Sunday, 7 April 2013

Why reading Foucault-inspired research makes me long for dialectics

I've been interested for some time in the possibility of using the notions of governmentality and counter-conducts in the study of social movements. In the existing governmentality literature, I think it's a pity that so little attention has been given to protest and social movements.

The problem is that, while there's plenty to fetch in Foucualt's work for social movement scholars, there is also a tendency in much of his work and among his followers to belittle resistance. This tendency is admittendly weak and perhaps marginal to his work, but it is nevertheless (to be frank) annoyingly persistent.

Take the closing words of the first volume of the History of Sexuality. Speaking of the ruses and stratagems that have made us think and speak of sex as central and precious to us, he writes: “The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance” (Foucault 1990:159). What I find uncomfortable here is not at all the substance of his work on the basis of which he makes this statement. What makes me uncomfortable is its slight touch of nastiness, the malicious pleasure and perhaps sense of superiority I imagine it is supposed to produce in the reader.

Or take Carl Death's otherwise admirable article on how the notion of counter-conduct can be employed in resistance studies. Observing that summit protests produce subjectivities and identities, he draws the conclusion that the protests often fulfil an expressive function that serves to stabilize power. The “appearance of challenging power relation”, he writes, can “provide reassurance, a semblance of control and agency, and thereby re-legitimize established… forms of politics” (Death 2010:247). This conclusion may be correct, but surely it is also one-sided. Reading it, I again imagine hearing superior laughter, and again I feel uncomfortable.

How should I understand this tendency for Foucault-inspired research to gleefully restate how deluded protesters are? To begin with, let me spell out more clearly why I find this tendency troubling.

Firstly, this tendency seems to be utterly unecessary. It goes against the grain of what I take to be the main thrust of Foucault's writings, which stress the openness and unpredictability of the effects of power. Nothing says that the fact that power and resistance are mutually constitutive must necessarily mean that resistance always misses its target or that it is actually the victory of power in disguise.

I'm in sympathy with the attempts of Death and others to use Foucault’s ideas to develop an analytics of protest based on a governmentality perspective, in which freedom is not simplistically opposed to power but presupposed in governing. As Death points out, it's often preferrable in the analysis of protest to pay attention to how protest and government are mutually constitutive. Such a perspective captures the messiness of protest better than simple binary thinking. Sensibly, he also elsewhere claims not to be pessimistic about protest and states that he, like Foucault, instead tries to advocate an ethos of continual criticism. But ironical statements about how protests stabilize the establishment is not a way to escape the dichotomy of resistance and co-optation. Instead, they revive it by declaring the victory of co-optation. 

Secondly, the tendency to belittle resistance risks turning Foucauldian analysis into a straightjacket. Let me make a comparison with Hegel. Hegelian dialectics has long been criticized by so-called poststructuralists for the tendency to preclude escape from mediation, of being too watertight. Yet isn't Hegel actually sometimes more open to change and historical novelty than Foucault? Looking at the analyses in the Phenomenology one is immediately struck by Hegel's clear eye for how seemingly opposing forces can be mutually constitutive, the very fact that Foucault-inspired researchers like to stress so much. But unlike the latter, Hegel uses dialectics to show how established powers can be subverted by the very things they produce or “constitute”. The same, of course, goes for Marx: classes are mutually constituted, but the process of constitution itself undermines the system that constitutes them. The idea of mutual constitution is thus not new at all. It's old, and as Hegelian (or Marxist) dialectics show, it can be used in quite other ways than in Foucault.

The gesture which Hegel's critics like to criticize so much - that of gathering up opposing forces, of mercilessly running them through a dialectical round of "mutual constitution" before sending them onwards along a route foreordained by historical necessity - is of course foreign to the gist of Foucault's work. The latter nevertheless, unnecessarily, replicates this gesture in the repeted rhetorical relapses which he and his followers make into the ironic jargon of belittling resistance. 
Against this I think one needs to recall that, just as there is no law of necessary progress, there is also no law of necessary co-optation.

Against the "bad" Hegel and "bad" Foucault, I'd like to steer towards a synthesis of the "good" Hegel and the "good" Foucault. Does this sound surprising? But isn't there also a "good" Hegel - one whose dialectics isn't allergic to contingent imputs, to materiality or to a multiplicity of conflicts? I don't have the time to discuss him here. Let me just state that I think he is possible. As for the "good" Foucault, let me end by letting him speak for himself. The quote is from his discussion of whether it is right to revolt or not. He does not agree with those who say it is useless:

One does not dictate to those who risk their lives facing a power. Is it right to revolt, or not? Let us leave the question open. People revolt; that is a fact. And that is how subjectivity (not that of great men, but of anyone) is brought into history, breathing life into it. (Foucault 2000:452)


Death, Carl (2010) “Counter-conducts: A Foucauldian Analytics of Protest”, Social Movement Studies 9(3):235-251.

Foucault (1990) The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1 An Introduction (tr. of La volonté de savoir by Robert Hurley), London: Penguin Books.

Foucault (2000) “Useless to revolt?”, pp 449-453, in J D Faubion (ed) Essential Works of Foucault 1954 - 1984,Volume 3: Power, New York: New Press.


  1. I love how you wrote abt Foucault "What makes me uncomfortable is its nastiness, the malicious pleasure and perhaps sense of superiority I imagine it is supposed to produce in the reader." You always do the opposite. Makes one understand the world (and books) a little better.) I think I never feel as human as I feel with you, never so little fascist either - and never so hopeful! Also how you take one s confused and messy thoughts and make them into gems and pearls. Thats what a real Academic should do. Protect us from Evil and Clarify our thoughts! I am tired and there are many terms above I do not understand even when I am at my best, but still... "Breathing Life into it" You, my dear Carl, breath LIFE into any discussion! See you soon I hope! Now we have to fix the lamps, bringing light into our new apartment, our new world!

    1. Thanks, Eva! I'm overwhelmed... When you write what you do, I think you are really talking about yourself. :) How's your apartment now? Let's bring life and light, if we can, into new-old world.


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