requiem for certainty

Contingency and Stability in History

with one comment

According to one usual story, necessity connotes stability whilst contingency connotes instability. Foucault is anything but the usual story. One thing that makes his work so provocative and appealing is his attribution of stability and contingency to the selfsame objects of his historical inquiries—or to put it differently, his employment of stability and contingency in the selfsame analytic for historical inquiry.

Foucault’s objects of inquiry are often remarkably stable structures such as disciplinary power and their corollary institutions such as prisons. Unlike those who take this stability as flowing from some necessity (which the historian would prove by way of a causal explanation referring to, say, economic necessity or social efficiency), Foucault shows how high degrees of stability sometimes flow from the contingent coalescence of congeries of chancy occurrences. The fact that these very stable structures and institutions emerged contingently does little to unseat or disrupt them, however. They are, after all, remarkably stable.

And that, after all, is part of Foucault’s point. This is why Foucault is not content to merely make a philosophical or ontological point but rather works in a way that combines philosophy and ontology with history. Since these stabilities are conditioned by a massive historical inertia, we cannot easily transform them. If we do wish to initiate a transformative response to the problematizations that these stable structures and institutions form, then one thing we would require is a historical inquiry that places at our disposal an understanding of the materials which conditioned the emergence of these stabilities. A historical understanding of these conditions equips us with a reflexive relationship to the contingencies which make us who we are such that we can begin the long and hard labor of transforming those remarkably stable structures to which we find ourselves subjected.

[n.b.: this is a paragraph from my genealogy book.]


Written by Colin Koopman

October 27, 2009 at 2:05 am

One Response

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  1. I do not think, as you mention, that we have only ‘been subjected’ to the stable structures. As Foucault states, power produces. In this sense, we ourselve produce these structures that subjectify/objectify other/self. I think the danger is that in liking Foucault’s thinking with a postmodern deconstruction, where meliorism reigns supreme, we re-create supremacy. Indeed, it can be defined as progress for those who are being served or are benefiting. Certainly ‘manifest destiny’ seemed a liberating and ‘enlightening’ progression of humanity. We have more poverty and disease, loneliness and fractured identities, and other issues than ever before, even as some other things have improved. I, in taking Buddhism and Zen into account in reading words and society, I think that as some things seem progressing, other things aren’t. This…i’m afraid, is always in the form of power relations and victorious discourses, institutions and frameworks. The ethic of instability and contingency DOES form openings for new structures. The issue is the power-relations that ensue at that moment. At that moment presently, those with the privileges (resources, etc.) continue to re-create for us…..herein lies the questions of ‘future’ and ‘present’ and past…..


    September 6, 2010 at 10:13 pm

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