Muriam Haleh Davis, ‘Justifications of Power’: Neoliberalism and the Role of Empire, Jadaliyya, March 25, 2014
This article is the second in a three-part Jadaliyya series that looks at Foucault’s work in relationship to the legacy of French colonialism in North Africa. Read the first installment here: “The Dangers of Liberalism: Foucault and Postcoloniality in France“ by Diren Valayden]
“I am like the crawfish and advance sideways.” So Foucault warns us in the Birth of Biopolitics. And indeed, one would need to be an extremely nimble, if not heroic, crawfish to claim that Foucault espoused a serious reflection on French colonialism in North Africa. Point taken. What is irrefutable, however, is that his writings have had an enormous impact on historians working on colonialism in the Maghreb (and elsewhere). Foucault’s relative silence on colonialism (despite a few references to Algeria in interviews) is even more curious given the fact that the Algerian war was considered a decisive event for a generation of French intellectuals.
One might be tempted to explain this silence by his general distrust of the conventional objects of historical inquiry. Foucault insisted that the genealogy of the “Other” was more expansive than its narrowly colonial guise. Indeed, in explaining the inability of history to come to terms with a “general theory of discontinuity” he postulates it was “[a]s if we were afraid to conceive of the Other in the time of our own thought.” The long-standing units of analysis held little interest for Foucault who maintained, “As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence.” Moreover, the definition of colonialism has been the subject of a long debate in Algeria, both in current-day politics as well as in its historical study. It is thus easier to see how colonial practices intersect with the history of madness, disciplinary power, governmentality, and neoliberalism than to identify what Foucault “had to say” about colonialism itself.