Foucault News

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

Biopolitics and Coronavirus, or don’t forget Foucault
by Felipe Demetri, Naked Punch
First Posted: 03-21-20


What the coronavirus epidemic shows us is more the strength of Michel Foucault’s explanatory scheme than the current necro-thanatopolitical strain of interpretations. We all know that Foucault saw biopower as a series of events, from theoretical ones to concrete practices, which formed the basis of a new relationship between national states and the biological element of human life. No longer the exclusion of political life and the plundering of goods and rights that would characterize the Old Regime, but instead new techniques organized around the better extraction of the living forces. Thus, biopower is a descriptive index of the moment when States began to exercise the management of spheres of social life that today seem obvious to us, such as health care, birth and mortality rates, etc. Foucault does not suggest that this would be due to humanist concern of the State; it is, in fact, about meeting the demands of capitalism. Bruno Cava synthesized well in his recent text: the concept of biopolitics does not necessarily describe a “good” or “bad” situation: Foucault is limited to pointing out precisely the limits of our situation.

Faced with the coronavirus, the majority of States have exercised strong sanitary and population control in order to prevent its spread; strictly speaking, actions are being taken to prevent a greater death toll. Such biopolitics places us in the domain of how Foucault conceived the population management techniques, focused (primarily, but not exclusively) to better condition the living forces. It is increasingly evident, however, that even drastic actions have not been enough to contain the spread of the virus, and a sense of collective responsibility is growing towards those who cannot protect themselves: those who can’t work at home, those who are in unfavorable sanitary conditions, the elderly etc.


Emanuele Iula, Periferie. Dall’eterotopia alla rigenerazione, Queriniana, Brescia, (2020)

In breve
Che cos’è una periferia? Come nasce? Come funziona?

  • E come fare per rigenerare chi vive quotidianamente in quei luoghi di esclusione?
  • Una riformulazione sostanziale del nostro modo d’intendere le periferie, oggetto di una specifica attenzione pastorale nel magistero di papa Francesco, per aprire nuovi cammini di senso.

Il tema delle periferie urbane continua a rappresentare uno scoglio sociale su cui si infrangono numerose politiche pubbliche. La loro perenne attualità nei fatti di cronaca non è solo segno di un limite politico. C’è una sconfitta che avviene più a monte e che riguarda il modo in cui le periferie sono spesso state mal comprese.

In questo complesso scenario, il paziente sforzo dell’autore consiste nel ricostruire il profilo umano di chi abita le periferie. Oltre che luogo (terra di mezzo: né centro città, né aperta campagna), esse divengono esperienza, quella dell’essere messi a distanza e privati di una relazione fondamentale. Iula disegna così l’ontologia sociale dell’essere periferico e, alla fine del percorso, rende visibile il contributo che viene dalla teoria generativa: lì dove la separazione sitrasforma in un possibile radicamento, prima, e in memoria della svolta, poi.

Emanuele Iula, Suburbs. From heterotopia to regeneration

In short
What is a periphery? How was it born? How does it work?
And how to regenerate those who live daily in those places of exclusion?

A substantial reformulation of our way of understanding the peripheries, the subject of specific pastoral attention in the teaching of Pope Francis, to open new paths of meaning.

The theme of urban suburbs continues to represent a social obstacle on which numerous public policies break. Their constant relevance in the news is not only a sign of a political limit. There is a defeat that occurs further upstream and that concerns the way in which the suburbs have often been misunderstood.

In this complex scenario, the author’s patient effort consists in reconstructing the human profile of those who live in the suburbs. As well as a place (middle ground: neither city center nor open countryside), they become experience, that of being put at a distance and deprived of a fundamental relationship. Thus, Iula draws the social ontology of the peripheral being and, at the end of the path, makes visible the contribution that comes from the generative theory: where the separation transforms into a possible grounding, first, and in memory of the turning point, then.

The question about peripheries is always in the spotlight of current affairs. The reflections proposed by the Author offer the reader an extensive exercise of conceptualisation, aimed at fostering orientation within the complexity of the social reality. Most of the text consists of allowing oneself to be oriented and disoriented by very simple questions: What is a periphery? How did it come about? How does it work?

From an epistemological point of view, the essay offers an open dialogue with key authors of the current debate, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In a similar way, the philosophical background of the proposed argument is fed by a confrontation with other kinds of knowledge, such as sociology and anthropology.

In the conclusions, there is an opening vis-à-vis prophetic literature of biblical origin, which provides the Author with the possibility to formulate an interpretation from the perspective of the generative theory, founded on a critical sense, on transmission and on rooting.

The Author: Emanuele Iula is an Italian Jesuit, who teaches moral philosophy at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of San Luigi (Naples). His research is mainly focused on generative theory, conflict mediation and social ontology.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Foucault And The Politics Of Coronavirus Pandemic – OpEd, Eurasia Review, News and Analysis, March 12, 2020

As the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, relentlessly continues it mayhem around the world, on the intellectual side it has also provoked fresh conversations on the (geo) politics and the related ramifications in terms of redrawing the private/public sphere lines, the empowerment of (local) governments on individuals, the new pattern of “social distancing,” the possibilities of a new round of “de-globalization,” and the like.

From China to Iran, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, etc., millions of people are placed under either mandatory or “voluntary” self-isolation and entire towns and cities are experiencing the harsh reality of life under quarantine — to the point that some particularly in Europe have invoked comparison with the great plague of the 1300s that wiped out thirty to sixty percent of the continent’s population.

Meanwhile, it is instructive to put the insights of French philosopher Michel Foucault into practice by examining the global politics of COVID-19 from a Foucauldian perspective. As is well-known, Foucault studied the great plague’s effects in terms of population control, centralization of power, de-individualization of citizens and their new ‘scientific’ compartmentalization, resulting in certain side-effects with respect to “panopticist” prison control and, with it, a new mode of surveillance reflecting a new modality of operationalization of power.


Tidmarsh, M.
Transforming Rehabilitation: The micro-physics of (market) power
(2020) Punishment and Society, 22 (1), pp. 108-126.

DOI: 10.1177/1462474519850573

This paper explores the impact of the introduction of competition and profit to the probation service in England and Wales following the implementation of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. The paper adapts the ideas advanced in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to draw similarities between the characteristics of ‘disciplinary institutions’ and a micro-physics of (market) power in probation under Transforming Rehabilitation. It utilises Foucault’s ‘instruments’ of disciplinary power – hierarchical observation, normalising judgement, and the examination – as lenses through which to highlight the unintended consequences of the installation of market techniques within the service. The paper argues that the constraints peculiar to instilling decentralising market mechanisms that were presented as a means to liberate practitioners and reduce reoffending have entrenched further the centralising tendencies associated with managerialism. © The Author(s) 2019.

Author Keywords
Foucault; managerialism; marketisation; probation; Transforming Rehabilitation

Aubin-Boltanski, E.
A Lebanese contemporary female mystic and her counter-conducts
(2020) Women’s History Review, 29 (1), pp. 74-89.

DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2019.1595205

A network of Christian female mystics in Lebanon and Syria has been forming since the early 1980s. Composed of women from large cities, such as Beirut or Damascus, it is characterized by its denominational and social diversity. This article will focus on one of these mystics: Catherine Fahmi, who has been living, and officiating, in her apartment in the suburbs of Beirut since the late 1990s. Catherine is a Maronite. She is a married mother of three, in her forties. Each Tuesday morning, she experiences a public ecstasy. Every year, on Good Friday, surrounded by a number of faithful followers, she sees and experiences the Way of the Cross. My aim here is to grasp the complex interplay between this female mystic, her followers and the Maronite Church. Her activities, and the rituals surrounding her stigmatized body, will be analyzed in terms of ‘counter-conducts,’ a notion developed by Michel Foucault. © 2019, © 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

Ohaneson, H.C.
Voices of madness in Foucault and Kierkegaard
(2020) International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 87 (1), pp. 27-54.

DOI: 10.1007/s11153-019-09739-6

The central idea of this paper is that Michel Foucault and Søren Kierkegaard are unexpected allies in the investigation into the relation between madness and reason. These thinkers criticize reason’s presumption of purity and call into question reason’s isolation from madness. Strategies of indirect communication and regard for paradox from Kierkegaard’s nineteenth-century works find new ground in Foucault’s twentieth-century archaeological undertaking as Foucault illuminates “both-and” moments in the history of madness, uncovering points where rationalism paradoxically conceives of madness or where madness is not unreasonable. Furthermore, for both thinkers, form and content meet, as Kierkegaard and Foucault’s occasionally “delirious lyricism” (in the phrase of Dominick LaCapra) exemplifies the intertwining of logical and illogical forces. © 2019, Springer Nature B.V.

Author Keywords
Foucault; Kierkegaard; Madness; Reason

Oliver, C.
Irrational rationalities and governmentality-effected neglect in immigration practice: Legal migrants’ entitlements to services and benefits in the United Kingdom
(2020) British Journal of Sociology, 71 (1), pp. 96-111.

DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12720

Governments’ attempts to manage immigration increasingly restrict immigrants’ eligibility to healthcare, education, and welfare benefits. This article examines the operation of these restrictions in the United Kingdom. It draws on qualitative research with civil servants and NGO expert advisors, and applies sociological theories on bureaucracy as a lens to interpret these data. Conceptually, the paper employs a generative synthesis of Ritzer’s notion of “irrational rationality” and Foucault’s perspective on “governmentality” to explain observed outcomes. Findings show that public service workers struggle with complex and opaque regulations, which grant different entitlements to different categories of migrants. The confusion results in mistakes, arbitrary decisions, and hypercorrection, but also a system-wide indifference to irrational outcomes, supported by human factors in contexts of austerity. I consider this a form of governmentality-effected neglect, where power operates as much through inaction as well as through intention, but which results in exclusions of legal migrants that are harsher in practice than in law. © 2019 London School of Economics and Political Science

Author Keywords
bureaucracy; governmentality; immigration; rationality; rights; welfare

Editor: An introductory quotation from Foucault, followed by reflections on the current coronavirus Co-Vid 19 crisis by contemporary thinkers. I have just included the passage from Foucault here. Please follow the link to the journal site for the contemporary debate

Coronavirus and philosophers
M. Foucault, G. Agamben, J.L. Nancy, R. Esposito, S. Benvenuto, D. Dwivedi, S. Mohan
European Journal of Psychoanalysis, March 2020

Michel Foucault
From “Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison”, translated by A. Sheridan, pp. 195-228. Vintage Books, 1995.

(in collaboration with the Journal “Antinomie”)

The following, according to an order published at the end of the seventeenth century, were the measures to be taken when the plague appeared in a town.

First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine. Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street and the interior of the houses, thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents; meat, fish and herbs will be hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting. Only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets and also, between the infected houses, from one corpse to another, the “crows”, who can be left to die: these are “people of little substance who carry the sick, bury the dead, clean and do many vile and abject offices”. It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.

Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere: “A considerable body of militia, commanded by good officers and men of substance”, guards at the gates, at the town hall and in every quarter to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates, “as also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion”. At each of the town gates there will be an observation post; at the end of each street sentinels. Every day, the intendant visits the quarter in his charge, inquires whether the syndics have carried out their tasks, whether the inhabitants have anything to complain of; they “observe their actions”. Every day, too, the syndic goes into the street for which he is responsible; stops before each house: gets all the inhabitants to appear at the windows (those who live overlooking the courtyard will be allocated a window looking onto the street at which no one but they may show themselves); he calls each of them by name; informs himself as to the state of each and every one of them “in which respect the inhabitants will be compelled to speak the truth under pain of death”; if someone does not appear at the window, the syndic must ask why: “In this way he will find out easily enough whether dead or sick are being concealed.” Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked — it is the great review of the living and the dead.

This surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration: reports from the syndics to the intendants, from the intendants to the magistrates or mayor At the beginning of the “lock up”, the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one; this document bears “the name, age, sex of everyone, notwithstanding his condition”: a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call. Everything that may be observed during the course of the visits — deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities is noted down and transmitted to the intendants and magistrates. The magistrates have complete control over medical treatment; they have appointed a physician in charge; no other practitioner may treat, no apothecary prepare medicine, no confessor visit a sick person without having received from him a written note “to prevent anyone from concealing and dealing with those sick of the contagion, unknown to the magistrates”. The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized. The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power, the registration they make of it, the decisions they take on it.

Five or six days after the beginning of the quarantine, the process of purifying the houses one by one is begun. All the inhabitants are made to leave; in each room “the furniture and goods” are raised from the ground or suspended from the air; perfume is poured around the room; after carefully sealing the windows, doors and even the keyholes with wax, the perfume is set alight. Finally, the entire house is closed while the perfume is consumed; those who have carried out the work are searched, as they were on entry, “in the presence of the residents of the house, to see that they did not have something on their persons as they left that they did not have on entering”. Four hours later, the residents are allowed to re-enter their homes.

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in l which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead — all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together; that of the evil, which is increased when fear and death overcome prohibitions. It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him. Against the plague, which is a mixture, discipline brings into play its power, which is one of analysis. A whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoning their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized, allowing a quite different truth to appear. But there was also a political dream of the plague, which was exactly its reverse: not the collective festival, but strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power; not masks that were put on and taken off, but the assignment to each individual of his “true” name, his “true” place, his “true” body, his “true” disease. The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of “contagions”, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.

If it is true that the leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion, which to a certain extent provided the model for and general form of the great Confinement, then the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects. Rather than the massive, binary division between one set of people and another, it called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power. The leper was caught up in a practice of rejection, of exile-enclosure; he was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate; those sick of the plague were caught up in a meticulous tactical partitioning in which individual differentiations were the constricting effects of a power that multiplied, articulated and subdivided itself; the great confinement on the one hand; the correct training on the other. The leper and his separation; the plague and its segmentations. The first is marked; the second analysed and distributed. The exile of the leper and the arrest of the plague do not bring with them the same political dream. The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society. Two ways of exercising power over men, of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures. The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power. In order to make rights and laws function according to pure theory, the jurists place themselves in imagination in the state of nature; in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague. Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder; just as the image of the leper, cut off from all human contact, underlies projects of exclusion.

See the contemporary debate that follows this passage

Jessen, M.H., von Eggers, N.
Governmentality and Statification: Towards a Foucauldian Theory of the State
(2020) Theory, Culture and Society, 37 (1), pp. 53-72.

DOI: 10.1177/0263276419849099

This article contributes to governmentality studies and state theory by discussing how to understand the centrality and importance of the state from a governmentality perspective. It uses Giorgio Agamben’s critique of Michel Foucault’s governmentality approach as a point of departure for re-investigating Foucault as a thinker of the state. It focuses on Foucault’s notion of the state as a process of ‘statification’ which emphasizes the state as something constantly produced and reproduced by processes and practices of government, administration and acclamation. As a result of this, the state appears as a given entity which is necessary for the multiplicity of governmental technologies and practices in modern society to function. Only by reference to the state can governmental practices be effective and legitimized. Finally, the article conceptualizes the centrality of the state through Foucault’s (preliminary) notions of the state as a ‘practico-reflexive prism’ and a ‘principle of intelligibility’. © The Author(s) 2019.

Author Keywords
Giorgio Agamben; governmentality; Michel Foucault; sovereignty; state

Mark Davis, Niamh Stephenson, Paul Flowers, Compliant, complacent or panicked? Investigating the problematisation of the Australian general public in pandemic influenza control,
Social Science & Medicine, Volume 72, Issue 6, 2011,
Pages 912-918

DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.01.016

This article examines how pandemic influenza control policies interpellate the public. We analyse Australian pandemic control documents and key informant interviews, with reference to the H1N1 virus in 2009. Our analysis suggests that the episodic and uncertain features of pandemic influenza give control measures a pronounced tactical character. The general public is seen as passive and, in some cases, vulnerable to pandemic influenza. Communication focuses on promoting public compliance with prescribed guidelines, but without inspiring complacency, panic or other unruly responses. These assumptions depend, however, on a limited social imaginary of publics responding to pandemics. Drawing on Foucault, we consider how it is that these assumptions regarding the public responses to pandemics have taken their present form. We show that the virological modelling used in planning and health securitisation both separate pandemic control from its publics. Further, these approaches to planning rely on a restricted view of human agency and therefore preclude alternatives to compliance–complacency–panic and, as we suggest, compromise pandemic control. On this basis we argue that effective pandemic control requires a systematic dialogue with the publics it seeks to prepare in anticipation of the event of pandemic influenza.

► Analysis of pandemic influenza control policy. ► Reference to the H1N1 2009 outbreak. ► Examination of policy assumptions regarding the action of the general public.

Pandemic influenza, Policy, Public Communication Australia Panic H1N1

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