Foucault’s Risks

Editor’s note: On October 17–18, 2014, Yale University hosted a conference exploring the intellectual and political legacy of Michel Foucault. The Los Angeles Review of Books asked three Yale graduate students to respond to this conference by focusing on what Foucault means for them, as scholars and theorists beginning their careers.


WHEN JUDITH BUTLER came to Yale this month to speak at a conference on “Michel Foucault: After 1984,” she brought the police with her. Students and faculty packed the auditorium to see her, lining the walls and even the stage on which she spoke. If the overcrowded auditorium was a testament to the cult of Butler — echoing the cult of Foucault before her — it also posed a fire hazard. Butler’s public intellectualism became a public safety concern, ushering in campus security to keep the aisles clear. The “policing” of Yale’s Foucault conference was an irony lost on no one — least of all Butler, who made conspicuous eye contact with the officers when referring to Discipline and Punish.

Butler was one of seven scholars Yale invited to reassess Foucault’s legacy on the 30th anniversary of his death. Foucault’s impact on the American academy — on the methodologies and frames of reference available to scholars new and old — is unrivaled in its scope and endurance. It is hard to imagine fields like Gender Studies and Queer Studies without Foucault’s shaping influence. The so-called “historical turn” in the humanities, inspired by the New Historicism that Foucault’s dialogues with colleagues at Berkeley helped shape, has informed the expectations placed on graduate students for the past 20 years. Where students in literature departments might once have been asked “What’s your theory?” we are now far more likely to be asked “What’s your archive?” — a shift that bears traces of Foucault’s legacy.

Although Foucault’s work has mobilized diverse research agendas, his analysis of power has left some readers feeling immobilized. Foucault insists that we stop thinking of power as something possessed or exercised exclusively by some at the expense of others. Instead, he famously binds the question of power to that of knowledge, and vice versa. However, it has been unclear how a subject forged entirely within a regime of power-knowledge can put up any kind of fight against it. This feature of Foucault’s work has left him vulnerable to a series of critiques from the left. Many scholars and activists, committed to projects of political and social liberation, found in Foucault a form of crypto-conservatism, a new method of denying agency to subjugated and oppressed groups. For many students getting their feet wet in Foucault’s work today, his refrain that “there is no outside to power” provokes a desire for emancipatory politics while foreclosing its possibility.

Faced with a certain Foucault fatigue, one might have expected the conference to attempt a “return to Foucault” akin to Lacan’s “return to Freud” or Althusser’s “return to Marx.” But rather than a fresh look at well-worn texts whose insights into power now circulate as dogma and cliché, the speakers presented a new Foucault, based largely on writings that have only become available in English in the last few years.

At the time of his death, Foucault’s published works comprised 12 monographs, several edited volumes, and hundreds of essays, articles, and interviews. Foucault stipulated in his will that none of his manuscripts could be published posthumously: “Don’t pull the Max Brod-Kafka trick on me,” he told his friends. The executors of his estate made an exception for the recently published lectures on the grounds that they were delivered publicly and were allowed to be recorded.

At the heart of this new archive are the transcripts of 13 courses that Foucault offered between 1970 and 1984 in his capacity as professor of the “history of systems of thought” at the Collège de France. Lecture courses at the Collège are an opportunity for professors to present work in progress to the public, but Foucault’s lectures were not exactly rough drafts of otherwise published works. What emerges in the lectures is a deeper engagement than one finds in his books with questions of norms and normativity, the material circumstances of discursive utterance, the Middle Ages and the history of Christianity, and Enlightenment and the question of critique.

The most surprising and provocative revelations in the lectures, however, derive from two investigations conducted in Foucault’s last years: an astoundingly prescient engagement with neoliberalism, and an excavation of the ancient Greek and Roman practices of radical truth-telling (or parrhesia). It was to these two themes that the conference participants most often returned.

For many of them, the late lectures offer what seemed to have been missing in Foucault: a sustained reflection, in his own terms, on individual acts of resistance. Daniele Lorenzini, Judith Revel, and Etienne Balibar located a new practice of resistance in Foucault’s discussion of parrhesia. Literally meaning to “speak everything” and by extension to “speak freely and boldly,” parrhesia is a mode of truth-telling that seems to escape the disciplinary binds of Cartesian verification, Freudian free-association, and religious confession. Parrhesia’s distinction from these other models of truth-telling hinges on its relationship to risk. Foucault defined this relation in 1983:

So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk … More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself).

At the risk of death, the parrhesiast finds harmony between what he thinks and what he says — between what he says and his whole “way of life.” Radicalizing risk, parrhesia may disrupt the operations of power without pretending to elude them.

In a panel discussion featuring Butler and Revel, Butler questioned the language of risk, asking:

The term “risk” risks being appropriated by neoliberalism, which is the calculation of risks. Is there a way to think about risks that would perhaps be an incalculable risk? In other words, one that would exceed the neoliberal rationality.

As Butler’s question suggests, the notion of risk as a precondition for parrhesia is not without its discomforts in the context of Foucault’s discussion of neoliberalism. Indeed, the analysis of neoliberal rationality in Foucault’s 1978–79 lectures on the Birth of Biopolitics was another of the conference’s focal points. In those lectures, Foucault describes the emergence of homo economicus, the subject which brings the calculation of risk and return on investment to bear on all questions. The neoliberal extension of economic analysis into non-economic domains like child-rearing and education inflects not only the sorts of questions we ask about those domains — “Am I investing enough in my child to give her the skills and qualities that will make her an economically competitive adult? How well does her schooling prepare her for the job market?” — it also conceives of subjectivity itself in terms of human capital. Human potential becomes earning potential.

Writing in the same year that Thatcher was elected, Foucault described a nascent neoliberalism that we now experience in its mature state. For those of us born in a post-Reagan America, having operated within this system our whole lives, there can be no doubt that Foucault’s thinking describes our present. As graduate students, we’ve taken the risk of investing our human capital in an academic career. But if the ivory tower has always been derided for insulating itself from the so-called “real world,” that insulation seems to offer little protection from the realities of neoliberalism. The things that would seem most incommensurate with economic rationality — the rigor of our ideas and the quality of our teaching — are judged increasingly by economic standards.

The contours of the neoliberal university are by now as familiar to Chronicle of Higher Education subscribers as they are to readers of the New York Times. Humanities departments shrink while “career services” grow. Corporate funding for research blurs the lines between scholarly inquiry and product development. It also encourages scholars to end papers with some version of “more research is needed.” Tenured professors are replaced by adjuncts and graduate students. Faculty are evaluated and promoted according to a model of “discipline and publish.” Humanities majors are consoled that their writing skills will help them find a job that pays off their debt. Critique is marketed as critical thinking skills, while the humanities justify themselves as neoliberal arts. Foucault was one of the first and one of the best to explain the system of rationality and power in which we live. The question of “Foucault: After 1984” — and the question for those of us still engaged with his work — is whether he can help us get out of it.

Three days after the conference, more than 2,000 Yale students and New Haven community members rallied in support of unionization for graduate teachers and researchers. The demonstrators marched to the office of the president, demanding recognition of their rights as employees of the university. On the Facebook page for the event, one of its organizers posted a quote from Foucault’s lectures on parrhesia. This model of frank and fearless speech provided a rallying cry. But between the parrhesiast, the courageous individual living a life commensurate with his truth, and a mass mobilized for political action, there lies a gap yet to be bridged.

Foucault’s analysis of the double bind of power-knowledge did not inhibit his own political activity. He protested human rights abuses, advocated on behalf of dissidents from Vietnam and the Eastern Bloc, and defended the rights of prisoners and homosexuals. Do these actions amount to parrhesiastic resistance? Does parrhesia help reconcile Foucault’s thought with his activism? Does it provide a theoretical foundation for our own? More research is needed.


Susan Morrow is a PhD student in Germanic Languages and Literature at Yale University.

Peter Raccuglia is a PhD student in the English department at Yale University.

Anna Shechtman is a student in Yale’s dual PhD program in English Literature and Film and Media Studies.