Like A Face Drawn in Sand at the Edge of the Sea
August 17, 2007 8:01 AM   Subscribe

A society without power relations can only be an abstraction. Which, be it said in passing, makes all the more politically necessary the analysis of power relations in a given society, their historical formation, the source of their strength or fragility, the conditions which are necessary to transform some or to abolish others. For to say that there cannot be a society without power relations is not to say either that those which are established are necessary or, in any case, that power constitutes a fatality at the heart of societies, such that it cannot be undermined. Instead, I would say that the analysis, elaboration, and bringing into question of power relations and the "agonism" between power relations and the intransitivity of freedom is a permanent political task inherent in all social existence.
"Saint" Michel Foucault (1926-1984) transformed Western thought. Institutions -- prisons, asylums, clinics -- define the rhythm of our daily existence; Foucault found that they also determine the way we think. The search for the political and philosophical implications of this insight led him to biology and economics, linguistics and the study of sexuality. In Foucault's eyes, intellectual activity, however radical, could never be divorced from the techniques of power. This is why some have accused him of political quietism. Other critics say he was simply a bad scholar. Who was the real Foucault? "Anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal," gay saint, charlatan, or something else entirely? Perhaps we have posed the question incorrectly...
posted by nasreddin (92 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Other Foucault resources: his archives (including manuscripts), selected texts and articles, more.
posted by nasreddin at 8:08 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wish I had time to read all those links. The philosopher Hilary Putnam called him an anarchist, and he seemed to mean it nicely. My vague impression of Foucault's work is that while he argues that there is no disengaged, neutral position in history or politics, since every position is a partisan exercise of power, nonetheless he doesn't commit himself to any partisan position -- which seems like either a self-contradiction or else a sort of conscious intellectual anarchism.
posted by creasy boy at 8:16 AM on August 17, 2007


Let's also not forget the time he dined with Our Retired Explorer. (YouTube link to Weakerthans song)
posted by Greg Nog at 8:45 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's true, as your "bad scholar" link explores, that HISTORY OF MADNESS is quite lame. He uses supposed historical documentation and literary sources like Shakespeare interchangeably to make factual claims. But his penchant for diving into vast troves of archival materials and going back to arcane primary sources is a rare and endearing trait in modern philosophers.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:53 AM on August 17, 2007


Does the "political quietism" link point to the right place?
posted by exogenous at 8:54 AM on August 17, 2007


Does the "political quietism" link point to the right place?

Sorry, I couldn't find a cogent summary anywhere, but this is more or less what Rorty argues.
posted by nasreddin at 8:56 AM on August 17, 2007


You know, I have a modicum of respect for Foucault, but the way he is bandied about by post-modern and literary theorists is just annoying. So yeah, I'm more inclined towards the "bad scholar" aspect.
posted by malaprohibita at 9:01 AM on August 17, 2007


Frederick Wiseman: Foucaultian filmmaker, in a fashion. Titicut Follies is a masterpiece.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:06 AM on August 17, 2007


Also!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:06 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


indeed
posted by nasreddin at 9:11 AM on August 17, 2007


I was very disappointed in his cold approval of (and fascination with) the cruel, backward Khomeini regime. Amazed he could square his homosexuality with support for one of the most violently intolerant creeds possible. I have all has books and remembered nearly choking on my cigarette when I came across an interview supporting this 'revolution' into the Dark Ages when I was reading him at Uni. He was not the best scholar and is used as a fig leaf for far worse ones, which is also unfortunate. I have a few flickers of intellectual respect for some of his work, but it is rather embattled and fading.
posted by The Salaryman at 9:14 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Amazed he could square his homosexuality with support for one of the most violently intolerant creeds possible.

For Foucault, the whole point is that there isn't any "tolerant creed": liberal tolerance is as much a system of repression as Khomeini's Iran, perhaps more dangerous because of its secular deployment of pastoral power.
posted by nasreddin at 9:18 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


liberal tolerance is as much a system of repression as Khomeini's Iran, perhaps more dangerous

One of the most repellent ideas ever supported by an alleged scholar.
posted by languagehat at 9:26 AM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]


I've always thought of Foucault as a historian, not a philosopher.
posted by oddman at 9:28 AM on August 17, 2007


Foucault, like most scholars, has some good work and some (quite a lot, actually) bad work. I learned quite a lot from Discipline and Punish, Archaeology of Knowledge, and several of his essays.

The problem, however, is the fact that he is indeed revered as a "Saint" in too many branches of academia, particularly in the humanities. I have seen too many academic talks and read too many articles in which the author seems to think that finding elements of "biopower" (or some other Foucauldian neologism) in some contemporary phenomenon counts as analytic scholarship. "Oooh, this thing going on now is just like what Foucault said went on in the 19th century! Case closed."

More insidious is Foucault's idea that political reforms often institute regimes that are just as restrictive and oppressive (though in different ways) as those institutions that they are meant to reform. Sure, this may be true in some cases, like the panopticon. But many young scholars simply assume that its true everywhere, all the time, leading a generation of scholars to cynically criticize any attempts at making social institutions safer or more just as naive and misguided. It is dispiriting to see so many idealistic, intelligent young people adopt this supercilious pose rather than engage in practical attempts to improve social institutions. Foucault is thus partially responsible for the idea, prevalent in many humanities departments, that merely critiquing some 'discourse' that one finds repressive is a more politically effective "intervention" than trying to get laws or institutions reformed.
posted by googly at 9:40 AM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]


Foucault-worship is an example of what I call the Big Daddy syndrome...
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 9:57 AM on August 17, 2007


Paglia and Foucault deserve each other. Some Foucault is really bad, but the first chapter of _Discipline and Punish_ and about half of _Madness and Civilization_ will always be well worth the time spent re-reading them. More for pleasure than brilliant innovative insight.
posted by bukvich at 10:01 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've never found Foucault to be anything but derivative, sorry. Not as derivative as, say, Dorothy Smith (who really is completely worthless), but still.

I recommend my students (in sociology) to stop reading theorists except to get a sense of the intellectual history of the discipline. We need more radical empiricism (as in the pure grounded approach of some versions of ethnomethodology, especially conversation analysis) and less of this crap. Yes, crap.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:38 AM on August 17, 2007


Derivative of what, ethnomethodologist?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:43 AM on August 17, 2007


More insidious is Foucault's idea that political reforms often institute regimes that are just as restrictive and oppressive (though in different ways) as those institutions that they are meant to reform.

This is a terrible of Foucault. It's unfortunately somewhat common, I think, because so many people without any grounding in philosophy have seized upon Foucault for various political purposes and twisted his words every which way. (This isn't a bad thing though and indeed Foucault deliberately invited such abuse.) But if you can appreciate the metaphysical model behind his work then it's pretty clear this "idea" is a meaningless tautology in the context of his work. Foucault never makes the simplistic claim that every regime uses power to control others and is therefore "oppressive." Instead he makes the much deeper claim that power is, in itself, the medium by which all relations happen. The idea that all relationships are made of "power atoms" is hardly new -- it goes all the way back to Socrates and the question of whether all governments are simply the oppression of the weak by the strong and it's really Nietzsche who makes the most compelling argument thus Foucault as "applied Nietzsche" -- but Foucault's unique contribution is to offer a kind of scientific theory for the phenomenon by examining various historical phenomena.

Foucault is thus partially responsible for the idea, prevalent in many humanities departments, that merely critiquing some 'discourse' that one finds repressive is a more politically effective "intervention" than trying to get laws or institutions reformed.

Well it's difficult to see how Foucault could be responsible for such a thing when this is pretty much the exact opposite of what he says (over and over and over). Foucault's critical move in "going beyond criticism" by offering a "history of power" does indeed accomplish a great deal in both academia and politics by severely undermining the supposedly universal claims made by the various elites. By pretty convincingly demonstrating that all laws and institutions are historical entities subject to change he clears the way for such entities to be reformed and reshaped in new ways.
posted by nixerman at 10:56 AM on August 17, 2007 [5 favorites]


I have all has books and remembered nearly choking on my cigarette when I came across an interview supporting this 'revolution' into the Dark Ages when I was reading him at Uni.

There's lots of work out there addressing Foucault's support for the Iranian revolution if you're interested in actually understanding his support rather than just condemning it. Personally, I've always wondered if there's any revolution that Foucault wouldn't support if only on principle. This is the "anarchist" (though it's actually amoral) strain in his thought that does open the way for many an error. But as for Iranian revolution in particular it's pretty clear with the benefit of hindsight that Foucault, while he was among the first to see the big break represented by radical Islam, failed to see how religion, even though it heavily appeals to tradition and history and extra-political/rational values, still operates mainly as a myth and is therefore no different from any other noble lie.
posted by nixerman at 11:11 AM on August 17, 2007


For Foucault, the whole point is that there isn't any "tolerant creed": liberal tolerance is as much a system of repression as Khomeini's Iran, perhaps more dangerous because of its secular deployment of pastoral power.

Take a look - a good, hard look - at the kind of people who are convinced by this argument.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 11:49 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]


Speaking of amoral.... I once had a fleeting moment in which to meet Noam Chomsky and ask him about his debate with Michel Foucault (dailymotion video link), specifically, his comment "I’d never met anyone so totally amoral." He said (if I remember correctly) it came down to Foucault's disbelief in a human nature and the belief in raw power. So nixerman's comment got those particular bells ringing.

(sorry, not trying to namedrop)
posted by malaprohibita at 12:02 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


liberal tolerance is as much a system of repression as Khomeini's Iran, perhaps more dangerous

One of the most repellent ideas ever supported by an alleged scholar.


Or rather, it would be, if that was Foucault's position, but it wasn't. Granted, many people have twisted his theories to support such positions, but their conclusions often don't mirror his own (unlike, say, I dunno, Noam Chomsky).

Good post, though.
posted by spiderwire at 12:18 PM on August 17, 2007



Or rather, it would be, if that was Foucault's position, but it wasn't.


In what way? That's the way I've always interpreted his work.
posted by nasreddin at 12:42 PM on August 17, 2007


I've always thought of Foucault as a historian, not a philosopher.

For me, Foucault is best for his role in inspiring new research by hundreds of scholars in the field of the history of sexuality. My only problem is when scholars twist the history of sexuality to prove Foucault correct, instead of testing whether Foucault is correct based on what they have learned from the history of sexuality. (See George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 for a good example of a historian of sexuality who is influenced by Foucault's theories and methods, but does not devolve into unskeptical Foucault worship.)
posted by jonp72 at 12:43 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, I think googly comes fairly close to the mark -- nasreddin, I think you're wrong in saying that Foucault would have universally condemned liberal humanist governments; he wasn't a fool.

I think a better characterization of his work would be as an exploration of techniques of repression that are entirely consistent with liberal governance -- surveillance, normalization, biopower, etc.

He was always very clear that he wasn't contesting the validity of liberalism per se, but the assumption that humanist governments are a panacea for repressive techniques of power. And his insights into that question are uniquely powerful, if often misapplied. That's not surprising to me. It's very difficult to manage conceptually, this notion that there is still political good in the world but that it has to always be considered contextually. It requires a sort of intellectual rigor that's not at all sexy and doesn't lend itself to sweeping claims, which is really all anyone who theorizes about these things ever wants to do.
posted by spiderwire at 12:47 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


What? How in the hell could you miss the sex?
posted by absalom at 1:26 PM on August 17, 2007


Hee, by which I meant it should not be buried so people like me who only check on the first couple of links don't look like morons! Heh. In all honesty, though, I found History of Sexuality far more approachable than Madness and Civilization, (ya, I read in translation. Sue me, I made a D in french.) if anything of his could really be "approachable." It certainly made for way better discussion material.

Good post. This should be fun.
posted by absalom at 1:29 PM on August 17, 2007


If you have it handy, you might dig out your copy of Discipline and Punish and turn to the bit right after the description of the regicide at the beginning. If memory serves, Foucault uses that as a springboard into a discussion of how that sort of spectacle of power was arguably central to the power regime of a monarch -- inscribing punishment onto the body of the accused or something to that effect -- but that over time, the technique of the public execution became less effective.

Interestingly, we still tend to think of power as a technique of repression, like the public hanging of a regicide; indeed, you can characterize many putatively dangerous government actions in these terms, as do people like Chomsky -- a direct struggle between factions or classes.

Foucault's take is that these techniques aren't irrelevant, but it's naïve to think that political power is a technique that we call "repression" when facing down and "resistance" when facing up.

In the case of surveillance, for example, the naïve conception (I don't think it's unfair to ascribe this to Chomsky) is that surveillance is a tool used by governments to target dissenters for elimination. Foucault probably wouldn't disagree that surveillance can be used for that purpose, but it's clear in Discipline and Punish that he's much more interested in how surveillance can be used as a technique of control absent any sort of actual punishment whatsoever.

The moral of the Panopticon, for Foucault, is that the gaze of observance can cause people to regulate their own behavior, i.e. perform techniques of control on themselves, without any sort of repression at all, and indeed, often without the actuality of the gaze itself (he notes that the tower doesn't necessarily need to have a guard in order to control the prisoners -- the prisoners do it to themselves).

Now, that's a very, very simple example. We can, of course, extrapolate that example out into other parts of our society -- think, e.g., how you regulate your own buying behavior under the prospect of credit checks. There's no one watching you at the time you make your purchase -- and indeed there's no looming punishment at all -- but it still acts as a technique of control that regulates your behavior in a very specific way.

Bringing that back around, the importance of this for Foucault is that this is a technique of political power that can -- and does -- operate within the confines of a liberal government that might otherwise disallow direct repression. Under a simpler model of power, the difficulty is merely exposing the repression -- the use of surveillance to target dissent. Once exposed, it can be eliminated as inconsistent with liberal humanist values. Foucault thinks that's not necessarily the problem -- he tries to examine the act of surveillance as a method of control in itself (and, notably, one that can be deployed against the elite as well as the underclass -- e.g., Sunshine Laws).

Granted, at some level that might seem a bit self-evident, but what's amazing to me is that we really have no good vocabulary for discussing disciplinary techniques of power in those terms -- although we might be aware that credit checks have this sort of disciplinary effect, it's astonishing how ad hoc our discussions are when compared to the versatility with which we're able to talk about straightforward oppression.
posted by spiderwire at 1:31 PM on August 17, 2007 [7 favorites]


Spiderwire, that's because, it seems to me anyway, that self-oppression via these means is a lot easier to stop than actual oppression by the powerful.

If you want to stop being repressed by your credit cards or the imaginary guard in the tower, all you have to do is become aware that you are changing your behavior based on these restraints and then act as you actually desire to do.

If the powerful are actually using those means to repress you, however, you won't be able to do that because you will actually be punished for noncompliance.

Insidious forms of oppression are insidious only insofar as you are not aware how they act on you -- awareness itself allows you to change your response to them. But awareness of real repression and surveillance simply makes you more compliant because these tools are actually oppressing you. You have choices about self-control, not so much about actual control and actual torture.
posted by Maias at 2:45 PM on August 17, 2007


Michel Foucault? left winger for the Nordiques back in the 70's, right?
posted by jonmc at 4:45 PM on August 17, 2007


But if you can appreciate the metaphysical model behind his work then it's pretty clear this "idea" is a meaningless tautology in the context of his work. Foucault never makes the simplistic claim that every regime uses power to control others and is therefore "oppressive." Instead he makes the much deeper claim that power is, in itself, the medium by which all relations happen.

Oh please. Show me one instance - one, just one, in which this "much deeper" reading of contemporary politics has effected any kind of political change, and I will fall to my knees and praise you. Yes, power is a meduim by which all relations happen. So what? Does this incredibly simple observation help us to make life better? Does it help us to reduce suffering in the world? No: it allows legions of academics to observe that power is everywhere and stop, thinking that this is some sort of deep analytical point.

Foucault's critical move in "going beyond criticism" by offering a "history of power" does indeed accomplish a great deal in both academia and politics by severely undermining the supposedly universal claims made by the various elites. By pretty convincingly demonstrating that all laws and institutions are historical entities subject to change he clears the way for such entities to be reformed and reshaped in new ways.

Oh please. Do you think these "various elites" give a flying fuck about Foucault's claims about the history of power? Do you seriously think that Foucault's inaccurate historicization about the conditions of possibility of knowledge have any impact whatsoever on the way the world workds? Show me one instance - one single instance - in which this "critical move" has resulted in any change in the world. Seriously. Show me one time that this "going beyond criticism" has made life better for one single person, has reduced the sum total of suffering in the world by one iota.
posted by googly at 4:45 PM on August 17, 2007



Oh please. Show me one instance - one, just one, in which this "much deeper" reading of contemporary politics has effected any kind of political change, and I will fall to my knees and praise you. Yes, power is a meduim by which all relations happen. So what? Does this incredibly simple observation help us to make life better? Does it help us to reduce suffering in the world? No: it allows legions of academics to observe that power is everywhere and stop, thinking that this is some sort of deep analytical point.

I can show you millions of instances--the awareness of it at all is the first step--and an enormous one. Especially when you consider it in terms of the myths and indoctrination that is forced on all of us in all types of societies. Most people don't question "the way things are" at all, and automatically think that the system they're in is inherently worthwhile and good. (the recent mortgage crisis is a good example--because we all are brought up to own homes, we get in trouble because that requirement is not really achievable by all, and not achievable at all without submission to the forces that control money and those that can punish you enormously if you don't follow the rules, while not punishing those who sold you on that dream, etc)
posted by amberglow at 4:56 PM on August 17, 2007


The labor movement, all health and safety laws, all workplace protections, unions, women's lib and equal rights, civil rights, etc---all because people started by realizing that the way things were and the systems in place were harmful, corrupt, or deadly. Political change of any kind only happens when people clearly and deeply look at what is, and see what's wrong.
posted by amberglow at 5:00 PM on August 17, 2007


amberglow, I agree with you 100%. But Foucault does not teach anyone to reform health and safety laws, or make working conditions better, or reform laws to encourage civil rights. He teaches us to look down on such efforts as naively reformist substitutions of one form of power for another. Foucauldian ideas are great for getting tenure, but terrible for actually changing the world.
posted by googly at 5:06 PM on August 17, 2007


Show me one instance - one, just one, in which this "much deeper" reading of contemporary politics has effected any kind of political change

Friedrich Hayek? Does it have to be more recent than Marx or Locke? Or does it have to be Foucault-specific? If you think that the gay-rights or modern feminist movements haven't been heavily influenced by Foucault, you're out of your mind.
posted by spiderwire at 5:11 PM on August 17, 2007


But if you can appreciate the metaphysical model behind his work then it's pretty clear this "idea" is a meaningless tautology in the context of his work.

The last refuge of obscurantist social critics is the claim that people who don't agree with them simply don't appreciate the sophistication of their insights. Oh please. Disagree with the substance of what I say and I'll be happy to debate you, and equally happy to be convinced by you. But spare me the "clearly you are too unsophisticated to appreciate the deep insights of this French philosopher" bullshit.
posted by googly at 5:14 PM on August 17, 2007


If you want more specific examples than queer performance politics, I'd posit to you that affirmative action and women's working rights are nearly impossible to support coherently without Foucault or theories that depend heavily on him. Affirmative action particularly is emblematic of an issue where power relations are highly dependent on shifting context, and it's nearly impossible to deal with unless you can recognize and account for that.

If you need a higher level of specificity, your argument is a strawman. Henry Kissinger doesn't need to cite to Hobbes to tell me that he's a foreign policy realist. With the exception of Marx (and maybe Hayek), most political actors don't cite to their theoretical influences, but that doesn't mean they don't exist or aren't relevant.

You can't understand Kissinger without Hobbes, Jefferson without Locke, Mao without Marx, or Cheney without Hayek -- likewise, Foucault is merely another analytical tool in the box that we use to understand politics, and one of the sharpest tools at that. Aside from that, I'm really not sure what you're asking for.
posted by spiderwire at 5:18 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Hey, googly, you can respond to me if you want a discussion. I'm not sure why you keep quoting the same comment. Foucault was highly hostile to the concept of metaphysics. I'm trying to create arguments that aren't circular, so if you disagree with me, feel free to say so.
posted by spiderwire at 5:20 PM on August 17, 2007


Foucauldian ideas are great for getting tenure, but terrible for actually changing the world.

Yeah, all those logical positivists across the hall constructing elaborate proofs of God are the real movers and shakers in the philosophy department.

In recent years, I guess that might be closer to the truth, but that doesn't make it any less dumb. Foucault's theorization, OTOH, is highly useful when it's not applied naïvely -- just like most political theory. "Heidegger and Nietzsche were Nazis!" etc. etc. blah blah. GIGO.
posted by spiderwire at 5:23 PM on August 17, 2007


But Foucault does not teach anyone to reform health and safety laws, or make working conditions better, or reform laws to encourage civil rights. He teaches us to look down on such efforts as naively reformist substitutions of one form of power for another. Foucauldian ideas are great for getting tenure, but terrible for actually changing the world.

But until you become aware, you can't change shit. That's the immense value of Foucault and others. First, you wake up. Then you do. All of us who have ever read him or others (and there are many many others before and after him) look at things differently forever after reading or becoming aware, whether the author wants to change the world or not. It's not that he wanted direct change or even believed in it, but that he knew it was important to point out the controls and systems in place that stopped change, and that reinforced the current systems and powers and suppressions--direct and indirect, passive and active.

(and i was going to mention Marx too, who was a theorist first before a revolutionary)

We don't get this awareness from our govt or media or our society or pop culture. We need it--especially in Western "liberal" societies that are thought of as so much better than others and so much "freer".
posted by amberglow at 5:25 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh please.

That's telling him.

(I've never read Foucault. I'm not all that smart and found him impenetrable. But I always find arguments like this amusing since people argue at life-or-death levels about the details of somebody who 99.9% of the world has never heard of)
posted by jonmc at 5:27 PM on August 17, 2007


He teaches us to look down on such efforts as naively reformist substitutions of one form of power for another.

That's the story of society since caveman times, googly. That's it in a nutshell.

So, then you ask why this form of power expressed this way and not that form that allows more in, or more to participate? Why this form that only succeeds by crushing others? Why this form that lets the rich live by no laws and the rest of us get harshly punished if we do the same things? Why this form that privileges heterosexuality and Christianity above all others? Why this form that removes the humanity from some but not others? Why this form where some segments privately depend on some other segments but publicly rail against them and demonize them? ....
posted by amberglow at 5:29 PM on August 17, 2007


(I realize that (to pick a name from the jonmc Canon of Heroes) Handsome Dick Manitoba would be unrecognizable to a roughly equal section of the population, but anybody with a few bucks or an internet connection can hear a song and generally get the gist of what he's on about. Foucault, I can buy his book for 10 bucks but I still don't know what the hell he's talking about.)
posted by jonmc at 5:30 PM on August 17, 2007


How does the Hayek connection work?
posted by Falconetti at 5:31 PM on August 17, 2007


Even if all social and political progress or change is just naively reformist substitutions of power, Foucault realized the value of those changes. He also realized that every change and every new form and all progress follows certain very well-trodden paths and must necessarily include control and oppression of one sort or another, even if just in reaction to the privilege and freedom given to those who previously held the reins of power. Ingroups and Outgroups if you like, or the rise and fall and maintenance ...
posted by amberglow at 5:32 PM on August 17, 2007


(you can too, jon--read his sex stuff)
posted by amberglow at 5:32 PM on August 17, 2007


I'd posit to you that affirmative action and women's working rights are nearly impossible to support coherently without Foucault or theories that depend heavily on him.

Oh please. I support both, as do many many others, without giving a crap for "Foucault or theories that depend heavily on him." It's OK that you like Foucault, I have nothing against it, but why try to pretend that his theories are vital to effecting change in the world? They're not, they're just not. They're catnip to a restricted crew of philosophy junkies, annoying to another crew, and nothing at all to the vast majority of humanity.

Christ, I hate bullshit, Foucauldian or otherwise.
posted by languagehat at 5:35 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


spiderwire and amberglow, I think we're on the same side here. I imagine that, if we sat down for a a beer together, we'd agree on 99% of our politics.

My beef is not with Foucault. It is (as I said in my initial comment) with the many academics who use him to justify a politics of disagreement and criticism, rather than action. amberglow, i completely agree with you when you say "But until you become aware, you can't change shit. " My criticism is that many - not all - Foucauldians seem to think that merely "being aware" is enough.
posted by googly at 5:38 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's like ignoring the Enlightenment when you talk of our American Revolution. Or ignoring the things our govts and the CIA have done in the Middle East for decades when you talk of Iraq today. It's a context for a way to understand.
posted by amberglow at 5:42 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Spiderwire, that's because, it seems to me anyway, that self-oppression via these means is a lot easier to stop than actual oppression by the powerful.

If you want to stop being repressed by your credit cards or the imaginary guard in the tower, all you have to do is become aware that you are changing your behavior based on these restraints and then act as you actually desire to do.


Ah ha! And here you hit at the heart of the myth and where there is so much confusion on this point. Of course you can choose not to use your credit cards. But this is different from taking the risk that there's actually no guard in the tower or he's not looking at you (which is why Panopticon-style prisons don't really work).

The point here is that there's nothing really per se wrong or insidious about using a credit card, and they are in fact convenient. And you know, most of those purchases aren't going to be looked at. They probably won't show up on your credit report. But the point is that the possibility of being observed changes your behavior even though there are no immediate consequences.

More to the point, your choice not to use credit cards (which could put you at a strategic disadvantage in life) is in the case you posit also a response to the presence of that gaze. And don't fool yourself into thinking that that choice doesn't have consequences as well (try getting a loan for a house without any extant credit, good or bad).

You have choices about self-control, not so much about actual control and actual torture.

Bingo. That's why Foucault characterizes these as "disciplinary" techniques of control rather than "repression." Surveillance, normalization, segmentation -- in a liberal humanist regime these things are often not repressive per se, but they are nevertheless techniques of control that are used to police populations without the need to engage in direct repression, which is in fact highly ineffective in a liberal state.

For Foucault, that's why these techniques came into prominence as the public spectacle of executions became less effective as a control technique. Note how public punishments are in fact rare in our society, except for major executions: our prisons are effectively nowhere-zones. And yet, as your comment demonstrates, we still often think of these things in terms of "false consciousness" and direct repression: "Well, if I'm just aware of the cameras, then I'm not really under control. I can act in ways to avoid the consequences." And yet, your behavior is being modified and controlled. And your non-conformity is used to segment you as well, even if it's not used to target you for elimination as a straight Marxist would have it.

And of course, these are just the tip of Foucault's analytic iceberg: Discipline and Punish is merely the first tentative step along these lines of analysis. History of Sexuality brings in the concepts of the repressive hypothesis, truth regimes, and biopower. His later, largely unpublished works on governmentality finally provide some more practical means for analysis and action. And yes, he made many missteps along the way, but that's because no one else had ever really entered that intellectual territory, and no one has since. Unlike many scholars who stay wedded to their theories no matter what (e.g., Chomsky and his universal grammar), Foucault did have the courage to admit his mistakes and press on -- surely, many of his followers were horrified to read of his later admiration and interest in the Greeks -- the founders of instrumental rationality, for god's sake! Horrors!

Foucault was a brilliant theorist, and highly underappreciated. Like Hayek, profoundly flawed, but years and years ahead of his time. And like Nietszche, probably doomed to be forever misunderstood. It's tragic that he died just as he was finally managing to weave all the threads of his work together. But so it goes. There's enough of a foundation there that the last few steps could be taken someday.
posted by spiderwire at 5:46 PM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]


googly, I think most people who think that are either uninterested in change and progress (because they got theirs, or are happy in the systems they're in?), or are pure academics, or are among the privileged so it doesn't hit them the way it hits me and others who are in outgroups. It's always those who will benefit from any theory or message that take it and use it in reality, instead of just discussing it alone or seeing it as an abstract theory or whatever. With Foucault and others who write about the real world, i think to really get it you have to go beyond, and use it.
posted by amberglow at 5:49 PM on August 17, 2007


Oh please.

Why does everyone keep saying this? It's getting silly.

I support both, as do many many others, without giving a crap for "Foucault or theories that depend heavily on him." It's OK that you like Foucault, I have nothing against it, but why try to pretend that his theories are vital to effecting change in the world? They're not, they're just not.

Well, maybe I'm just speaking personally -- and this may be because I'm not as bright as others -- but I find those two particular issues totally intractable without bringing the Foucauldian analysis to bear. Otherwise it's just a bunch of liberation theology bullshit and race-baiting all over the place, in the case of affirmative action. I should have distinguished that claim from the one that came before it, but what I meant is that a Foucauldian analysis of affirmative action is a uniquely effective way of cutting that particular Gordian knot -- and that demonstrates to me, at least, its practical utility in at least one instance.

They're catnip to a restricted crew of philosophy junkies, annoying to another crew, and nothing at all to the vast majority of humanity.

Christ, I hate bullshit, Foucauldian or otherwise.


Well, sure, but you could say the same thing about any of the theorists I just mentioned -- Marx, Locke, Hobbes (kill everyone who disagrees with us!), Nietzche, Darwin for the love of god, Heidegger, Hayek, etc. etc.

How does the Hayek connection work?

I was looking for a theorist who's profoundly influenced recent politics -- I think he's best example. Of course, I think the neocons have mangled him almost as badly as a lot of scholars have done with Foucault (I actually like Hayek and find that he and Foucault combine nicely, but that's probably a different discussion), but that's almost always the case. My point was that "political philosophy" does very much influence "real world" politics.

Interestingly, Lynne Cheney's written a book criticizing "postmodern" political philosophers -- complete tripe, of course, but it does demonstrate that these guys are aware of these things. They really do read Hayek and Strauss and such, and they know who the other side is. It's not surprising that they don't mention it, but they do know.
posted by spiderwire at 5:54 PM on August 17, 2007


Spiderwire, that's because, it seems to me anyway, that self-oppression via these means is a lot easier to stop than actual oppression by the powerful.

And i see those things as much harder to stop or change than actual overt and visible oppression. We've absorbed and internalized those behaviors and needs and games and structures and rarely question or even examine them. If you don't have a credit history you're hurt. If you misuse credit, you're hurt. If you don't play the game, you're hurt sometimes more than if you had played--and can you really not play at all in reality? The choices we think we are making freely are so limited and prescribed, and so utterly dependent on the world around us.
posted by amberglow at 5:56 PM on August 17, 2007


(you can too, jon--read his sex stuff)

I've tried. Like all these people who get quoted around here, he flies right over my head, except that he seems to like fucking, but so do most people.
posted by jonmc at 5:59 PM on August 17, 2007


spiderwire and amberglow, I think we're on the same side here. I imagine that, if we sat down for a a beer together, we'd agree on 99% of our politics.

My beef is not with Foucault. It is (as I said in my initial comment) with the many academics who use him to justify a politics of disagreement and criticism, rather than action. amberglow, i completely agree with you when you say "But until you become aware, you can't change shit. " My criticism is that many - not all - Foucauldians seem to think that merely "being aware" is enough.


My best teacher ever (in a college lit crit class I took in high school, no less) put it to me this way. We were covering a different analytic method every week: New Criticism, Russian Formalism, Feminism, Marxism, Postmodernism (he showed us a Space Ghost episode and an old Batman episode), Reader-response... the whole gamut. And what he told us throughout the class was that he didn't want to take any of it as gospel, but to see all the different approaches as tools in a toolbox, each of which could be used in different ways to understand the work at hand.

My best English teachers in college did the same -- my favorite did a brilliant deconstructionist reading of the Inferno without ever once mentioning Derrida or the "theory" behind what he was doing. But for me, seeing what he was doing and how a theoretical approach that I'm not really partial to could give up such a novel take on a work that's been in the classical canon for centuries was a profound experience.

The "toolbox" metaphor applies to political theory, and especially to Foucault. It's easy for academics to consider themselves members of a particular "school," and the post-structuralist "school" is great if you're liberal and a contrarian. You get to be a real prick to the old farts, and they're often a bunch of stuff-shirted jerks. But it's still ideological and not at all true to the content of his work. Hayek is the analog on the conservative side.

But you don't have to be an advocate if you don't want to either -- the analytic tools the good theorists provide are the most important part, and you really can achieve a more profound understanding of political theory if you have all of those tools in your box. Foucault is fascinating because he provides tools that no one else does -- if you want the whole "power is always repressive" thing, or the permanent-revolution thing, there's plenty of Derrida and Chomsky people out there for you.

You don't need Foucault for that, but he was a lot smarter than Derrida or Chomsky, so maybe you want to be in his camp. But much like sports, you can't really take the fans as reflecting on the skill of the coaches or the players. Idiots are idiots. Knowing who Foucault was doesn't change that. You still have to evaluate on the merits at some point. The way to do that is to learn the material, not snipe at idiots. Shooting fish in a barrel is no fun.
posted by spiderwire at 6:06 PM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]


(you can too, jon--read his sex stuff)

I've tried. Like all these people who get quoted around here, he flies right over my head, except that he seems to like fucking, but so do most people.


I can explain this stuff, too, but Foucault really starts with the whole disciplinary power thing, so I figured that would be best. If the thread continues, we can get into The History of Sexuality and governmentality -- it's actually somewhat straightforward if explained properly.

It does take a while to get used to Foucault's writing style, but I found that after a while it becomes very, very lucid all of a sudden. For me, that's a major factor distinguishing him from most of the other so-called "scholars" that inhabit the critical theory field -- no matter how many times I read Judith fucking Butler, she's still completely goddamn incoherent.

Granted, the first times through Foucault really was just Sanskrit to me.
posted by spiderwire at 6:11 PM on August 17, 2007


Do you think these "various elites" give a flying fuck about Foucault's claims about the history of power?

You know, I must admit, I find this position shocking even though it keeps confronting me again and again. Where and when did this simplistic notion that ideas don't matter and have no influence on history come from? That history is just a chance series of 'results'? Does anybody seriously believe that major shifts like the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the 68 occurred "naturally," completely independent of the concurrent intellectual shifts in thought?

My criticism is that many - not all - Foucauldians seem to think that merely "being aware" is enough.

Ah, ok. This old saw. For a second there I was quite worried. This is just same old stupid accusation that any "sincere" intellectual ought to be off waging guerrilla warfare and building bombs in her basement to bring the fight "The Man" and bring about real, actual revolution change. I will admit that this childish anti-intellectualism has its place but, no, it isn't anything approaching actual criticism. And yes, the real logic behind this charge is to defend and reinforce the status quo. By seeking to dismiss all critics of the elite as "all talk" people like googly are seek only to justify their own utter lack of depth. But I imagine it's also quite practically useful: if you can convince people that serious intellectual, criticism is "useless" or "impractical" or "theoretical crap" then the people will be willing to accept all but the most egregious offenses.

Of course this sort of talk is everywhere so it's difficult to cast blame. I fear it just makes for good television in our supposedly post-ideological world. See the American media which is forever striving to present Democrats and the "Left" as weak and hypocritical. Serious debates about actual ideas and principles don't show well but this sort of showy ad hominem does seem to prove endlessly popular.
posted by nixerman at 6:14 PM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]


If the thread continues, we can get into The History of Sexuality and governmentality -- it's actually somewhat straightforward if explained properly.

That's OK. I'm old now and my brain is full.
posted by jonmc at 6:19 PM on August 17, 2007


But much like sports, you can't really take the fans as reflecting on the skill of the coaches or the players. Idiots are idiots. Knowing who Foucault was doesn't change that. You still have to evaluate on the merits at some point. The way to do that is to learn the material, not snipe at idiots. Shooting fish in a barrel is no fun.

Agreed, agreed, agreed. The problem is that Foucault is dead, so no matter how cogent his writing is, from here on out we have to contend with the idiots - his interpreters, his followers, his defenders. Like I said, I've learned quite a lot from him. But I have learned very little from his dogmatic followers. And ultimately I feel that, on balance, his work has done more harm than good, because it persuades many people that piecemeal political reform is somehow a bad thing. Whether that be a failing of him or of his interpreters, I don't know.
posted by googly at 6:27 PM on August 17, 2007


languagehat, I think you said a while back that this comment on a Foucault thread put my position in context for you, and here is the specific quote backing up my position on it (I don't know if you came back to the thread).

It seems that we're all in relative agreement that, "postmodernism" notwithstanding, it's unfair to immediately class Foucault with those who advocate him, or all "postmodernists" like Derrida, Kristeva, Baudrillard, etc. (yuck, yuck, and yuck). If you guys wanna talk Foucault, let's talk Foucault, not the pop-philosophy understanding of his works or the fact that yes, Stanley Fish is a douchebag. This is definitely one of those topics where painting with an overly broad brush doesn't really work -- and in a thread specifically about Foucault, even less so.
posted by spiderwire at 6:28 PM on August 17, 2007


Agreed, agreed, agreed. The problem is that Foucault is dead, so no matter how cogent his writing is, from here on out we have to contend with the idiots - his interpreters, his followers, his defenders.

See, that's where I disagree, and that's why every time this thread comes up I keep telling people to go read the first volume of The Essential Foucault. It's largely unpublished stuff from after 1980 up 'til his death (i.e., after History of Sexuality and for some reason (probably because of the moronic followers) has never really made it into the canon. (The Foucault Effect is worth reading too, I think, as well as some stuff you can find on the net, like "Subjectivity and Truth" and "What is Enlightenment?")

Right before he died, Foucault really was this close to tying everything together into a politics of resistance that was highly coherent -- you don't have to rely on the idiots to understand him any more than you have to take Paul Wolfowitz as a fair representative of Hayek's thinking.

But I have learned very little from his dogmatic followers. And ultimately I feel that, on balance, his work has done more harm than good, because it persuades many people that piecemeal political reform is somehow a bad thing. Whether that be a failing of him or of his interpreters, I don't know.

You could say the same thing about Marx, Nietszche, Heidegger, and Hayek, among many others. It's sort of in the nature of "dogmatic followers" that they're poor sources of information.
posted by spiderwire at 6:39 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


spiderwire, you just don't quit. :)

But I have to now, because its almost 3am here. I agree with you that people shouldn't be held accountable for the misinterpretations of their followers. But I just can't shake the feeling that there's something in the original texts that lends itself to particular types of dogmatism - or, in this case, is found attractive by a particular faction of academics.
posted by googly at 6:47 PM on August 17, 2007


spiderwire, you just don't quit. :)

That pretty much sums up my entire time on MeFi.

But I just can't shake the feeling that there's something in the original texts that lends itself to particular types of dogmatism - or, in this case, is found attractive by a particular faction of academics.

Because (1) he's highly original (2) provides powerful analytic tools and (3) his arguments are brilliant enough that a lot of intellectual midgets can use bits of Foucault's books to bootstrap themselves into some sort of legitimacy by being contrarian. As mentioned, that's what gets you tenure.

As far as political theory goes, Foucault is the heavy artillery -- you don't even have to understand him, you just point him in the general direction of a topic and unload. Derrida's often used to the same effect, because his argument operates at such a high level of abstraction (half of the so-called Foucault scholarship is just Derrida redux anyway). To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It's unfortunate, but that's my take on it anyway. Happens to a lot of great thinkers. Again, the neoconservatives do the same thing with Hayek.
posted by spiderwire at 7:00 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Show me one instance - one single instance - in which this "critical move" has resulted in any change in the world.

Actually, I believe ACTUP and Queen Nation were both heavily influenced by Foucault, especially The History of Sexuality and The Use of Pleasure. It's not as historically important as, say, Islam or the invention of movable type, but those organizations have definitely changed cultural views and conceptions on sexuality, in addition to changing attitudes on AIDS and HIV.
posted by jonp72 at 7:19 PM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]


Queer Nation, not Queen ; >

many were--Sex Panic too. And many learned (and learned of) Foucault thru Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and other Queer Theory people. (I'd say Act Up maybe less so since it was Kramer's baby and he had little time for theory or even sitting around talking before doing stuff.)
posted by amberglow at 8:27 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


I always feel sad when the Foucault threads die off. We never get to get into the fun stuff :(
posted by spiderwire at 9:16 PM on August 17, 2007


Well, screw it, I'm bored, so I'm going to do a little more -- what's the word? -- exegesis, I think the cool kids are calling it. First, disciplinary power, then the repressive hypothesis, biopower, and governmentality.

First, discipline. Looking again, that article I linked above has some very interesting stuff in it, particularly regarding what I was trying to explain earlier. Quoting at length:
Discipline and Punish [studies] development of the "gentler" modern way of imprisoning criminals rather than torturing or killing them. While recognizing the element of genuinely enlightened reform, Foucault particularly emphasizes how such reform also becomes a vehicle of more effective control: "to punish less, perhaps; but certainly to punish better". ... We should not, however, think that the deployment of this model was due to ... some central controlling agency. ... techniques and institutions, developed for different and often quite innocuous purposes, converged to create the modern system of disciplinary power.

At the core of Foucault's picture of modern "disciplinary" society are three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination. To a great extent, control ... can be achieved merely by observing...

A distinctive feature of modern power (disciplinary control) is its concern with what people have not done ... failure to reach required standards. This concern illustrates the primary function of modern disciplinary systems: to correct deviant behavior. The goal is not revenge (as in the case of the tortures of premodern punishment) but reform, where, of course, reform means coming to live by society's standards or norms. Discipline through imposing precise norms ("normalization") is quite different from the older system of judicial punishment, which merely judges each action as allowed by the law or not allowed by the law and does not say that those judged are "normal" or "abnormal". This idea of normalization is pervasive in our society: e.g., national standards for educational programs, for medical practice, for industrial processes and products.

The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normative judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole "the deployment of force and the establishment of truth". It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination ... and controls their behavior...

... in the [traditional model] "knowledge is power" means that knowledge is an instrument of power... Foucault's point is ... for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.

The examination also situates individuals in a "field of documentation". ... On the basis of these records, those in control can formulate categories, averages, and norms that are in turn a basis for knowledge. The examination turns the individual into a "case"--in both senses of the term: a scientific example and an object of care; caring is always also an opportunity for control.
I think that's a great summation of what I was getting at.

Now, again, let's bring that back around to that first long comment. Note that Foucault very specifically describes disciplinary techniques in neutral, not repressive terms -- what he's concerned with is how, in a liberal society that doesn't use repressive techniques very often, power nevertheless does function. (I.e., if people don't act under the threat of the sovereign's power, how are we able to organize at all?) So the question is: what are the techniques of power being used? They clearly can't be the same as those deployed under the old monarchic regimes.

The first means of control Foucault isolates is disciplinary techniques. His argument is that power is achieved through specific knowledge (which is facilitated by ritualizations like examinations and other forms of normalization) that inevitably lead to -- if not control -- at least segmentation. Even opting out of the knowledge-collection system (e.g., not using a credit card) has informational consequences too, just as much as being deviant or being conformist. The point is that political subjects can be forced to self-regulate in that their actions are exposed in a manner where they expect to be judged. When you believe you're being tested or your actions are recorded, it must affect your behavior in some way, positively or negatively. The awareness itself is what Foucault calls "discipline," not the act of punishment with which we usually associate the term.

(Also note that this operation works both ways -- as I mentioned above, the classic sovereign generally had to fear revolution; the modern analogues might be Sunshine Laws and governmental transparency -- another form of surveillance and knowledge.) The point is that these operations and techniques of power that, under a liberal humanist government, replace the direct control techniques of, e.g., a monarchy -- they're not necessarily bad, just different, and also undertheorized.
posted by spiderwire at 9:56 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Whoof. I wore myself out with that one. I still want to throw some stuff on biopower and governmentality out there, but I'm going to save it for tomorrow when I have more energy.

For now, Chapter 1 (Torture) and Chapter 3 (Panopticism) of Discipline and Punish cover what I was just talking about in detail, and are actually fun reads.

Later, biopower and governmentality. Just for my own edification.
posted by spiderwire at 11:01 PM on August 17, 2007


Good stuff spiderwire. I've read a good bit of Foucault and I'm pretty confident in my ability to "get" him, but your comments are helping me to articulate to myself what's going on in his work on the large scale and the importance of his work, even if sometimes his historical research was spotty. Personally, I love the guy as a theorist and I find that he greatly informs my work, but I don't often cite him so much as I just try to understand and apply his methodologies and ways of thinking (and supplement them with other theorists).
posted by papakwanz at 11:07 PM on August 17, 2007


Next, the specific concept of power/knowledge. Here's where it gets tricky. First, remember how in Discipline and Punish Foucault isolates knowledge-producing techniques as strategies of power -- for example, examinations that create information about subjects. The History of Sexuality is largely concerned with how power and knowledge interrelate with one another.

For example, he spends a great deal of time on the topic of Victorian sexuality -- we do have this notion that the Victorians were prudes, but as Foucault points out, they were in fact absolutely obsessed with notions of sex. Sociologists examined, defined, and classified every variety of -philia imaginable, created huge catalogs of the different varieties and gradations of sexual deviation. That is, in "repressing" sexuality, the Victorians in fact created a vast body of knowledge on the topic, arguably more extensive than our own in that we wouldn't even recognize some of the gradations they identified so obsessively.

Now, consider how this dovetails with Foucault's conception of normalization in Discipline and Punish. There's many interesting things at work here, but here's a quick overview of the points I find most interesting:

First, the immediate "disciplinary" effect which we just discussed: the intense examination of sexuality intrinsically reinforced sexual norms, because even the smallest deviation from the norm could be classified and isolated. What we consider today as "repression" was arguably a way of strictly isolating the sexual norm by brutally analyzing the whole field of sexuality. The "repression," though, was a "side effect" of the sociological research, not a direct result; Of course, this wasn't really accidental, but rather a self-reinforcing process.

Second, how the Victorian inquiry was directed -- the "norm" of prim heterosexuality wasn't positively defined so much as carefully carved out from the mass of identified deviances. In other words, this too was consistent with liberal-humanism: rather than punishing deviance per se, the Victorians instead marked out those in need of treatment, via a neutral process of scientific inquiry.

Third, consider that for some time, the misogynist notion of "feminine virtue" was considered entirely consistent with liberal-humanist values; however, you don't have to do a lot of research into the rape-reform movement to understand some of the negative effects that concept had, insofar as it placed blame on rape victims for being unvirtuous. (This is a large part of why we have rape shield laws.)

This is one of Foucault's statements that tends to get people up in arms about spectres of relativism, but that doesn't really change the fact that it's straightforwardly true -- the lesson he's driving at is that oppressive norms aren't at all inconsistent with liberal values; rather, the inquiry has to be very specific in order to determine the distance between our aims and our means (if I get a chance to discuss governmentality, I'll address this further).

Fourth important point here regards scientific inquiry and knowledge; despite the often quackish nature of these psychiatric inquiries into sexuality, they generally weren't performed with malice, but rather with a great deal of care and precision. Again, people seem to react to this argument as a relativist position against "science" or the foundations of psychiatry, but really, what Foucault points out is that the dangers here aren't necessarily in the rigors of the discipline but in the context in which we place the results.

I've commented previously about research into the biological bases of gender and sexuality; many liberals perceive these inquiries as fundamentally discriminatory, but the simple fact is that these biological distinctions do exist, as of course did some of the "deviations" identified by Victorian sociologists. The issue isn't necessarily the identifiable facts, but the manner in which those facts are contextualized. E.g, do we value supposedly "feminine" characteristics? What questions are being asked in the first place, and why? What are the criteria for measuring those characteristics? These gateway issues mediating what "qualifies" as true (in the sense of being scientifically valid or analytically relevant) are what Foucault's referring to when discussing "power/knowledge" -- it's these issues of context and the manner in which we conduct our inquiries and admit or exclude "relevant" facts from the scientific canon that define the meaning of our discoveries in the real world. It's not necessarily the "truth" of the facts themselves.

Finally, let's return again to the common thread running through Foucault's discussions of "discipline" and "power/knowledge": the question of how techniques of power can exist in liberal societies without the direct operation of coercion or repression. In other words, his primary concern is how power can operate in ways that aren't per se repressive but that still allow relationships of control. Again, he doesn't express these operations as negative, just poorly understood -- the notion that power always has to be manipulative and dangerous, like this is all some sort of conspiracy of science and industry and the evil evil capitalist state, is a half-breed notion carried over from Marxism and old notions of monarchical power (torture, public executions). Though the modern state does of course employ violence, Foucault's analysis is in fact more concerned with how the state has managed to maximize control while reducing the need for coercion and thus the prospect of inciting violent popular resistance.

OK, tomorrow: biopower. Hopefully I'm getting most of this right, because I don't have any of my books in front of me, but anyone's welcome to correct me if I recalled anything wrong or left out any major parts.
posted by spiderwire at 12:57 AM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Meh... Foucault is nothing but an overhyped pervert.
posted by MythMaker at 12:59 AM on August 18, 2007


Thanks, papakwanz. Hopefully that last comment wasn't too dense. Disciplinary techniques are a lot easier for me to explain than the whole power/knowledge concept.
posted by spiderwire at 1:01 AM on August 18, 2007


languagehat, I think you said a while back that this comment on a Foucault thread put my position in context for you

Yeah, it did, and thanks for reminding me of that. I note that what impressed me was your relatively objective commentary doing close analysis and making distinctions that I could follow. When you get into your "Foucault is the smartest guy who ever lived and nobody understands him because he was so ahead of his time!" routine, I turn off. Not that you should care whether I turn off or not, but I suspect I'm not the only one. I know you're really into Foucault and are genuinely enthusiastic about him, but remember that if you want to have an impact on others, you might want to tone it down a little.
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on August 18, 2007



Well, in the US, I just don't think we ever got that far away from physical punishment -- and we're trending ever back in that direction given the fact that we imprison more people per capita than anyone else and given our legalization of torture.

Sure, it is not as easy as "become aware that credit systems are a method of control" and change your behavior. But, you can become aware that torture is a method of control all you want-- if you are being tortured it's not going to help.
posted by Maias at 10:09 AM on August 18, 2007


Well, I do care whether you turn off at that point, because every time this discussion comes up on the Blue, it often does turn into the predictable snipefest that doesn't do anyone any good.

I don't think that Foucault was the smartest person evar -- I do think that he's highly misunderstood, simply because it's very difficult to concretize his arguments without being reductionist.

I also think that if you don't cover the post-1980, largely unpublished parts of his work, it's hard to create a strong ethical position for the rest of it.

Of course, both of those positions entail some sort of "well, you just don't get it," type of sentiment -- so it's also tricky to negotiate the line between sounding like a zealot and trying to give a broader context to his work, without which I don't think it's a complete ethical system.
posted by spiderwire at 12:45 PM on August 18, 2007


I don't want to interrupt your flow, spiderwire, but I'm really curious to know if you've read Andrew Scull's recent review of History of Madness (it's the 'bad scholar' link in the original post) and if so, what you thought of it. I'm a great admirer of Foucault, but my faith was shaken slightly by Scull's attack on the concept of the Great Confinement. I don't know enough about the history of asylums/workhouses/etc to be able to evaluate Scull's argument, but it seems to me that if the Great Confinement disappears, a large part of Foucault's thesis goes with it.
posted by verstegan at 1:23 PM on August 18, 2007


Yeah, I read the review -- I don't really disagree with it. My personal take is that everything before Discipline and Punish -- i.e., everything written in the "archaeological" rather than the "genealogical" mode -- has to be taken with a huge grain of salt, and Madness and Civilization, being the oldest work, even more so. It's useful for tracing Foucault's thinking, but I don't think it really holds water as an analytic tool. Foucault himself was pretty disparaging of all his earlier works.

Now, I don't think the review really gets to the heart of my problems with the archaeological works, because it's mostly concerned with historical inaccuracy -- and I don't think anyone really disputes that Foucault wasn't the greatest historical scholar. Hell, I don't think Foucault disputed it. I mean, this is why people always trot out the canard that "the Panopticon didn't really work" as if that negates everything Foucault said on the topic. Bentham in Foucault is emblematic of a mode of thinking, not a method of oppression.

Likewise, you can point out that a lot of the "science" being examined in History of Sexuality was a bunch of sex-obsessed quackery. I mean, some of the stuff that Foucault unearths that those guys were calling "sexual disorders" is just mind-bogglingly ridiculous. But Foucault's concern isn't with scientific validity, but rather the question of why people were asking these questions in the way they were.

All that said, I still think that Madness and Civilization has to be read with skepticism. It's a flawed book, and not just because of the quality of its historical scholarship. Here's a really cool essay by Amy Allen I was reading on this exact subject last night. As Habermas points out (one of the few things about Foucault he got right), the Kant you read in early Foucault isn't the same Kant you find in "What is Enlightenment?" Being able to see how Foucault got from point A to point B is really informative for understanding him, but I don't think that it affects the conclusions of his project. I think that his original take on the Enlightenment is essentially just the naïve version of his theories that a lot of people rightly take issue with -- but there's nothing in there that isn't corrected or clarified later on.
posted by spiderwire at 1:54 PM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Absolutely required reading on this subject is Foucault's What is Enlightenment?, written in response to Kant's essay asking that question.

This essay, I think, provides Foucault's most nuanced and forgiving approach to the Enlightment and humanism in general. Specifically, the sections titled "Negatively" and "Positively" can pretty much tell you all you need to know about Foucault's attitude on the subject.
posted by spiderwire at 2:05 PM on August 18, 2007


Here's the most relevant piece, I think, heavily pared down:
...the thread that may connect us with the Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather the permanent reactivation of ...a philosophical ethos ...a permanent critique of our historical era...

This ethos implies, first, the refusal of ...the 'blackmail' of the Enlightenment. ...the Enlightenment ...constitutes a privileged domain for analysis. ... an enterprise ... linking the progress of truth and the history of liberty in a bond of direct relation...

But that does not mean that one has to be 'for' or 'against' the Enlightenment. It even means precisely that one has to refuse everything that might present itself in the form of a simplistic and authoritarian alternative: you either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism (this is considered a positive term by some and used by others, on the contrary, as a reproach); or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality (which may be seen once again as good or bad). And we do not break free of this blackmail by introducing 'dialectical' nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have been in the Enlightenment....

Humanism is something entirely different. It is a theme or rather a set of themes that have reappeared on several occasions over time in European societies; these themes always tied to value judgments have obviously varied greatly in their content as well as in the values they have preserved. Furthermore they have served as a critical principle of differentiation. ...

...we must not conclude that everything that has ever been linked with humanism is to be rejected, but that the humanistic thematic is in itself too supple, too diverse, too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection. ...humanism has always been obliged to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from religion science or politics. Humanism serves to color and to justify the conceptions of man to which it is after all obliged to take recourse.

...I believe that this thematic which so often recurs and which always depends on humanism can be opposed by the principle of a critique and a permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy: that is a principle that is at the heart of the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of itself. From this standpoint I am inclined to see Enlightenment and humanism in a state of tension rather than identity. ...

In any case I think that just as we must free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of being for or against the Enlightenment we must escape from the historical and moral confusion that mixes the theme of humanism with the question of the Enlightenment. ...

Yet ... we must obviously give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing through a historical ontology of ourselves...

This entails an obvious consequence: that criticism is no longer... practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying. In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method... a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.
posted by spiderwire at 2:44 PM on August 18, 2007


I'm still thinking over the biopower and governmentality stuff, but... is anyone actually reading this? :)
posted by spiderwire at 3:32 PM on August 18, 2007


yup : >
posted by amberglow at 3:44 PM on August 18, 2007


i just ran across this--very related, i think: -- ...Readings of Middle Eastern politics that don't understand the local meaning of party politics and civil society inevitably fail to capture a reliable picture of what's going on. For example, Jones argues that the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt doesn't necessarily indicate that the movement is politically popular, or that it has achieved success on its own merits. Rather, the repressive Egyptian state has limited the capacity of civil society to develop. The state, however, is reluctant to invade the mosque, meaning that Islamic groups have a freedom to organize and assemble that other societal groups lack. The result of political oppression, then, is the production of a movement that may be more dangerous to the survival of the Egyptian state than the forces that the state is trying to repress. Although Jones recognizes that their may be cross-national similarities, he doesn't apply the same lens to every country; again, context matters, and superficially similar events may have entirely different political meanings in different countries. [...]
posted by amberglow at 4:08 PM on August 18, 2007


If nothing else, this should be good reference material the next time this discussion arises.

So, the last "technique of power" that I think is worth analyzing is "biopower," which gets mention in the end of History of Sexuality but which Foucault was never able to flesh out before he died. If anyone has the book handy, the chapter is "The Right of Death and the Power Over Life." Everything I quote below comes from pages 135 to 145.

Note at the outset that most of the discussions of this concept are just egregiously wrong. Just like surveillance and normalization in Discipline and Punish often arise in repressive terms (the evil state watching its enemies, wooo), "biopower" has been appropriated by all sorts of people -- some of them considered Foucault scholars -- to mean all sorts of things. (For an overview of how Hart, Negri, Agamben, and others have managed to screw up the terminology, this paper by Rose and Rabinow is essential reading.) (Incidentally, Rose and Rabinow are two of the only sources that can really be trusted to read Foucault accurately at all.)

"Biopower" of course, is a sexy-sounding term for political theorists, and it doesn't help that Foucault introduces it in terms of nuclear bombs and genocide and other scariness. Above, I talked about how Foucault's concept of "disciplinary techniques" has commonly been interpreted to mean "the State uses panoptic techniques to control you OMG!" Same thing applies here.

It's absolutely crucial to recognize that while he was writing this stuff, Foucault didn't think he was posing a critique of the humanist state or rationality. In interviews he tried constantly to explain that he just thought we've been talking about "power" in the same terms (repression) for centuries, but that modern techniques of social organization often don't take directly repressive forms -- liberal-humanist governance demands forms of control that mold society with minimal coercion, but they do exercise control, so it's important to understand how that happen. Foucault was trying to give us a vocabulary (an "analytic toolbox" is a term he used) to talk about power in more complex terms.

Of course, his big mistake was that he didn't want to think of his project as proscriptive -- he just wanted to be able to discuss these techniques intelligently -- so other people just did that for him, and of course did so in terms of repression. Unsurprising, considering the time he was writing, and that many of his contemporaries (e.g. Derrida) were pursuing revolutionary or anti-rationalist projects -- his insightful analysis was easily appropriated for their purposes. (Hence, the "Foucauldians" we're left with, who often do nothing but annoy the shit out of everyone.)

So, returning to the notion of biopower -- Foucault opens his discussion of the topic with the fairly obvious point that modern states have not only adopted the power of the sovereign to mete out death, but that the mobilization of states at the level of populations has changed the political landscape: he argues that the rise of techniques that regulate populations (discipline) is mirrored by warfare on the scale of populations, rather than small armies (remember, armies used to be very, very small compared to how we think of them today), and more notably state-sponsored genocides, and the relatively novel concept of "total war." Foucault saw a difference between wars between sovereigns and wars between populations.

That's an interesting point, but not all that revolutionary. What's sad is that, obscured by the discussions of genocide and nuclear bombs, the major insight Foucault had here almost always gets missed:
Since the classical age the West has undergone a very profound transformation of these mechanisms of power. "Deduction" [i.e. appropriation of wealth] has tended to no longer be the major form of power but merely one element among others, working to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them. There has been a parallel shift in the right of death, or at least a tendency to align itself with the exigencies of a life-administering power... This death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life.
I think that last bit's worth reading a few times. Later, he phrases it this way:
One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.
I've always found this an extremely original evocation -- the argument is essentially that the modern welfare state's mode of "punishment" tends to take the form of a withdrawal of support rather than an enforcement of penalties.

That has at least three important implications.

First, Foucault argues that this is one ways in which we're now political subjects in a state rather than political objects under a monarch. In our personal lives, Westerners are less concerned with surviving day-to-day -- the state has pushed out mass famines and epidemics (though he points out that conditions have often worsened in the third world). Our biological existence as now tied to our political existence: "For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question."

Second, and more concretely, this argument points to an alternative mode of internal repression. Remember that earlier we were discussing that one could simply "opt out" of surveillance techniques -- not so, says Foucault.

I'll drop the credit-check example, and give you another one which ties into the affirmative action point I was making earlier: inner cities. I don't think you can come up with a more concrete example of what Foucault means by "biopower" than this. In America, our ghettos weren't created through specific acts of malice (not entirely) -- they exist largely because the security of the state is withheld. Police enforcement, local school funding, institutional racism, zoning, you name it -- there's a complex network of effects that serve to isolate poor, minority areas of our cities politically, to devastating real-world effect.

Again, note how this doesn't necessarily take the form of coercion, though many people call it that -- rather, it's an operation by omission, exactly like the normalization function of Victorian sexuality. Foucault thinks that one "consequence of this development of bio-power was the growing importance assumed by the action of the norm, at the expense of the juridical system of the law." I.e., "the law," or the prison and punishment systems, don't occupy the center of society as the spectacle of the execution did -- rather, they man the borders, the "transition point" between the state and "the rest of the world." (I'll leave it to you to draw the next step to how this implicates affirmative action.)

Third, this notion of biopower ties The History of Sexuality into Discipline and Punish. It more or less completes the "analytic toolbox." All these techniques come together as "optimization" -- the rise of capitalism in the West tracks the refinement of disciplinary techniques, though Foucault doesn't argue that one caused the other. Rather, he seems to regard them as mutually reinforcing: both capitalism and the modern state "had to have methods of power capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without making them more difficult to govern." Remember how one of the things that Foucault found most interesting about the Panopticon was that it required a minimum of controllers -- whereas police forces have to grow with the population, disciplinary techniques (like credit checks) "scale."

So, at this point, we've covered most of the methods that Foucault saw as critical to the transition from monarchic to juridical power -- a set of political techniques that could be exercised (1) with little coercion (2) at the level of entire populations -- both aspects were critical to their use in a modern state.

But the problem that faced Foucault at this point was that he'd arguably gone beyond mere analytics -- this was such a cohesive picture of the modern state that it was criticized as either relativist or fatalist. If disciplinary techniques are so omnipresent, critics asked, then what recourse is there? If our entire system of "discourse" is encompassed by "power/knowledge," how do we operate against it?

Foucault was reluctant to acknowledge that he needed a system of ethics to complement his system of analysis, and he died before he got to answer the question in a book -- but the answer he did come up with is probably the most interesting part of his scholarship, I think. I'll get to that last, if I have the energy.
posted by spiderwire at 7:08 PM on August 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


Can't believe I made it this far. Not entirely sure why I'm doing this. :)
posted by spiderwire at 7:10 PM on August 18, 2007


:)
posted by Wolof at 10:50 PM on August 18, 2007


I'm really, really trying to keep this concrete, but this is all so abbreviated (and yet interminably long) that it's tending to the abstract, and this next comment in particular, so hopefully anyone who's still following can bear with me, or just skip to the end.

I'm not really sure why I've been writing all this, except to just get some stuff off my chest that's been there for a while. I remember first reading Foucault in high school and getting a rush, thinking, "I can use this to argue against everything! There's no rationality! The state is a tool of oppression!" Of course, it doesn't take a big dose of reality to put lie to that notion. None of us in any first world nation would survive a day without "The State" -- it's not only integral to our lives, it can't be classified as universally evil or good. "Instrumental rationality" and "humanism" throw innocents in jail and protect the weak. "Identity politics" proclaims a vital group identity and invites isolation and backlash. "Postmodernism" (or "poststructuralism" or whatever you call it) might invite relativism, but its deep critique exposes and attacks fundamental structures that have been used to coerce and oppress in the most subtle and insidious ways. Double-edged sword.

Michel Foucault wasn't unique in exposing the ways in which Enlightenment rationality and liberal humanism could be used oppressively. He wasn't the only one to observe the coercive effects of state surveillance, or the Janus face of liberal democratic regimes. Many of his contemporaries were very much on that page. The reason I return to him is that he's the only so-called "postmodern" theorist that's struck me as offering a cohesive account that still finds its basis in a positivist, non-cynical view of the world. I don't know how else to put that. He managed to analyze without being consumed by cynicism. Without that, "pomo" philosophers don't really get you anywhere.

What I've tried to express here -- and it's very difficult -- is that there are common threads running through Foucault's work that you simply don't see in the scattershot deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida or the rabid anti-statism of Noam Chomsky. Disciplinary techniques, discursive regimes, and biopolitical administration all fit together into a narrative that (to some extent) explains how modern governments maintain control and order without the coercive methods of the European monarchs. Our explanations of the state tend to be couched in terms of "oppression," but a quick glance around reveals that this can't be a complete explanation; hence, why so many people are skeptical of radicals who see conspiracies in every corner. There's a more complex story here.

Foucault's account is unique in that -- in my reading, anyway -- it threads the needle between anti-rationalism and the neo-Marxist account of universal oppression. Its vocabulary for discussing power and control doesn't depend on the assumption of a bourgeois conspiracy, nor the notion that all facts are up for grabs. In other words, it doesn't take the easy way out.

But the problem with his account is that it's not simple and it doesn't admit of simple answers. The techniques of governance Foucault discusses are complex and contextual, and take so many forms (school examinations, the census, credit reports, etc., etc.) that while it lets you analyze, without something more it doesn't bring you much closer to a concrete political agenda than any other branch of critical theory. (Worse, it requires contingent accounts of history and politics that almost never fit into clean narratives -- affirmative action, which I mentioned a few times, is an excellent example; it's plausibly discriminatory on both sides, depending on context.) As I mentioned a bit earlier, many of Foucault's critics seized on this problem: without that extra step, the analysis tends to fold in on itself infinitely, deconstructing without limit, always looking for another face behind the curtain. (And Foucault himself dodged this question for a long time.) But the critics rightly asked: What can individuals do in a politics that governs every movement, that mediates the most fundamental conditions of truth and knowledge?

That "something more" -- to me -- is Foucault's notion of "governmentality," which, sadly, he never got to investigate before he was overtaken by AIDS. It took me far too much effort to pick up the thread Foucault left in the years before he died; though the line of thinking itself is fairly obvious in this lectures and interviews from 1980 on, there's no single, canonical text that pulls it all together, and there's hordes of theorists and bandwagoners who've come along since and muddied the waters. I can't do justice to all of it, but I can say that I think the pieces of the puzzle are all there, and that after many years of trying to find that "third way" between "postmodern" skepticism and "modern" positivism, Foucault's answer is the only one I've found even remotely convincing. (I hate to be the person that says, "you have to read it to understand," but in this case, I think it's true. It's worth following his thoughts just to see where they lead. I can say that there's really no substitute for the primary sources in this case, though.)

Maybe that's just me, but if I'm right -- or he's right -- then I think it's worth trying to explain, which is why I've been disgorging all this over the last few days. Frankly, I'm not certain that Foucault provides a definitive answer to these questions (or even that my interpretation is right, but I think it's pretty good), but I at least think that it doesn't give an idiotic response to this important question, which is more than you can say of most political theory in the last century.

OK. One more to go.
posted by spiderwire at 11:59 PM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, the thing that brought all this together for me was this: at some point Foucault points out that even if power relations are universal and pervasive, they're still operations on political subjects -- on people. In other words, if modern government is really "intersubjective" (that is, we create our politics collectively -- remember the discussion of biopower) rather than operating on objects (as in, a monarch that administrates vassals), then it has to follow that politics is something that we create within ourselves.

So even if we can't directly control the conditions of knowledge and truth, we can be strategic -- that is, we can act in ways that take advantage of the structures in which we're located. We can take advantage of the assumptions and the norms of modern government. Foucault describes this in terms of "governmentality" (also) and "technologies of the self" -- ultimately, the practice of politics finds its origin and end in individuals; that's the great secret of modern governance.

What eventually drove this home for me was Foucault mentioning that in the classical era, ethos wasn't simply social presence or persuasive ability (as my philosophy teachers rather simply put it), but rather a fundamental expression of personhood and authority -- one's ethos manifested itself in things as subtle as one's gait or method of speaking. The smallest actions reflected one's subjectivity; and likewise, by operating on the ethos, one could react tactically to the standard of society. The upshot is that through self-reflection and self-operation (Foucault would say askesis), individuals can gain purchase in a political system dependent on norms and categorization. (I discussed this here previously.)

In Foucault's world, as we negotiate structures of power, we're presented with strategic and tactical options for reconfiguring our political world. (When Judith Butler talks about the value of "performance" or Kristeva and Spivak discuss "strategic essentialism," they're generally referring to simple versions of this argument -- and these theories have provided a basis for many aspects of modern civil rights movements.) Again, this account might explain discursive or political structures as pervasive, but it also opens up possibilities for action beyond simply "fighting the system." Foucault has a lot more to say about political action outside of individual performance, but for me that was the foot in the door that gave some form to an otherwise purely negative critical-theory take on politics.

I'm too tired to continue this right now, and I think I'm pretty much done anyway -- I'm not sure that I can add much more to what I've already said without degenerating into total abstraction, so I'll just leave it here, saying (again) that, despite all the time I've spent trying to negotiate a path between the obtuse skepticism of postmodern politics and the blind faith it reacts against, I've never come across a most satisfactory answer than what Foucault seems to at least approach. I know that I might come across at times as a disciple or a zealot, but maybe that's what a zealot is -- someone who's found a plausible answer to a seemingly intractable question. I think I've finished my unburdening now. I don't consider myself an expert -- as such, I'd welcome further discussion or critique, if any is forthcoming. Good night.
posted by spiderwire at 12:55 AM on August 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


So I guess no more discussion is forthcoming. :) That's OK, that was fun.
posted by spiderwire at 4:06 PM on August 20, 2007


(you were too good--thanks!) : >
posted by amberglow at 4:35 PM on August 20, 2007


I was right, that was fun.
posted by absalom at 6:46 PM on August 20, 2007


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