Foucault, Politics, and Violence :A reading of chapter 1 of Johanna Oksala’s book


One of the great ideas that must be traversed in any post-human or emancipatory politics is the idea of violence.  Do all political projects become perverted into a thanatopolitics?  Here I will trace Oksala’s trajectory by going chapter by chapter with notes and commentary on the text.

Chapter 1  Politicization of Ontology

Oksala states that she will be arguing in this chapter for the importance of “ontological inquiry in political philosophy”.  She feels that ontology and politics are unable to be separated.  Let me move on from the many arguments that have been presented on this question because this will bring me to a much longer post than I have intended.  However, if you want to go down that rabbit hole for a bit you can start here .  Oksala defines her term when she is speaking of political ontology however by stating it is a “politicized conception of reality”.  She takes some of the ideas of Michel Foucault that starts with the premise that “power is everywhere”.

For Foucault all social practices contain or incorporate power relations, something he would even call capillary power relations which allows the entire edifice to run.  Foucault in an interview once stated he is not a relativist as he has been charged so often with and he explained that if he had a child and this child was writing on the walls he of course would tell the child to stop and not allow the walls to be written on.  For Foucault we need to question these relations and how these relations become sedimented into our discursive and non discursive practices.  This is what Oksala is doing in chapter 1 as well, she is thinking against any essentialist notions of politics or the political or again as Foucault would state “nothing is fundamental”.

girl wall

Within these social practices that are performed new objects are created (never a priori) and new concepts are created which creates subjects (ie. a sick, an insane person).  As Oksala writes Foucault “attributes to Nietzsche the claim that there is no natural or necessary resemblance, no a priori affinity between knowledge and the things that are known”.  In this sense we have a historical ontology.  Within these relations we conceive of a reality, “power produces, it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth”.

Oksala tells us that for Foucault the term governmentality has two meanings:

1. In 1978 lectures she states that Foucault meant this term to mean the techniques of government that allowed the formation of the state

2. 1979 and onward it took on the meaning of an “analytical grid for relations of the state”.

However, Foucault often criticized the simplicity in the argument to just demonize the state.  For Foucault the state is not a transcendental entitity that exist with its own logic and essence much believed in early political thought perhaps as he writes in his essay governmentality before Machiavelli’s  The Prince.  Foucault taking this a step further explains to us that “the state is a practice” much like the idea of Machiavelli’s in which to be a prince requires a certain performativity.  However for Oksala and Foucault this performativity is exactly how we come to feel that reality is a given unchangeable necessity.

For Foucaut, “The common world is already a sedimentation of power relations and not simply a given and objective space containing the plurality of individuals who inhabit it”.  I found this statement striking in that we see a particular geological reference that we find a lot of in Deleuze’s A Thousand Plateaus of rhizomatic networks where Deleuze is trying to purge the sedimenation of power relations that Foucault systematically showed us in his genealogical writing.

Oksala then begins to explain to us in a Gramscian/Foucault fashion that since the “ontological order of things is inevitably the expression of hegemonic power relations–then the differing interpretations of the world, social order, and human life cannot, in principle be reconciled in a harmonious and homogenous unity (32)  I feel this is one of the major points in this chapter because it begins to show us that in order to think ourselves out of violence it will require us to traverse the binary either/or way we form our world or  a master/slave dialectic where the master needs the slave as much as the slave needs the master.

Wrapping up this chapter Oksala begins to write about what she terms the “ubiquity of the political”.  As Foucault and now Agamben theorize the separation between a political life and a life seems to have blurred into a zone of indistinction in which ” modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (History of Sexuality Volume I)  As Agamben has explained often, he in a way is doing the same project that Foucault worked on, the idea of ‘problematization’.  Why exactly do certain forms of behavior become problematized, which means why are these practices subject to what he would called disciplinary society–a society built around structures of power such as the prison, hospital, etc?  Oksala with Foucault, Agamben and others seems to be heading in the direction of calling into question these idea of violence and politics necessary and allowing us to see that only within the current structural apparatus do we have this inevitable political violence.  We must contest necessity in favor of contingency.  Looking forward to chapter 2.

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Violence and the Biopolitics of Modernity

Excellent paper by Johanna Oksala   Violence and the Biopolitics of Modernity

It is my contention that the violence of modern biopolitical societies is not due to some originary ties between sovereign power and biopower, as Agamben claims.  Sovereign states use biopolitical methods of violence, but this violence is not originary or necessary aspect of political power (Johanna Oksala)


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Why Foucault Reads Machiavelli and Why We Should Too

Ernst Cassirer wrote that with Machiavelli, “we stand at the gateway of the modern world”.  A text (The Prince) that was written in 1513 still stands to asks the modern political reader not only the Foucaultian question of how the relationship between power and rule should function but even the more fundamental question: is it possible to govern without slipping into a particular binary option of either/or?  First let us review in detail what Michel Foucault had to say about The Prince in his lecture Governmentality.

Foucault begins the lecture explaining that in the Middle Ages and classical antiquity treatises focused on topics such as: proper conduct, exercise of power, love of God, respect of his (princes) subjects.  He finds in The Prince a shift in direction to a more general “art of government”– the questions pertain to who should be ruled, by whom, and what mode of government or as Foucault writes the main point of exegesis is, “the problematic of Government in general”.  To this day The Prince seems to have many interpreters and many interpretations, but for Foucault it was more interesting to ask how did Machiavelli’s text speak to the political thought of the day and how it changed all other political thought after it was written.

As Foucault tells us the authors that rejected the treatise believed that there is an internal logic to governing based on rationality and there is no need to invoke the prince within this logic.  For the realist Machiavelli the prince’s power is synthetic and no longer relies on a decree from God for power, but instead it seems he must rely on the idea that he is a singularity and transcendent above his principality.  The art of ruling will always be tested or under threat from outside this singularity from enemies or usurpers.  Foucault writes that for Machiavelli, “the objective to the exercise of power is to reinforce, strengthen, and protect the principality”. The objects for Machiavelli’s Prince is the relation of the prince to what he owns, such as the territory he has acquired or come to own by other means, and his subjects.  The Prince is about keeping his principality without consideration of some normative morality, for Machiavelli to rule means to separate yourself from any moral precept and to do what is necessary in order to keep the principality/territory.

To reinforce what has already been said the “objects” for Machiavelli are : territory and its inhabitants.  Territory is important in The Prince and then after in which we find the idea of juridical sovereignty, but this idea changes according to Foucault with the ideas of Guillaume de La Perriere which “foreshadowed the ideas of governmentality”.  For Perriere governing territory is not mentioned but instead one governs objects or things such as men, and men’s relation with such things as wealth, resources, and how to sustain the daily operations of a household.  This is where we find the important idea of “essential circularity” which states that people should obey the law because it is good for the totality, which in turn makes it good for the individual.

Now to move away from the rest of Foucault’s lecture which begins to talk about how the idea of “economy” and political economy enters the lexicon we will instead shift our focus on Machiavelli in order to come to some conclusion on the question I first posed on this post.  Machiavelli in his Discourses shows us that he is an idealistic Republican and felt that the citizens of a modern state should self rule, but as a philosopher Machiavelli understood that in some sense that of Hobbes that man was a wolf to man and he had “little esteem for men”. (Cassirer)  Machiavelli understood that the political life is not a life for all men Aut Caesar aut nihil (Either Caesar or nothing).  This is perhaps the least modern thing Machiavelli writes because the line between private and political life is slowly becoming indistinguishable.  However here he writes:

A prince out to know how to resemble a beast as well as a man, upon occasion: and this is obscurely hinted to us by ancient writers who relate that Achilles and several other princes in former times were sent to educated by Chiron the Centaur; that as their preceptor was half-man and half-beast, they might be taught to imitate both natures since one cannot long support itself without the other

So according to Machiavelli the prince must become beast like in order to rule.  In our own epoch it is hard to see the prince of any principality who does not have a touch of the beast within decisions they are making.  This is the complex problem that we must contend with which makes Machiavelli striking modern in the sense we must still ask why Kant turns into Sade.  The problem of the human at its most basic foundation must come under careful scrutiny simply because of this dichotomy of man/animal which pits one against each other, it allows room for one to blend into the other in a mutual continuum.  The hierarchy of any prince must be distributed across a network of actors in which no hierarchy takes precedent over another which was termed in a sense a cyborgian ontology where dichotomies are blurred and hierarchies are eradicated, however, and this perhaps is where theory and praxis, or the reason Foucault read Machiavelli in the first place becomes essential: when the hierarchies come armed in order to keep his principality exactly the way it has been established in the West will we return fire or throw Marx’s volume of Capital at them?

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Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms Differences and Relations

Excellent article written by

Francesca Ferrando
Columbia University


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Notes on Agamben’s theory of destituent power

Originally posted on Society and Space - Environment and Planning D:

CHRONOS_2013_Agamben_Lecture_Athens-620x465 Philippe Theophanidis has put together some useful notes on Agamben’s theory of destituent power at the Aphelis blog . These are based on a lecture delivered in Greece which shares some common material with the longer piece translated in the current issue of Society and Space . The  Society and Space article is part of a theme section, all of which is open access for a month, along with some permanently open access material on this site .

As Philippe suggests:

The Athens lecture… represents a very good complement to this more elaborate essay, especially in regard to the treatment it offers on the topics of security and biometric technologies.

His post is useful in talking about the differences and similarities between the texts, and summarising some of the key arguments.

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Giorgio Agamben Interview, “God didn’t die, he was transformed into money”



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For A Theory of Destituent Power

For A Theory of Destituent Power


Giorgio Agamben talking about the modern survelliance state in which the modern form of the state treats the average citizen as a criminal which creates civil unrest and suspicion.

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Review of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman

Review of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman


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Monsters, mutants, and lonely machines (or what?)

Monsters, mutants, and lonely machines (or what?).

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Review On Nietzsche’s Darwinism

The strength of Richardson’s book is that it does not merely discuss the influence of Darwin’s thought on Nietzsche or catalog points of similarity and difference. Instead, Richardson opts for a more sophisticated project of reconstruction, which significantly expands the appeal of his book

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