Marx and Foucault

This has been up at Viewpoint Magazine for a couple of weeks, which is Pierre Macherey on Foucault’s relation to Marx. This is a perennial discussion, but one better answered than before given the publication of The Punitive Society, which I’m teaching right now. (Yes it was just published but the students happily agreed for a course correction from the previously assigned Lectures on the Will to Know.) First off, the translation is excellent and the numerous helpful footnotes by Graham Burchell feel like academic cheating: I don’t have to search for cross references to where Foucault has discussed this or that concept since he invariably provides it. And Bernard Harcourt’s afterward is likely to be quoted in any student papers at the end of the semester–clear while marking the text out in terms of the complex web of relations to other texts by Foucault. Second, it’s remarkable how far Foucault goes in attempting a detente of sorts with Marxists in the audience; when he critiques Marx’s view of labor–or rather, says that it’s a posteriori to the docile bodies necessary for the rising bourgeoisie and for the punitive society (prisons, hospitals, etc.; i.e., Foucault uses punitive as equal to disciplinary power here)–he refers to Marx in terms of “post-Hegelians philosophers.” This is far different from later, more jabbing references.

In any case, it’s great to work through the text with an excellent set of students–a couple of new PhDs here are really digging into it–after giving it a more quick read last year. What’s particularly interesting about the lectures is that one can see better than in his published Surveiller and Punir (1975) where he makes certain choices of reading the archive in terms of the late 18th century rise of punition, as well as some choices that are just puzzling to me, for example, that only with punition or discipline did morality enter into the penal system, counterexamples of which are, I would think, in the entire Western tradition, so perhaps it’s about looking at what he precisely means by morality (though it seems to be the general usage given the claim that if one wants to know morality, forget Kant and study the rise of the police). There’s much more to say; I’ll have a review out soon (at the LARB) going through more details. But quickly if one wants to get Foucault setting out why he thinks exclusion and otherness are too vague for analysis (against so many before and after him), why transgression is a facile political tool, why he uses civil war not class war, and so on through a host of topics, this is a rich and rewarding set of lectures. (And hands-down more interesting if you’re bored once more teaching well-worn passages in Discipline and Punish.)

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