“Society Must Be Defended,” by Michel Foucault

Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be DefendedLectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be Defended by Michel Foucault

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michel Foucault’s “Lectures” series is a collection of lectures given at the College De France from 1971 to 1984. They have been recently translated and published, but for whom, that I am not quite sure.

I absolutely loved reading this particular lecture series, “Society Must Be Defended”. The major themes Foucault discusses are Race and War, and their causal relations. As an American reader, my initial interpretation of the word Race hinges on the historically motivated US interpretation: skin color. But Foucault, and most of Europe, consider Race in a different, albeit for more accurate, way. They consider Race in the terms of what I would describe as nationality. So, Race, then, is not skin color, but regional origin, national origin, etc. I have had lengthy discussions upon this cultural distinction with friends from Europe, and it has proven true each time.

Now, this fits very well into what Foucault describes as War. War is antagonism. War is power relations. War is struggle. And ultimately, War is racist. It is racist in the sense of power and subjugation, not in the Malcolm X / US / Huey Newton race war between Whites and Blacks, but in the sense of one subspecies of man establishing dominance over another subspecies of man. Foucault takes for a precondition, man-as-species. Or in Literary Theory terms: Universal Humanism. But Universal Humanism is an ideal, and it is not a reality. Beyond Humanism is man-as-species, man-as-political-body, etc. What amazing phenomenon has occurred beyond the eighteenth century is namely the classification and hierarchialization of War. But before Foucault can get to that, he must confront Clausewitz’ famous dictum: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.

Foucault first challenges this statement by reversing it and arguing that politics is the continuation of war by other means. I will summarize this, most likely in an inaccurate manner, by stating that Foucault ultimately argues that politics hold the population in a state of perpetual war. I think of Virginia Woolf‘s essay Three Guineas, in which she criticizes the pomp and celebration of the aftermath of War, and these ritualistic measures to keep the public employed at war, while not actually, physically, being in a war. Something along the lines of the Military Industrial Complex discussion.

He then goes on to discuss and dissect how it came to be that War became the means to understanding History. Who are the major individuals who wrote History? When did it become a State functioning separation and domination of one race over another? For this, Foucault takes on Hobbes and the function of War within the building of modern France, Germany, and England.

This is all far too large a subject to cover in this little review. So, I will end it by arguing that this book is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t think I may ever read it again. Reading Foucault is a special thing. His knowledge is not meant for this man sitting at a desk, wanting a paycheck, desirous of life, love, and such. It’s meant for someone distinct. Someone devoted. It’s meant for a time and place that no longer exists for me outside Academia.

I apologize for this late realization. But it is the direct reason it took me months to finish this collection. The terms “normalization” and “biopower” are absolutely essential to any theoretical argument I undertake, but they are so few and far between outside of those halls of Academia that Foucault’s relevancy is waning for me. Still, I do not hesitate in giving it five stars. So, enjoy at your leisure, but beware: the ideas and theories contained herein may cause alienation.

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8 thoughts on ““Society Must Be Defended,” by Michel Foucault

  1. Yep, I’m up there with you – I give Foucault five stars; reading and contemplating him is most engaging but at the end of the day there’s a sigh of the kind one gets at realising: ah, am a step cleverer now. The definition of race here is so much more relevant because it actually fits with the “way of life” as well as genetic make up

  2. Foucault is on my list of big names to read on my way to trying to be well read. Not sure I’m ready for him now, but I’ll keep your review in mind for when I am.

    • My advice: start slow. And this is not condescending. Seriously. 🙂
      The “Foucault Reader” is a good primer, and it contains a good swath of his theories/language.
      Good reading, bloggeretterized!

    • I have never tackled Bourdieu. I’ve read a few of Zizek’s books, and he is a huge proponent of Bourdieu and Foucault.
      Thanks for the comment, nweiss2013!

  3. Thanks for the brief review. I wish you had discussed the part where he talked about sexuality because I am still a bit confused on that matter.

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