Ann Stoler on Reading Foucault Today

By Ann Stoler (Footnotes need to be linked)

Before beginning, I want to thank Bernard and Jesus for conceiving of this project and for making possible the participation of so many of us long immersed in Foucault’s work, the gathering in of those for whom Foucault has perhaps remained a distant interlocutor, and for us all, enabling the collective experience of an intellectual and political vertigo in finding ourselves following new threads, humbled by what we had not seen, startled by the intricacy of his weave, animated by the call and privilege of participating in these successive occasions to track his meticulous precision and precarious (and might we even say sometimes dubious) leaps offered by working so slowly (if never quite slowly enough!) through each of these thirteen years of his arduous analytic movement and labor.

For what emerges as perhaps never before in this venture is not only the force of the vocabularies and concepts we have long rehearsed, here offered in their demonstrative and historical activation, but strikingly precipitant moments in his assault on the obvious and on our conceptual habits  (and not least his own).

We know that our project is not to find the originary site or kernel of his thinking (a project he would have abhorred) but rather the dispersed beginnings evident in unanticipated forays, reversals, and arrested gestures –the quixotic forms in which a genealogical pursuit defies any smooth course, the easy access it warns against and wards off. This is something that the accretion of Foucault’s thinking with our own seems to highlight, make more available to examine, to concerted query, and collective thought.  This is not to argue for a teleological sighting of all the traces leading to an ultimate crescendo in state racism or in the conceptualization of a biopolitical regime but something equally difficult to capture: what we seem to be witness to in these lectures is a doubly-inflected genealogical pursuit: one, of Foucault’s own thought, both the arrested as well as abandoned trajectories, the deviations from what seemed to be his course, (and as I mentioned last week, his transformed thinking about what a dispositif does and therefore is at it morphs conceptually from a thing or an apparatus to a nexus/network of forces and force).  And two, coupled with the first, the making and enacting of a vivid genealogical exercise, the tracking of the emergence of a lethal political morphology we may not otherwise have been able to identify with such clarity before.

And should we ever have imagined that Foucault was writing a history of sexuality, of racism, or of the state (STP: 282) (and how could we not, when “The History of Sexuality” was rendered as the English language title of the first volume of Volonté du savoir?) he insists that it is not; that he is after something else: a “sort of reflexive prism” a “practico-reflexive prism” that he sought “to isolate” (STP: 283). The adjective “reflexive” is key, for it is how something has come to be reflected upon, has become made “real” as a discernable knowledge-thing; epistemologically (how do we know what we know, how did they think they knew what they knew?), politically, what are its effects, and how does a set of reflexive, reflective — performed, embodied, spoken—strategic alignments in the making of knowledge create that which is purported only to be described?

None of the lectures to my mind, so searingly speak to the query: “why Foucault now?” as the lectures we convene around today.  I take to heart Bernard’s and Jesus’ invitation to pause and to resist a faster pace, without relinquishing the urgency of working through what slower thought might afford. Still, if one ever wondered about the ‘relevance’ of Foucault’s lectures to our contemporary condition, the events of the last week do more than bring them into sharp relief.

When France’s President Hollande declared this past Friday that that the assaults last week were an “act of war” on the part of ISIS, his affirmation that France is now suddenly “at war” both instantiates and denies the very analysis that Foucault here so insists upon: on the one hand, instantiating a discourse of war ingrained in modern politics, strategically called upon to galvanize new forms of force and condone more directed violence; on the other hand, erasing the very duration and durability of a composite of historical relations of war not precipitated by ISIS but part and parcel of an a ongoing permanent war (or is it sedimented wars?) of which ISIS may be seen as the effect, the consequences of a lethal war of biopolitical racialized states in their life affirming mode (see Etienne Balibar’s essay “Dans la guerre” in Libération.) One might posit that ISIS is only one exemplary mode in which insurrectionary knowledge works, or as Rancière would define politics, how those deemed unqualified, makes themselves visible and qualify themselves.[1]

However, it is the “blowback,”  –increased surveillance, heightened security, closed borders, more intense islamophobia (could there be more?), the gains that Marine Le Pen will marshal in coming elections, the manhunts that will continue, perhaps more than last week’s events, that may be where Foucault’s insights about the intensely racialized qualities of the biopolitical modern state –and the affective charges it emits and depends upon — most palpably lie.

Having written about these lectures some twenty years ago before they were published, broaching then today in this high voltage, violent racialized present is  both an awkward and disquieting task.  I neither assume that Race and Education of Desire is a known quantity, nor do I have any desire to rehearse what I have written before.  The work I was doing in the early l990s, then steeped in the Dutch and French colonial archives tracking the management of sexuality and race as “dense transfer points of power” collusively imbricated in the making of colonial governance, made it hard NOT to ask at the time why Foucault set aside so assiduously those very sites where his case could have been so persuasively and poignantly made. And then there was his invocation of state racism emerging in the final chapter of The History of Sexuality (which Foucault opined in l977 that few people had actually ever read.)[2] The reception when the last of the l976 lectures appeared in Temps modernes in 1991 under the unambiguous –and one would think attention grabbing — title “To make live and let die: the birth of racism” barely merited an intellectual or political node (Pasquale Pasquino as an exception).[3] And again when the l976 lectures were published in l997, it was biopower and decidedly not state racism that commanded attention.

Doing research in what some have since considered the “experimental laboratory” of Front National support that same year, in the dismal town of Vitrolles, where Marie Le Pen’s right hand man, Bruno Mégret had installed his wholly inept wife in his place as mayor, where blackshirt police armed with truncheons patrolled the “immigrant” quarters, where premiums were to be proposed to families producing wholly French babies (sic), again it was difficult to understand how Foucault was being (mis)read.

But perhaps what was most disquieting in tacking between French colonial archives and heavily racialized world of Provence and Marseille was why in discerning the lineaments of state racism and the genocidal properties of the biopolitical form, Foucault would turn to the Nazi and Socialist state? In l995 I asked why he had done so, why when he had sought the terrain of modern deadly biopolitical regimes he had not turned to colonialism, not the backwater to the modern, but as Enrique Dussel had put it and those of us in critical colonial studies have argued for sometime, were the very sites where the “institutional apparatuses and techniques of power” ricocheting between metropole and colony provided the conditions of possibility for it (remembering that he too noted this “return effect (effet de retour) (IFDS: 103) of the mechanisms of power in the Occident” in the sixteenth century with respect to the war of races that were to transform in the nineteenth-century to  state racism.

But in l997 when the lectures were finally published in French another question hit me: Not why he had not turned to European imperial formations and explored this “boomerang effect” (IFDS: 103), by why not to France—and why his avid interlocutors had not later done so? The racial state was in bold affirmation: it was in France that its its French citizens of Algerian and Moroccan origin were commonly referred to as “immigrants” as they are still today, a French government that in l974 put a halt on what was perceived as an excess of immigration that had been so encouraged when the economy called on those (male) bodies and installed them in barracks on the urban outskirts to sweep streets and perform low skilled factory work in the decades before? France that never mounted a “war on poverty” but as one could argue as for the U.S. in the same period viscerally was mounting a “war on the racial/formerly colonized poor.”

In both cases it was a segregating systemic assault, on African Americans in the U.S., and in France, and especially in the outskirts of Paris where the HLM (low income concrete housing designed in the l950s to house and contain France’s colonized poor) expanded enormously in the l970s with over two million new residences. These installations were concurrent with Foucault’s most prolific moments. And should we imagine that the injunction to abandon and to “laisser mourir” (that took precedence over the sovereign right to kill and let live) took primary shape in the extremes of the gulag and nazi camps, we might remember that in l968 just under half of the HLM were without toilet or sanitary facilities and that these distressed urban outskirts of Maghrebin “immigrant” neighborhoods were designated as the sites of the composite, compressed “social/class/racial enemy,” cordoned off from social and health services and infrastructures common throughout France, and where now and for the last two decades unemployment hovers at forty percent. It is this “slow violence” as Rob Nixon puts it that Foucault describes in the final 1976 lecture:

When I say ‘killing’ I obviously do not mean simply murder as such, but also every form of indirect murder the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on. (IFDS: 256).

One could argue that Foucault’s target was broader and that there was no need to call out France by name: or that what Foucault was after, as he often claimed, were the extremes – in turning to the Soviet gulag and the German Nazi state—a pairing that put into dramatic and counter-intuitive relief his argument that biopolitical regimes come in many forms. But it is Foucault who has taught us that the prosaic forms of exposure and privation are as powerful and insidious as those of more horrific cache. It is not insignificant that the very way in which the FN was initially cast by many French commentators –as a foreign species of extremists, not the truly French–  (where “F” in FN was cast as Fascist and “N” as Nazi), is precipitously close to how Foucault himself sought to explore state racism—not in one of its most proximate sites. He chose not to target how it was “made in France.”

Of course it was and is his conceptual armature that provides us with a guide to not imagine a racism initiated with respect to colonialism and external enemies alone, but as deeply fundamental to the making of European biopolitical states, with their need “to defend society” against internal enemies, “internal dangers” (IFSD:247), and as a diagnostic of its practices and violences directed at the “dangers that are born in its own body” (IFDS: 142). If we are to continue our collective work to locate the political struggles in which Foucault was engaged as those informing his analytics, we might also think to attend to those that remained (as did empire), largely evaded and/or displaced.

In what follows I have chosen not to do a textual reading of the lectures (a genre with which I am more comfortable) as I have done with respect to these lectures before but rather to try to locate some of elusive, troubling, and extraordinary moments in his analysis that I’ve wrestled with and that I hope for others merit their attention. In what will follow, I hope to have the time to explore several things: (l) Foucault’s treatment of historical transformations and to argue that “discontinuity” neither captures his analytics nor the creative power of his “mobile thought.”

Here I want to look at what I see as the “recursive” nature of his understanding of history and the vocabulary he enlists to point us toward it. This “recursive” quality has demanding analytic effects; rather than animating a search for sharp epistemic breaks, it challenges us to understand a more subtle re-weighting of how power works, the cotemporaneous but changing balance and articulation between sovereign power, disciplinary power, biopolitical power and normalization (2) those “recursions” are evident in the nature of the work that war does for Foucault as well, and the shifting terrain/s and on which the figure of war stands; how we can understand its deployment as an idiom of the genealogical work performed at the same time that it provides the “principle of analysis” –the epistemic and political subject of his analysis of historiography and historical confrontations themselves. And finally (3) I hope to address what I see as a political and analytic conundrum: Foucault’s turn away on the one hand from “intention” (away from that which he parses with respect to what power is not about nd what is not the right question to ask: “what is he trying to do? “what is going on in his head” (IFDS: 28), on the other hand and coupled with that categorical dismissal, a simultaneous tracking of how subjectivities are constituted and re-formed, educated to certain desires, humiliated by having others, made fearful of “an enemy within,”  mobilized to imagine that the construed enemy is storming the European fortress and crashing its gates. These sensibilities are historically located. It is Foucault who warned us in describing what genealogy can do, that “every sentiment has a history” (NGH: 87). I have long thought, and want to suggest, that what might be called an “affective morphology” underwrites and constitutes governance, as it does genealogical critiques of how not to be governed, this much, in this way, by these people (my parsing of one of his crystalline definitions of critique).  The impetus to act, e-motion, both appears in his accounts and remains unarticulated, or perhaps just subjacent and unexpressed in a minor key, informing but somehow askew from what warrants his trenchant political analysis. How can “intention” be eschewed and “sentiment” not?

[to be continued on November 23]


[1] Jacques Rancière, Dissensus (2010).

[2] Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh,” in Power/Knowledge, Colin Gordon,ed. (l980), 222.

[3]  Michel Foucault, “Faire vivre et laisser mourir: la naissance du racisme,” Les temps modernes (February 1991), 37-61; Pasquale Pasquino, “Political theory of war and peace: Foucault and the history of modern political theory,” Economy and Society 22,1 (February 1993), 77-88.