Friday, March 27, 2009

"the 'mind' as a surface of inscription for power, with semiology as its tool..."

Early in the chapter “Generalized Punishment,” Foucault describes a rising call to reform in the eighteenth century presented on humanitarian grounds. Throughout the chapter, he draws attention to the manner in which this reform discourse was bound up in socio-economic changes taking place at the time which prompted newfound concerns with efficiency, stating that “the criticism of the reformers was directed not so much at the weakness or cruelty of those in authority, as at a bad economy of power (79).” With an interest in restructuring the distribution of the power to punish, the reformers brought about a new strategy in which this power to punish might be performed which “insert[ed] the power to punish more deeply into the social body (82).”

With the restructuring of criminality as crime against society and its body of members in place of the sovereign, “the right to punish [had] been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defense of society (90).” Attention was moved more explicitly to the relationship between a crime and its effect on the social body. According to Foucault, this move established the nature of punishment through a kind of calculation, where “what has to be arranged and calculated are the return effects of punishment on the punishing authority and the power that it claims to exercise (91).” Further, “in order to be useful, punishment must have as its objective the consequences of the crime…the series of disorders that it is capable of initiating…one must calculate a penalty in terms not of the crime, but of its possible repetition (92-3).”

What Foucault calls the “punitive city,” which relied upon a certain degree of visibility to the public in order to function appropriately in the prevention of crime, soon became replaced with another form of punishment more ‘corrective’ in nature. This form utilized the prison system with a focus on coercion and the production of reformed obedient individuals. While the first method of punishment required public visibility to function, its successor depended upon a level of secrecy and control over the individual’s actions, necessities to which the prison structure was formally conducive. This secrecy allows for penalty through imprisonment to be representative versus corporeal, enabling a greater effectiveness of the penalty by heightening an assumed level of disadvantage through “the idea of pain, displeasure, inconvenience – the ‘pain’ of the idea of ‘pain’ (94).”

I found this discussion of representative versus corporeal punishment to be of particular interest while attempting to imagine what it is that Foucault means when he says that the practice of punishment becomes no longer enacted upon the body but is rather carried out through/upon the soul. The function of this method of punishment no longer isolates specific individuals as beings outside of the law defined by a specific time and place in which a crime was carried out, rather it establishes all members of the society as potential criminals. Foucault’s explanation of the manner in which this punishment method operates with the aim of preventing crime seems to reflect much of how what is now commonly referred to as ‘the politics of fear’ in the age of the ‘war on terrorism’ aimed to function: through a “shift in the point of application of this power [to punish]: it is no longer the body, with the ritual play of excessive pains, spectacular brandings in the ritual of public execution; it is the mind or rather a play of representations and signs circulating discreetly but necessarily and evidently in the minds of all (101, emphasis added).”

Foucault, Michel. "Generalized Punishment." Discipline and Punish. Vintage Books: New York, 1995 (org. published 1977.) 73-103.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Discourse on Language and Rules Controlling Discourse Within Academia

In his conclusion to The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault addresses various issues that others may have with his work including, for example, potential criticisms of his use of structuralism despite fervently repeated claims of not considering himself a structuralist, as well as his apparent disregard for the role of agency, of “the real action of men and in their possibilities,” in the production of knowledge. In his very last response, he acknowledges why his work would encounter such an overwhelming body of criticisms due to the manner in which they shake the very foundations of much of the intellectual work performed by those reading his work as well as the identity that those individuals procure from the very work that they engage in (208).

In addition to other statements and exclamations made within this closing section illuminating his awareness of the discomfort brought about from his work, Foucault exclaims, “how unpleasant it is to reveal the limitations and necessities of a practice where one is used to seeing, in all its pure transparency, the expression of genius and freedom (210).” My own response: “Indeed!” Upon reading this particular expression, I immediately made a connection between his point and what I have tended to naively refer to as the ‘politics of the academy’ (a term that I admit encompasses many other issues to speak of, but functions as an umbrella term here for the direction in which I wish to move just as well,) as ‘academia,’ an institution which, in a removed point of view through the frame of its own ideal concept, is characterized by if not simply defined as a space in which any number of ideas may possess the room and encouragement to run, skip and leap freely. At closer inspection, perhaps through material encounters with or actual participation in the institution (in which ever form this may take,) it is clear that this ideal notion of higher education and the academy as a purely free space is clearly far from ideal, and that even in such an institution which publicly projects an image-identity of openness and progress, power and control are still very much at work. My intended point here, however, is not to reiterate the obvious (a point that can be easily classified under and explained by such universalized proverbs as “everything isn’t what it seems,”) as it can easily be deduced that such rules controlling discourse as presented in his lecture The Discourse on Language, for example that of exclusion (whether through the prohibition of words or of individuals as speaking subjects through denial of access to positions from which one may be ‘allowed’ to produce knowledge and be established as credible,) are present and operating within the institution of academia, rather it is to expand somewhat upon Foucault’s expression in his conclusion (as quoted above) to discuss the limitations of a scholar to critically analyze the operations of control of knowledge as they function within her own space of work and inform her identity.

As Foucault mentioned in the conclusion, it is particularly difficult to view those things that one has otherwise accepted as a space of freedom, such as the institution of higher education, in which the perpetual birth of new ideas is assumed to be unhindered and promoted with gracious care and praise, through the analytical lens which he is suggesting which may challenge the very defining principles around which such an institution is built is purported to identify. I argue that this is particularly true for the scholar, as an individual who is, through this lens, understood as both an instrument of that institution, contributing to its function and capacity to control discourse and the production of knowledge, but also as a subject of it, limited, shaped, and essentially controlled through this subjection despite having otherwise an impression or assumption of possessing individuality and agency over one’s ideas. To challenge this assumption would be to dismantle the entire notion/identity of ‘the scholar,’ as the manner in which individuals have been defined by their collections (or totalities) of their ‘great works’ (as Foucault would call oeuvres) through which we have traditionally understood and given value to what has often been called the ‘great minds’ of our time, would be highlighted as not only shaped and constructed through the ritual practices of the institution, but also otherwise irrelevant.

I wish to further expound upon the limitations of an individual who would otherwise call themselves (or be called) an academic to critically view the institution of higher education through the lens Foucault sets forth in his work. It may be arguable that such an individual would be in a position that prevents them from engaging in work which would essentially discredit their place and disassemble their identity which enables them to engage in such work in the first place. One might consider instead, the epistemological privilege provided/possessed by those outside of this position, but rather on the outside looking in. (Perhaps not even this, as the phrase “on the outside looking in” presupposes a clear boundary between the two as if there were no interaction or relationship outside of an assumed binary opposition. Instead, perhaps the most fit individual to engage in such analysis would rather be, for example, the student who, as neither fixed in the outside but still prevented access to the positions provided through such ritualized thresholds as obtaining a diploma, publishing work, or making tenure, holds no ‘position’ but rather exists in a transitory state and in doing so, trespasses this boundary.)

Perhaps this is of particular importance in considering Foucault’s position in creating and applying his own work to critical analysis of the institutions to which he belongs as scholar. How can he speak of the operations of power and control of discourse in knowledge production and propose a radical challenge to this operation and yet through his position as a well-respected scholar, embody the very things that he finds fault in and proposes to challenge?

Foucault, Michel. "Conclusion," "Discourse on Language." The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. 199-213, 215-238.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Foucault's 'Archeology'

In the first few chapters of Part IV “Archeological Description” of his larger work The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault sets out to better clarify his notion of ‘archeology’ as a new form of analysis which challenges traditional methodologies in the study (and even the basic conceptualization) of history as we have come to presently know it. Foucault points out various faults that he finds in this traditional methodology, which he refers to as “the history of ideas,” with a particular focus on the central issue of “the division of discourse into great unities (135).” His initial suggestion of a new approach to analysis through ‘archeology,’ a practicing of a “different history,” is then followed by a process of differentiating it from the traditional “history of ideas,” characterized by a focus on the “great themes” of “genesis, totality, [and] totalization,” which he claims continues to be perpetuated in “an age no longer made for it (138).” He precedes this process of differentiation by clearly asking the question he would otherwise have certainly encountered by others critically reviewing his work: “What can ‘archeology’ offer that other descriptions are unable to provide (136)?”

In an attempt to provide an overview of the differences that he lays out between the two methodologies (that is, between the traditional “history of ideas” and Foucault’s proposed ‘archeology’,) I will briefly summarize first the 4 main points establishing what Archeology is not (so as to better elucidate what it in fact is, but also the elements that make it particularly distinct from those problematic elements of the ‘history of ideas’ to which he is challenging.)

1. ‘Archeology’ is not defining “thoughts…images…themes [;etc]…” within discourses, “but the discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules (138).” Discourse is not to be understood as a document, but rather as a monument. Archeological analysis is not interpretive, “seek[ing] another better-hidden discourse,” and is not allegorical (139).

2. ‘Archeology’ does not involve working through some notion of a time-line, with an understanding of discourse based on precedents, origins, or destinations ;etc, but involves “defin[ing] discourses in their specificity (139).”

3. In ‘archeology,’ the ‘oeuvre’ doesn’t matter. “The authority of the creative subject, as the raison d’ĂȘtre of an oeuvre and the principle of its unity, is quite alien to it (139).”

4. In ‘archeology,’ the origin is of no concern. “It is not a return to the innermost secret of the origin, it is the systematic description of a discourse-object (140).”

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