Blogging Foucault’s most recently published lectures, Théories et institutions pénales. VI 1971

(Commentary on Theories et institutions pénale. Cours au Collège de France, 1971-1972. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2015)
22nd December, 1971

There is quite a lot of recapitulation of the previous lecture, perhaps suggesting that Foucault was particularly eager to maintain the unity of his discussion in the previous lecture with the discussion he now enters into of the claims of the central state. As he repeats from the previous lecture the entry of ‘armed justice’, that is external military units enforcing central state authority in Normandy with the old archbishop’s seat Rouen as the central concern here, results in summary execution and torture of supposed rebels.

As Foucault mentioned in  the previous lecture, there is a return of civil order and what Foucault expands on the latter part of this lecture is the way that the local agents of civil order are subordinated to the crown, or in practice the figures at the head of the state judicial, administrative and governmental apparatus. The subordination and the central rejection of traditional local mediation represents a shift in the functioning of power that Foucault emphasised in the previous lecture.

He refers now to a sixteenth century understanding of a monarchy restrained by three elements: religion, justice, ‘police’. These three elements look like the central supports of monarchy, so suggest a view of government as depending on elements that also limit it. It seems like an anticipation of Montesquieu, and that may not be an accidental outcome of Foucault’s design. Even if it is an accident, it is highly meaningful with regard to the context in which we might evaluate Foucault’s thought.

The three restraints are attributed to Seyssel, who appears to be the archbishop Claude de Seyssel, living in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and who was a tutor to King Louis XII as well as a translator of Thucydides, though Foucault himself does not make this clear. The idea of restraint by religion in Foucault’s account refers to the right of even a simple preacher to challenge the king. Justice refers to the role of the parlements, the local courts who registered royal edicts as law and sometimes issued remonstrances against those edicts which offended them. ‘Police’ does not refer to ‘police’ as understood in modern English but to the structure and hierarchy of offices in the realm, over which the king presided but which he could not dissolve.

Foucault suggests that the suppression of the revolt in Normandy undermined and even directly contradicted those restraints which were deeply rooted in medieval France, if not necessarily in exactly the forms late seventeenth century rebels and local notables might have assumed appropriate. Foucault presents what is in outline a familiar picture of the world of feudal privileges and particularisms distributed between localities and within the social hierarchy giving way to a world of the centralised state underneath autocratic monarchies. The France of this time, with the  centrality of Richelieu also indicates that monarchist ‘despotism’ could include a redistribution of power from the monarchy to the chief minister as head of a state machine.

The particularities emphasised by Foucault are that in Rouen the archbishop appeals to Séguier, Richelieu’s subordinate so twice removed from the place of the king to mediate between people and king. This hope is denied as Séguier’ expectation is that all the people of Normandy will submit directly to the ‘King’ (in practice the state directed by Richelieu), so that all the guilty will be punished and the innocent protected, according to the administration of royal justice. So the archbishop has no role in either protecting the people, or notables, in general, or in those cases where he believes they should be spared from royal justice.

All three restraints on monarchy have been eroded away here, as the archbishop represents religion and traditional social hierarchy in direct ways, and maybe in a less direct way justice, since the Catholic church had a long tradition of cannon law and judicial privileges. More directly the archbishop is the ally of the  class of those who sit in the parlements. Generally all intercession by local notables and attempts to identify a limited class of people who revolted and deserve punishment is rejected. The representatives of the monarchy demand the application of ‘equity’, of general principles of justice which apply to all equally and must be applied without privilege or exemption.

In this respect, Foucault alludes to a genuine ideal which has some value in comparison with the demands of traditional authority for special recognition. The ideal has some genuine value but is applied with extreme violence which in itself lacks restraint by principles of justice.  There is a clear allusion here to future popular revolutionary ideals which will take up the claims of the monarchist state to represent pure justice and will claim to have a superior basis for equity in new political institutions to represent the nation or the people.

4 thoughts on “Blogging Foucault’s most recently published lectures, Théories et institutions pénales. VI 1971

  1. Pingback: , since | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Barry Stocker on Foucault’s Théories et institutions pénales lecture course | Progressive Geographies

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