More Points of Interest: Foucault Beyond Foucault

Foucault Beyond Foucault
Power and Its Intensifications since 1984

Jeffrey T. Nealon

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Preliminary Table of Contents

Todd May has written a rather interesting review Nealon’s book over at the NDPR. Here’s an excerpt:

There is a witless, though common, interpretation of Michel Foucault circulating these days. It is an interpretation that seeks to declaw Foucault’s political radicalism and bring him into the liberal fold. On this interpretation, Foucault abandoned the analysis of power constructed during his genealogical period (false) because it had a totalizing character that left no room for resistance (false) in favor of a sort of individual self-construction that he found in the ancient Greeks (false). If Jeffrey Nealon had done no more than recall to us the vapidity of this interpretation, he would have performed a service. However, he has done much more than this. In his slim volume on Foucault, he has offered a fascinating interpretation of Foucault’s work, one that brings to light previous neglected elements of his thought. Although the stated motivation for Nealon’s discussion is to counter the current interpretation of Foucault’s ethical works, the result is one of the most interesting interpretations of Foucault to emerge in many years.

The lynchpin of Nealon’s interpretation is the concept of intensification. Nealon argues that an understanding of that concept will enlighten us on the trajectory of Foucault’s middle and late periods, from power to biopower and from genealogy to ethics.

For Foucault, this charting of emergent modes of power is hardly a story of progress or Enlightenment, but a story of what he calls the increasing “intensity” (intensit√©) of power: which is to say its increasing “lightness” and concomitant “economic” viability, in the broadest sense of the word “economic.” Power’s intensity most specifically names its increasing efficiency within a system, coupled with increasing saturation. (p. 32)

The history of power, in short, is a history of a force (applied against the force of resistance) that becomes more supple and more suffused.

Foucault Beyond Foucault proceeds by way of a systematic development of this thought. It is introduced in the first chapter as a counterinterpretation to the current Prodigal Son view of Foucault as a returning liberal. He argues that Foucault is much more interested in the question “What does it cost?” than in questions such as “What does it mean?” or “What is it?” The operation of power changes as it finds ways to be more efficient at less cost, and, as he argues in the second chapter, this efficiency becomes a matter of increasing intensification. In that chapter, Nealon claims that we have not yet understood the historical changes associated with changes in the operation of power. There he isolates four stages: sovereignty, social power, discipline, and, more recently, biopower. The first three stem directly from Foucault’s treatment of punishment in Discipline and Punish. The final one stems largely from the first volume of Foucault’s history of sexuality, but in Nealon’s reading is continued into the second and third volumes, the place in which the Prodigal Son interpretation of Foucault prepares the fatted calf.

Nealon argues here that the explanation for the changes in power’s operation is its increasing efficiency through intensification. Sovereign power was brutal but clumsy. Social power was better, but was brought to greater efficiency by discipline, which, Nealon claims, acts not so much upon the body as upon actions. Discipline’s ability to intervene upon most, or at least many, actions allows it to suffuse itself throughout the body and the body politic. Moreover, discipline, unlike sovereign power, can create actions, not just suppress them. However, biopower is the most intense, therefore most efficient form of power. It acts directly upon life. Where discipline uses the force of power to effect the creation of action, biopower intervenes on life at all levels, working through norms in order to shepherd life in directions that he treats in the following chapters.

Read the rest of the review here

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