What did Foucault mean when he said “race”?

Wildly Parenthetical blog presents some extracts from a forthcoming paper which among other things addresses the meaning of “race” in Foucault’s work (presumably Society Must be Defended).

Foucault positions racism as a technique for fragmenting the population into superrace and subrace, and thus as not simply attaching to what we might otherwise, in more everyday use, call ‘race’ but I think to a range of other ‘attributes’ including homosexuality and disability

Foucault’s use of the word race in his lectures and HoS is certainly worth looking into as it is not the usual one. I don’t recall use of the terms superrace and subrace in his work, although they are perhaps suggested. I sometimes think it would be better if he had said “blood” or heritage because the word race can be used as a foundation for all sorts of interpretations.

6 Responses

  1. He does, actually, use the terms subrace and superrace, early on in ‘Society Must be Defended’. Page 61, in fact (she says scanning her paper for the nth time!) This logic, he explains later, informs the biopolitical deployment of the ‘theory of degeneracy,’ so that, I would suggest, whilst *also* functioning down race-as-opposed-to-whiteness lines, could be understood as also occurring in relation to (especially congenital) disability. In this sense, I’m not sure how ‘blood’ or ‘heritage’ would help–but I suppose really I’m wondering what ‘all sorts of interpretations’ might mean, or why you seem to be suggesting they might be problematic? I’m keen to hear, if you would care to elaborate!

  2. Ah, well I’m away from my books right now! But I don’t dispute that superrace and subrace are consonent with his argument in SMD.

    Race is one of those trigger words that needs to be carefully defined. If you describe Foucault’s use of it to scholars of race they will tell you it is not the typical meaning; either the folk meaning that you allude to, or today’s scientific meaning (if it has one) or governmentally (eg in the census).

    The “all sorts of interpretations” is this gap between what anthropologists know about race (taking them, for the moment, as the leading scholars on race) and its lack of biological support, and folk meanings that circulate around phenotype and geographical origin.

    I also had in mind the way that the term has changed its meaning historically, and even its varying meaning today geographically (eg Brasil vs. USA).

    Blood: because he talks about the politics of blood in HoS and SMD. Heritage: because he talks about people’s sense of where they come from Gaulish ancestry in France for example in relation to the degeneracy you mention.

  3. As I understand the concept of “race” as used by Foucault, it is a sort of “mirror” concept, a surface of reflection. What I mean is that when Foucault talks of the “discourse of the war of the races”, which at some time at the end of the middle ages emerged, competing with the discourse of “the glory of Rome”, that is, the right of the domination, he is talking about something which is not confined to the biological concept of race, although it is not unrelated to it. The war of the races is the representation, or in some cases the real form, of social conflict. The dominated want to take power, finally, this is the discourse of the revenge of Jerusalem, of the war of the races, and, Foucault suggests, the origin of the concept of class struggle.

    In fact I believe Foucault’s main point here is that “class struggle”, that is, the “concept of class struggle”, originated from class struggle (I mean the real class struggle here) not directly, but passing through an analogy, a metaphor, a transformation or an incarnation or a deviation, that is the story of the war of races. Maybe, because the formation of the naked idea was prevented by the mechanisms of power.


  4. I’ve been thinking about carpentry and not about Foucault (or anything vaguely intellectual) for the past week. But doesn’t Foucault distinguish between race and blood in both SMD and HoS? Further, he clearly distinguishes between the early modern concept of race – and, hence, race war – and the modern concept of race – and, hence, biopower. The important difference between the two is the invention of biology as a science in the early nineteenth century. Boulainvilliers couldn’t possibly think race in biological terms in the same way that the Nazis or Americans or British could.

  5. I should add, race in the older sense is a political discourse while race in the newer sense is a governmental discourse.

  6. You are perfectly right. Indeed I believe I have given the impression of trying to reduce Foucault to a marxist thinker, which was not precisely my intention.

    Let’s start with a recalled quote from Pierre Bourdieu, in one of his last interviews. He said the scope of his research was “to clarify the relationship between structure and superstructure, although simply stating the problem in these terms means to make it an unsolvable problem”. Then he said, the history of systems of thoughts initiated by Michel Foucault was a huge step in that direction.

    Now I can’t enter here in the details of the complex and non linear relationship between Bourdieu and Foucault, nor analyze “how much” marxist could Foucault have been. that’s really beyond my possibilities, although some interviews may come to help. Let me just say that he could never have been an orthodox marxist thinker and say the things he said.

    To make a long line of reasoning really short, I believe Focault cuold never have been an orthodox marxist thinker because he had the intuition, which he followed through rigorous research, that superstructure sometimes takes a life of his own. That’s the case with the concept of “race”. Born as a metaphoric story about the revenge of the oppressed over the oppressors, this concept took a life of his own and was then USED by power, to calm down all dissent. Essentially, Foucault in my opinion says, structures of power saw this mounting tide of revolt and said ok, you believe these stories, ov the revenge of the oppressed “race”, then look, actually YOU are the race in power, or in any case, can make to being the race in power because SOMEONE ELSE (the Jews. Homosexuals. even “bourgeuse elements”, in Stalin’s USSR) is the oppressed “race”. So what ever are you struggling for? You are in power, already, SOMEONE ELSE is oppressed. Not you. You should defend society, actually.

    This is the gloryfication of a concept coming from “superstructure”, with its (wholy unexpected) back action effects on “structure”, and maybe the grille by which one may read the 20th century. Of course the use of the concept of “race” in the 20th century is extremely different from what it could have been in the 17th or 18th century, and that is precisely because race becomes a “tactical” tool in the hands of power (did you mean this when you said “governmental”?) rather than (but as a consequence of having been) an element of discourse brought forward by the oppressed.

    Symbolic struggle, meant as the struggle for the appropriation of structures of thought, ideas, art forms, and for the revelation of the true nature and scope of existing institutions and concepts, is not the same thing as real class struggle, and, most importantly, is not irrelevant because it leads to non trivial consequences and very real effects. This is (so explicitly stated) Bourdieu, not Foucault, but If he did not agree at least in part, why would have he quoted Benjamin in saying that Marxist historians should try to write an “history from below” rather than telling the history of power.

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