Ricoeur – Freud and Philosophy



Paul Ricoeur Freud and Philosophy


Recently, there has been a lot of discussion regarding the role that post-modernism has played in the downfall of higher education. Paul Ricoeur is famous for saying the “symbol gives rise to thought” but is there more to his work than this? Brett Vienotte from school sucks read from Felski’s article Critique and The Hermeneutics of suspicion which builds heavily on Ricoeur’s theory of hermeneutics. Vienotte suggests through his reading that this singular skepticism that critical philosophy is known for is present in the dark side of post modernity.

In this article, I will introduce you to Ricoeur and briefly discuss the conflict of interpretations. Due to the complicated ideas that Ricoeur presents this is going to be a multiple part series. In part one I will flesh out the role that the hermeneutics of suspicion plays in Ricoeur’s work. I will question why Post Modernity may not have solid philosophic foundations and look to how Kant, Nietzsche and Freud have developed these ideas.

Teaser Quote

[Of Nietzsche’s Deutung] this point can be made: the new career opened up for the concept of interpretation is linked to a new problematic of representation, of Vorstellung. It is no longer the Kantian question of how a subjective representation or idea [Vorstellung] can have objective validity; this question, central to a critical philosophy, gives way to a more radical one (p.25).


Why do you want to learn about Paul Ricoeur? Perhaps, like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, it is because in some small way, Ricoeur was able to articulate the human condition. Stanford’s Plato Encyclopedia provides a biographical sketch that is worth reading. So rather than repeat, I will simply point you there. Nonetheless, it is necessary to gain some understanding of the body of Ricoeur’s work, particularly in regard to “interpretation.” His hermeneutic anthropology was especially significant as it conceptualized the human subject as experiencing time through narrative.

Like many, such as Zimbardo and Milgram etc., Ricoeur’s experiences in World War II drove him to search for why we are capable of evil. During the first thrust of his work, Ricoeur isolated logos as a key component of free will. Standford write:

Ricoeur extends his account of freedom to take up the problem of evil in Fallible Man and The Symbolism of evil, both published in 1960. In these works he addresses the question of how to account for the fact that it is possible for us to misuse our freedom, the reality of bad will, a question that had been bracketed in the initial phenomenology volume.


Ricoeur is perhaps most famous for saying “The symbol gives rise to thought.” I can begin to parse out the red thread of Ricoeur here. Coupled with his work on hermeneutics, this curious yet insightful phrase reveals Ricoeur’s work as based on the best methods for the interpretation of self. This gives us the first of what I’ve been able to identify as three keys to Ricoeur: Identity. Normativity, the second, can be derived from his conception of symbol. This is a foundation for the hermeneutics and his entire ethic. That is to say, we essentially understand the symbolic landscape in much the same way as those around us. So what of narrative?

Much like Derrida, who is a figure casting a long shadow in Post-Modernism. Ricoeur conceived man as a product of linguist narratives. Alexis Itao writes:

The various linguistic expressions that man creates [is] in a way [that which can] define him. That is why, in general terms, language serves as the route to self-understanding. And yet, language itself poses some problems. No single language is simple; as it were language by nature is complex.


So far, I have outlined how Ricoeur constructed man as a normative narrative which formed an identity. To do this I introduced his famous phrase “the symbol gives rise to thought.” Before moving on to the The Conflict of Interpretation then, it is worth dwelling on symbol and Ricoeur’s definition thereof. If Itao is correct in suggesting that “Hermeneutics is primarily the interpretation  of symbols” then learning Ricoeur’s reading is important. In The Conflict of Interpretations – Essays in hermeneutics Ricoeur writes:

I define ‘symbol’ as any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.

Semiotics informs us that a sign (for instance a word in written language) is constructed through the signifier and the signified. Symbolism however, goes beyond this one to one relationship and contains information that can be recognized from a primordial part of us. Symbols then, in a Freudian sense, are constructed through  the latent and manifest significations. Unfolding symbolism to find the multiple layers of hidden meanings contained within. This requires a complex cognitive process that involves decoding and amalgamation of language. This is done rapidly through thinking, hence the symbol giving birth to thought.


With this brief background out of the way, I now turn my attention to Ricoeur’s writing directly. Why, of all Ricoeur’s fascinating work read this text. Well, my primary motivation for reading Freud and Philosophy Chapter Two: The Conflict of Interpretation, is, that Rita Felski quotes it in the aforementioned Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion. I intend to cover this particular article for The School Sucks Project. What I have found in this miniature genealogy of sorts is that Ricoeur plays a major role in our contemporary understanding of identity.

Felski claims that Ricoeur was able to capture the spirit of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche when he coined the phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion” What we also know, is that Ricoeur’s work on interpretation is the basis (arguably) for critical theory. This is a discipline developed by Max Horkheimer and teaches ideology as a primary obstacle to human liberation (despite being heavily influenced by neo-Marxism). Read Leaving Pleasure Island for a sense of some of the inherent dangers in this approach. Nonetheless, Ricoeur’s influence is important to identify and he does not escape charge in a trail against Post-Modernism.


Ricoeur begins the chapter with a discussion of methods of interpretation. Aristotle, he says, provides what he calls “the long answer” of interpretation. That is, Aristotle demonstrates that the sentence is the first principle of logical discourse. Nouns and verbs (sentence grammar) are thing and thing in time respectively. However, they do not form the full meaning of the logos. In other words a sentence taken in whole, the possible enunciation of Hermênia, can be rendered true or false. Ricoeur writes:

In this sense nouns, and verbs also, are themselves already interpretations, since in them we utter something. But the simple utterance or phonis is only a part taken from the total meaning of logos; the complete meaning of hermêneia appears only in the complex enunciation, the sentence… Hermênia in the complete sense, is the signification of the sentence. But in the strong sense of the logician it is the sentence susceptible to truth or falsity, that is, the declarative position (p.21).


Interpretation begins at the level of the noun. However, the noun alone is incapable of forming logos. In fact, the noun is outside of time and requires the verb in order to approach becoming the logos. The verb is essence becomes the noun-in-time. This is analogous then to music. By that I mean, music can be understood as number (arithmetic) in time. This boundary is what gives rise to interpretation. In other words, a noun alone can signify either reality or fantasy, but it can not declaratively signify truth or fantasy. The noun verb combination, for Ricoeur is when the possibility of a sentence, a declarative sentence, emerges. This is when the interlocutor can say something about something. Ricoeur writes:

Not all discourse is necessarily within the true; it does not adhere to being. In this regard, noun that designate fictitious things- the”goat-stag” of Ch.1 of the Aristotelean treatise – clearly shows that the signification without the position of existence. But we would not have thought of calling nouns “interpretation” if we did not see their signifying import. In the light of that of verbs and that of verbs in the context of discourse, and if, in its turn the signifying import of discourse were not concentrated in declarative discourse that says something of something. To say something is, in the complete and strong sense of the term, to interpret (p.22).


Aristotle’s breakthrough is A=A : A ≠ B. That is, a word must, for the purpose of communication, have one meaning. Most high school students however, learn that even if a word has one meaning emphasis and context can impact the connotation. In other words, an utterance can have at one and the same time multiple meanings depending on the  context and emphasis of enunciation.   In Ricoeur then, this is the fundamental problem of interpretation and hermeneutics. When a sentence branches off into multiple meanings, its declarative potential for revealing the Real (that is truth and not falsity) is reduced. He points to Plato’s Sophists.

As an aside, it is interesting to note here the battle that took place on this very point between Richard McKeon and Robert Pirsig at the University of Chicago. This is also where Ricoeur developed much of his own work. I highly recommend reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In relation to sophistry though, Ricoeur writes:

The famous distinction of the many meanings of being are the categories – or figures – of predication; hence this multiplicity cut across the whole of discourse, nor can it overcome. Although it does not constitute a pure disorder of words, seeing that the different meanings of the word “being” are all ordered by reference to a first, original meaning, still this unity of reference – pros hen logomenon – does not make one signification; the notion of being, it has recently been said, is but “the problematic unity of an irreducible plurality of meanings” (pp. 23-24).


I have spoken on this site more than once now in regard to the essence of authorship. Ricoeur is quick to acknowledge the role authoring plays in hermeneutics and the evident problem this raises. More importantly however, he discusses the pre-modern role of authorship. That is, the aim of the text was to write a chapter in the “Book of Nature.” Or, the aim of every pre-modern text was to solve the problem of univocity. Ricoeur though, wrote in a post pre-modern era. Whether that was Modernity or Post-Modernity is up for debate. Significantly for Ricoeur was that the text no longer sough to write “The Book of Nature.”

Rather, it sought to solve the problem of univocity by deliberately invoking pluaravocity and here is where Freud enters the frame. Ricoeur writes:

The notion of the text – thus freed from the notion of scripture or writing – is of considerable interest. Freud often makes use of it, particularly when he compares the work of analysis to translating from one language to another; the dream account is an unintelligible text for which the analyst substitutes a more intelligible text. To understand is to make this substitution (p. 25).


Nietzsche is many thing, but in all he is a consummate philologist. To that point, Ricoeur goes even further suggesting that it was Nietzsche who brought philology to philosophy. “With him the whole of philosophy becomes interpretation” (p.25). The importance that Freud placed on dreams was in German Traumdeutung, which is a playful linguistic homage to Nietzsche’s interpretation: Deutung. The connections between Freud and Nietzsche run much deeper of course, but for now the “Deutung,” Nietzsche’s philologist philosophy is Ricoeur’s primary concern. He writes:

[Of Nietzsche’s Deutung] this point can be made: the new career opened up for the concept of interpretation is linked to a new problematic of representation, of Vorstellung. It is no longer the Kantian question of how a subjective representation or idea [Vorstellung] can have objective validity; this question, central to a critical philosophy, gives way to a more radical one (p.25).


I confess that much of what I know about Kant is derivative. For example the excellent work of Michael Sandel and Dan Harrimon. The basic concept that we can agree is evident in Kant’s work is that he answers the question of radical skepticism. That is, he acknowledges that all the world is merely electro-chemical stimulus in our brain. In other words, we operate only in the world of representations. Kant calls this “The phenomenological plane.” However, he deduced that shared recognition and the ability to accurately communicate indicates a “Real” which he called the “Nominal plane.”

Dan Harrimon in The Logical Leap accuses the Post-Kantians of getting rid of the nomial and operating purely in the realm of the phenomenological. I, although not versed enough to speak with any authority, agree with Harrimon. To get rid of the nomial is to lose all possible connection with the Real, in other words is to exist purely in a land of illusions. What I fear in this writing, is that Ricoeur has fallen into the trap of view the world as simply a real of interpretative illusions. Traumdeutung?


The problem of interpretation refers to a new possibility which is no longer either error in the epistemological sense or lying in the moral sense, but illusion, the status of which we will discuss further on. Let us leave aside for the moment the problem we shall turn to shortly, namely, the use of interpretation as a tactic of suspicion and as a battle against masks; this use calls for a very specific philosophy which subordinates the entire problem of truther and error to the expression of the Will to Power. The important point here, from the standpoint of method, is the new extension given to the exegetical concept of interpretation (p.26).


Nietzsche is the one who introduces philology to philosophy, Foucault is the one that develops the project of genealogy and Freud busts open the definition of the text. Suddenly, as Ricoeur notes, Freud is able to exponentially expand the Book of Nature by revealing other pathways for interpretation. Ricoeur will say for Freud everything becomes a text, but it is significant that Dreams were added to the Book of Nature in this move. This however, is where the issue of plurality of meaning returns to the fore. The question remains now, what of Hermeneutics?

So Deutung becomes Auslegung. This is the beauty of the German language, interpretation has two words. In English though only one. In a hermeneutic sense, Ricoeur will use this move in philosophy to create a field in which hermeneutics exists. It is a three dimensional plane rather than a two dimensional vista. Here is where this part of the close reading will end. A cliff hanger of sorts, is Ricoeur correct in this approach?

Definition duality or duality of the symbol?

This difficulty, which we shall now consider, is not a mere duplicate of the one involved in the definition of symbol; it is a difficulty peculiar to the act of interpreting as such. The difficulty – it initiated my research in the first place – is this: there is no general hermeneutics, no universal canon for exegesis, but only disparate and opposed theories concerning the rules of interpretation. The hermeneutic field, whose outer contours we have traced, is internally at variance with itself (pp.26-27).


It is perhaps too early to say if Brett Veinotte’s intuition about the hermeneutics of suspicion is right. I have fleshed out the role that Ricoeur plays in the development of this approach however. That is to say, I have begun to flesh out Ricoeur’s role in post-modernism. The issue of Post-Modernity and its lack of solid foundations may be a result of Ricoeur and his particular work outlining the conflict of interpretation. Yet that is too simplistic a position to take. Despite my reservations in Ricoeur’s post-Kantian move, his outline of hermeneutics so far has proven to be worth our time.

In part two we will dive further into the relationship between hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis. For now though we will need to take Ricoeur’s hermeneutic field at face value.



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Authorship in What is an Author

Authorship is in question

What is an Author
Notes and Quotes Part 01

Authorship and the Author
What is an Author?

Read What is an Author

What is an Author is a text created from a Lecture that Foucault gave in 1969. He repeated a version of this lecture in 1970 in the United States of America. The version of this text is translated into English by Josué V.Harari and has been slightly modified. Importantly, Foucault had multiple texts that held the title “What is.”
This version of notes and quotes is designed to follow “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. Read notes and quotes on The Death of the Author.


Teaser Quote

In a superb move of inside-outside thinking [Foucault] engages in the Shakespeare conspiracy as a moment in the proper name problem. However, rather than ask: Was it Bacon who was the true writer of the sonnets, the tragedies and comedies; he instead asks: “What would it mean if Shakespeare was the author of Bacon’s Oeuvre?”



What is an Author? The person who composes the text of course! Really? Well, the context in which this question is asked is crucial. If a young child was to ask “(mum or dad) what is an author?” that is one thing. It is though, an entirely different situation when one asks this question in response to Barthes’ axiom: The Author is dead so that the reader may live! The situation is suddenly far more complex, and requires a level of intellectual sophisticati

What does this term really mean?

on to recognize it as a question of epistemology. Foucault, is one such autéur, to address the epistemology at play in Barthes axiom.  He demands we return to first principles with his question. In fact, Foucault had a series of “What” questions which remind us how dangerous it is to take nouns, especially proper nouns, for granted; the most important of these being “What is Enlightenment.”


So we have looked at Barthes on the Tangent General website, and sought to derive as much value from this masterwork as possible. Yet it is not without fault.  In fact it emphasizes the reader heavily and doesn’t sufficiently define “What” is the author is. In order to fill this gap, we turn now to a lengthy lecture delivered by Foucault, and with skepticism – rinse and repeat for another edition of notes and quotes.

What Constitutes  An Author?

Foucault beings his lecture by demonstrating that there is a “sociohistoric” context in which the author concept has emerged. He is going to pry open the concepts of authorship throughout this lecture in order to reexamine the precepts from which they have been formed. Thus, he begins with the basic seeming a priori statement of authorship, which is that the author is a unit of measurement when examining a literary field. He writes:

Donald Trump - author of "The Apprentice"
Why is he called “The Donald” and why does that matter?



I shall not offer here a sociohistorical analysis of the authors persona. Certainly, it would be worth examining how the author became individualized in a culture like ours, what status he has been given, at what moment studies of authenticity and attribution began, in what kind of system of valorization the

author was involved, at what point we began to recount the lives of authors rather than of hero, and how this fundamental category of “the-man-and-his-work-criticism” began. For the moment, however, I want to deal solely with the relationship between text and author and with the manner in which the text points to this figure that, at least in appearance, is outside it and antecedes it (p.205).



He Who Speaks vs What has been Said

Foucault is, in this formulation highlighting how unusual the desire is – to know who is speaking, as opposed to concentrating on what is said. Being fully immersed in the cult of the Author which may be more aptly described as the cult of personality. Why for example, is the issue “Who is Donald Trump (or Hilary Clinton for matter)” rather than “What does the POTUS do?” We take for granted its unique place in cultural history. Barthes who wanted to kill off the author, may have been reacting directly to this, so it is in this paradigm that Foucault is examining the significance of Authorship within a discursive culture.

Color Theory (as metaphor for inside-outside thinking)

Foucault is the preeminent progenitor of what I like to call “inside-outside” thinking. One way to easily conceptualize this is to consider what colour the sun is. Here we borrow from Color Theory, color theory exposes that the sun is not yellow (or Gold or White) but yellow (or Gold or White) against blue. That is, the sun cannot be (directly) perceived except through the context of the sky. Similarly, Foucault here is outlining that the author cannot be perceived outside of the act of authorship. Thus we have our first precept to examine: the act of authorship as a body of distinguishable from the act of writing. Now, as soon as we recognize this precept, we immediately uncover the second. If the author is the act of authorship and authorship is distinguishable from the act of writing, then we must isolate and understand what the act of writing is.

Author as the act of Authorship

Foucault offers two themes in the act of writing: 1) writing is a game; and 2) writing is a process to keep death at bay. Foucault explains:

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the case of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka.

That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing (pp. 206-07).

Authorship as opposed to Writing

Writing is an act of First Principles. Think about a resume, it is written as opposed to being authored. The implication then follows quite clearly, the act of authoring is a derivative function of the act of writing. In other words, authorship has a very particular set of attributes which form a subset from the act of writing. Set

Set Theory
A set of all subsets, within which the subsets of the subsets also exist. Author emerges from writer.

relationships is a metaphor taken from Set Theory. Nonetheless, set theory is a valuable metaphor as it highlights the distinction of attributes that form authorship which exist (only?) within the set of writing. Here though, it may prove useful to abandon writing and replace it with “acts of self expression”.

Foucault will, later acknowledge that his observation can be scaled up beyond text to include, for instance, image and music as well. Image, Music, Text – a deliberate reference back to Barthes on my part. Foucault  though, wants to delve deeper in to his distinction between writing and authorship. Where are the boundaries of authorship? Foucault argues they are contained in the accepted body of work, the oeuvre.

When is it an act of Authorship and when is it just writing?

Yet, what constitutes the oeuvre is not immediately apparent and Foucault deals with this directly:

Even when an individual has been accepted as an author, we must still ask whether everything that he wrote, said, or left behind is part of his work. The problem is both theoretical and technical. When undertaking the publication of Nietzsche’s works, for example, where should one stop? Surely everything must be published, but what is “everything?” Everything that Nietzsche himself published, certainly. And what about rough drafts of his work? Obviously. The plans for his aphorisms? Yes. The deleted passages and the notes at the bottom of the page? Yes. What if, within a work book filled with aphorisms, one find a reference, the notation of a meeting or an address, or a laundry list: is it a work or not? Why not?

… How can one define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his death? A theory of the work does not exist, and the empirical task of those who naively undertake the editing of works often suffer in the absence of such a theory (pp. 207-08).

Again, the metaphor of the author’s death raised by Barthes in 1967, is prominent in this passage. I draw special attention to Foucault’s use of the verb “undertaking” and the cessation of a theory of work once the individual would-be author has died.

Authorship as a unified body of writing?

Penguin books
What are the attributes of “classic” and how are “penguin classics” fulfilling this?

Already Foucault has highlighted the complexities existent at the boundaries  of Authorship and writing. He has also introduced a relationship that can be formulated between empiricism and a theory of work. This then necessitates the question: does the author exist in the absence of an empirical theory of work? The answer is a paradox: yes, we need the author to have an empirical theory of work, but we need the epirical theory of a body of work to produce the author. In this sense Foucault suggests “we try, with great effort, to imagine the general condition of each text, the condition of both the space in which it is dispersed and the time in which it unfolds” (p.208). In other words, a text without a context is an indecipherable piece of writing.

Writing as Religious and Creative

However, there is more to this assertion. Anticipating the author as penal figure, the notion of time unfolding is significant. Why does Madame Bovary shift from an illicit and blasphemous text in the 19th Century to a classic piece of literature in the 21st? Is it because the text can be the author’s killer? Foucault argues that it is because writing contains within itself an inherent transcendental quality. He says:

In current usage, however, the notion of writing seems to transpose the empirical characteristics of the author into a transcendental anonymity. We are content to efface the more visible marks of the author’s [empirical essence] by playing off, one against the other, two ways of characterizing writing, namely the critical and the religious approaches. Giving writing a primal status seems to be a way of re-translating, in transcendental terms, both the

Authorship as religious
The original critique may have been a method to interpret the biblical texts.

theological affirmation of its scared character and the critical affirmation of its creative character. To admit that writing is, because of the very history that made it possible, subject to the test of oblivion and repression, seems to represent in transcendental terms, the religious principle of hidden meanings (which requires interpretation) and the critical principles of implicit significances, silent determinations, and obscured commentaries (which give rise to commentaries).

To imagine writing as absence seems to be a simple repetition, in transcendental terms of both the religious principle of in-alterable and yet never fulfilled tradition, and the aesthetic principle of the work’s survival, its perpetuation beyond the author’s death, and its enigmatic excess in relation to him (p. 208).

Author through Critique

I will now take a lot of the above passage apart. The vector of the transcendental as Foucault has introduced, is a crucial element of the emergence of the figure of the author. Empiricism alone, in one sense, in ill-equipped to fully identify the authorship of a body of work. The theory of work then exists outside of the authorship in and of  itself. Already it is very clear how connected  authorship is to the specter of death. In light of this, Foucault invites into our reading, the theological approach. Religion and death go hand in had culturally speaking. This is an inappropriate time to examine religion’s cultural role beyond understanding death, but have faith that religion also contains the capacity to teach us how to live.

Nonetheless Foucault elucidates here the role religion plays  in determining the meaning of a text. Thus, by extension, its role in developing a theory of work. It crucially seeks to reveal and expose the hidden meaning beneath the surface. So too, Foucault explains does the critic. Religion is exchanged for the implicit, yet the function remains the same. Therefore, the transcendental nature inherent in the text as Foucault reveals, is the need for an interpretation. In other words, the text cannot exist  without it’s commentary.

Critique as Mid Wife

The critique then, the commentary, brings the author to life. Or at the very least, the critique extrudes the authorship beyond the text. So, if Derrida

Post-Structuralist Author
This is not a pipe, it’s a text describing a pipe.

says there is only the text, because language requires language to enunciate itself, then Foucault resist this. He does so by espousing the transcendental nature inherent within. However, Foucault’s move here is greater than reaffirming the importance of structuralism in a post-structuralist world, he is also continuing to highlight how context “creates” text. Put succinctly, the author is formed through the authorship determined in the critique. In other words,: The author’s birth is delivered by the critique.

This is not simple semantics. At play is a situational understanding of how the Truth is perpetuated. Foucault points out a symbiotic relationship between author and

critic. Here foreshadowing how the function of an identified author can stand for much more than a text in itself. Later Foucault will introduce discursivities and elaborate on the transcendental implications. For now though, he continues to work on nailing down the definition of author. If an author is the act of authorship identified through the critic then, Foucault asks, what constitutes the Author’s proper name.

Author as constituted Author’s Proper name

Did Homer really write the Iliad? If not Homer, then who? More significantly, did it matter in the Hellenistic Golden Age? Foucault shifts the interrogation now to the very instance of the Author: their proper name. The Author’s proper name is for Foucault, already problematic. Rather than solve this issue, he  instead seeks to further complicate it. In a superb move of inside-outside thinking he engages in the Shakespeare conspiracy as a moment in the proper name problem. However, rather than ask: was it Bacon who wrote the sonnets, tragedies and comedies; he asks: “What would it mean if Shakespeare was the true author of Bacon’s oeuvre? This exposition of the proper name dialectic is central to the question of what is the Author. Foucault demands that we engage deeply and contemplatively with this issue:

The proper name and the author’s name are situated  between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link. However – and it is here that the particular difficulties of the author’s name arise – the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author’s name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way. There are  several differences (pp. 209-10).

Author Function

The Author is, and is not just, a designated proper name. Foucault in making this argument is drawing our attention to the functionality of such a proper name. How does the functional proper name fit with in the paradigm of text in critically produced context? If Shakespeare didn’t actually live in Stafford-upon-Avon, then that has little bearing on Hamlet. However, if Hamlet and the Organon originated from the same pen, the function of the proper name is shattered. Therefore, Foucault asks that we examine in some detail, the “Author Function.”

End of Part 01

If this close reading is set against the  previous reading on Tangent General of Barthes The Death of the Author, then quickly we have moved out of the Post-structural

Roland Barthes Michel Foucault
What is an Author if the Author is Dead?

ist abyss through Foucault. Foucault in the above is searching for Truth in the concept of Authorship. Truth that is transcendental and ineffable, only perceptible  via signification and implication. What has happened rapidly in this discussion of authorship is the functionality of authorship in the context of the author’s death. Foucault rejects pure empiricism in developing such a determination. He strives to retain and maintain the transcendental aspect of the text, which transcends the image of the author. Therefore, in the examination of the precepts which form our concepts, the author is an emergent property. At root of this emergence is the author function.

In Part 02 of a close reading of Foucault’s What is an Author we will examine the Author Function in some detail before moving on to examining the historical moves Foucault identifies from this observation. As foreshadowed above, having an Author means a work can be considered profane or sacred. Further to this, Foucault will demonstrate how authority is a fundamental embedded attribute of authorship. This will open up the specter of discourse and eventually discursive narratives which sit ephemerally above the author in and of themselves. Freud birthed the Freudians and Marx did the Marxists. So click back soon for the further unfoldment of these arguments in part 02.

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The Death of the Author

The Death of the Author

Image Music Text – The Death of the Author
Notes and Quotes


Roland Barthes - Death of the Author
Linguistics takes the fall, but semiotics was in on the conspiracy

Teaser Quote:

Barthes is seeking to rescue the text from the tyranny of the context. Unfortunately, the text without context is just wind blowing across the surface of Mars – that is: utterly imperceptible



Read The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes here.



I have been referencing the notion that the “Author” is dead quite a bit throughout the recent articles. Thus, I turn now to a close reading of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author.” I will at a later stage cover “What is an Author” by Michel Foucault, but for now we will focus exclusively on Barthes.

There is an interesting paradox in tracing this literary critique, as it requires a reliance on the Author-God figure, at least initially, to make sense of it. In effect Barthes may slay all who came before him, but if he is correct he must, as figure of Author, remain immortal. No doubt we will get to that.

Locating the Voice

It may be a simple exercise to consider that the Author’s “voice” is located in the protagonist. Consider John Galt in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and his 20 odd page diatribe about the ethics of being ruthless for the benefit of others in a Capitalist system.

Is this not Rand herself professing almost directly her fundamental ideas at root of Objectivism? On the other hand consider Dostoevsky. Where is his voice? If it is in the protagonist then it is weak and largely impotent against the forces of nature represented by the antagonists. Barthes uses Balzac as his opening example and questions the location of the voice in Sarrasine. He writes:

Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology. We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice of every point of origin (p. 142).

How the Author Dies

We return to our paradox as we approach the moment of the Author’s death. The paradox becomes: If Barthes is correct, the Barthes is dead. If Barthes is dead (as Author) then what authority does he have to speak? This is a dense idea that I will unpack further, but for now let’s trace the phenomenon as Barthes sees it.

Author's Death
For your words to become immortal, you must sacrifice your author(ity)


Barthes points to the very act of writing as being a form of crossing a threshold of “reality to [intransitivity]. He writes:

The sens of this phenomenon, however, has varied; in ethnographic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ – the mastery of the narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’ (p. 142).

How the Author was Born

Barthes isn’t stupid. He also doesn’t get sucked into a game of historicity. Instead he locates the historical emergence of the act of authorship and notes that this is not the same as narrative a story. This is an important clue that we must acknowledge in order to solve our paradox. What then does Barthes say regarding the

Birth of the Author
The author scribbling the logos.

location of the Author in history? He links the author directly to the emergence of novel technology through which authorship we recognize today was made possible. That is the ‘prestige of the individual’ in society transitioning out of the Middle Ages and into Modernism – read that: capitalism.

The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazine, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs (p.143).


Pen Obscura

Consider the significance of this insight. Barthes is offering us a new perspective on our engagement with art. Do not take this for granted. It is one of the shining lights, stunning accomplishments, of Post-Modernity. However, it is an accomplishment that demands sacrifice on your part. He asks that we consider the work of Van Gogh with out the screen of his Madness filtering our subjective enjoyment of the art work. He demands that we listen to the dance of the sugar plum fairies without clouding the space with a critique of Tchaikovsky the man.

Barthes instructs sternly that we need to stop accepting the explanation for a work from its biographical author:

The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it… [as if] the voice of a single person, the author [is] ‘confiding’ in us (p.143).


No Salvation from the Other

Is it possible to argue psychoanalysis has a profound and foundational role in the development of Post-Modernity? I certainly think so. However, I am also acutely aware of my cognitive bias. Especially in that particular speech act. The question becomes then, do you consider the idea of Psychoanalysis to be a foundation of Post-Modernity? That is, in its own right as an idea; Or, do you instead read it through the filter of the Tangent General’s attraction to psychoanalysis?

Better yet, do we “read” as an act, the Death of the Author as a literary critique because Barthes wrote it? Could we instead abstract it from the page

PO! Beyond Yes and No
Lateral Thinking by Edward De Bono is a strong vector in critical thinking.

and burst it open, twist it, turn it, push at it and pull it apart? The idea sans the context it emerged from. Can you in fact have an idea sans the context from which it emerged?

PO! That is, it’s neither yes nor no. I’ve introduced Edward De Bono’s work on Lateral thinking here, however we will brush past that and stick with Barthes in this article.

Proust (of Charlus)

Admirably, Barthes demonstrates that an idea is transcendent and cannot exist within the act of “Authorship.” The stream of consciousness of each individual author is inseparable from the stream of consciousness in and of itself. It becomes a Kantian idea, and gives us another clue to solve this paradox. Barthes is about to highlight the  significance of Proust as absent (Father) author. To do this though he implicitly demonstrates how the act of writing is an attempt to parlay the Nomial world in the phenomenological world. Thus, the author is mere conduit to an ineffable idea which extends infinitely in all directions beyond the personality of the person engaged in the Act of writing.

On Proust specifically, Barthes writes:

… Proust gave modern writing its epic. By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model (p.144).

Murdered by Linguists

Linguistics takes the fall, but semiotics was in on the conspiracy. Now we need to sit in judgement, was linguistics acting in cold blood or did it act in self defense? A stupid concept! It’s not so stupid thought because it reveals our need to generate value. Barthes will discuss this in more detail when we finally get to the birth of the reader.

For now, we need to try linguistics, listen to Barthes argument as to exactly how linguistics murdered the author and reach a verdict. Barthes writes:

Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance of writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance of saying I: language knows a ‘subject,’ not a ‘person,’ and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together,’ suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it (p.145).

The Phoenix: Post-Modernity

If you agree with Barthes, that linguistics has “exhausted” authorship, then we are also taking into account, by implication, the destruction of modernity.

The Implication
Always Sunny In Philadelphia takes the death of the Author to a new level

Darwin dies but Darwinism lives. Newton perishes so that Newtonian Physics can flourish. The idea becomes sacrosanct (once more) as the Author’s role begins to diminish.

Perhaps the dichotomy will prove to be an oversimplification here, and we must be defensive against dichotomies in general, but following the logic we get:

  1. Pre-Modernity: The Author did not exist, just the idea
  2. Modernity: The Author is born, produced and Reigns Supreme
  3. Post-Modernity: The Author is dead (linguistics killed Him), the idea remains, the idea lives.

Barthes observes:

The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child. In complete contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now (p.145).

Remanent Gesture of Authorship

So far we have learned that Authorship as a concept, is a historical concept that existed in a particular space and time. Rather than consider Homer the Author of the Iliad or The Odyssey, we see it as simply a moniker for categorization. Barthes goes further though in articulating that Authorship is nothing more than a gesture. The gesture is the act.

The Author as person may be dead, but the gesture as act is very much alive. The predication on psychoanalysis is thus crucial here. To expect the Author to explicitly and consciously know fully and comprehensively why he acts is foolish. To instead acknowledge that the gesture of authorship is important and can reveal more that the person may have desired is of primary significance. “We know” Barthes enunciates:

that a text is not a line  of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them  original, blend and clash (p.145).

The innumerable centers of Culture

Good artists copy, Great Artists steal! This axiom has particular meaning now, in the context of Barthes. An author is artiste. The artist paints with the brash of chaos on the very canvas of Order. Self expression yes, but self expression is an act of reaction. Reaction to culture, to the stream of ideas that is always-already forever in existence. Barthes is elucidating how redundant it is then to try to filter a piece of writing with a crude lens of Authorship.

How do we find Linguistics in relation to the charge of murdering the Author? Linguistics is not guilty on account of acting defensively in order to protect the idea. I want to quote John Cena here: “live for the moment not for the money!”

What Power then has the Author?

His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he with to express himself, he out at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely… (p.146).

The Idea, the Author and the Writing Ghost

The dictionary analogy is rather crude. Lacks sophistication but regains it immediately with the emergent nature of image from text. The act of writing is thus an act of communing. The Author is Ego, the Ego must be humiliated for pride comes before the fall. The humiliated author becomes the scriptor and the scriptor through gesture has the power to enunciate. Or as Barthes puts it:

Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book and the book itself is only a tissue or signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred (p. 147).

The Critic Died Too

The powerful reign of the Author from the beginning of the Renaissance to the end of Modernity is all a smoke and mirrors game for the parasitic continuation of the critic. Or, as Barthes exclaims: To know the motivations of the Author, his psyché, his temperament. To know what the Author was “meaning” is a trick the critic uses to close the text, to label it as a unified message and to claim to have revealed and extracted it.

Do not think here of Ebert and Rogers (Margaret and David) – think instead of Calvin. Calvin has understood the “psyché” of God (nature) as the Author of the Bible. So, by implication, there is not need for you (as a Protestant) to question it for yourself. The critic project the dogma though the lens of the Author.

If then, the Medium is the Message (as McLuhan suggested), the context of the text determines the reception of the text thereof. As such, Barthes is seeking to rescue the text from the tyranny of the context. Unfortunately, the text without context is just wind blowing across the surface of Mars. That is: utterly imperceptible.

The Birth of the Reader

The axiom I believe deriving from this is: The Death of the Author, is also the Birth of the Reader. What then is the Birth of the reader? Barthes writes:

… a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a texts unity lies not in its origin but in its destination (p.148).

Prematurely Ejaculating

Is the Author dead in the Birth of the Reader? Famous Author Mark Twain once said: Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. The point of Barthes drama is not simply to exonerate linguistics from the charge of murder, but to radically alter the context of all text. His masterful stroke wasn’t to proclaim this, but to share his own recognition through his own act of writing.

He gives over the power of interpretation to the reader through a reverent of self-sacrifice. The Reader is certainly born. But, the reader is born prematurely. Expected to comprehend of her own accord the intertextuality at play and implications to be carefully extracted as a result. The Author is dead! “This author is dead.” In the living context of Post-Modernity, the author0reader relationship ceases to unfold unilaterally and becomes instead a delicate dance called text and context. Author intention is still marketable and the nomial notion of the Idea still ineffable.

The Readers Incubation

So what are the clues that Barthes leaves us with in order to incubate the new born reader? He writes:

… the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which he is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. … We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author (p.148).

Final Thoughts

Barthes didn’t believe the Author had died. He couldn’t have, for if he did he wouldn’t have written this article and certainly would not have included it in a book, a book that would become a pillar of his oeurve. Barthes is attempting to locate the author in the scientific paradigm and his is masterful  in his execution of this aim.

As such, he becomes a key ground breaker in the burgeoning frontier of Post-Modernity. However, the paradox is solved when we accept that the Author isn’t dead, only the insufficient guise of the Author is dead. The birth of the reader isn’t the birth of the reader at all, the reader is always-already in existence. The birth of the reader is the birth of the reader’s responsibility.

No longer is it enough to accept the critics revelation of the Author’s psyché. That can only lead to the Nazi’s interpretation of Nietzsche. Instead, it is incumbent upon you to engage fully and deeply with the text, to enter into dialogue with the author about their ideas.

So Read on, but read responsibly.

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Society Must be Defended Part 02: Power

Michel Foucault - Power

Society Must be Defended Part 02: Power

Society Must be Defended

About Society Must Be Defended Part 02: Power

In this section of a close reading of Lecture one we will discuss Power. Today, Foucault is most known for his conception of Power and the way that Power is Contested through discourse. Identity Politics is a prime example of the sort of discourse power contest that Foucault outlines in this section of Lecture one.

Notes and Quotes from Foucualt, M., 1997 Society Must be Defended Picador, New York. These notes were written in 2013 when studying for a thesis on conspiracy theories. Foucault is a complex thinker and demands serious attention when being read. I am performing a close reading here of the first lecture in the book. Foucault’s lectures were tape recorded by students and the transcripts of those recordings have been used for create Society Must Be Defended.

Click here for part 01

Teaser Quote:

“What is power?” is the wrong question though! I think  we should be asking “what is Order” as power in a concrete sense is predicated on Order. It is interesting that Foucault begins this lecture with a discussion of Free Masonry, given that their motto is “Order out of Chaos.”


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Post Modernism
There’s got to be at least one good pub in this town?!

Power is a big deal for Foucault. One of the aims of this close reading of Foucault, is not simply to understand his thought, but to understand how he has been used in our contemporary analysis of identity. Identity politics has become a major political problem – ranging from the minor (transgendered bathrooms) to the major (Islamic State Terrorism). Some have laid the current strife at the feet of Post-Modernity and the notions espoused by Foucault’s contemporaries. We must seek to learn from them to understand what it is they said that has led to our current discontent. We must ask what role Foucault played in this.

It is essential to seek out what we take from these thinkers. What were their powerful insights? We can do this by parsing out their propagandistic tendencies. It is not enough to call Post-Modernism one homogeneous body of work and dismiss it wholesale. We now face the unenviable task of finding the treasure in the trash…

What is Power?

Out of context, the quote below can be twisted and turned and used to promote the post-modern resentment towards the Western culture. There are some clues as to why Foucault may not wish to link power directly to the Economy – one of which is the fact that already in this lecture Foucault has delivered a harsh and accurate assessment of the veneer of the “science” that Marxism attempts to push in lieu of an organic relationship between human volition and reality.

What is power? Or rather – given that the question “what is power?” is obviously a theoretical question that would provide an answer to everything which is just what I don’t want to do – the issue is to determine what are, in their mechanisms, effect, their relations, the various power-apparatuses that operate at various levels of society, in such very different domains and with so many different extensions? Roughly speaking, I think that what is at stake in all this: can the analysis of power, or the analysis of powers, be in one way or another deduced from the economy (p.13).

Another clue is that Foucault tells us directly that power cannot be understood by gazing directly at it. He wants to find the “powers,” the various contests that occur, the domains in which these context are played out. Foucault, is perhaps, driving at is the idea that the economy is an indicator; of the set of power games that are being played out in society.

Not A Theory of Everything

Importantly, Foucault is resisting here the creation of a theory of everything. This is interesting to grapple with given that we now have the benefit of hind sight. Foucault didn’t have the same appeal that Thomas Paine for example had. He was clothed in the garbs of the academy and say high in the ivory tower.

Grand Theory
‘Is that it? Is that the Grand Unified Theory?’

We don’t know much of his personal life, but we do know that he was incredibly wealthy. Foucault’s oeuvre today is housed in the set of high theory, critique of it revolves around the fact that “there is no outside Foucault, everything can be explained within Foucault.” That is, Foucault is often accused of providing an answer to everything.

So on some level Foucault was able to foresee how his work would be used and twisted and he did two things to prime that. Firstly he voiced a resistance to his work being used to explain power in such a way that it is an  answer to everything, and secondly, he divorced himself from his work and created a “tool box.” The tool box could be a collection of any and all theory and it could be packed away and then fragments could be produced to solve specific problems at specific points in time. In other words, Foucault preempted the Post-Modern murder of the Author by figuratively (and literally) allowing himself to die before his work could be employed.

Foucault Doesn’t Care

Foucauldian apologists stand proud today, because Foucault followed through. He lived his own particular brand of identity politics in the sense that he left France to pursue Sadomasochism. He also demonstrated just how powerful he was, which is to say  not at all, as the figure of author once his work had been released.

He continues:

Power is the concrete power that any individual can hold, and which he can surrender, either as a whole or in part, so as to constitute a power or a political sovereignty. In the body of theory to which I am referring, the constitution of political power is therefore constituted by this series, or is modeled on a juridical operation similar to an exchange of contracts. There is therefore an obvious analogy, and it runs through all these theories, between power and commodities, between power and wealth (p.13).


Power vs Order

What is power is the wrong question though! I think  we should be asking what is Order as power in a concrete sense is predicated on Order. It is interesting that Foucault begins this lecture with a discussion of Free Masonry, given that their motto is “Order out of Chaos.” Perhaps what Foucault is offering here then is a bridge to understanding the manufacture of order through contest of power. He wants to point to the accumulation of wealth as being a source of concentration of power and that is a priori. So we have an axiom we can take from Foucault here: concentration of wealth becomes the concentration of power. This however, is a dangerous axiom and wielded improperly can promote Marxism and the earnest desire to redistribute wealth.

First as Tragedy and then as Farce

Again though, we need to think about the social order in which that wealth has been facilitated. Simply going to some of the bigger power brokers and draining their accounts does not solve the problem. This is one of the most seductive aspects of Foucault and why he is held in such reverence by those who have read him. Foucault here is implicitly attacking the very system which produces wealth. One might be tempted to even go as far as to say, what Foucault is arguing here is that we need to “Abolish the Fed.”

Abolish the Fed?

Of course, Foucault isn’t arguing that we should abolish the Fed (Federal Reserve Bank of the United States of America), but he is developing a path through which we can begin to understand how our discourse around production and accumulation of wealth is constituted into direct social power. Social power, at a high enough level then becomes political power. This is a great point again to jump off and start digging into theorists such as Bourdieu, who offer a framework for conceptualizing social capital. However, sticking to the task at hand and continuing a close reading of Foucault, what we can immediately take note of is the face that he uses the word “analogy.”

Power in Marxism

The devil is always in the detail, so Foucault at once sets up the fact that power is the accumulation of wealth (a priori and thus axiomatically) and then he tears it down (I’m only speaking analogically). In other words, power – concrete power – can be understood at an individual level, sure. As soon as you attempt to scale it up though you run into problems. I propose this is because power is predicated on Order and Order is not simply the economy. This then brings us nicely to yet another critique of Marxism that Foucault makes in this opening lecture:

[In the] Marxist conception [of power], you have something else that might be called “economic functionality” of power. “Economic functionality” to the extent that the role of power is essentially both to perpetuate the relation of production and to reproduce a class domination that is made possible by the development of the productive forces and the ways they are appropriated. In this case, political power finds its historical raison d’être in the economy (p. 14).

One way of looking at this passage is to think about the progenitor and the antecedent of a thing. In this case the “thing” is power (as we conceptualize it within human and animal interactions) the progenitor for power is, as I am arguing Order, and the antecedent of power is what Foucault suggests the Marxists call “economic functionality.” So that’s a lot to take in, but essentially Foucault is accusing the Marxists of going in the wrong direction. He is accusing them of treating the symptom and not the disease.

Economic Functionality as Power in Marxism

However, at the same time, the relationship between power order and economic functionality is far from straight forward. It is coiled upon itself and deeply intertwined. Thus, power is an indicator of the ability to act in the world in a coherent manner commensurate with understanding or desire. Order is the set of understandings and desires manifest from the always already present chaotic potential of the universe writ large and economic functionality is the specific exercise of power within a particular social framework.

What we could say is my ability to eat depends on my ability to harness social power, and this mean acting in radically different ways if I am in a communist society or if I am in a capitalist society.


Foucault’s own Marxists tendencies are going to start to appear now, because he is turning his gaze towards the most fundamental question that Marx posed: What does the term Alienation mean? Foucault writes:

My research into power is broken into two themes of overarching questions… First: Is power always secondary to the economy? Are it’s finality and function always determined by the economy? Is power’s raise d’être and purpose essentially to serve the economy? It is designed to establish, solidity, perpetuate, and reproduce relations that are characteristic of the economy and essential to it’s workings? Second question: Is power modeled on the commodity? Is power something that can be possessed and acquired, that can be surrendered through a contract or by force, that can be alienated or recuperated, that circulates and fertilizes one region but avoids others? (p. 14).

Alienation has a profound impact upon our capacity to act.

Foucault then doesn’t buy the notion that the economy is the system of Order and therefore Power in society. Rather he questions what the system actually is that produced the economy as a visible system. This is another clue that Foucault was more aligned with psychoanalysis than with structuralism. These questions are seeking to understand the root of our manner of being within boundaries of ordinance and sub-ordinance. The economy makes this clear and apparent. If you are an employee you are subordinate to a boss or a series of bosses. Yet your power as an individual is not confined to these relationships. So Foucault introduces the concept of Force.


Power abstracted is useful for quickly assessing your role in a particular situation. Do you have the power to act? Can you demand a pay rise from your boss, can you get away with cheating on your wife. Can you successfully provide for your family? These are all questions of your capacity to act – specifically your capacity to act within the boundaries of time and space. A Lord in the 16th century had a much higher chance of successfully cheating on his wife than a 40 something year old in Canada who’s Ashley Madison profile has been leaked.

However, power as an abstraction is also ambivalent. It doesn’t actually describe the relationship of subject and object sufficiently well enough to serve as a metaphor for a natural phenomenon. Foucault knew this and using his genealogy method began to deconstruct the forms of power throughout various constituted societies. That is to say, Victorian Era sexuality vs Grecco-Roman sexuality vs contemporary sexuality. The result of this is that he introduced the concepts of Force and Repression into his theoretical framework:

… Power is not primarily the perpetuation and renewal of economic relations, but that it is primarily, in itself, a relationship of force. Which raises some questions, or rather two questions. If power is exercised, what is the exercise of power? What does it consist of? What is its Mechanism? We have here what I would call an off-the-cuff answer, or at least an immediate response, and it seems to me that this is, ultimately, the answer given by the concrete reality of many contemporary analyses: Power is essentially that which represses. Power is that which represses nature, instincts, a class or individuals (p.15).

Power as Repression

Foucault is building towards his next axiom. That is: “Power is war, the continuation of war by other means.” At this point we can begin to disentangle the complex political aspects of Foucault’s work. He is certainly not a Capitalist. What this concept shows is that rather than the economy order being the constitution of power, the economic order is there to keep power in check. This is a radical idea. Foucault is also separated from traditional Marxism at this point.

He asserts that his contemporaries has determined that power is that which represses. I have shown though that he is building towards the axiom that power is war. War doesn’t simply repress it destroys, it terrifies, it plunders. War is a form of brutal chaos. My question at this stage of understanding if power is war, is this: if you calculate that Foucault’s axiom is correct, are you saying that the strongest will always win out?

If you’ve studied military history then you will know that many a stronger, more well equipped, even more professional army have lost on the battlefield. War is not simply a matter of strength. To successfully wage war there are “rule of engagement.” These may as well be considered “laws of engagement,” as they outline consequences for particular actions that become indisputable. If we consider sport as a model for war, as a “play” version of war (particularly contact sport) then we start to see what it is that Foucault is hinting at. The level of organization and cooperation as well as the notion that both opposing sides are basically adhering to the same set of rules, reveals how dramatically complex this rendering of power is.


Power is not repression, that is an oversimplification. Power is relational. Thus when people adopt the Marxist ideology of the oppressed and the oppressors they fall into the trap of Power simply being the ability to exercise repression.

War – Always and Everywhere

Foucault then, breaks out of the paradigm of power as repression and builds towards his axiom stated above. He continues now by deconstructing the idea of power and repression by asking his second question in relation to force and the enactment thereof:

[Second] if power is indeed the implementation and deployment of a relationship of force, rather than analyzing it in terms of surrender, contract, and alienation, or rather than analyzing it in functional terms as the reproduction of the relations of production, shouldn’t we be analyzing it first and foremost in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war? That would give us an alternative to the first hypothesis – which is that mechanism of power is basically or essentially repression – or a second hypothesis: Power is war, the continuation of war by other means (p.15).

More questions are raised here by this axiom than are answered. However, Foucault is unfolding the depths of relationships that are predicated on force. What we go back to the employee/employer relationship the force factor does not go one way. This opens the door to discourse analysis as the relationship is actually just a story being enacted through two parties who choose to play particular parts.

Politics as an end to War?

I am immediately drawn here to ask whether peace is the opposite of war or if it is a function of war ? George Orwell comes to mind here which his series of axioms set out in 1984 – War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. The first time you read that your inclined to think of it as biting satire. However, there may be, and in fact there is, much more depth to these axioms. I would even go as far as to say that there is some surface level truths that Orwell is articulating.

Foucault speaks to this question directly:

[Whilst] it is true that political power puts an end to war and establishes or attempts to establish a reign of peace in civil society, it certainly does not do so  in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of war. According to this hypothesis, the role of political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities,

language and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism – politics is the continuation of war by other means. Politics in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war (pp.15-16).



Reich, Nietzsche and the Convenience of Hypothesis

Foucault now works hard to reveal the great thinkers who have developed extant grand theories of power. Nietzsche is perhaps an obvious target for Foucault given the extreme influence he derived from the German philosopher. Reich however is a more complex and difficult thinker. Today Reich is largely diminished from the public purvey. An acolyte of Freud and the developer of Orgone energy he is one of the original alternative scientists of the twentieth century. Unlike Tesla though, his fan base is small and marginalized, even and perhaps especially during the 1970s when Foucault was delivering this particular lecture.

It is then another clue as to the deep root of psychoanalysis that Foucault has branched out of. Importantly, it is these psychoanalytic insights that allows Foucault to really reveal the underlying shadows of power that form the current of the river of society.

In short then, the two grand hypothesis that Foucault lays out are: 1) the mechanism of power is repression; and 2) the basis of the power-relationship lies in a warlike clash between forces. Foucault writes:

So you see, one we try to get away from economistic schemata in our attempt to analyze power, we immediately find ourselves faced with two grand hypotheses; according to one, the mechanism of power is repression – for the sake of convenience, I will call this Reich’s hypothesis, if you like – and according to the second, the basis of the power-relationship lies in a warlike clash between forces – for the sake of convenience, I will call this Nietzsche’s hypothesis. The two hypotheses are not irreconcilable; on the contrary, there seems to be a fairly logical connection between the two. After all, isn’t repression the political outcome of war, just as oppression was, in the classical theory of political right, the result of abuse of sovereignty within the juridical domain? (p.16).

Final Thoughts on Lecture 01

This article and the previous article on Society Must be Defended start to demonstrate the complexities that run throughout Foucault’s thought. Yes, he is modular, he shifts and changes depending on the context. Yes, he rejects a through line in his work that could propagate a grand theory. But… he also retains his world view throughout all of his work. I argue that he was deeply interested in the underlying relationships between the role of the individual acting within a series of increasingly complex social systems.

This method of viewing the world does diminish the influence of ideologies that are abstracted from nature. I have focused heavily in this article and the last on Marxism, but the same can be said for Capitalism, Feudalism or Anarchy. They are all abstracted from nature. This leads to easy simplifications as Foucault points out, like the oppressor and the oppressed. In fact Foucault calls this the attempt to categorize Power as being “legitimate or illegitimate.” However, this reduces agency and the reduction of agency is only ever a synthetic overlay. For even in the gulag archipelago there was a choice in terms of how to act in the world. The perpetual problem for tyrants remains the fact of human agency or to put it Biblically: “Free Will.”

Foucault thus argues against such abstractions. He wrestles with a form of articulation that simultaneously simplifies the thing in itself (which is a prerequisite for communication) and accurate portrayal of the thing in itself. Power is always-already intangible due to the problem of human agency. So I will leave the final word to Foucault:

So, two schemata for the analysis of power: the contract-oppression schema, which if, if you like, the juridical schemata, and the war-repression or domination-repression schema, in which the pertinent opposition is not, as in the previous schema that between the legitimate and the illegitimate, but that between struggle and submission.

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Foucault Society Must be Defended Part 01

Michel Foucault

Society Must be Defended

Notes and Quotes – Part 01

Society Must be Defended
Cover of the book available at Picador

About Society Must Be Defended

Foucault M., Society Must Be Defended is Picadors fine rendering of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the College de France.

Tape Recordings of Foucault
Cutting edge 1970s technology!



These particular lectures took place between 1975 and 1976. Foucault himself didn’t take coherent notes, nor did he stick to them, however audio tape recorders were quite popular at the time and it is for this that we are able to study these remarkable lectures today.

Much of the notes (if not all of the notes) that you will read in this article relate to the first lecture dealing with Subjugated knowledges.




I focused in 2013 on this particular aspect of Foucault as I was writing a thesis on conspiracy theories (available here ). We pick up the lecture series with Foucault discussing secret societies and their possession and dissemination of knowledge.

Teaser Quote:

That said, he goes on and the next paragraph I will quote is seminal to understanding Foucault’s work as a body of knowledge.

Links for this article

Read more about Foucault here

Buy Society Must be Defended here

Read Society Must be Defended here

What are these notes and quotes?

Notes and Quotes from Foucualt, M., 1997 Society Must be Defended Picador, New York. These notes were written in 2013 when studying for

a thesis on conspiracy theories. Foucault is a complex thinker and demands serious attention when being read. I am performing a close reading here of the first lecture in the book. Foucault’s lectures were tape recorded by students and the transcripts of those recordings have been used for create Society Must Be Defended. These notes were taken between 22 Feb 2013 and 5 March 2013. Editing has obviously been completed on 5 June 2017.



Brett of the School Sucks Project has spend considerable time looking into the phenomenon and influence of Post-Modernity in the growing crisis that the humanities face. This is an important undertaking and one that has many rabbit holes. My role in this series is to shed some light on the role that Foucault played in the development of Post Modernism. I have already written an article based on my reading of the book EMPIRE by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt see here.


Useless Erudition

All this quite suits the busy inertia of those who profess useless knowledge, a sort of sumptuary knowledge, the wealth of a parvenu – and, as you well know, its external signs are found at the foot of the page. It should appeal to all those who feel sympathetic to one of those secret societies, no doubt the oldest and the most characteristic in the West, one of those strangely indestructible secret societies that were, I think, unknown in antiquity and which were formed in the early Christian era, probably at the time of the first monasteries, on the fringes of invasions, fires and forests. I am talking about the great, tender, and warm free masonry of useless erudition (pp. 4-5).

Useless erudition? Why does Foucault accuse the free masons of useless erudition? Perhaps denying their influence in the world, or perhaps he is suggesting that the relevance of erudition is found in its pomp and ceremony and that for all the fear and misunderstanding, secret societies are little more than their cere

Delueze and Guattari
Post-Structuralism par excel-lance.

mony. Power, and influence thereof, remains with the individual. Those who are willing to look, and to look past the pageantry see that the choices made there as much as elsewhere are choices made by the individual.

Importantly though Foucault is also taking the time here to call out some of the critiques of society that are based more on the notion of sounding erudite than on the ability to convey sensible knowledge. In particular he takes a hard line on Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti Oedipus. This probably is more of a territorial dispute on Foucault’s part than anything else. This though is instructive as it is a clear distinction between methodologies that we could loosely describe as being structuralist (Foucault) and Post-Structuralist (Deleuze).

All Encompassing and Global Theories

Interestingly though Foucault links the ideas of Marx, Reich and Marcuse with (perhaps futile?) attempts to create efficacy with an “all-encompassing and global [theories]. He argues that Reich and Marx seek to tackle the prevailing existential crisis. He  argues that Reich and Marcuse are seeking to put forward attacks on morality and traditional sexual hierarchy. And beyond that, that these writers are involved in some sort of search for Class Justice.

But they [all encompassing and Global theories] have, I think, provided tools that can be used at the local level only when, and this is the real point, the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaced, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalised, and so on (p.6)

Real point? That the theoretical unity of an all encompassing and global discourse is suspended so as to extract the “tolls” from within that can be applied and used at a local level. Perhaps what Foucault is arguing so strongly here is that we are taking Marx, Reich, Marcuse and others far too seriously when we read their works. I would argue that Foucault’s own work falls into this trap as well. The issue that Foucault is highlighting though is an interesting one in the sense that we risk falling prey to the seductive power of the words of a Karl Marx.

Power of Karl Marx

Worse still perhaps is that if we’re not on guard, we risk falling prey to a derivative of Karl Marx which doesn’t actually have the full understanding of the original point that was being made. This article itself has that challenge. If you as the reader walk away thinking you know Foucault from reading this, then you haven’t thought critically enough about the situation. What Foucault is saying is that the only way to know is to test and use and manipulate and harness ideas and concepts. To take them and really examine them before accepting any worth that they may offer.

When I say “subjugated knowledge,” I mean two things. On the one hand, I am referring to historical contents that have been buried or masked in functional coherences or formal systematizations. To put it in concrete terms if you life, it was certainly not a semiology of life in the asylum or a sociology of delinquency that made an effective critique of the asylum or the prison possible; it really was the appearance of historical contents. Quite simply because historical contents alone allow us to see the dividing line in the confrontation and struggles that functional arrangements of systematic organizations are designed to mask. Subjugated knowledges are, then, blocks of historical knowledges that were present in the functional and systemic ensembles, built which were masked, and the critique was able to reveal their existence by using, obviously enough, the tools of scholarship (p.7)

This paragraph is dense and deliberately so.  For example, Foucault introduce the concept of blocks of historical

Karl Marx
We will all always live in peace and harmony

knowledge. This is the unit for which both his archaeology and genealogy use for the basis of analysis. Roughly speaking, a block of knowledge is a long series of modes of practice that have changed and adapted over time. However, these blocks of knowledge become porous, and they hold within them nuggets of wisdom that have been shaped and glossed and glossed over. Perhaps one way to think about blocks of knowledge is to think about active and passive forms of knowledge,  within this unit there are sides of the block that are values and sides which are not.

In other words, society promotes a 2 dimensional square for the boundaries of knowledge on any particular topic – and this is the result of a continuous power contest between those who can influence public discourse. Foucault however, steps back from public sentiment about a topic at any particular point in time and seeks to uncover the other sides aspiring to present a 3 dimensional cube.

Knowledge, a political act of power

Additionally, Foucault in this passage is discussing the use of knowledge. Knowledge is thus always-already a political act of power. We know this implicitly because  we have the axiom knowledge is power but Foucault is taking that one step further in this discussion and suggesting that knowledge is power both in the attainment and the occulting. The ability to remove particular forms of knowledge from mainstream discourse is just as powerful a move as it is to hold knowledge about a topic and about the self. Thus we have knowledges that allow us to see the dividing lines of confrontation and knowledges that are masked by “erudition,” systematization, and formal functional arrangements.

Within the critique however, and importantly, within the scholarship the critique allows, these historical blocks, these “subjugated knowledges” are revealed. Perhaps then the historical blocks are not simply methods of understanding a topic, or instruction packets on how to act and behave in the world. Perhaps these historical blocks can be thought of as packets of information, events or circumstances that gave birth to the myths that fuel consensus reality and thus that act of favoring one block over another is the very same act of subjugating knowledge.

This idea is drawing heavily on Lacanian Concepts though, in particular when I discuss “consensus reality” I am not referring to the common conception that is used in conspiracy analysis circles, but rather the notion that there is a Real, and access to that Real  is not permitted, so instead culture adapts management schemas that mask the Real such that we can communicate from a common set of references.

Subjugated Knowledges

When I say “subjugated knowledges” I am also referring to a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as non-conceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity.

And it is thanks to the reappearance of these knowledges: the knowledge of the psychiatrized, the patient, the nurse, the doctor, that is parallel to, marginal to, medical knowledge, the knowledge of the delinquent, what I would call, if you like, what people know (and that is by no means the same thing as common knowledge or common sense but, on the contrary, a particular knowledge, a knowledge that is local, regional, or differential, incapable or unanimity and which derives its power solely from the fact that it is different from all the knowledges that surround it), it is the reappearance of what people know at a local level, of these disqualified knowledges, that make the critique possible (pp. 7-8).

If we make a slight of hand and set it up so that we are looking at these knowledges in a particular way then we can begin to parse out what I believe Foucault is driving out in this paragraph. When he speaks of knowledges he is referring to a set of common references. Today, it may be  easier (although for how much longer I am not sure) to turn this into a metaphor of TV shows. Each knowledge could be considered a TV show in and of it’s own right. For many there will be a lot of overlap and the references to individual aspects of the show will resonate with the interlocutor.

The Order of Things

However, there may also be shows that were a lot older, deeply unpopular, produced for a specific region or perhaps there are leaks, and so a small subset of the community has access to the outtakes or episodes that were never meant to air. Now Foucault is very concerned even in the mid 1970s with the regulation of self. This is something that becomes a big deal as the genealogical methodology is further developed, especially in the History of Sexuality Vols. 1 and 2.

The regulation of self is a knowledge and this is a knowledge that is predicated heavily on shared references. This is understood in The Order of  Things and here more implicitly developed in the passage  I’ve quoted. Nonetheless, Foucault is highlighting how, no matter the efforts to propagandise and to indoctrinate, an understanding of something small such as the presentation of self in public, or something large such as the state’s framework for Justice of Medicine is  not a coherent whole and not a straight forward unity.

New Methodology

This is where the notion of qualitative research also begins to emerge. What can we learn from speaking directly to doctors that the numbers gloss over. What can we learn from individuals that the trends do not elucidate in high enough resolution. He is at this point in the lecture, and this is becoming quite a close reading of society must be defended outlining his approach to a new or altered methodology (with Foucault it’s never really clear what the distinctions are between various approaches in his research. He is structuralist in one book or passage and post-structuralist the next. Modernist then Post-modernist, then modernist again – although in fairness Post-modernity did not exist when he was writing).

What I think ultimately is the important concept that is conveyed in this passage is the question – the question that Foucault elaborates on in the next phase of the lecture, the question of the power games that must have gone on and continue to go on in producing subjugated knowledges. In other words, whose interests are served when a set of references is disqualified.

The question or questions that have to be asked are: “what types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that  you are a science? What speaking subject, what discursive subject, what subject of experience and knowledge are you trying to minorize when you begin to say: ‘I speak this discourse, I am speaking a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist.” What theoretico-political vanguard are you trying to put on the  throne in order to detach it from all the massive circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?”

And I would say: “When I see you trying to prove that Marxism is a science, to tell the truth, I do not really see you trying to demonstrate once and for all that Marxism has a rational structure and that its propositions are therefore the products  of verification procedures. I see you, first and foremost, doing something different. I see you connecting to Marxist discourse, and I see you assigning to those who speak that discourse the power-effects that the West has, ever since the Middle Ages ascribed to a science and reserved for those who speak a scientific discourse” (p.10).

Foucault was a Champagne Socialist

So here Foucault is making a marked criticism of Marxism. In fact this is akin to the critique that Jordan Peterson puts forward when he deconstructs Pinocchio and discusses the adoption of a victim identity as the price Pinocchio pays for entering pleasure island. Foucault is arguing that there is a synthetic, not wholly organic, aspect or manner to the attempt to speak of Marxism as a science here. In fact he is directly saying that there is an underlying political vanguard that is being masked by an attempt to speak scientifically on the  topic of Marxism. This is one of the “discoveries,” if that could be considered the correct word, that emerges from the archaeology of knowledge project.

Russell Brand
Russell Brand is today’s epitome of a Champagne Socialist.

Foucault is about to go even further in outlining the role that his oeuvre is to play as a form of methodological analysis. However, it is worth keeping in mind here that Foucault wasn’t arguing against Marxism in this passage. Rather he was apologizing for it, he was showing the flaws of the  ideology such that they may be more closely examined and understood. Foucault himself had a political vanguard that he operated from within and this is not necessarily something he “shied away from,” he just did it at such a sophistication  that it was implicit in much of his work. His critique of the Justice system has within it a critique of capitalism and more  precisely the West.

His Method in A Nut-Shell

Even that is not good enough though, for Foucault delved the depths of knowledge strains such that words like the West and Capitalism quickly lose their relevance. So instead it may be proper here to talk of Foucault’s disdain for the Occidental. That said, he goes on and the next paragraph I will quote is seminal to understanding Foucault’s work as a body of knowledge.

To put it in a nutshell: Archaeology is the method specific to the analysis of local discursivities, and genealogy  is the tactic which, once it has described these local discursivities, brings into play the de-subjugated knowledges that have been released from them. That just about sums up the whole project.

That just about sums up the whole project in the words (and mind) of Foucault. What is this project though? It for one thing requires a dedicated subject matter through which to explore local discursivities and then play through the chronological evolution of such discursivities to determine the power games that shaped, and corrupted and molded each set of references such that there is a split between the acceptable understanding of a topic (like sex) and an unacceptable understanding of a topic (such as, that the medicalisation of madness has led to worse treatment rather than better treatment).

This is a smart move by Foucault here though as it is setting up the shift he is about to take in moving the audience from narrative to power. Here, we are beginning to notice the absolutely and central role that forms of linguistics play for Foucault; this is why he is such a modular theorist too. We may ask what was the driving motivation for Foucault, just as we would when we approach Marx or Durkheim, Marcuse, Fromm or even Ayn Rand. But this is the wrong question. This is a deeply Modernist Question, and the trap is to think for a moment that Foucault has produced a grand theory of the world that explains everything through the contest of discursive power.

He has not.

Foucault and Grand Theory

The argument about grand theory and Foucault will rage in Academia for many generations to come (we hope), but at the very least in order to learn Foucault it is important to remain vigilant. Instead of looking at Foucault with a desire to seek out his primary motivation, we must instead look at Foucault in the manner in which we look at Zizek or Deleuze.

That is, what does Foucault have to say in regard to Sex, what does  he have to say in regard to Clinicians, and what does he have to say in regard to Power? This is the Post-Modern approach, this is the birth of the reader at the expense of the writer. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what Foucault’s primary driving force was, what matters is what he said.

This is particularly important in the tracing of his methodologies. What does he say about his Genealogy? Is it that they are a continuous lineage of an idea over time? He says:

…I am not suggesting that we give all these scattered genealogies  a continuous, solid theoretical basis – the last thing I want to do is give them, superimpose on them, a sort of theoretical crown that would unify them – but that we should try, in future lectures, probably beginning this year, to specify or identify what is at stake when knowledges begin to  challenge, struggle against, and rise up against the institution and the power – and knowledge – effects of scientific discourse (p.12).

The End

This is where I shall leave the discussion on Lecture 01 of Society Must be Defended. I will add more  in future posts about Foucault’s difficult relationship with knowledge/power and build upon his first lecture some more. For now, thank you for reading and  supporting the Tangent General in his work.




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Developing Biopower out of Foucault



Part 1 [the Political Constitution of the Present]

Section 1.2 – Biopolitical Production:

pp. 22-42:



The Emergence of Biopower. Negri and Hardt point to the work of Foucault and particularly to his work that outlines a change from a “disciplinary social construct” to a”society of control.” That is to say, no longer does society punish the body directly (be it in the form of corporal punishment, public execution/torture, the deprivation for a variety of lesser crimes i.e. debtors prison etc. and the conditions of the asylum). Rather society, in a paradigm of the “society in control” is seeking to “produce bodies.” This is what is a t the heart of Foucault’s concept of biopower, and is what Negri and Hardt outline in some detail in their argument as presented in Empire.
For instance they write:

Disciplinary society is that society in which social command is constructed through a diffuse network of dispotifs or apparatuses that produce and regulate customs, habits, and productive practices (p.23).

Still surmising the work of Foucault, Negri and Hardt offer that the key defining aspect or distinguishing feature of a disciplinary society is that it’s institution and structure provide the boundary or limits of conformity. Or as Negri and Hardt paraphrase: “Disciplinary power rules in effect by structuring the parameters and limits of thought and practice, sanctioning and prescribing normal and/or deviant behaviors” (p.23).

Teaser Quote

“Today I would say that “The Internet,” but even more so “The Internet of Things,” is crucial to the production of society and given this is an online article that fact remains self evident.”


Historically, Negri and Hardt suggest that the “society of control” emerges during the “modern” period and develops throughout “post-modernity.” Undoubtedly, this placing is imprecise, however it does demonstrate that the history we are essentially tracking here is based on/around the intersection of cognition, technological advancement and shifts in ontological/epistemological framings. In other words, Negri and Hardt are outlining a shift in thought form that occurred over a period of time. Importantly, throughout both of Foucault’s major projects (the Archaeology and the Genealogy) the implicit and explicit power relationships play a major role. This is evident and center stage here when discussing the shift from disciplinary power to the society of control and Negri and Hardt work to highlight this. They write:

The behaviors of social integration and the exclusion proper to rule are thus increasingly interiorized within subjects themselves. Power is now exercised through machines that directly organize the brain (in communication systems, information networks etc.) and bodies (in welfare systems, monitored activities, etc.) towards a state of autonomous alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity (p.23).


Keep in mind here that the Foucauldian oeuvre reminds us continually that power is contested.  Thus, just as with the shift itself out of disciplinary power, the society of control is one in which power relations are in a constant state of flux. Nonetheless, power has to have some basis in reality and in a more advanced course we would at this point, tangent off into a discussion of Social Capital, both from Bourdieu and Zizek’s perspectives. For now we will have to settle for a rather unsatisfying answer. However, it is an answer we will get a chance to unpack and examine in some detail. The essential reality that those who (whomever they may be at each particular point in time) control the power relationships is peer pressure.

To put it another way, the society of control is obsessed with what constitutes normality, normal height, weight, finger length. Average life span, diet, eye color. The society of control tracks movement, watches macro-social behavioral patters and learns more and more each day about the habits and standards of acting/responding. This form of control becomes power (knowledge in power sort of thing) and this is what Foucault called Bio power. Negri and Hardt write:

Bio power is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it; and re articulating it. Power can achieve an effective command over the entire life of the population only when it becomes and integral, vital function that ever individual embraces and reactivates of his or her own account (pp. 23-24).


It is important to highlight here that the society of control is immersive. As opposed to the former disciplinary model, biopower works on the body of the society as opposed to the body of the individual. Again here, we can branch off into discussions concerning the development of utilitarianism and discuss how that fits into this model, in particular as a philosophic foundation.

One key aspect  of Negri and Hardt’s argument regarding the production of biopower is the role of globalization and the functionality of technology. This is important in the sense that the civic world that existed during the disciplinary power structure has now become diffused throughout not only the state, but the “global village” as well. If we take an example, we may look at Facebook and see how interconnected we have become as individuals yet we struggle to identify at the same time a clear community structure.

This is further emphasized when we take into account some of the less sociable aspects of new media and social media. Here for instance an algorithm that can be used to track your personal search history can be captured and sold as data corporation which then has a greater capacity to specifically target its advertising. Here we also see the role of money in connection with this form of social structuring.


Now we need to ASK THE IMPORTANT QUESTION: WHY? Why study Negri and Hardt? Why are Negri and Hardt relevant to the study of Justice? Negri and Hardy are an interesting and curious duo for sure. Negri for instance, was in prison when this book was written, charged with a number of acts of terrorism (this is related to Operation Gladio which is yet another vector on this same plane). There is much more to the story of course, and Negri’s incarceration shouldn’t deter you from reading and understanding this important work. Additionally, the unusual circumstances of the books production highlights the way in which technology has continued to have an amazing impact upon our everyday lives.

I would even hesitate to go as far as saying that Hardt was given a unique position due to his co-workers situation to offer a new perspective on social formation. The second question  is the IMPORTANT ONE though: how is this book connected to our interrogation of the concept of justice? Empire offers at a broad level a critique of capitalism as facilitated through globalism. Whether we ultimately agree or disagree is a moot point, as the critique itself allows us to see a perspective we’d be otherwise too immersed in, too truly appreciate.


In particular though, their exposition of biopower is important, as biopower is the state technology which currently permeates the social norms of our society, and thus is a key facilitator in the production of justice. Negri and Hardt outline how the biopolitical context thus becomes central to their argument. They write:

…the biopolitical context of the new paradigm is completely central to our analysis. This is what presents power with an alternative, not only between obedience and disobedience, or between formal political participation and refusal, but also along the entire range of life and death, wealth and poverty, production and social reproduction and so forth (p.26).


In this way, what we essentially arrive at is a dichotomy. Generally we should be weary of dichotomies and this is no expectation. However, the distinction that is created here is useful as a model. So we have on one hand a disciplinary state that seeks to exclude life vs on the other a state within a society of control or a biopower state which seeks to “produce life.” This is then the fundamental axiom of Biopower, it is the mechanism through which the state can produce life.

Negri and Hardt’s exposition of the production of/and life begins with a critique (a very brief critique) of the foundational work Foucault had developed in relation to biopower. It’s important to keep in mind that Foucault is indeed the progenitor of this field of inquiry, and as Negri and Hardt highlight here is that this is almost an accident of his prior research.


There is an argument to be made here that Foucault could be considered among the canon of psychoanalytic work. This is due to his exposition of Nietzsche first and foremost who paved some of the road that Freud would later tread, and then later using The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality a book by Freud apostle Wilhelm Reich, for the basis of his history of sexuality. Therefore, and in particular with biopower, it can be understood as a psychoanalysis of the systems of society through which individuals are able to “play the (set) of games” that constituted power in culture.

It is thus my own personal view is that Foucault was implicitly doing a psychoanalytical project in the same vein as Zizek et al., however as we never explicitly stated this Foucault cannot yet be named a psychoanalyst. I bring this up because often we are going to struggle to really pin down the systems of thought that Foucault used. NEgri and Hardt suggest that his work on Biopower was heavily influenced through a structuralist framework. This is perhaps arguable. However, this interpretation is not controversial. There is plenty of evidence in Foucault’s work that really highlights how he has used a structuralist method.


OK. So please keep in mind as we continue to discuss and approach this critique and also as we work through Foucault, that he is very modular, i.e. each project Foucault has done in many ways attempts to use a range of perspectives. Today we might call that an interdisciplinary approach.  That said, I am not sure that we can really get away with the argument that Foucault was “interdisciplinary.” Foucault though, can easily be called a “Structuralist” without too much difficulty.

So, what do Negri and Hardt write about Foucault’s structuralist limitations:

By structuralist epistemology here we mean the reinvention of a functionalist analysis in the realm of human sciences, a method that effectively sacrifices the dynamic of the system, the creative temporality of its movements, and the ontological substance of cultural and social reproduction. In fact, if at this point we were to ask Foucault who or what drives the system, or rather, who is the “bios?” His response would be ineffable, or nothing at all. What Foucault fails to grasp finally are the real dynamics of production in a biopolitical society (p. 28).


This is quite a damning statement in regards to Foucault’s work, yet as I prefaced Foucault can be (and is) read as modular. SO here I suggest what we take away from this is a break from the preceding scholarship rather than an attack on Foucault. Here again we could go into much more depth on the development of Foucauldian Discourse Analysis and arrive at our own position as to whether Foucault failed to fully embrace social and cultural dynamics. Nonetheless, in regard to biopower and especially biopolitics Negri and Hardt make a good case for moving beyond Foucault. They are particularly interested in these dynamics they find lacking in preceding scholarship and as such move to Deleuze and Guattari in order to resolve some of these issues or gaps.

Now Deleuze and Guattari are also a curious duo in their own right and position themselves alongside but ultimately  outside other French sociology. They largely play by their own rules and as such can be misinterpreted as Zizek famously has done. Negri and Hardt employ Deleuze and Guattari for their poststructuralist analysis and specifically in the search for the production of the “social being” (p.28). Yet even here they are unsatisfied with this analysis. Essentially in their through line, they trace the developing articulation of social production, namely “creative production, production of value, social relations, affects [and] becomings” (p.28), as they began to emerge in this literature.


So leaving the structuralist/poststructuralist modern/postmodern debates aside, Negri and Hardt are highlighting how difficult it was to articulate and outline social production in a social system with so many divergent an diverse influences through technology, globalization, capitalism etc. I want to highlight one aspect of political history here that I feel is relevant to this discussion. That is the collapse of the Soviet Empire. This, much like perhaps 9/11 would later be, was a distinct “before and after” moment in history. Importantly both Foucault and Deleuze/Guattari wrote before and Negri and Hardt wrote after. In that mix we might also throw in the development of the internet although given that it was only really beginning to be adopted between say 1995 and 2003, and the Napster explosion didn’t happen until late in 1999, this I feel that this has much less relevance in Negri and Hardt’s argument.

Today I would say that the internet but even more so “The Internet of Things” is crucial to the production of society and given this is an online article that fact remains self evident.


Essentially, one of the problems that Negri and Hardt outline but do not name is the role of emergence in our contemporary and highly interconnected world. Taking a Marxist approach allows them to identify that the issue of exploitation has become more opaque in a biopolitical sphere and as such their existing theories of value (both Marxist and otherwise) become inadequate in approaching the question of power and it’s development in the society of control. Focusing for instance on the role of labor in the early twenty first century they write:

The immediately social dimension of the exploitation of living immaterial labour immerses labour in all the relationship elements that define the social but also at the same time activate the critical elements that develop the potential of insubordination and revolt through the entire set of labouring practices. After a new theory of value, then, a new theory of subjectivity must be formulated that operates primarily through knowledge, communication and language (p. 29).

Ironically enough, this is going to bring us back to Foucault but also writers and linguists such as Wittgenstein who will outline that language is vital in regard to determining and shaping our thoughts…



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