Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Epilogue 2/13: The Stakes of the Balibar-Ewald Debate

By Bernard E. Harcourt

[This article draws on a longer essay titled “Reading Penal Theories and Institutions”]

“Women, prisoners, conscripts, asylum patients, homosexuals have now begun a specific struggle of resistance against the particular forms of power, of constraint, of control that are exercised over them.”

Michel Foucault, in discussion with Gilles Deleuze, “Les Intellectuels et le pouvoir,” March 4, 1972, Dits & Écrits #106, Quarto I, p. 1183.

The second seminar gave rise to a productive disagreement between Étienne Balibar and François Ewald regarding a matter of central importance to the questions of power and of resistance to power: Can resistance operate through the existing institutions, mechanisms, and practices of power, or must we look elsewhere to find other means to counter “the particular forms of power, of constraint, and of control that are exercised over us”?

These questions preoccupied Foucault at the time of his 1972 lectures, and they confounded him. Most of his exchanges with others critical thinkers in the period—with Noam Chomsky in November 1971, with Benny Lévy and André Glucksmann in June 1971, with Gilles Deleuze in March 1972—revolved around the central question of resistance to power: whether to work within the judicial institution, whether to litigate, whether to mimic the judicial model and organize independent popular tribunals, whether to write or to militate, whether to lead or to allow others’ voices to be heard, whether to form committees of inquest, whether to reach outside and resist by other means—in sum, whether to focus on the state institutions or on power itself.

In these debates, Foucault was adamant, especially with Lévy and Glucksmann, that resistance had to avoid the judicial institutions (e.g. the model of the popular tribunal), precisely because of the historical functioning of justice: judicial institutions, on Foucault’s view, had always functioned to create divisions and contradictions within society. Tribunals had always had a “constitutive role in the divisions of our contemporary society.” (D&E, Quart I, p. 1224). The penal system served to fracture and divide popular resistance, to legitimate established power relations, to construct the figure of the common law “criminal.”

But the deeper problem, Foucault insisted, was that critical thinkers were still at a loss to understand how power functions in contemporary society. In conversation with Deleuze, Foucault would repeatedly emphasize this point:

“Our difficulty in finding adequate forms of resistance, doesn’t this all come from the fact that we still ignore what power really is? After all, we had to wait till the 19th century to know what exploitation is, but we still perhaps don’t know what power is. […] The theory of the state, the traditional analysis of state apparatuses, surely these do not exhaust the field of the exercise and the functioning of power. Today, the great unknown is: who exercises power? And where do they exercise it? “ (D&E Quarto I, p. 1180).

It is within this specific context that we must reread Foucault’s theoretical interventions, as well as his practical engagements at the time. It is in this light that we need to return, for instance, to the G.I.P. manifesto that Foucault read out-loud to the press on February 8, 1971: “It is not our task to suggest a reform of the prison. We only want to make known its reality. And to make it known immediately, day by day; because time is pressing. It is a matter of alerting public opinion and holding it in high alert. We will try to use every means of information: daily newspapers, weeklies, monthlies. We are thus appealing to every possible tribune.” (D&E, #86, Quarto I, p. 1043).

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