Thursday, April 16, 2009

human sciences and the "knowable man"

In discussing the “human sciences,” Foucault discusses certain parallel relationships with its emergence and developments in the prison system with its methods of examination and incarceration, stating:

“If [the human sciences] have been able to be formed and to produce so many profound changes in the episteme, it is because they have been conveyed by a specific and new modality of power: a certain policy of the body, a certain way of rendering the group of men docile and useful. This policy required the involvement of definite relations of knowledge in relations of power…The carceral network constituted one of the armatures of power-knowledge that has made the human sciences historically possible. Knowable man (soul, individuality, consciousness, conduct, whatever it is called) is the object-effect of this analytical investment, of this domination-observation. " (305, emphasis added)

This notion of the “knowable man” I find interesting, particularly in looking at specific disciplinary practices in the labeling of the introvert and/or the shifting personality as not only deviant but delinquent. This comes to mind due to having worked as a resident advisor last year in a student dormitory through the residence life department where I was trained extensively to be on the “lookout” (a word perfectly fitting considering the operative role of visibility in the practice of discipline ala Foucault’s panopticism) for “at-risk” students. These students were to be identified by particular qualities that we were to “read” through their externality as clue to their internal operations/states of being which may or may not be a potential “problem” in need of “adjustment.” For example, if a student was not open to establishing a relationship with members of his or her hallmates and most specifically, with you as RA (a curious multi-headed monster of a role including that of friend, peer, concerned family member, security guard and correctional officer), if they exhibited particularly hesitance to ones required efforts at “getting to know” them, then they were branded, as it were, as potential “at-risk” students and may be referred to the counseling center for psychiatric services. This even highlights the manner in which the various disciplinary institutions become interwoven and overlapping, particularly in such a setting as that within a residence undergraduate college where one enters (consciously, willingly, with consent) as a body/mind in process, and in doing so subjects oneself to what Foucault highlights are ever-present “judges of normality,” “the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’ judge,” through whom the individual subjects to the “universal reign of the normative” “his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements." (304)

Moving in quite a different direction, but somewhat along the same track, I wonder too how this might potentially be extended even further to understand the manner in which foreign students (or those otherwise understood as possessing ethic or cultural minority status) involved in crime are portrayed through imagery and language, including accounts from teachers and peers, in what seems to be attempts to locate their deviance in action within a ‘delinquent personality’ defined by an inability (or refusal) to be known. While there are surely multiple examples that may be found in more smaller scale situations, the examples that first came to mind include the reports in media such as television news broadcasts or internet news reporting articles concerning the school shooting that took place at Virginia Tech in 2007. The information regarding the individual charged with the murders focused largely on his being first abstractly Asian, and then locating his nationality as South Korean. In addition, much of the reported news focuses on trying to “know” the student, with quotes from other students at the school who described him as shy, quiet, frail, untouchable; etc.

While this is certainly only fragments of a much more complex conversation and certainly one cannot ignore the real life consequences of certain acts of crime, such as murder in the case of Virginia Tech, but I feel that it brings up some interesting questions concerning how society deals, for example, with resistance to assimilation by foreigners or immigrants. Once again, in referring back to my example of the student at Virginia Tech, one of the largest issues brought up in news media discourse surrounding the individual was that of his refusal to respond to suggestions and requests that he seek counseling services as a means of adjusting his behavior. This makes me ponder to what extent these stories of specific foreigners as examples of deviance and criminality serve a disciplinary role in “keeping in check” other foreign individuals (students or otherwise) who are living, learning, working in America, for example by making them hyper aware of what would cause one to be read as a deviant or delinquent foreigner (through being quiet and withdrawn, for example by not learning and using English, or by not voluntarily complying with certain procedures of adjustment put in place for them either in school settings or elsewhere), and to encourage them to avoid such labeling through a disciplined enactment of “proper” action (being particularly open and known, registered, etc.)

Foucault, Michel. "Complete and Austere Institutions," "Illegalities and Delinquency," "The Carceral." Discipline and Punish. Vintage Books: New York, 1995 (org. published 1977.) 231-308.

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