Continuing to haphazardly reread bits of Foucault in line with the last few posts. In the last section of Society Must Be Defended, Foucault talks about some preconditions for killing. He specifies that by killing he does “not mean simply murder as such, but also every form of indirect murder: the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on.” (256.) Foucault discusses racism as something which makes killing (more) acceptable. Put simply, it’s easier to kill someone (or make them risk death etc) or some population if they’re less like the killer(s). Dehumanization, so to speak, though Foucault might not like the term. That makes sense to me.

Despite his expansive definition of killing, what Foucault focuses on is killing by the state and more or less directly. There’s little to no attention to other forms of indirect killing that I associated with the economy here and here. Foucault mentions colonialism, mentions it as genocidal and I certainly would not want to minimize any of the bloodshed of colonialism, but in his discussion it sounds as if the _point_ of colonialism was killing, in the way that WWII German extermination programs were aimed at killing.

This last is the example Foucault really talks about and I find him convincing (I know nothing about that time and place so I’m easily convinced). I find his discussion of racial ideology interesting, he talks about a dynamic along the lines of “our race flourishes by purging those others” whether the others are considered a separate race entirely or a group somewhat inside the race (the former is race vs race the latter is race vs impurities of the race). As Foucault mentions, the same type of thing happens with regard to eliminating criminals and the mentally ill (258), though I think this stretches the term “racism” to near unrecognizability such that it would have been better for Foucault to use a different term (as it is, he creates the possibility for many a communicative misfire given the persistence of “ordinary racism” as he calls it on 258). See this, this, and this re: eugenics in the US, see this and this re: Indian removal (“nits make lice”).

The thing is, Foucault seems to me to take the German case as more paradigmatic than it is. Why is that the paradigm case? What about, say, slavery? Marcus Rediker estimates that about 5 million Africna people were killed as a result the transatlantic slave trade (the quote is in the page I just linked to). According to this, two people died for every five who survived shipping to the “new world, ” and that doesn’t say anything about life expectancy after arrival. Slavery was lethal, but it did not exist for the purpose of killing. One could argue about whether the killing was incidental or instrumental (exacting really horrible costs on rebellions may have helped make slaves more hesitant to rebel), but the point is that slavery existed to produce wealth, not death. This is not to say that the production of death is separable from slavery, far from it, but it seems to me there’s an important difference between killing in war and killing in order to take or keep slaves.

Plantation owners were not generals, slave traders and overseers were not soldiers. Those people operated according to economic logics as much or more than state logics. Those economic logics were (and are) certainly racist and I think Foucault can be usefully applied to that, but again there’s a difference between “this group is inferior so our killing of them is justified” and “this group is inferior and so our enslaving them is justified, therefore our killing in order to enslave them is also justified.” Put differently, perhaps the plantation owner and all that could be mapped onto Foucault’s claims – I can imagine claims like “our race benefits from this,” but the claim to benefit is not biological (eliminating impurities in what is taken to be one’s own race or eliminating another race which threatens one’s own) so much as economic (subjugating what is taken to be another race but keeping them alive so as to benefit from that subjugation).

I think parallel claims could be made with regard to waged labor. Workers were racialized, as were radicals. (See for instance, Zane Grey‘s disgusting1919 novel The Desert of Wheat, which talks at length about German blood and the IWW as made up of foreigners who are either scheming or are too stupid to know they’re being had; the novel includes the following incident – committed by characters who are good guys in the novel – which is almost exactly what happened to Frank Little in reality:
“From the front cars rose shrill cries that alarmed the prisoners in the rear. The reason soon became manifest. Arms pointed and eyes stared at the figure of a man hanging from a rope fastened to the center of a high bridge span under which the engine was about to pass. The figure swayed in the wind. It turned half-way round, disclosing a ghastly, distorted face, and a huge printed placard on the breast, then it turned back again. Slowly the engine drew one car-load after another past the suspended body of the dead man. There were no more cries. All were silent in that slow-moving train. All faces were pale, all eyes transfixed. The placard on the hanged man’s breast bore in glaring red a strange message: Last warning. 3-7-77. The figures were the ones used in the frontier days by vigilantes.” [This is the end of chapter 21.]) This occurred in two ways, or rather, for two reasons – one, to put down their revolts. That is, to deliberately use violence on them or kill them, in order to send them back to work and end the threat they posed. The second was in order to justify their lives under the ordinary operations of capitalism. The first is completely in keeping with what Foucault talks about. The second is not, and the two are linked.

A final comment which is a complaint. The last 3 or 4 pages of the last lecture are ridiculous, irresponsible, and annoying. I understand that Foucault means “racism” as a technical term. I’ve already complained about that use and said that I think a different term encompassing “ordinary racism” would have been better. This is doubly so when he says that all socialists are racists. Nonsense, in the ordinary sense of the term. Foucault’s use of the term racism involves a metaphorical relationship to ordinary racism – to the ordinary uses of the word racism – and his discussion gains a certain rhetorical force by the metaphor. Along similar lines though even more expansive than Foucault, I might say that rape is a form of violent appropriation of women, then use some literary theory notions that all language is the violent appropriation of something coded feminine in order to say that all language use is rape. The metaphor might hold (provided the metaphors of ‘violence’ and ‘feminine’ in the account of language and all that hold, something I doubt) but even if it did so, such a use of terms would serve little positive purpose and I can think of some negative ones. In short, the rhetorical charge of the term strikes me as an argument for changing it. I suspect this is precisely Foucault’s reason for keeping it, and if I’m write it’s doubly irritating. Foucault’s point really amounts to “any consideration of armed struggle is racist” in the sense that it must consider the possibility of killing some people. Fine, but Foucault offers much more heat than light to that particular issue and his terminology here muddies rather than clarifies.

Foucault is far from the worst on this, but I’m more interested in him so it’s more annoying when he does it.

It’s like Humpty Dumpty as professor (or vice versa, I should write me a thing on that) —

“There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t— till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!””

“But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

From chapter six of Through the Looking Glass, (note to self: a passage to to revisit sometime re: both university silliness and overinflated claims about language and labor, as when Dumpty talks about paying wages to his words).