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  • Deleuze and Foucault: Series, Event, Genealogy
  • C. Colwell (bio)

Although the term ‘genealogy’ is most closely associated with Nietzsche and Foucault it is Judith Butler who gives us the clearest, or at least most succinct, definition: “...genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin.” Here Butler specifies the goal of tracing the lines of descent that run between identity categories, institutions, practices, discourses and multiple points of origin. Defining the practice of genealogy is another story. In an earlier time we might have searched for a method that specified how we applied the practice of genealogy to particular problems, how we applied the theory to a field of investigation. To a great extent, this is no longer possible in the wake of contemporary criticisms of the very notion of method. Indeed, one might well claim that anything that achieves the goal outlined above is genealogy, that genealogy is defined or identified by its effects instead of something intrinsic to the process itself.

Nonetheless, at the risk of being caught essentializing the inessential, I would like to try to think about what genealogy is apart from its goals. Specifically, I would like to bring to bear on the notion of genealogy a couple of concepts deployed by Gilles Deleuze, those of series and event. Briefly, my argument will be that genealogy functions by decomposing the particular series along which events have been organized in order to create a different series for those events. To put it another, no less idiomatic, way, genealogy counter-actualizes events, returns to the virtual structure of events, in order to re-actualize them in another manner. If history is the collective memory of a particular social group then genealogy is a counter-memory composed of the same elements repeated and arranged in a different manner.

Let me set the stage by briefly rehearsing parts of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. In each case what we find is an overturning of the accepted reading of a series of events, the overturning of a collective memory. In Essay I of the Genealogy Nietzsche attacks two key concepts of Western Christian thought, the primacy of good from which humanity turns in its fall into evil and the primacy of divine love as the ground of Christianity. With regard to the first, Nietzsche breaks the series of events that grounds both Judaism and Christianity by denying its origin, i.e., Nietzsche elides the central myth of the Garden as the ‘good’ beginning and the Fall as the origin of evil. In its place Nietzsche begins the series with the conquering of Judea by the Romans and the consequent constitution of evil as the (all too human) response on the part of the Jews. Following this, Nietzsche argues that the hatred directed at conquerors (Egyptian or Roman) that characterizes much of Jewish thought is repeated in the Christian era, for example in the concept of eternal damnation. Nietzsche replaces divine love with human hatred as the grounding structure of Christianity.

Foucault likewise overturns the accepted reading of the shift from torture to imprisonment. In the traditional interpretation (mythologized in the phrase ‘cruel and unusual punishment’) power structures become more humane in the wake of the Enlightenment. Likewise, the Enlightenment produces a diminishment in the power exercised over populaces. But, much as he did with regard to the mad (in Madness and Civilization) Foucault argues that there is less a decrease in the exercise of power than a shift of aims and strategies. Instead of simply attending to the series torture-reform-imprisonment Foucault correlates this series with others, most notably the multiple series of the development of disciplinary technologies in the military, the monastery, the school, the hospital and the factory. What is interesting here is that it is the relation between these series that enables the correlative re-cognition of each as modalities of increasingly coercive forms of power.

What I want to suggest is that it is the shift in the way events are serialized, the way that they are...

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