Michel Foucault, “Space Knowledge, and Power (Interview with Paul Rabinow),” 1982.
In this 36th installment of the Hays Anthology, we finally encounter Michel Foucault himself, previously familiar to us through Jorge Silvetti's essay "The Beauty of Shadows" (1977), Teyssot’s essay “Heterotopias and the History of Space” (1977), and Cacciari’s “Eupalinos or Architecture” (1980). This interview is brilliantly concise and clear, and should be read in full; below are just some brief remarks in the way of review and annotation.
For the most, the first part of this interview is the much-needed review of the co-dependent development of the City, Industrial Capitalism, and the newness of the genre of problems they presented to society, governance, and architecture. This history is told in the language of Space, a recurrent idea in this anthology and one that is typically removed from Architecture—as it is here—and acts instead as the medium of much larger historical and philosophical structures. “Space,” Hays summarizes, “is the material wherein discourses about knowledge and power are transformed into actual relations of power. In different historical conditions, such techniques may come more or less in architecture’s purview.”
“[I]n the eighteenth century one sees the development of reflection upon architecture as a function of the aims and techniques of the government of societies. One begins to see a form of political literature that addresses what the order of a society should be, what a city should be, given the requirements of the maintenance of order; given that one should avoid epidemics, avoid revolts, permit a decent and moral family life, and so on...If one opens a police report of the times—the treatises that are devoted to the techniques of government—one finds that architecture and urbanism occupy a place of considerable importance.”
In one paragraph Foucault introduces us to the material foundation for his ideas about space and power, and architecture’s place in that relationship. The difference, he says, between the 18th century and previous eras is that the subjects listed above are specifically discussed in material, published treatises and tracts. Importantly, he separates this genre from “discourses upon architecture,” which have obviously existed since Vitruvius. “The change is perhaps not in the reflections of architects upon architecture, but is quite clearly seen in the reflections of political men.”
Already we see that Foucault’s discourse is not about Architecture itself—styles, material buildings, form, &c.—but about a larger system in which architecture plays a role. This is the same kind of remove we’ve seen before—Habermas, Cacciari, and Teyssot—characterized by a meta layer of realities explaining the role of architecture or its materialization of various political or social values. (To that point, let me note that Hays has grouped Habermas, Foucault, Jameson, Pérez-Gómez, and Libeskind together on the Table of Contents.)
Foucault’s history is easy: in the eighteenth century the City became the catalyst for the intersection between spatial ideas and theories of governance. The government governed people; territories were literally thought of as massive cities (especially in France); the “police” state reigned—but not in the way we know it now. Foucault’s definition of the 18th century French “police” signifies “a program of government rationality…a regulation of the general conduct of individuals.” Then Napoleon rode in on the back of the Revolution, and suddenly there was a new intervening factor between government and individuals: society. Society emerged and reduced the architectural metaphor of the urban-space-territory model.
Instead, literal urban space became dangerous in new ways: urban revolutions (especially between 1830-1880) precipitated new concerns for the city fabric; growing density and populations of urban poor (produced by advancing capitalism) increased the potential for epidemics. Outside the city, the railroads revolutionized the way territorial space and social distances were conceived. This 19th century transition, precipitated by new technologies and economic progress, built a concept of power and space that extended far beyond the limits of urbanism and architecture.
Then the history lesson ends and Foucault begins swinging heavy at Architecture, Architects, the Modernists, and Jürgen Habermas (but with an oddly genteel tone). During this 19th century paradigm transition, the Ecole des Points et Chaussées (civil and technical engineers) replaced the Ecole des Beaux Arts (architects) in prestige and political significance in Paris—their counterparts doing the same across Europe as the technology of economic production superseded architectural discourse. Territory, resources, and power had replaced the idea of the City (or Capital) as foundation.
Architects “were not the technicians of the three great variables—territory, communication, and speed. These escape the domain of architects.” This is a brilliantly significant and simple statement. First we see the deliberate confrontation with Habermas’s narrative, which we now realize this apparatus of Governance-Space completely sidelines. But we should also recognize Foucault’s use of “technicians” probably alludes to Tafuri’s narrative in which the Modernist Architects sell Architecture to Capitalism to become the “technicians” of the production system. Foucault’s narrative is more devastating: he has left architects out of the loop altogether, to be called upon when needed.
Foucault is not done, though, because there is more to be said about Architecture. Architecture cannot be socially liberating; liberation/freedom “is not owing to the order of objects,” but is something exercised by society. So where Habermas forgives the overexcited idealism of Modernism’s social utopia as good intentions, Foucault is laughing at their naivety and folly for so completely misunderstanding the reality of liberation and its complete separation from Architecture. This move also solves the postmodern debate on autonomy v. social dependence and raises issues with Habermas’s typology of conservatism.
Architecture can aid liberation, but that depends on the people using it. It acts in conjunction with knowledge and space and people unto different ends, but is hardly the potent social force or epistemological tool architects would imagine.
This is absolutely the bare bones of Foucault’s interview, and even then only the ones that come to bear on architecture and the city. Foucault also discusses mentality of the return and its propensity to create mythical pasts, which is a more interesting articulation of Habermas’s neoconservative architectural class, I think. There are beautiful comments on History, in light of this, and on Habermas’s own problem: to make a transcendental mode of thought spring forth against any historicism.”
Remember, Habermas’s project is to rescue the Enlightenment’s promise of emancipation over the terrible apparatus of advanced capitalism, and his elaboration of the pro-modernism agenda is to facilitate that project through architecture. Foucault simply points out that this transcendental project is fundamentally out of the hands of architecture, as is proven be the real material history (“historicism”) of Space and Architecture.