the political life of michel foucault

In his political work, by contrast, Foucault tried a different tactic. As one of his biographers sums it up, “The goal of Foucault’s political activity was the empowering of others by giving, for instance, prisoners the voice they were denied. His own voice tended therefore to fade, or to be merged into a collective discourse.” Rather than intervene immediately in a situation affecting others, and propose reforms in institutions, or improvements in material conditions, on their behalf, Foucault typically used his intellectual skills and his prestigious social location to create specific opportunities for the voices of the disempowered to be heard, recorded, published, and circulated. Except in the case of political struggles affecting the university system, in which he was both a knowledgeable and an interested participant,88 Foucault tended to see his political role as [pg 53] a facilitator rather than a leader: he consistently refused to speak for others, working instead to create conditions in which others could speak for themselves, and his driving ethical ambition expressed itself in his resistance to any attempt to subordinate the political efforts of particular groups to universalizing or generalizable standards of ethical value. He was wary of formulating specific proposals or programs, because he believed such programs nearly always amount to a power grab; they lead to “abuse or political domination from a bloc” (he claimed instead that political experimentation “without a program can be very useful and very original and creative, if it does not mean without proper reflection about what is going on, or without very careful attention to what’s possible”).89 Foucault strongly resisted any attempt to construct abstract ideals against which political change would have to be measured or to prescribe ethical criteria for governing the political actions of others. “[I]f I don’t ever say what must be done, it isn’t because I don’t believe that there’s nothing to be done” Foucault insisted; “on the contrary, it is because I think that there are a thousand things to do, to invent, to forge, on the part of those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they’re implicated, have decided to resist or escape them.”90 Foucault saw political collaboration itself as a matter for evolving negotiation among the political collaborators, whose collective identity and commonality of interests had to be constructed rather than presumed.91

Keith Gandal has attempted to explicate Foucault’s political attitudes and practices, and his account is worth quoting at some length:

Foucault developed a new political role for intellectual work and a new sort of political activism that was informed by historical analysis. What has often been thought of as his nihilism was, first of all, his sense that articulating [p 54] a set of values inhibits effective and ethical political action, and, secondly, his understanding that resistance can not stand in pure opposition to the power that be, but that, instead, struggle and change always take place through co-optation, that, in fact, change is made possible by co-optation because, in the process of co-optation, in assimilating the resistance, the terms of power change. … [H]e wanted to establish an activism that was predicated, not on the enumeration of values or the proposal of social policy, but on tactical consideration and ethical practice (including a practice of reform that would not depend upon the expert reformer). Foucault was concerned above all with the effects of his thinking and political activity. … He pursued struggles where the situation was “intolerable,” but also where an alteration of power relations was possible. … Those who come to Foucault’s work looking for political solutions will be perpetually disappointed. Foucault’s project – in both his politics and his histories — was not to lay out solutions, but rather to identify and characterize problems. … For Foucault, Truth did not reside in a set of ideas about the way things should be, but in a practice that talked about problems in a manner that opened up new possibility for action. Identifying and sizing up a problem was the most determinate act of thought. … Foucault challenged the intellectual activism whose claims to a progressive politics is a theoretical apparatus, or a correct set of values, or a program for a legitimate political system. He believed that a progressive politics needed, not a vision of what should be, but a sense of what was intolerable and an historical analysis that could help determine possible strategies in political struggle. … If Foucault remained fairly silent on the subjects of answers and principles, it was because he was acting ethically and strategically, it was because he believed that asserting principles would get in the way of an ethic of “popular” participation. he wanted to allow and even inspire a practice of criticism which proceeded, not with expert, theoretical or scientific knowledges, but with “low-ranking knowledges.”92

For example, the aim of the Groupe d’Information sur le Prisons (GIP), which Foucault founded and led in the early 1970s, was not to formulate proposals for the reform of the French prison system but to gather and disseminate information about it and to put that information to the maximum possible disruptive effect. Foucault accordingly devised questionnaires which he distributed to the inmates of prisons, inviting them to record their experiences, identify problems, or specify abuses; he then collated and published the results. His purpose was to expand the available sources of information, and to authorize those who are normally the objects of expert discourses, who are spoken about while remaining silent themselves, to speak on their own behalf — not so that they might confess to the authorities the truth of their being, of course, but so that they could articulate their own needs, point out the conditions that were particularly odious to them, and advance their own political projects.

The first pamphlet issued by the GIP proclaimed the organization’s objective sin the following terms:

The GIP does not propose to speak in the name of the prisoners in various prisons: it proposes, on the contrary, to provide them with the possibility of speaking themselves and telling what goes on in prisons. The GIP does not have reformist goals; we do not dream of some ideal prison: we hope that prisoners may be able to say what it is that is intolerable for them in the system of penal repression. We have to disseminate as quickly and widely as possible the revelations that the prisoners themselves make — the sole means of unifying what is inside and outside the prison, the political battle and the legal battle, into one and the same struggle.93

The aim, then, was to democratize the distribution of information so as to facilitate the emergence of new circuits of knowledge and power, circuits that might generate different distributions of authority and thereby alter the overall strategic [pg 56] situation in which the governors and the governed found themselves. The goal of the struggle was not revolutionary victory so much as popular autonomy; its purpose was not to win access to state power so much as to further self-empowerment. Foucault’s aim, in short, was not liberation but resistance. As the 1980 manifesto of the Association Défense Libre (a legal-defense organization), which Foucault helped to draft, puts it, “Let us avoid the hackneyed problem of reformism and anti-reformism. It is not up to us to take responsibility for institutions which need to be reformed. it is up to us to defend ourselves so well that the institutions will be reform themselves.”94 The immediate aim of many of Foucault’s political undertakings, in fact, was to alter, insofar as possible, the strategic positions of the various participants in the endless and ongoing social struggle that, to his eyes at least, comprised the whole of “politics’ (which he consistently likened, inverting Clausewitz’s formula, to the pursuit of war by other means).95 In particular, his efforts were directed to resisting specific forms of social domination effected and legitimated by specific apparatuses of power/knowledge, and his characteristic tactic was to attempt to reverse the subject- and object-positions typically assigned by those apparatuses to the empowered and the disempowered, respectively. Indeed, perhaps it is not too much to say that such a differential assignment of subject- and object-positions constitutes the basic mode by which systems of power/knowledge produce effects of social domination in the first place.

88. Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 257; see also 269 and, more generally, 255-82. Cf. Foucault, Remarks on Marx, 158-60. For the details of Foucault’s political activity within the French education system, see now Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault et ses contemporains (Paris: Fayard, 1994), 185-209.

89. Gallagher and Wilson, “Michel Foucault,” 58. Cf. Jean le Bitoux et al., “De l’amitié comme mode de vie: Un Entretien avec un lecteur quinquagénaire,” Le Gai Pied 25 (April 1981), 38-39. esp. 39 (“Friendship as a Lifestype: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” Gay Information, pp. 4-6; “Friendship as a Way of Life,” trans. John Johnston, Foucault LIve, 203-11); Foucault, Remarks of Marx, 157: “I absolutely will not play the part of one who prescribes solution. I hold that the roles of the intellectual today is not that of establishing laws or proposing solutions or prophesying, since by doing that one can only contribute to the functioning of a determine situation fo power that to my mind must be criticized.”

90. Foucault, Remarks on Marx, 174. See, generally, Eribon, Michel Foucault et ses contemporains, 289-311, for a lucid account of Foucault’s disagreements with Habermas on this point.

91. See “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in The Foucault Reader, 381-90: responding to Richard Rorty’s objection that “[Foucault may not be] saying that you and I are nothing, but [he does] seem to hint that you and I together, as we, aren’t much — that human solidarity goes when God and his doubles go” (Consequences of Pragmatism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], 207) — that, as Foucault himself put Rorty’s point, he did not locate political projects within the context of a specific community or interest group “whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought and define the conditions in which ti can be validated,” Foucault rejoined, “But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a ‘we’ in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a ‘we’ possible, by elaborating the question. Because it seems to me that the ‘we’ must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result — and the necessarily temporary result — of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it” (quotation on p. 385). For an extended commentary on this passage, as well as an application of the notions contained in it to the emerging field of lesbian/gay studies, see Ed Cohen, “Who are We’? Gay ‘Identity’ as Political (E)motion (A Theoretical Rumination),” In Inside/Out, 71-92.

92. Gandal, “Michel Foucault: Intellectual Work and Politics,” 122-24, 129. See also the excellent discussion by James W. Bernauer and Michael Mahon, “The Ethics of Michel Foucault,” The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, 141-58.

93. Qtd. in Eribon, Michel Foucault, 227.

94. Qtd. in Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 418.

95. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 26, 308; The History of Sexuality, Volume I, 93; “Truth and Power,” 123.

–David Halperin, Saint Foucault, p52-6.


5 thoughts on “the political life of michel foucault

  1. “His own voice tended therefore to fade, or to be merged into a collective discourse.” I stopped right there. He sure did fade away, didn’t he? Never to be discussed again, part of the background, just another “Uncontrollable” from the not so Iron Column.

  2. There was a time when celebrities could use their status as a way of bringing attention and funding to certain causes or grievances. The injustices which now appear everywhere through the proliferation of technology are usually accompanied by pop culture figures supplementing their careers. It’s become part of the din. Now the intellectual role presents as a more daunting challenge than ever simply because of the difficulty in locating anything of interest to discuss, which hasn’t already been excavated. Creating a platform for others to speak as Foucault preferred to do is no longer effective. We’ve reached the point where the consensus implies that no one has a right to butt in ahead of the general misery, and where discourse surrounding the amelioration of one misery earns a response implying that the granting of redress in one instance impacts negatively upon the existing misery of others. We can almost suspect there being no sympathy for prisoners today because everyone feels imprisoned to an extent. It’s difficult to decide between whether the intellectual is forced as a result to work harder in order to say anything worth listening to, or whether they’re having an easier time of it than ever when even semi-coherent thoughts represent a glaring contrast against the white noise and static of the everyday.

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