requiem for certainty

Foucault on Problematization

with 2 comments

The historiographical commitment undertaken by Foucault’s practice genealogy as problematization is a commitment to problems and responses as the units of historical explanation. This means that the genealogist will seek to explain historical processes by reference to the problems which motivate certain processes and the specific practices which develop in response to these problems. This can be contrasted to more common historiographical commitments to explanation by reference to familiar themes of economy, of territory, of spirit, of rationality, or of ideology. In his 1978 course lectures Foucault reflected on the methodological shift implicit in his recent and continuing genealogical studies: “The point of view adopted in all these studies involved the attempt to free relations of power from the institution, in order to analyze them from the point of view of technologies, to distinguish them also from the function, so as to take them up within a strategic analysis; and to detach them from the privilege of the object, so as to resituate them within the perspective of the constitution of fields, domains, and objects of knowledge” (8 Feb 1978, Security, Territory, Population p. 118). Throughout his course lectures from that year Foucault makes increasingly explicit reference to the conception he would later describe as problematization. In the passage just quoted we have an effective characterization of what Foucault’s historiographical commitment to problematization is working against. Foucault explains, here and in surrounding pages, that he is looking to move beyond a mode of historical explanation that would situate practices in relation to institutions, or functions, or established objects. Rather, Foucault here urges, institutions, functions, and objects must themselves be explained, and in terms of the problematizations which enable them.

Foucault refers in these pages to his earlier work as exemplary of this.  The problem of disciplinary power acts as a kind of explanation of modern punishment practices. His point here is that punishment should not be explained on the basis of penal institutions, punitive functions, and objective analyses of prisons and courts. All of these are important, of course, but they themselves must be situated in relation to the general problematization of discipline which enabled them. What Foucault is thus after in his studies of discipline, security, and governmentality are not merely new institutions, functions, and objects, but rather “the emergence of a completely different problem” which enables the responsive development of these real institutions, functions, and objects (25 Jan 1978, STP, p. 65).

This perhaps offers a few clues about the distinctive contribution of Foucault’s practice of genealogy. Genealogy engages the history of the present on the basis of the emergence of the problematizations which have enabled the development of present practices in response to these problematizations. Punishment is not significant as an institutional form, a functional process, or a set of objects. Punishment is significant as a response to a problematization that still has a grip on the way in which we constitute ourselves.


Written by Colin Koopman

November 18, 2007 at 5:45 am

2 Responses

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  1. I am tempted to imagine the underlying problem (that which requires problematization) as directly correlative to the register of Lacanian Real, insofar as it “eludes” direct symbolization (thus requiring genealogical interpretative technique), and becomes apparent in its symptomatic practical expression (or stain) in the field of the social.

    Tyler Innis

    November 28, 2007 at 12:33 am

  2. I am tempted by that thought too and I think that this sort of thought is going to be the best basis for developing a use for psychoanalysis in my work — one useful source here are Deleuze’s writings on psychoanalysis in ‘Difference & Repetition’.

    One lingering concern I still have at this point is that I do not think that Foucault would have regarded the domain of ‘problematization’ as necessarily unsymbolizable or unpresentable, whereas as I understand Lacan through Zizek, the Real is that which by definition cannot be symbolized or presented in the Symbolic, correct? It only presents, as it were, through the backdoor, as a symptom (in more Freudian parlance). I think Foucault’s concept of problematization allows us to directly engage the problematic and in fact on Foucault’s concept we can work to clarify and intensify problematizations. I think in this sense Freud is a better psychoanalytic analogue for Foucault than is Lacan.


    November 28, 2007 at 6:39 pm

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