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War against Biopower - Timely Reflections on an Historicist Foucault

From: Theory & Event
Volume 13, Issue 1, 2010

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What happened to the world after the War and the War's aftermath? Normality! In a state of normality [...] one does not look around. Man tends to fall asleep; he forgets how to think, to judge, to ask himself who he is. This is when the state of emergency is discovered and artificially created by poets - poets, those ever-indignant champions of intellectual rage and philosophical fury.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 19621

Is war an appropriate metaphor for understanding politics? What is at stake in any particular understanding of the relationship between war and politics? What happens when war is banned, excluded, removed from the political sphere? These are the central questions through which we want to read the series of lectures that Foucault decided to propose to the public of the College de France in the winter of 19762 . Expanding on his early engagement with issues of power and its relationship with war and the military institution, which had found its first synthesis in the pages of Discipline and Punish, Foucault now attempted to pose directly the question of war as a general paradigm of power relations shaping the forms and principles of our modern political orders. While recognizing that an ontological claim regarding the war-like nature of power had been a central methodological axes in the development of his work throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the specific aim of Society must be defended was to investigate the genealogy of this particular discourse, following its historical development and praising its political efficacy: "How, when and why it was first noticed or imagined that what is going on beneath and in power relations is a war? [...] Well I would like to both trace the history of this discourse and to praise it"3 . This course represents for us a strategic juncture from which to look at the overall trajectory of Foucault's reflections on power. Not only because it sheds light on the complex intellectual relationship he entertained with the discourse of historicism - that theoretical tradition which first imagined power as the continuation of war - but also because it represents an early attempt to confront the problem of biopower - then further discussed in the three volumes of the History of Sexuality - and the complex relationships that knit together sovereignty, war and biopolitics after the XVIII century. These lectures, moreover, allows us to make better sense of the political project imbued in Foucault's reflections on power: the relationship between his genealogical project and his endorsement of "minor politics"; his radical opposition to the 'neutralizing' discourses of the juridical sciences; his critical stance against orthodox Marxism, aimed at illuminating the need for a new historicism that, moving beyond dialectical materialism, may allow a radical confrontation with the twin abysses of the political and of the biopolitical, which otherwise threaten to reduce the practice of resistance either to irrelevance or to a new conservative science4 .

This course, then, may be read within the framework of what Foucault called his "circular project". On the one hand, introducing "historicism" - in place of "contractualism" and "dialectical materialism" - as a general matrix for understanding power, Foucault opened a space for a different reading of history, a space that might allow us to see that "secret war" which spirals continuously through society and that is usually carefully hidden from our gaze. On the other hand, he brings forward an historical examination that, tracing the dynamic transformations continuously recoding the haphazard nature of power relations, reveals the process through which power has in fact ceased to work according to classical understandings of law and sovereignty, a transformation that confront us with the urgent question of how to understand and how to confront power after the end of the "classical era" 5 .

The following article will try to sketch three fundamental junctures of Foucault's analysis of power. In the first part, I will try to draw a general synthesis of Foucault's understanding of power relations and their relationship with war, with particular reference to his extended engagement with the bellicose discourse of modern historicism. In the second part it will be necessary to confront historicism with the combined challenges posed by the "discourse of...

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