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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The Problem of Post-Modernity


The Problem of Post-Modernity

The Problem of Post-Modernity
Welcome to the Weird indeed!

Teaser Quote:

Today it’s no different, the same discipline is required of an individual to call themselves a Marxist, they must read and read closely and read carefully and read intelligently the full three volumes of Das Capital. And in fact those who wish to call themselves Capitalists must do the same.  Otherwise how can we begin to understand the problem of Post-Modernity?


What is the problem of Post-Modernity? If I was to ask you who was the most influential figure of the 20th Century, you might facetiously say “Homer Simpson,” then you might think about it a bit and say it was “Henry Ford” then you might really think about it and say “FDR” and before long you might convince yourself that the most influential figure of the 20th century was Hitler. I doubt very much that you would say Jack Kerouac or Jacques Derrida. I doubt very much that you would even say it was Henry Kissinger or George Soros. But, despite the enormous impact each of these figures has had on the 20th Century I don’t think any of them really account for the shaping of history in the same way that Karl Marx did.

Our continuous eternal question of the 21st century is the question of Marxism. Marxism broke a dichotomy wide open and also created a new dichotomy in the process. Dichotomies are always dangerous and rarely absolute, yet with the split between East and West, between Capitalism and Communism the dichotomy plays as closely to reality as a dichotomy ever  can. One of the major problems we have today with Marxism and why it has endured as far as it has is that it take on an individual level an enormous amount of work to understand what he means. As such, in the same way that Hegel and Nietzsche and Freud have been distilled propagandistically by those who wish to extract power through their work, Marx too is susceptible to easy and inappropriate interpretations.

The Need to Read Carefully After the Author has Died

What Foucault demonstrates in his own writing is the level of attention to detail that is truly required to grapple with complex social ideas. The responsibility an individual must take in their own engagement is extreme. Take for example my work on Society Must be Defended and the need to really break down each paragraph and examine what it means in the context of the broader idea being portrayed. I argue that one of the vectors Foucault was enacted by writing in such an incoherent and obfuscating manner is that he was attempting to demonstrate how incoherent his contemporaries were. Therefore, he was signalling a call to action, I may be dead, the post-modernists may have killed me (in the sense of the author’s intention) and now you have been born as the reader so read very carefully and take the task seriously. What does that mean? What does it mean to read carefully and seriously? I propose it means that you have to read on multiple levels simultaneously. If no longer there exists an intention that we can draw upon from the author then the message as a whole and the individual words that construct that message have no inherent meaning.

In other words, we as readers, must first grasp the message as a whole in a low resolution form – for example: Discipline and Punish is a book which demonstrates the manner in which we have not become more, but rather less, humane in our treatment of the excluded members of society. However, our task doesn’t end with that, we have to rip apart, screw up, shred twist and perform a sort of “convolution” on the very establishment of the argument. We need to settle for ourselves why this is laid out in the order: Torture, Punishment, Discipline, Prison. We have to contemplate why the Panoptic model makes so much sense in the context that Foucault puts forth and then wrestle with his fallibility as an author and consider whether it actually makes sense or whether we are being pursued.

Post Modernity Requires Active Reading

We must then determine how Foucault has represented his influences. Has he actually taken Bentham on appropriately. So does that mean we need to read Bentham? And if we do, how are we to read Bentham? The same way! So now the task of reading is far more complex than simply absorbing the words as they lay on the page. No longer is it a passive exercise but requires a deep engagement with a set of ideas that juxtapose the concepts being presented. Well FUCK! Who has time for that anyway?

Worse! Who has time for that in World War 1 when there are enemy armies marching forward and ready to kill you. This is the problem with Marx, it is too easy to reduce his oeuvre to sound bites:

Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks

The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.

From Each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

The Power of Das Capital

The economic pressures across Europe were real, were evident and as Rage Against the Machine state so eloquently “Hungry people don’t stay hungry for long.” So it becomes a matter of survival who you are going to listen to. It was a major matter of life and death what ideas you considered, and in the early 20th century the less ideas you had to consider the better. Today it’s no different, the same discipline is required of an individual to call themselves a Marxist, they must read and read closely and read carefully and read intelligently the full three volumes of Das Capital.

A True Post Modern Text
The knowledge we need the most is in the books we wish to read least.

And in fact those who wish to call themselves Capitalists must do the same. In fact the task is even more difficult. You need to read the full three volumes of Das Capital in German. Who has the time or the inclination for that? So we face a huge conundrum, because when that task isn’t undertaken earnestly the seductive power of the veneer can be overwhelming. The charasmatic voices that speak it far too alluring:


“A fairness for all and a responsibility from all”

Responsibility From All?

What does that even mean? What are you talking about Obama. A responsibility from all could mean that each and every person in the set of “all” has responsibility. Or it could mean that Obama’s vision will alleviate you from the burden of any responsibility. What does the word “Fairness” mean? What is the particular etymology that Obama is enacting when he speaks this word? You can see already how difficult it is to think in the shadow of Marx (and for that matter Kant, Descartes, Aristotle, Plato) and how easy it is to abandon that responsibility that you have in coming to terms with what these messages are. Coming to terms of course being a pun here. However, if you abandon your responsibility, you have abandoned your ability to respond.

I can’t foresee that people are going to heed this message, that there will be a critical mass of people on either the Left of the Right who will go and read the German version of Das Capital and face the gargantuan task of distilling it into their own lives. But it is crucial to understand that this is at least the task. It is crucial to understand that this is the root of the problem of Post-Modernity. What we desperately need then is a figure who can diminish the impact of Marxism. What we desperately need is a figure who is so large and renowned that they can present a knock down argument against Marxism and then settle some of the dust. What we need is a hero, in the mythical sense. We need a figurative Hercules to take on this task for us.

Academics and Post Modernity

Steven Hicks may have highlighted the problems of post modernity twenty years ago but he was twenty years ahead of his time.
John Taylor Gatto may have identified the major employment opportunity was security guard fifteen years ago, but he was fifteen years ahead of his time.
Jordan Peterson may have become to deconstruct the problems with tyrannical government in Maps of Meaning revised 10 years ago, but he was 10 years ahead of his time.
And Brett Veinotte, Steven Hicks, Jordan Peterson, and many others are speaking out about the Humanities and Social Sciences at University now, but they too may be two or three years ahead of their time.

None of these figures are that hero, Foucault wasn’t that hero. Derrida, Fromm, Marcuse, Reich, Wittgenstein, Zizek the list goes on – are not that Hero. They may be considered prophets to begin to mix metaphors, but they are not the Savior. We need St. George to go and find the fire breathing dragon and slay it, to continue to mix metaphors. I am not that figure either. What is the cost here? To what level of sacrifice are we expecting this Savior to submit? Is it that, like Neo at the end of the Matrix Trilogy, like Jesus on the Cross, they must dies for our academic and intellectual sins against the Father? It’s no joke to start to put Marx in the mix with words and concepts like Anti-Christ. It’s only a very serious wonder why Mein Kampf was thrown away culturally speaking but The Communist Manifesto still persists.

We Need a Hero

Jordan Peterson, who I talk about a lot, regales his students with a story of his nephew and how he had to face a dragon in his nightmares. First there were trolls, mean nasty little trolls hell bent on destruction and turmoil, then the dragon came into view. This is an important story and you need to hear it spoken by Peterson himself. I wish only to point out the enthralling image that’s presented in this tale – that being of the trolls formation: The trolls are formed from the embers of the fire that the Dragon breathes. The trolls are infinitely reoccurring and will only start to dissipate once the dragon is slayed.

Post Modernity as a dragon to be slayed
Who shall slay the Post Modern Dragon?



If Post-Modernity is the dragon then social justice  warriors are the trolls. Now it is unfair to say, and I am not saying, that there is a one to one correlation. Put another way, I am not suggesting that all social justice warriors are mean and nasty little trolls. But they do represent the problem with seduction. Once they have been seduced by the doctrine, there is no point in defeating them on an individual level, you need to defeat  – impossible task, we can only ask for a diminishment of influence – the doctrine itself.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, communism has two or three hundred years left to run before it is relegated to a form of subjugated knowledge. Perhaps by the 24th century we as a people (if we survive) will look back and wonder with astonishment why people abdicated their responsibility so freely. Why people accepted their enslavement so willingly. Two or three hundred years of history can see an almighty amount of bloodshed though. So yes! We are still ahead of our time. We haven’t located the lair this dragon calls Post Modernism hoards it’s gold. And there is gold in Post Modernity worth rescuing. We also haven’t found our St. George who is willing to sacrifice themselves in order to slay this beast. But we have some clues. We have a rough understanding of the terrain.

I ask you to consider reading the English version of Das Capital, at the very least open the first few pages. I will struggle to do the same. Perhaps we can create the environment from which St. George can emerge.

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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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