Theory of the state: “an indigestible meal”

In reading through The Birth of Biopolitics I reached the lecture where Foucault addresses the objection that he does without a theory of the state, and famously observes:

Well, I would reply, yes, I do, I want to, I must do without a theory of the state, as one can and must forgo an indigestible meal (Birth of Biopolitics, pp. 76-78), lecture of 31 January 1979.

Thomas Lemke recently wrote a piece using this phrase (which was I believe first pointed out by Colin Gordon in his introduction in 1991 to the Foucault Effect). Lemke observes:

In his lectures of 1978 and 1979 at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault responded to some Marxist critics who had complained that the “genealogy of power” lacked an elaborated theory of the state. Foucault remarked that he had refrained from pursuing a theory of the state “in the sense that one abstains from an indigestible meal”… However, a few sentences later Foucault states: “The problem of state formation is at the centre of the questions that I want to pose.”

Here is the passage as translated by Graham Burchell in the new English edition (2008):

[continuing from “meal”]. What does doing without a theory of the state mean? If you say that in my analyses I cancel the presence and the effect of state mechanisms, then I would reply: Wrong, you are mistaken or want to deceive yourself, for to tell the truth I do exactly the opposite of this. Whether in the case of madness, of the constitution of that category, that quasi-natural object, mental illness, or of the organization of a clinical medicine, or of the integration of disciplinary mechanisms and technologies within the penal system, what was involved in each case was always the identification of the gradual, piecemeal, but contiuous takeover by the state of a number of practices, ways of doing things, and, if you like, governmentalities. The problem of bringing under state control, of ‘statification’ (étatisation) is at the heart of the questions I have tried to address.

However, if, on the other hand, “doing without a theory of the state” means not starting off with an analysis of the nature, structure, and functions of the state in and for itself, if it means not starting from the state considered as a sort of political universal and then, through successive extension, deducing the status of the mad, the sick, children, delinquents, and so on, in our kind of society then I reply: Yes, of course, I am determined to refrain from that kind of analysis. There is no question of deducing this set of practices from a supposed essence of the state in and for itself. We must refrain form this kind of analysis first of all because, quite simply, history is not a deductive science, and secondly, for another no more important and serious reason: the state does not have an essence. The state is not a universal nor in itself an autonomous source of power. The state is nothing else but the effect, the profile, the mobile shape of a perpetual statification (étatisation) or statifications, in the sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change, or insidiously shift sources of finance, modes of investment, decision-making centers, forms and types of control, relationships between local powers, the central authority, and so on. In short, the state has no heart, as we well know, but not just in the sense that it has no feelings, either good or bad, but it has no heart in the sense that it has no interior. The state is nothing else but the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities. That is why i propose to analyze, or rather take up and text this anxiety about the state, this state-phobia, which seems to me a typical feature of common themes today, not by trying to wrest from the state the secret of what it is, like Marx tried to extract the secret of the commodity, but by moving outside and questioning the problem of the state, undertaking an investigation of the problem of the state, on the basis of practices of governmentality.

Birth of Biopolitics, 2008, pp. 77-8.

NB Bob Jessop wrote about some of this in Political Geography last year in a paper called “From micro-powers to governmentality: Foucault’s work on statehood, state formation, statecraft and state power.” He ended up arguing that Foucault’s analysis was not incompatible with state theory given that it was “from below”:

generalizing from Marsden’s re-reading of Marx and Foucault on capitalism (1999), it seems that, while Marx seeks to explain the why of capital accumulation and state power, Foucault’s analyses of disciplinarity and governmentality try to explain the how of economic exploitation and political domination (on the importance of ‘how’ questions for Foucault, see his 1982). There is far more, of course, to Foucault’s work in this period but this re-reading shows that there is more scope than many believe for dialogue between critical Marxist and Foucauldian analyses.


One Response

  1. On my reading, there is no contradiction in bringing Foucault into an analysis of the state, state formation, or state theory – contrary to how some in the governmentality school have approached the issue. (I’m thinking of the article by Rose and Miller “Political Power Beyond State” and responses to it.)

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