In these days of quarantine against COVID-19, I frequently see essays on social media aimed against normal mandates of worker productivity. These reports are aimed at the privileged, that is, those who still have jobs and are working from home. As such, these anxious stabs against the perceived persistent expectation of professional productivity–resistance expressed in light of the anxiety of the world and about the virus itself–succinctly caption the neoliberal subject as self-entrepreneur. We neoliberal professionals are so deeply formed by the need to prove ourselves productive–increasingly productive and productive in increasingly new ways–that when psycho-social conditions render this mandate impossible, we turn our productivity to producing accounts of why we can’t be productive.

  Productivity and unproductivity appear in our news feeds about the virus in another, quite different way: the cough symptomatic of COVID-19 is what they call “unproductive.” If you have a productive cough, you probably just have a seasonal cold: maybe it’s a rhinovirus, maybe it’s a kind of corona virus but it’s not this sneaky, stealthy corona 2019 virus that is hamstringing the entire human population right now. An unproductive cough is also called a “dry” cough–it is a breathy, sharp reaction to an irritation in the bronchial tubes or lungs, but it doesn’t lead to anything except its own repetition. In novels, it’d be called a “hacking cough.” A productive cough, on the other hand, is wet. It is a breathy, sharp reaction to mucous. Mucous is moist, drippy matter that is out of place. Human breathing is organ-ized around air, not water, so when wet stuff seeps into our air-organs, our body reacts violently, trying to push the wet stuff out. The cough in this case is productive, it leads to something: specifically, it leads to the body pushing out wet stuff and it is effective in pushing out wet stuff.

Speaking of productivity, I finally finished Laval, Paltrinieri, and Taylan, ed.’s, Marx et Foucault: Lectures, usages, confrontations and I plan to summarize each of its three parts in a separate post.

In reviewing my notes to Part 1, “Foucault, Reader of Marx,” it strikes me how much the discussion turns on production. How does Foucault read, animate, and re-situate Marx’s discussions (primarily in Capital) of

  • the forces and relations of capitalist production
  • the production of the working class
  • the time of capitalist production
  • the cooperation and vitality of capitalist production
  • and the production of worker resistance (“struggle” and “civil war”)?

If we add to these questions Foucault’s more peculiar language about power as productive, the production of social forms such as the prison, and his theorizations of the forces of subjectivation (what produces subjects within a normed or governed society), then one gets the distinct sense that this word production (“leading forth from” or “bringing forth”) is something we should attend more to.

The following provides a few sentences about each of the six essays in Part I of Marx et Foucault. These summaries are insufficient by the standards of a review; I mean them only as a catalyst for thinking about production.

For Marx as for Foucault, production is not just the making of things, but the historically-emergent matrix that structures how things are made, by which persons, and to whose economic and political benefit. According to Ferhat Taylan, (“Une histoire ‘plus profonde’ du capitalisme“), Foucault “deepens” Marx’s analysis of capitalist production (24). What he means is that Foucault’s writings drill down into and specify the disciplinary techniques that subordinate life to time of production, and also that they focus on socio-political procedures—or what he calls “strategies without subjects” (in “Le pouvoir, une bête magnifique,” 1977)—that generate institutional and practical matrices for establishing truth, justice, and penality. Taylan notes, importantly, that Foucault, like Marx, does not position humans as ontologically productive. Humans are active, but sometimes our activity is unproductive or non-productive. The conceptual reduction of activity to labor can thus be seen as part of the political economy of capitalism that forces a subjection of the time of life to the time of capital.

Christian Laval’s essay, “La productivité du pouvoir“, directly takes up Foucault’s claim that power is not oppressive, not ‘held’ by some over others, but rather power is productive, it generates positive effects in bodies and societies. Picking up on Marx’s assertion that the factory is the “anatomy” of the modern body (33), Laval underscores (as did Taylan) the capitalist effort of “extracting the maximum time out of the life of individuals and transforming the body itself of individuals into an ensemble of dispositions and aptitudes that yield surplus power” (37, note 29). Since the body of the worker is the condition of capital, Foucault looks to practices prior to industrialization to make sense of the rise of capital. Seeing Foucault as moving beyond Marx, Laval points to where Foucault cites Marx’s throw-away words on the army and on cooperation but goes on to emphasize how these social forms led to the historical emergence of the disciplined, productive body, though Marx himself doesn’t stress this (40). In other words, Laval sees Foucault expanding Marx’s account of production to the production of bodies that will enable and justify the structures of capitalism. Laval ends with two further notes on production: First, Foucault demonstrates how classes do not precede struggle but are produced from struggle, and second, economic production is necessarily supplemented by the production of ‘man,’ the invention of one’s self. In all cases, then, to understand or to give an account requires demonstrating the temporal and power-laden emergence into productive subsistence.

In “Foucault, Marx: le corps, le pouvoir, la guerre,” Sandro Chignola focuses on the difference in Marx between two words for body, Leib, which refers to the body as a living thing and Körper, which relegates the body as an object of anatomy. By Marx’s account the worker brings his “living corporeity” (corporéité vivante, or Lebendliche Leiblichkeit) to sell to the capitalist. The use of Leiblichkeit, corporeity, indicates a fluid life potential for production of goods and also for the production of the self that Foucault will focus on (51). But unlike Marx, who dwells on the vampiric forces of capital to savage human life forces for the sake of capitalist production (things, profits, class comfort) (52),  Foucault also considers how the general faculty of production that belongs to human nature can lie idle or can be turned to desires and pursuits that are non-productive or unproductive (56).

Rudy Leonelli’s essay provides a really helpful rubric for understanding Foucault’s reworking of Marx (“Foucault lecteur du Capital”). Noting that Foucault himself admits to “citing Marx without saying so” (59, from “Entretien sur la prison. Le livre et sa méthode), Leonelli points to the way Foucault “scales up” Marx by taking his insights to a broader social plane. Leonelli correlates this scaling up with generalization, where generalization does not indicate greater abstraction but rather a kind of translation or transliteration across social forms (67-68). The forces and relations of production, then, are diffused in a capillary manner throughout the spaces and niches and strata of society.

The last two essays of Part I are both excellent but look less specifically at production. Roberto Nigro’s “Communiste nietzschéean. L’expérience Marx de Foucault” explicates beautifully Foucault’s well known exclamation that he’s something like a “Nietzschean communist” by looking not only at the ways in which power and perspective saturate Foucault’s theoretical concepts and his method of genealogical emergence, but also how they are always positioned vis-à-vis a sense of the limit or of that which exceeds them, as Foucault learned from the likes of Bataille and Blanchot. Finally, Étienne Balibar’s essay counters the intentions of this edited collection by insisting on an ethical and political disjunction between Marx and Foucault. I appreciated the “three cycles” Balibar charts of Foucault’s direct citing and working over of Marx, but I disagree with his conclusions. That said, I did find a copy of Balibar’s Philosophy of Marx and I will check my initial resistance against a closer consideration.

To return from Marx and Foucault back to our COVID-19 days of isolation, let me conclude in all seriousness by emphasizing that the Marxist and Foucaultian attention to production is always an attention to when, where, how, and to whose benefit the status quo is produced and sustained. We live at a time when it’s very difficult to fully grasp just how intuitively and nearly completely we subordinate our time of life to the time of capital (production). Indeed, many of us are familiar with the quip that we are impotent (unproductive) in our attempts to imagine any beyond to capitalism!

But the virus has changed that, right? Now we actually can smell and taste and feel the core contingency of what used to be the status quo (40 days ago!). Workers name and accuse this grotesque, vampiric and zombie-producing system when they go on strike, act as whistle-blowers seeking bodily protection, slouch into corners to sob in affective overwhelm at the number of dead. We professionals–some of us–throw up our hands from our word processors and declare that we simply cannot be productive when thirty thousand co-citizens and over 146,000 co-earthlings have died from this thing. And doesn’t the symptom of the unproductive cough–rising up like the shadow of death–perfectly match capitalism’s unrelenting brutality on those who would dare to be unproductive of the status quo? All of which is to say, obviously, that Foucaultian and Marxist critics should be focusing on the productivity of unproductivity in bringing a different world into our grasp, a world of care and provision, instead of production and profit.