Michel Foucault, who was born in 1926 into an upper-middle-class family, came of age in post-World War II Paris, studied with Louis Althusser, and rose to intellectual prominence in the 1970s, died on June 25, 1984. The near celebrity status that he acquired during his lifetime has multiplied since his death as the Foucault of disciplinary power has been supplemented with the Foucault of neoliberalism, biopolitics, aesthetics of the self, and the ontology of the present. These different forms of Foucauldian analysis are often grouped into three phases of scholarship that include the archeological, the genealogical, and the ethical. The first period, produced throughout the 1960s, focuses on the relationship between discourse and knowledge; the second period, developed throughout the 1970s, zeroes in on diverse structures of historically evolving power relations; and, the Foucault that emerged in the 1980s explores technologies of the self or the work of the self on the self. This well-recognized periodization highlights the triangulated structure of associations among knowledge, power, and subjectivity that animated his work. Because a number of decentered relations, something he called governmentality, are woven through everyday experience, Foucault questioned the assumption that communication takes place between autonomous, self-aware individuals who use language to negotiate and organize community formation and argued instead that this web of discourse practices and power relations produces subjects differentially suited to the contingencies of particular historical epochs. Although a critical consensus has endorsed this three-part taxonomy of Foucault’s scholarship, the interpretation of these periods varies. Some view them through a linear progression in which the failures of one moment lay the groundwork for the superseding moment: his discursive emphasis in the archeological phase gave way to his emphasis on power in the genealogical phase which, in turn, gave way to his focus on subjectivity in the ethical phase. Others, such as Jeffrey Nealon, understand the shifts as “intensifications” (p. 5) wherein each phase tightens his theoretical grip, triangulating knowledge, power, and subjectivity ever more densely. Still others suggest that the technologies of the self that undergird Foucault’s ethical period displace the leftist orientation of his early work with a latent conservatism. Regardless of where one lands on this debate, Foucault’s three intellectual phases cohere around an ongoing analysis of the relationships among knowledge, power, and subjectivity—associations at the heart of communication studies. Focused on how different subjects experience the established “regime of truth,” Foucault’s historical investigations, while obviously diverse, maintain a similar methodology, one he labeled the history of thought and contrasted with the history of ideas. As he conceives it, the history of ideas attempts to determine the origin and evolution of a particular concept through an uninterrupted teleology. He distinguishes his method, the history of thought, through its focus on historical problematization. This approach explores “the way institutions, practices, habits, and behavior become a problem for people who have certain types of habits, who engage in certain kinds of practices, and who put to work specific kinds of institutions.” In short, he studies how people and society deal with a phenomenon that has become a problem for them. This approach transforms the narrative of human progress into a history broken by concrete political, economic, and cultural problems whose resolution requires reconstituting the prevailing knowledge–power–subject dynamics. Put differently, Foucault illuminates historical breaks and the shifts required for their repair. Whereas the history of ideas erases the discontinuity among events, he highlights those differences and studies the process by which they dissolve within a singular historical narrative. Glossing his entire oeuvre, he suggests that his method can address myriad concerns, including “for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.” An overarching approach that intervenes into dominant narratives in order to demonstrate their silencing effects, the history of thought undergirds all three of Foucault’s externally imposed periods. Each period explores knowledge, power, and subjectivity while stressing one nodal point of the relationship: archeology stresses knowledge formation; genealogy emphasizes power formation; and the ethical period highlights subject formation. This strikingly original critical approach has left its mark on a wide range of theorists, including such notable thinkers as Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Donna Haraway, and Judith Butler, and has influenced critical communication scholars such as Raymie McKerrow, Ronald Greene, Kendell Phillips, Jeremy Packer, and Laurie Ouellete.
Matthew Bost and Matthew S. May
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are among the most powerful theorists of communication and social change under present-day global capitalism. In their Empire trilogy and other individual and collaborative works, Hardt and Negri argue for the fundamentally communicative nature of contemporary power. Their analyses demonstrate the ways that media technology, global flows of finance capital, and the contemporary shift to economies based on information and affective or emotional labor create new, more complex networks of oppression and new possibilities for more democratic social change. Hardt and Negri’s work, therefore, shifts the focus of critical communication and cultural theory from attaining or challenging political power within the nation-state and invites scholars to rethink sovereignty as empire: an interconnected global phenomenon appertaining to capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They furthermore reimagine dissent as a constitutive process of resistance and mutual aid through which the multitude simultaneously withdraws from empire and composes itself through the social communication of struggles across time and space. Hardt and Negri’s work has been taken up in communication studies to theorize the materiality of communication; the labor performed in cognitive, communication, and service industries; contemporary media audiences and reception; and historical and contemporary social movements, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
Peter K. Bsumek
Neoliberalism has become a central topic in critical cultural studies and communication. Broadly speaking, neoliberalism refers to economic theories, political discourses, and cultural practices that support free markets and private property. It is a political project dedicated to rolling back “the welfare state” and instituting a society based on market principles, as well as the ideologies and forms of governance that justify and enable such reforms. Neoliberalism is seen by many in the critical cultural tradition as a threat to enduring values such as justice, equality, and the ideals of “the public good” and the “common interest.” Others are critical of it as an explanatory concept, arguing that it lacks coherence and is used promiscuously as an all-purpose category of denunciation. In general, communication scholars have approached neoliberalism in two main ways. On the one hand, they have attempted to analyze communication about neoliberalism by focusing on the ways that communication is utilized to represent, enable, and justify neoliberal ideas, policies, and practices. This scholarship is largely concerned with the persuasive effects of communication and rhetoric. On the other hand, they have focused on the forms of communication that produce the cultural and material realities of neoliberalism. These scholars are generally concerned with the circulation of communication and rhetoric. It should come as no surprise that the distinction between the two approaches is not always neat and tidy. This is so, at least in part, because the critical traditions that inform this scholarship do not necessarily agree upon what exactly neoliberalism is. Communication scholars have engaged neoliberalism by aligning with, building upon, and mobilizing a variety of critical cultural scholarly approaches. Three of the most common approaches are discussed: neoliberalism as hegemonic project and ideology, neoliberalism as governmentality and biopolitics, and neoliberalism as political project and process. Each of these traditions assumes that neoliberalism constitutes, to a significant degree, the world we now inhabit.
Oliver W. Lembcke
The core of Giorgio Agamben’s political theory is his analysis of the ambivalence of politics and its ill-fated relationship with law. The key figure of this relationship, the biopolitical product of it, is the homo sacer, a figure that dates back to ancient Roman law. For Agamben, the homo sacer is the perfect manifestation of the sovereign power that has created this figure by banning it as an outlaw who can be harmed or even killed with impunity—all in the name of law. Agamben’s political theory aims at revealing the inherent logic of the sovereign power and its effects in determining the legal subjects of law (inclusion) and, by the same token, in imposing the pending option of separating these very legal subjects (or parts of them) from the legal order (exclusion). According to Agamben, this “exclusionary inclusion” illustrates not only the logic of biopolitics but also the destructive power of sovereignty that has accumulated the capacity to “form life” at its own interest by binding politics and law together. Historically, this kind of sovereignty has ancient origins, but politically its real power has been unleashed in modern times. For Agamben, homo sacer has become the cipher of modern societies, regardless of the manifold differences between democratic and autocratic political systems; and for this reason, he has dubbed his central project in the field of political theory Homo Sacer. Agamben started his Homo Sacer project with his widely received study, programmatically of the same title, in 1995. Much of what he has written in the years after can be interpreted as elaborations of the impact and consequences of the juridification of politics that he despises so much. For him, contrary to modern constitutionalism’s understanding, juridification is not a process of civilizing the political order; it produces ready-made legal instruments at the disposal of any sovereign anytime. Therefore, according to Agamben, it is a myth, typically told by proponents of liberal democracy, that law has the power to constrain sovereignty; instead, it enables sovereignty. Against this background, it does not come as a surprise that Agamben connects with a wide range of critics of the liberal concept of democracy and tries to make use of their arguments for his own project. For instance, Agamben shares the concept of biopolitics with Foucault but understands it (unlike Foucault) as a general phenomenon of law and politics; moreover, he borrows from Carl Schmitt the theory of the state of exception while transforming it into a permanent structure turning all humans into potential homines sacri; and picks up on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the concentration camps during the Nazi reign, stressing that the scope of sovereign power is almost unlimited, especially if it is based on an impersonal reign of arbitrariness and uncertainty that enable the production of forms of bare life that can hardly be called human anymore. Taken together, Agamben presents a radical critique of the history and development of the political orders from the Greek origins to modern-day democratic governance. Is there any reason for hope? In some of his studies after the State of Exception (original, 2003), Agamben picks up on this topic, at least indirectly. In The Kingdom and the Glory (2011), for instance, he deals with the industry of hope by discussing the distribution of labor within the holy trinity as the blueprint for the interplay between active, powerful parts of government (governing administration) and the passive, symbolic parts of it (ruling sovereigns). However, this interplay, with the help of “angels” (bureaucrats), produces only spectacular (but empty) glorification for the purpose of self-justification. The cure, if there is any, can only come from a radical detachment that liberates politics from law and, moreover, from any meaningful purpose, so that politics can become a form of pure means: a messianic form, inspired by Benjamin’s idea of divine violence, that has the power of a total rupture without being violent. Following Benjamin, Agamben envisions a “real” state of exception in which sovereignty becomes meaningless. Agamben’s Homo Sacer project has triggered various forms of criticism, which can be divided roughly into two lines of arguments. The first line is directed against the dark side of his theory that all individuals are captured in a seemingly never-ending state of exception. Critics have claimed that this perspective results mainly from Agamben’s strategy of concept stretching, starting with the concept of the state of exception itself. A second line of critique questions Agamben’s concept of politics beyond biopolitics. Because his argument is rather vague when it comes to the prospect of a future political process, it has been suspected that his ideas on the alternative options compared to the current disastrous state of affairs are ultimately apolitical ideas of the political, based on the nonpolitical myth of a fully reconciled society. Despite of these kinds of criticism Agamben has insisted that liberation from the ongoing process of biopolitics will not be brought about by revolutionary actions, but by subversive thinking. Agamben notes that in this messianic concept everything will be more or less the same—“just a little different” (Agamben, 2007b, p. 53). And the difference that he seems to mean is that the potentiality is not determined by the sovereign any longer, but by the individual.