To περιοδικό Theory Culture and Society έχει τελευταίο τεύχος αφιέρωμα στον Foucault, οπότε στο blog του περιοδικού, ο επιμελητής του, Mike Featherstone, παίρνει μια συνέντευξη από τον προσκεκλημένο επιμελητή, Couze Venn.
Mike Featherstone [MF]: Why an issue on Foucault now? What were your aims in pulling together this issue?
Couze Venn [CV]: The 25th anniversary of Foucault’s untimely death was the occasion for producing this issue. But the main reason relates to the relevance of his 1975-1984 lectures at the College de France, now appearing in translation, that anticipated many of the changes that have happened since his death, particularly in relation to the ascendency of neoliberalism and the emergence of new mechanisms of power that are more extensive, insidious and pervasive than those which operated before. They provide new insights not only on the relation of political economy to biopolitics and power, but a new agenda around self-transformation as part of the counter-practice informing resistance.
MF: Could you say a little about the significance of the Michel Foucault lecture series at the Collège de France. How have they altered the general view of Foucault’s contribution?
CV: The main contribution of these lectures, apart from redressing the balance in his work with respect to the relative absence of political economy in his earlier analyses of subjectivity and power, is the opening up of the analytics of power to a longer history of subjugation and inequality, going back to the older forms of sovereignty. The other key development is the exploration of a ‘hermeneutics of the subject’, elements of which he published in Volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality. The 1980-84 lectures, for example in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, address issues that are broader than the question of sexuality, which has unfortunately come to circumscribe a lot of secondary literature on Foucault. I would associate this tendency in Foucauldian studies with the focus on the self since the 1970s, tied in with ego-psychologies, person-centered therapies, much of queer theory, and, generally, the grounding of social theory and politics on a concept of the individual as an autonomous, self-sufficient subject that function as foundation. Such a subject-centered ontology contributes to the displacement of the focus onto the individual, and identity politics and the reduction of gender politics to identity politics. Whilst these issues are politically relevant, it has also enabled neoliberal politics and ontology to occupy the terrain vacated by radical politics. Foucault’s lectures provide elements for re-thinking all this in the light of the present crisis in neoliberal capitalism and conservative environmentalism.
MF: How does the notion of biopolitics in Discipline and Punish differ from that in the Lectures?
CV: Discipline and Punish is an early-ish work with reference to the Lectures on political economy. It is still about the shift from the form of power he calls sovereignty, and which he says can in essence be expressed in terms of the unilateral right to kill, or to let live. So, DP is about biopower, or power over life. The way the book starts with the torture to death of the condemned is meant to illustrate in the starkest way possible this power over and ownership of the subject’s body by the sovereign. Biopolitics in the later work is about the shift in this form of power to one concerned with how the state can amplify the productive capabilities of the sovereign’s subjects, i.e, with the mechanisms and apparatuses that enable the state to take life in charge in order to make it more productive. We can call this a governmentalisation of biopower. And, because this governmentalisation is founded on the basis of the key principles of classical political economy – laissez-faire, minimum state intervention in the economy, legally and economically free individuals (well, propertied men at least), the growth of the wealth of the nation as prime objective – biopolitics cannot be dissociated from both this new idea of the state and from liberal capitalism. Biopolitics is thus also an economisation of biopower. This is why political economy becomes a focus in the lectures at the end of the 70s, a period when, interestingly, structural changes were happening in the real global economy. Different forms of power over life are involved in this shift. It is a big, if poorly understood difference.
MF: What is the significance of ‘population’ in this shift?
CV: Population becomes the prime category for the new biopolitical reason of state. This new concept of population emerges when states in Europe become territorialized with the emergence of the idea of the nation-state, tied in with the view that the wealth of the nation and that of the Prince, hence also his power, was founded in the capacities and economic activity of the population and not just on territory. So, the population becomes an economic category. The Physiocrats in the 18th century were the first to recognise this and deduce the implications for government. One of the principles they advocated was that of laissez-faire, on the grounds that merchants knew better than the government how to create wealth and conduct business. But the state according to them needed to maintain control of subjects and their activities based on reason of state, which was determined by its responsibility for the general good. This contradiction between the freedom of the market and the limitations of liberty by the state is what liberal political economy tried to resolve by arguing that the self-interested actions of free economic agents naturally, by means of Adam Smith’s famous ‘invisible hand’, ensured the general good. The state did not have to intervene to promote collective interests. This is the basis for the connection between political economy and biopolitics in the 19th century. Though power continues to operate at both the level of the individual and the level of population, the latter is now the object of both a constitution and a management, with the aim of increasing its productive capacities and producing law-abiding citizens. So, disciplining techniques continue to operate in institutions like schools, etc, and normalisation remains as a strategy for the regulation of individuals and populations, but the emphasis gradually shifts to the management of conduct, and the role of law in this, especially when ordoliberal and neoliberal dogmas begin to gain ground on the principles of radical liberals as expressed in the Welfare State, i.e redistribution, mixed economy, protection of the weak and poor, state responsibility for each citizen. Populations accordingly, say of skilled labour, criminals, migrants, professionals, increasingly tend to be constituted by reference to the objectives of security, labour, wealth creation, and consumption.
MF: Many people will be surprised that Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics in the Lectures takes in liberalism, ordo-liberalism and neoliberalism. How do you understand the significance of his link between ‘nature,’ ‘life’ and ‘market?’
CV: This is a more difficult question, as it gets to a core issue relating to ontology and epistemology, and consequently discourses of legitimation of forms of power or ways of life. The clue to the turn to the analysis of liberalism in its several forms is to be found in his analysis of power. After Discipline and Punish, and History of Sexuality, vol 1, the research for which are in his Lectures from 1971 -74, the analysis of power moves from the focus on apparatuses of constitution and regulation developing mainly in the 18th century. These are what he calls ‘police’, relating to the disciplining and regulation of a population, and ‘pastoral power’, that is, processes and techniques of normalisation; they are central to this approach, exemplified in Security, Territory, Population. This power is still a power over life, but an important shift occurs in the conceptualisation of state power following the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that establishes the idea of nation-states as both territorially fixed and economically coherent units in Europe. The wealth of the Prince is henceforth bound up with the productivity of the population rather than with the size of his territorial ownership. So, from the series of research which starts with Society Must be Defended, Foucault begins to expand the analysis of power to take fuller account of the economy. In Society Must be Defended, which looks at Europe from the Roman Empire to Westphalia, he analyses wealth in terms a zero-sum game of winners and losers, thus inequality, and in terms of the ‘discourse of race war’ which underwrites inequality. He describes a picture of unequal power relations, originating in initial conquest and dispossession of one group by another, legitimated in terms of the authority and rights of the sovereign, supported by an historical narrative, namely, the history of the victors, that naturalises inequalities of power and wealth. Religion plays a part as discursive mechanism consolidating the authority and rights of the sovereign. The idea of the divine rights of the king is exemplary of this system. With the emergence of liberal capitalism, the practices of government Foucault describes as ‘police’ and the economic discourse of mercantilism give way to a different economico-political discourse, namely, classical liberalism as we find it in the works of Adam Smith, which elaborates a different basis for legitimating state power. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault examines how and why state power and the principles for its limitation become grounded in the rationality as constructed in the discourse of laissez-faire economic theory. Liberal political economy provides the language and concepts for governmental reason. This is why we can say that biopolitics is in effect the economisation of biopower alongside its governmentalisation. Today, biopolitics is becoming an environmentalisation of power, as Massumi points out in his article in the TCS issue. From a biopolitical point of view, the concepts of nature, life and the market are the same in both the economic discourse of liberalism and the new rationality of the state; they are founded in the same ontology. This is very important. For, the radical critique of power must take on this ontology also, and propose a different one. Foucault does this in the series of lectures that followed, some of which have appeared as The Hermeneutics of the Subject, and volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality. So, the turn to political economy is not at all a mystery. What is a mystery is the relative neglect in his analysis of the essential part played by the conquest of the Americas and European colonialism generally in making possible the major shifts out of which liberal capitalism and biopolitics have emerged (see Venn paper in the issue).
MF: How does the ‘enterprise man,’ relate to the potential for developing a subject framed by an ‘aesthetics of ourselves?’ Foucault develops the latter theme more in his final writings published in the later volumes of the History of Sexuality – is there a connection with biopolitics, or is Foucault just pursuing a different line?
CV: The ‘enterprise man’ is the opposite of the subject framed by an ‘aesthetics and an ethics of ourselves’. Enterprise man is constrained within the logic of the new economic man, driven by self-interest, whose action is guided by calculations of cost and benefit, with no care for the wellbeing of the other, no concern for the general good. UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, famously said ‘society does not exist’. Enterprise man is the exemplar of the neoliberal subject, and fits with an autistic capitalism. The appeal to an aesthetics and an ethics of becoming is derived from the analysis of the Greek ‘art of living’ and ‘a technique of existence’ that have care and truth as guiding principles. This is elaborated in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, which is an extensive meditation on the thoughts and techniques developed by ancient Greek philosophers in their search for the perennial questions human beings have posed to themselves about the fulfilled or meaningful life, about fidelity to oneself in the light of truly knowing oneself. The development of the critical and reflective relation one has to oneself, based on a process of meditation and memorisation, techniques of writing and reading, and an ascesis, is part of this almost therapeutic process. The discussion of parrhesia, of truth telling and speaking, relates to this quest. So, the care of the self is a preparation for the life well lived, which is also a preparation for death. The connection with biopolitics, as I see it, is as a way of clearing the ground for a different politics than the kind of instrumental, cynical politics of both left and right political parties in the 1970s and early 80s, a politics of intimidation and fear. Foucault was I think searching for another way through this idea of an ethics of the self.
Revel talks about the need to see biopolitics within the framework of an ‘affirmation of being,’ a ‘radical positivity’ and stresses the creative invention of new ways of life. Rabinow also discusses Foucault’s attitude towards friendship and sociability. What is the basis of this potential resistance through ‘singularities in difference’ and how does it relate to the other more governmental form of biopolitics.
Revel, as well as Rabinow, in their papers in the TCS special issue, develop elements of this different ground. Revel proceeds through a critique of misinterpretations of biopolitics and its implications. She points to the objectification of the individual by biopolitics and the naturalisation of this process in the discourse of governmentality. Life she says is not exclusively biological. Instead she wants to politicise ethics, that is, to see the care of the self to be concerned with a process of becoming that must necessarily involve the relation to the other, as a positive. So, it is social life, or life in common, which is the starting point for the new politics of life or new politics of ‘differential becoming’, quite different from what biopolitics seek to achive.
Rabinow’s paper adds detail to this, elaborating the ‘care of the self’ by reference to the philosophers Foucault discusses in The Hermeneutics book/lectures. The basis for this resistance, and alternative way of life, is in two things, on the one hand, the wealth of knowledge accumulated in ‘philosophical’ discourse about the process of self-transformation, a process always requiring an other, as interlocutor or mentor or an archive; so there is a special role for philosophy in this task. On the other hand, related to it, there is the fact that the search for the ‘truth’ about ourselves requires that one is able to speak the truth, or free to speak truth to those in power. A notion of liberty is implicated in this, gestured but not developed in some passages in Foucault, for example in his essay on the Enlightenment. This is not the liberty of which liberalism speaks, circumscribed within economic activity. This is a liberty tied to a notion of liberation. So, what we find in the thought of Foucault after the analysis of political economy and biopolitics is a framework for a new politics of life in which liberty, singularity, being-in-common, truth, and meaningful lives call up each other. These are not terms that we find in biopolitics or in enterprise culture, which have nothing to do with the kind of self-transformation that Rabinow or Revel propose, in the wake of Foucault.
MF: Could you say a little about the methodological innovations/shifts detectable in the Lectures. Collier in his paper in the issue develops the argument that Foucault moves away from an epochal reading of history to a more nuanced sense of historical detail? Does this mean Foucault abandons his genealogical and ‘history of the present’ approach?
CV: There is a more nuanced reading of history in his works after History of Sexuality, and no references to episteme and so on, i.e major epistemological breaks. This is clear in Security, Territory, Population, for instance, where there is a greater sense of an archaeological digging in the archives. What is produced is a more subtle genealogy, for instance, the series from Society Must be Defended to The Birth of Biopolitics can be seen as such a subtle genealogy of biopolitics and of the contemporary form of power, namely, neoliberal politics of life. The emphasis shifts to assemblages or dispositifs, topologies of power, as Collier calls it, historically specific and constantly in process of change.
MF: In their different ways Massumi, Terranova and Lazzarato extend Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics in the Lectures from liberalism and ordo-liberalism to contemporary neoliberalism. Could you say a little about these developments – especially the discussion of the environment, financialization, securitization and information and communication milieus?
CV: The contributions of Lazzarato, Massumi and Terranova are rich in the sense of opening up new areas for further exploration and research. Together they problematise the notion of biopolitics, certainly as it operated in the 19th and much of 20th century, what I prefer to call the very long 19th century, dominated by liberal discourse and its variants. They are trying to point towards new agendas in which the dominance of finance, the environmentalisation of power, and the biologisation of life have become the new targets for radical critiques as part of a new politics. Their analyses take on board developments that have become clearer since Foucault’s death 25 years ago, especially the domination of finance which he had neglected, as Lazzarato points out, the effects of new technologies of communication. The latter, examined by Massumi and Terranova, are central in understanding the development and effects biotechnologies, including for surveillance, and the creation of new virtual financial products through the meeting of probabilistic theory, the internet, networks, and laissez-faire economics. The consequences are real, notably, the current crisis. Massumi extends the analysis to the question of threats arising from complexity and far-from-equilibrium systems, i.e, metastable systems open to indeterminate and uncontrollable changes.
MF: Could you say a little about the significance of Foucault’s Lecture on Alternatives to the Prison which is featured in the special issue? How does it relate to the College de France lectures?
CV: The lecture, or polemic, on prison was delivered in 1976, which is the same period when he was talking about the issues of power, authority, and racism in Society Must Be Defended, and thus the start of the series of Lectures on political economy. In fact, although many of the themes he touches upon are trailed in Discipline and Punish, such as the role of the family, work and self-culpabilisation as part of the mechanisms of normalisation aiming to ‘reform’ the criminal, the whole polemic is more clearly framed within a political economy of criminality, as he says at the end of the lecture. It is thus more clearly tied to his genealogy of biopolitics. It is typical also of his genealogical method, which is to begin with the radical problematisation of a given object of knowledge, such as the prison, though the whole lecture, I would say, does not so much present a possible genealogy of the prison as present an analytics for the prison by reference to a wider historical framework. This is clear when he poses a series of questions about the real intentions of prison and forms of punishment, and wonders whether we are not instead dealing with a planned economy of crime. His focus on the 19th century and the latter half of the 18th century adds to the argument that he was looking again at the prison in the context of the twinned emergence of biopolitics and political economy.
MF: Theory, Culture & Society has just published the Foucault issue and Body & Society has the issue on Affect in press – both co-edited by you. Could you say a little about the potential links between biopolitics and affect. Also how you see their role in the current neoliberal form of governmentality and the theoretical and methodological implications for understand the changing forms of sociality/social life.
CV: Another difficult question. The first thing is that biopolitics as an economisation of life within the frame of neoliberal capitalism recruits affective economy in the service of a consumer culture. So, an agenda has emerged for both theory and daily existence around affective labour, about the development of the self as an overriding aim of existence, or around the pleasures of life based on consumption. When such an agenda is bolted onto the individualism of the ‘enterprise man’ of neoliberalism, we have a subject-centered philosophy and a corresponding way of life that does not see a contradiction between the notion of a self-centered, self-interested individual and a politics or philosophy that would aim to ensure the wellbeing of all within just societies. Ethics disappears in this coupling of affect and fundamentalist or totalising ontologies of life, or it is reduced to religious dogmas. This is because ethics is fundamentally to do with the relation to the other, a view we find in Foucault as well as Revel and Rabinow, and other philosophical positions that we find in the thoughts of people like Levinas or Ricoeur (say in Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another or in Levinas’ Time and the Other; see the analysis in Venn, 2000). What we have tried to establish in the special issue on affect is the relationality of affect, that is, that affect is relation, and being is relation, and not something secreted inside humans or living beings. It is a fundamentally non-individualistic position. And it is a different starting point. The implications bring up questions relating to the recognition of complexity, the co-constitutive aspect of all life, and thus the cross-disciplinary character of the explorations that one must now undertake to rethink the bases for new ways of being and new critiques of the present. The fact that the long 19th century has brought us to a point of crisis when the future of humanity itself is in question, motivates this search for alternatives.