If not now, when?
A review of Foucault in an age of terror: essays on biopolitics and the defence of society, edited by Stephen Morton and Stephen Bygrave, Palgrave, London, 2010. Hardback, 234 pages.
Arianna BoveThe introduction suggests that the book's purpose is twofold: to address Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's claim that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are needed to update Michel Foucault's analytics of power with their notion of control society; and to question Judith Butler's reading of Foucault's interpretation of the co-existence of governmentality and sovereignty as inadequate to make sense of George W. Bush's reinstating of the paradigm of sovereignty.
In 'War, discipline and biopolitics', Reid explains how the problem of war is 'the paradox and crisis of political modernity'. This is, as Reid aptly names it, the moment of strategisation of politics. This is an important insight and useful naming of the problem. After an exegesis of Foucault's war in Discipline and Punish, Reid introduces his lectures on Society must be defended, surprisingly starting from the premise that here Foucault is criticising his own project of resurrecting subjugated knowledges as modes of resistance to the discourse of power. Surprisingly because this is not so evident to the reader of Foucault.
According to Reid, in this Foucault finds a polemical encounter with his contemporaries (most notably Deleuze and Guattari) who ontologise war as the condition of possibility for resistance. Reid is keen to point out that Foucault's intervention moves in a direction of problematisation that resituates the war paradigm in its properly discursive field, as a historical and political way of being for power. And yet these subjugated knowledges seem to return from the back door: Foucault in fact does see them as engaged in a war over truth. But this being of power is never defined as such. Reid refuses the ontological framework without really explaining how it is a contestable mode of engagement with Foucault's work. Whilst the openly declared epistemological or methodological programme of the lectures is taken seriously by Reid, the import of language in being seems to be dismissed without explanation. After reinstating Foucault's credential as a postcolonial thinker with a fleeting reference to his commonality with Franz Fanon, Reid interprets Foucault's call to resisting knowledges and powers to disengage from the dominant discourse as a cautionary note. And yet, this interpretation is only possible if one leaves the level of ontology out, because if, on the contrary, this is read as the being of discourse, what Reid reads as a cautionary note arguably becomes the most revolutionary legacy Foucault left behind.
Houen's argument in 'Sovereignty, Biopolitics and the Use of Literature' is twofold and self-counterpositing. On the one hand he states that because of the groundbreaking developments initiated by the Bush administration, sovereignty is located back into the nation-state. The example of Guantanamo Bay serves the purpose of illustrating the working of biopolitics within a sovereign juridical framework, and from this questionable observation Houen jumps to the somewhat counterintuitive claim that the war on terror is not a war of races, where the unlawful combatant re-establishes the terms of political citizenry. For Houen, indefinite detention is 'a prolongation of sovereignty's resuscitated power'. However, this assumes that Foucault's discussion of the war of races was in some way dependent on the premise of the existence of political rights of individuals, which it really was not. If anything, the indefinite mass of populations mobilised as races, just as much as the construction of the barbarian or foreigner, captures well the very same developments Houen is using as an illustration of the opposite claims. It is also puzzling that Houen then goes on to understand resistance as self-potentiating practice through the work of literature's 'refusal of what we are', a disjointed appendix to a discussion that was already not leading very far.
In 'Biopolitics and Biology', Marks makes for a refreshing contribution, with his genealogy of Foucault�s interest in biology, his treatment of it in The logic of living systems, and of how eugenics has developed subsequent to the historical period that Foucault describes in Society must be defended. This is a constructive discussion of biopolitics, especially for its suggestion that eugenics never managed to develop a workable biopolitical framework, and the manner in which it has more recently shifted responsibility onto the individual and its technologies of self-perfection. In Hanson's chapter on 'Biopolitics, biological racism and eugenics', we find an equally interesting discussion of post-war Britain's debate on eugenics, and its ramifications at the level of class. Hanson applies Foucault's understanding of biological monism as an upgrade of the war of races convincingly and productively. It is in Marks and Hanson's contributions that we can see a clear continuation of Foucault's project both in historical genealogy and discourse analysis.
In the inappropriately titled 'Society must be defended and the idea of race', Macey tries to draw the discussion back to actuality, with a rant on racism and sexism spanning over a very wide ranging set of examples from history, literature and personal anecdotes. Journalistic in style, whilst not informing us of much beyond the author's often opinionated take on this range of issues, it is a compelling read and an engaging attempt to reflect on the manner in which some of the devices of power described in Foucault's historical genealogies are operative in our present.
In 'Governmentality and the ruins of democracy' Hartley productively uses the encounter of Foucault with Hardt and Negri and Butler, to reinstate a political project of resistance that begins with the multitude and the common, in an exposition of the conjunctures of their respective theoretical contributions. Unlike Houen, she can see the direct relevance of the notion of biopower to contemporary war paradigms. The intervention on 'Necropolitics' by Mbembe, in a similar spirit, pushes Foucault's analysis further in an appreciation of how the death paradigm indicates the remit of dispensability of human life in contemporary biopolitics with an emphasis on suicide.
Overall the book is an interesting albeit idiosyncratic collection of commentaries on Foucault's lectures on Society must be defended, although some of the contributions significantly move beyond exegesis. Unfortunately, the uncomfortable presumption underlining most contributions is that this set of lectures marks a 'radical shift' or 'epistemological break' in Foucault's oeuvre, moving his analysis from discipline to biopower. But by this premise proves hard to work in practice and turns out to be a forced move. That these paradigms co-exist is evidenced by the very illustrations the authors bring forth to prove the contrary. Moreover, the promise to relate the lectures to contemporary politics is only half-heartedly kept. The commentary does not provide us with significant insights into the development of world politics after S11. And when it tries to, it does not seem effective. It is better understood as a collection of commentaries on Foucault's genealogy of racism than essays on the age of terror, perhaps fittingly so, as we are still well involved in the experience and paradigm of this war, the tendency is to hypostasise it as a radical departure from the past (paradigms, discourses, and practices) and ironically move in the opposite direction to Foucault's historical ontology of the present, that is, towards a presentialist analytics of the past.