International Journal of Baudrillard Studies
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 3, Number 2 (July 2006)

Book Review: Empirical Insights and Theoretical Confusions

Alain Beaulieu and David Gabbard (Editors). Michel Foucault and Power Today: International Multidisciplinary Studies in the History of the Present.  Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006.

Reviewed by: Craig McFarlane
(Graduate Programme in Sociology, York University, Toronto, Canada).

            “Governmentality” has become the dominant approach for Foucauldian scholarship in the social sciences.  Acting as intermediary between Foucault and an eager English audience, Colin Gordon organized the translation and publication of lectures and seminar papers by Foucault and his students in the journal Ideology and Consciousness (I&C).  These translations quickly found an audience thus allowing governmentality to ascend to an authoritative position in Foucauldian scholarship.1 In 1991 many of the translations from I&C were re-published in the influential volume, The Foucault Effect.  Immediately before the publication of The Foucault Effect, Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller published their agenda-setting article, “Governing Economic Life” in Economy and Society.  Nikolas Rose would later become the editor of Economy and Society thereby enabling governmentality access to a major English language journal.  By 1996, with the publication of Foucault and Political Reason, “governmentality” had almost become synonymous with Foucault in the English language social sciences.2

            The majority of the papers collected in those two volumes consisted largely in empirical and theoretico-empirical work on topics including the discovery of the social, risk and responsibility, insurance, and hygiene.  While presenting interesting and groundbreaking empirical work, the theoretical component of Foucauldian scholarship was largely left behind remaining neglected by central figures in governmentality, who tended to defend their reluctance to develop “the theory” with an appeal to the famous quip about developing “theory as a toolkit”.3 Largely, the concepts employed in “governmentality” studies were taken ready-made from Foucault’s work and applied to new domains – perhaps a too literal understanding of Nietzsche’s attempt to philosophize with a hammer. However, the rise of the governmentality in the social sciences was challenged by Foucauldians who did not identify with governmentality.  For instance, as early as 1995, in a reply to Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller’s article, “Political Power Beyond the State: Problematics of Government,”4 Bruce Curtis questioned the theoretical coherence of governmentality:

Yet, their analysis is open to criticism on a number of grounds.  Its account of the sociological literature is a caricature.  It departs from the bodies of work from which it claims to draw inspiration by neglecting their attempts to anchor knowledge forms in material practices.  Rose and Miller bowdlerize the work of Michel Foucault, purging it of its inconsistent references to the state, state apparatuses, state action, social class, hegemony, domination and exploitation.  With no discussion, they choose to neglect two of the three elements of Foucault’s analysis of government – sovereignty and discipline – with their corollaries of the relations between state structures and the constitution of subjectivities.  Foucault’s concern with government as the inscription of large scale patterns of domination is simply ignored.5

Miller and Rose’s reply to Curtis was rather dismissive and defensive; “Once again, polemic substitutes for argument in sociological discourse.”6  Later, in his book Powers of Freedom, Rose refers to this exchange as “unproductive criticism” from someone who “discovers the hand of the ‘State’ in all he surveys”.7  Despite its empirical insight, Foucauldian scholarship was rapidly approaching theoretical incoherence.8

            The ongoing translation and publication of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France have led a renewed interest in his thought as the lectures slowly reveal a far more expansive project than had been previously acknowledged.  Consequently, Foucauldian scholarship has seen a simultaneous “return to Foucault” and a new impetus to pursue theoretico-empirical research.  For instance, the journal, Foucault Studies, founded in 2004, sees itself contributing to this attempt to re-evaluate the relation between the theoretical and the empirical in light of the recent influx of previously unpublished works by Foucault:

The journal intends to provide a forum for discussion of Foucault which goes beyond received orthodoxies, simplifications and uncritical appropriations. In particular, the journal aims to publish work which utilizes not only the more familiar material by Foucault but also the wide range of material made available by the 1994 publication in French of a four volume collection of over 360 of Foucault’s shorter writings and the more recent (and ongoing) publication of his lectures. Much of this material is still in the process of being translated into English, and it revolutionizes ways of thinking about his work.9

The first issue of Foucault Studies was published in December 2004, a month after the “Michel Foucault and Social Control” conference was held in Montreal.  The present volume, Michel Foucault and Power Today: International Multidisciplinary Studies in the History of the Present, edited by Alain Beaulieu and David Gabbard, comprises “refined and expanded versions of select invited papers” given at the Montreal conference.10  One is thus tempted to interpret this book as an intervention into the conjuncture formed by “the received orthodoxies”, the publication of the Collège de France lectures, and the twentieth anniversary of Foucault’s death. This volume is at once symptomatic of the impasse in Foucauldian scholarship and points beyond the impasse.

            Two essays attempt to develop the concept of control as it relates to Foucault’s work.  Dario Melossi (“Michel Foucault and the Obsolescent State: Between the American Century and the Dawn of the European Union”) and Alain Beaulieu (“The Hybrid Character of ‘Control’ in the Work of Michel Foucault”) draw our attention to the problematic use of the concept of control in Foucault’s work.  According to Melossi, Foucault’s “greatest contribution” has been the attempt to articulate “social control” in terms of the “outcome of a complex interplay of forces within a multifarious network of strategies and tactics.”  Beaulieu’s essay attempts to retrieve the concept of control from the interpretation forced upon it by Gilles Deleuze in his short piece, “Postscript on Control Societies.”11  With respect to Melossi’s position, it is not clear how Melossi distinguishes between power as such and control.  Melossi’s description of control bears a certain resemblance to Foucault’s description of power in the first volume of The History of Sexuality: “power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization” and “it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”12  Recognizing the difficulty in distinguishing power from control, Beaulieu attempts to develop control as a “transversal concept” that is possibly found in all forms of social organization, but does not of itself constitute a mode of social organization.  Hence, Beaulieu correctly asserts that there is no such thing as a control society in Deleuze’s sense.  The problem confronting Beaulieu, however, is that control – including “social control” – remains vague.  The concept of control undergoes little in the way of elaboration save beyond separating Beaulieu’s sense of control (as a particular form or technology of power) from Deleuze’s concept of control (as a type of society).  Rather than sticking with the attempt to articulate a Foucauldian concept of control, Beaulieu moves too quickly from a discussion of control proper to an attempt to discovery what he calls “non-disciplinary” forms of control, which he connects to Foucault’s last works on ethics.  The problem here is that Beaulieu appears to be looking for an “exit” from control in ethics while overlooking Foucault’s own articulation of ethics as involving “government of the self and of others.”  Melossi’s argument also gets lost in the final section of his essay as he suddenly turns to a discussion of “The European ‘Public Sphere’ and Its Constitution.”  The final section makes no apparent reference to Foucault and, on my reading, has only a superficial relation to the preceding discussion. In my view, it would have been more edifying had Melossi either pursued to the subject of control to the very end or if he had continued with his comments comparing Foucault to neo-Marxism, with which the essay began.  According to Melossi, discipline is a “most Marxist” concept, which should “insure Foucault’s place in a short history of neo-Marxist thought.”  It is unfortunate that he did not elaborate this suggestion in greater detail.

            If Melossi and Beaulieu’s essays are productive to the extent that they are problematic, thus revealing frontiers in Foucauldian thought to be further explored, there are some essays that are not quite as helpful.  By this I mean that they do not push the limits of Foucauldian theoretico-empirical studies and thus reveal the extent to which Foucauldian concepts have become sedimented into the conceptual apparatus of the social sciences.  At times, some of the essays read as though Foucauldian concepts were inserted into empirical studies in order to buttress them with “theory.”  While the intention is no doubt to open dialogue with a particular audience – in this case those loosely aligned with Foucauldian approaches in the social sciences – there are times in which a straight-ahead empirical study is more persuasive than one uncomfortably integrating “theory”.13 

            Tracey Nicholls’ essay, “It Does Too Matter: Michel Foucault, John Coltrane, and Dominant Positions,” attempts to demonstrate a case in which Foucault’s “death of the author” may not apply; viz., the example of jazz, especially the example of the improvised solo.  While providing ample reason to limit Foucault’s “death of the author” to particular works made in particular periods (for instance, the modern novel), Nicholls suggests that the “death of the author” is meaningless in relation to a work created in real-time without a score.  Nicholls, unfortunately, obscures her point through buttressing her essay with comments secondary to her argument.  For instance, “Although [Foucault’s] analyses of power typically offer little hope that individuals can extricate themselves from the relations that govern them, we might view the mere existence of these analyses as liberating.”  Nicholls points to what she calls “true freedom” as a form of liberation, “that being the freedom to constitute meanings not sanctioned by a power structure.”  This yearning for freedom beyond power precisely ignores Foucault’s point on power: power is not a conspiracy against freedom, but is rather a condition of its existence.  Strictly speaking, in Foucault’s nominalist understanding of power it would be the case that if there were no power, then there would be nothing.  Power as such, for Foucault, is thus not opposed to freedom.  Nicholls’ desire for freedom echoes an earlier paper, David Gabbard’s “No ‘Coppertops’ Left Behind: Foucault, The Matrix, and the Future of Compulsory Schooling,” which begins with the suggestion that “with Foucault, I believe that ‘thought’ constitutes the essence of freedom in both its intellectual and practical dimensions.”  These yearnings for freedom suggest, at least, a certain discomfort with Foucault or a desire to move beyond him as they both set aside the historicity of freedom and the ways in which freedom is produced by and as a consequence of power.  Nicholls and Gabbard look to freedom when their arguments may have been better served with an appeal to resistance.  To this extent, I’d point to the oft-quoted passage in the first volume of The History of Sexuality:

Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.  Should it be said that one is always ‘inside’ power, there is no ‘escaping’ it, there is no absolute outside where it is concerned, because one is subject to the law in any case?  Or that, history being the ruse of reason, power is the ruse of history, always emerging the winner?  This would be to misunderstand the strictly relational character of power relationships.14

Read literally, Foucault’s understanding of power suggests it emerges out of the clash of corces and is the name we give to a situation in which there is an unequal relation of force; that is, it is the refusal of the weaker force to succumb to the stronger force that constitutes power.  In this sense, resistance is both prior to and constitutive of power.  Freedom, thus, is implied in a game or struggle between a complex relation of forces.  Freedom as such cannot possibly be located ‘outside’ power for it is constituted and produced by the clash of forces.  This is the only way to make sense of Foucault’s distinction between power and violence in his essay, “The Subject and Power,” where he counter-intuitively claims that the “slavery is not a power relationship”, but is rather violence.15

            Of course, not all of the theoretico-empirical papers sound forced.  Pierangelo di Vittorio’s essay, “From Psychiatry to Bio-Politics or the Birth of the Bio-Security State,” is exemplary in its combination of empirical research and theoretical development.  Vittorio’s essay attempts to retrieve Foucault’s concept of bio-politics from other interpretations, especially by Giorgio Agamben and Toni Negri.  The point here, correct in my mind, is that contrary to the claims of Agamben and Negri, “bio-politics” is not a complete, fully developed concept representing “the final Foucault,” but rather it only appears as such due to Foucault’s untimely death.  Working through the concept of bio-politics via psychiatry, Vittorio presents a short genealogy of its transformation into bio-security.

            A large part of this essay has been potentially unduly critical of Foucauldian work, including the essays in this volume.  Rather than ending this review with negative comments, I want to point to two excellent essays in the volume that indicate productive directions in which to take theoretical Foucauldian work: Warran Montag’s “The Immanence of Law in Power: Reading Foucault with Agamben” and Frank Pearce’s “Foucault and the ‘Hydra-Headed Monster’: The Collège de Sociologie and the Two Acéphales.”  In my view, these papers represent what would expect to find in a volume entitled Michel Foucault and Power Today.

            Briefly, Montag’s essay attempts to understand the place of law in Foucault’s thought – a concept that is often left behind, both by Foucault and those taking up his work.  Pointing to the debate between Foucault and Noam Chomsky, Montag draws attention to comments made by Foucault on the relation between law and power that can be interpreted as Spinozian, but as might be expected, the designation of Spinoza’s work as the origin of this critique, far from clarifying the nature of Foucault’s approach (and not just in this debate, but in the work of the first half of the seventies, culminating in Discipline and Punish) to the problem of the specific relation between law, justice, and power, instead succeeds in complicating it by placing certain essential contradictions in stark relief. To my knowledge, this is the first attempt to connect Spinoza to Foucault’s works, which both accounts for the meandering tendencies of Montag’s essay and the primarily suggestive approach Montag takes to the topic.  For instance, the argument is occasionally interrupted in order to point to another area in which we might to read Foucault as a Spinozist: “Foucault’s project of writing ‘a history of the body and its forces, of their utility and their docility, of their distribution and their submission’ was inspired by Spinoza.”  Despite these occasional diversions, Montag’s aim remains to show that “the actual form of Foucault’s critique of “juridicism” is complex, contradictory, and profoundly suggestive” despite having been “read as little more than a devaluation of law.”  Hence, Montag’s goal is to develop a properly Foucauldian analysis of the law.

            Meanwhile, Frank Pearce’s essay continues his project begun with his essay, “‘Off With Their Heads’: Public Executions with Klossowski, Caillois and Foucault”16, which attempts to develop a “radical Foucault” via an encounter with the Collège de Sociologie and Acéphale groups.  Pearce envisions this project as recovering the latent radical currents in Foucault’s thought from what he views as an unfortunate tendency towards liberalism in his final works.  Pearce suggests that “the development of his own work might well have been quite different had he engaged with more of the concepts explored and developed by these thinkers in the twenties and thirties.”  The essay thus proceeds via a confrontation between Foucault and various figures from the Collège de Sociologie: “Foucault and Leiris,” “Foucault and Klossowski,” “Foucault and Bataille,” and, finally, “Foucault and the Collège de Sociologie.”  Pearce concludes his essay suggesting that Foucault would have benefited from a stronger sociological orientation, especially one deriving from what he calls ‘the radical Durkheimian tradition.’  Even if one finds Pearce’s argument unconvincing, the essay is well worth reading, if for no other reason, for its account of the Acéphale group’s desire to carry out a human sacrifice, suggesting that Michel Leiris had volunteered to be the victim of Roger Callois’ knife.

            While the essays are largely uneven, the book is nonetheless valuable and well worth reading for its attempt to intervene in the conjuncture presented by the on-going publication of Foucault’s lectures from the Collège de France, the recent twentieth anniversary of Foucault’s death, and the desire to engage in a process of clarification and consolidation of the concepts developed by Foucault and his followers.17


1 One might want to distinguish between the “empirical” approach of the history of the present, from the “philosophical” approach, which developed out of Foucault’s visits to Berkeley and his discussions with Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow.  Later, of course, Judith Butler, also at Berkeley, would contribute to the philosophical approach.  Thus, on the one hand, an empirical social sciences Foucault and, on the other hand, a theoretical and philosophical Foucault.  These two tendencies in “Foucault reception” have remained to some degree at odds with one another.

2 Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose. “Governing Economic Life” in Economy & Society 19(1), 1990:1-31.  Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (Editors). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality with Two Lectures  by and an Interview with Michel Foucault, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.  Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne and Nikolas Rose (Editors). Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, neo-liberalism and rationalities of government, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

3 On “theory as a toolkit”, see the discussion between Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault: “Intellectuals and Power” in Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1954-1974, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.

4 Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller. “Political Power Beyond the State: Problematics of Government,” British Journal of Sociology 43(2), 1992:173-205

5 Bruce Curtis. “Taking the State Back Out: Rose and Miller on Political Power,” British Journal of Sociology 46(4), 1995:575-89.

6 Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose. “Political Thought and the Limits of Orthodoxy: A Response to Curtis,” British Journal of Sociology 46(4), 1995:590-7.

7 Nikolas Rose. Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1999:274 n1.

8 The inverse claim would later be leveled against the “philosophical” interpretation, especially as exemplified by Judith Butler, who was seen as losing sight of empirical reality while soaring to ever higher and loftier theoretical heights.  Apparently it was Butler’s style of writing that led to her condemnation.  See, for instance, Martha Nussbaum, “The Professor of Parody,” The New Republic 220(8), 1995:37-45.  Available online at

9 Stuart Elden. Clare O’Farrell and Alan Rosenberg. “Editorial: Introducing Foucault Studies,” Foucault Studies 1(1), 2004:1-4.

10 This volume is intended as a companion to Michel Foucault et le contrôle social. Actes du colloque international de Montréal (Alain Beaulieu, Ed., Presses de l’Université Laval and L’Hartmattan, 2005).  A third piece, “Michel Foucault and Critical Theory,” which is a transcript of the final roundtable at the conference, is forthcoming in Dialogue.  I would have liked to see this later piece included in the present work.

11 Gilles Deleuze. “Postscript on Control Societies” in Negotiations, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.  While Beaulieu is correct to direct his comments at Deleuze, it might have been more productive – and interesting – to direct his comments at Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri who take up Deleuze’s reading of Foucault in their Empire in a rather unproblematic and uncritical way.

12 Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, New York: Vintage Books, 1990:92-3

13 The uneasy relationship between “empirical research” and “theory” is, of course, not exclusive to Foucauldian work; it is apparent in most of the social sciences and is, in a sense, constitutive of the social sciences themselves. Editor’s note: Indeed, it is a product of the myth of methodological rigour to which nuance and play are sacrificed. One thinks of alternative approaches such as Roland Barthes “irrealistic and im-moral discourse” against method for insight into what the social (sciences) studies could be. See: Roland Barthes. The Neutral. Lecture Course At The Collège de France (1977-1978). New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Translated by Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier. A review of this book also appears in this issue of IJBS.

14 Michel Foucault. History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1990:95.

15 Michel Foucault. “The Subject and Power” in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983:221.

16 Frank Pearce. “‘Off With Their Heads’: Public Executions With Klossowski, Caillois and Foucault,” Economy and Society 32(1), 2003:48-73.

17 Editor’s note: It has proven very difficult to forget Foucault. See Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotexte, 1987. Here Baudrillard makes the observation that:

Foucault’s writing is perfect in that the very movement of the text gives an admirable account of what it proposes: on one hand, a powerful generating spiral that is no longer a despotic architecture but an affiliation en abyme, coil and strophe without origin (without catastrophe, either), unfolding ever more widely and rigorously; but on the other hand, an interstitial flowing of power that seeps through the whole porous network of the social, the mental, and of bodies, infinitesimally modulating the technologies of power (where the relations of power and seduction are inextricably entangled).  All this reads directly in Foucault’s discourse (which is also a discourse of power).  It invests and saturates, the entire space it opens (9).

Later in Forget Foucault Baudrillard ponders a question we can also ask of Beaulieu and Gabbard’s collection of papers:  “what if Foucault spoke so well to us concerning power... only because power is dead?” (13)




©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)