6/13 | “Society Must Be Defended”

with special guests Ann Stoler, The New School, Partha Chatterjee, Columbia University, and Robert Gooding-Williams, Columbia University

At two key junctures in his 1975 lectures Abnormal, Foucault turns his attention to the way in which the figure of the abnormal gives way, in the last years of the nineteenth century, to “the problem of heredity, racial purification, and the correction of the human instinctual system by purification of the race.” (Abnormal, p. 133; see also pp. 316-318). In those passages, Foucault begins to develop the hypothesis that psychiatry gave birth to a new form of racism, different than traditional ethnic racism, that he refers to as “racism against the abnormal.” (Abnormal, p. 316). Foucault proposes, provocatively, that this new form of racism ultimately would be combined with the more traditional form of racism to trigger some of the worst excesses of the twentieth century: “this neoracism as the internal means of defense of a society against its abnormal individuals, is the child of psychiatry, and Nazism did no more than graft this new racism onto the ethnic racism that was endemic in the nineteenth century,” he states (Abnormal, p. 317). These passages from Abnormal combine Foucault’s renewed interest in heredity and degeneration, and in racism, with his long-time fascination for theories of social defense and civil war.

It is to these exact themes that Foucault turns in 1976 in perhaps his most famous and well known lectures, “Society Must Be Defended. Most well known because they were the first to be published in French, and also because, very early, they were (at least the first two lectures) translated into English and published in 1980 in Knowledge/Power. In fact, their integral publication in French in 1997 would inaugurate the series that we are studying this year in Foucault 13/13.

“Society Must Be Defended” announces key themes in Foucault’s work. Several of them would be published just a few months later, with the release on 17 November 1976 of his History of Sexuality—Volume 1 (La Volonté de savoir): the notions of biopolitics and security, of population, and of race. It is in these lectures and La Volonté de savoir that Foucault famously compared sovereign power to biopolitics through the lens of those two now-famous epigraphs, respectively, « faire mourir ou laisser vivre » (to cause death or let live) and « faire vivre et laisser mourir » (to make live and to let die).

In these 1976 lectures as well, Foucault returns to themes developed previously, especially to the question of civil war and to his earlier direct engagement with Hobbes (which he had silenced since The Punitive Society in 1973). We also find here a fascinating discussion of the acturial turn (in the French edition on pages 223 et seq.) that is highly suggestive and will be developed in 1978-79.

“Society Must Be Defended” is, for the contemporary critical thinker, a font of ideas, leads, and research avenues–in Foucault’s own words, a collection of “suggestions for research, ideas, schemata, outlines, instruments.” (SMBD, p. 2) As he would provocatively say:

do what you like with them. Ultimately, what you do with them both concerns me and is none of my business. It is none of my business to the extent that it is not up to me to lay down the law about the use you make of it. And it does concern me to the extent that, one way or another, what you do with it is connected, related to what I am doing. (SMBD, p. 2)

With us to reread and discuss these 1976 lectures, we are delighted to welcome Ann Stoler, Robert Gooding-Williams, and Partha Chatterjee. As early as 1995, Ann Stoler drew importantly on these 1976 lectures to formulate the argument of her seminal book, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, Duke University Press, 1995). As Emmanuelle Saada writes, “Ann Stoler’s reading of Foucault in colonial situations remains indispensable.” It is for us a particular pleasure to have Professor Stoler in conversation with Columbia Professors Gooding-Williams and Chatterjee. Welcome to Foucault 6/13!

[Read post here. © Bernard E. Harcourt]