Jeremy Kessler From Counter-History to Counter-Conduct


1. Michel Senellart’s “Course Context” to Security, Territory, Population (“STP”) contains a fascinating tension, one that is nicely dramatized by Bernard Harcourt and Adam Tooze’s differing interpretations of the relationship between Foucault’s previous lecture series – Society Must Be Defended (“SMBD”) – and STP. On the one hand, Senellart discerns in STP’s introduction of the concept of “governmentality” a “sudden[] shift” and “a sort of dramatic theoretical turn” (STP 380). “[I]n light of Foucault’s later work,” Senellart summarizes, “it is tempting to see these lectures as the moment of a radical turning point at which the transition to the problematic of the ‘government of the self and others’ would begin. Breaking with the discourse of the ‘battle’ employed from the start of the 1970s [and reaching a crescendo in SMBD], the concept of ‘government’ would mark the first shift, becoming more pronounced from 1980, from the analytics of power to the ethics of the subject” (STP 370). As elaborated in STP and the following year’s The Birth of Biopolitics, the concept of governmentality is thus the operator that transforms the bellicose Foucault into the ethical Foucault.

On the other hand, Senellart insists on absolute methodological continuity:

[T]he genealogy of the modern state [developed in STP and BOB via “governmentality”]. . . involves applying to the state the “point of view” [Foucault] had adopted previously in the study of the disciplines, separating out relations of power from any institutionalist or functionalist approach. . . . The problematic of “governmentality” therefore marks the entry of the question of the state into the field of analysis of micro-powers. . . . The analytical perspective of “governmentality” is not . . . a break in Foucault’s work with regard to his earlier analysis of power, but is insert within the specific space opened by the problem of bio-power [introduced toward the end of SMBD]. So it would not be accurate to claim that from this time the concept of “government” replaces that of “power,” as if the latter now belonged to an outmoded problematic. The shift from “power” to “government” carried out in the 1978 lectures does not result from the methodological framework being called into question, but from its extension to a new object, the state, which did not have a places in the analysis of disciplines. [STP 380-382]

Bernard Harcourt, like Senellart, finds in STP both an important shift in focus “that would preoccupy Foucault for the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s,” and a clear methodological continuity. On the one hand, with the concept of governmentality, “Foucault would liberate himself from the problem of ‘the State’ and of ‘State apparatuses,’ a problem that had preoccupied him for so long and so centrally” in his dialogue with Marx and, especially, Althusser. “Foucault would effectively overcome the problem of [Althusser’s] repressive state apparatuses by means of the very notion of ‘governmentality’: with that discovery, the State became no more than one moment of the long history of the arts of governing.”

On the other hand, in Harcourt’s view, this liberation is effected by the same methodology that Foucault had applied in earlier work: “Foucault liberates himself from the notion of state apparatuses, in 1978, by going ‘outside’ (à l’extérieure) of the State, just as in Discipline and Punish he had gone ‘outside’ the prison.” Reaching even further back in Foucault’s oeuvre, Harcourt suggests that “the State, somewhat like the conception of Man in The Order of Things, becomes an object-subject that emerges in the history of the art of governing, but that is perhaps in the process of dissolving today ‘just like, at the limit of the sea, a face drawn in the sand.’”

Adam Tooze resists Harcourt and Senellart’s conclusion that STP represents a shift in object but not in methodology:

[T]he notion of history described as a correlate of governmentality in STP is not the same as the notion of history emerging from the analysis of war in SMD. In this respect the movement between SMD and STP with regard to “history” is analogous to the translation that was preformed on the concepts of “the economy” and “war”. In part this is a matter of a shift of analytical object. But the challenge posed by SMD – “we must try to be historicists” – was presumably a general methodological injunction. [emphases added]

I do not think this disagreement between Tooze on the one hand and Harcourt and Senellart on the other is a disagreement about “mere” methodology. Just as for Foucault the question of methodology is always a fundamentally political question (on which more in a moment), the debate over whether STP represents a methodological break is a fundamentally political debate. We can begin to discern the political contours of this debate in the opposing conclusions that Harcourt and Tooze draw from their comparisons of STP with The Order of Things.

[T]he State, somewhat like the conception of Man in The Order of Things, becomes an object-subject that emerges in the history of the art of governing, but that is perhaps in the process of dissolving today “just like, at the limit of the sea, a face drawn in the sand.” (Harcourt)

There is no sense in these lectures of the kind of historic threshold, or a threshold of history itself that gave the Order of Things such drama. Order of Things promised the end of historic man. There is no promise here of the end of governmentality . . . . (Tooze)

Notably, for Harcourt, the dissolution of the “State” within the broader “history of the art of governing” is analogous to the dissolution of man prophesied at the end of The Order of Things. For Tooze, it is “governmentality” itself –“the history of the art of governing” – that would have to dissolve for the analogy to hold. Harcourt and Tooze share the sense that, according to STP, “governmentality” or “the history of the art of governing” isn’t going anywhere. But for Tooze, this infinity of governmentality defaults on the rupture promised at the end of The Order of Things. For Harcourt, on the other hand, the history of the art of governing is one more iteration or application of the genealogical method that Foucault has been developing more or less continuously since The Order of Things.

How to make sense of these different stances? I suspect that the key lies in the concept of “counter-history” (contre-histoire) that Foucault introduces in SMBD but is nowhere to be found in STP, save for the verbal echo produced by the functionally distinct concept, “counter-conduct” (contre-conduite).


2. In SMBD, Foucault defines “counter-history” in tandem with the discourse of “race war” that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – “the first discourse in postmedieval Western society that that can be strictly described as being historico-political” (52, 66). The discourse of race war is “historico-political” because “the subject who speaks in this discourse, who says ‘I’ or ‘we,’ cannot, and is in fact not trying to, occupy the position of the jurist or the philosopher, or in other words the position of a universalist, totalizing, or neutral subject” (52). The “historico-political” discourse of race war is thus directly opposed to the “philosophico-juridical discourse” that “[e]ver since Greek philosophy . . . has always worked with the assumption of a pacified universality” (53). This opposition is possible because in the discourse of race war, “the person who is speaking, telling the truth, recounting the story, rediscovering memories and trying not to forget anything . . . is inevitably on one side or the other; he is involved in the battle, has adversaries, and is working toward a particular victory” (52).

When this partisan speaker speaks of “right,” it is not the right of “juridical universality,” and when she speaks of “truth,” it is not “the universal truth of the philosopher.” Although the discourse of race war is a “discourse about the general war . . . the war beneath the peace” of society itself, and although it is “an attempt to describe the battle as a whole,” “that does not make it a totalizing or neutral discourse; it is always a perspectival discourse. The truth is . . . a truth that can be deployed only from its combat position, from the perspective of the sought for victory and ultimately, so to speak, of the survival of the speaking subject himself” (52).

Not only is the discourse of race war anti-philosophical, it is also “counter-historical” because it is the first discourse to counter the “history” that dominated antiquity and the Middle Ages. This prior “history” – which was not a properly “historico-political discourse” – was the history of “law and glory,” the “history of sovereignty,” the history that sovereignty tells about itself to itself (66-69). What race war does – what makes it a “counter-history” as well as an anti-philosophy – is reject the core postulate of this “history of sovereignty”: “[t]he postulate that the history of great men contains, a fortiori, the history of lesser men, or that the history of the strong is also the history of the weak.” In place of this postulate of historical totalization, race war poses “the postulate that “[t]he history of some is not the history of others” (69). Just as race war’s perspectivalism and partisanship disrupt “juridico-philosophical universality,” this partisan postulate, this postulate that is counter-history, disrupts the old, totalizing history of sovereignty, and shatters “the unity of the city, the nation, or the State.” Counter-history performs this dis-uniting, de-totalizing work “from the side that is in darkness, from within the shadows” (70). The discourse of counter-history/race war is “the discourse of those who have no glory, or those who have lost it and who find themselves, perhaps for a time – but probably for a long time – in darkness and silence.” At the hour when the counterhistorical subject does, eventually, break this silence and speak, she “speaks of legitimate rights solely in order to declare war on law” and, in doing so, “tears society apart” (73).

In these pages, Foucault is describing a historical object – the discourse of race war and the practice of counter-history that emerged in the early modern period, and then paved the way for “the idea of revolution” which would captivate the West for more than two hundred years (78-79). Yet it is striking how resonant Foucault’s historical description of race war/counter-history is with his methodological and political description of “genealogy” in the first lecture of SMBD. There, he writes that genealogy “allows us to constitute a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of that knowledge in contemporary tactics” (8). “Genealogies are, quite specifically, antisciences” (9). Genealogies “are about the insurrection of knowledges,” “an insurrection against the centralizing power-effects that are bound up with the institutionalization and workings of scientific discourse organized in a society such as ours.” “Compared to the attempt to inscribe knowledges in the power-hierarchy typical of science, genealogy is . . . a sort of attempt to desubjugate historical knowledges, to set them free, or in other words to enable them to oppose and struggle against the coercion of a unitary, formal, and scientific theoretical discourse” (10). Genealogy, in short, is an attempt to unleash forgotten pasts on the present, and thereby resist the centralization of power and knowledge enforced by contemporary science and society. As Tooze notes, Foucault will later in SMBD issue the injunction, “we must try to be historicists” (173). He might also have said, “we must try to be counter-historians.”

And yet. Foucault’s historical recovery of race war and counter-history – his whole engagement with the imbrication of history and war that is the motor of SMBD – was occasioned at the outset by a doubt about the power of genealogy. In the introductory lecture, where Foucault defined genealogy in such counter-historical terms as the redeployment of subjugated knowledges for the purpose of present struggle, he also asked of these subjugated knowledges, “What strength do they have in themselves?” (11) Alluding to “a certain number of . . . changes in the conjuncture,” Foucault wondered whether the current “relationship of force” would “allow us to exploit the knowledges we have dug out of the sand, to exploit them as they stand, without their becoming subjugated once more? . . . Given that we are talking about a battle – the battle knowledges are waging against the power-effects of scientific discourse – it is probably overoptimistic to assume our adversary’s silence proves that he is afraid of us” (11-12).

It was this set of anxieties that led Foucault to ask at the end of the first lecture, “Are we really talking about war when we analyze the workings of power? Are the notions of ‘tactics,’ ‘strategy,’ and ‘relations of force’ valid? To what extent are they valid?” (18) And it was this set of questions that led Foucault to the stunning historical excavation that constitutes the bulk of SMBD. Yet there is little reason to believe that this historical inquiry produced affirmative answers.

The lectures end with a description of how the French bourgeoisie – the revolutionary party – engaged in a “self-dialecticalization of historical discourse” (237), a self-dialecticalization of the race war/counter-history doublet. This twisted procedure gave rise to the merger of history – the original anti-philosophical discourse – with philosophy in the form of the dialectic, and the merger of race war – the original anti-sovereigntist discourse – with the State in the form of biological racism (233-263). These events, in turn, cast an evil glow on the bellicose language of “struggle” and “adversity” that Foucault used to describe “genealogy” in the first lecture of SMBD.

Indeed, Foucault concludes by remarking on something “that has caused [him] problems for a long time”: “Whenever . . . socialism has been forced to stress the problem of struggle, the struggle against the enemy . . . racism does raise its head. . . . Once it is a matter of coming to terms with the thought of a one-to-one encounter with the adversary, and with the need to fight him physically, to risk one’s own life and to try to kill him, there is a need for racism” (262). Foucault thus began SMBD by wondering whether his “scattered genealogies” were strong enough to persist in their “insurrection” against the “adversary” of “the centralizing power-effects that are bound up with the institutionalization and workings of scientific discourse organized in a society such as ours” (9-12). But he ends by suggesting that this very style of thought flirts with racist eliminationism.

This epochal and ethical foreclosure of race war/counter-history as a potential historico-political basis for genealogy raises a real question about the method’s continuing viability. Foucault’s inquiry into race war and counteryhistory was sparked by an anxiety about the potential powerlessness of genealogy in the face of its brooding adversary. The inquiry concluded by indicting the antagonism that gave rise to the anxiety in the first place. Either too weak or too strong, genealogy would seem to be a poor fit for the present “conjuncture.” 

3. The language of “genealogy” is not, of course, absent in STP. Far from it. But the question – as posed by Foucault himself in the introductory lecture of SMBD – is whether STP’s genealogy has evaded the danger of being “recoded” or “recolonized” by “unitary discourses,” “reannex[ed]” by “their own power-knowledge effects” (SMBD 11). The methodological version of this question, as suggested by Harcourt and Tooze’s exchange, is whether there is a genealogy of governmentality in STP, or whether governmentality – the unitary discourse of Foucault’s present – has simply recoded “genealogy” as the story of governmentality’s sovereign march through time.

The political version of the question is perhaps more obvious: whether Foucault’s identification of physical violence with biological racism at the end of SMBD was the harbinger of a potent de-radicalization. The Deleuze-Foucault split over the question of terrorism is one contextual road to go down (STP 373-374, 393 n. 26), though textual evidence provides surer and less controversial footing.

As I hope to expand upon in my ten minutes at the opening of the seminar, the contrast between SMBD’s “counter-history” and STP’s “counter-conduct” indicates a fundamental trimming of the sails, politically speaking. Recall that the basic political function of counter-history was to deny the postulate of the “history of sovereignty,” “the postulate that the history of great men contains, a fortiori, the history of lesser men, or that the history of the strong is also the history of the weak” (SMBD 69). The denial of this postulate does not privilege one part of the socio-political whole over other parts of the socio-political whole, but denies the reality of the socio-political whole. In insisting on the alternative postulate that “[t]he history of some is not the history of others” (69), counter-history “tears society part” (73). STP repeatedly forecloses this exteriority opened up by counter-history. The most striking affirmation of this foreclosure occurs on the penultimate page of the lectures, where Foucault endorses a restatement of the postulate of the “history of sovereignty” that counter-history emphatically denied:


Whether one opposes civil society to the state, the population to the state, or the nation to the state, it was in any case these elements that were in fact put to work within this genesis of the state, and of the modern state. It is therefore these elements that will be at issue and serve as the stake for both the state and for what is opposed to it. To that extent, the history of raison d’État, the history of the governmental ratio, and the history of counter-conducts opposed to it, are inseparable from each other. [STP 357, emphases added]

Well before this there-is-no-alternative summation, however, Foucault makes clear that counter-conduct is always locked in a dialectic with conduct – that conduct and counter-conduct are co-constituents of the socio-political whole, just as the coup d’État is utterly consonant with raison d’État (261). For instance, in his introductory lecture on counter-conduct in the context of the Christian pastorate, Foucault writes:


I wanted to show you that generally speaking these themes that have been fundamental elements in these counter-conducts are clearly not absolutely external to Christianity, but are actually border-elements . . . which have been continually re-utilized, re-implanted, and taken up again in one or another direction, and these elements . . . have been continually taken up by the Church itself. [214-215, emphasis added]

To make sure we do not miss the point, Foucault reiterates, vis-à-vis the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, that “the struggle was not conducted in the form of absolute exteriority, but rather in the form of the permanent use of tactical elements that are pertinent in the anti-pastoral struggle, insofar as they fall within, in a marginal way, the general horizon of Christianity” (215).

Notably, the closest Foucault comes to recognizing an instance of “absolute exteriority” is the pacifist act of “[r]efusing to be a soldier . . . refusing to bear arms,” which he characterizes “as a form of conduct or as a moral counter-conduct, as a refusal of civic education, of society’s values, and also a refusal of a certain obligatory relationship to the nation and the nation’s salvation, as a refusal of the actual political system of the nation, and as a refusal of the relationship to the death of others and of oneself” (198). Thus, in STP, counter-conduct comes closest to achieving counter-history’s bellicose denial of the socio-political whole only where it renounces physical violence – only where it renounces that “one-to-one encounter with the adversary . . . the need to fight him physically, to risk one’s own life and to try to kill him” which Foucault associated irremediably with “racism” at the close of the preceding lectures (SMBD 262).

This pacification of Foucault’s thought leads me to a final remark on the relationship between Foucault and Althusser. I am not sure that Foucault’s turn to governmentality can really liberate him from the problem of the “state apparatus,” but at the same time I am not sure that the “state apparatus” as such was ever a problem for Foucault. Certainly, there is plenty of room in STP for the empirical fact of the hard core of the repressive state apparatus – e.g., the “permanent military apparatus” (STP 305). Rather, I think that what Foucault’s concept of governmentality does vis-à-vis Althusser is collapse the distinction between “state apparatus” and “state power.”[1] It is “state power” that is really the problem for Foucault, especially in the wake of SMBD, because it is by seizing state power that a revolutionary subject may go outside the state apparatus and reconstitute it. In this respect, SMBD’s “counter-history” – violent figure of exteriority and root of revolution – may have been a nagging vestige of “state power.” With the translation of counter-history into counter-conduct, and counter-conduct’s incorporation within the trans-historical expanse of governmentality, there is no longer any gap between state power and state apparatus, no longer any question about who constitutes what. Perhaps, in this sense, Foucault has overcome the problem of the state. But I do not think he has done so by going outside the state, as in a traditional genealogy; rather, governmentality may represent Foucault’s adoption of the state’s point of view.




[1] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism 73-74 (2014).