CSA Panel Abstracts

Critical Perspectives on Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics: Papers from the Foucault Society’s 2008-09 Seminar Series

Thursday, March 18, 2:00–3:45pm. (Session 2, T2-J)

Chair: Michael Jolley (Doctoral Candidate in Sociology, The Graduate Center, CUNY)


Presenter: Jeff Bussolini (Associate Professor of Sociology, College of Staten Island, CUNY)
Title: “The Role of Husserlian Phenomenology in the Genesis of German Ordoliberalism”
Abstract: One of the most startling aspects of Michel Foucault’s historical genealogy of neoliberalism in his 1979 lecture course Naissance de la biopolitique is his close account of the conceptual and personal influence of Edmund Husserl on the key members of the ‘Freibourg School’ of economists (the Ordoliberals). This group of economists explicitly based central aspects of their economic theory on ideas drawn from Husserl. Foucault indicates that members of this group, such as Walter Eucken, Franz Böhm, Alfred Muller-Armack, and Wilhelm Röpke, drew important personal and conceptual influence from Husserl and cited various works of his–in some cases, like Eucken, they sought to transpose Husserlian phenomenology into a new model for economics. In addition, they occupy a decisive historic position in terms of having opposed National Socialism, and anti-semitism, as well as arguing for a new understanding of German political economy and statecraft after the war. The new understanding of statecraft they proposed was one according to which state legitimacy and political sovereignty was derived from the economic market, rather than a pre-existing presumption of authority. This represents an important turn from concepts of political authority and sovereignty that emphasize it first and foremost, with sovereignty either antecedent to the economy or subsuming it, as in the model of the ‘economic sovereign.’ Nonetheless, and here the influence of Husserl is crucial, the Ordoliberals did not argue for a naturally existing, or naturally operating free market, but for a market that required continual and precise state interventions to ensure the ‘framework’ of the market. It is as such that they are distinguished from the American neoliberals of the ‘Chicago School,’ and that economists from the Ordoliberal and Vienna tradition were among the first and most pointed voices to raise warnings about the current credit crisis.
       In addition to the crucial middle chapters of Foucault’s course on Biopolitics, this current is also addressed in François Bilger’s La pensée économique libérale dans l’Allemagne contemporaine (Librarie générale de droit et de jurisprudence, Paris, 1964); in Jean François-Pomcet’s La pensée économique libérale dans l’Allemagne contemporaine (Sirey, Paris, 1970); and Patricia Commun’s L’Ordoliberlisme Allemande: aux sources de l’économie sociale de marche (CIRAC/CICC, Paris, 2003).

Presenter: Aaron Weeks (Doctoral Candidate in Sociology, The Graduate Center, CUNY)
Title: “Foucault and Freudo-Marxism: Contextualizing The Birth of Biopolitics
Abstract: This paper attempts to contextualize Foucault’s lectures of 1978-9 by situating them within a broader shift in Foucault’s thought. It will be argued that this text, along with others from this period, represents an attempt on Foucault’s part to challenge the prevailing theoretical framework of the post-war period: Freudian-Marxism. This challenge comes in the form of a historical critique of discourses which, for Foucault, have lost touch with contemporary relations of force, failing to ‘pay the price of reality’ along their way to becoming ‘totalitarian theories’. Foucault’s distinction between an ‘analytics of truth’ and a ‘critical ontology of the present’ can serve as a starting point for understanding how Foucault’s methodology leads him to part ways with popular theories of the day, most notably those of Deleuze and Guattari. It will be argued that The Birth of Biopolitics should be read as part of Foucault’s more general critique of a theory of power as repression, itself a thin veil of the theory of sovereignty. More specifically, it should be read as part of an engagement with an historical reality whose horizon is no longer that of Oedipus—Fascism but Neo-liberalism.

Presenter: Rachel Schiff (Doctoral Candidate in Sociology, The Graduate Center, CUNY)
Title: “Subjectivity and Governance in Childrearing Discourse”
Abstract: In his College de France lectures, Foucault discusses technologies of governmentality that take as their object the relationship between subjects and populations and their environments (Security, Territory, Population, 45; Birth of Biopolitics, 259). One important function of these modes of governmentality is to make both subjects and populations as receptive as possible to environmental factors. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault further develops what this looks like in American neoliberal society, in which the ideal subject is a man of enterprise. The man of enterprise is not a consumer or a capitalist so much as he is a laborer who produces himself as human capital. His receptivity to environmental variables manifests itself in an ability to calculate the costs and benefits of his own behavior; it is precisely this ability which subjects him to economic laws of competition (146-147, 241).
       I would like to discuss the enterprise man in relation to new models of subjectivity being developed in mainstream American parenting discourse. In a parenting milieu largely influenced by attachment theory, warm physical contact between parents and children (i.e. holding, nursing, sharing a bed) is supposed to socialize children to be calm, sensitive, and attuned to their human and physical environments (the parents acting in part as “facilitating environments”). High levels of physical and emotional responsiveness in the home are said to create children who are happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. In fact, it is difficult to find a repressive, disciplinary moment in the attachment schools of parenting; the theory seems to be about allowing the child’s energy to flourish, without curbing it.
       At the same time, these techniques serve as investments in children’s human capital, methods functioning to help make children receptive to economic laws of competition as producers, not necessarily consumers, of their own well-nurtured affects. As Jonathan Cutler pointed out in his talk at the last CSA conference, in Foucault’s account of enterprise society, warm social bonds are formed precisely in order to facilitate the cold logic of competition (242). Rather than arguing that the cold logic of competition has intruded on an otherwise warm domestic space, Foucault’s analysis invites us to raise questions about the relationship between intimacy, openness or receptivity to our surroundings, and governmentality. We may ask whether highly attuned subjects are necessarily more vulnerable to governmentality, or whether these new trends in socialization may be increasing subjects’ vulnerability to affect to such an extent that governmentality becomes difficult.

Presenter: Jonathan Cutler (Associate Professor of Sociology and American Studies, Wesleyan University)
Title: “Foucault, Deleuze and the Politics of Real Subsumption”
Abstract: For several years, Michel Foucault’s move toward a post-disciplinary understanding of governance has been understood in relation to the idea of a post-disciplinary “society of control” suggested by Gilles Deleuze. The recent translation and publication of Foucault’s lectures on biopower suggest that there may be important differences between biopolitical governmentality and a society of control. One way to understand the differences between these two notions of governance beyond discipline is to suggest that Foucault’s work represents a significant but productive departure from a more traditional Marxist understanding of the processes made manifest in the real subsumption of labor.