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cut off the king’s head!!… In the Foucaultian sense, of course.

March 23rd, 2006 by isaac · 4 Comments

So, when I was back home in Tucson visiting my folks, I was totally intrigued by the conversations. I mean, I never really paid too much attention to the way God and Country is the motto for those among these Christian circles. I guess that used to be me too. Maybe it’s silly to say that I have somehow escaped the God and Country vision of Christianity. I still care alot about my country. The trouble for me is that my country is sorta ambiguous. Is my country the one of my father—that is, Colombia? Or is it the one of my mother—that is, Costa Rica? Or is it that hispanic enclave in the LA of my youth?... I find myself with multiple sites of allegiance; my blood lines flows in multiple directions.

Anyhow, a particular conversation with some close family friends really highlighted how differently I conceive of politics and political power. For them, political power is at the head, the top: president George W. Bush. They were completely starstruck about president Bush. Political power, the place where differences are made, resides at the top and flows down through the hierarchical structure. Top-down conception of power. Politics is about what happens in Washington, and at Langley—those people and places that we the people have empowered to move the arms of our civic body through our vote.

The trouble for me, like I mentioned above, is that my body doesn’t homogenize that easily. I don’t really believe in all this metaphisical superstitions that connect the dots of so-called democratic representation. I guess I just don’t have enough faith to believe that the invisible forces of the “social contract” magically makes somebody my “representative.” How can some elected person represent, embody, me and all the other people who are quite different than me and from others? I just don’t buy it. It’s not my faith.

I think political power is a bit more diffused than this hierarchical approach. All this talk of representation through voting sounds like quite a fiction, a fabrication. All this to say, as my star-struck friends got all dreamy-eyed about the president, I had Michel Foucault screaming in my head: We must cut off the king’s head!! Here’s a quote from The History of Sexuality, vol 1, p. 89 (this is a poor translation of the title; it should be something more like “The Will to Know”): 

In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king. Hence the importance that the theory of power of right and violence, law and legality, freedom and will, and especially the state and sovereignty… To conceive of power on the basis of these problems is to conceive of it in terms of a historical form that is characteristic of our societies: the juridical monarchy. Characteristic yet transitory…. It is utterly incongruous with the new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the state and its apparatus.

And he goes on to say a few pages later that we must conceive of “power without the king” (91).

There’s also this same sort of passage in Foucault’s Power/Knowledge (121):

Sovereign, law and prohibition formed a system of representation of power which was extended during the subsequent era by the theories of right: political theory has never ceased to be obsessed with the person of the sovereign. Such theories still continue today to busy themselves with the problem of sovereignty. What we need, however, is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done.

Focus on the top, on the hierarchicial conception of political power blinds us from the reality of (post?)modern power—the way it is diffused all around us, passing through us, enveloping us, forming us, shaping us, disciplining us. Political power is not in the head; it doesn’t reside in the sovereign, the president. That’s the mystification of politics that serves those who claim to be “in power,” who claim legitimacy through such magical practices like puching a few holes in a piece of paper every few years in a funny cubicle set up in a high school gym.

We live in world of micro-politics. The politics of the everyday—of shoping, talking, schooling, driving, working, etc. Political power is in flux all around us, passing through us and those around us. We can’t see all the ways we are poltical animals (that’s what Aristotle calls human beings) when we surrender political power to the sovereign representative, whoever they may be. Again, Foucault from Power/Knowledge (p. 122):

I don’t want to say that the State isn’t important; what I want to say is that relations of power, and hence the analysis that must be made of them, necessarily extend beyond the limits of the State…. The State is superstructural in relation to a whole series of power networks that invest the body, sexuality, the family, kinship, knowledge, technology, and so forth… [T]his meta-power with its prohibitions can only take hold and secure its footing where it is rooted in a whole series of multiple and indefinite power relations that supply the necessary basis for the great negative forms of power.

I guess it’s better for me to post about Foucault than stand up in the middle of dinner and release his voice from my head as my friends go on and on about how close they were to the president, and what he reads during his quiet time, and the power he carries with him in his stride…. Cut off the King’s head!! (Not literally, of course; I’m a pacifist).

Tags: life

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mel // Mar 24, 2006 at 8:54 am

    I-train:
    It’s amazing how little time it takes to forget that out there somewhere people are reading Foucault. I’ve been up since 2.30 with one of our core members who is experiencing some rather nasty vomitting. Duke has never seemed further away….

    But, since you brought it up, what about the question of a space in which power is not affecting control. Are there neutral spaces, places of flourishing or places where there is actual possibility? I’m guessing at this point you won’t claim something as amporphous as “the church,” but maybe.
    Or maybe power, through the cross, has been made pregnable to Bono-like or diverse grassroots coalition forces? Too tired and initidated with smelly bodily fluids to think much on my own.

    mel

  • 2 Jason // Mar 24, 2006 at 10:18 am

    I guess what I still wonder is what you think it means, practically, to “cut off the king’s head?” Does it involve just not obsessing about the president, or doing practices which undermine a top-down view of power (grassroots movements?), or advocating for a new form of government, or just not getting involved in the “official” political process at all? Or maybe something else altogether?

    And here’s my other question. Why do you think these friends are so enamored by the president? Are they just attracted to the power he has or is it because they see him as divinely appointed? It seems it must be something more than just being attracted to power. Heck, Bill Gates could cause economic chaos if he wanted, but he doesn’t have a cult following.

  • 3 Eric Lee // Mar 24, 2006 at 5:29 pm

    Well, in my experience (I used to be a hardcore dittohead in the 90’s), a person like George Bush, with his swagger and all that, also represents all that the Republican part stands for. And most of what the Republican party stands for practically (not just on paper, but like if you listen to the radio talk shows), is being against the “liberals.” So, George Bush not only represents ‘freedom’ and ‘power,’ but he also represents all that is not “liberal”, even though both (and other) parties share the same Enlightenment Liberal religion. When I started listening to Al Franken when Air America Radio began, I was gung ho will all that stuff until the few weeks before the 2004 election when I realized that all the Democrats do is the the same thing in opposite-sounding language: define themselves by what they are not: Republicans.

    After a while, it seems like each ‘side’ only exists so that it is “not” this or that. “Good thing I exist to not be that!” isn’t ultimately very convincing, although it’s good enough for millions of folk. I don’t need to get into the philosophical underpinnings of this anymore, but it’s really annoying and I don’t find it to be Christian at all, since one of the highest Christian virtues is love of one’s enemies.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 4 isaac // Mar 27, 2006 at 5:59 am

    Wow, great engagements from everyone. I don’t know where to begin… I think Jason’s leads into Melissa’s, so I’ll start there.

    What does it mean, pratically speaking, to “cut off the king’s head”? Yes. Great question. Foucault’s analysis of power shows that political theory and formation conceives of the “soveriegn” as the fountain of political power. But this is the mystification that heart of the State apparatus, at the heart of political soveriegnty and governmentality. The State apparatus and the established networks of order that invest in that apparatus reify the lines of political power that lead up to the president (or whoever else is the “soveriegn” in Western political orders). But that story of soveriegnty is a fiction, it’s a mystification—it’s the way the establishment succeeds in retaining it’s control, it’s hegemonic power over the people. So, according to the establishment’s political logic, the most powerful and appropriate way to be political is to vote whenever they let us. And that’s where I say (with Foucault), Cut off the king’s head!.

    But what the hell does that mean? Great question. It means micropolitics. Once we turn away from the mystically seductive powers of the Soveriegn order, then we discover the political flux of power flowing from every space our bodies occupy: the family, school, factory, hospital, office, church, the shopping mall, the street (especially the one’s in Paris and Baghdad these days!), etc. Political power passes through and is birthed in all these spaces. Foucault: “a whole series of multiple and indefinite power relations that supply the necessary basis for the great negative forms of power.” The state apparatus is that negative form of power that claims to order our political lives, thus restricting our imaginitions for what exactly constitutes political activity. Voting may in fact be the fiction disseminated by the Soveriegn in order to pacify the masses, the demos. It makes us feel like we are doing something, like our voice matters. But Foucault turns us away from from the soveriegn (cut off his head, ignore his control, deny his claims of headship) because that’s in fact not the site of political power. Political power is the mobilization of thousands in dowtown LA this past week. Political power is folks gathering for vigils the past two days in front of a house near Duke University’s campus where the Lacrosse team rapped a woman. Political power is that modest group of folks who gather every Sunday night at Chapel Hill Mennonite to worship God and eat from the bread of life. Political power is, sorry to say, the violent movements of assembled demos in Baghdad as they resist the imposition of foriegn soveriegn orders—as Carl von Clausewitz puts it, “war is politics by other means”. From ancient days (Athens), democracy named that gathering of disempowered people who resisted the established political order. It didn’t name a structure, it named a movement, a fleeting movement. (See Sheldon Wolin’s landmark essay, “Norm and Form”).

    Does that help get at your question, Jason?

    But then Melissa steps up with here question: Are there spaces where power is not affecting control? Are their neutral places, places of flourishing, places free from the flux of power?. Ok, this question assumes all sorts of conversations and readings that Melissa and I share in, but everyone else hasn’t. But I think the problem Melissa brings up is clear from what I said above about Foucault’s conception of micropolitics and the way political power is diffused, omnipresent, occupying every corner of life—the disciplinary society as Foucault puts it. So, if political power is like wild fire, exploding anywhere and everyone on the social plane, and if the Soveriegn is a parasite that exploits that power for it’s own ends (the ends of the State), then is anywhere safe from power? For Foucault, NO! “Everything is dangerous,” he says. “Power is already always there.” But this is as much a reason for a cynicism at political possibilites for “a new order” as it is for hope. Since power is diffused through the social life (which incorporates every body, yours and mine and your neighbor’s) it is spread thin and thus susceptible to movements of resistence at a multiplicity of points. And the political body we name “church” may or may not be one of them. It remains to be seen, something to be proved, to be performed.