Reading through Security, Territory, and Population, I’m reminded of a line in David Graeber’s Commoner article about the post-operaisti:

[O]ddly, all of the speakers [Bifo, Lazzarato, Negri, and Ravel] in question subscribed to the theory that history should be conceived as a series of complete conceptual breaks, so total, in fact, that it’s hard to see how this would be possible. In part this is the legacy of Marxism, which always tends to insist that since capitalism forms an all-encompassing totality that shapes our most basic assumptions about the nature of society, we simply cannot conceive what a future society would be like. (Though no Marxist, oddly, seems to think we should have similar problems trying to understand past societies.) In this case, though, it is just as much the legacy of Michel Foucault, who radicalized this idea of a series of all-encompassing historical stages even further with his notion of epistemes: that the very conception of truth changes completely from one historical period to the next. Here, too, each historical period forms such a total system that it is impossible to imagine one gradually transforming into another; instead, we have a series of conceptual revolutions, of total breaks or ruptures.

Foucault addresses this silly claim directly in STP, as he has elsewhere, both explicitly and implicitly:

So, there is not a series of successive elements, the appearance of the new causing the earlier ones to disappear. There is not the legal age, the disciplinary age, and then the age of security. Mechanisms of security do not replace disciplinary mechanisms, which would have replaced juridico-legal mechanisms. In reality you have a series of complex edifices in which, of course, the techniques themselves change and are perfected, or anyway become more complicated, but in which what above all changes is the dominant characteristic, or more exactly, the system of correlation between juridico-legal mechanisms, disciplinary mechanisms, and mechanisms of security. In other words, there is a history of the actual techniques themselves.

It’s hard to know what to make of Graeber’s insistence that Foucault insists on complete historical fissures when he clearly doesn’t and instead notes how different elements combine in different ways in different times and spaces. Like Graeber’s seeming half-understanding of Lazzarato’s work on immaterial labor, it might just be an instance of not reading closely enough. But I also can’t shake the feeling that arguments against the locating of epochal transformations, especially phantom ones, are often a plea for recognizing continuity and that changing appearances aside capital remains essentially the same. And all the guarantees and, um, security that come with that.


6 thoughts on “Epochal

  1. yes but the problem is for any quote you can find where Foucault says one thing I can find three more where he says exactly the opposite. Foucault kept changing his positions or even epistemic assumptions all the time and he also was never so stupid as claim there are no continuities whatever (though in Les Mots et Les Choses he often comes awfully close), so he’d throw in an acknowledgment here and there and then go on to argue whatever he wanted to argue anyway. Actually Foucault was the master of the technique of saying, say, “this is not an idealist argument but…” and then making what seems in every other way an idealist argument.

    At least he was subtle about it. Those who take up his ideas are usually much cruder. Because if Foucault says “there is not the disciplinary age, then the age of security…” (etc) people like Negri and Lazzarato say _exactly_ that, and frequently. Maybe rather than rag on Graeber for calling them on this you should be asking why they seem incapable of properly reading Foucault.

  2. DG: Why assume Negri, Lazzarato, etc. are pretending to be Foucault? Taking up a problem does not necessarily entail taking up a conceptual matrix. Negri, for instance, differs from Foucault in many important ways – so many that I feel shocked that that needs to be pointed out. Why reduce one to the other? You’ll only come out with a distorted vision of both and wind up in confusion about what, e.g., “security” (or any other theme held in common) is and does for each, in each project or program. “Properly reading Foucault” means criticizing Foucault and correcting him, and only sometimes confirming him (usually in the realm of the “big picture”). The important readers of Foucault do exactly this, engaging him on the level of his problems, the problems he created or developed – and putting them into variation by relating them to different phenomena and problems inexistent in Foucault’s own time. Negri is clearly one of these important readers, precisely because he does the opposite of what you suggest.

    Apologies for any caustic tone – but people studying Foucault et al ought to be suspicious of themselves when they begin thinking along the lines of “properly” “reading.” Nothing has been more thoroughly brought into question than these notions and their cousins.

  3. Ah, so then you think that Lazzarato is in fact “correcting” Foucault when he interprets him in the way Graeber says that Lazzarato is interpreting him (ie, as talking about a series of stages marked by fundamental breaks in just the way your Foucault cite says not to)? But you are also saying he’s “correcting” him incorrectly? But this makes Graeber wrong, but not Lazzarato?

    I see. It all makes sense now.

  4. Maybe a distinction to be made here — and maybe this is too easy and not even very helpful — is this: reading for creation and reading for correction. Or maybe that’s too oppositional. But I like Kyle’s point, or at least part of what I take him to be getting at, about infidelity. Using Foucault, or whoever, as a springboard but modifying them as needed, a reading for creation.

    Of course, my post in general is probably a corrective reading. Correcting the correction, I guess. But what I had hoped to get at a bit was the effect of the original correction, which in this case I think is a conservatizing one: insisting on capital’s continuity, not arguing against, e.g., Lazzarato’s concepts so much as pointing out error and emphasizing their personal messianism, etc.

  5. If by using simplicity and reductionism we get to discount the idea of systemic change, then: Down with the Revolution. It won’t succeed.

    This may be the implicit suggestion in arguments like Graeber. It’s different from the apologist in that it doesn’t need to weigh the good and bad about the system. It simply relies on an argument of practicability: It can’t be done, so don’t bother.

    I doubt, however, if arguments like this come out consciously, as though planned. When one is inside the system that encourages precisely this kind of thinking (simplicity, reductionism, partial knowledge but systematic ignorance), then it is all too easy to deploy such critiques, esp. if one identifies with what s/he is defending. Why don’t we use a Marxist term to undermine Graeber’s argument here: Fetishism. Or a Foucaultian one: Power/Knowledge.

  6. hi Eric,

    I started a comment but it got so long I felt it was rude to leave it here and instead put it up as a blog post. Hope you’re well.

    take care,

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