A Sneak Preview of My Foucault Book (Forthcoming 2012, Wipf & Stock/Cascade)

Jazz in Blue MosaicI am happy to announce that my book proposal, Foucault and Self-Writing: On the Art of Living as Improvisation has been accepted by Wipf & Stock and will be published via their Cascade Books Imprint. In case you are unfamiliar with Wipf & Stock’s Cascade Books Imprint, here is an excerpt from their website:

“Cascade Books is the most selective of the four imprints of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Under this imprint we publish new books that combine academic rigor with broad appeal and readability. Encompassing all the major areas of theology and religion, Cascade Books has published such major authors as Stanley Hauerwas, Jürgen Moltmann, John Milbank, John Howard Yoder, Margaret Miles, and Walter Brueggemann.”

One among many things I have found attractive and laudable about Wipf & Stock is their commitment to resist as much as possible the market-driven approach to publishing.  For example, their stated vision is “to publish according to the merits of content rather than exclusively to the demands of the marketplace.”

Even though it will not be completed until early 2012, below is a brief description of my book to pique your curiosity, attract your interest, and hopefully arouse your reading desires:

Although it is fruitful to bring Foucault’s philosophical and socio-political reflections into conversation with the visual arts, enacting a similar dialogue with music and with jazz in particular reveals insights unavailable to the visual arts or plastic arts.  Music is itself inherently temporal in nature, unfolding and revealing itself sequentially. Musical performance and jazz improvisation in particular, are communal group-oriented activities. The individual musicians unite around a common piece (a “text”) and perform or birth (“interpret”) it together. Just as music is intrinsically temporal, we as humans are finite, temporal beings. Our subjectivities are shaped over time; we improve, regress, redefine, and rewrite ourselves over time. As free-yet-tradition-situated beings, ever engaged in various power relations with other free beings, we like the jazz musician have the requisite capacities to carve out distinctive subjectivities and to create and recreate our own voice, not ex nihilo but through re-appropriating the “already-said” in fresh ways.

Foucault’s Critique Not of the Subject Per Se But of A Modern Construction of the (Sovereign) Subject

A-King-Deposed-300x298In this post, I want to spend some time elaborating Foucault’s critique of the modern subject. Foucault’ interests lie to a large degree in the interplay between socio-historical context and subject-making. With this emphasis, he participates in the de-thronement of the (sovereign) subject; however, and especially in light of his later reflections, his contribution to the subject’s death is a matter of debate. With Amy Allen and other recent commentators and against a rather entrenched reading of Foucault the subject-killer, I conclude that most if not all of Foucault’s condemnatory remarks concerning the subject are not intended as a death sentence for the subject per se; rather, his objective is to lay to rest a particular socio-historical construction of the subject and subjectivity. That is, Foucault’s critique is directed expressly at the modern construction of an ahistorical, autonomous subject as sovereign originator of meaning, one untainted by his own particular historical and socio-political context. If we consider Foucault’s own historical, philosophical milieu and the analytic he employs, we can begin to understand that his deconstructive blows are not meant for the subject qua subject; rather, his hammer seeks to shatter a particular modern construction of subjectivity in order to make room for the building of new subjectivities. Below, I shall elaborate in more detail the specifics of Foucault’s critique as found in his book, The Order of Things. Foucault highlights a fundamental tension characterizing the modern episteme’s construction of “man,” and he explains this unstable subject in reference to three binary oppositions: (1) an empirico-transcendental doublet, (2) the cogito and the unthought, and (3) the retreat and return of the origin.

“Man” as empirico-transcendental doublet is “a being such that knowledge will be attained in him of what renders all knowledge possible.” On the one hand, as Kant argues, human beings are the lawmakers of reality in that they impose universally-shared categories (for example, causality and substance) and forms of intuition (for example, time and space) onto an extramental unknown, thereby constituting the chaotic flux as intelligible objects of experience. However, the active “I” constituting these extramental objects—the new light replacing God as the Light which makes all things visible and hence intelligible—cannot itself be known. Put somewhat provocatively, in order to make the objects of experience appear, it—the transcendental ego—must disappear. Yet, in the modern episteme humans are simultaneously recognized as historically conditioned, shaped by preexisting cultural and linguistic practices. This is what Foucault has in mind with the third double, the retreat and return of the origin.  “It is always against a background of the already begun that man is able to reflect on what may serve for him as origin.”We develop new products to promote meaningful and beneficial ways of living in community; we create new metaphors, introduce neologisms, and develop slang discourses. Yet, none of this activity and the limited knowledge it produces takes place in a historical vacuum but arises out of already existing complex networks of practices and meanings.

Lastly, in the cogito and the unthought, a murky realm, a “landscape of shadow” accompanying the cogito emerges.  This “unthought” which thought has now discovered

[b]oth in itself and outside itself, at its borders yet also in its very warp and woof, an element of darkness, an apparently inert density in which it is embedded, an unthought which it contains entirely, yet in which it is also caught. The unthought […] is not lodged in man like a shrivelled-up nature or a stratified history; it is, in relation to man, the Other: the Other that is not only a brother but a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality. […] it is both exterior to him and indispensable to him: in one sense, the shadow cast by man as he emerged in the field of knowledge; in another, the blind stain by which it is possible to know him. In any case, the unthought has accompanied man, mutely and uninterruptedly, since the nineteenth century.

Like the other tension-ridden doubles, the subject pole of the cogito/unthought doublet—at least as it appears and develops within the modern episteme—tends toward conquering, overcoming, and even eradicating the object pole. In other words, once “man” is placed in the position that God used to occupy—the transcendent ground, the sovereign originator of meaning and truth—his shadow side, “the Other that is not only a brother but a twin” becomes the object of mastery and domination.Because, on Foucault’s estimation, humans are not autonomous, not originators of their history but are more accurately described as “enslaved sovereigns” constructing themselves and their world and constructed by themselves and others, the humanist project—or at least a certain kind of humanist project—with its unduly exalted view of human beings is doomed to failure. But this failure involves more than mere logical incoherence; it involves, paradoxically, a movement toward domination or oppression of the other to varying degrees.

In her explanation of what she calls the “philosophical rejectionist” reading of Foucault, Nancy Fraser sums up how this group interprets Foucault’s rejection of humanism. The quandary of the “humanist project” is to solve the “Man problem. It is the project of making the subject pole triumph over the object pole, of achieving autonomy by mastering the other in history, in society, in oneself, of making substance into subject.” In other words, rather than accept the equal status and hence the mystery and indefinable character of the other—whether the other is an aspect of oneself (for example, the “unthought”) or a person or group from another culture, ethnicity, or religion—the modern humanist project with its penchant to place “man” in the God position tends “towards that region where man’s Other must become the Same as himself.”[9] Along these same lines, Bernauer, commenting on Foucault’s critique of the modern sovereign subject, concludes that Foucault’s project can be interpreted as “a modern form of negative theology” attempting “to overcome that figure of man whom modernity fashioned as a substitute for the Absolute.”


[1] See, for example, Amy Allen, The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), esp. chapter 2.

[2] See, for example, Foucault’s dialogue with a hypothetical interlocutor in The Archaeology of Knowledge, which I discuss briefly in the following chapter (209).  Here Foucault’s critique is clearly directed towards a particular view of the subject, namely the modern, sovereign, ahistorical subject.

[3] Foucault, The Order of Things, 318.

[4] Ibid., 330.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 326–27.

[7] Ibid., 326.

[8] Fraser, “Michel Foucault: A ‘Young Conservative’?”, 170.

[9] Foucault, The Order of Things, 328. Although I am referencing humanism as if there were only one kind of humanism—a hardly defensible claim—, as Fraser observes in her essay, there are different expressions of humanism and perhaps not all of them are implicated by Foucault’s critique. For example, certain versions of Christian humanism propounding a high view of humans because of Christ’s deification of humanity could escape the charge of making humans the ground of all meaning.

[10] Bernauer, “Michel Foucault’s Philosophy of Religion,” in Michel Foucault and Theology, 88.

Rowan Williams on Waiting, Quiet Reflection, and a Baby that Changed Everything

Nativity of JesusArchbishop Rowan Williams describes Advent as a “time of waiting.” He then unpacks what that means for the Christian and how our Western culture generally speaking (Christians included), have real difficulties with waiting.  We want immediate gratification; we don’t want to wait—if a webpage takes more than a few seconds to load, we complain, throw a fit, curse, or try to figure out a way to purchase a newer, faster, sleeker computer.  Waiting is a concept for twenty-first century globalized folks thoroughly infused with negativity.  We just don’t “do it” well.  Even so, as Williams explains, as Christians we are called to

“remember in Advent the time of waiting before the birth of Jesus, and [to] remember that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us as a time when people were indeed longing for something that would change everything, and yet at the same time not quite knowing what that something would be.

During Advent, Christians go back to that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us. They read again the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament. They read about how people were longing for an end to slavery, longing to be back home in some sense, longing to be at home with God again, longing for reconciliation. And all of that is expressed in the most powerful metaphors, especially in the prophesies of Isaiah, metaphors about the desert blossoming, metaphors about the rain falling, metaphors about day dawning after there’s been a long, long night.”[1]

The four weeks before Christmas have blown by and now our waiting, our counting and marking the days on the calendar before opening the gifts is nearly over.  But what about this other Gift, a far grander Gift, this baby born in a manger so long ago? What difference does His birth, His life, His Incarnation make?

“When Jesus comes into the life of the world with something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve. But this is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus has come into the world and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made? But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.

So again for Christians, Advent is a time when they do a bit of self-examination. Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light. And it’s a time of expectation and a time of hope. A time, therefore, also of quiet.”

Here’s another word we’re not particularly found of, nor very skilled at cultivating (myself included)—quiet, reflective periods of quietness in which we can ask ourselves “[w]hat would it be for the good news really to change me’ […]for that to happen I need some reflective time; I need some peace; I need to slow down; I need, you might say, to take my time about things. And so all those bits of our contemporary culture which are about rushing to get gratification, getting the results straight away, all those habits in our culture which so drive the crises of our culture, whether it’s the credit crunch or the environmental crisis, all those things we have to cast a rather cold eye on during Advent and say slow down, take time, let yourself grow and open up, rather like a flower coming to blossom – a time of expectation, a time of excitement, a time of waiting, a time of peace, a time where we’re clearing our hearts and our minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.”

With John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, both of whom learned to wait and to wonder at this Christ who would turn the world upside down, we too are challenged to “see what the reality of God is like,” which of course is not an easy task.   Truth be told,  “[i]t may be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. Death and judgment, and hell and heaven. It will be that experience of confronting the truth in such a way that you’re changed for good. We say yes to all of that even with the pain and the risk. Or God forbid we say no we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, ‘Well can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say well there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?’ During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth –the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for.”


[1] The full transcript may be accessed via the Archbishop’s webpage: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2040.

Foucault on Modern Biopower and Its Attendant Narratives

According to Foucault, modernity ushered in a new hermeneutics of the self in which self-renunciation had become passé given its connection with Christian dogmatic teachings such as original sin and humanity’s need for salvation from, as it were, the “outside.” With the help of new scientific and especially medical discoveries, as well as socio-political and philosophical theories with strong anti-religious biases, a distinctively modern positive self emerges—a self who through scientific and economic progress will eventually remove all mystery from human beings or perhaps genetically reconfigure or eradicate those elements impeding such progress. However, in the wake of several events spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—from America’sDisciplined Audience (Biopower)Enlightenment-inspired and pseudo-scientific rationalizations for chattel slavery to Stalin’s gulags to Hilter’s “final solution” concerning the so-called “Jewish problem”—this positive self of modernity with its supposed firm foundation in (objective) science and (pure) reason has shown itself to be shaped by and established upon its own faith-based mythologies and ideologies demanding total submission and unwavering obedience whether to the party, the State, or some variant of a religio-national or pseudo-theological narrative.[1] Should one resist and challenge these entities and narratives, the consequence was all-too-often not a willing public display of dying to self or a verbal ongoing renunciation of self (sufficiency) via confession. Rather, outspoken critics of so-called progress became unwilling sacrificial victims of Babel-like nations constructed on misguided utopian and self-aggrandizing fantasies.

Here I want to relate the modern pursuit and view of progress to Foucault’s critique of modern “man” or what I argue elsewhere as Foucault’s contribution to the decentering of rather than death of the human subject. Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God through a lamenting madman-prophet goes hand in hand, as Foucault saw plainly, with the death of man as the substitute for God. In other words, Foucault understood and was utterly convinced that human beings would find unbearable the weight of filling in the void left by the death of God culturally and historically speaking. Paradoxically and provocatively, one might say the divinization of humans by humans sharing the same fragile condition did not produce more exalted human beings, but human beings able and willing to engage in calculated “reasoned” projects of violence, terror, and exploitation.

How can modernity (and postmodernity) with all its scientific, economic, and medical advances produce tragedies such as the holocausts and gulags of the twenty-first century, ongoing war campaigns, chattel slavery, and publically accepted lawless spaces (Guantanamo Bay and the hypertrophic U.S. carceral system)? In the History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault provides an analytic account explaining how a new power configuration emerges—biopower and hence biopolitics—and produces the conditions for such blatant calculated thanatotic-elements within the (post)modern body politic. On Foucault’s reading, once Christian confessional technologies were translated from a sin and salvation paradigm into a scientific this-world-only paradigm, Christian pastoral power infiltrates society at large via psychiatry, schools, prisons, and medical practices.  In other words, the new shepherds are school and prison counselors, police and military interrogators, psychiatrists, and medical doctors—those with specialized “secret” knowledge enabling them to decipher the “confessions” of those under their care and to categorize them according to norms in an effort to keep the population pure, safe, and functioning at optimum levels. With the transition from the ancient and medieval monarchical model of absolute power to the modern model of biopower, power is no longer centralized around the person of the king but is distributed in a net-like fashion operating, invading, and permeating the social body far more efficiently and effectively than the previous model.

In its sovereign form, power “was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies and ultimately life itself.”[2] However, with the ushering in of modernity, or what Foucault calls the “classical age” (the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries), rather than operating chiefly through “deduction” (prélèvement) or taxation and other impositions upon and appropriations of the citizens’ wealth, goods, and labor, the new mechanisms of power in the West— while employing these “deductive” methods—constitute an altogether different power schematic. It is a “power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them.”[3] Likewise, whereas in the ancient regime, the sovereign manifested his power over life through exercising his right to kill, now in the modern regime the focus is upon the “right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life. Yet wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and […], never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations.”[4]

With these descriptions, Foucault emphasizes the dangerous side of productive power. In previous posts on Foucault I have been at pains to emphasize the positive aspects of productive power relations as manifest in pedagogical, parent/child, and other non-dominating asymmetrical relations, as well as the resistance possibilities inherent in power relations. However, Foucault’s account allows for and recognizes the other side of this new configuration of dispersed power on the body politic (which of course includes individuals). A new “power of death” expressed in the bloody wars, genocides, and holocausts of modernity

now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations. Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital. It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed.[5]

Having highlighted the death and life dialectic of the modern power configuration, Foucault discusses how mere survival rather than living well (eu zein) motivates modern war initiatives as well as their terminations. As he explains,

the power to expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence. The principle underlying the tactics of battle—that one has to be capable of killing in order to go on living—has become the principle that defines the strategy of states. But the existence in question is no longer the juridical existence of sovereignty; at stake is the biological existence of a population. If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.[6]

It is not coincidental that a biologized notion of “race,” what philosopher Ron Mallon called “biobehavioral essentialism,” arose during the nineteenth century. Each specialized discipline has its own a classificatory system giving rise to the introduction of norms or standards and their correlatives, deviations.[7] This hierarchized biologized understanding of “race” can be (and has been) used in conjunction with nationalist religious or secularized narratives to further external and internal wars and genocide campaigns, to exterminate or at least confine and control the enemy within or the enemy without.

With biopower and the asymmetrical knowledge-power relations of secularized pastoral power, we are dealing with an altogether different paradigm of self-knowledge—a paradigm in which ancient and medieval narratives of living well, care of the self, and eternal life have been translated into narratives of living healthily and as long as possible in order to be a productive, contributing worker-consumer of the globalized order. A second translation centers on purification. Whereas the Christian confessional technologies pursued ascetical practices in order to wage war on sin, modern confessional technologies are employed for the purpose of purifying and enhancing the species and thus can and do feed easily into modern “noble lies” about superior “races” which must be free of contaminating influences. In my current research, I show how narratives along these lines combined with Enlightenment and religious elements were very much at work in America’s chattel slavery system—a system aimed at producing docile disciplined bodies mainly for economic purposes, black bodies scripted as unworthy and subhuman and culminating in a new subjectivity—the American slave.


[1] See, for example, Bernauer’s discussion of Hitler constructed as a quasi-messianic figure and “fascism’s discourse of political religiosity” in his essay, “Michel Foucault’s Philosophy of Religion: an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life,” in Michel Foucault and Theology, esp. 81–2. See also, Joerg Rieger, “Empire, Religion, and Subjectivity,” in Beyond the Spirit of Empire. Rieger discusses how manifestations of a perverse logic of self-sacrifice with religious overtones are at work in the narratives surrounding US military recruitment of soldiers and in the ways that wage workers accepting this logic “proudly take on more and more work for less and less pay” while lacking basic workers’ benefits such as healthcare (40, 41).

[2] Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 136.

[3] Ibid., 136.

[4] Ibid., 136–37.

[5] Ibid., 137.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See also, Michaud’s essay, “Des modes du subjectivation aux techniques de soi,” where he discusses biopower as a normalizing power, esp. 16–18.