Biopolitics Reading Group Notes 1

Over the fold, my notes on chapter 3 of Foucault’s Society Must be Defended for the biopolitics reading group.

Society Must Be Defended, Foucault


Chapter Three

Part one: Operators of Domination

“[T]he theory of sovereignty presupposes the subject; its goal is to establish the essential unity of power, and it is always deployed within the preexisting element of the law.” (44)

(This reminds me Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the despotic signifier in ATP, ie through the faciality of the sovereign.)

First: Foucault is arguing against a conception of power relations that collapse into the (dialectical?) unity of sovereignty. Within such an arrangement the subject is already given. Instead, he suggests “we should be extracting operators of domination from relations of power, both historically and empirically” and “how act relations of subjugation manufacture subjects” (45).

Second point: There is a multiplicity of power relations and they can be analyzed “only if we try to see how they interact, how they support one another, and how this apparatus defines a certain number of global strategies on the basis of multiple subjugations” (45). A synergy is not a unity. The power relations are like sound waves (vectors, ie Virilio) that can amplify each other or cancel each other out. “They are global strategies that traverse and use local tactics of domination” (46).

Third point: Power relations are the building blocks of synergies of domination. Foucault wants to explore the machinery or operators of this domination. (I understand ‘operator’ here less in the crane-driving sense and more in the mathematical sense.) It is their functionality that must be engaged (46).

Summary: 1) techniques, 2) the heterogeneity of techniques, and 3) the subjugation-effects that make technologies of domination the real fabric of both power relations and the great apparatuses of power (46)

Introduces his guiding questions (46):
1) Relationship of domination a relationship of force? (Nietzschean force?)
2) Relationship of force a relationship of war?
3) Can war act as a matrix for techniques of domination?

Part two: War, Force, Truth

Is war primary with regard to other relations? (47)

Clausewitz’s principle 47-48. Politics is the continuation of war by other means (48).
Throughout the middle-ages the state acquired a monopoly on war (48). War was pushed to the edges of the social body, which was “cleansed of bellicose relations” (48). This allowed for the emergence of a military apparatus: the army as an institution (49).

There is a discourse of war that has been picked up and used by a number of different social groups (50). Political-power does not begin when the war ends. War is the motor behind institutions and order (50). There is a slippage here in Foucault’s rhetoric between asking the question of relationships of domination, if they can be considered in terms of relationships of war, and simply stating that war exists. Is he saying that the relative positioning of various parties is best represented by this discourse of war? Or that the discourse of war has a performative effect in the consolidation of various forces into different (warring) parties? This is crucial because the caution in the earlier section where he demanded that one show how “relations of subjugation manufacture subjects” seems to disappear when we get to him simply stating that a “binary structure runs through society” (51). Surely, going by his more cautious rhetoric, we should instead approach it (with a slight play on words) in terms of a binary structure that is produced as the running of ‘society’ (as a synergistic collective, not Durkheimian unity)? Maybe he is just describing the “discourse on war” rather than critically engaging with it, as the comments towards the end of the main paragraph page 51 are very ambiguous.

He answers this by staking out a relation between this war discourse as a discourse of perspective and the truth uttered in the discourse as always pertaining to a certain outcome (52). “[I]f the relationship of force sets truth free, the truth in its turn will come into play – and will, ultimately, be sought – only insofar as it can indeed become a weapon within the relationship of force” (53).

Part three: Explaining things from below

Principle that explains history:

1) Brute facts (54), a series of accidents or at least contingencies (multiplicity)

2) a ‘growing rationality’ (54), condensations, the operators of domination

3) a history that has no boundaries, no end, and no limits (55)

History is not about passing judgement by deploying an ideal schema: the “relativity to the absolute of law, but in discovering beneath the stability of the law or the truth, the indefiniteness of history” (56) So there are at least two levels or layers of struggle, the superficial given or condensed multiplicity and the naked accidents of bodies and passions.

Be weary of ‘great mythical impulses, and with the ardor of the revenge of the people’ (57). The knowledge of this historical discourse “is a weapon that is used to win an exclusively partisan victory” (57). It is a partisan discourse.

Forget the dialectic (58), it condenses multiplicity and explains nothing, it itself needs to be explained.

Part four: Race War

Machiavelli, Hobbes (59) paternities of the partisan discourse, war and peace

“The war that is going on beneath order and peace, the war that undermines our society and divides it in a binary mode is basically a race war” 59-60 provides some very brief examples and conditions of its emergence.

It is a “binary rift within society […] not a clash between two distinct races” (61). “[O]ne true race, the race that holds the power and is entitled to define the norm, and against those who deviate from that norm, against those who pose a threat to the biological heritage” (61) Current neo-conservative positions are obvious examples of this.

So there is a movement whereby multiplicity is transformed by ‘operators of domination’ into a binary relation; this is ongoing; State racism.

Chapter summary:

History as such becomes a resource within these ‘operators of domination’; or serves as a counter-history, a history ‘from below’ (of multiplicity or of the binary to the State history’s discourse (eg multiculturalism)?? this is unclear). However, Foucault’s historical discourse is not a partisan history of one party within the binary relation, but a history of the tactical reduction of multiplicity that strategically reproduces the ‘binary rift’.

Does this mean that ‘counter-histories’ are actually equivalent in an asymmetrical way to the State histories?

5 replies on “Biopolitics Reading Group Notes 1”

  1. ‘State racism’ here reminds me so much of Derrida’s autoimmunity, and pretty much everything Arendt ever wrote. But: I wouldn’t say it consists in the transformation of a multiplicity into a ‘binary relation’. Rather a number of binary relations that take their form from the more abstract ‘self/other’ binary. In other words, we can be racist to a whole lot of minorities at once.

  2. I am not sure how you are using ‘minority’ above.

    If in the D+G sense, which is basically performative to the ‘racist’ relation (or whatever ‘-ist’) of a majoritarian position, either structurally (ie part of an assemblage, which is still a contingent duration) or contingently on a phenomenological level, then I agree.

    If in a common sense sense, for example, of ‘multiculturalism’, then I do not agree. In that case the discourse of ‘multiculturalism’ although mostly positive in intent is still part of the State apparatus that reduces the multiplicity of human experience into specific categories. The difference between the categories has a function within particular assemblages. That difference overcodes all elements of the socio-political relation (or ‘historical’ in Foucault’s discourse) of difference and also overcoding the ongoing ‘differencians’ as the antagonism becomes a relation around which the heterogeneous elements of various mutltiplicities are reduced (as a kind of onto-epistemological stalemate). Telling me that that single relation of difference matters, and matters in a certain way is essentially a function of state discourse, of the ‘operators of domination’. Politically this is utopian, or perhaps tactical, however, analytically I think it is a useful tool.

    Or to put it another way, when you talk of ‘more abstract’ I would suggest that perhaps you have not got abstract enough. There are so many differences that they exceed our respective perceptual capacities. The operators of domination condense these differences; they actualise (or ‘integrate’ from differential calculus) the multitiplcity of the ‘pure event’.

    Or, lastly, to put it yet another way, directly drawing on GUattari’s arguments from his later work he talks about machinic alterity and asks the question why should alterity be reduced human relations when nonhuman desire flows through us and we are part of assemblages or networks that exist on nonhuman scales (such as the ‘nation’; a controversial example!).

  3. The use of “race” here is not “biological” and, hence, the discussion of “race war” is not “racist” in our present sense of the word. As Mark notes above, Foucault’s use of “race” parallels Arendt’s use of “race” in her sense of “race-thinking before racism.” Indeed, both of them are talking about the exact same thing; i.e., Henri de Boulainvilliers’ propaganda about Franks and Gauls and nobles and kings. They’re both quite clear that while Boulainvilliers’ “race war” discourse was a “necessary” condition, it was not “sufficient.” What was needed was someone like Linnaeus or Kant to come along and bind biology to race; that is, race qua ‘historico-cultural’ had to be grounded in “real” biological differences. With re-coding of race as biologico-cultural rather than historico-cultural, it became possible to re-integrate race in a new into government; i.e., population qua race is the biopolitical paradigm par excellence.

    I’d also argue that “the nation” undergoes a similar transcription. Recall that “nation” wasn’t originally a unitary concept. There were multiple nations under one king. The Estates were often referred to as “Nations” (a number of other uses were also in circulation). Foucault doesn’t push this point as much as he could, but the French Revolution is an essential moment in the racial coding of the nation. Recall that Sieyes, in his “What is the Third Estate?,” tells the Franks to return to their forests (i.e., he’s engaging with Boulainvilliers on his own terrain and thus acknowledging the racial argument). Who is it, then, that tells the Franks to get lost? Given that the race war discourse has been accepted, Sieyes is speaking as Gaul. Thus, he is proposing a connection between the Third Estate, the Gauls, and the Nation – they are all ways of saying the same thing. And what he is saying is that the Third Estate is “everything.” The bourgeois-Gauls are the nation – and here we can see the movement towards, on the one hand, a new conception of race bordering on racism and, on the other hand, a new way of bringing race into government – a way prefiguring the Soviet purges and the Holocaust.

  4. craig, I agree with your quite precise assessment of the historical dimension to foucault’s argument. You are very good at it!! My response to Mark (and indeed Foucault) was coming from more from what I imagine to be the philsophical ‘manufacture of subjects’ angle.

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