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A Foucault News exclusive.

Governmentality studies observed
Interview with Colin Gordon by Aldo Avellaneda and Guillermo Vega
September 2015

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Interviewers’ introduction
Colin Gordon is considered one of the key references of what, in a rather generic although recognizable way, has come to be called “governmentality studies”. He has been involved since the late 1970s in various projects dealing with Foucault’s work and has drawn attention since then to the particularities and advantages of Michel Foucault’s study of “arts of government”. Among his key works we can mention the editing, in 1980, of Power/Knowledge (one of the first compilations and translations in English of Foucault’s work on power) and the co-editing in 1991 – with Graham Burchell and Peter Miller – of The Foucault Effect (TFE). He has also published over the last thirty years many articles and papers about the reception of Foucault in Britain, Foucault and law, the relation between Foucault and Weber, among other topics. And in so doing, he has become one of the most relevant contributors to the reception of Foucault in the Anglophone world.

During the second half of the last year we undertook, with some colleagues and friends, the reading and translation into Spanish of the well-known introductory chapter by Colin Gordon in TFE, “Governmental Rationality. An introduction” (published in Revista Nuevo Itinerario in September 2015). After we finished it, we decided to make contact with its author in order to discuss the possibilities of a Spanish edition. The interview we present below accompanies that translation and is the result of numerous emails we exchanged since February. Our main intention was to present the author’s thoughts about a wide range of topics related to governmentality studies, although we’ve tried to focus particularly on its present situation and its analytical effectiveness.

We thank Colin Gordon for his friendly and continuing cooperation.

Aldo Avellaneda
Guillermo Vega
Facultad de Humanidades,
Universidad Nacional del Nordeste – Argentina

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Colin Gordon, New additions to academia.edu site, March 2015

« Le possible : alors et maintenant : The possible then and now. » A new publication in a special issue of the French journal Cultures & Conflits on the theme of the critique of criminological reason. My piece is an essay in the history of the possible, looking back at the moment of possibility in thinking about penal practices which was opened up by Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – what is was, what happened to it, and what today’s possible might look like.

The other recent piece is « Expelled questions: Foucault, the Left and the law », a chapter from a volume edited by Ben Golder and published in 2013. This challenges and corrects a widespread misconception that Foucault’s thought neglects and marginalises law.

« Interview with Michel Foucault. » A posthumously published interview from 1978, originally intended to form part of the Power/Knowledge volume. Foucault talks about his relations with Marxism, his early philosophical influences, and his dislike of the concept of power.

« Introduction to Pasquino and Procacci. » A brief piece from the journal Ideology & Consciousness in 1978, presenting some early examples of Foucault-inspired genealogy of power/knowledge and governmentality.

« Birth of the Subject. » My first long piece on Foucault, published in Radical Philosophy in 1977 – an extended, pre-translation overview of Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality 1.

« The Philosopher in the Classroom. » A 1977 report co-written with Jonathan Rée on how post-68 radicalism was challenging the way philosophy was being taught in schools.

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Notes on some papers uploaded on Academia.edu

Colin Gordon, 11 February 2015.

All but one of these uploads are about Michel Foucault’s History of Madness and/or issues relating to madness and psychiatry.

There is some information about individual pieces in the abstracts.

 “History of madness, history of exclusion” was the result of a commission for the Blackwells Companion to Foucault. This version had to be significantly shortened for publication, omitting discussions of complementary work by other historians which bears on the idea of a history of exclusion. The chapter aimed to restore an understanding of the conceptual architecture and political context of a book which has tended to be consistently underrated by commentators.

History of madness really deserves its own ‘companion’ volume, and I have a longish-term aspiration to put one together. Watch this space…

“La ‘Storia della follia’ in Inghilterra” was commissioned by Mauro Bertani and the Italian journal Aut Aut for a special issue in 2011 marking 50 years since the publication of History of Madness

“La ‘Historia de la locura’ en Inglaterra” appeared in El evangelo del diablo. Foucault y la Historia de la locura (ed. V Galvan, tr. Blanca Garcia Seballos. Biblioteca Nueva, Madrid 2013) the augmented Spanish translation of the Aut Aut issue.

 The chapters in Rewriting the History of Madness: Studies in Foucault’s `Histoire de la Folie’, eds. A Still, I. Velody correspond to my articles in the two special issues History of the Human Sciences on which this volume is based. The first piece has one minor amendment, the second was revised and expanded to cover additional or revised responses to the first.

“Extreme Prejudice…” was a French translation of my response to Andrew Scull’s TLS review of History of Madness, included in a collection marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of Foucault’s book.

« La réception de l’Histoire de la folie chez les historiens et les géographes : l’exemple anglo-saxon. » was an invited presentation at an international public conference, Culture psychiatrique-culture juridique : relire Michel Foucault, Folie et justice,   at La Villette, Paris in Sepember 2008 organized by Philippe Cheavllier and Tim Greacen. The event which included an intervention by Robert Badinter, was focussed on new security and carceral policies and proposals of the Sarkozy administration in France.

“Philosophy in the Water Supply” was a guest editorial for the Journal of Mental Health Promotion.

“Translator’s note” to The Philosophical Imaginary: I met Michèle Le Doeuff in Paris in the late 1970s while reporting for Radical Philosophy on the activities of GREPH, an initiative seeking to change the way philosophy was taught in French schools. I helped to arrange for the translation of her article ‘Women in Philosophy’ in Radical Philosophy, and translated two other articles of hers, on Simone de Beauvoir and Pierre Roussel, for Ideology & Consciousness. Her essay collection Recherches sur l’imaginaire philosophique was published in 1980, and my translation was published by Athlone Press in 1989.

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A Foucault News exclusive.

Colin Gordon, Foucault, neoliberalism etc.

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 First two pages

The recent online debate triggered by the Ballast interview (translated in Jacobin) with Daniel Zamora will no doubt have helped to publicise Zamora’s book and its forthcoming translation. As publicity for the French and English editions of the book, the interview seems to have been remarkably successful. I noticed the original report in Foucault News partly, I must confess, because it mentioned me and purported to report my views. I have been surprised by the amount of attention the piece has received, which seems to be disproportionate to its merits. The content of the interview, apparently summarising the content of the book, gives the impression that it consists of a mixture of old news and falsification. The old news is that Foucault was not a Marxist or a supporter of any existing model of revolutionary socialism, and was hostile to the USSR and the political influence of the French Communist Party. The falsification is the claim that Foucault ‘endorsed’ or ’embraced’ some or all forms of liberalism and neoliberalism. This combination of the already known and the false is in turn packaged in the attention-seeking claim that Foucault’s thought has become the unassailable, hegemonic discourse of our time, while its Marxist critics are now reduced to marginality within the neoliberal academy. The first part of this claim has already been met with deserved ridicule. As far as the second is concerned, the quality of this intervention does not tend to inspire regret at the decline in influence of the particular style of political culture it represents. Zamora, unborn at the time when Foucault was lecturing, appears, on the evidence of this interview and its successor interventions, to have put together an anthology of recycled old new left slurs on Foucault’s work and politics, spiced up with one or two new confabulations of his own, plus a supplement of misinformation issuing from a rather different ideological source. I limit myself in the following notes to comment on some salient points in the online discussion.

I: My comments on Foucault and Blair

Zamora says in his interview: “Even Colin Gordon, one of Foucault’s principal translators and commentators in the Anglo-Saxon world, has no trouble saying that he sees in Foucault a sort of precursor to the Blairite Third Way, incorporating neoliberal strategy within the social-democratic corpus”, adding subsequently, “Foucault, then, doesn’t advocate neoliberalism, but he adopts all of its critiques of the welfare state. He attacks the supposed “dependency” it produces, the very notion of “rights,” and its negative effect on the poor. His objective is thus not to move towards a totally neoliberal society, but to incorporate within the socialist corpus some of the decisive elements of the neoliberal critique of the state. It’s precisely in this sense that Colin Gordon sees him as a sort of precursor to Blairism”. Zamora does not provide a reference to my remarks, which occur in my discussion with Jacques Donzelot (Esprit and Foucault Studies).

What I actually wrote (in 2007) was a little more nuanced and qualified than Zamora suggests:

 I am not aware that Blair ever read Foucault. Anthony Giddens, for a time the Blair‐Clinton court philosopher, usually includes a caricatural account of Foucault only as a marginal item in his doctrinal digests. But I think parts of the formulae of Clinton and Blair for a ’third way’ may have effectively carried out a form of the operation which Foucault might have been taken as challenging the socialists to contemplate – the selective incorporation, in an updated and corrected social democracy, of certain elements of neoliberal analysis and strategy. In some ways, it is the continuation of a trend initiated in the 70s by Schmidt in Germany, Giscard in France and Healey in Britain, and in her different way by Thatcher – the truth‐telling role of government, in a world of global economic uncertainty and competition, as moral tutor of citizens in an ethic of enterprise and responsibility. The success of this formula in Britain seemed for a long time to be limited only by the irritability of citizens and the claims of the fourth estate, the media, to make and unmake governmental power (both of these reactions being severely aggravated, of course, by Blair’s extension of his governmental agenda to include the neoconservative enterprise of civilisational confrontation and global war on terror).

The comment on “irritability of citizens” was an allusion to the emerging public perception in these years of a “political class” separate from the rest of society, a perception itself no doubt generated in large part by the contradictory effects of neoliberalism itself – the new strident leadership style combined with the hollowing out of democratic political authority.

I stand by these comments, which clearly fell some way short of representing Blairism as a fulfilment of Foucault’s political dreams. The New Labour project was, however partially, incompletely and inadequately, an attempt to devise and apply a form of centre-left governmentality – drawing both on ideas from the triangulating New Democrats in the USA, and from policies of social inclusion developed under Socialist governments in France. One thoughtful paper by William Davies (an intelligent reader of Foucault’s work albeit not a card-carrying practitioner of governmentality studies) offered what seems to have been an isolated attempt, drawing on work by Rose and Miller among others, to analyse this project, and some of its difficulties, in these terms. [1] Some more work of this kind would, I suggest, still be useful.

[1]            William Davies, “The Governmentality of New Labour”, Public Policy Research 13, 4 (2006). http://potlatch.typepad.com/weblog/files/ppr_dec06.doc

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Michel Foucault, La société punitive: an editorial curiosity

by Graham Burchell, 2014

Graham Burchell is the translator into English of the lectures Foucault delivered at the Collège de France. With thanks to Graham Burchell for sending this note to Foucault News.

Translating Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, La société punitive, I have come across the following curiosity, which, unless I am mistaken, no one has commented on before now. In the “Résumé du cours”, p. 261, discussing the model of talion (lex talionis, an eye for an eye), Foucault remarks that this model was never proposed in a detailed way, but that it did enable different types of punishment to be defined. He then gives, apparently, two examples from Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene. The first is: “Les attentats contre les personnes doivent être punis de peines corporelles (the penalty for violence against persons should be corporal punishment)”. This corresponds, more or less, to the reference to Becccaria given by the editors of Dits et Écrits in footnote 10, p. 261. The second example, however, is rather confusing: “les injures personnelles contre l’honneur doivent être pécuniaires (personal injuries to honor should be pecuniary)”. This is confusing for two obvious reasons. First, the phrase just does not make sense as it is. Second, if we supply the missing words “punis de peines” to give “doivent être punis de peines pécuniaires (should be punished by pecuniary penalties)”, then the example does not in any way support Foucault’s point that the talion model was used to define different types of punishment: a pecuniary punishment for an injury to honor is not an example of talion.

The solution is found in the references given by the Dits et Écrits editors (and reproduced in the previous English translation by Robert Hurley), and in the lecture of 24th January 1973, p. 70 and p. 82 notes 34, 35, and 36. Here we find not two, but three examples:

– violence against persons; corporal punishment

– injury to honor; penalty of infamy

– robbery without violence; pecuniary punishment.

All three of which do support Foucault’s argument. What seems to have happened is that the second and third examples have been merged, with suppression of the second’s punishment and the third’s offense.

The most likely explanation for this is a simple transcription error, a line skipped perhaps, either by Foucault himself or by his editors. The garbled example appears in the earlier publication of the Résumé des cours. 1970-1982, by Julliard in 1989, but this did not contain any notes or references that might have directed a reader to the source of the examples. However, what does seem strange to me is that, again, unless I am mistaken, this has not been picked up before, not even by the Dits et Écrits editors who supplied the references to Beccaria that allow us to restore the correct examples. It is, of course, a minor curiosity, and absolutely nothing of importance hangs on it, but maybe it contains a lesson for all of us who have read these old lines without ever noticing anything odd.

Graham Burchell

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A Foucault News exclusive.

Colin Gordon, A Note On “Becker On Ewald On Foucault On Becker” : American Neoliberalism And Michel Foucault’s 1979 Birth Of Biopolitics Lectures A conversation with Gary Becker, François Ewald, and Bernard Harcourt [1]

This is a response to a discussion linked to earlier on this blog: American Neoliberalism and Michel Foucault’s 1979 ‘Birth of Biopolitics’ Lectures (2012)

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Opening paragraph

In 1991, I published a short account of Foucault’s 1978-9 lectures on governmentality, liberalism and neoliberalism, as part of my introduction to The Foucault Effect. This had been preceded by an earlier, briefer summary contained in an essay on Weber and Foucault, published in 1987. Since the publication of the lectures themselves in 2004 (in the original French) and 2007-8 (in excellent English translations),[2]  interest in their content has, very justifiably, continued to grow, while the need for those interested to rely on my highly condensed accounts and discussions has, for the most welcome of reasons, diminished. Access to the full texts of Foucault’s lectures allows everyone to form their own unmediated assessment of their merits and relevance – and also, if they so wish, to test the accuracy of early, interim bulletins of what they contain. I have done some retrospective checks myself, noting a number of important elements in the lectures, several of which are of continuing and growing interest in the light of subsequent developments, which my overview failed to adequately address.[3] But of course these lectures, including notably those on neoliberalism, are, just as much now as then, so prodigiously dense and rich in original insight that each re-reading of them leads one to notice, seemingly for the first time, further arresting and highly relevant insights.[4]


[1] Social Science Research Network. University of Chicago Institute for Law & Economics Olin Research Paper No. 614U of Chicago,Public Law Working Paper No. 401.  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2142163

[2]             Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977—1978.  Edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; Michel Foucault,The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979: Lectures at the College De France, 1978-1979.  Edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[3] Colin Gordon, “Governmentality and the genealogy of politics”, Birkbeck College, 2011.  http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2011/06/colin-gordon-governmentality-and-the-genealogy-of-politics/

[4]             Two points which struck me anew while preparing these notes: that Foucault cites liberalism as historically crucial to the legitimation of new sovereign legitimacy not only in West Germany after 1945, but also in the American colonies after 1776; and that migration is discussed not only as a life-experience of several among the founders of neoliberalism, but also as itself a theme of neoliberal economic thinking.

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A note on Philippe Chevallier’s Michel Foucault et le christianisme

by Colin Gordon, July 2012

See here for details of the book

Philippe Chevallier’s Michel Foucault et le christianisme was published in France by ENS Editions  last December. Foucault’s recently, and imminently to be published work (notably the 1984,  1980 and Louvain lectures) are adding substantially to the available fraction of his unfinished work on the Christian genealogy and archaeology of knowledge, power and ethics, and it is likely that earlier major works including the History of Madness will be profitably revisited in this new light. The picture is not yet complete: there are two full-length manuscripts from the History of Sexuality, one abandoned text dating from 1978 (“Le corps et la chair” until recently thought to have been destroyed), and a draft version of the volume 4 (“Les aveux de la chair”), announced just before Foucault’s death. The evidence base on Foucault and Christianity is growing and will most probably go on growing for an unknown length of time. Some new developments are likely to follow from the publicly reported moves currently under way to house Foucault’s papers in a public archive – most probably the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

For the moment,  Philippe Chevallier’s major survey offers us the most informed and complete picture of the new terrain available to us: it should be translated as soon as possible. The  core of the book deals which the 1980 lectures on The Government of the Living, which will be published in France this October and in English next year. This course, as is well known, marked the start of the five-year period of what Foucault called his  “Greco-Roman trip” and which with minor digression occupied the remainder of his Paris course, though he assured his auditors at the very end, in 1984, that he was about to return to modern time. Additional material covered includes all the published works back to the earliest years, plus a fairly thorough coverage of the other lecture series both published and unpublished – such as the discussions of the history of the confessional in Psychiatric Power and of the pastoral in Security, Territory, Population.

There is one sensational scoop – albeit handled here with discretion: Chevallier was given access by Daniel Defert to an unclassified file which proved to be a chapter of  “Le corps et le chair”, dealing with 16th and 17th French manuals for confessors.  He also had had access to information about Foucault’s working library, his research notes, records of works consulted, and filing cards. His book, condensed from a doctoral thesis, weaves together many layers, from the way Foucault worked on his texts, which editions of the Church Fathers he used in his research and teaching, to the question of how and why Christianity came to figure (as not all readers of Foucault might until recently have supposed it would) as a specific object of investigation in his overall programme, and, finally, to that investigation’s findings. An appendix offers a bold outline of how a “strategic history of Christianity” might be completed working from the fragments Foucault left us.

Chevallier is a reliable and learned guide to the respective intricacies of patristic learning and Foucault’s footsteps (his findings are repeatedly cited by Michel Senellart, editor of the forthcoming edition of  The Government of the Living), but he carries his Jesuit-trained erudition lightly, his writing  is unfailingly elegant and lucid, and the intellectual quest he leads us on grips the interest to the end. One of his key points is that  Foucault changes his method of working in 1980 at the same time as he changes his domain; that Foucault discerns, creates and invents a new layer of analysis and thematics within the Patristic text – the layer concerning acts and practices of truth; and that this focus – a specific way of working on the patristic texts at a distinctive and   unconventional semantic depth – makes possible the discovery of new objects and events while at the some time de-emphasising other important, indeed essential components of the Christian phenomenon. The final finding of the 1980 course which Chevallier leads us to is that Christianity is the discoverer or inventor something unknown to ancient philosophy – an intuition of the inherently precarious nature of our relationship to  truth.

I attended one of Foucault’s 1980 lectures on the sacrament of baptism and I can remember confessing to him afterwards that I had found it heavy going; he was characteristically elated at this feedback, which he took (mistakenly) as a sign that his weekly audience numbers might be about to decline. It has, through no fault of Foucault’s, taken a long time for the full point of the “Greco-Roman trip” to become evident. Philippe Chevallier’s book significantly helps us to fill in this picture. Everyone interested in Foucault should have access to it.

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