Daniele Lorenzini | Permanent Virtualities

By Daniele Lorenzini

In this paper, I raise the question of whether Michel Foucault’s ‘toolbox’ can be useful in order to think of collective forms of resistance or not. I focus on some of the historical examples Foucault himself commented on and reflected upon, in particular the Iranian uprising, showing that his analyses can still be helpful to elaborate effective methodological and conceptual tools to study contemporary practices of collective resistance.

Foucault went to Iran in 1978 as a special correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, writing a series of short articles that were immediately translated and published in Italian in the form of a reportage. How are we to interpret this specific prise de parole by Foucault? Already at the beginning of the 1970s, Foucault presented his own work, and the work of philosophy more broadly, as a “radical journalism”: “I consider myself a journalist,” he wrote in 1973, “to the extent that what interests me is the actualité, what is happening around us, what we are, what is going on in the world.”[1] In January 1978, a few months before his reportage on the Iranian uprising, Foucault referred again to the idea of philosophy as a form of journalism, liking it to Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant’s texts on Aufklärung published in 1784. Those texts, according to Foucault, inaugurated a “philosophical journalism” whose main task is to analyze the “present moment.”[2] It is thus possible to suggest that Foucault’s willingness to go to Iran and see what was happening there was a way, for him, to put into practice the task of a philosophical journalism that tries to think the present, the ‘today’ (aujourd’hui), the actualité, highlighting both the difference it introduces vis-à-vis the past and its contribution to the redefinition of our perception of ourselves as part of this actualité.

But why was Foucault interested specifically in the Iranian uprising? In his 1979 interview with Farès Sassine, Foucault claims that the Iranian uprising stood out and was particularly significant for him because it wasn’t “governed by a Western revolutionary ideology” nor directed by political parties or organizations. This was what Foucault was looking for: a mass uprising, in which people stand up against a whole system of power, but which isn’t inscribed in a ‘traditional’ (Western) revolutionary framework. I think that today we are still in need of analytic tools allowing us to account for uprisings and forms of collective resistance that cannot be inscribed in the traditional paradigm of revolution – such as the so-called Arab Spring, the Occupy movements or the Movement for Black Lives.

In his writings of the 1970s and the 1980s, Foucault repeatedly stresses the need to conceive of (collective) resistance outside of the traditional (Western) revolutionary framework: in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, for instance, he criticizes the idea that power is (only) repressive and that there is a “single locus of great Refusal,” a “soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary.”[3] Moreover, according to Foucault, we also need to question the ‘revolutionary’ conception of resistance as aiming to produce a final and permanent liberation of human beings and society, as giving access to a world of pure freedom in which there will no longer be relations of power. Foucault’s famous distinction between freedom and practices of freedom aims precisely to criticize this conception, together with the claim that “there exists a human nature or base that, as a consequence of certain historical, economic, and social processes, has been concealed, alienated, or imprisoned in and by mechanisms of repression,” and that therefore “all that is required is to break these repressive deadlocks and man will be reconciled with himself.”[4]

This doesn’t imply that we should ignore or downplay revolutionary experiences as such: Foucault is rather interested in problematizing a blind spot in political theory, arguing that the traditional (teleological) framework sustaining those experiences and offering the conceptual tools in order to think of them isn’t appropriate. Indeed, although liberation is often necessary since it constitutes the condition of possibility of future practices of freedom (for instance, in the case of the struggles of the colonized people against their colonizers), liberation isn’t “in itself sufficient to define the practices of freedom that will still be needed if this people, this society, and these individuals are to be able to define admissible and acceptable forms of existence or political society.” In other words, according to Foucault, the practices of (collective) resistance can never be ‘reduced’ to the revolutionary act of liberation, to the revolt or the uprising itself, since “liberation paves the way for new power relations, which must be controlled by practices of freedom.”[5]

Yet, as Foucault’s texts on Iran clearly show, the uprising or revolt itself is crucial. However, we need to think of it differently. Foucault describes the Iranian uprising in terms that are explicitly borrowed from the theoretical framework he elaborated in Security, Territory, Population and in “What is Critique?.”[6] The Iranian uprising was—or at any rate it (initially) seemed to Foucault that it was—a “broadly popular” movement, which owed its force to “a will at once both political and religious,” a movement constituted by people who weren’t revolting because they were “forced or constrained by someone,” but because they themselves “no longer wanted to put up with the regime”: “Collectively, people wanted no more of it.”[7] Hence, Foucault describes the Iranian uprising as a contemporary form of “counter-conduct,” or as a contemporary embodiment of the “critical attitude,” that is, the will not to be governed or conducted thusly, like that, by these people, at this price.[8] Indeed, in his interview with Sassine, while criticizing the “trans-historical or sub-historical or meta-historical permanence of man” along with the “universalism” that supports the traditional (Western) revolutionary discourse, Foucault develops an important redefinition of the notions of the subject and the will. These notions are, according to him, reciprocal: the subject is “what is set and determined by an act of will” and the will is “what sets for a subject his or her own position.” But what Foucault is interested in, here, is not every kind of subject nor every form of the will: what he is highlighting is a specific form of the will that, “beyond every calculation of interest and beyond the immediacy of desire,” makes one say “I prefer to die” rather than to live in such a way.[9]

This specific form of the will, which ‘adds’ to the will not to be governed like that “the test [épreuve] of death,”[10] constitutes a form not only of critical but also (and crucially) of resisting subjectivity that can be linked to Foucault’s late analyses of the parrhesiast as a courageous individual who accepts the risk of death in order to tell the truth.[11] If the subject isn’t given but created (in specific historical circumstances) by an act of the will, and notably by the act of uprising through which she risks her own life, then Foucault is suggesting here that we should consider the Iranian uprising not only as a collective struggle against subjection, but also and at the same time as a process of collective constitution of subjectivities: a process of collective subjectivation stemming directly from a (political) act of revolt.

But why revolting? We often revolt because a certain set of power relations becomes unacceptable and unbearable at the mere level of our everyday life, and we want no more of it. However, we need to be more accurate, since there can be (and there usually are) many different reasons that make a specific configuration of power relations unacceptable and unbearable, but none of them (nor their combination) can actually explain the outbreak of a given uprising. In other words, the causal reasons that can be put forward in order to understand why a given uprising took place constitute at best its conditions of possibility but are never capable of explaining it. This is one of the main lessons we can draw from Foucault’s texts on the Iranian uprising: refusing to provide a teleological framework in which to inscribe this act of collective resistance, Foucault suggests that we should respect its unpredictable character—people revolt, it is a fact, or better, it is an event.

Claiming that a revolt is an event means that it is ultimately without explanation. As Foucault clearly argues in his interview with Sassine, the very act of rising up is irreducible to the historical, economic, or sociological context in which it takes place. This is not to say that uprisings are “outside of history,” of course, but rather that historical conditions “never account entirely” for them.[12] In other words, we shouldn’t conceive the relationship between the uprising and its historical, economic, or sociological circumstances as a simple cause-effect relationship. There are moments of rupture in history that cannot be described in a teleological way—a description that goes hand in hand with the traditional (Western) revolutionary paradigm as well as the figure of the intellectual-legislator. As Foucault argues, “the intellectual doesn’t have to be the legislator or to make laws or to say what’s going to happen”: she rather has “to show, perpetually, how what seems to go without saying in what makes up our daily life is in fact arbitrary and fragile, and that we can always rise up, and that there are always and everywhere reasons not to accept reality as it’s given and proposed to us.”[13]

However, if we accept Foucault’s discontinuous, non-teleological conception of history, it is legitimate to ask whether we can soundly account for the relation between ‘events’ (and notably uprisings) taking place in different times and historical contexts or not. In order to answer this question, I would like to refer to the first lecture of The Government of Self and Others, in which Foucault comments on what Kant says about the French Revolution in The Contest of the Faculties: “I think this text is really extremely interesting, obviously not just within the system of Kantian thought, but for its presentation as a prediction, a prophetic text, about the meaning and value, not of the Revolution, which in any case always risks returning to the old ways, but of the Revolution as an event, as a sort of event whose content is unimportant, but whose existence in the past constitutes a permanent virtuality.”[14] The idea that the existence in the past of (certain) events constitutes, regardless of their content or concrete outcomes, a permanent virtuality which can be ‘reactivated’ in different times and contexts is crucial and can be of help in analyzing contemporary forms of collective resistance—and their mutual relations.

It allows us, for instance, to think of the experience and effects of public assemblies. These specific forms of collective resistance are better captured, I argue, by the idea of a struggle against the way in which people are governed in their everyday life rather than the idea of a class or a party struggle aiming to take control of the state. This is why I suggest that we analyze these ‘events’ using the concepts of critique, counter-conduct, and subjectivation as the (essentially unpredictable) outcome of an act of the will, an act of revolt which can only acquire its meaning within the context of a collective practice of resistance—a form of “embodied and plural performativity,” as Judith Butler puts it.[15]

Further significant insights are to be found in Foucault’s texts and interviews on the struggles of gay and lesbian movements, especially in the United States, between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. True, those movements aren’t instances of the unexpected and unpredictable outbreak of an uprising, but in speaking of them Foucault questions both identity politics and rights claims, highlighting the importance of understanding these collective experiences as vehicles for the creation of a new culture and the invention of new (shared) ways of life.[16] Analogously, in their struggle against a specific (neoliberal) way of governing human beings, in their being leaderless and in their social composition, Occupy movements contribute to the same critique against class or rights claims, partisan or identity politics.[17] Moreover, as has been demonstrated by a number of sociological studies on Occupy Wall Street,[18] public assemblies often constitute ‘laboratories’ in which alternate ways of life are concretely experimented and vulnerable people, whose lives are made less visible and recognizable in contemporary societies,[19] can find new resources in order to give form to their own subjectivity as part of a collective, thus challenging the very conditions of the neoliberal precarization of ordinary existences. This doesn’t mean, of course, that public assemblies are to be thought of as a triumph over all forms of precarity, but simply that they are often able to give rise to concrete resistances against induced precarity and its acceleration in contemporary neoliberal societies.[20] Horizontal strategies of organization, direct democratic modalities of decision-making, and the reinvention of the traditional ways in which voices are heard and discourses circulate contribute to such an experimentation of new forms of (individual and collective) life, in which the (re)politicization of the public space through practices of occupation also functions as the support for the creation of new ways of being together.[21] These forms of embodied and plural performativity already signify prior to, and apart from, any particular demand at stake, and blur the frontiers between ‘I’ and ‘We,’ because in this context many acts are neither ‘mine’ nor ‘ours’ (in the sense of a phantasmatic merging of individuals in some kind of dreamed unity), but happen “by virtue of the relation between us.”[22]

Last but not least, I think that we shouldn’t consider the precarious nature of these public assemblies themselves—the fact that they form unexpectedly, that they are constantly menaced, and that they dissolve apparently leaving nothing at all behind them—as a fatal weakness. It is rather the very expression of their critical function: as Butler puts it, “gatherings are necessarily transient, and that transience is linked to their critical function. One could say, ‘but oh, they don’t last!,’ and sink into a sense of futility; but that sense of loss is countered by the anticipation of what may be coming: ‘they could happen at any time!’”[23] In 1982, speaking of a completely different historical experience (and yet, in a sense, a surprisingly similar one), that is, the resistance of the Polish trade union Solidarność against the regime, Foucault wrote:

“One mustn’t delude oneself or indulge in empty prophesying. We don’t really know what will happen. But a certain number of things are already accomplished. When I speak of accomplishments, I am not talking about freedoms and rights that may have been won at a given moment and most of which one may fear, in the current state of things, will be quashed. But in the behavior of the Poles there was a moral and social experience that can no longer be obliterated. What am I referring to? First, the consciousness they had of all being together. That is paramount. Thirty-five years of the previous regime had convinced them, finally, that the invention of new social relations was impossible. […] The Poles discovered something they knew but had never been able to bring fully into the light of day—their shared hatred of the regime. That hatred was inside each one of them, to be sure, but now surfaced and was clearly formulated in words, discourses, and texts, and it was converted into the creation of something new and shared in common [elle se retournait en création de quelque chose de nouveau et de commun].”[24]

Similarly, coming back to Foucault’s reportage on the Iranian uprising and his comments on Kant’s The Contest of the Faculties, I would like to suggest that public assemblies (as well as many other contemporary forms of resistance) don’t simply dissolve or vanish but constitute a ‘permanent virtuality’ that works in the present (and will work in the future) to make it easier for other people to struggle, for other assemblies to gather. In other words, public assemblies are ‘events’ that don’t impose any law on history, but dig inside of history the conditions for their own repetition—a Nietzschean repetition that is never the repetition of the same, but that is potentially capable of inscribing a difference, a rupture, and a new beginning at the very heart of history itself.



[1] Michel Foucault, “Le monde est un grand asile,” in Dits et écrits I, 1954–1975, edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), p. 1302.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Introduction,” in Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pp. 9–10.

[3] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), pp. 95–96.

[4] Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), pp. 282–283.

[5] Ibid., pp. 282–284.

[6] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978, edited by Michel Senellart (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Michel Foucault, “Qu’est-ce que la critique?,” in Qu’est-ce que la critique? suivi de La culture de soi, edited by Henri-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini (Paris : Vrin, 2015), pp. 33–70.

[7] Michel Foucault, “There Can’t Be Societies without Uprisings,” in Daniele Lorenzini et al. (eds.), Foucault and the Making of Subjects (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), pp. 27–28. See also Michel Foucault, “The Mythical Leader of the Iranian Revolt” and “Iran: The Spirit of a World without Spirit,” in Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 221 and 252–253.

[8] Michel Foucault, “Entretien avec Michel Foucault,” in Dits et écrits II, 1976–1988, edited by Daniele Defert and François Ewald (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), p. 901.

[9] Michel Foucault, “There Can’t Be Societies without Uprisings,” p. 41.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See e.g., Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982–1983, edited by Frédéric Gros (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and The Courage of Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1983–1984, edited by Frédéric Gros (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[12] Michel Foucault, “There Can’t Be Societies without Uprisings,” pp. 35–36. See also Michel Foucault, “Is It Useless to Revolt?,” in Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, pp. 263–264.

[13] Michel Foucault, “There Can’t Be Societies without Uprisings,” p. 43. See also Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” in The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 45–46.

[14] Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 19.

[15] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. 8.

[16] See e.g., Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, pp. 135–140.

[17] Bernard E. Harcourt, “Political Disobedience,” in W.J.T. Mitchell, Bernard E. Harcourt, and Micheal Taussig, Occupy: Three Inquires in Disobedience (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 47.

[18] See e.g., Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky, The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[19] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).

[20] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, p. 16.

[21] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Declaration (New York : Argo Navis, 2012) and Assembly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[22] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, p. 9 (emphasis mine).

[23] Ibid., p. 20.

[24] Michel Foucault, “The Moral and Social Experience of the Poles Can No Longer Be Obliterated,” in Power, edited by James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 2001), pp. 467–468.