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Interview with Christian Laval on "L'Appel des appels"

© materiali foucaultiani

Translated from French by Tupac Cruz

L'Appel des appels, promoted last December by professionals in the fields of culture, health, research, information and the judiciary, presents itself not so much as a choral editorial effort or an instance of political denunciation in the classical sense, but rather as an experience that puts into practice new forms of resistance and alternative governmentality in response to the progressive destruction of the public sector undertaken by the Sarkozy administration. With these issues in mind, we asked Christian Laval, a sociologist at the University of Paris X and one of the chief promoters of the project, to discuss what, in our view, is the "foucauldian character" of this experience of convergence among social struggles.

        mf : Mister Laval, our reasons for requesting this interview with you about L'appel des appels. L'insurrection des consciences (Fayard, Paris 2009) stem, in the first place, from what we perceive as the foucauldian character of  your collective work. The project, indeed, resembles a “call to arms”, drafted by workers from different fields of the social and public world, who have become engaged because their fields of competence (education, health, justice, information, research) have been put deeply into question by the reforms that the French government is considering. What is at stake politically in your struggle, as you say, has its place in the very concept of the “public”, and runs across the whole constellation of practices inherent to that concept. In your own words, the aim of this struggle, which has been heterogeneous in its component parts from its inception, is “to constitute ourselves into a social collective in order to resist the voluntary and systematic destruction of everything that weaves the social bond”. First question, then: what is your position with respect to the foucaldian perspective, which aims to emphasize punctual and transversal struggles, struggles that nevertheless fall under the same general horizon? In particular, what is the contribution, theoretical and practical (if there is one), provided for you by Foucault’s “box of tools”?

        Christian Laval : I will make an effort to answer your questions, but I must make it clear to begin with that I will speak in my own personal name and not in the name of the Appel des appels. You are perfectly right to see in the Appel des appels (ADA) movement, and in the work that furnishes its rationale, what could be called a foucauldian “thread”. Still it is convenient to take note of the wide range of references. Lacan is present as much as Bourdieu or Castoriadis are, not to speak of references to Hannah Arendt or to other philosophers or writers such as Albert Camus. The ADA seems to cause an explosion of the logic of reciprocal exclusions among thinkers of the precedent periods. This is doubtless a sign that we have moved onto a new phase in the relations between social movements and intellectual work. This foucauldian “thread” concerns not only the recurrent mention of Foucault’s  own name or the use of explicit citations taken from his works, it concerns in a deeper sense the very precise employment of foucauldian concepts on the part of several authors and organizers who are part of the movement. I am thinking, for instance, of the importance of the opposition between law and norm for Roland Gori, one of the main organizers of the movement, or the use of concepts such as “rationality” or “subjectivation” by Pierre Dardot, who has written an article about “neoliberal rationality” in the collective work mentioned above. This does not mean that the organizers of the movement are “foucauldian”, that they intend to promote or defend a theory of power, sexuality, or struggle that would be that of Foucault. It means that Foucault furnishes us today with certain tools to understand the general logic that commands the policies that are currently transforming institutions, the state, social relations, subjectivities. In this sense, we might say that the famous image of the “tool box” corresponds quite well with the use that the movement makes of foucauldian analyses and concepts.

       mf : In your opinion, when and through which paths does resistance to a certain regime of governmental rationality take on the dimension of a political struggle, by becoming a collective practice? In other words, what we are asking is whether the “I refuse to obey”, that is to say the practice of disobedience as such, which says “no” to governmental power, already constitutes a politically efficacious critique in the confrontation against the neo-liberal governmentality which you denounce. Or whether, on the contrary, this appeal for the constitution of a link between different forms of “individual” struggle responds rather to the necessity of structuring a dimension of the “common”.

        C. Laval : Some organizers, in particular Barbara Cassin, have brought up the figure of Bartleby and his famous utterance: “I would prefer not to”. It’s a way of saying that every power calls for forms of resistance and refusal appropriate to it. The eminently foucauldian question is posed on the following terms: if neoliberal rationality functions by way of a norm that bends practices from the inside, and not by way of a law that commands from above and from outside, if it is embodied in situations in which people are led to do things without being asked for explicit or even conscious assent, what can the nature of resistance be and how can it be organized? The logic of the situation presents itself as a kind of “order of things” from which one cannot remove oneself, something anonymous and resembling the “hammer without a master” that never stops hitting you on the head in the most regular and dull way. What Christian Boltansky has rendered so well in his latest installation at the Grand Palais is this hammer of things, of facts and numbers that we are up against, this muffled  beating  that resembles an enveloping and oppressing sound.

What is important in the anonymous power of managerial devices is what happens at the level of practices. Resistance also must start out from practices, that is to say at the very level at which neoliberal governmentality has its effects. The question of resistance, then, takes on a new shape. Certainly, it is still necessary to uphold critical discourses, to organize demonstrations and strikes. But if you who have been placed in a situation of competition, under the stress of performance, within devices of evaluation or self-evaluation, it is also convenient to act at the level of your  professional practice, in your most elemental social relations with colleagues, and with respect to your own reactions and motives. You are required to act on yourself, to pose yourself ethical questions, to ask yourself what you are doing within what you are being made to do. The new oppression consists in the universal enterprise, it expects to graft all around us the constraints characteristic of the market model, in the framework of State reforms. There is no more shelter, there is no longer any heterogeneity of logics.

What resistance should there be against the concrete universalization of techniques of management? What to do when a device has been put into place that imposes a mode of acting that we know is morally despicable, and which moreover completely destroys professions, their sense, the values that they bear, and which is therefore ultimately inefficacious? It is clear that the problem is not only that of denouncing a pernicious ideology, the reduction  of the workforce, or the destruction of liberties by certain laws, it is also a matter of refusing to be a part of devices and situations that force you to go against others and against yourself, and which may turn against you, as in the case of evaluation. The function of the Appel des appels is not, therefore,  that of a protest movement like the others, it does not limit itself to play the part of a “coordinator of coordinations”, or to act as a resonator for a group of movements. Even if all work of that kind is indispensable. Its role is that of singling out and analyzing the new “servitudes”, the new modes of subjection, and to think up new modes of resistance from the ground level. And this in close connection with the forces of the social movement, most particularly the unions. Because the task is indeed to accelerate awareness, on the part of social and political forces that are already constituted or that are being constituted, of the new conditions of struggle.


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