Blogging Foucault’s most recently published lectures, Théories et institutions pénales. VII 1972

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

At last I’ve managed to pick up this series of posts again. I hope to get the rest of this out without much interruption, but I can’t guarantee it.

12th January 1972

Foucault continues with a detailed discussion of the reaction of the French monarchy to an uprising in Normandy in the seventeenth century, in the reign of Louis XIII, when the effective head of the French government was Cardinal Richelieu. The king is not mentioned by name in this lecture and even Richelieu, who has a mythical aura himself as the Great European Statesman of the 17th century and as the architect of the French State, is absent.

Deliberately or not, Foucault adds emphasis in this way to the theme of the growth of a depersonalised state detached from the person of the king, and certainly his body. Foucault refers to the Medieval political theology of the monarch and the idea of the two bodies of the king. This is an idea associated with the work of the German historian Ernst Kantorowicz in his book of the 1950s, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. It is the editors of the lectures who add the reference, but Foucault’s invocation is clear enough.

There are some questions here about how Foucault regards Kantorowicz’ study and his whole career (in short Kantorowicz was more than just another academic Medievalist) and as he does refer to ‘political theology’ in the lecture, there is an issue of his attitude to Carl Schmitt, who did write a well known book with that title and comes to most minds pretty quickly in connection with ‘political theology’. I won’t follow up these issues in this series of posts, but they are certainly worth considering and might guide some of my future inquiries.

Foucault alludes to the political theology of Medieval kings to emphasise a transition from a state that in significant part exists in the body of the king to a state that exists in an apparatus of appointed career bureaucrats. The ‘two bodies’ idea is that the king exists as a normal human body and as a sacred body, so is like Christ, combining the physical and sacred. The power of the Chancellor Séguier who restores ‘order’ in Normandy is distinctly removed from the presence of the king.

Of course it is not a new type of arrangement for a representative of the king to handle local affairs, it was never possible for the king to be simultaneously present everywhere. What is different, as Foucault explains, is that the Normandy judicial, business, municipal and church elites had no opportunity to appeal directly to the king. The power of his representative, and of the administrative apparatus in general, was absolute and beyond appeal.

Séguier is described as arriving in Normandy combining the military and judicial powers of the state and breaking down the boundaries between them, so is both an occupying force and a constituting form of authority, suggesting that legality and sovereignty are expressions of state military force and the product of civil war and conquest. Foucault refers indirectly here to the distribution of state powers in Medieval conceptions between bodies which were under the monarchy, but could not be overthrown by the monarch. The fusion of the judicial and military power is itself a major departure from Medieval tradition.

Foucault’s account is possibly shaped by Montesquieu’s understanding of the distinction between monarchy and despotism in The Spirit of the Laws, which is a speculative comment on my part, but there is no doubt that Montesquieu represents an important stage in thinking about these issues and that Foucault is in some way part of a tradition of French thinking that includes Montesquieu, a figure discussed by Émile Durkheim, whose sociological theory is certainly part of the background to Foucault’s work, and Louis Althusser who was one of Foucault’s teachers.

The powers that Séguier combines are the central functions of the state as understood by a various thinkers, and can be found in even the most minimal state. One implication of Foucault’s historical account is that the liberalism, or art of government, he will later describe for the eighteenth century and had already discussed to some degree in work in the 60s on the history of political economy, which emphasises the distinction between law and state force emerges from the kind of ‘absolutist’ royalist state Foucault is describing in the 17th century.

The situation for liberal theory, certainly in 18th century theories of civil society is a bit more complex than a naive belief in the absolute separation of law and force. I can’t get into that here, but it can at least be said that a naive formalist kind of liberalism does not fit with all the early liberal classics. Where Foucault’s own thinking fits in here is another question to big for the present series of posts, but we should be careful about where we place him. It is also an idea of early liberal classics, John Locke and Wilhelm von Humboldt spring to mind, that the king (executive governmental branch) is chief judge and army commander, in which case Séguier became a version of the king, even if his crude fusion of powers overrode Medieval sensibilities.

The full significance of Séguier’s ‘reign’ (not a word used by Foucault, but an appropriate extension of his commentary, if not necessarily a ‘correct’ interpretation of his ‘real’ meaning) then is that the Medieval restraints are overthrown as local elites are ignored along with normal legal procedures and rules for composing local bodies. The elites cannot appeal to the king (or even Richelieu). Suspected rebels are given tortuous forms of death sentence without right of appeal, without more than one judge, and without a written judgement, all violations of procedure. Parlements (see previous posts for discussion of these bodies which combined judicial and representative functions) were packed with men chosen by Séguier, who were not members of the families who traditionally filled these posts. The poor were fined to a level they could not pay and the aristocracy was held responsible for the debt.

After the rebellion was quashed to the satisfaction of Séguier and his masters in Paris, some normality returned including respect for local institutions and elites. There was no taking back the demonstration of centralised power though, which was expressed in more regularised way through the already present centralisation of feudal rents in the hands of the state. Later rebels had to work on the basis of the knowledge that they had to strike at a power above the local institutions which were no longer absolutely guaranteed in their authority. Foucault here maybe alludes to the French Revolution of 1789, a long way in the future, or possibly the Fronde of the 1660s, an aristocratic uprising against the new absolutism at a time when the boy Louis XIV was king, while his mother Anne of Austria (who was Spanish), ruled in conjunction with Richelieu’s disciple and replacement Cardinal Mazarin (who was Italian).

2 thoughts on “Blogging Foucault’s most recently published lectures, Théories et institutions pénales. VII 1972

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

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

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