In the first of our online supplements to TCS special issues, Mike Featherstone interviewed Couze Venn, guest editor of the Foucault issue. Read the excerpt here:
Mike Featherstone [MF]: Why an issue on Foucault now? What were your aims in pulling together this issue?
Couze Venn [CV]: The 25th anniversary of Foucault’s untimely death was the occasion for producing this issue. But the main reason relates to the relevance of his 1975-1984 lectures at the College de France, now appearing in translation, that anticipated many of the changes that have happened since his death, particularly in relation to the ascendency of neoliberalism and the emergence of new mechanisms of power that are more extensive, insidious and pervasive than those which operated before. They provide new insights not only on the relation of political economy to biopolitics and power, but a new agenda around self-transformation as part of the counter-practice informing resistance.
MF: Could you say a little about the significance of the Michel Foucault lecture series at the Collège de France. How have they altered the general view of Foucault’s contribution?
CV: The main contribution of these lectures, apart from redressing the balance in his work with respect to the relative absence of political economy in his earlier analyses of subjectivity and power, is the opening up of the analytics of power to a longer history of subjugation and inequality, going back to the older forms of sovereignty. The other key development is the exploration of a ‘hermeneutics of the subject’, elements of which he published in Volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality. The 1980-84 lectures, for example in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, address issues that are broader than the question of sexuality, which has unfortunately come to circumscribe a lot of secondary literature on Foucault. I would associate this tendency in Foucauldian studies with the focus on the self since the 1970s, tied in with ego-psychologies, person-centered therapies, much of queer theory, and, generally, the grounding of social theory and politics on a concept of the individual as an autonomous, self-sufficient subject that function as foundation. Such a subject-centered ontology contributes to the displacement of the focus onto the individual, and identity politics and the reduction of gender politics to identity politics. Whilst these issues are politically relevant, it has also enabled neoliberal politics and ontology to occupy the terrain vacated by radical politics. Foucault’s lectures provide elements for re-thinking all this in the light of the present crisis in neoliberal capitalism and conservative environmentalism.
MF: How does the notion of biopolitics in Discipline and Punish differ from that in the Lectures?
CV: Discipline and Punish is an early-ish work with reference to the Lectures on political economy. It is still about the shift from the form of power he calls sovereignty, and which he says can in essence be expressed in terms of the unilateral right to kill, or to let live. So, DP is about biopower, or power over life. The way the book starts with the torture to death of the condemned is meant to illustrate in the starkest way possible this power over and ownership of the subject’s body by the sovereign. Biopolitics in the later work is about the shift in this form of power to one concerned with how the state can amplify the productive capabilities of the sovereign’s subjects, i.e, with the mechanisms and apparatuses that enable the state to take life in charge in order to make it more productive. We can call this a governmentalisation of biopower. And, because this governmentalisation is founded on the basis of the key principles of classical political economy – laissez-faire, minimum state intervention in the economy, legally and economically free individuals (well, propertied men at least), the growth of the wealth of the nation as prime objective – biopolitics cannot be dissociated from both this new idea of the state and from liberal capitalism. Biopolitics is thus also an economisation of biopower. This is why political economy becomes a focus in the lectures at the end of the 70s, a period when, interestingly, structural changes were happening in the real global economy. Different forms of power over life are involved in this shift. It is a big, if poorly understood difference.
Read the full interview here.