The Right of Death and Power Over Life / Society Must Be Defended

Here is the reading for April 9.  It is a long one, because it is basically a reading and a half, but my summer schedule is getting too busy.  Here is a printable copy.

Foucault begins with a definition of sovereignty: “For a long time, one of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death” (135).  It was derived from the power of the Roman head of household, who had the right to “dispose” of the lives of his children and slaves.  He gave them life, so he could take it away.  By the time the “classical theoreticians” considered it, it had gone from being an absolute power to one that was only exercised when the sovereign’s existence was threatened, like during a war.  Specifically, by drafting subjects, he could “expose their life”.  Conscription was an indirect power of life and death.  Against treason, there was a direct power of execution. So the power of life and death was conditional: the protection of the sovereign’s existence.

Continue reading


We Other Victorians and The Repressive Hypothesis

Here is the reading for Saturday, March 26.  A printable copy is here.  Check the sidebar for the location, or search for us on

We Other Victorians

There is a very common story about 19th century Victorian England: that it was prudish and did its best to suppress all non-reproductive sex.  As the story goes, at the dawn of the 17th century, people were still frank about sexuality and practiced it openly.

But then the Victorians, those bastards, ruined it all:  “Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the home.  The conjugal family took custody of it and absorbed it into the serious function of reproduction.  On the subject of sex, silence became the rule (3).”  Sex was only legitimate between procreative couples. There was only a single place for sex in social space: the parents’ bedroom.  Anything else had to remain vague, or was denied or silenced.  For example—everyone knew that children had no sex, so they were forbidden to talk about it, and evidence to the contrary was denied.  All of this is what we usually call “repression.”

Continue reading

The Subject and Power

Here is the reading for Saturday, March 12.  We will meet here at 4:30, and a printable copy can be found here.  Try to print your own copy, or bring a device to read it on.

Before looking at the actual essay, a brief history of the term “the subject” might be useful.  In grammar, it is whatever carries out the predicate of a sentence: “I ate cake,” and so on.  This is not quite how philosophers have used the term. The most relevant sense of “subject” comes from Kant.  For Kant, thinking is a matter of linking intuitions (what we might call the empirical) and concepts.  Intuitions just give us a mass of jumbled perceptions, and concepts, in concert with these intuitions, present us with an ordered world.  The subject is what carries out this synthesis; each of our statements or perceptions can be prefaced with “I. . .”, as in “I think cake is delicious” or “I see a table.”  Because this activity is carried out “behind” or “before” any actual thinking, this subject is transcendental.  The important thing is the subject is universal; individual or cultural differences are accidents.  Because it is a transcendental subject, that is, because it comes before experience or thought, it stands behind class, gender, and culture without being affected by them.

For Foucault, the subject is something entirely different.  It is not a substance, it is not transcendental, and it is not inborn.  The “I. . .” that we can preface every statement with is something that is formed under particular historical conditions by a process he calls subjectification.  The engine of subjectification is what he calls power, and his basic project is to study how subjects are formed by various kinds of power relations.

Continue reading