‘Things don’t have to be this way’ (Part 1)

by John Marks, Samuel Grove

Foucault seeks to confront us with the strangeness and contingency of the present and exhorts us to think about how things might be different.

First published: 31 January, 2013 | Category: Education, Philosophy and Theory, The Right, Vision/Strategy

In a new monthly series of interviews entitled ‘On Theory’ we will be profiling the work of major contemporary critical theorists.  Lined up are interviews on Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze and Judith Butler among others. In the first instalment Dr John Marks sat down with Samuel Grove to discuss the critical theory of Michel Foucault. In Part 1 the discussion focused on the sanctimony of the right, education in a neoliberal age, and the importance of specific criticism.

Michel Foucault is one of the best known critical theorists. At least one reason for this is the variety of ways in which his work is used and applied. Foucault has a significant presence in many fields from the more established disciplines (Philosophy, History, Politics, Art etc,) to the more particular (Criminology, Literary Criticism, Gender and Disability Studies etc).  Why is Foucault so popular?

As the question suggests, Foucault’s work has had an influence on a wide range of fields. He is a name that you will come across quite often if you do any kind of study in these areas. Anecdotally, this had led to the general notion that Foucault is a critic of ‘power’, and that he is on the side of the marginalised and the relatively powerless. Further to this, it is also assumed that Foucault is particularly attuned to the way in which this thing called power pervades our lives in general, insinuating itself into our minds and our bodies, telling us what to do and what to think. There is a large element of truth in this general understanding of Foucault; he certainly wanted to shine a light on the frequently appalling treatment of some groups in society, and he was fascinated by the insidious mechanisms of power – the ‘microphysics’ of power as he put it. In his sense, Foucault is a classic thinker of the left: he is suspicious of the powerful and the way in which power is naturalised.

But as you say, plenty of thinkers have been suspicious of the powerful. What was novel about Foucault’s approach?

I think it boils down to an ethos; I would go so far as to say a compulsion, to pose a certain type of question. Of course, all philosophers pose questions, and often these are ontological in nature: that is to say, they seek to understand the nature and reality of being. Philosophers also pose epistemological questions: they ask what we know about the world and how we arrive at this knowledge. Although all philosophers deal with both types of question, they often place a particular emphasis on either ontology or epistemology. Foucault is primarily an epistemological thinker, and he poses some of the most original and provocative questions about our knowledge of the world and of ourselves that have ever been asked. This is what makes him, in much more profound way, a thinker who informs the intellectual vitality of the left. The questions he poses are, for want of a better word, ‘grown-up’. By this I mean that his questions are never sanctimonious or patronising: he never asks what we should do or speculates in abstract terms about what is good and what is bad. He never allows us to pat ourselves on the back for being more enlightened than societies were in the past. Instead, he asks us to reflect on what we think we are doing when we go about our collective and individual existences. What is more, Foucault is the most radically historical of philosophers, so he always asks what we are doing now. He reminds us that we arrived at this point by means of a historical process and, crucially, he constantly suggests and implies that we may go about things differently in the future. 

One of the reasons why Foucault is considered radical was for the way he conceived the relation between ‘truth and power’.

The terms ‘truth’ and ‘power’ are frequently associated with Foucault’s work, and these are certainly terms that he uses. However he has a very specific understanding of the relationship between these terms which does not map directly onto the phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ that we hear so much today. One of his key influences when talking about power is the challenge set down by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who asks us to think about what is morally and ethically ‘good’ precisely not by defining it against what is ‘evil’.

Is this something that the political left is prone to do?

Actually I think it characterises much of the way in which the political right thinks. The right often has a simplified, one might go so far as to say infantilised, way of thinking about good and bad: ‘I am good, why can everybody not be good like me?’; ‘I am naturally good, but others cannot be trusted to be good. They must be forced or cajoled to be good.’ The natural reflex of sanctimony on the part of the right in this respect is often quite astounding. Just look at the emerging neoliberal discourse around the current ongoing financial crisis and the politics of austerity. Rather than addressing issues about capitalism (regulation, the dangers of economic inequality, etc.) political and media elites are now tending to blame the crisis on the moral failings of citizens. ‘You had it too good for too long.’ ‘You got greedy and gorged yourselves on credit, and welfare provision made you lazy.’ ‘Maybe these austerity measures will make you wake up to your failings.’

The right demands we focus on our subjective moral failings at the expense of objective and collective problems...

Yes. And this message is insidious and very potent, precisely because it addresses itself directly to our subjectivity. To be more precise, and perhaps more Foucauldian, it addresses itself to a historically specific subjectivity that has been constructed across the three decades or so of quasi-global neoliberal hegemony inaugurated by the Thatcher-Reagan revolution. The ‘headline’ subjectivity that has been championed throughout this period is the entrepreneurial, self-reliant, autonomous individual, freed from the constraints of ‘big’ government. The dark side, if you want, of this form of subjectivity, is an individual who is perhaps somewhat isolated, anxious and burdened with responsibility. This is just the sort of individual, in other words, who might quite readily internalise guilt and not ask difficult political questions.

Foucault himself has been associated with the neoliberal turn to the extent that his project appears to emphasise freedom for the individual at the expense of a collective emancipatory project.

It’s true that Foucault has been associated by some commentators with the development of the individualistic, entrepreneurial subject. Maurizio Lazzarato has recently made this criticism quite explicitly in his book The Making of the Indebted Man. Lazzarato refers directly to Foucault’s discussion of neoliberalism in his 1979 lectures (which are now published). As far as this criticism is concerned, Foucault was certainly interested in the potency of the new neoliberal self. He was particularly interested about what was happening at that time in Europe and the USA as this new mode of subjectivity seemed to him to have a distinctive rationale that required analysis: it’s for this reason that he wanted to anatomise it quite so precisely. In one sense, Foucault simply wanted to point out exactly what this new phenomenon was and prepare us for it: maybe this makes his analysis a little clinical and lacking in critical edge. I see it rather as an invitation to make our own critique. Foucault couldn’t have known how things would work out in this area, but his analysis can be developed and contextualised in provocative and really useful ways to think about the present.

Perhaps I should have been more specific with my question and how it relates to your previous observations on morality. While neoliberalism certainly resorts to petty moralising, it is also very scornful of 'infantile' notions of universal 'justice' or 'equality' associated with the left. Is it fair to say that this is something Foucault shares with the right? 

Foucault was very much of his time always actively involved in what was going on around him. His political commitments in the later part of his life followed the model of dissidence, which may now appear to us somewhat outmoded and even a little reactionary, particularly since the neoliberal right has so ruthlessly colonised the idea of ‘freedom’. He was, for example, an active supporter of the Polish trade union Solidarity. However, it’s precisely in this sense that Foucault reminds us to be suspicious of universal categories; not because they are inherently flawed, but because they must always have a specific content. So, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Foucault would have had any sympathy with the dismissal of the universal values of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’. Intellectually, he was particularly interested in the complex political struggles that arise over the content of these universals. Politically, he often preferred to talk in terms of an intuition of the ‘intolerable’, the perception of a set of power relations that can, quite simply, no longer be tolerated.

One of the reasons Foucault was suspicious of universal categories was the way they seek recourse in general explanations.

You’re right; and one of the reasons Foucault’s work is so interesting is that in insisting on the specificity of critique he was often able to overturn and problematise received wisdom. Take the use of the prison as the cornerstone of our contemporary penal system. It is generally assumed that prisons emerged out of the drive to make punishment more humane. Writing in the mid-1970s, Foucault questions this assumption. One of the most provocative assertions that he makes is that prisons actually participate in the production of delinquency as a social category and in this way foster the development of what Foucault calls a ‘disciplinary’ society.

A ‘disciplinary’ society?

This is one of Foucault’s most widely discussed and influential ideas. He looked at a series of disciplinary techniques that emerge as an organising principle for societies like France and Britain from the 18th century onwards. He was particularly interested in the way that minds and bodies are trained in minute and meticulous detail, and he identified Bentham’s design for the Panopticon as the underlying abstract principle for this series of techniques called ‘discipline’. The originality of Foucault’s approach was to focus on the apparently mundane material details of social organisation.

Where else might we observe such disciplinary techniques?

Well we could ask an analogous set of questions about the contemporary education system. It might be going too far to say that our school system actually produces educational ‘underachievement’, but it certainly is a useful category for the great majority of our political and media elite who are caught in the thrall of neoliberalism. The constant suggestion that schools and teachers are responsible for educational underachievement – the suggestion that pupils are being ‘let down’ – strikes a populist chord and smoothes the path for the cherished goals of neoliberalism: privatisation, marketisation and the constraint of professional autonomy within the public sector. However, in the same way that people have always seen that prison in some sense ‘doesn’t work’ (even mainstream voices across the political spectrum say this), so people can also see that the school examination system in Britain, with teachers being pressurised into teaching pupils entirely to test and thus emptying education of much of it substantive content, works against the development of real knowledge and skills.

It is interesting that you use the examples of the delinquent and the underachiever because the two are often combined and integrated into a pernicious medical discourse whereby children and adults that don’t conform are diagnosed with things like "attention deficit disorder”, “conduct disorder” or “oppositional defiant disorder”.

Yes. That’s true, and we see that phenomenon no doubt in contemporary education. But I think that there are other interesting things going on which – from a broadly Foucaldian perspective – have to do with the complex politics of subjectivity. As much as a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder can be used to define pupils as in some way delinquent, and so harmful to the educational environment, at the same time these form of pathologisation are sometimes positively demanded and embraced by pupils and their families. (Foucault was increasingly interested in the way that we are often complicit with power.)

You mean discipline becomes self-discipline?

Yes. I think this has to do with a new relationship to the self that we see in the era of advanced capitalism. It’s a peculiar form of narcissism, whereby a component of the self that is identified as problematic or troubling is effectively quarantined and separated off from the self. To a certain extent it now has an independent existence and one effect of this is to preserve the narcissistic conviction that the ‘core’ self is still intact and untroubled. This independent component also has a quasi-legal, and frequently litigious, existence: whose responsibility is it to deal with the perceived problems and deficits caused by a particular pathology? We are now quite comfortable with the idea that institutions should make accommodations and adjustments when confronted with a whole variety of diagnoses. In some ways this is undeniably progressive development, but in other ways it’s problematic. For one thing, it locks individuals and institutions into endless litigious wrangling, and perhaps that is symptomatic of a wider crisis of legitimacy.

Litigious wrangling that winds up reinforcing the logic of the system as a whole?

Yes. Particularly in his earlier work Foucault suggested that labels and categories that appear to be liberating might actually draw us into new circuits of power. We should not, he suggests, be fooled into thinking that these labels always serve to emancipate us: in some ways they might be as coercive as what went before. The ideal of progressive politics is to build institutions that we feel invested in and that we trust, precisely because we feel that they recognise our humanity in a broad and meaningful sense.

Part 2 will follow shortly

Dr John Marks completed his PhD on the work of Foucault at Nottingham Trent University in 1993. He has worked as a Lecturer in French Studies at Loughborough University from 1992 to 1998, and subsequently as a Reader in French Studies and then Critical Theory at Nottingham Trent University. He was appointed Associate Professor (Reader) in French Studies at the University of Nottingham in 2007.

Useful reading

Stephen J. Ball, Foucault, Power, and Education (Routledge Key Ideas in Education) (Routledge 2013)

Michel Foucault, Foucault Live: Interviews, 1966-84 (Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents 1996)

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979 (Palgrave 2008)

Gary Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2005)

Mark G. E. Kelly, The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault (Routledge 2008).

Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (trans. Joshua David Jordan) (Semiotext(e)/Intervention Series 2012)

David Macey, Michel Foucault (Critical Lives) (Reaktion Books 2004)

Todd May, The Philosophy of Foucault (Acumen 2006) 

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