'Society Must Be Defended' - On Lecture One

With Lockdown 3.0 here, I have decided to re-read the famed Michel Foucault’s lecture course that he gave at the Collège de France in 1976, entitled: ‘Society Must Be Defended’, alongside those other works I am currently focussing my attention on. Although sometimes critical of his overall schema of thought, it is often a joy to think alongside Foucault, even when – especially when – we differ. Equally, so many have been influenced by the thought of Foucault – even in their opposition to his thinking – that it always helps to return to him. The first lecture was held on Wednesday the 7th of January 1976, and every Wednesday after until the 17th of March of the same year. Forty-four years later, on the same dates and at the same times as Foucault’s lectures were given, I will add to the blog my notes and thoughts on each lecture.

Lecture One7th January 1976 [1]

The first question that Foucault asks is ‘What is a lecture?’. He affirms that the purpose of his lecture series, if there can be a purpose at all, is to present those willing to listen with his research for them to use (or not) in any way they wish – in keeping with the spirit that the Collège de France is a research institute. This being said, Foucault, rather comically, highlights that in order to limit the number of spectators at his lectures, he has set the time to be on Wednesday mornings so that those who really do wish to engage must first get out of bed to do so – aiming this at undergraduates. Conscious that his past lectures required overflow viewing areas, this is one of the few points we see Foucault at unease with the fact of being an object of a gaze that is not mutual (perhaps equally informing us as to why his thought on the penal system, the panopticon, and ‘the gaze’ are a site of angst for him). From here, Foucault explains what his previous research points towards, as but ‘fragments of research’ which he then begins to list:

“A few remarks on the history of penal procedure; a few chapters on the evolution, the institutionalisation of psychiatry in the nineteenth century; considerations on sophistry or Greek coins; an outline history of sexuality, or at least a history of knowledge about sexuality…; pinpointing the genesis of a theory and knowledge of anomalies and of all the related techniques.”

From here, Foucault outlines that the possibilities of uses for these fragments are open-ended, to even the point at which “perhaps we’re not saying anything at all” because their direction was not pre-determined, “it didn’t matter where they led”. This pins his system and intellectual character immediately as one dedicated to thought for the sake of thinking – even if we disagree with the outcome of that thought – and not thought in the name of ‘outputs’ or so to avoid the latter of ‘publish or perish’, but to think for itself.

Foucault isolates that two phenomena had been observable in the few decades prior to this lecture:

1. “The efficacy of dispersed and discontinued offensives” – Those ‘localised’ critiques that challenge the status-quo, i.e. the push for an increasingly permissive society, or critiques of judicial and penal apparatuses. This includes what he cites as the “fairly dubious” notion of Class Justice – dubious as a conceptual phenomenon (in which case we see an inherent critique of Marxism here), or as to what the conceptual phenomenon has become and the framework in which it is employed? Foucault does not answer this. Equally, he goes on to cite Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, with its expounding of Schizoanalysis, as a phenomenon of theoretical creativity deserving of the label ‘an event’. To return to the grander phenomenon Foucault isolates, he is referring to an increasing academic tendency of criticism, an “immense and proliferating criticizability of things” that has had to occur following the loss of certain grounds for truth-claims or frameworks which just simply do not apply any longer; where there is “ground crumbling beneath our feet”, and this is where we can see his post-foundationalism at its most potent. This critique is always ‘local’ and resembles autonomous and de-centralised production of theoretical tools, distinguishing itself from those totalitarian theories as all encompassing and global. Here I was reminded on Arendt in ‘On Revolution’ and ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ (also Giorgio Agamben in ‘Stasis’) where she makes it clear that ideological thinking sees any conflict as a civil war of humanity, and that this is a contemporary phenomenon that must be given theoretical attention.[2] So, the first phenomenon – the proliferation of localised critique to allow for some contingent foundation of thought in the contemporary world.

2. “The insurrection of subjugated knowledges” – Indeed much of the remainder of the first lecture in this series is dedicated to explicating just what is meant by ‘subjugated knowledges’. Here, Foucault lays out a duad of knowledge categories, each of which contains and exemplifies modes of subjugated knowledges (notice the plurality).

2a. The first mode of subjugated knowledges can be broadly related to Foucault’s work on Archaeology. These knowledges consist of “historical contents that have been buried or masked on functional coherences or formal systematizations”. Just as in what would normally be inferred with Archaeology (think ‘Time Team’), one digs through geological layers in order to find artefacts that inform us of the past, and as such, of the path to our present. Sometimes this activity can unearth something unbelievable that changes our understanding of ourselves and that path – like the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors or the Theopetra Cave. Our role becomes to hoist them to the surface like buried treasure. Subjugated knowledges, in this form therefore, are:

“Blocks of historical knowledges that were present in the functional and systemic ensembles, but which were masked, and the critique was able to reveal their existence by using, obviously enough, the tools of scholarship.”

2b. The second mode of subjugated knowledges concerns those knowledges that have been disqualified. These forms of knowledge have been disqualified as ‘nonconceptual’, ‘insufficiently elaborated’, ‘naïve’, ‘hierarchically inferior’ or below a certain level of ‘scientificity’. This brings us neatly to Foucault’s understanding of power as related to the structural formulation of what is and what is not acceptable knowledge, i.e. the notion of knowledge/power. This entails a perspectival, or even subjective, shift to expose the knowledges of the patient, the nurse, the doctor, the inmate, the delinquent and that which ‘people know’ as parallel to hierarchical knowledges, and as such are excluded as meaningful in the hegemonic structural epistemological schema because of their difference.[3] Simply put, to resuscitate these knowledges is:  “The reappearance of what is known at the local level , of these disqualified knowledges, that makes the critique possible”, linking back to the locality of critique in 1.

Therefore, Foucault effortlessly locates two forms of ‘subjugated knowledges’, both of which are modes of knowledge that are excluded from the contemporary epistemological hierarchy and are as such neglected:

a – The buried

b – The disqualified

Together, they create an outline of what Foucault isolates as ‘Genealogy’ – a term he takes from his long interest with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. A provisional definition of this approach – of genealogy – is given as the coupling of scholarship and local testimony which allow us to constitute a historical knowledge of struggles and to be able to make use of this knowledge in the contemporary world. Thus, in this provisional definition of genealogy, Foucault reveals what is at stake if we were to ignore this approach, and this would be the loss of, in his own terms, “A historical knowledge of struggles”.

Following this, in a single paragraph, I see Foucault explicate his entire project in the simplest of ways, in his discussion of genealogy as, quite specifically, “antisciences” as “they concern the insurrection of knowledges”. Here, he states:

“It is a way of playing local, discontinuous, disqualified, or nonlegitimized knowledges off against the unitary theoretical instance that claims to be able to filter them, organize them into a hierarchy, organize them in the name of a true body of knowledge, in the name of the rights of a science that is in the hands of a few.”

In this manner, as Foucault understands it, genealogy fights the power-effects and characteristics of any discourse that is regarded as scientific, as a discourse that disqualifies other knowledges through its truth-claims by virtue of simply being a science. Genealogy is thus struggle. This, for example, leads Foucault to a short critique of Marxism, in that “it may well be a science” and as such subordinates other knowledges to a position of subjugation. A question I would like to ask here, however, is whether or not this is a critique of Marxism as scientific socialism, through the manner in which Marx himself understood his own project, or that Marxism as a whole could be scientific (implying that it may not be and therefore locates an odd non-Marxian Marxism)? Nonetheless, Foucault draws our attention to the aspiration of domination that comes from a particular knowledge willing a claim to be considered ‘a science’. Science, as he grasps it, can become a ‘theoretical vanguard’ (Leninist terminology) that curtails a number of potential forms that knowledge can take – burying them to be forgotten or simply disqualifying them as knowledge altogether. The claim of a discourse to being a discourse as a ‘science’ is subsequently a claim to power, linking back to Nietzsche and the ‘Will to Power’.

Genealogy, then, in Foucault’s own words: “is a sort of attempt to desubjugate historical knowledges”[4], it is an attempt to ‘re-activate’ those local knowledges that have been disqualified and neglected. Through its connection to archaeology, genealogy is the use of knowledge that was once subjugated. Interestingly, my initial thought was that Foucault had spun the term Archaeology on its head through an etymological reconstruction of its use. ‘Archaeology’ stems from the Greek ἀρχαῖος [arkhaios] meaning ‘ancient’ or ‘primeval’. This in turn goes back further to the term ἀρχή [arkhe] that means ‘beginning’. In an interesting way, Foucault turns Archaeology into the beginning of genealogical critique, turning the signifier itself into something new – a new beginning.

There is a danger here, however. The danger is that these fragments would be resubjugated by the disqualifying unitary discourses that excluded them, and in order to protect them from this, the very protection one creates forms a new unitary discourse with power/knowledge effects that excludes others. In order to avoid this, Foucault claims, all one can really do is unearth more genealogical fragments. What should be attempted he asserts, is: “to specify or identify what is at stake when knowledges begin to challenge, struggle, and rise up against the institution and power-knowledge effects of scientific discourse”.

This, neatly, leads him to have to ask another seminal question, namely, what is power? The issue becomes to determine what are the mechanisms, effects, and the relations of various power-knowledge apparatus that operate at various levels of society, and to bring their domineering consequences into full light for all to bear witness to. In order to discuss the very nature of power, Foucault highlights two major conceptions of power in the modern discourse:

1. The Liberal Juridical conception – whereby power is a commodity or right that is exercised by an agent when they hold its possession as a result of a contract. My mind was drawn to Robert Dahl’s conceptualisation of power as: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do”.[5]

2. The Marxian Economic Functionality – whereby power is to perpetuate the relations of production and reproduce class domination. My mind was drawn here to Louis Althusser’s understanding of state and ideological repressive apparatuses.[6]

With these two conceptions of power, which are themselves not irreconcilable, Foucault isolates two issues: (a) Is power always secondary to commodity-based economics? (b) Is power always modelled on the economy? In this manner, power is “of a different order and it is precisely that order that we have to isolate”. There are few tools for a non-economic analysis of power. What we know is that it is not something given, exchanged, or taken back, but it exists only in the exercise of its action. In this, power is primarily in itself a relation of force, a relationship of struggle. Thus, the first ‘off the cuff’ definition that Foucault gives of power is that “power is essentially that which represses”. This raises two further questions: (c) does this make an analysis of power an analysis of the mechanisms of repression?, and, (d) shouldn’t we be analysing power therefore in the terms of conflict and war?

If the first ‘off the cuff’ hypotheses of power that Foucault gives is “essentially that which represses”, the second that he claims stems from this last question – (d). Power, in this manner, is the reversal of Clausewitz’s famous statement that ‘War is an extension of politics by other means’, to state that ‘Politics is an extension of war by other means’. This implies three things:

1) Power relations are anchored in a certain relationship of force that was established in and through war at a given historical moment. Politics is thus a silent war to re-inscribe the relations of force, even when in a condition of ‘peace’.

2) Politics sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested at war. “We are always writing the history of the same war”.

3) The last, ‘final’, battle would put an end to politics, suspending the exercise of power as continuous warfare.

Power that oversteps its limit will shift from being a repressive apparatus to an oppressive one. Repression is the effect and continuation of a relationship of domination, and within it there is its own action and reproduction. The ‘struggle’ therefore, is not between ‘the legitimate and illegitimate’ but between itself and ‘submission’. Foucault goes on to state that he has indeed been suspicious of the notion of ‘repression’. Indeed, the subjugated knowledge that Foucault locates by means of Archaeology and Genealogy has been more than merely repressed, but gone through a different process that he does not go on to determine the boundaries of.

From here, he lays out his structure for the remainder of the lecture series. Till next week.

[1] Michel Foucault (2020) Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at The Collège de France, 1975-1976, London: Penguin Books, pp. 1-22.

[2] Hannah Arendt (1976) The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt, Inc.; (2006) On Revolution, London: Penguin Books; Giorgio Agamben (2015) Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[3] Whenever I read this, my mind is always somehow drawn back to the documentaries by Louis Theroux, and the manner in which he emphasises his attempt to get to the heart of the perspective of the inmate, the extremist, the eccentric, the addict, and so on.

[4] Emphasis added.

[5] Robert A. Dahl (1957) ‘The Concept of Power’, Behavioural Science, 2(3), pp. 201-215, pp. 202-203.

[6] Louis Althusser (2014) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, London: Verso.