Society Must be Defended
Notes and Quotes – Part 01
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.