Foucault and the History of Our Present
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Foucault and the History of Our Present

S. Fuggle, Y. Lanci, M. Tazzioli, S. Fuggle, Y. Lanci, M. Tazzioli

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Foucault and the History of Our Present

S. Fuggle, Y. Lanci, M. Tazzioli, S. Fuggle, Y. Lanci, M. Tazzioli

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According to Michel Foucault, the 'history of the present' should constitute the starting point for any enquiry into the past. This collection considers the continued relevance of Foucault's work for thinking the history of our present and includes essays and interviews by Judith Butler, Judith Revel, Mark Neocleous, and Tiziana Terranova.

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Part I
Histories of the Present
‘What Are We At the Present Time?’ Foucault and the Question of the Present
Judith Revel
The starting point for the question of the present is Foucault’s triple reading, which today is very well known, of the Kantian text What is Enlightenment?. Foucault had been interested in the text since 1978, carrying out an extensive analysis at a talk given that year at the Societé Française de Philosophie. In this first reading, the attempt to distinguish critique on the one hand – as way of finding the limits of our capacity to know – and the Aufklärung on the other – as an attitude towards our own present – is still made in terms of a strong historical analysis. Foucault explicitly announces his intention to do ‘a history of this critical attitude’; and indeed, in the first reading, Foucault traces at least four moments, characterizing these in terms of their specificity of thought and practices, stressing their differences: the Christian pastoral, the explosion of the art of government ‘starting from the XV and the XVI Century’, the moment of the Enlightenment as the emergence of the ‘art of not being governed’ and then, in relation to a present more contemporary to Foucault, a certain number of references including, most notably, to the Frankfurt School. In similar fashion, alongside these chronological references which delineate his analysis, Foucault puts into play a differentiation of places – through the opposition ‘in Germany/in France’ – as if it is a question of redoubling the history of the systems of thought with a geography. Some years later it is precisely this quite traditional schema of Foucault’s work – proceeding through periodizations (and together, through a mutual differentiation of these periods) on the basis of the way in which they structure their economy of representations and practices – that seems to be inflected and reformulated along another axis: the relationship to our present. Indeed, in the two texts published in 1984 – one (published) in the US, the other in France – the mode of analysis shifts.
This appears on the surface to be a matter of engaging in the same exercise as in 1978, tracing the history of the way in which this event called ‘Aufklärung’ emerged at a certain time; it is an event that has redefined the practice of philosophy – and of the modernity within which that practice was situated – as a problematization of contemporary reality [actualité]. In the text published in the US, the first pages are dedicated, in a quite expected way, to the contextualization of Kant’s text (with reference made here to Mendelssohn and Lessing) and to classifying the ways in which philosophy had thought, until that time, about the theme of the present. Foucault finds three main forms, associated with three figures, that are in turn emblematic of three moments of the history of thought: Plato, Augustine and Vico. In the same way, in the text published in France in May 1984 – an extract from his lecture given at the Collège de France on 5 January 1983 – Foucault contends, apparently with no ambiguity, that
The Aufklärung is a period, it is a period which designates itself, formulates its own motto, its own precept, and says what it has to do, as much in relation to the general history of thought, reason, and knowledge as in relation to its own present and to the bodies and forms of knowledge, ignorance, illusion, and institutions, etcetera in which it can recognize its historical situation. [ ... ] In this question of the Aufklärung we see one of the first manifestations of a certain way of philosophizing which has had a long history over the following two centuries. After all, it does seem to me that one of the major functions of what is called ‘modern’ philosophy – whose beginning and development can be situated at the very end of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century – one of its essential functions is questioning itself about its own present reality [actualité] (Foucault, 2010: 14–15).
The quotation is clear, and the number of markers pointing to the need for a precise work of historicization – ‘period’, ‘general history’, ‘historical situation’, ‘long history’ and ‘beginning’ – exist to reassure us: we are fully within the Foucaultian methodology. It is the historical context – which does not exclude a certain thickness of time: we talk here of a medium length periodization since it is a question of describing a phenomenon ‘that has had a long history for two Centuries’ that is once again at the core of the reading suggested by Foucault. Besides, it is always against the background of a differentiation between consecutive epistemic forms that it is possible to retrace the emergence of the system of thought typical of a certain age. Thus, just as the analysis of madness in the Classical Age hinges on a quick recall of the figures of the mad during the Renaissance; just as The Order of Things starts with a description of the way in which the mediaeval thought still used to enmesh mythology and science, contrary to what was being constructed within the great realm of the scientific rationality and the taxonomy of knowledges associated with it; in a similar way, Discipline and Punish needs to start with the torture of Damiens in order to measure the distance that the disciplines had established with regard to the very idea of the exemplar punishment, in order to privilege the notion of surveillance, of the social orthopaedic and of the achievement of productive performances.
Here, in Foucault’s analyses, it is always also a question of working on the basis of the opposition between economies of thought. Thus, this game of oppositions is constructed starting from a historical periodization. But Foucault credits Kant himself with this method of differentiation between big epistemic ‘blocs’, that is analysis which sets out to measure the gaps that the historical inquiry enables us to retrace: ‘It is in the reflection on today as difference in history and as motive for a particular philosophical task that the novelty of this text appears to me to lie’ (Foucault, 2003: 309). What Kant finds out, Foucault suggests, is first of all the way in which the monogram of the Aufklärung is at the same time the philosophical care of the present and the procedure of differentiation which allows us to understand what we are on the very basis of what we are not anymore. Up to this point, everything happens as usual. However, it is not so simple.
In those same texts there is something at stake that is completely unexpected and that contradicts or troubles this procedure that we mentioned in its functioning. This factor consists precisely in a radical unhooking from the work of periodization and historicization.
Let’s listen to Foucault himself here:
I know that modernity is often spoken of as an epoch, or at least as a set of features characteristic of an epoch; situated on a calendar, it would be preceded by a more or less naive or archaic premodernity, and followed by an enigmatic and troubling ‘postmodernity’. And then we find ourselves asking whether modernity constitutes the sequel to the Enlightenment and its development, or whether we are to see it as a rupture or a deviation with respect to the basic principles of the eighteenth century. Thinking back on Kant’s text, I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity as an attitude rather than as a period of history. And by ‘attitude,’ I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality [actualité]; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. No doubt, a bit like what the Greeks called an ethos (Foucault, 2003: 309).
There are two points to be reformulated about this long quotation. What Foucault describes as a possible posture of research (‘I know that modernity is often spoken of as an epoch, or at least as a set of features characteristic of an epoch; situated on a calendar’) could be said also with reference to his own work. How did Foucaultian analysis progress if not precisely defining periodizations (epochs, ages) built on the basis of ‘characteristic marks’ in order to formulate their specificity? However, it seems that Foucault wants to get rid of precisely this. Here, it is no longer a question of simply limiting the work of analysis to an archaeology – the reconstruction of an isomorphism within history, namely, of a layer of past knowledges and practices: in other words, a system of thought built on a precise periodization; or to a genealogy, which, starting from the results of the archaeology, consists of an inquiry made, through differentiation, in the direction of our system of thought: an interrogation of the difference between past(s) and present. Rather, it is a question of introducing a third term: an ‘attitude’.
This attitude seems to be built beyond – or, in any case, independently of – this work of periodization that until this point founded the very possibility of the Foucaultian method. It no longer appears dependent on a history, and it instead operates at another level: it involves an ethics, Foucault tells us. But this ethics is not an object of archaeological inquiry, as it might be supposed to be – the meticulous reconstruction of the partitions enabling, at some point, a certain way of thinking and practising the ethics to emerge. Instead, it comes out of any possible specific reference to this or that configuration of thought. In the other version of the reading of What is Enlightenment? (from the 5 January lecture), Foucault turns the same idea around:
After all, the Aufklärung, both as singular event inaugurating European modernity and as a permanent process which manifests itself in the form of the history of reason, the development and establishment of forms of rationality and technology, the autonomy and authority of knowledge, all of this, this question of the Aufklärung – or of reason and the use of reason as a historical problem – seems to me to have run through all philosophical thought from Kant up to now (Foucault, 2010: 20).
Therefore, according to Foucault, the Kantian text invites a kind of questioning that traverses history rather than merely depending upon it. Everything happens as if it were necessary to reproduce different layers of thought and to render visible their specific characteristics – namely, to highlight the differences between different systems of past thought (archaeology); then, the basis of this work raises the problem of our own historical situation, or of our own system of representation, by stressing the difference between our own system of thought and previous ones (genealogy). All this in order to do an effort today, on the contrary, to think; henceforth, a form of philosophical interrogation that, taking the contemporary reality [actualité] as a material, interrogates itself less on the basis of existing difference between different pasts, or in relation to those pasts, than on the constancy of a ‘permanent process’, as Foucault puts it. And it is precisely here that the reading of Kant goes, at least in part, beyond its own context. Once again ‘the Aufklärung is more than simply an episode in the history of ideas’.1
What is this ‘exit from history’ based on? This is the second point we need to examine. It seems that, first of all, it is something linked to the displacement of the process of historical differentiation that, as emphasized above, was central to the Foucaultian methodology. To reiterate, the archaeological approach reconstructed the historical consistence of an isomorphism of thought on the basis of what it differentiates itself through its emergence – in this regard let’s call it the model of The Order of Things. Conversely, the genealogical approach consisted in extending this work of differentiation based on historical-epistemic blocs towards our present, with the precise intention of understanding the system of thought in which we are situated. More specifically, this constituted the general model of the courses given by Foucault at the Collège de France during the late 1970s: in these years, the inquiry on governmentality undertaken by Foucault is built on the upstream periodization initially announced – the Modern Age – in order to locate a caesura within it – the emergence of the arts of government, linked by Foucault to the emergence in the sixteenth century of an anti-Machiavellian literature – and downstream, on a close questioning of the dispositives of biopolitical governmentality in its different variants of neoliberalism in the twentieth century – particularly in Germany and the US.
In the first instance, we had the differences between past(s) and past(s) and, in the second, differences between past(s) and present. History was still the tool of differentiation, that is to say, as an instrument to circumscribe objects of thought and carve up different periods. Here, on the contrary, it is the link of the ‘work of the difference’ – or of what I have referred to elsewhere as the work of the thought of discontinuity – to history that is transformed. The suggestion comes probably from Kant or more precisely from the way in which Foucault chooses to read Kant:
Criticism indeed consists of analysing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question was that of knowing what limits knowledge has to renounce transgressing, it seems to me that the critical question today has to be turned back into a positive one: in what is given to us as universal necessary obligatory what place is occupied by whatever is singular contingent and the product of arbitrary constraints ? The point in brief is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression (Foucault, 2003: 315).
This turning point is so important that Foucault, in the same text, comes back to it three pages later, using an almost identical formulation:
The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them [de leur franchissement possible] (Foucault, 2003: 319).
Drawing on Foucault’s expression quoted above, the ‘difference in history’ (Foucault, 2003: 309) is played out between the present and what could deny it at any time, positing it outside of itself and opening it up to something other than what is already there. The difference is by now what could be imagined between a present that we belong to and a future and that is, at least in part, ours to construct. From this point of view Kant is useful to the extent that we bend the critical approach to the historical analysis – to which What is Enlightenment? belongs, as well as transcendental philosophy and ‘philosophical journalism’.2 But this approach is obviously not enough. In this displacement of the question of the critique from the standpoint of the present, there remains a lack. Missing here is the idea of a difference – that is, of a possible discontinuity – existing at the core of the present.
The introduction of the theme of the ‘possible difference’ is introduced via two elements central to the Foucaultian reflection. The first is merely lexical: it consists for Foucault in detaching the theme of the present from that of contemporary reality (actualité), distinguishing one from the other. This detachment between the two terms corresponds to a logic whose specificity is, here, absolutely clear. The present is to the contrary that which at any moment might interrupt this strange ‘state of equilib...

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