Monday, June 13, 2011

Foucault Effect

Twenty years ago, and after Foucault had been dead for nearly seven years, a book titled The Foucault Effects: Studies in Governmentality was published (by Chicago, at least in the US). For me it had a powerful effect, renewing my interest in following Foucault's leads in analyzing institutions of confinement and control in contemporary society, and offering me a new set of tools for analyzing a face of power less visible in Foucault's masterpiece studies of prison, the asylum, and the clinic; the forms of power that are exercised on the relations among people and groups of people, forms of power that are often the domain of government (although not always within the state as such).

Reading Foucault's work with my undergraduate mentor, Hubert L. Dreyfus, and later engaging with Foucault at Berkeley in the research seminars that were set up through Bert and Paul Rabinow, had set me on a course of interest modern institutions of control which I pursued through a dissertation on parole and the social control of the underclass. With Foucault's death, however, the sense of a research enterprise that I found so exciting in both the work and the man, were quickly being replaced by the processes of intellectual ossification in which a living scholar is transformed into part of a canon, whether of sociology, philosophy, history, or literary studies. The Foucault Effect, which combined a piece of one of Foucault's most celebrated lecture courses at the College de France (then almost completely unavailable, certainly in English, now much of them have thankfully been published) with both commentary and substantive research work by some of his students, for me shattered the crystalline structure of concepts which cannon debate about Foucault was producing and once again liberated the will to use the tools rather than define them (not that conceptual work isn't valuable, only that it is far more so when frequently honed in the business of interpreting the present).

Last month I had the chance to participate in a conference at Birkbeck College of the University of London, celebrating the book, and bringing together some of its original contributors and editors, along with others whose work was inspired by that effect. For me it was a great moment to meet and thank the editors and contributors who have been and continue to be instrumental in bringing the oral expression of Foucault, his interviews and lectures, to an English readership. I used my time to reflect on some features of the transformational Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata. Thanks to the fantastic IT people at Birkbeck, and the Backdoor Broadcasting Company, this entire day and half of presentations and discussions is now available for streaming in excellent audio, here.

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