20 Years of The Foucault Effect

16 06 2011

The Birbeck Centre for Law and the Humanities has very kindly made available, in iPod friendly format, the proceedings of a recent conference celebrating the anniversary of the hugely influential Foucault Effect, a milestone in the dissemination of Foucault’s later ideas, particulary within the Anglophone world.

More importantly, as a characteristically incisive Jonathan Simon pointed out during his address; appearing as it did some seven years after Foucault’s death, The Foucault Effect was an exhortation to “get back to work”. After all, Foucault, in his own words, “[did not] write for an audience. [He wrote] for users, not readers”. While his place in the sociological canon is richly warranted, to treat his works in themselves as a core focus of scholarly analysis is to negate their purpose: That of a toolkit by which individuals can trace and understand power relations in society, and hope, perhaps, to transcend them.





Policy and Crisis #2

2 09 2010

A crisis emerges when existing structural forms and their ways of containing contradictions no longer work as expected, and a crisis becomes acute when crisis tendencies accumulate across structures. Such moments create the space for strategic interventions to significantly redirect the course of events (or to protect the existing “fix”).

Norman Fairclough – Critical Discourse Analysis in Transdisciplinary Research





Policy and Crisis #1

2 09 2010

The whole process is crisis. This system responds to crisis. It’s the only thing that it does respond to. That’s what politics is all about … you have to get hit on the side of the head before you do something.

Anonymous transport official, quoted in John W. Kingdon – Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies





Of Barbarians and Savages

27 08 2010

This project of analyzing the intelligibility of history therefore implies three tasks: finding the strategic thread, tracing the thread of ethical divisions, and reestablishing the rectitude of what might be called the “constituent point” of politics and history, or the constituent moment of the kingdom. I say “constituent point” or “constituent  moment” so as to try to avoid, without erasing it altogether, the word “constitution.” As you can see, it is indeed a matter of constitution; the point of studying history is to reestablish the constitution, but not at all in the sense of an explicit body of laws that were formulated at some given moment. Nor is the goal to rediscover a sort of foundational juridical convention which, at some point in time-or architime-had been established between the king, the sovereign, and his subjects. The point is to rediscover something that has its own consistency and its own historical situation, and it is not so much of the order of the law as of the order of force, not so much of the order of the written word as of the order of an equilibrium. This something is a constitution, but almost in the sense that a doctor would understand that term, or in other words, in the sense of a relationship of force, an equilibrium and interplay of proportions, a stable dissymmetry or a congruent inequality. When eighteenth century doctors evoked the notion of “constitution,” they were talking about all these things. We can see this idea of a “constitution”-in both the medical and the military sense taking shape in the historical literature relating to the nobiliary reaction. It designates both a relationship of force between good and evil, and a relationship of force between adversaries. If we are able to understand and reestablish a basic relationship of force, we will be able to get back to this constituent point. We have to establish a constitution, and we will not get back to that constitution by reestablishing the laws of old, but  thanks to something resembling a revolution-a revolution in the sense of a transition from night to day, from the lowest point to the highest point. From Boulainvilliers onward-and this is, I think, the important point-it is the linking together of the two notions of constitution and revolution that makes this possible. So long as historicojuridical  literature, which had essentially been written by the  parlementaires, understood “constitution” to mean essentially the basic laws of the kingdom, or in other words, a juridical apparatus or something of the order of a convention, it was obvious that the return of the constitution meant swearing an oath to reestablish the laws that had been revealed. Once “constitution” no longer  meant a juridical armature or a set of laws, but a relationship of force, it was quiteobvious that such a relationship of  force could not be reestablished on the basis of nothing; it could be reestablished only when there existed something resembling a cyclical historical pattern, or at least something that allowed history to revolve around itself and brought it back to its starting point. You can therefore see how this medicomilitary idea of a constitution, or in other words, a relationship of  force, reintroduces something resembling a cyclical philosophy of history,or at least the idea that the development of history is circular. And when I say that his idea “is introduced,” I am really saying that it is reintroduced at the point where the old millenarian theme of the return of the past intersects with an articulated historical knowledge.

This philosophy of history as philosophy of cyclical time becomes possible from the eighteenth  century onward, or in other words, once the two notions of a constitution and a relationship of force become established. With Boulainvilliers, we see-I think for the first timethe  idea of a cyclical history appearing within an articulated historical discourse. Empires, says Boulainvilliers, rise and fall into decadence depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory.l The revolution of the sun, and the revolution of history: as you can see, the two things are now linked. So we have a pair, a link among  three things: constitution, revolution, and cyclical history. That, if you like, is one aspect of the tactical instrument that Boulainvilliers perfected.

Second aspect: When he is looking for the constItuent point which is both good and true-what is Boulainvilliers trying to do? It  is quite obvious that he refuses to look for that constituent point in the law, but he also refuses to find it in nature: antijuridicalism (which is what I have just been telling you about), but also naturalism. The great adversary of Boulainvilliers and his successors is nature, or natural man. To put it a different way, the great adversary of this type of analysis (and Boulainvilliers’s analyses will become instrumental and tactical in this sense too) is, if you like, natural man or the savage. “Savage” is to be understood in two senses. The savage – noble or otherwise – is the natural man whom the jurists or theorists of right dreamed up, the natura) man who existed before society existed, who existed in order to constitute society, and who was the element around which the social body could be constituted. When they look for the constituent point, Boulainvilliers and his successors are not trying to find this savage who, in some sense, exists before the social body. The other thing they are trying to ward off is the other aspect of the savage, that  other natural man or ideal element dreamed up by economists: a man without a past or a history, who is motivated only by self-interest and who exchanges the product of his labor for another product. What the historico-political discourse of Boulainvilliers and his successors is trying to ward off is both the savage who emerges from his forests to enter into acontract and to found society, and the savage Homo economicus whose life is devoted to exchange and barter. The combination of the savage and exchange is, I think, basic to juridical thought, and not only to eighteenth-century theories of right-we constantly find the savage-exchange couple from the eighteenth-century theory of right to the anthropology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In both the juridical thought ofthe eighteenth century and the anthropology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the savage is essentially a man who exchanges. He is the exchanger: he exchanges rights and he exchanges goods. Insofar as he exchanges rights, he founds society and sovereignty. Insofar as he exchanges goods, he constitutes a social body which is, at the same time, an economic body. Ever since the eighteenth century, the savage has been the subject of an elementary exchange. Well, the historico-political discourse inaugurated by Boulainvilliers creates another  figure, and he is the antithesis of the savage (who was of great importance in eighteenth-century juridical theory). This new figure is just as elementary as the savage of the jurists (who were soon followed by the anthropologists) but is constituted on a very different basis: he is the barbarian.

The barbarian is the opposite of the savage, but in what sense? First, in this sense: The savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters a relation of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is someone who can be understood, characterized, and defined only in relation to a civilization, and by the fact that he exists outside it. There can be no  barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization-which the barbarian despises, and which he wants-is one of hostility and permanent warfare. The barbarian cannot exist without the civilization he is trying to destroy and appropriate. The barbarian is always the man who stalks the frontiers of States, the man who stumbles into the city walls. Unlike the savage, the barbarian does not emerge from some natural backdrop to which he belongs. He appears  only when civilization already exists, and only when he is in conflict with it. He does not make his entrance into history by founding a society, but by penetrating a civilization, setting it ablaze and destroying it. I think that the first point, or the difference between the barbarian and the savage, is this relationship with a civilization, and therefore with a  history that already exists. There can be no barbarian without a preexisting history: the history of the civilization he sets ablaze. What is  more, and unlike the savage, the barbarian is not a vector for exchange. The barbarian is essentially the vector for something very different from exchange: he is the vector for domination. Unlike the savage, the barbarian takes possession and seizes; his occupation is not the primitive cultivation of the land, but plunder. His relationship with property is, in other words, always secondary: he always seizes existing property; similarly, he makes other serve him. He makes others cultivate his land, tend his horses, prepare his weapons, andso on. His freedom is based solely upon the freedom others have lost. And in his relationship with power, the barbarian, unlike the savage, never surrenders his freedom. The savage is a man who has in his hands, so to speak, a plethora of freedom which he surrenders in order to protect his life, his security, his property, and his goods. The barbarian never  gives up his freedom. And when he does acquire a power, acquire a king or elect a chief, he certainly does not do so in order to diminish his own share of right but, on the contrary, to increase his strength, to become an even stronger plunderer, a stronger thief and rapist, and to become an invader who is more confident of his own strength. The barbarian establishes a power in order to increase  his own individual strength. For the barbarian, the model government is, in other words, necessarily a military government, and certainly not one that is based upon the  contracts and transfer of civil rights that characterize the savage. The type of history established by Boulainvilliers in the eighteenth century is, I think, that of the figure of the barbarian.

So we can well understand why, m modern juridicoanthropological thought-and even in today’s bucolic and American utopias-the savage is, despite it all and even though it has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults, always the noble savage. Indeed, how could he not be noble, given that his specific function is to exchange and to give-in accordance with his  own best interests, obviously, but in a form of reciprocity in which we can, if you like, recognize the acceptable-and juridical form of goodness? The barbarian, in contrast, has to be bad and wicked, even if we have to admit that he does have certain qualities.  He has to be full of arrogance and has to be inhuman, precisely because he is not the man of nature and exchange; he is the man of history, the man of pillage and fires, he is the man of domination. “A proud,  brutal people, without a homeland, and without laws,” said Mably (who was, as it happens, very fond of barbarians); “it tolerates atrocious acts of violence because they are regarded as being publicly acceptable.'” The soul of the barbarian is great, noble, and proud, but it is always associated with treachery and cruelty (all this is in Mably). Speaking of barbarians, Bonneville said: “[T]hese adventurers lived only for war … the sword was their right and they exercised it without remorse.” And Marat, another great admirer of barbarians, described them as “poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free.” The barbarian as natural man? Yes and no. No, in the sense that he is  always bound up with a history (and a preexisting history). The barbarian appears against a backdrop of history. And if he is related to nature, said Buat-Nançay (who was getting at his closest  enemy, namely Montesquieu), it is because – well, what is the nature of things? “It is the relationship between the sun and the mud it dries, between the thistle and the donkey that feeds on it.”

Within this historico-political field where knowledge of weapons is constantly being used as a  political instrument, the great tactics that are developed in the eighteenth century can, I think, be characterized by the way they use the four elements present in Boulainvilliers’s  analysis: constitution, revolution, barbarism, and domination. The problem is basically this: How can we establish the best possible fit between unfettered barbarism on  the one hand, and the equilibrium of the constitution we are trying to rediscover on the other? How can we arrive at the right balance of forces, and how can we  make use of the violence, freedom, and so on that the barbarian brings with him? In other words, which of the barbarian’s characteristics do we have to retain, and which do we have  to reject, if we are to get a fair constitution to work? What is there in barbarism that we can make use of? Basically, the  problem is that of filtering of the barbarian and barbarism: how can barbarian domination be so filtered as to bring about the constituent revolution? It is this problem, and the  different solutions to the problem of the need to filter barbarism so as to bring about the constituent revolution, that will define-both in the field of historical discourse and in this historico-political field the  tactical positions of different groups and the different interests of the nobility, monarchic power, or different tendencies within the bourgeoisie. It will define where the center of the battle lies.

Michel Foucault – Society Must Be Defended, Chapter 9, 3rd March 1976





Hanging With Frank

26 08 2010

A fascinating short by David Graham Scott from the Shooting People series. There’s something distinctly eerie about Frank’s nostalgia for the noose; his unflinching, clinical mindset towards the ritual of “judicial hanging”, with rope lengths determined to the “nearest half inch” by reference to an empirical table. I’ll be returning to the subject of capital punishment, in the meantime this makes for compelling, unsettling viewing.





A Deadly Symbiosis

26 08 2010

In this article, I put forth two interconnected theses, the first historical, replacing the carceral institution in the full arc of ethnoracial division and domination in the United States, the second institutional, explaining the astounding upsurge in black incarceration in the past three decades as a result of the obsolescence of the ghetto as a device for caste control and the correlative need for a substitute apparatus for keeping (unskilled) African Americans ‘in their place’, i.e. in a subordinate and confined position in physical, social, and symbolic space. I further argue that, in the post-Civil Rights era, the remnants of the dark ghetto and the fast-expanding carceral system of the United States have become tightly linked by a triple relationship of functional equivalency, structural homology, and cultural fusion. This relationship has spawned a carceral continuum that ensnares a supernumerary population of younger black men, who either reject or are rejected by the deregulated low-wage labor market, in a never-ending circulus between the two institutions. This carceral mesh has been solidified by two sets of concurrent and interrelated changes: on the one end, sweeping economic and political forces have reshaped the structure and function of the urban ‘Black Belt’ of mid-century to make the ghetto more like a prison. On the other end, the ‘inmate society’ that inhabited the penitentiary system of the US during the postwar decades has broken down in ways that make the prison more like a ghetto. The resulting symbiosis between ghetto and prison not only enforces and perpetuates the socioeconomic marginality and symbolic taint of the urban black subproletariat, feeding the runaway growth of the penal system that has become a major component of the post-Keynesian state. It also plays a pivotal role in the remaking of ‘race’ and the redefinition of the citizenry via the production of a racialized public culture of vilification of criminals.

A fuller analysis, extending beyond the black ghetto, would reveal that the increasing use of imprisonment to shore up caste division in American society partakes of a broader ‘upsizing’ of the penal sector of the state which, together with the drastic ‘downsizing’ of its social welfare sector, aims at imposing desocialized wage labor as a norm of citizenship for the deskilled fractions of the postindustrial working class (Wacquant, 1999a).This emerging government of poverty wedding the ‘invisible hand’ of the deregulated labor market to the ‘iron fist’ of an intrusive and omnipresent punitive apparatus is anchored, not by a ‘prison industrial complex’, as political opponents of the policy of mass incarceration maintain (e.g. Davis, 1998), but by a carceral-assistential complex which carries out its mission to surveil, train and neutralize the populations recalcitrant or superfluous to the new economic and racial regime according to a gendered division of labor, the men being handled by its penal wing while (their) women and children are managed by a revamped welfare-workfare system designed to buttress casual employment. It is this shift from the social to the penal treatment of poverty and its correlates at the bottom of the class and caste structure, subsequent to the denunciation of the Fordist-Keynesian social contract, that has brought the prison back to the societal center, counter to the optimistic forecasts of its impending demise by analysts of the criminal justice scene in the early 1970s.

To recognize that the hypertrophic growth of the penal institution is one component of a more comprehensive restructuring of the American state to suit the requirements of neoliberalism is not to negate or even minimize the special office of race in its advent. If the prison offered itself as a viable vehicle of resolving the ‘black question’ after the crisis of the ghetto – that is, for reformulating it n a way that both invisibilizes it and reactives it under new disguises: crime, ‘welfare dependency’, and the ‘underclass’ – it is surely because America is the one society that has pushed the market logic of commodification  of social relations and state devolution the furthest (Esping-Andersen, 1987; Handler,1997). But, conversely, if the US far outstrips all advanced nations in the international trend towards the penalization of social insecurity, it is because, just as the dismantling of welfare programs was accelerated by the conflation of blackness and undeservingness in national culture  and politics (Gilens, 1999), the ‘great confinement’ of the rejects of market society, the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, the jobless and the useless, can be painted as a welcome ‘crackdown’ on them, those dark-skinned criminals issued from a pariah group still considered alien to the national body. Thus, just as the color line inherited from the era of Southern slavery directly determined the mishappen figure of America’s ‘semi-welfare state’ in the formative period of the New Deal (Lieberman, 1998), the handling of the ‘underclass’ question by the prison system at the close of the 20th century is key to fashioning the visage of the post-Keynesian state in the 21st.





The Humiliation of Exclusion

26 08 2010

For Merton (1938) crime was an alternative route to the American Dream and this prognosis was developed by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, so that for the citizen cut off from legitimate opportunities and where illegitimate chances were readily available, criminal behaviour was as normal as going out to work. The rich subcultural tradition that followed Merton represented today by theorists such as William Julius Wilson (1987, 1996), carry forward this analysis presenting forcefully the notion of crime occurring where there is ‘social isolation’ from the world of work. Loic Wacquant’s hustlers, for example,

do not … experience … rejection from the labour market as a major trauma. This is because holding a stable and well paid portion, a ‘legit job’ liable to guarantee a modicum of security, has never been part of his horizon of expectations: where marginalization becomes part of the order of things, it deprives one even of the consciousness of exclusion. (1998, p. 13)

Anyway, legitimate jobs simply do not compete with the criminal.

What good would it be to take the ‘legit route’ when the resulting rewards are so meager and almost as uncertain as those more immediate and palpable even if they come at high risks, offered by the street economy? (ibid., p. 14)

Contrary to this, I have argued throughout that marginalisation does have an impact. Philippe Bourgois’ crack dealers in East Harlem, for example, were far from unaware of the world of legitimate work. They were ridden with self-doubt about their exclusion, had fantasies about being a ‘normal working nigga’, had been in work, and had been humiliated by the world of work – simultaneously wanting to be legitimate and despising it, but far from being oblivious of it (see 1995, Ch. 4).

It is this humiliation that leads to the transgressive nature of much crime, however utilitarian its core. It is this transgression which means that although crime may be a substitute for work, it is rarely like work as many theorists would like us to believe. For example, it is not just the psychotropic qualities of cocaine that make cocaine dealing an erratic, violent and irascible affair, nor do the international aspects of its trade make them cartels like the corporations that deal in margarine or aluminium.

The ‘crime as work’ metaphor is one that is hopelessly overburdened. In its higher echelons organised crime has always involved the brash, the brazen and the extravagant. Dick Hobbs, in his excellent obituary of John  Gotti, the New York Mafia boss, cites him as saying to his underlings, ‘You got to go in there with your suits and your jewellery … Put it in their face. When people go to the circus, they don’t want to see clowns. They want to see lions and tigers, and that’s  what we are’ (2002, p. 18). And lower down the pile anyone who believes that cocaine dealers are lower managers of a distribution company and that their guns are just there to enforce contracts  because of the lack of legal protection, are suffering from an acute dose of neo-liberalism. Just go to the right club in Dalston, East London, or Brixton in the South, look at the gold, the jewellery, watch how the action mixes with the ragga and the jungle, look at the swagger, listen to the patois: the guns are not just instruments they are sexy, his is not a job, it’s excitement, this is not an alternative to work, it is a sensual riposte to labour. Jack Katz in an exemplary passage cites Robby Wideman,

Straight people don’tunderstand. I mean, they think dudes is after the things straight people got. It ain’t that at all. People in the life ain’t looking for no home and grass in the yard and shit like that. We the show people. The glamour people. Come on the set with the finest car, the finest woman, the finest vines. Hear people talking about you. Hear the bar get quiet when you walk in the door. Throw down a yard and tell everybody drink up. … You make something out of nothing. (1988, p. 131)

Wideman must have had Merton in mind, Katz notes ironically, and adds:

The aspiration is not what is advertised on television. Robby Wideman was not incapable of identifying what drove him; it was to be a star – something literally, distinctively transcendent. (ibid., p. 315)

Jock Young – The Vertigo of Late Modernity