Genealogy Beyond Critique: Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as Coalitional Worldmaking

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2023, Vol. 51(2) 331 –354
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00905917221103296
Genealogy Beyond
Critique: Foucault’s
Discipline and Punish as
Coalitional Worldmaking
Luke Ilott1
Michel Foucault was an energetic activist, yet his bleak depiction of totalizing
power and his refusal to make normative claims have led many to judge that
Discipline and Punish (1975) did not sustain a positive political project. This
article offers a new, contextualist account of Foucault’s political purposes by
reading Discipline and Punish as a tool for coalition building through historical
worldmaking. Addressing the division and marginalization of movements
on France’s “alternative left” like feminism and gay liberation, Foucault
wove together their differentiated concerns into a shared historical world.
His apparently demoralizing identification of the same forms of power
everywhere in fact revealed new possibilities for alliance. Focusing on
Foucault’s unifying historical narratives reveals a positive project beyond
the negative, denaturalizing “critique of power” we usually associate with
his political thought. Foucault’s coalitional work of worldmaking may offer a
model for genealogical political theory today.
Foucault, genealogy, history, critique, coalition
1University of Cambridge Christ’s College, Cambridge, UK
Corresponding Author:
Luke Ilott, University of Cambridge Christ’s College, St Andrew’s Street, UK.
1103296PTXXXX10.1177/00905917221103296Political TheoryIlott
332 Political Theory 51(2)
In the severe vision of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the school
and the hospital come to resemble prisons: sites where “disciplinary power”
subjugates individuals and takes hold of their most minute motions (Foucault
[1975] 1995, 228). For many readers, power has seemed inescapable, so
“omnipresent” that “there could be no resistance” (Dosse 1998, 251).
Moreover, by foregoing normative commitments in his Nietzschean “genea-
logical” histories, Foucault denied himself the tools to explicitly criticize the
status quo or justify the pursuit of alternatives. He described power in great
historical detail without passing judgment on its legitimacy. Various promi-
nent critics have judged that the ultimate consequence of his thought is
“political quietism,” supplying “a world-historical alibi for the sense of pas-
sivity and helplessness that gripped so many of us in the 1970s” (Said 1983,
245; Berman 1988, 35).
Yet we know that Foucault was anything but passive. In the early 1970s, he
was more active in radical politics than at any other time in his life. He helped
organize a network of committees campaigning over prisons, housing, and
health, and suffered injuries in frequent clashes with police (Macey 2019,
257–322). In a 1975 interview, he declared that “one must bring as much gai-
ety, lucidity and doggedness to the fight as possible. . . . Writing only interests
me insofar as it is incorporated into the reality of a combat, in the form of an
instrument, a tactic, an illumination. I would like my books to be a kind of
scalpel, Molotov cocktails or undermining tunnels, and for them to burn up
after use like fireworks” (Foucault [1975] 2001, 1593). There is an apparent
mismatch between the energy of Foucault’s activism and the demobilizing
implications of his books. If he was both “activist” and “philosopher,”
Rancière (2013, 386) observes, “there is a serious uncertainty in understand-
ing the relation between the one and the other.” By foregrounding Foucault’s
construction of unifying historical narratives, this article contributes a new
way to understand the relation between the author and the activist.
The possibility of a mobilizing Foucauldian politics is often seen as being
hindered by Foucault’s refusal to make normative judgments. Most readers
have gauged that Discipline and Punish is meant to galvanize us to resist
“normalizing” mechanisms of disciplinary power—but why? “Only with the
introduction of normative notions,” argues Fraser (1989, 29), “could he begin
to tell us what is wrong with the modern power/knowledge regime and why
we ought to oppose it.” Although scholars including Allen (2010) and
Lorenzini (2020) have found normative justifications for resistance in
Foucault’s genealogies, this seems to stray from his antinormative ambition

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