Sunday, July 08, 2007

New Foucault Against the Final Foucault

Anyone who has been around philosophy for even a little bit of time is familiar with its cyclical nature, old ideas and philosophers are continually being reborn and repackaged, there is a “New” Nietzsche, Spinoza, Bergson, even Sartre. At times this seems to be a reflection of a genuine change and insight and at other times it just seems like a lot of repackaging. One philosopher who seems due for such a resurgence, or reconsideration, is Michel Foucault. This might seem odd, since Foucault, unlike the other philosophers considered above has not disappeared from intellectual debates and discussions. (For example at the time that the “New Spinoza” was published it was nearly impossible to find a decent translation of the Political Treatise.) While it is true that Foucault’s work and works on Foucault are never in short supply, what does seem to be in short supply is original thinking when it comes to Foucault. Foucault scholarship has ossified into a rather standard narrative: after coming up with an original theory of power that unfortunately lacked agency and normative criteria, Foucault thankfully discovered the Greek’s practices of freedom, admitted that he liked Kant, and had dinner with Jürgen Habermas.

What is missing in this narrative (which I have simplified in the most insulting way possible), besides a more nuanced understanding of Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, is any explanation or account of what happened in the interim years between the first and second volumes of the History of Sexuality. Well now it is possible to at least have some understanding of what happened in that period through the publication of the courses from 1977-1979, Sécurité, Territoire, Population (recently translated into English) and Naissance de la biopolitique. These courses do not pursue the question of how individuals became subjects of desire but examine governmentality, the other theme of Foucault’s work in the late seventies and early eighties.

What is most striking, however, is Naissance de la biopolitique, which focuses on neoliberalism: making it both Foucault’s only sustained study of politics in the twentieth century and his first engagement with political economy since The Order of Things. More importantly the focus on governmentality, and neoliberalism as a form of governmentality, undermines one of the central commonplaces of Foucault’s turn. It has often been said, even by Foucault himself, that the shift from the work of the seventies to the eighties is a shift from studying the objectivizing of the subject, the way the human individual is made a subject of inquiry by others, to the subjectivizing of the subject, the way individuals constitute themselves as subjects. (Foucault said this in “The Subject and Power,” from there it became canonized in Dreyfus and Rabinow’s book) Thomas Lemke has argued that the concept of governmentality undermines any opposition between “object” and “subject”: governmentality constitutes a continuum encompassing everything from the state down to an individual’s conduct.

This seems to me to be especially true of neoliberalism, which is as much a practice of the self as it is a government policy. As much as neoliberalism theoretically reimagines society as a marketplace, as competition between self-interested individuals, the breakdown of social structures such as unions practically accomplishes the same thing. It encourages individuals to see themselves not as “workers” in a political sense, who have something to gain through solidarity and collective organization, but as “companies of one.” They become individuals for whom every action, from taking courses on a new computer software application to having their teeth whitened, can be considered an investment in human capital. As Eric Alliez and Michel Feher write: “Corporations’ massive recourse to subcontracting plays a fundamental role in this to the extent that it turns the workers’ desire for independence…into a “business spirit” which meets capital’s growing need for satellites” (In “The Luster of Capital” published in the first Zone collection). Neoliberalism makes it harder to think of opposition between “objectifying” and “subjectifying” as an opposition between domination and agency. In neoliberalism governmentality is subcontracted, we govern ourselves.

Christian Laval has written an interesting study of neoliberalism, or really the prehistory of neoliberalism, in a book called L’homme économique: essai sur les raciness du néoliberalisme, which also stresses the untenable nature of this division between object and subject. Central to Laval’s argument is a thorough reading of Bentham, a reading that moves beyond the panopticon to Bentham’s understanding of the role of reputation and publicity in a free market society. In such a society, where reputation and image are integral to economic exchanges, determining how and if one gets, hired, bought from etc., everyone is simultaneously policing and policed. As Laval writes, “The primary panoptic apparatus [dispositif] is society itself as a space of mutual surveillance.” Thus, following the provocations of Lemke and Laval, the new Foucault would not try to salvage agency, to oppose the work of subjectification to that of obectification, but to see how in neoliberalism our agency, our self-interest and self-policing, is a form of subjection.

It seems to me that such an inquiry would be more interesting than yet another reconsideration of Foucault’s essay on the enlightenment.

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