Archive for the ‘Online commentary’ Category

Patrick West Foucault: from libertine to neoliberal , Spiked, 3 July 2015

Was the French philosopher really a Reaganite in poststructural clothing?

Was Foucault a neoliberal?’ So asked an accusatory headline the other day in Le Nouvel Observateur, France’s centre-left news weekly. It’s a grave allegation. ‘Saint Foucault’, as the article sarcastically calls him, was a heavyweight figure in the humanities, and his theories about truth and power have filtered down into society’s mainstream. He remains a legend of postwar philosophy in France, and queer theory in general. To accuse him of Anglo-Saxon right-wingery is tantamount to lèse majesté.

Michel Foucault popularised the idea that power and truth are intimately intertwined, and that who is making a statement is as important as what is being said. As he wrote in his iconic 1975 text, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison): ‘It is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.’ Truth is perspectival: it is the mere creation of the strong. Might makes right. Power is knowledge.

Several generations of teachers, social-policy strategists, professors and politicians would have been taught Foucault at university at the height of his academic celebrity in the 1980s and 1990s. His thoughts have been widely disseminated as a consequence.

Foucault said that power was omnipresent. Hospitals and schools are no better or worse than factories or prisons: all are based on the same desire to inspect, classify, control, monitor. A security camera is a manifestation of power in action, but so, too, is a restaurant menu or a double-yellow line on a road.

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Above picture can be found here

And on another site..(fastcodesign.com)

Note to Designers: Forget Wearables, Tackle Senseables

Ravi Sawney, CEO of RKS, calls on designers to think about the next stage of personal technology.

Let’s face it: the concept behind wearables—collecting data on oneself—is something people have sought for generations. French philosopher Michel Foucault, for instance, points to the ancient technological development of the hypomnema, a collection of writings one would keep on things one read, heard, saw, or thought throughout the day, which would then be reread in order to better connect to both the world and to, well, oneself. As Foucault explains, “There was a culture of what could be called personal writing…which must be reread from time to time so as to re-actualize their contents.”

So in the tradition of hypnomnema, wearables in their current form, creeping up our arms from wrist to elbow, are just the flavor of the month.

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Terry Eagleton, The Slow Death of the University, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 April 2015

Editor’s note: My excuse for posting this excellent analysis of the parlous state of the contemporary university, which readers of this blog who are employed by universities will no doubt recognise only too well, is that Eagleton does in fact refer to Foucault in an elegant alliterative passage (see below after the introductory paragraphs). The article is hidden behind a subscription paywall, but you could try a google search of the title to see what’s out there if you don’t have access to a subsription.

A few years ago, I was being shown around a large, very technologically advanced university in Asia by its proud president. As befitted so eminent a personage, he was flanked by two burly young minders in black suits and shades, who for all I knew were carrying Kalashnikovs under their jackets. Having waxed lyrical about his gleaming new business school and state-of-the-art institute for management studies, the president paused to permit me a few words of fulsome praise. I remarked instead that there seemed to be no critical studies of any kind on his campus. He looked at me bemusedly, as though I had asked him how many Ph.D.’s in pole dancing they awarded each year, and replied rather stiffly “Your comment will be noted.” He then took a small piece of cutting-edge technology out of his pocket, flicked it open and spoke a few curt words of Korean into it, probably “Kill him.” A limousine the length of a cricket pitch then arrived, into which the president was bundled by his minders and swept away. I watched his car disappear from view, wondering when his order for my execution was to be implemented.

This happened in South Korea, but it might have taken place almost anywhere on the planet. From Cape Town to Reykjavik, Sydney to São Paulo, an event as momentous in its own way as the Cuban revolution or the invasion of Iraq is steadily under way: the slow death of the university as a center of humane critique. Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.


As professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers. Universities fall over one another in an undignified scramble to secure their fees. Once such customers are safely within the gates, there is pressure on their professors not to fail them, and thus risk losing their fees. The general idea is that if the student fails, it is the professor’s fault, rather like a hospital in which every death is laid at the door of the medical staff. One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.

With thanks to Stuart Elden at Progressive Geographies for this news

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Jim Russell, The Existential Crisis of the American University, Pacific Standard, Mar 11, 2015

My favorite philosopher (Michel Foucault) wasn’t a philosopher so much as he was an innovative historian. Instead of casting his gaze at some well-defined era, Foucault studied the breaks between eras. Why did the model of the way the world works change? Instead of a history, Foucault offered histories. In that tradition, I offer the recent histories of the American university. The first Foucauldian moment, “The Day the Purpose of College Changed“:

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Michael Bibby, Selections from Foucault’s Lectures on ‘Security, Territory, Population’ at the College de France (1977-78)

“Michel Foucault’s art consisted in using history to cut diagonally through contemporary reality. He could speak of Nietzsche or Aristotle, of expert psychiatric opinion or the Christian pastoral, but those who attended his lectures always took from what he said a perspective on the present and contemporary events.”

A selection from Foucault’s lectures at the College de France between 1977-78 titled Security, Territory, Population.

…if I had wanted to give the lectures I am giving this year a more exact title, I certainly would not have chosen “security, territory, population.” What I would really like to undertake is something that I would call a history of “governmentality.”


11 January 1978

In the seventeenth century, and at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the town still had a particular legal and administrative definition that isolated it and marked it out quite specifically in comparison with other areas and spaces of the territory. Second, the town was typically confined within a tight, walled space, which had much more than just a military function. Finally, it was much more
economically and socially mixed than the countryside.

…the growth of trade, and then, in the eighteenth century, urban demography, raised the problem of the town’s compression and enclosure within its walls. […] Broadly speaking, what was at issue in the eighteenth century was the question of the spatial, juridical, administrative, and economic opening up of the town: resituating the town in a space of circulation.

Take a text from the middle of the seventeenth century, La Metropolitee, written by someone called Alexandre Le Maitre. […] The problem of La Metropolitee is: Must a country have a capital city, and in what should it consists? Le Maitre’s analysis is the following: The state, he says, actually comprises three elements…; the peasants, the artisans, and what he calls the third order, or third estate, which is, oddly, the sovereign and the officers in his service. The state must be like an edifice in relation to these three elements. The peasants, of course, are the foundations of the edifice, in the ground, under the ground, unseen but ensuring the solidity of the whole. […] The foundations will be the countryside… . Le Maitre sees the relationship between the capital and the rest of the territory in different ways. It must be a geometrical relationship in the sense that a good country is one that, in short, must have the form of the circle, and the capital must be right at the centre of the circle. […] The capital must be the ornament of the territory. […] The capital must give the example of good morals. The capital must be the place where the holy orators are the best and are best heard, and it must also be the site of academics, since they must give birth to the sciences and truth that is to be disseminated in the rest of the country. Finally, there is an economic role: the capital must be the site of luxury so that it is a point of attraction for products coming from other countries, and at the same time, through trade, it must be the distribution point of manufactured articles and products, etcetera.

…the interesting thing is that Le Maitre dreams of connecting the political effectiveness of sovereignty to a spatial distribution. […] In short, Le Maitre’s problem is how to ensure a well “capitalized” state, that is to say, a state well organized around a capital as the seat of sovereignty and the central point of political and commercial circulation.

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Michael Bibby, Foucault’s Lectures on ‘Psychiatric Power’ at the Collège de France (1973-74)

Notes on selections
Here is a selection I have made from Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France between 1973-4, translated by Graham Burchell, and published by Macmillan in 2006 with the title Psychiatric Power.

The first thing I think that should be said about these lectures, given their title, is that they should be viewed as less about the ‘power of psychiatry’ and more about the ‘psychiatric character of power’ (although as soon as I invoke the word ‘power’ I feel the need to place that loaded word in quotation marks, to bracket it off, so that its meaning is no longer self-evident, and it is allowed to wander in the uncertainty of its meaning. Perhaps a better word here would be ‘discipline’, with which it is more or less synonymous).

In these lectures Foucault’s takes up again some of the themes which he first took up in Histoire de la folie. In some respects, it could be seen as a follow up to that earlier work which took up so much of his energies and represented the culmination of his first efforts (chronologically it begins roughly where that book left off, and, after all, he did say that Histoire de la folie was going to be the first volume of a much larger work), but it can also be seen as preparatory work for his Discipline and Punish (which was published the following year). Here is a link to a selection from the chapter ‘The Birth of the Asylum’ from Histoire de la folie.

My selection represents an attempt to distill the contents of these lectures so that they can be allowed to express themselves more forcibly (of course, it can in no way be said to replace the Macmillan publication, and I can satisfy my conscience for the crime of violating intellectual property laws– even though the size of my selection falls under 10% of the text– with the knowledge that, if anything, my dissemination of its contents will only lead to more interest in that publication). I have also added some supplementary material to further augment the text.

Here is the link to a selection I have made from Tuke’s Description of the Retreat, and see here for a selection from Pinel’s Treatise on Insanity.

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Megan Garber, Foucault That Noise: The Terror of Highbrow Mispronunciation. From Anaïs to Zizek, a brief list of “shibboleth names” The Atlantic, Feb 6 2015.

[Editor: Foucault is of course on this list]

In October 1937, the president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, devised a simple way to identify the Haitian immigrants living along the border of his country. Dominican soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley—perejil in Spanish—and ask people to identify it. Those who spoke Spanish would pronounce the word’s central “r” with that language’s characteristic trill; the Haitians, on the other hand, would bury the “r” sound in the throaty way of the French. To be on the receiving end of the parsley test would be to seal, either way, one’s fate: The Spanish-speaking Dominicans were left to live, and the Haitians were slaughtered. It was a state-sponsored genocide that would be remembered, in one of history’s greatest understatements, as the Parsley Massacre.

Today, thankfully, the stakes of the shibboleth—the term gets its name from the Biblical story—tend not to involve such horrific matters of life and death. On the contrary, they tend to involve matters that don’t much matter at all. To a large extent, modern-day shibboleths are status signifiers, the kind of loaded terms that reveal their utterers to be on a single side of a stubbornly binary line. They are not mistakes (“noo-cular” instead of “nuclear,” “mis-chee-vee-ous” instead of “mischievous”) so much as they are keys: They afford a kind of aural entry into arbitrary echelons. You know you’ve made it, for better or for worse, when you know that it’s pronounced pee-kuh-TEE.

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