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Resistances, subjectivities, common

Judith Revel

Today I would like to emphasise two points that are essential to the reflections that we have been developing for some years on the Foucauldian concepts of biopower and biopolitics.
These points are the following: on the one hand, the difference that exists between biopower – literally the power over life – and biopolitics as a politics of expression of the power of life; and on the other hand, the need to build, within the framework of a biopolitics that resists the dispositifs of power, an articulation among singularities that leaves no room for individualist dispersals, and that on the contrary places at the centre of our thoughts the themes of organisation, institutions and the common.
So, the difference between biopower and biopolitics is made necessary by our need to break the dialectical circle that insidiously turns all counter-power into another power, or that limits itself to describing the movement of resistance to powers as a sort of parenthesis containing a fragile liberation, rapidly reabsorbed by the large and expanding wave of power itself.
This is the central problem confronting post war French philosophy, and more generally, I believe, contemporary political theory in Europe; it is also without a doubt one of the main reasons for this hard anti-Hegelianism that slowly developed out of philosophical points of reference such as Spinoza and Nietzsche.
When confronted with a given power that subjugates and oppresses me, I have to organise a resistance. But to only define it against this power, as the struggling other of this power, entails being its reversed double; nothing ensures that – when in some cases resistance prevails and reverses power - the movement of rising up against the intolerable will not in turn generate a power that is even crueller.
This was the problem of the storming of the Winter Palace, if you like: to struggle to liberate oneself is one thing, to build a political system on the collective practice of freedom is another. In other words: transgressing a rule still confirms the rule, and even when I manage to suppress it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this won’t immediately recreate another rule, different for sure, but no less authoritarian.
In respect to biopowers over life, the problem is even more visible: faced by powers that exploit life (in its wider social, relational, affective, linguistic, productive meaning, as existence), how can we resist without necessarily becoming the other of power? The difficulty is so great that some have not hesitated to affirm, as the only possible solution, the pure and simple suppression of life – because that would represent at the same time the field of application of power, and the game of its ‘capture’. To withdraw life from power entails preventing power from being applied and from making profit, and this withdrawal has been pushed to the extreme in the form of a negation of life itself: from the individual suicide in the gesture of suicide bombers, de-subjectivation as a paradoxical resistance, to the exploitation of subjectivity, the effacing of the subject’s predicates, the search for the impersonal, the ‘third person’, the indeterminate and the not-owned.
But for those who advocate the value of resistance of this effacement of the subjective as a promise for the liberation of subjects, it is difficult to explain the political power of such a gesture, that is to say strictly its productivity, unless they turn this absence or this retreat of the subjective into the mark of a new political condition, not to say into the very definition of what is in fact politics.
This is not the path we want to follow. Death is nothing, and, even less than that, it cannot be a political strategy; more broadly nothing deserves the name of resistance unless it exits pure negativity (suppression, effacement, retreat and withdrawal), and dares to take risks at the more difficult but richer level of positivity and affirmation, so we need to untie the dialectical circle of power/counter-power in another way and operate within biopolitical thought a ‘switch-over’ of a different kind, that does not proceed from deprivation or deduction, but rather from an addition, an excess, a qualitative difference. This switch-over is what for some years I have been calling the asymmetry of resistance, and in it I see the specificity of the political.
The dissymmetry that Foucault clearly perceived in the mid-70s is built on the grounds of a close analysis of power relations. Power relations are obviously far from the simplistic imaginary of a monolithic, unitary and central power – often solely associated with the figure of the State. We know, in this respect, the Foucauldian discourse on the ‘microphysics’ of power, their reticular, disseminated, minute dimension that invests the most subtle aspects of our daily life; so I won’t recall this here. But we often forget to remember that for Foucault it is equally a question of characterising the ways in which these power relations function; the genealogy of their different rationalities according to their time and as a function of their questions (which, according to the period, change and are redefined too). Moreover, a relation of power for Foucault is ‘an action on the action of others’, it is what is exercised on the free action of men in order to capture, direct and exploit their existence, it is by definition always secondary to a freedom that it paradoxically needs and that, in itself, comes first. Therefore, power is at the same time always genitive, managing, parasitical, and always a reaction, whereas on the other hand the free action of men is primary, inventive, and given as an action. It is in so far as men invent and open possibilities that power relations can proceed with the capture of this opening. Or, rather, it is precisely in this differentiation – between a production and a reproduction, an action and a reaction, a creation and a management, that I see the dissymmetry, or the asymmetry of biopower and biopolitics: the latter does not lie in a difference of the sign or the mark of power, but in a qualitative leap of kind between two realities that are absolutely reciprocally incommensurable amongst themselves.
Thus what is at stake for resistance becomes how to affirm this creativity to increase the dissymmetry with power – a creativity that becomes so important given that the change in the paradigm of labour and the progressive displacement of the barycentre of economic valorisation towards a production that is always immaterial and cooperative, relational and cognitive, has placed creativity exactly at the centre of the process of value production?
Before answering this question, we need to ask a preliminary one, without which all the thought on resistance as ‘creative difference’ or as ‘productive asymmetry’ has no meaning. This question asks what exactly is being produced, opened up or created: what is managed and captured by power? What is produced is first and foremost something that invests one’s relation to oneself and others, the way one leads one’s existence and that in which one establishes relations with others – of love or antagonism, cooperation or exchange – in other words, a process of subjectivation.
On this subject I have two brief remarks to make. On the one hand, the expression ‘process of subjectivation’ seems better to me than the simple term ‘subjectivity’, in so far as it does not pretend to turn this production into a thing, a reified product, but rather insists on the impossibility of immobilising what is given as a movement, as a becoming.
On the other hand, what develops in one’s relation to oneself can in no way correspond to a sort of return to egotism and self-sufficiency – not least because such isolation from the world is not viable unless one artificially creates its conditions, as in the case of hermit living. Towards the end of his life, Foucault insisted on the concept of ‘way of life’ as a keystone of subjectivation: this concept has the advantage of including in the relationship to the self the relation to the other in the form of a conduct. In fact, where power is given as an ‘action on the action of others’, subjectivation opposes – or more precisely severs the nets of power from within- an attitude that consists of leading one’s own life oneself, being the leader of one’s own conduct in some way. This is very close – and not by chance - to that Kantian idea of maturity as it developed in Kant’s Was ist Aufklärung, a 1784 text on which Foucault also comments on two occasions at the end of his life. (1)
Let us return to our initial question: how does one increase the difference, and reinforce the asymmetry when faced with the structure – by essence genitive and secondary – of power relations? (I would like to say in passing that the term ‘difference’ is, with that of ‘maturity’, ‘autonomy’, ‘discontinuity’ and ‘revolution’ at the centre of Foucault’s commentary on Kant, which I refer to). How, once the movement of subjectivation is under way, can this dimension of resistance that belongs to the movement be retained without giving in to the temptations of reification or the seductions of a power that continuously attempts to reabsorb the excess of resistance by producing to this effect new categories, new dispositifs, and new diagrams?
In my view, the misconception, present in Foucault for some years and still discernible today in some of his excellent lectures, consists in trying to consolidate the movement of subjectivation as a movement, that is to say, to paradoxically capture it in a sort of thought of instantaneity. The fear of reification or capture has in this case one extreme consequence, that of blocking resistance in a movement – that of subjective production – which becomes in fact a never ending flight forward.
I have to say that despite my indebtedness to reading Deleuze, the risk of certain metaphors, however effective and beautiful – such as ‘lines of flight,’ for instance – is apparent to me. It cannot be sufficient for resistance to flee because it is power that is a reaction to freedom, rather than resistance to power; and because resistance needs to be given as an asymmetry, that is to say affirmative of its positive and propositive dimension – in one word productive – in order to speak of its creative difference and its ability to invent new being (new forms of life, new modes of subjectivation).
I would like to conclude on this last point, on the second question that I announced at the beginning of this short intervention.
If we do not wish to retreat into the instantaneity of resistance, in a logic that from a philosophical point of view would lead us to negate time by reducing it to a sort of extreme atomisation; and which from a political point of view would condemn us to a sort of radical spontaneity where nothing can exceed the duration of its own gesture; we must think of resistance not only within history but within time, and to give it the chance to not only experiment with new strategies of resistance, invest new fields, and try to produce new modes of life, but also to accumulate and sediment the results thus achieved, the conflicts built, the subjectivities set into motion. In order to do this we absolutely need to think of the constituent dimension of resistance (its asymmetry) as well as a constituted one. To say it in a way that is probably too hasty and brutal, the old opposition between what belongs to the constituent order and what belongs to the order of the instituted must be dissolved and rearticulated. The issue of the political institutions of resistance must be posited, by rescuing the term ‘institution’ from the political tradition of modernity that turned it into a central element of the state of law, and by reinventing it as an inscription of becoming in time, or as a constituent opening of the instant to a becoming that accumulates its forms. This need has clear consequences : philosophically, it is a welcome departure from our own thought on time that must thus be entirely rearticulated; politically, it is the relation between revolution and institutions – or between insurrection and institutions – that must be revised, no longer in its form of succession of separated moments, but as one and the same expression of resistance; finally, juridically, the old opposition between a constituent dimension that is regarded to be pre-juridical and a constituted dimension that is seen as the mark of entry in positive law must also be rethought.
Moreover, in so far as the processes of subjectivation always simultaneously invest a relationship to the self and a relationship to others, taking the form of an experimentation with shared modes of life (the creation of languages, exchanges, affects, relations, pedagogy, desire, pleasure etc.), the institutions at the heart of constituent processes can be nothing but institutions of the common.
The term ‘common’ has had much fortune for some time, as has the term ‘biopolitics’. I think that regardless of that, it is not useless to repeat at which point this notion eradicates, deconstructs and renders impractical the whole of the edifice of categories that has sustained modern political theory since the 17th century.
Thought about the common cannot function from the starting point of the couplets private/public or individual/collective. In the first case, it denounces the fact that if the ‘private’ is an individual appropriation, the ‘public’ has historically represented the appropriation of the State, that is to say, the usurpation that consists of making one believe that what does not belong to a particular person (and actually belongs to the State) in fact belongs to every one. In the second case, it defies the opposition between difference seen as particularity, and collectivity – or generality – as universality. The political theory that turns singular difference into the mark of the subjective, and thus rejects it and confines it to the sphere of the ‘private’ and of the ‘non-sharable’, does not work because it posits at the other extreme of this sphere the other polarity of the political: what is general (a general will that is completely devoid of the encumbering load of singular subjectivities); what is universal (which too often proceeds through the erasing of differences or their reduction to an even more reductive search for a ‘minimum common denominator’ that would be acceptable to all, that is to say to all persons); and what is collective (which proceeds through the dispossession of each without the re-appropriation of all).
The ‘common’ requires being thought as a persistence of singular differences as differences, in a differential enactment of these differences. It has to be experimented with as a sharing of these differences, as the construction of a space – political, subjective and of life – where each reinforces by one’s own difference the power of his community with the other. The common is a radically democratic construction of singularities. The radicalism of this democracy from below would function as an absolute guarantee of universality, or the putting of singularities in common, in their becoming-differential, would be in itself the construction of a shared life, a community, a polis, an unknown politics.
The community of the common will not be the reduction of subjectivities to a neutralising supposed objectivity (society as the dispossession of the self, community as the abandonment of singular differences, and politics too as representative democracy and the building of social ‘consensus’) ; nor will it be the voluntary abandonment of what makes each of us what one is (as if a community could satisfy itself with being nothing but a ‘community of those without community’, as if a subjectivity could only be said to be powerful the moment it chooses to divest itself from its singularity and topple in the grey zone of the improper or the impersonal). The community of the common is linked to the recognition of a changing and complex reality of power relations, forms of struggle, infinite power of the processes of subjectivation, the unending elaboration of new ways of living, the invention of new institutions of this becoming-differential of singularities, and the differential, transversal, mobile, and strategic articulation of these differences between themselves as the motor of a universality of a new kind: the becoming common of differences and the becoming-difference of resistances. Diagnosis, antagonism, subjectivation, creation, institutions and the common. Starting from this complex sequence today we can engage in exiting political modernity.

London, June 2008

Translation by Arianna Bove

(1) Translator’s note: Foucault’s engagement with Kant’s answer to this question can be found mainly in one text from 1978 - entitled Qu’est-ce que la critique? (translated in Italian as Illuminismo e Critica, Roma: Donzelli Editore, 1997) – and two texts from 1984, both entitled ‘What is Englightenment?’ (one published in The Foucault Reader, London : Penguin, 1984 [also online at http://courses.essex.ac.uk/cs/cs101/foucault.htm], the other in Magazine Littéraire, n. 207, an extract from the course at Collège de France on 5 January 1983, translated in Italian in Archivio Foucault 3, Milano: Feltrinelli, 1998. Other explicit references to Kant’s reply to the question feature in Foucault’s Introduction to Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological [1978], published as ‘Life: Experience and Science’ in Essential Works: Aesthetics, London : Penguin, 2000, p. 465 [also online at http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpfoucault10.htm].