‘Michel Foucault and the Social Contract’, Stuart Elden, Mark Kelly and Christopher Watkin, 13 April 2021 (online seminar)

On 13 April 2021, 6pm Melbourne/9am UK, I’ll be taking part in an online discussion on ‘Michel Foucault and the Social Contract‘ with Mark Kelly and Christopher Watkin, as part of a series looking at the social contract today. Full details of the Social Contract Network are here.

Stuart Elden (Warwick University), ‘The Yoke of Law and the Lustre of Glory’

Perhaps surprisingly, Foucault does not talk about social contract theory very often. In this talk I will briefly survey his discussions of the term and the tradition of political thought, especially in his Collège de France lecture courses – his discussion of civil war and the contract in The Punitive Society; the challenge to the tradition in ‘Society Must Be Defended’; and his indication of a shift from the implicit contract of security in territory to population security in his work on governmentality. The main focus, however, will be on a remark Foucault makes in ‘Society Must Be Defended’ about the dual nature of sovereignty, of the relation between political, juridical power and magical, supernatural power. These two faces or aspects are the power to bind and command, and the power to dazzle and petrify. He calls this the “yoke of law and the lustre of glory”. I will explore the links between this understanding of contracts and Georges Dumézil’s work on Indo-European mythology.

Mark Kelly (Western Sydney University), ‘Social Contract as Norm’

While Foucault’s own direct engagements with the social contract are few and far between, I want to offer a Foucauldian critique of social contract theory qua normative political theory. Contractarianism is notoriously premised on a profound ontological individualism, on the idea that individuals are prior to society, and can therefore either (on a strong reading) constitute civil society based on their free contracting to bring it into existence or (on a weak reading) change the form of society in accordance with their wishes. Against this, Foucault argues that the individual (and thus discourses of individualism like social contract theory) is an invention of disciplinary modernity. I will seek to progress this line of critique by combining it with Foucault’s critique of utopianism to suggest that social contract theory represents an incipient normalisation of society itself, indeed one that precedes and provides the background for the intense normalisation of individuals in late modernity.

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