Foucault's Reconfiguration of the Subject: From Nietzsche to Butler, Laclau/Mouffe, and Beyond

By Schrift, Alan D | Philosophy Today, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Foucault's Reconfiguration of the Subject: From Nietzsche to Butler, Laclau/Mouffe, and Beyond


Schrift, Alan D, Philosophy Today


The breakdown of philosophical subjectivity and its dispersion in a language that dispossesses it while multiplying it within the space created by its absence is probably one of the fundamental structures of contemporary thought.

Michel Foucault, "A Preface to Transgression" (p. 42)

If Foucault is a great philosopher, this is because he used history for the sake of something beyond it: as Nietzsche said: acting against time, and thus on time, for the sake of a time one hopes will come.

Gilles Deleuze, "What is a Dispositif" (pp. 164-65)

There is a tendency, when reading Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, to be seduced by the force of Foucault's narratives into dispensing altogether with any notion of agency as one comes to view human beings merely as nodes through which institutionalized power relations are transmitted.1 When analyzing concrete political situations, however, care must be taken to avoid overreacting to and overcompensating for Foucault's diagnosis of the juridico-discursive focus on power as a sovereign possession. By moving too quickly toward dispensing with everything that pertains to the individual human subject, one fails to attend to the last development in Foucault's thought, where he suggests several ways we might reconfigure our understanding of the relationships between power and subjects. In what follows, I will examine Foucault's reconfiguration of the subject and some of the developments this reconfiguration has spawned. Before we turn to this task, however, it will be helpful to review quickly his earliest, and perhaps better known, position on the subject, in which he links the death of God with the end of man, an end punctuated by the laughter of the Ubermensch that closes The Order of Things.2

In The Order of Things, Foucault raises the question of the subject in terms of what he refers to as the Nietzschean question, "who is speaking?"3 This question appears in the context of Foucault's crediting Nietzsche for opening up language as "an enigmatic multiplicity that must be mastered." Foucault writes: "For Nietzsche, it was not a matter of knowing what good and evil were in themselves, but of who was being designated, or rather who was speaking when one said Agathos to designate oneself or Deilos to designate others."4 In drawing the genealogical distinction between the noble's "good," operating as it does within the couplet "good-bad," and the slave's "good," which functions within the very different couplet "good-evil," Foucault remarks that Nietzsche was perhaps the first to notice that words had "ceased to intersect with representations and to provide a spontaneous grid for the knowledge of things."5 This recognition led Nietzsche to focus critical attention not on what was said but on who said what was said, and on what the reasons were which had given rise to what was said.

Foucault had already made this point in the under-appreciated essay "Nietzsche, Freud, Marx," his contribution to the 1964 Colloquium on Nietzsche at Royaumont. In his concluding remarks on the obligation of interpretation to interpret itself to infinity, he noted that:

interpretation will be henceforth always interpretation by the "who?": one does not interpret what there is in the signified, but one interprets, fundamentally, who has posed the interpretation. The origin [principe] of interpretation is nothing other than the interpreter, and this is perhaps the sense that Nietzsche gave to the word "psychology."6

In other words, to ask "who interprets?" or "who speaks?" will not produce an answer taking the form of a subject's name, as Foucault indicates when he inscribes the question "who?" within "psychology," which we must recall was defined by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil as "morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power."7 This is to say, for Nietzsche it is not a subject but will to power that speaks and interprets, and rather than eliciting the name of a subject, for Nietzsche the question "who? …

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