Ontology and Politics Conference, QMUL

Ontology and Politics Conference, June 16th, 2008. Presented by the Politics Department and the Graduate School for Humanities and Social Sciences, Queen Mary, University of London.

The program includes a couple of papers on Foucault and also a Keynote by Simon Critchley.

Sample abstracts:

Johanna Oksala (University of Dundee): “Foucault’s Politicisation of Ontology.”

The paper makes two claims about political ontology. Firstly, I argue for the importance of ontological inquiry in political philosophy. For the theoretical rethinking of politics to amount to an effective response to practical political problems it cannot avoid ontological investigation. My second aim is to argue against any essential definition of ‘the political’. Political ontology should not denote an inquiry into the fixed essence of politics, but a politicised conception of reality. I will problematise the relationship between ontology and politics by putting forward such a conception with the help of Michel Foucault’s critical project. Foucault’s thought formed an important strand in the effort to theorise the social construction of reality that became prominent in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is my contention that his most original and important contribution to this project was his conception of productive power. The ontological idea behind Foucault’s hybrid notion of power/knowledge is that social practices always incorporate power relations, which become constitutive of forms of the subject as well as domains and objects of knowledge. They are not subjects and objects existing in the world as pregiven constants, but are rather constituted through practices of power. This is a radical, ontological claim about the nature of reality: reality as we know it is the result of social practices, but also of concrete struggles over truth in social space. My argument will proceed in three stages. First, I will defend the importance of ontological inquiry in political philosophy. I will then explicate the politicised conception of reality – the political ontology – that I find in Foucault’s thought. Finally, I will conclude by considering its consequences for our understanding of politics.

Giorgos Fourtounis (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki): “Immanence and Subjection: Foucault, Althusser and the aporia of the subject.”

In this paper I will try to draw some hints from Althusser’s late thinking on aleatory materialism as a means for tackling the alleged impasses of the (post)structuralist theorization of the subject (exemplified in the works of Foucault and Althusser himself) and their political consequences. The close correlation between Foucault’s anti-subjectivist and anti-teleological stances, where the subject is constituted by non-subjective “power/knowledge regimes”, which in their turn are contingent events, essentially unpredictable and non-explicable, entangles him in the aporia of a subject suspended between the constituted and the constituent subject, or between the subject as a result and the subject as a cause. The counterpart of this aporia, which is prolonged rather than attenuated in Foucault’s late work, is the aporia of the Enlightenment (and its advent), which is viewed both as a contingent event “that has made us what we are” and as an attitude or ethos, a task to be accomplished. A similar correlation between anti-subjectivism and anti-finalism is also omnipresent in Althusser’s thought, but here, as I will try to show, the relevant aporias can be tackled better by way of the evocation of Spinozist immanence as a theoretical means of thinking both the structural causality governing the constitution of social formations and the ideological interpellation governing the constitution of subjects. This theoretical strategy was proposed, precisely, as an attempt to resolve an analogous aporia concerning causality, that is, as an escape out of the traditional dilemma between atomist-transitive and holistic-transcendent causality: a structured individuality neither preexists (as a transcendent cause) nor follows (as a transitive result) the elements and procedures of its constitution, but it is their immanent cause, with no existence apart from them. According to Judith Butler, now, both Foucauldian subjection and Althusserian interpellation involve the ontological paradox of a constitutive retroaction and self-referentiality, where the subject necessarily appears as the precondition of its constitution. In the light of this, my suggestion will be that it is precisely such a figure of retroaction, essentially of a Spinozist inspiration, that is constitutively involved in Althusser’s late work, considered as a radical development of his earlier Spinozist structuralism, providing an additional philosophical perspective for the thematization of the aporia of the subject.

Paul Reynolds (Edge Hill): “Ontologies, Politics, Dialectics: The Ordering of Stable and Unstable Moments.”

Behind much political and social theory in the last 50 years has been the question of ontological stability. Post-structuralist influenced critiques have settled upon a critique of – if you like – ’solid state ontologies’, particularly those inherent within universalist, essentialist theories of politics and society such as Marxism or Feminism, and sought to explore the deconstructive, critical and unstable moments that seem to negate ’solid state ontologies’, at its best represented in Derrida and Foucault, and at its worst in the culturally reifications of post-modern discourse. This has produced a dichotomy of – if you like – ’solid state ontologies’ and fluid and ‘unstable ontologies’ in which the entrenchment on either side often depends on philosophical or political convictions, and guerilla war between the trenches atrophies critical debate. Some thinkers work – Laclau, Butler and to an extent Zizek, seem to reflect the agonies (and perhaps agonistic nature) of seeking to straddle these entrenchments and some, to an extent Badiou, and more Critical Realism, might suggest a synergistic alternative to such entrenchment. This paper seeks to build upon these to suggest that an understanding of ontological stability lies not in attachment to one or other moment, but the recognise them as moments in not a dichotomised but a dialectical process, where the ordering of moments produces the balance or scope and limits to particular thinkers accommodations between the two. What is at stake in doing so is not just an arguably more critical openness philosophically, but an approach to politics that recognises the need to effect such dialectical engagements in both strategising and in engaging mobilisation and action in the political frame, and particularly within the anti-capitalism movement at the present conjuncture.

More info here.


Back to Moi, Pierre Rivière…

I’ve been hearing about this film for a little while. The director of the original Moi, Pierre Rivière film based on Foucault’s publication of the legal case, has revisited the original actors and made a documentary.

Five years ago, French documentarist Nicolas Philibert received global acclaim for Etre et Avoir, his gentle study of an infant school in rural France and its charming, endlessly patient teacher. It was beautiful in its simplicity, clarity and accessibility. His new film could not be more different: a rarefied cine-essay perhaps most suitable for film festivals or graduate seminars – and yet it succeeds as a sophisticated meditation on community, transgression and the law.


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CFP: A Foucault for the 21st Century

Call for Papers:

(NB this overlaps with the AAG conference in Boston so AAG attendees may want to also submit to this or to pop in to see some of the papers.)

April 16 and 17, 2008
University of Massachusetts Boston

A Foucault for the 21st Century: Governmentality, Biopolitics and Discipline in the New Millennium

Keynote speakers include:
James Bernauer (Boston College)
Charles Lemert (Wesleyan University)

How relevant is Foucault’s social thought to the world we inhabit today?

Foucault is best remembered for his historical inquiries into the origins of “disciplinary” society in a period extending from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Today, however, under the conditions of global modernity, the relevance of his contribution is often called into question.

With the increasing ubiquity of markets, the break up of centralized states and the dissolution of national boundaries, the world today seems far removed from the bounded, disciplinary
societies Foucault described in his most famous books.

Far from disciplinary, society today is “post panoptic,” as Nancy Fraser has argued — in a move which seems to confirm Jean Baudrillard’s demand that we “forget Foucault.”

Yet in recent years, it has become apparent that Foucault’s thoughts on modern society have not been exhausted, and, indeed, that much remains to be explored.

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New Google streetview for Philadelphia. Here’s the Eastern State Penitentiary

Google released Streetview for 6 new cities a few days ago including Philadelphia. I’ve navigated to the Eastern State Penitentiary and you can see it in this link.

Incredibly the one street they didn’t drive is right in front of the penitentiary so you have to see it from the corner! So no front-on shots for people going to Halloween…


Long, awesome summary: History of Sexuality

A long, awesome summary of the History of Sexuality (all 3 published vols) from a reader (who notes that this is National Coming Out Day):

The life and times of French thinker, philosopher and historian Michel Foucault were nearly as amazing as the written works he left behind. Foucault was a lightning rod for controversy–and I very much believe he would not have had it any other way. The list of subjects that Foucault’s work touched and changed is truly mind-boggling. I’m not sure that I agree with all of his declarations and hypotheses. But, I must say that he is an inspiration and example to the ideals of free-thinking.

Recently, I re-read Foucault’s seminal three-part treatise on human sexuality. Starting with ‘A History of Sexuality: An Introduction (and continuing with ‘A History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure’ and ‘A History of Sexuality: The Care of Self’), I was struck by how much of Foucault’s writing seemed fresh and relevant–as opposed to when I had last read it during my days of higher education. I think much of my surprise has to do with the fact that I am now older and have a richer history of experiences to draw upon and relate to in regards to my own sexuality.

See more here.

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Essay: Revising Foucault, the future of Foucault studies

An essay called Revising Foucault, the future of Foucault studies, by Colin Koopman, is available (pdf).

Koopman is doing a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz (and left a comment to a post below that links to his review of Paras). He’s working with David Hoy.

Koopman begins the Revising Foucault essay by questioning the recent interest in the newly published lectures:

But Paras and others err if they are willing to base these reinterpretations on a prioritization of the course lectures over Foucault’s carefully-polished primary publications.

Perhaps refocusing Foucault scholarship around the course lectures is motivated by the aim of setting Foucault’s thought to work in contexts where it previously has not ranged. But is the only way of achieving this worthwhile aim to discount Foucault’s primary texts in favor of secondary texts, unedited drafts, and scraps rescued from his trash bin?

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