Foucault Talks Anarchism

A brief remark from Foucault on Anarchism.  On January 30th 1980, in the College de France lecture publication titled On the Government of the Living, Foucault again sought to distance himself from an ideological form of analysis and insists that he is doing an analytics of power.  It’s a kind of love/hate relationship though.  He will reference his own work as an “anarcheology”, adding the ‘an’ prefix in a kind of playful way to denote an edgy critical stance, as well as referencing Paul Feyerabend’s book Against Method, in which Feyerabend describes a history of science in which there is no common structure to the development of scientific knowledge and “anything goes.”  His resistance to the label ‘anarchy’ comes from a resistance to ideology as a way for explaining phenomena and interpreting history. Anarchy is about resistance to power if it is anything, but Foucault resists the term itself for not going far enough in its understanding of power, namely, that there is different kind of power working upon or within us that ideological attachment cannot resolve.

What Foucault is doing is something different: he is seeking to maintain an understanding of power that does not construct an edifice from which then others can then repeat and then become “followers”.  In both style and substance, Foucault resists the kind of theorizing that would place him as an advisor to a sovereign or an official participating in the administered ruling of a land.  Having acquired an immense amount of fame himself, he has learned to be wary of the kind of thinking that would allow others to ascribe him to a leadership role in some ‘movement.’  His aim is not to acquire subjects but to unravel the techniques of power that form subjects, creating subjects to be ruled out of routine practices imposed on bodies.  It fits into his project for that year’s lecture series: analyzing how subjects are formed, how they will be made to affirm a truth about themselves (sin, confession, etc.), and how subjectivization allows power to reach farther down into bodies than it ever had before.  This lecture series will focus on Christianity and the techniques it has invented, which are still very much with us.

First comes his opposition to ideology:

“I have insisted on this rejection of ideological analysis many times…  And this leads me to something like a sort of secret, which is that for me theoretical work… does not consist in establishing and fixing the set of positions on which I would stand and supposedly coherently link between which would form a system.  My problem, or the only theoretical work that I feel is possible for me, is leaving the trace, in the most intelligible outline possible, of the movements by which I am no longer at the place where I was earlier.  Hence, if you like, this constant need, or necessity, or desire to plot, so to speak, the points of passage at which each displacement risks resulting in the modification, of not of the whole curve, then at least of the way in which it can be read and grasped in terms of its possible intelligibility.  This plotting, consequently, should never be read as the plan of a permanent structure.” (p76)

Foucault is describing his method here and the caution that he takes in avoiding the reception of his work as a stable system.  The trajectory he is on passing through various points, the points he plots on a graph for posterity, these do not form a whole picture.  His research program is one in which he jumps from topic to topic, reinventing himself each time and breaking the limitations that the topic imposes.  He leaves a trace each time and you could tell a story about his movement from one to another, but what he resists is the entrapment of having a doctrine imposed on his work.

Foucault scholars have long noted three phases in Foucault’s career, with this particular lecture series marking the passage from the second to the third.  He will move from the analysis of disciplinary power, confinement and separation in the second phase (with a kind of interlude in governmentality and economic rationality we could put into this phase) to an analysis of subjectivization, that is, the way in which subjects are made to exercise power themselves with institutional support.  This third phase always interested me the most as a student because it seemed like a new way of interpreting subjectivity and thinking through the breakdown of individual in modern society.  This problem was wrestled with in existentialism and other post-Nietzschean philosophical moments, but Foucault better than any of them was able to grasp a serious problem at the heart (or near the heart) of the present: the dissolution of the self in the wake of the ubiquitous use of techniques of power on/within the self.  He’s able to do this by not remaining fixated on the subject as it is related to the object, pondering the deep structure of language, or how experience factors into knowledge; instead he will do a modified version of historical analysis (genealogy) and assume that power works in devious and subtle methods that can be revealed underneath history in its minute details, with ideas like ‘subjectivity’ included.

And so we have this intellectual who has forged a new way to think about ourselves and look at how power is exercised, one who became immensely famous and attracted all kinds of popular attention.  Why does he resist ideology so adamantly?

“You can see that this form of analysis… rests more on a standpoint than a thesis.  But this is not exactly the standpoint of, say, the epoche, of skepticism , of the suspension of all certainties or of all thetic positions of the truth.  It is an attitude that consists, first in thinking that no power goes without saying, that no power whatever kind, is obvious or inevitable, and that consequently no power warrants being taken for granted.  Power has no intrinsic legitimacy.” (p77)

His “standpoint” is such that it has led him to question and diagnose every kind of power, not to religiously seek out and undermine every kind of power in all of their manifestations but definitely to be free of the kind of power that he himself exerts on himself and others.  So Foucault has this attitude towards power that makes him so thoroughly suspicious of the workings of power that it becomes self-critical: he will question his own power and take care not to become an enduring, powerful figure.  His own reluctance to become a figurehead of powerful repute, such that disciples will form around him and repeat his words and terms verbatim, is almost a necessary component for the topic he will be studying and lecturing on: the history of subjectivization.  Checking his own power as a public intellectual will ‘rub off on’ those who are listening and studying his own works, they will then be more inclined to unearth the deeper forces acting on and within their own bodies and become attuned to ways in which power is inscribed in their very selves.  Their is a way in which power works upon us in ways that we think are our own but have been tempered and refined by a very long history of rituals, public theological debates, and published works.

Appeals will be made to truth, objectively true things, and the neutrality of things that simply and plainly ‘are’ or ‘exist’ (being).  Foucault will go deeper and it is this feature that has kept him studied by philosophy students.  This background of resisting power within Foucault preempts this though, that he would not be satisfied until he could see the power at work within this knowledge and the forces at play that bring this truth about.

“But given my desire, decision, and effort to break the bond that binds me to power, what then is the situation with regard to the subject of knowledge and the truth?  It is not the critique of representations in terms of truth or error, truth or falsity, ideology or science, rationality or irrationality that should serve as indicator for defining the legitimacy or denouncing the illegitimacy of power.  It is the movement of freeing oneself from power that should serve as revealer in the transformations of the subject and the relation the subject maintains with the truth.” (p77)

We can glimpse this public intellectual’s grasping for the general thrust of what he is doing with his intellect: Foucault the thinker is himself trying to break free from powers working on him.  We could almost say, “okay, it is now up to you viewer whether to continue resisting this deep subjectivizing power.”  If you don’t have the desire to break free, as he does, then you can go on your merry way.  Such would be to continue on as if power was not there all along, its history not conditioning the decisions we felt we owned, and voluntarily ignoring his history of subjectivity.  But if we do accept that historical forces have crept into our basic understanding of ourselves and condition our decisions, then choosing not to absorb some measure of Foucault’s idea, upon entering his thought process somehow or another, can no longer be interpreted as voluntary.  This puts the reader in a bind.  We don’t have to follow him (he doesn’t want us to anyways) but we no longer seem to own that decision.

This might be a source of anxiety or confusion if we take this line of thought to its extreme.  Instead of my own will, I now only have little power techniques pulling me this way or that, determining my destiny.  This is of course a reaction we need not settle on, for the representationalist “it’s either there or it’s not, it either exists or it doesn’t” conceptualization of subjectivity still lingers.  This is precisely what Foucault is trying to move away from.  He feels the need to break away from deep structures on power, others will too.  This is only the beginning, but it allows for a flexibility which will attune readers and listeners to coming struggles.  There may be a time (now?) when subjective identification will be a hindrance, a blockage preventing us from maneuvering through complex spaces of power.

On to anarchism.  Foucault posits the one who objects all by himself, possibly a reflection of people who have responded to his work without approval, by saying:

“You will tell me: there you are, this is anarchy; it’s anarchism.  To which I shall reply: I don’t quite see why the words “anarchy” or “anarchism” are so pejorative that the mere fact of employing them counts as a triumphant critical discourse.  And second, I think there is even a certain difference.” (p78)

So Foucault is defending anarchism as a term first of all, at least not to let it be used as an easy negative that critics can level at intellectuals or whoever.  But he is also claiming to do something different.  This will relate back to his aversion to ideology:

“…if we define anarchy by two things – first, the thesis that power is essentially bad, and second, the project of a society in which every relation of power is to be abolished, nullified – you can see that what I am proposing  and talking about is clearly different.  First, it is not a question of having in view, at the end of a project, a society without power relations.  It is a matter of putting non-power or the non-acceptability of power, not at the end of the enterprise, but at the beginning of the work,  in the form of a question of all the ways  in which power is in actual fact accepted.  Second, it is not a question of saying all power is bad, but of starting from the point that no power whatsoever is acceptable by right and absolutely and definitively inevitable… In other words, the position I adopt does not absolutely  exclude anarchy… but you can see that in no way does it entail it, that it does not cover the same field, and is not identified with it.” (p78)

Anarchists have made use of Foucault’s work in the past, while some have reacted negatively towards it.  This isn’t such a great concern for him as his work was not meant for the enactment of a political program but research program.  He wants to be free from power and finds it at work inside the very subject who would say: “I am an anarchist.”  One could make this identification, utter the words as a vow or a mark of affiliation, and still accept Foucault’s lessons on subjectivization – it isn’t even clear to me that anarchism has been delineated beyond opposing the state.  In fact, the similarities are such that Foucault will have some fun at this lecture on January 30th, 1980 and call his project an “anarcheology”:

“The anarcheological type of study, on the other hand, consisted in taking the practice of confinement in its historical singularity, that is to say in its contingency, in the sense of its fragility, its essential non-necessity, which obviously does not mean (quite the opposite!) that there was no reason for it and is to be accepted as a brute fact.” (p79)

So his historical study of the radical contingency of past events, the wrenching free from a determinism that often accompanies history is something that current, former, or potentially anarchic people can make use of.  This anarcheology (a cute-for-being-clumsy word to write) will likely have resonance for people troubled by the residue of historical materialism and technological determinisms seeking to lead the people to the promised land.

Foucault’s resistance to power runs very deep and it leads him in the last part of his career to look into Christianity’s legacy on individuals.  From this novel type of power that reshaped western or European culture so long ago, we can learn what some of the roadblocks are that are keeping people constrained in their routines, ‘locked up inside themselves’ as it were.  But instead of moving from one ideology to the next, or using this technique to start up a new one, Foucault’s “standpoint” keeps the reader critical and self-critical of the things that hold us back from moving on.

Forgive me, that was not very brief.

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