The publication in English of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France in 1977-1979 has opened a new window for understanding the development of his late work. These lectures marked a “return” to a number of topics that Foucault had previously dealt with in negative terms (such as political government and liberalism) as well as the introduction of critical new concepts, such as biopolitics. These lectures also marked a striking methodological break, as Foucault’s analysis of power became significantly more nuanced, emphasizing the layering of techniques, institutions, and forms of reflection that comprise specific apparatuses.
Topologies of Power
I analyzed the methodological shifts in Foucault’s late work in “Topologies of Power,” published in Theory, Culture, and Society (also discussed in an interview with Simon Dawes on the TCS blog). According to one dominant interpretation, Foucault’s return to an analysis of political government and liberalism, and his introduction of “biopolitics,” did not entail a fundamental methodological break; the approach he had previously developed in his work on knowledge/power was simply applied to new objects. In contrast, “Topologies of Power” argued that this reading—which is colored by the overwhelming privilege afforded to Discipline and Punish in secondary literature—obscures an important modification in Foucault’s method and diagnostic style that occurred between the introduction of biopolitics in 1976 (in Society Must Be Defended) and the lectures of 1978 (Security, Territory, Population) and 1979 (Birth of Biopolitics). Foucault’s initial analysis of biopolitics was couched in surprisingly epochal and totalizing claims about the characteristic forms of power in modernity. The later lectures, by contrast, suggest what I call a ‘topological’ analysis that examines the ‘patterns of correlation’ in which heterogeneous elements—techniques, material forms, institutional structures and technologies of power—are configured, as well as the redeployments through which these patterns are transformed. The article suggests that attention to the topological dimension of Foucault’s analysis changes our understanding of key themes in his late work, most importantly, the theme of biopolitics. Biopolitics should be understood not as a total diagnosis of modernity but as a problem space in which various topological arrangements of power relationships can be observed. I put this methodological approach into practice in Post-Soviet Social, which traced Soviet social modernity and post-Soviet reforms as topological mutations of prior forms.
Liberalism and Critique
Post-Soviet Social also began to explore another element of Foucault’s late work, the shift, as Andreas Folkers has recently put it, from the use of genealogy as critique to a genealogy of critique. Foucault increasingly constituted thinking not as an “episteme” or “discourse” but as active reflection on existing ways of understanding and knowing. From this perspective, I have tried to analyze neoliberalism not as an abstract system that proposes a radical alternative to more government-centered forms of rule, but as a critical reflection that aims to rework elements of the social state. Thus, in Post-Soviet Social I tried to recapture neoliberalism not as a static set of policies or as an element of a hegemonic project but as a critical reflection on the social state that aimed to critically assess but also partly rearticulate the norms of social welfare. More recently, in“Neoliberalism and Natural Disaster” (Journal of Cultural Economy, 2014) I show that neoliberal reflection on flood policy did not aim to do away with the government commitment to security, but sought to re-craft the accommodations among individual choice, market mechanisms, and government security mechanisms. I explored these themes more explicitly in a recent talk at McGill University: “Second Thoughts on ‘The Death of the Social’: Neoliberalism as Critique.”