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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Read more about Foucault here

Buy Society Must be Defended here

Read Society Must be Defended here


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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