On Accidents (Part Four): Michel Foucault, Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl (2012), and Apparatuses of Security

It has been some time since I posted something more substantial than a series of photographs or a snippet of poetry. So, in the spirit of continuing my posts on accidentality and the random texts of my post-dissertation reading list, I thought I would turn to Michel Foucault (who is, after all, fundamental to the thought of Catherine Malabou and Judith Butler). About a month ago, on pure whim alone, I ordered the English translation of Foucault’s 1977-1978 lectures, Security, Territory, Population (2007).

722323While it shouldn’t be too surprising that there is a non-ontological history of thought on “the accident,” the very first lecture (11 January 1978) nevertheless caught me by surprise. In his early attempt to clarify what he means by “security,” Foucault distinguishes three governmental “mechanisms” of “keep[ing] a type of criminality [. . .] within socially and economically acceptable limits and around an average that will be considered as optimal for a given social functioning” (5). The first and second forms — which he respectively terms “the legal or judicial mechanism” and “the disciplinary mechanism” — are concerned, primarily, with a binary code of prohibition and permission (though the latter introduces techniques that extend beyond this code and develop “a series of adjacent, detective, medical, and psychological techniques [. . .] which fall within the domain of surveillance, diagnosis, and the possible transformation of individuals” [5]). The third mechanism — “the apparatus (dispositif) of security” — does not primarily concern a code or techniques of discipline (6). Foucault writes:

Putting it in a still absolute general way, the apparatus of security inserts the phenomenon in question, [e.g.,] theft, within a series of probable events. Second, the reactions of power to this phenomenon are inserted in a calculation of cost. Finally, third, instead of a binary division between the permitted and the prohibited, one establishes an average considered as optimal on the one hand, and, on the other, a bandwidth of the acceptable that must not be exceeded. In this way a completely different distribution of things and mechanisms takes shape.

— pg. 6

What interests me here is not Foucault’s careful and always self-critical creation of categories and concepts but, rather, the role that “possibility” plays in a European history of thought devoted to theorizing and developing “apparatuses (dispositifs) of security” (11). There are several features of security (and Foucault spends a great deal of time detailing them), but in order to draw some connection between his lectures and my thoughts on the accident, I want to focus primarily on “the uncertain, the aleatory” (6).

What does Foucault say about it? Before turning to his second lecture (18 January 1978), it is worth lingering with a few passages near the end of this first lecture concerning discourses of town-formation in the 18th century. Citing “someone called Vigné de Vigny,” he writes,

Vigny’s redevelopment plan [for Nantes] involved responding to what is, paradoxically, a fairly new and fundamental question of how to integrate possible future developments within a present plan [. . .] The town is seen as developing: a number of things, events and elements, will arrive or occur. What must be done to meet something that is not exactly known in advance? [. . .] Vigny’s project was to construct quays along one side of the Loire, allow a quarter to develop, and then to construct bridges over the Loire, resting on islands, and to enable another quarter to develop starting from these bridges, a quarter opposite the first, so that the balance between the two banks of the Loire would avoid the indefinite elongation of one of its sides.

— pg. 19

This integration of the future into a plan of redevelopment might not seem all that related to my other posts on the accident, and yet this effort of taking the long view of a town’s economic and political future nevertheless provides a concrete example of how a concern for accidental twists in positive growths form the bedrock of a strategy that concerns itself with probabilities and potentialities instead of present actualities or desires. While no reference to an accident appears here — just the foresight that “indefinite elongation of one of its sides” should be avoided because it would make the circulation of goods and services difficult — Foucault’s free indirect question, “What must be done to meet something that is not exactly known in advance?” articulates a more nuanced anxiety in this discourse on town-development. The future is not simply a spacetime that one wishes to prefigure with strategically built-in lines of potential expansion but a spacetime riddled with several types of uncertainty: e.g., predictable unknowns (the effects of indefinite elongation) as well as unknown unknowns (“something [] not exactly known in advance”). Thus, this integration of the future INTO the space of development — an arrangement of openings and closures — operates as a way not only to bring about a desired end (“the balance between two banks of the Loire”) but also a way [1] to avoid undesired ends and [2] to limit the possibility of ends that one cannot foresee. In short: one must maximize powers of foresight regarding potential difficulties or ruptures by regulating and encouraging particular forms or directions of  free circulation in order to minimize accidents.

Or, as Foucault puts it, security is — in part and from the perspective of 18th-century town planners — “a matter of maximizing the positive elements, for which one provides the best possible circulation, and of minimizing what is risky and inconvenient, like theft and disease, while knowing that they will never be completely suppressed [. . .] one works,” in short, “on probabilities” (19).

What happens when one does not work on probabilities? Let’s take an extreme example:

Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012), which aired on PBS late last year, explores a contemporary example of unregulated economic development, that is, of a plan of capital growth and commercial circulation that did not integrate or inscribe the future into its plan, thus exposing its space and people in and adjacent to that space to undesired ends (poverty, failed crops) and to ends that were not (perhaps could not be) foreseen: a decade-long drought in the 1930s, frequent and devastating dust storms, destruction of ecosystems and town life, individual death and disease, unexpected migration to California, etc. Though the widespread uprooting of prairie grass and the plantation of wheat in the Great Plains produced abundant wealth through the 1910s and 1920s, this was done without an analysis of the effect of this uni-directional expansion or of what purposes the native grasses might serve in this eco-system. The horrifying effects of this episode (which continues to loom precariously in different ways here and now) illustrate a strategy completely at odds with that of Vigny in the 18th-century: maximizing profit with minimal foresight or analysis maximizes vulnerability to accidents (the “not exactly known”) in the short and long term.

No doubt this is a crude juxtaposition of Foucault and Burns — one that contrasts an 18th-century text with a 20th-century catastrophe — and yet, despite, its crudity, the comparison bears a bit more thought…

credit: PBS.org (Arthur Rothstein)
credit: PBS.org (Arthur Rothstein)

…perhaps I’ll come back it to.

But what does Foucault say about “the aleatory”? In his second lecture he distinguishes between a juridico-disciplinary approach to the prevention of an undesired event (his example: the scarcity of grain) and an apparatus of security — like the one that Vigny suggested for Nantes — that takes a different approach to dealing with this event. Of the first approach, Foucault writes:

For a long time scarcity was countered by a system that I would say was both juridical and political, a system of legality and a system of regulations, which was basically intended to prevent food shortage, that is to say, not just to halt it or eradicate it when it occurs, but literally to prevent it and ensure that it cannot take place at all.

— pg. 31

We see here a kind of integration of the future into the techniques of government, but rather than opening up specific lines of circulation and expansion, juridico-disciplinary mechanisms seek the establishment of rigid prescriptive and prohibitive conditions of impossibility for scarcity of grain to occur. This strong, short-sighted regulation produces a unique problem of “freedom.” Foucault continues:

The objective is of course for grain to be sold at the lowest possible price so that peasants make the smallest possible profit and townspeople can thus be fed at the lowest possible cost and are consequently paid the lowest possible wages [. . .] This anti-scarcity system is basically focused on a possible event, an event that could take place, and which one tries to prevent before it becomes reality. We don’t need to insist on the well-known failures of this system [. . .] [T]he peasants will inevitably be forced to sow little [. . .] The immediate consequence of this poor sowing is that the smallest climactic irregularity, the least climactic fluctuation — a bit too dry, a bit too cold, a bit too humid — and the quantity of wheat will fall below the norms of what is required to feed the population and shortages will appear in the following .

— pp. 32-33

This seventeenth-century conception of the economy is largely juridico-disciplinary because it lacks the nuanced logic of maximization/minimization. According to Foucault, a new conception of the economy develops in the eighteenth century to “unblock this system,” a conception “that freedom of commerce and of the circulation of grain [. .] .] [should be laid down as the fundamental principle of economic government” (33). As we see in the case of Vigny’s redevelopment plan for Nantes, the integration of the future that apparatuses of security assay concerns maximizing circulation with a view not to prescription or prohibition (primarily) but to the specific regulation and arrangement of openings and closures (e.g., in Nantes, bridges that possibilize projects of expansion that improve circulation rather than potentially hindering it). Foucault continues, referring to a 1763 text by Louis-Paul Abeille, that for an apparatus of security that:

[. . .] the very thing that was to be avoided at all cost, even before it occurs, namely scarcity and high prices, was basically not an evil at all [. . .] It is what it is [. . .] Analysis will move back a notch, as it were, or no doubt several notches, and take as its object, not so much the phenomenon of scarcity-dearness, but what I will call the history of grain from the moment it is put in the ground, with what this implies in terms of work, time passed, and fields sown — of cost, consequently [. . .] The unit of analysis will not longer be the market therefore, with its effects of scarcity-dearness, but grain with everything that may happen to it and will happen to it naturally, as it were, according to a mechanism and laws in which the quality of the land, the care with which it is cultivated, the climactic conditions of dryness, heat, and humidity, and finally the abundance or scarcity, of course, and its marketing and so forth, will also play a part. The event on which one tries to get a hold will be the reality of grain, much more than the obsessive fear of scarcity. On this reality of grain, on its entire history, and with all the fluctuations and events that may, as it were, change its history or divert it from an ideal line, one will try to graft an apparatus so that fluctuations of abundance and cheapness, of scarcity and dearness, are not prevented in advance or prohibited by a juridical and disciplinary system that, by preventing from this and constraining to that, seek to avoid them. Abeille, the physiocrats, and the economic theorists of the eighteenth century, tried to arrive at an apparatus (dispositif) for arranging things so that, by connecting up with the very reality of these fluctuations, and by establishing a series of connections with other elements of reality, the phenomenon is gradually compensated for, checked, finally limited, and, in the final degree, canceled out, without it being prevented or losing any of its reality.

— pp. 36-37

And one more passage:

[. . .] we see that the disciplinary police of grain is in actual fact centripetal. It isolates, it concentrates, it encloses, it is protectionist, and it focuses essentially on action on the market or on the space of the market and what surrounds it. In contrast, you can see that the apparatuses of security, as I have tried to reconstruct them, have the constant tendency to expand; they are centrifugal. New elements are constantly being integrated: production, psychology, behavior, the ways of doing things of producers, buyers, consumers, importers, and exporters, and the world market. Security therefore involves organizing, or anyway allowing the development of ever-wider circuits [. . .] In other words, the law prohibits and discipline prescribes, and the essential function of security, without prohibiting or prescribing, but possibly making use of some instruments of prescription and prohibition, is to respond to a reality in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds — nullifies it, or limits, checks, or regulates it.

— pp. 45, 47

What does any of this have to do with my own interest in accidents and accidentality? What might Foucault’s historical analysis of apparatuses of security (technologies of power) have to do with what piqued my interest in Malabou and/or Butler? After all these quotes and summaries, one would think I’d have a lot to say. But with Foucault, I rarely have much to say in regard to the content of his analysis. I’m only left with questions that his analysis has opened up for me. Here are two ideas:

[1] Foucault’s lectures suggest that before the psychologization or medicalization of the accident (the legacy of which carries over into and grounds Malabou’s ontology) that the accident — as the event, the uncertain, the aleatory — is also always framed as a catastrophe or calamity. This is certainly most evident in the juridico-disciplinary mechanisms permission and prohibition, but it is also the case in apparatuses of security (even if they remove the moral component present in the other mechanisms). Though the accident may not be “evil,” the uncertain event (scarcity) is nevertheless that which becomes nullified obliquely.

Foucault’s analysis brings to mind this question: What might one call a mechanism that does not seek to prevent or to nullify accidents? What might one call a mechanism that desires accidents, that affirms the uncertain, the unthought, or the aleatory? Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggests the word “reparative” (and distinguishes it from a “paranoid” methodology) , but I wonder if we might come up with another word. What might one call a mechanism that does not deny the possibility of calamities but that regulates one’s exposure to a particular space… a space that maximizes the possibility of encountering problems, ideas, or events that one cannot foresee? What might a space like this look like? Can one provide an example?

What about this one?


Or this one?

In a recent interview, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says, “For an aesthetic education, it is better to do as we often used to do, to wander in library stacks, because you would see things that you hadn’t thought about before.” Perhaps an aesthetic education can be the name of this sort of mechanism (and the library one of its spaces)?

[2] If one might say that the juridico-disciplinary mechanism constitute a will to control or to rule and apparatuses of security a will to know (one could trouble these determinations, no doubt), then what might one call the sort of will at work in a mechanism like aesthetic education? A will to [fill in blank]? A will to learn? A will to think differently? A will to readiness? A will to look out? I wonder how this sort of education or this sort of will might supplement other governmental mechanisms. How urgent in this question?

I end by returning to Ken Burns (since I left that bit unfinished), and I think it’s best to leave the last word to The Dust Bowl and its interviewees:

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