Stuart Elden on Foucault’s 70-71 lecture courses

Here is his Berfrois review of Leçons sur la volonté de savoir. These lectures come from a period of Foucault’s work that has generally interested me least–I never know what to make of Archaeology of Knowledge, though the Nietzsche and Genealogy essay is one of his best. Obviously, it’s important as a period of transition from the epistemology/structural accounts of the sixties to the ontological/power genealogies of the 70s. (Yes, I am one who reads a Foucault I and Foucault II, though not a radical a split as that sounds. Agamben, in his recent writings on dispositif, for example in The Sacrament of Language, just blows over any essential differences between archaeology and genealogy in Foucault.)

Devin Shaw follows up here on Elden’s review, and Elden elaborates here on Shaw’s attention to the fact that the lecture course as published is based entirely on Foucault’s MS, without tapes, etc., from students. Most interesting to me is how Foucault’s reading of the Greeks and Oedipus could be great pedagogically when I’m teaching History of Sexuality: Volume I for showing the differences from Freudian accounts. More interesting is the Foucaultian take on the rise of democracy in the Greek sense:

Perhaps most interestingly, Foucault suggests that the transition effectuated by Solon means that power is no longer “exclusively held by someone”; no longer “universally endured by others”; and no longer concentrated in time and space “in ritual gestures, words, commands or instances” (p. 153). Just as Foucault would argue for a time two millennia later, power should not be understood as a top-down model of domination, concentrated in a single source and exercised over those who do not have it; and it is not focused in spectacular bursts or displays but operates through what he would later call a micro-physics of small actions and continual operations.

A number of things stand out, but one way to read this is a counter to those who read modernity as having the crisis of legitimation (Habermas, Lyotard) or loss of authority (Arendt). If power since Solon was for thousands of years not top-down, then it stands to reason (as the problem of the Sophists demonstrates) that the crisis of modernity is endemic to democracy itself: the crisis is democracy itself, or the democratic element that circulates power, however much statist models wish to bring power/knowledge back within the fold of the sovereign.

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