Friday, June 20, 2008

On Foucault's "Society Must Be Defended", Part one of a biopolitics of racism

These series of lectures exist in-between, they act as a bridge. These lectures occur as a link between The Abnormals lectures and the Security, Territory, and Population lectures (from which the essay “Governmentality” was taken).They also come in-between two of Foucault’s most famous published works: Discipline and Punish, which was published in February of 75, and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, which was published in October of 76. Most importantly, “Society Must Be Defended” comes is a bridge between two theoretical notions: disciplinary power on the one hand, and biopower on the other. If I pause to highlight the place these lectures have in Foucault’s intellectual history, it is not merely to show that I know the secret handshake of the freemasonary of useless erudition, but rather reveal exactly what is at stake in these lectures. The bridge that Foucault builds between sovereign power, disciplinary power, and biopower has as its plinth race struggle and state racism. Precisely because the theoretical stakes are so high, and precisely because without the bridge we are likely to find ourselves in intellectual pitfalls, I hope you all understand this inevitably palimpsestic focus on the counter-history of the race struggle.
Until relatively recently, which is to say the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, all occidental history was sovereign history. To be more explicit, history was an important ceremonial tool of sovereign power. History serves as an intensifier sovereignty. It glorifies and adds luster to power. History performs this function in two modes: (1)in a “genealogical” mode (understood in the simple sense of that term) that traces the linage of the sovereign. And (2) in a memorial mode that celebrates and glorifies every action that the sovereign makes. Therefore history, in this full Jupiterian enterprise, acts in tandem with sovereignty’s juridical power as a kind of white magic which seeks to bind and unite a subject, a people, under sovereign’s rule.
This sovereign history is a particularly Roman history. You can see it manifest in the work of the annalists and also in the work of Livy. (For those of you that remember your Livy, he said he wanted to write his history from the foundations of Rome. By which he meant the morality of Rome. For Livy, it was the Romans unique moral being that accounted for their ‘greatness’). And this history could be considered Roman long into the Middle Ages, because, or course, people thought of themselves as Romans still. But as I pointed out earlier, this type of history reaches a crisis in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
What emerges is a counter-history of race struggle or race war. By race, it is not meant some biological distinction, but rather certain cultural, linguistic, and/or religious differences. For example, think of about the differences between the Normans and the Saxons following the Battle of Hastings. But it isn’t just an understanding of racial differences that emerges with the Norman and Frankish invasions, but also a new conception of history. It is a counter-history that reveals if there are conquerors, there are those whom are conquered; if land and treasure are acquired, it is also land and treasure taken; and if there are battles won for some, then there must be battles lost for others. In short, if there are subjects of history, there must be the subjugated of history. As Foucault puts it on page 72
The role of counterhistory will, then, be to show that laws deceive, that kings wear masks, that power creates illusions, and that historians tell lies. This will not, then, be a history of continuity, but a history of deciphering, the detection of the secret, of the outwitting of the ruse, and of the reappropriation of a knowledge that has been distorted or buried. It will decipher a truth that has been sealed.
This counter-history does not come from amid the light and brilliance of the sovereign, but rather from the shadows where the discourses of the subjugated race resides. It is not coincidental that Subcommandante Marcos refers to the Zapatistas as “shadows of tender fury.” History is no longer Jupiterian but rather Janus-faced. The white magic of sovereignty is replaced by a black magic that uncovers the sovereign power of enslavement.
This counter-history is not Roman, but biblical. The biblical history serves not just to chart the oppression of a conquered people, but also served the dual purpose of a promise of an eschatological victory for the oppressed. The history built the foundations for a discourse about the end of the conquers and the victory of the minority race that were forced into submission. Therefore under the fa├žade of peace was this constant tension and threat of the race struggle, the great war that never ends. The State and all its tools, rather than being seen as the glorious unifier of people and guarantee of social stability was seen to have blood on its hands. The State was revealed to be an apparatus of constant oppression and military subjugation. Therefore this biblical historical discourse became the foundation for all occidental revolutionary rhetoric. Marx, in a letter to Engel in 1852, tells him that the basis for the class struggle was rooted in the French race struggle historians. But this is actually where the great change occurs.
When the rhetoric of the race struggle became replaced by the rhetoric for a class struggle, when race was specifically rejected as the focus of revolutionary struggle, it was actually in that moment that racism as we understand it was born. The State suddenly inverted the revolutionary discourse, filled the void where the race struggle had articulated the divisions of society. Power’s brilliant counterrevolutionary move was to produce this concern for racial purity that had not existed before. The State had first been legitimatised as a glorious unification of the social body, then delegitmized as an oppressive organ, only to find a new legitimization: the protection of the racial purity of society. At the heart of race struggle is a belief in the plurality of races, but at the heart of racism is the belief of the purity of one race. In short, racism is a discourse about “protecting” whole populations. Racism sees only one race that is important and true, all others become remainders (which eventually have to be solved for, as the Nazi’s showed). The State grounds itself in a discourse of defending society against racial otherness. It is not coincidental at all that it is during times of great social upheaval, during times in which the State’s existence is called into question, that we see the most vile and virulent discourse of racism emerge from the State.
So this counter-history of the race struggle is not a ground or guarantor of a libratory politics. To exemplify this Foucault ends his January 28th lecture with this question, “‘And what if Rome once more conquered the revolution?’” Or to state it in another way, “What if sovereignty acquires the counter-history?”. Considering counter-history is a biblical history, then, following Schmitt’s famous statement that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” we have the grounds for a biopolitical theology.