Tag Archives: Michel Foucault

Like last year, in a team of five, we ‘deliver’ a philosophy course for a large group of governance and management students, called ‘philosophy of management and organisation’. Its main subjects – freedom and responsibility in organizations – are reflected upon by reading texts from thinkers such as Arendt, Weber and Berlin, which offer ample opportunity for discussion. The other day we (the team) were discussing a session on Panopticism by Foucault, a chapter from his famous book Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. This book does provide a historical analysis of how the modern penitentiary system has arisen – in its earliest forms in the eighteenth century, but this seems just a pretext for proposing to search for the anonymous techniques of power that are at work in typically modern societies. While they are democratic, promote free trade, and garuantee personal liberties, below the surface there are ‘invisible’ networks of power. Networks, or systems, that streamline the energies that arise from the growing masses of people in modern societies. The explosively multiplied members of the human species are suppressed, led and dominated in modern times not like their premodern counterparts by visible and violent force, represented in the body of the king, but by ever so many subtle signposts that direct their lives.

The development of modern power systems can thus be seen to endanger politics as such, as the free public exchange of views and ideologies. Power systems proliferate on their own, so to speak, and gobble up what Arendt has called action: free dialogue to make decisions about shared life. Two main principles are at work in the modern power systems, we read in the Panopticum chapter: discipline and exclusion. In other metaphors: training and purification. What has to be prevented are uncontrollable situations that result from the pure fact that numbers of people are growing, and that they tend to live in ever closer contact in large agglomorations. Foucault points to the historical fact that the large and deadly epidemics that plagued Europe gave rise to the first attempts to purify and train societies in systematic ways, introducing the idea of quarantaine, of regulating movement, hygienic procedures, etcetera:

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.” (p. 198)

This sentence now struck me, and reminded me of another sentence, in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and produced the following train of thought. Specters of Marx speaks, among so many other things, about ‘clandestine’ immigration – describing the undocumented as part of the – anonymous – ‘new international’: those who, across borders, crossing borders, undermine the powers that be. In Derrida’s sentence, we can recognize the same double strategy of normalization:

“One should not rush to make of the clandestine immigrant an illegal alien or, what always risks coming down to the same thing, to domesticate him.” (p. 219)

Making illegal, excluding, ‘purifying’ society of him, or domesticating, training or disciplining him. And these ‘run the risk’ of coming down to the same, says Derrida: both becoming mechanisms to stop the fear of the stranger, who is understood to ‘contaminate’ and ‘undermine’ the modern power systems. Systems that regulate modern mass societies. What modern citizens of the earth fear in the ‘people who appear and disappear’, without stamp of approval, without passport, health insurance or work permit – those who even ‘live and die in disorder’ – is the breakdown of orderly society – where we, inhabitants of the panopticum, content prisoners of modernity so to speak, are barred in by the securities we know. Those who do not live in them, but use them, who transgress their rules by their very living, making their living from those systems while disrespecting and disregarding them – they create the chaos that modernity fears and always again tries to supress.

Foucault and Derrida are often characterized as ‘postmodern’ thinkers. This means no more or less than that they seem to have been able to look beyond the boundaries of the modernist panopticum – describing what is at work in it. They were not utopians, sketching a new vision for societies, for utopias only make sense in the modernist belief in designed societies. So what have they done in their works? They have, to my view, tried to open the eyes of ‘the Romans’ that their world is coming to an end, so that they may be prepared for something else. What kind of something else? Disorganization and disease? Rebellion and violence? Not necessarily. Perhaps something that is modest and immodest at the same time: the coming of a public space, a space of action, of politics in the true sense of the word: exchanging views and… perhaps not ideologies, but rather experiences. Next to the violence and loud language of today I see people working to repair and transform spaces meant for dialogue and connection, recreate them from the waste of crumbling power systems so to speak. An uncertain undertaking, as the future is, as always, open.

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977 [French original, 1975]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 [French original, 1993]

Another shooting of a US citizen by US police is raising heated discussion – this time an armed citizen, apparently, who according to the police returned fire when she was shot at. Korryn Gaines, the 23 year old who was killed, posted a video some time earlier about her being stopped in her car, while driving without license plates. I was intrigued by her calm and her consistent asking the officer about his Delegation of Authority Order, which I never heard about, and the officer had neither. I wanted to understand what this was about. Some quick reading brought the concept in connection with management theory, legal structures of authority, so called sovereign citizen movements, and the question of freedom and responsiblity – which I felt the need to research further. Now, almost all discussions over the shooting of Gaines are about factual questions: whether she was mentally impaired, whether she was a good mother or not, what about her life, her age, her gun, her boyfriend; and then again about the actions of the officers, could they have done this or that, were they afraid or out to kill her – and tend to overlook the political and anti-political structures she obviously worried about before her death.

So what structures are regulating the relations between citizens and governing powers generally, and how do freedom and responsibility play out in them? And especially when police officers are concerned, who are supposed to be delegated public servants of those powers. Obviously, after bad experiences with being detained and a hostile bureacracy Gaines had decided to not recognize the authority of the police over her life any more. She had given up on the idea that ‘the law’ was lawful, and working for the freedom of herself as a citizen. She explained in videos and in written texts her reasons for not trusting the police and for not complying to their orders, and expressed that she would rather be killed than to cooperate with a system that could kill her also when she would cooperate. On her car she had a card saying ‘Free Traveler’,  and an officer said she acted as a ‘Free Person’,  suggesting that to be a special political position, instead of a general human condition. So who has decided over whose life and in which framework?

Delegation of authority functions in non-official managerial as well as in official contexts, where governing bodies exert power over people. The basic idea it represents is that authority is something else than force/brute power/violence. Authority is recognized as legitimate power, and in political terms it is based on representation. Governmental structures in a democracy are supposed to represent the people, and those working on behalf of the authorities are supposed to legally represent those. This is to make sure that officials will not act out of personal motives, nor be blindly driven by any systemic forces that may be at play in those structures. In businesses or non-governmental organizations the idea is to make a difference between personal responsibility of workers to work for the aim of the organization, and the responsibility of those who are leading the organization to officially back up those people who have the function to take certain decisions. In the course of my life I have observed several times, those in higher management positions to let someone lower in the hierarchy carry out actions that might cause negative reactions without officially delegating them. So when the negative reactions come, their subordinates will carry the responsibility, and not they themselves, as they never ordered them to do this. This shows the importance, in matters concerning the life, health and happiness of individuals that authority is properly delegated, in order for agents to be held accountable for their actions.

In the case of Korryn Gaines, her request for a DOAO was an attempt to protect herself against what she perceived as unlawful actions of the police. The point here is not to determine whether she was legally right or wrong, the question is that what is lawful in the last resort depends on what human beings in a community together hold to be so. What is lawful can in principle always be questioned and put up for discussion. The law can also be ignored or obstructed publicly by individuals out of protest (as in civil disobedience, which is something else than ignoring or obstructing the law for criminal actions). So what is clear is that, not just in the US, but time and again in all modern nations, and especially in the US because of the deadly violence with which confrontations are so often played out, people question whether the police is there for the citizens or for something else. They question, whether they represent a real authority, which implies being officially delegated by democratically recognized officials to do certain things, or whether they act out of other drives. So did Korryn Gaines.

When our modern national states were first being formed, political philosophers tried to make the authority of their governmental bodies understandable by referring to the ‘state of nature’ which was to be understood as a war of each against all – a state which legality should overcome by ‘the people’ transferring their natural right to fend and fight for themselves to the sovereign state power. The state power again was to be exerted by the government and its derived institutions. Spinoza, one of the important thinkers of natural right and the state, warned that in things political, individual people are not just moved by reason, but also driven by irrational passions – which are to be understood as emotional motives which fail to see my own good in relation to the good of others. Passions can be narcissistic, therefore, as well as self-destructive. Or both at the same time. He made clear that for all its power, a state is a fragile thing, continuously in threat of being undermined by individuals (citizens or officials) who do not base their actions on reason, but on passions.

Since the 17th century political philosophy has found new frames to understand political reality. At work in this situation is also something which is described, a.o., by Foucault, and Weber: the system, the complex, the bureaucracy, and its potential to bring generally sane individuals to despair. The system actually undermines authority, as described above, and the responsibilty and accountability that goes along with it. It obstructs the process through which individuals legitimize (ideally) state power through democracy, and through which the authority of the governmental bodies in its turn delegates responsibility to lower officials. How does it do so? Not by replacing reason by passions, but by replacing the (Spinozistic) reason that relates my good to that of the others by a simulacrum – an objectified body of abstractions of real relations. Installing a dense thicket of stamps, identifications, papers, postal services, etcetera, it silently subdues personal responsibility and freedom. The thing with bureaucracy is that, if used correctly, it can protect people, because it regulates and documents everything without differentiation between the status of persons. But used falsely, it can cover up, and even facilitate crimes from governments to the people who live on the piece of earth they rule over. This can be done by denying them (full) citizenship, or by blurring lines of delegation of authority – if no clear order has been given for a certain act of violence, nobody can be held responsible afterwards. We all know cases of encrypted orders like ‘solve the problem’ instead of ‘expell/kill/fire/detain person x’.

In this setting it is clear that there is freedom to act – for perpetrators of evil as well as for those standing up for what’s right. The ‘law’ strictly speaking cannot (and neither can the laws of bureaucratic management) determine human actions like laws of nature determine the movement of natural bodies. People can, and even have to, step outside the rules, to act freely – so they are responsible for their actions, and free – this is not an extraordinary situation and doesn’t depend on any factual aspects – it is the political situation, in which we put all rules and laws up for discussion again. So freedom and responsibility can be appropriated in the voids of laws and rule driven systems. And it is done, all the time, although laws and rules obfuscate that. Police officers take the freedom in the void where they can interpret a person as a danger to themselves or others, and then again are within the law to shoot. And someone like Korryn Gaines takes her freedom deciding to drive without license plates, or to resist arrest, as an act of civil disobedience. The law should protect her life all the same, and here is a conflict within the law between the perceived safety of the officers and the safety of the person they want to arrest. It is one of the voids where people are free and responsible, all of them, so calling her a ‘free person’ is superfluous. Of course she was. And so were the officers who killed her. Every individual, even though living under laws and bureaucracies, remains responsible for what they do. The state of nature is never far away, and no state power should make us forget that.



I took care to try and analyze just one aspect of this case, to clarify the issue of authority and freedom. This analysis of course leaves many other questions out, that also should be asked. Questions of historical violence by white people against black people, questions of social injustice, questions of the situation in prisons, for men and for women, where sexual violence is very common. But those questions again touch the factual – they regard why someone acted the way they did. They provide the content of actual political questions. I just wanted to discuss the formal aspects of the place and role of the political and the anti-political regarding the freedom of persons to act in this case.


Sometimes I allow myself to just read what comes along on the internet, through some reference, it might be coincidental, and read. Read, click, read. So this was the string of events: three days ago I met my nice colleague from the history section, Dienke Hondius, whom I had not seen for some time, so we talk about what’s new. Not much earlier I had seen that there would be a presentation of her new book on Blackness in Europe, which I hope to attend. She told me she was also one of the initiators, or organizers, I don’t remember it exactly, of the ‘slavery history walks’ in Amsterdam of which I had heard. On these guided tours one is taken along places in our capital that mark the Netherlands’ involvement in the slave trade and the slave business in general. And she said something about a map.

So I googled the map. It shows where in Amsterdam slave owners lived. These were only owners, mostly, who had their investments overseas and reaped the benefits, without their own physical involvement. I must say I could not repress the urge to look if there were any of my ancestors on the list of names on the side, as those from father’s side were living right there, in the Amsterdam centre, back then, and were involved in trade. They were not, but some were in financial business, so they most probably benefited from the colonial situation anyway. Then, following some link somewhere, I landed on that blog which you might have seen some time, or not, where it is claimed that Beethoven was black. After reading the article I continued with reading the discussion below the several year old post, which had persisted through the years. The discussion got my interest.

It showed a perfect and deep confusion over the terms of debate. Mostly between European readers and Americans. These groups of readers, say from the ‘public’ (no specialists in critical race studies or in black history or other relevant fields) insist on exclusive conceptions of ethnicity or ‘race’. They went on, comment after comment, endlessly, without reaching any common ground. The ‘Europeans’ would stress the mixed ancestry of all their peoples, with large influx of Huns, Moorish Spaniards, Turks, and other, say, ‘non-blond’ peoples, and wouldn’t want to bother about Beethoven being black or anything. Race doesn’t exist, biologically, so socially it is not important either, was their bottom line. The Americans referred of course to practices from slavery times, especially after the slave trade had come to an end, when mixed offspring would always be named black, to ensure the procreation of new slaves (when necessary ‘produced’ by slave masters raping their female slaves themselves). To Jim Crow (segregation) laws, which categorized anyone with ‘one drop’ of African blood as black.

In the end, the ‘American’ discourse is, referring always to history, politically inspired. The European one sees itself as more ‘scientific’, objective, and neutral in a political sense. Here, however, it becomes interesting. As the work of a historian like Dienke Hondius aims to show, the traces of the same history lie also on European soil. Looking into them might help to understand some of the blind spots in European culture. We do not share the American history in the sense that ‘our’ slave owners just did their jobs over here, or drank their tea with friends, with most of them not coming into contact with the ugly details of the business. This might explain the bewilderment of so many Dutch when outsiders consider their ‘blackface Pete’ a racist phenomenon. There is much resistance to enter a common ground for debate, as it showed in the ‘Beethoven’ commentaries.

Still there is, to my view, a lot to learn for the European side. Not just with respect to our present society, and the silent racism that disturbs many social relations, but also with respect to the self-understanding of European culture. Michel Foucault is the one who did much groundbreaking work to this respect, especially in his longstanding dialogue with Kantian philosophy. In his Birth of the Clinic he writes that the medicinal gaze that took hold in the late eigtheenth century meant a revolution over against the belief in Enlightenment, for the concreteness which with bodies were now studied showed ‘powers of truth that they owe not to light, but to the slowness of the gaze that passes over them, around them, and gradually into them.’ The gaze thus bestows light, instead of believing in it as an independent faculty of reason.

In another sense this gaze characterizes the social and political history that Foucault exercised himself. In an essay on Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Foucault’s approach to the program of light, which he called an ethos of permanent criticique of our historical era, shows there in his definition of critical research. It is ‘no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying. In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method.’ Research into Europe’s relation to blackness is one of the significant instances of the search for light in the 21st centure.

The Dutchman, wrote Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology, is only interested in the useful. ‘A great man signifies exactly the same to him as a rich man, by a friend he means his correspondent, and a visit that makes him no profit is very boring to him.’ Although, being Dutch, and loving any kind of humorous thought that relativizes the idea that ‘my’ people, race, sex, or other group to which I could be ascribed might be better or wiser than those to which others are said to belong – the things that ‘our’ (Western European) most important Enlightenment thinker wrote on peoples and races makes me feel ashamed of ‘us’ philosophers.

Immanuel Kant is well-known for his revolutionary appeal to each man that he should think for himself (and the famous Monty-Python clip from Life of Brian illustrates how frustrating making such an appeal can be). This was not just an ideological move, he founded this appeal on his very complex and systematic philosophy. This philosophy is often summarized in his ‘four questions’: what can I know (epistemology), what should I do (ethics), what is there to hope for (metaphysics/religion/spirituality), and who or what is ‘man’ (as the human being was called in pre-feminist times). The final question was, in Kant’s eyes, the summarization and presupposition of all three others. It is man that knows, acts, and hopes – and understanding man is therefore understanding the world. This makes anthropology (the knowledge of man) not just a discipline among others, for it digs into the enigma that we pose to ourselves – being conscious and only thus being ‘in the world’.

In the same book in which one can find the chit-chat on Dutchmen and Frenchmen and Germans, one finds a critical observation like the following: Anthropology […] can exist either in a physiological or in a pragmatic point of view. – Physiological knowledge of the human being concerns the investigation of what nature makes of the human being; pragmatic, the investigation of what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself.’ What is philosophically most revolutionary and interesting in this sentence is the idea that there are different ways of knowing, which produce different kinds of knowledge – and actually different domains of reality which we can enter or leave at the moment that we adopt or leave behind one or the other way of knowing. We can know the human being/mankind from the outside, so to speak, as a natural object – empirically. Or we can know it from the inside, as a free agent.

Many philosophers have returned to this strange potential to flip from being an agent to being an object of observation. George Herbert Mead, for instance has distinguished between the ‘me’ (the self as observed) and the ‘I’ (the acting self). The agent, the ‘real’ I, however, can not be known – in the sense that we normally understand knowing as explaining by means of causality. The I is free, and distances itself from external causes. It never knows what it will choose. Psychologically: when we choose something, we notice it when we already have done so. Choosing precedes that kind of observational knowledge. Kant, now, claimed that we can know about choosing – but in another manner than the normal empirical manner. This kind of knowing he calls reason. Through reason I can know what I, as a free-acting being make of myself, or can and should make of myself. In reason, therefore, lie the foundations of morality, of education, and of civilization. Beautiful thoughts that have appealed to many great minds through the centuries, and nowadays form the basis of the global belief in education, development, and the necessary progress of reason.

The enigma is, how a critical philosopher like Kant could mix up, in one book, these core Enlightenment insights, and gossip like the above about the Dutch. The gossip is more serious still when he looks into peoples farther away from his own tribe – the Germans (more exactly the Prussians). Not in the Anthropology itself, but in related and earlier works one can find outrightly racist remarks, where he writes about ‘the negroes of Africa’ that their belief in fetishes is ‘a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature.’ Remarks like these provide ammunition for those present-day thinkers who criticize the whole endeavour of Enlightenment as a colonialist enterprise, which has betrayed it’s own lofty ideals – as they are only the soft side of the exploitation of those who were declared to not partake in reason.

They (those criticists), pointing to the parochialism of Kantian Enlightenment, have an early predecessor. Max Scheler, who dedicated a stout volume to the critical analysis of (and finding an alternative to) Kant’s philosophy of morality and agency, already before 1916, wrote: ‘Only through the reasons contained in the foundations of Kant’s ethics […] can it be shown, psychologically and historically, that it was the roots of the ethnically and historically very limited […] ethos of the people and state of a specific epoch in the history of Prussia that Kant presumptuously dared to seek in a pure and universally valid human reason.’

There arise deeper questions, now, however. First concerning knowledge through reason. Foucault, who wrote one of his dissertation studies on the Anthropology of Kant, wrote (in a later work) that ‘we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist where the power relations are suspended […] [and] admit that power produces knowledge.’ Concluding his work on the Anthropology he made it consistently clear: Kant’s thought revolved in an anthropological illusion – believing that through man we can know the world. His question ‘what is the human being?’ led in the end to Nietzsches answer: ‘the Übermensch’. And who is this superman? He/she is the one who has become enlightened about this: that everything he/she poses as truth is an interpretation. That there is no final truth behind the endless interpretations the human being produces. And the ‘super’ in his/her name indicates the psychological strength to endure and live in this unending uncertainty.

So, if Foucault is right, where does this leave those of us who were placed by Kant outside the community of reasonable people? Does it make sense to just cry out that the Enlightenment was an imperialistic movement which used Prussian morality as it’s ideological weapons? And say that bringing the empire down will bring a new freedom? Or is there still something else about the enigma? Is it possible that there is a truth (a real one) to be found in the works that sprung from German soil? It might be this: Kant’s words were not final, they have shown to be open to reconstruction. And their appeal to self-governance have shown to contain the very weapons to break down the parochial, misogynist, racist, and eurocentric prejudices in which they have been packaged. Even if Nietzsche was right that no truth can be final, the emancipatory force of the Enlightenment ideal is open ended. It can be interpreted anew over and over again. The boundaries of reason can be redrawn (even to encompass the so called fetishist idolatry, perhaps). And even if the Enlightenment ideal will know an end, like everything in history, the end might not be here yet, as the ideal still functions as a tool in the hands of those whom Kant did not really see fit to take it in their hands.


Sources used:

Immanuel Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 1997

Michel Foucault Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, Semiotext(e), 2008

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, 1977

Max Scheler Formalism in Ethics and Material Value Ethics, Northwestern University Press, 1973