Foucault and the Modern International. Silences and Legacies for the Study of World Politics

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Foucault and the modern international, Bonditti Bigo Gros

Interview with Philippe Bonditti, one of the co-editors of the new book published in the CERI Sciences Po Series on International Relations and Political Economy, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

What is the modern international? 

This is, at least in part, the question that the contributors of this volume have engaged with – not to answer the question in a definitive way, rather, to build the international as an “object for thought” (objet pour la pensée), from and/or using Michel Foucault’s work and within a larger process of problematization that questions four of the main and largely unchallenged characteristics of our contemporary world: (neo)-liberal, biopolitical, global, and international.

Indeed, the international belongs to the long list of “unthoughts” that structure our everyday practices and our schemes for interpreting the present and past, realities. Note that “international” is mainly used as an adjective, therefore to qualify something other than itself. The system, organizations, relations, law are said to be “international”. However, using the word “international” as an adjective presupposes that we admit we know what the concept of international refers to, the meaning of which is derived from another concept, that of the national, to which the prefix “inter” was added to designate “what occurs in between”. From there, everything that does not strictly belong to the national is said to be “international”, i.e. everything that does not fall exclusively within the particular jurisdiction of a state, but develops between states.

The most widely shared idea of the international is therefore a negative one, always already dependent on the prevailing of the national. The latter points to the local and the particular, whereas the international refers to some sort of beyond-national, a space with no territory, absolutely abstract and historically constituted as a kind of space of practices that have long been thought of as being limited to the practices of the diplomat and the soldier (such as we see with Aron’s duality of diplomacy and war) and that the so-called discipline of International Relations (IR) gave itself as its primary object of study. 

Since the 1980s however, as a result of the development of transnational forms of mobilizations and collective action, the diffusion of information processing systems and the growing interdependency of economies, it seems clearer that the international is no longer only what occurs strictly between states. Does this mean that we are faced with the end of the international (after those—so often announced yet never achieved—of history, the state, territorial sovereignty? Has the international been replaced by the so-called “global” driven by the imaginary of a borderless world and a fully deregulated market? Or, as some have claimed, are we facing an emerging “neo-feudalism”? 

The very aim of this volume is to refuse hasty prophecies. Contributors seize—or perhaps we should say—take back the very concept of the international that has been so long monopolized by traditional IR in their attempts to theorize relations between states, and make sure that when we seek to understand/give a meaning to what happens throughout the world, we do not automatically use/refer to the category of the international without having already questioned it, in particular its relation to the categories of the (neo)liberal, the biopolitical and the global. 

How can the work of Michel Foucault help us in this task/perspective? 

Foucault’s works can help us in at least three different ways: through the concepts he coined, the methods he pres/described, and the task of problematization his concepts and methods invite us to undertake.

With his concepts of biopolitics, (bio)power, government(ality), discourse and archive, dispositif and regime of truth among others, Foucault offers the possibility of tackling the phenomena that we study with new approaches, as suggested by William Walters’ contribution on the violent treatment of migrants, and Ferhat Taylan’s contribution on the “environment”. In this perspective, the volume brings to the fore some possible ways of using Foucault’s concepts in a sort of hermeneutics of the present and analytics of what is being put in place.

Through his methods, whether archeo-genealogical or in terms of dispositif, Foucault helps us to go beyond some of the limits attached to the disciplinarization of knowledge. By problematizing the couple knowing subject/object of knowledge that governs the modern, scientific and positivist mode of knowing, the archaeological enquiry (as the one Armand Mattelard offers on the “global”) and the approach by mean of  the dispositif Michael Shapiro deploys, both allow us to engage differently with the phenomena that are traditionally attached to the international (foreign policy, diplomacy, war) or with those now said to be “global” (migration, violence/terrorism, environmental degradation, etc). They suggest that we pay particular attention to the ways in which they are first and foremost configured in and by discourse, by way of the continuous play of association/dissociation of concepts.

Finally, the task of problematization that Foucault invites us to undertake entails that we break up with the obsession of finding solutions (for which the expert mode of knowledge is so prosperous), and rather choose to insist on problems, by seeking to understand how things or situations come to be problems when they do and, at the same time, by seeking to turn givens or certainties into problems or questions. It is this double problematization that the book as a whole develops with respect to the international, the liberal, the biopolitical and the global.

For all that, it is not about absolutely applying Foucault, his concepts or his methods, but rather about putting them back to work, even if this means being critical about Foucault, an option suggested by Stuart Elden, or seeking to “go beyond” him, as suggested by Mariella Pandolfi and Laurence Macfalls on the issue of liberalism, or making one’s own version of Foucault, as Nicholas Onuf claims to have done. This move may not convince all “Foucauldians”. But it has had its effects on matters about which Foucault himself may have overlooked. The way Foucault’s works (together with those of Derrida) have been used to discredit IR in Anglo-American hands from the 1980s illustrates the value of taking Foucault beyond Foucault. Even if it remains powerful institutionally speaking, the so-called IR discipline never really got back on its feet again after this critique from an epistemological point of view: IR remained in a status of permanent crisis allowing for the emergence of new approaches of the international, more ethnographical for instance – with the historical and comparative sociology of the political as developed by Jean-François Bayart since the 1980s and, more recently, with the international political sociology developed by Didier Bigo

Foucault does not seem to have ever studied “international relations”. Why are his silences interesting? 

Silences are often very instructive. In the case in point, Foucault’s silence on the international, or, to be more specific, on the “internationalist knowledge” of IR, is enlightening from what it tells us – or what we have had it say – about Foucault’s intellectual trajectory, not to mention his time (not that long ago) and the power struggles attached to the disciplinary organization of knowledge. Indeed, how can we explain that Foucault remained silent about IR? It is very surprising when one knows, on the one hand, that IR had become a relatively autonomous knowledge – and readily accessible archive within political science in the Anglo-American world and, even if to a lesser degree in France as well; and on the other hand that Foucault himself had come very close to specific concepts (such as that of the “balance of power”) around which this knowledge had come to stabilize, even laying the foundations for a veritable archaeology of IR. On all these aspects and each in their own way, Didier Bigo and Martha Fernandez and Paulos Estevez’s contributions to the volume are particularly interesting and show us how the economy of knowledge is never disconnected from an economy of power. 

The issue goes beyond Foucault’s silences. The silences about Foucault, be they the product of ignorance, indifference or sometimes open hostility towards his concepts and methods, are also very insightful. EEEven today in France it is difficult to assert a foucauldian conceptual apparatus despite the many efforts of Pierre Lascoumes and Jean François Bayart, and despite the insightful contributions by Beatrice Hibou, which she partially recalls in her chapter on “neoliberal abstractions”.

This is not a book on Michel Foucault. Is it a “foucauldian” book? 

Indeed, it is not a book on Foucault. Yet it merits being read by those who are interested first and foremost in his works and the circulation of his concepts. They will not only discover – yet they probably already know – that the international has remained a blind spot of Michel Foucault’s works, but also that his concepts have been seized within IR, where his historical-critical method, his theorization of power and his archaeological method have inspired multifaceted critique of IR from the 1980s. From this perspective, yet the book is not a book on Foucault, the book brings further knowledge on a certain Foucault, the “explosives expert” (artificier), who was keen on “breaking walls between disciplines” and to equip those who were ready to follow him in this path, with his conceptual tools.

Does this make our volume a foucauldian one? I don’t think so, even if we managed to agree on what it means to “be foucauldian”, which is not self-evident! Is a foucauldian someone who will comment on the works of Michel Foucault, who will do some sort of exegesis of his work ? This is of course a possibility, and in this perspective, the volume, taken as a whole, is not foucauldian. While several contributions, in particular those of Michael Dillon, Mitchell Dean, Frédéric Gros and the conclusion by R.B.J. Walker, contribute in the most insightful manner to better a understanding of Foucault’s work, the cumulative result is not simply another well-meaning effort to get inside Foucault’s head. 

Or is it foucauldian to deploy the historical-critical method generally associated to Foucault’s name, that is when one tries to put some elements of Foucault’s methods as well as his concepts at work to try and see what they offer us in terms of understanding historical problems, and even possibly of the foucauldian methodological and conceptual tools in return? From this perspective too, the label does not fit the book, even if some of the contributions, like Luca Paltrinieri’s chapter on “human capital” or my own contribution on “terrorism” drawn specifically and extensively on foucauldian concepts and methods to achieve historical depth.

In short, the book is not “foucauldian” because we self-consciously designed it not to be. The aim was not to do a foucauldian book, rather to show some of the possible appropriations of Foucault. Obviously the many contributors to this work do not share the same conception of the international, nor do they agree on one and the same Foucault. Our ambition was twofold: to put Foucault’s works, his concepts and his historical-critical method to the test of problems and issues as these are given in our immediate present, and, in return, have the Foucault icon vanish through the multiple uses of his work. 

Why does a collective/edited volume make particular sense, and how do the various chapters dialogue with one another? 

The aim of this volume and the conference from which most contributions derive was, if not to open a dialogue – always a delicate endeavour – at least to organize the meeting of several disciplinary universes around the non-encounter of Foucault and the international. Our aim was to organize the meeting of philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, criminologist, geographers and even scholars who consider they belong in IR, all renowned specialists of Michel Foucault’s work and critical of IR, in order to problematize both Foucault from his silences on the international, and the international from Foucault. From this point of view, an edited volume seemed to make sense. 

Even if the book offers some particularly interesting problematizations of Foucault and of the international, it obviously does not drain them. Now it is up to those who will find some resources, some inspiration in this collective effort, to continue to make Foucault’s silence on the international speak, in the constant care given to rebuilding the one and the other. 

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI