Reconfiguring Values: A Riposte to Agnes Callard

In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I argue that disability is a complex and complicated apparatus of power rather than a personal property, attribute, or difference, as assumed on the individualized and medicalized conceptions of disability that most philosophers (including most philosophers of disability) hold. In order to make this argument, I employ Foucault’s ideas that modern power is productive rather than merely repressive; that modern power is intentional and nonsubjective; that modern power operates through incremental normalization; and that power operates most effectively, that is, its aims are most effectively achieved, when it operates by and through the production of certain kinds of subjectivities.

Foucault argued that modern power should be understood in terms of governmentality, that is, as the “conduct of conduct,” as the coercive influence on the actions of another or even oneself, as “an action upon an action,” as he put it. Thus, in chapter five of the book, I argue, for instance, that the forms of governmentality through which the subfield of bioethics has emerged and expanded are intentional and nonsubjective, operating to mold subjectivities in ways that facilitate the incremental normalization of certain practices and policies, namely, eugenic practices that normalize the population.  

I want to use the aforementioned elements of Foucault’s work to show why the claims about Foucault that Agnes Callard makes in their recent article about anger should be reconsidered. In order to advance my claims, I want first to reconfigure Callard’s claims about Foucault and values as claims about Foucault and power, that is, Foucault and his ideas about power. This reconfiguration will allow me to more aptly discuss values in the way that Foucault understood them, namely, as artifacts of discourse, as discursive practices.

Given this reconfiguration, I want to suggest that Foucault’s views of how power operates are more complicated and unconventional than Callard’s remarks allow; that is, I think Callard underestimates the unconventional character of Foucault’s ideas about power and thus misconstrues the way in which Foucault understood the productive character of the relation between power and values such as autonomy, rights, and freedom. As some readers and listeners will know, I have in a number of places written about how Foucault understood this productive relation, including in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability and my article “Reproductive Freedom, Self-Regulation, and the Government of Impairment In Utero.” In order to point out how Callard has misconstrued Foucault’s ideas about how power operates, I will focus almost exclusively on this paragraph of Callard’s article:

Finally, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) analyzes the shift from punishment by public torture and execution to punishment by imprisonment. Foucault’s thesis is that although these reforms were couched in the eighteenth-century language of human rights, their aim was to turn punishment into a focused attack on the prisoner’s human rights: ‘From being an art of unbearable sensations, punishment has become an economy of suspended rights.’ Foucault then builds outward from the prison and argues that we can see the values of our society inscribed in the methodology of forcible restraint that characterizes such social artifacts as schools, examinations, timetables, and professional careers. The way we value freedom, autonomy, self-determination, and human rights is by taking those things away from people at every turn.

Let me note first that the last sentence of the cited paragraph articulates a standard, or widely accepted, understanding of power, an understanding of power that Foucault’s work in general and Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Volume One in particular were distinctly designed to undermine. This standard view of power construes power as fundamentally repressive and prohibitive, as centralized, and as authoritative, operating from the top of a chain of power on down.

In The History of Sexuality, Volume One, Foucault refers to such an understanding of power as a “juridico-discursive” conception, devoting several pages to outlining the features of this conception and thus elaborating the picture of power that he previously introduced in Discipline and Punish. In short, the conception of power that Foucault introduced was designed to subvert the assumptions about power that typify classical liberalism and its central tenets. Whereas classical liberalism conceives power as removing inherent freedoms and liberties from the subject, Foucault’s novel claim was that power is productive, it produces objects, sentences, states of affairs, and discourses, operating through enabling constraints.

The effectiveness and efficiency of this new form of power, that is, the effectiveness and efficiency of this form of power that characterizes modern regimes are accomplished precisely through the production of subjects who understand themselves as autonomous and free: buying and applying facial cosmetics is not oppressive because many people freely choose to do so; prenatal testing and screening aren’t eugenic tactics but rather enhance reproductive autonomy; fitness regimes aren’t disciplinary because people are at liberty not to buy the Fitbit watch or to fire their personal trainer. Indeed, Foucault aimed to convince us that modern power empowers in order to constrain; it is both empowering and disciplinary.

In other words, modern forms of power operate most efficiently and effectively (including most cost effectively) through the very exercise of autonomy and personal freedoms and rights rather than through the withholding or elimination of these artifacts of discourse. Foucault was concerned to show that power can operate through the subject’s exercise of its rights and freedoms because a host of practices and rituals have incrementally produced modern subjectivities in particular ways.

Power, on Foucault’s account, is intentional and non-subjective; that is, power operates toward certain aims but usually cannot be attributed to any particular agent who could be said to have invented the means of its production or introduced them into practice. The most pervasive and efficient (because readily accepted) operations of power are coercive and controlling rather than punitive and prohibitive. As Callard suggests, the tactics of force relations—the examinations, ritualized schedules, disciplined movement, division of space, and so on—that first emerged in prisons, schools, and hospitals have become diffused throughout late-capitalist, neoliberal societies. Hence, Foucault’s (in)famous remark that modern power in these societies produces subjects that are “docile,” subjects that can “be used, abused, and transformed”: the model prisoner, the well-behaved child, the attentive student, the appreciative disabled person, and the conscientious employee.

I want to make one final remark about the way in which Callard misconstrues Foucault’s assumptions about power as assumptions about values, as philosophers conventionally understand them.

At the conclusion of their article on anger, Callard observes that Foucault is often associated with a strand of cultural critique that invokes support for cynicism, nihilism, and pessimism. Although Foucault (among others) has often been identified as radical, Callard contends that his downfall was his “timidity,” that he held himself “at a distance from the dark side of morality that he so accurately described.”  If Foucault (and others) had taken his own claims seriously enough, Callard argues, he would have “drawn the simple, devastating conclusion that it is impossible for humans … to respond rightly to being treated wrongly.”

My argument is, however, that when Foucault’s historicist insights about both the intentional and nonsubjective character of power and the artifactual character of human values (such as autonomy and freedom) are taken in combination with his conviction that there is no outside of power, that we can never be freed from power, we can more easily recognize that Foucault makes the bold contributions to our understanding of our(artifactual)selves that Callard wishes he had made.

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