Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Eli B. Lichtenstein (2021) Foucault’s Analytics of Sovereignty, Critical Horizons, 22:3, 287-305 
DOI: 10.1080/14409917.2021.1953750

The classical theory of sovereignty describes sovereignty as absolute and undivided yet no early modern state could claim such features. Historical record instead suggests that sovereignty was always divided and contested. In this article I argue that Foucault offers a competing account of sovereignty that underlines such features and is thus more historically apt. While commentators typically assume that Foucault’s understanding of sovereignty is borrowed from the classical theory, I demonstrate instead that he offers a sui generis interpretation, which results from the application of his general strategic conception of power to sovereignty itself. In construing sovereignty through a “matrix” of civil war, Foucault thus deprives it of the absoluteness traditionally attributed to it. Instead, he views sovereignty as constituted by conflictual and mobile power relations, a precarious political technology that deploys violence to restore its authority. I also motivate Foucault’s contention that popular sovereignty remains fundamentally continuous with the absolutist sovereignty it succeeds, insofar as it masks and thereby perpetuates unequal power relations in conditions of social conflict. According to Foucault, sovereignty is not a fact of power but a contestory claim, a discourse whose mutability helps to explain its persistence today

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