Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Statement and "the Rule of Repeatable Materiality"

In chapter 2, “the Enunciative Function,” of Part III “the Statement and the Archive” from his work The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault outlines four conditions of the ‘enunciative function’ to further explain the “special mode of existence” characteristic of what he calls the ‘statement (88).’ The last of these conditions that received attention within the chapter is that of materiality. Foucault states this material existence as a necessary condition in order for any series of signs or body of successive linguistic elements to be analyzed as a statement largely because the “material status of the statement are part of its intrinsic characteristics (100).”

This focus on materiality of the statement becomes even more interesting when one might be thinking in terms of the transmutability of the statement. When one thinks of more common conceptions of “the statement” (I’m reaching outside of Foucault’s definition here), the term connotes something that is rather solid and unshifting. Foucault’s ‘statement,’ however, “must have a substance, a support, a place, and a date [and] when these requisites change, it [the statement] too changes identity (101).” As such, a statement cannot be repeated in a similar manner in which an enunciation is “an unrepeatable event” in that “it has situated and dated uniqueness that is irreducible (101).” This automatically makes me think of contemporary society in which information travels at the speed of light and the ability to reproduce statements is not only easy but also within the capacity of individuals from multiple levels of society, a possibility due largely to newer media forms enabled by the emergence of computers and the widespread accessibility of the internet. For example, how might a statement change when communicated or enacted through different mediums of communication and dispersal. How do statements change as the contexts from which they are experienced shift?

Soon after considering this, I encountered what Foucault terms the “rule of repeatable materiality” in which statements may be the same, for example, in multiple printings of the same edition of a book despite the minute differences in each material object printed. Even further, however, the form which communicates a statement may also vary in its precise nature (a poster version of a statement that is also printed in a book) without necessarily requiring that this other form be read as an entirely different statement as “the materiality of the statement is not defined by the space occupied or the date of its formation; but rather its status as a thing or object...[it] cannot be identified with a fragment of matter; but its identity varies with a complex set of material institutions…it defines possibilities of reinscription and transcription (102-3).”

So in our world of reproduction, a statement may maintain its identity despite multiple copies of itself, even in various formats. Still there is a point in which the statement, in its reproduction or placement in certain contexts, must be understood as something different, perhaps, from its original engendering or enactment. Foucault elaborates on this quality through the notion of a particular “field of stabilization” enjoyed by statement which “makes it possible, despite all the differences of enunciation, to repeat them in their identity (103).” However, he states that this same field may also “define a threshold beyond which there can be no further equivalence, and the appearance of a new statement must be recognized (103).” For example, although a certain statement encountered in a book may maintain its identity in a copy of that statement which takes its form in a poster, if that poster also included other elements such as a poster brand or a “this printing made possible by the American League of White Supremacists” caption, the statement may become something different or may even be demolished in its entirety and replaced by a new statement as a kind of appropriation of the statement which might serve to debunk its initial conception or identity. If the identity of the statement “is itself relative and oscillates according to the use that is made of the statement and the way in which it is handled,” what might be said, for example, of the different statements that might be identified from an 8th grade American History textbook’s presentation of the declaration of independence, a pocket sized Declaration of Independence provided free to legal citizens of the United States by the government, a recitation of the Declaration of Independence at an NRA meeting; etc (104). This way of viewing the statement may also be of use when looking at acts of cultural subversion, either in performance, or, for example, in acts of culture jamming.

Foucault, Michel. "The Enunciative Function." The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Politics of Retrospection

The Archeology of Knowledge represents Foucault’s attempt to more clearly explain and delineate his particular approach to exploring the historical subject as performed in his earlier works including Madness and Civilization, Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things. As he states that his endeavor in these works was unclear, “a very imperfect sketch (15),” Archeology of Knowledge is the answer to the confusion and conceptual blurriness that he acknowledged in those works preceding it. In his introduction and first few chapters, Foucault makes his critical focus on traditions of historical analysis clear, acknowledging an array of problems that he sees with the methodological field of history.

One of his main points that I would like to further discuss is that of the politics of retrospection. In his introduction, Foucault states that “historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge (5).” In addition, and perhaps more explicitly stated in his first chapter “The Unities of Discourse,” “after all, ‘literature’ and ‘politics’ are recent categories, which can be applied to Medieval culture, or even classical literature, only by a retrospective hypothesis (22, emphasis added).” According to Foucault, it is important to be cognizant of the present position one might hold when looking into the past with a critical eye or upon viewing past events or practices through a conceptual lens whose very crafting is due to a particular notion of history defined simultaneously by a streamlined continuity (everything is connected, here is the origin, which explains this development which influenced this and so forth and so on until we arrive at our present moment) and by the breaking up into parts (for example of eras) with relatively precise points of origin and points of expiration. For example, in looking at a particular societal practice based on monuments from a distant past in remaining availability in the present day (“monuments,” which Foucault argues that traditional historical methodology turns into “documents” to then be organized, “divid[ed]…distribute[ed]” ;etc (6)) the viewer, from her position in a present day moment imposes, in a sense, a particular understanding of that practice and its meaning based on certain notions that have come to be naturalized to a certain extent due to their presentation as the end of a longer rope whose concept is thought of as having been consistently existent from some historical origin in time. For example, even the notion of looking at monuments to discover something about a “societal” practice suggests an imposition of a concept of “society” and what that might mean. One might even extend this problem found within historical methodology to that of cross-cultural criticism. For example, upon attempting to “read” the practices of another culture, even from a shared point in time, one must be cognizant of ones assumptions of certain universalities, such as a certain moral or ethical code; etc.

How does he propose one might respond to this problem that tends to be overlooked or unacknowledged? He states that a “precaution must be taken to disconnect the unquestioned continuities by which we organize, in advance, the discourse that we are to analyze (25).” He continues further:

“What we must do, in fact, is to tear away from their virtual
self-evidence, and to free the problems that they pose; to
recognize that they are not the tranquil locus on the basis
of which other questions (concerning their structure, coherence,
systematicity, transformations) may be posed, but that they
themselves pose a whole cluster of questions (26, emphasis added).”

And once again, particularly drawing attention to the potential accessing and making visible those practices which otherwise remain invisible (especially in terms of cross-cultural readings):

“by freeing them (facts of discourse) of all the groupings
that purport to be natural, immediate, universal unities, one
is able to describe other unities, but this time by means of a
group of controlled decisions… Providing one defines the conditions
clearly, it might be legitimate to constitute, on the basis of correctly
described relations, discursive groups that are not arbitrary,
and yet remain invisible (26).”

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Shock and Silencing, "curing" on a societal level

I stumbled upon this video today and, although it goes in quite a different direction, I think that some of the ideas Foucault presents in his book Madness and Civilization (and well as later in Discipline and Punish) can be seen in this display of the use of shock and crisis to alter a society's state of being and therefore their compliance with certain expected actions/beliefs.

Other connections that might be made between Foucault's ideas and the video include the connection between the prisoner criminal and the confined madman, particularly in the association between the madman and criminality. The use of shocking an individual into a certain childlike state implies a re-installation of a kind of power structure based on that of the patriarchal family with doctors and scientists (and other positions of authority which have in some way been validated by science [such as the economist in the video] at the father position "looking out only for the good of the subject." The video discusses very literal uses of shock on prisoners intentionally applied through various methods to bring those individuals to a certain state of compliance and docility. However it also plays upon the manner in which the individual and societal experience of shock resulting from certain national and/or global catastrophes (both natural and man-made) are essentially used or taken advantage of for political purposes and for keeping the citizen body in a state of perpetual compliance and docility, trustworthy (to an extent) of those visible and invisible authoritative bodies which are there claiming to carry out operations for the best interest of those citizens. I say perpetual compliance because it can be argued that certain tools under the command of authoritative bodies or those in positions of power, such as the media, military; etc, are used in such a way as to keep the citizen in a continual state of shock (an idea mentioned in the video as well).

The role of silencing and acts ensuring isolation as a means of maintaining this state of shock and therefore a state of docile complicity might be applied to the experience of United States citizens following the events that took place on September 11, 2001 in New York. It goes unsaid that the nation as a citizen body experienced those events with shock and the symptoms that accompany it. It has often been the subject of great debate and discussion as to the manner in which the nation's former government under the direction of former present Bush handled the situation and the nation's state of shock by calling out to each individual citizen to do their patriotic duty and go out and shop. During this past presidential election, then future-President Barack Obama criticized the Bush administration for taking advantage of the grieving nation and, most notably, for missing what Obama believed to have been a momentous opportunity to unite the public through acts of service to their fellow citizens and local communities. In thinking about this issue after having read the last chapter in Madness and Civilization titled "The Birth of the Asylum" as well as having watched this video on shock, I can't help but view the actions of the Bush administration following the nation's shock-inducing tragedy as one which prolonged a sense of shock by encouraging silence and isolation. How? Firstly, through the manner in which we were each called to "go out and shop," a practice which is personal and performed on an individual, often anonymous basis (regardless of its moving in and out of shared serious dialogue takes place in the grocery store.) Secondly, the manner in which we received new information was provided through the unforgettable terror alert system of color coded signs to keep each individual on their toes regarding a state of fear or expectation of something potentially happening, with the color bar changing to a suggestively scarier level at what seemed like random intervals. The very reception of information in this way through the television is, like in that of shopping, an experience defined by its isolating nature in which changing information regarding potential danger is communicated to each individual personally.
Similarly, the national focus on this concept of national unity through patriotism might be understood as a kind of religion. In discussing the changing experience of madness, Foucault highlights the role of religion as being "the concrete form of what cannot go mad (244)." Likewise, religion is something experienced on a personal level and yet provides the religious individual with the illusion that she is part of a greater body/family/community. Fear is the instrument of religion to keep its followers along the "right path." Alongside fear remains the sense of an ever-present judicial body, one which threatens to judge you for a misstep, one which promises to punish should you, for instance, decide to verbalize an opinion viewed as anti-American in that it questions the practices of those in authoritative positions, it questions the doctor, the scientist, the father.

Foucault, Michel. "The Great Fear," "The New Division," "The Birth of the Asylum." Madness and Civilization : A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage, 1988.