EuroStorie research seminar: Tuomo Tiisala 13.11.2020

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Time: Friday 13.11.2020 13:00-14:00

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Tuomo Tiisala: Foucault, Neoliberalism, and Equality

The stakes are high in the controversy concerning Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism. According to critics, Foucault’s 1979 lectures on neoliberalism not only reveal his problematic political stance, but they constitute a key resource that enables one to explain why Foucault’s theoretical outlook has lost its critical power and relevance in the face of today’s neoliberal governmental rationality. In response, Foucault’s defenders have insisted that his approach to neoliberalism, most importantly the work of Gary Becker, is decidedly critical.

Disagreeing with both readings, Tiisala offers a more nuanced interpretation of Foucault’s complex relationship with neoliberalism. First, he explains Foucault’s sympathetic attitude towards Becker’s work, by contextualizing the lectures on neoliberalism with the argument in Discipline and Punish. By thus highlighting Foucault’s guiding concern with the rationality of normalization in penal practices, his endorsement of Becker’s ideas on penality can be disentangled from any blanket ascription of neoliberal commitments. Secondly, however, Tiisala seeks to show that there is nevertheless a strategic link between Foucault’s work and today’s neoliberal rationality, even though it cannot be found in the 1979 lectures. He argues that Foucault's focus on the political stakes of subjectivity has enabled and reinforced, in the posthumous neoliberal context, the solidification of a conception of politics that marginalizes the topic of economic inequality.

To explain how Foucault's work has had this unintended effect, Tiisala introduces the notion of "topical exclusion". It designates a social mechanism of producing ignorance about a topic of general interest, like economic injustice, which operates by directing political attention instead of producing false consciousness. Finally, using the strategic link between Foucault’s work and neoliberalism as an example, Tiisala argues that "topical exclusion" should be adopted as a conceptual supplement to the Foucaultian framework, so as to enable it to account for cases in which relations of power harness, produce, and maintain ignorance, not knowledge.

About the speaker

Tuomo Tiisala is a university lecturer of practical philosophy in the University of Helsinki. His current research defends a new delineation of the distinction between power and freedom on the basis of a rational reconstruction of Michel Foucault’s philosophical work. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and has worked as a Bersoff Faculty Fellow in the Philosophy Department at New York University (2016-18) as well as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at NYU Abu Dhabi (2018-2019).