Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue 2/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The rich discussion at the Praxis 2/13 seminar on the French anarchist collective, the Invisible Committee’s new book Now (2017), raised two critical issues that continue to haunt me.

The first concerns the concept of “ungovernability.” The Invisible Committee argues in its manifesto that we all should aspire to be “ungovernable.” At the end of a long series of examples of what it means to “destitute” institutions—for instance, to destitute the university, to destitute the judicial system, to destitute medicine—the Committee writes: “To destitute the government is to make ourselves ungovernable.”[1]

Several participants objected to the notion of ungovernability, suggesting that it is too naïve and unworkable. “Only the dead are ungovernable,” said Stathis Gourgouris (1:51:50) who writes extensively about the need for a left governmentality that avoids the pitfalls of left populism. To speak of “ungovernability,” Stathis argued, evades the hard question of how we should govern ourselves. The goal instead, Stathis suggested, should be “to erase the difference between those who govern and those who are governed.”

By contrast, I felt that the ambition to “make ourselves ungovernable” is both productive and enlightening. Enlightening, especially, because it finally allowed me to articulate and formulate something that has always bothered me about Foucault’s discussion of governmentality and critique in his famous lecture “What Is Critique?”

In that 1978 lecture, Foucault notoriously defined “critique” as the “art of not being governed in this manner.”[2] There is a lot of back and forth in the early part of his lecture about that precise definition. Foucault rephrases it several times, referring to critique as “how not to be governed like this, by these people, in the name of these principles, in view of these objectives, by the means of these procedures,” as how to not be “governed like this, for this, and by them,” as “the art of not being governed,” as “the art of not being governed like this and at this price,” as “not wanting to be governed,” as “not wanting to be governed like this,” and as “l’art de n’être pas tellement gouverné.”[3] This last formulation is especially confusing in translation, and has been misleadingly translated as “the art of not being governed so much,” when in fact the French term “tellement” is more properly translated as “thusly”: so it should read, the “art of not being governed thusly.” Especially in light of the misguided effort by some scholars to impose a neoliberal film on Foucault, it is important to avoid improperly overlaying a laissez-faire connotation on Foucault’s definition of critique.

It is clear from his 1978 lecture that Foucault does not interpret critique as the desire to not be governed at all—and that the very notion of not being governed at all, as if there is somewhere outside of governmentality, makes no sense. (This is undoubtedly correct). It is also clear that Foucault does not intend for critique to mean being governed less—here too, the idea of more or less governmentality makes no sense. (Again, this is undoubtedly true, as I argue in The Illusion of Free Markets). Critique is a question, for Foucault, of resisting a particular way of being governed. It is, in his words, in French:

« comment ne pas être gouverné comme cela, par ceux-là, au nom de ces principes-ci, en vue de ces objectifs et par le moyen de tels procédés, pas comme ça, pas pour ça, pas par eux ? »[4]

In other words, critique is resisting to be governed thusly.

Something bothered me about this formulation for years, but I could never put my finger on it—until, at the end of Praxis 2/13 (2:15:45), we began earnestly debating the notion of “making ourselves ungovernable,” in the words of the Invisible Committee.

What I realize now is that Foucault’s definition of critique, however correct, remains too docile, because it somehow accepts that we will inevitably be governed. It forces us to ask what ways of being governed might be better. But that’s not the question I want to ask, in the end. I don’t want to be spending my time justifying a form of governmentality, I want to be challenging it and the next form—I want to be spending my time finding the best argument against the next best form of governing.

The problem with the concept of “ungovernability,” we were told at the seminar, is that no one but the dead are ungovernable. This makes it a useless or childish ambition. Foucault certainly shared this intuition that critique is not about not being governed at all—that any notion of being ungovernable is unrealistic, that we cannot not be governed, in one way or the other.

But what I find attractive or provocative in the Invisible Committee’s formulation—and this is something I’ve only now been able to put my finger on, even though it has always haunted my reading of Foucault’s lecture—is that my ambition, ultimately, is to be ungovernable, even if I know I cannot be ungoverned. I don’t want to be spending my time justifying a form of governmentality; others can do that, they do all the time. They do it very well. All too well. I want to be spending my time critiquing and finding the problems—few do that properly, relentlessly. I want to be justifying the ungovernability, not the governability.

In other words, the realist reaction to all this—the mature, reasonable position that no one can be ungoverned, so we have to find the mode of governability that is most tolerable—draws us into the project of governing and distorts our vision. It forces us to spend our time conducting the wrong exercise: justifying a form of governing, rather than challenging it.

I now appreciate—thanks to this brutal encounter with the Invisible Committee—so many parallels that confirm my discomfort and my hesitations.

Take for instance my friend and colleague Harold Koh, the former Dean at Yale Law School. After a long and brilliant career as a human rights advocate, Harold Koh was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State and worked under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In that capacity, Harold Koh then wrote the rules of engagement to justify the use of lethal force in drone strikes. That is, precisely, an activity that amounts of justifying a form of governing—perhaps in a manner that we might all agree is better than the rules of engagement under the prior administration of President George W. Bush. But how on earth does someone who has dedicated his life to human rights then allow himself to become the executioner? Precisely by buying into the notion that we are necessarily governed—and that we therefore have to justify a less nefarious form of governing, rather than stubbornly insisting on our ungovernability. That, to me, is intolerable. I want to be the one who finds the best argument against execution protocols, not for them, who spends his time challenging our mode of governing, rather than justifying it. And it is not simply a question of wanting to maintain clean hands, or not being willing to dirty them. My hands are just as dirty. I am not absolved. But I am just unwilling, or rather viscerally opposed to expending my intellectual resources justifying executions. This is a question of how I spend my time—my short time on this earth. It is about what I dedicate my life to.

Another parallel: the idea of being “leaderless” in relation to political disobedience at the Occupy Wall Street movement. No one believes, really, that it is possible for a protest movement to be entirely leaderless. No one is that naïve. But it is the aspiration that matters. The goal, in certain movements, should be leaderlessness; and in order to best achieve that goal, it may be necessary to hold out the ambition of being leaderless, rather than putting aside the ideal. Rather than arguing about the limited need for leaders, however limited, I will spend my time formulating arguments against leadership, relentlessly.

Or think about prison abolition: to those who reject prison abolition because there may always be, at the extreme, a justification for detaining someone, I respond that I will spend my time trying to construct the best argument against incarceration, not for it. I have spent too much time in prison, even more my clients and friends have spent too much time in prison, for me to be the one figuring out the best justification for incarceration, even limited incarceration. I refuse to be the person formulating the best argument for the prison. I will be the one trying my best to construct the best argument for abolition.

In the same way, I do not want to spend my time or energy or intellectual capacity figuring out how better to be governed, or how to be governed differently. I want to dedicate myself to always pursuing the best argument for how to make ourselves ungovernable. And it was only in reading and debating the Invisible Committee—in struggling over that sentence “to make ourselves ungovernable”—that this all came together for me, and that I finally understood what bothered me about the idea of “not wanting to be governed like this.”

The second critical issues concerns “destitution.” In their book, the Invisible Committee privileges destituent over constituent power. Their use of the concept of destitution is one of the more novel aspects of their intervention. It has become their trademark. But it is important to recognize and underscore that they link the concept of destitution to the moment of creativity. In other words, they hold that destitution is inherently tied to creativity. It is a two-step dance: creation and destitution.

The Committee describes this two-fold relation: “the revolutionary gesture no longer consists in a simple violent appropriation of this world,” they explain; “it divides into two.”[5] Those are the two moments—and there are two moments. “On the one hand, there are worlds to be made, forms of life made to grow apart from what reigns, including by salvaging what can be salvaged from the present state of things, and on the other, there is the imperative to attack, to simply destroy the world of capital.”[6] This is, they emphasize, a “two-pronged gesture.”[7]

Those two moments, of making and breaking, of production and destitution, are integrally related for the Committee. “It’s only from the destituent standpoint that one can grasp all that is incredibly constructive in the breakage.”[8]

This resonates, to my mind, with the pure theory of illusions that I try to develop in Part I of Critique & Praxis. The idea of a pure theory of illusions is that the act of unmasking an illusion—the central theoretical intervention in critical theory—will necessarily activate the production of a new illusion that will then need to be unmasked later. In other words, there is a two-step movement that involves both destitution and production.

In my view, critique is necessarily this endless cycle: destitution creates something that will then need to be unmasked, which in the process of unmasking will create something else that will need to be unveiled, ad infinitum. In this way, the pure theory of illusions is a relentless succession of destitution and creation, in which we are endlessly implicated.

This duality is what the Invisible Committee calls “desertion and attack,” “creation and wrecking.”[9] This captures the productivity of negativity. It reflects the endlessness of critique—and of our political struggle.

There was a lot more in the seminar—but these were two crucial and brilliant insights. Right now, they make me want to reread the Invisible Committee’s Now. 


[1] The Invisible Committee, Now (Semiotext(e), 2017), at p. 81.

[2] Foucault, “Qu’est-ce que la critique?” eds. Henir-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini (Vrin, 2015), p. 37.

[3] Ibid. p. 37 and 38.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] The Invisible Committee, Now, p. 86.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 87.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 88.