capitalist power, especially as it also produces what strangely resembles what one could call ‘ideological effects’, such as the “trick” of the constitution of the “cellular family” around the control of the child’s sexuality, also described as “a great deception” organized by “the State, psychologists and psychologists” (A 257-8).

A few other instances of Foucault’s analytics of “power” are slightly disconcerting, at least to this reader. What does he mean when he evokes a “grotesque” or “ubuesque” power in the first lecture, which he associates with “the fact that, by virtue of their status, a discourse or an individual can have effects of power that their intrinsic qualities should disqualify them from having” (A, 11)? Does this imply that there is a more “qualified” form of power?

Another surprise can be found in the way Foucault describes “normative power” as different from judiciary and medical powers when he presents expert medico-legal opinion as a technique belonging neither to “judicial” nor to “medical” power: “it does not derive from a power that is either judicial or medical, but from a different type of power that for the moment I will provisionally call the power of normalization” (A, 42). What is this third kind of power, which, surprisingly, seems not to be linked to specific institutions and, in some ways, subsumes the two other more “concrete” forms of power? It is difficult not to see it here as a more fundamental—and maybe even more foundational—form of power, which obviously, again, seems not to fit with the complete immanence we associate with Foucault’s conception of power.

Finally, the saturation of Abnormal with the vocabulary and explanatory schemas of “mechanics” might make the reader pause for a while. Of course—and we are used to it at this point in his series of lectures—Foucault conceives of power as a technique because it implies relations between individuals and groups and because, and this is an absolutely crucial point, it is always “physical.”[1]  Throughout Abnormal, power uses technologies, produces effects through mechanisms, which Foucault describes in several occasions as “cogs” (rouages) (A 12 and passim). The spoken rhetoric of Foucault, who tells us, rightly, that he is repeating himself again and again, reinforces the impression that the recourse to “mechanisms” is sometimes a little … “mechanistic”.

Of course, we all know that Foucault’s project is not to reintroduce a form of necessity in history. And to help us here, he takes the precaution of reminding us that mechanisms and technologies of power have no agency: they are themselves produced in the course of the transformation of relations of power (A, 110). Yet one needs to interrogate a little more deeply the workings of the myriad forms of mechanisms that Foucault is obsessed with because they introduce into the historical demonstration a degree of rigidity—in the end, a form of localized, and always fragile, necessity.

First, one can note that the existence of mechanisms is not incompatible with sheer contingency. Au contraire, the genealogy of the power of normalization places contingency at its core, even if this is in a rather discreet manner in the course of the lectures. The zooming in of psychiatry on the body, Foucault shows, is the utterly contingent result of the fact that the confession was first perfected in seminaries, that is, in places in which sexual relations were mostly with oneself. In addition,  seminaries later became the model of the institutions of secondary education (A, 191) which allowed for a “distribution” of the techniques of confession to the education of the bourgeoisie and, ultimately, to the transformation of childhood as the main “point of application” of psychiatric power.

Moreover, the mechanics of power are obviously not incompatible with practices of resistance and the exercise of freedom. On the contrary, in the lectures, as well as in the rest of Foucault’s work, resistance, if not everywhere, is nonetheless essential. It appears as constitutive of the constant adjustment of mechanisms of power. It incessantly responds to, displaces and transforms power. In Abnormal, the affair of the Possessed of Loudun (Possédés de Loudun) in the 1630s, described at length in the February 26th lecture, is another pivotal moment in the demonstration. The possessed’s body is seized by the demon, a phenomenon that “follows the trajectory” of the new technique of confession while also indicating its limits. For Foucault, it is a point of “reversal” and a form of resistance to a new wave of Christianization and to the new power of normalization. The church’s response to this problem is first the enunciation of a “new rule of reserved enunciation” which will parallel “the rule of exhaustive and exclusive discourse” (A, 220).[2] The second tool used by the church constitutes an essential step in Foucault’s historical narrative. It is the “external transfer: (the) expulsion of the convulsive (…) It is at this point that the major and famous transfer of power to medicine begins “ (A, 221). The expulsion of the possessed from the church to psychiatry is an essential moment in medicine’s “hygienic control of sexuality” and its appropriation of the “domain of the flesh” (A, 223). Ultimately, this is also how “psychiatry was able to construct hystero-epilepsy” (A, 224).

Still, we are left with the tension between contingency and freedom on one hand and what we could characterize as a “local necessity” in the form of “cogs” in the machine of (normative) power. I think that understanding these tensions, these zones of friction within Foucault’s lectures, might benefit from exploring how much these texts owe to a discussion of Georges Canguilhem’s work on norms. Second –and it is correlated with this first point– it is also important to situate the 1974-75 lectures in a trajectory that is marked as much by the pushing aside of Marxism as by the progressive abandonment of the concept of “society” as a meaningful category of historical analysis in Foucault’s work.

Toward the end of the second lecture  (January 15th, 1975), Foucault announces that he draws three main ideas from Canguilhem: (1) there was a “general process of social, political and technical normalization starting in the 18th century”, (2) the norm does not function as “a natural law” but exercises an “exacting and coercive role” and finally (3) the norm brings a “principle of both qualification and correction”(A, 49-50).

To unpack further the articulation between Foucault and Canguilhem, one can note that for both norms are productive—they are not constituted by an outside force but they are in themselves constitutive of specific forms of life. For Canguilhem, biological norms are not a given of nature but the result of life affirming itself against illness and, ultimately, death. A norm is, in a way, a reaction (this is why “the abnormal is existentially first”). But life’s reaction is also definition and designation of the abnormal, which becomes “the effect of the normative project”, the “norm exhibited in the fact”. In that sense, the abnormal is “logically second”(Normal and Pathological, 149). This is why the concept of norm is “polemical” as Foucault notes in the January 15th lecture.

This has important methodological consequences for Foucault’s project. In Canguilhem’s work, the “force of life” manifests itself only through its errors, its failures, when it stumbles over obstacles that limit it. And this is why the “knowledge of life” (connaissance de la vie) rests on an understanding of the pathological, the abnormal.  In this sense, biology is not a knowledge of the “laws” of life, but of the norms it produces.[3] In this process, biology distances itself from mechanics. One understands better, I think, not only the centrality of Abnormal to a genealogy of power but also the potential tension between the study of norms and the project of a (micro)physics of power. This is because norms are constantly being produced – and are producing effects —in the context of the movements of social life. “The concept of normalization excludes that of immutability, includes the anticipation of a possible flexibility” (Normal and Pathological, 152). Yet—and this is an essential point for understanding the insistence on the “mechanics” of power in Foucault—the integration of different norms in society seems to produce a certain degree of rigidity, through institutions of knowledge and power. Not everything moves all the time. In Canguilhem’s words, borrowing from Auguste Comte, “society is both a machine and organism” (Normal and Pathological, 155). Foucault says something very similar when he describes the “solidity and suppleness” of dispositifs as “different strategies which are mutually opposed, composed and superposed so as to produce permanent and solid effects.”[4]

The realization of the normativity of life, both biological and social, I believe, will inform Foucault’s turn to the “subject” in the years following these lectures, when he will no longer interrogate individuals as objects of norms but as their subjects.

The project of a genealogy of normative power is also associated with the disappearance of the notions of “Society” and the “social” as useful categories of historical and political analysis in Foucault’s work. This progression is obvious to the attentive reader of the sequence of books from Penal Theories and Institutions (1971-72) to “Society must be defended” (1975-76). In the first books, and especially in Punitive Society, “society”, coupled with the “state”, is the place where social wars are waged (see for ex. Lecture of February 21, 1973). From one title to the other, society goes from being the subject exerting punishment (La société punitive) to an object of discourse, which is itself an object of Foucault’s exploration (Il faut défendre la société).  The use of these categories in the early years is obviously linked to the very Marxian script that Foucault is following at the time. A few years later, in Il faut défendre la société, “society” is no longer a category used by Foucault in his demonstration but the object of the discourse on security and danger.  This displacement is, I think, partly the result of the central place given to norms. In the Durkheimain paradigm— still dominating French sociology in the 1970s and irrigating the work of sociologists read and quoted by Foucault, such as Bourdieu and Passeron—norms are second to society; they are nothing more than “laws” in the sense that they crystalize forms of collective morality. When norms take center stage, they are no longer “laws” reflecting social morphology, but affirmations of preference and disqualification of abnormals which shape relations between individuals and between groups. There is no longer a coherent and static “Society” that can be analyzed as an entity sui generis, a reality larger than the sum of its parts, to borrow from the Durkheimian analytical apparatus. Society is not even the scene on which social wars are waged and behind which power hides itself (as it is described in the note at the end of the January 3d, 1973 lecture) but only the object of a specific discourse at a certain point in the history of power.

More than his previous work on the History of Madness or his critiques in Archeology of knowledge, it is this displacement of “society” that led, I think, to a break between Foucault and the French historians of his time—most of them practicing one form or another of social history inspired by Durkheimian sociology. But, by freeing us from society and by directing us to the centrality of norms, Foucault’s project has opened up many new paths for the history of power.


*The title would like to point to the fact that this reading of Les Anormaux is largely indebted to the reading of Pierre Macherey, De Canguilhem à Foucault. La forces des normes (Paris, La Fabrique, 2009) and most specifically of the short text in this volume entitled « From Canguilhem to Canguilhem by Way of Foucault », included in an English translation of Macherey’s essays (In a Materialist Way, Selected Essays, Walter Montag, 1998).

[1] Michel Foucault, Le Pouvoir psychiatrique, Paris, EHESS/Gallimard, p.16

[2] One might infer that the partisans of the « repressive hypothesis » were blinded by this new (and maybe more explicit) rule to the point that they neglected the first rule of “constant discourse.”

[3] La Connaissance de la vie is the title of another important collection of essays by Canguilhem (Paris, Vrin, 1952).

[4] Michel Foucault “Questions of Method”, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governementality. The University of Chicago Press, 1991, p.80-1.