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Archive for the ‘Foucault’ Category

Between these poles of training in thought and training in reality, melete and gymnasia, there are a whole series of intermediate possibilities. Epictetus provides the best example of the middle ground between these poles. He wants to watch perpetually over representations, a technique which culminates in Freud. There are two metaphors important from his point of view: the night watchman, who doesn’t admit anyone into town if that person can’t prove who he is (we must be “watchman” over the flux of thought), and the money changer, who verifies the authenticity of currency, looks at it, weighs and verifies it. We have to be money changers of our own representations of our thoughts, vigilantly testing them, verifying them, their metal, weight, effigy.

The same metaphor of the money changer is found in the Stoics and in early Christian literature but with different meanings. When Epictetus says you have to be a money changer, he means as soon as an idea comes to mind you have to think of the rules you must apply to evaluate. For John Cassian, being a money changer and looking at your thoughts means something very different: It means you must try to decipher it, at the root of the movement which brings you the representations, there is or is not concupiscence or desire – if your innocent thought has evil origins; if you have something underlying which is the great seducer, which is perhaps hidden, the money of your thought. […]

In order to make this kind of scrutiny, Cassian says we have to care for ourselves, to attest our thoughts directly. He gives three analogies. First is the analogy of the mill (First Conference of Abbot Moses 18). Thoughts are like grains, and consciousness is the mill store. It is our role as the miller to sort out amongst the grains those which are bad and those which can be admitted to the mill store to give the good flour and good bread of our salvation.

Second, Cassian makes military analogies (First Conference of Abbot Serenus 5). He uses the analogy of the officer who orders the good soldiers to march to the right, the bad to the left. We must act like officers who divide soldiers into two files, the good and the bad.

Third, he uses the analogy of a money changer (First Conference of Abbot Moses 20 – 22). Conscience is the money changer of the self. It must examine coins, their effigy, their metal, where they came from. It must weigh them to see if they have been ill used. As there is the image of the emperor on money, so must the image of God be on our thoughts. We must verify the quality of the thought: This effigy of God, is it real? What is its degree of purity? Is it mixed with desire or concupiscence? Thus, we find the same image as in Seneca, but with a different meaning.

Foucault, Michel. ‘Technologies of the Self’. In Technologies of the Self. A seminar with Michel Foucault. Edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton,. Univ. of Massachusets Press, 1988, pp. 16-49.

Random thoughts in response
Since first coming across it, I have remained fascinated by Foucault’s discussion of Cassian’s metaphor of the money changer. It is such a strong and evocative image in terms of the work that can be done in relation to one’s own thinking and the careful work of sifting thoughts and ideas and verifying their applicability to various levels of existence.

Cassian argues that this work needs to be done and legitimated within a monastic framework of obedience and continual confession, but in a contemporary era, one could perhaps extract this technique from this restricted context and combine it with Epictetus’ notions of applying rules to these continually arising mental representations. One might also give some thought as to what system of rules one might most usefully apply.

At present, training is applied to a whole range of areas of existence, including mental activity. The kind of work proposed by Epictetus and Cassian might be more socially and personally productive than the useless ‘brain training‘ schemes one sees recommended at present to prevent decay in aging populations. As though humans were simply machines on a neo-liberal factory floor, to be maintained by mechanical means with no reference to general individual or social development, other than not imposing an intolerable burden on the coffers of the State.

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The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counterpoised to those intellectuals who were merely competent instances in the service of the state or capital — technicians, magistrates, teachers. Since the time when each individual’s specific activity begun to serve as the basis for politicization, the threshold of writing, as the sacralizing mark off the intellectual, has disappeared. And it has become possible to develop lateral connections across different forms of knowledge and from one focus of politicization to another. Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicization of intellectuals. This process explains how, even as the writer tends to disappear as a figurehead, the university and the academic emerge, if not as principal elements, at least as ‘exchangers,’ privileged points of intersection. If the universities and education have become politically ultra-sensitive areas, this is no doubt the reason why. And what is called the crisis of the universities should not be interpreted as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a multiplication and reinforcement of their power effects as centers in a polymorphous ensemble of intellectuals who virtually all pass through and relate themselves to the academic system.”
Michel Foucault. (1984) [1977]. , ‘Truth and Power’. In Paul Rabinow (ed) The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 68

Random thoughts in response

This very interesting reflection by Foucault resonates strongly today. Perhaps one could argue that the remnants of the old – perhaps romantic – figure of the intellectual as writer are now being thoroughly expunged from the system in favour of the new ‘politicised’ figure of the academic – but that ‘politicisation’ has perhaps changed in emphasis since the late 1970s when Foucault made this remark. If perhaps he was referring to political radicalism, this ‘politicisation’ is now skewed in the sense of being a functionary of governmental systems. Certainly this passage by Foucault is one that could bear more thought on its applications within a contemporary context.

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Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

This sounds like a rather interesting book, although I have only read a brief extract and a review. I like Crawford’s point, at least as described in the review below, that we need to pay focused attention to the constraints of physical reality, rather than losing ourselves in an abstract screen world of virtual possibilities. This is a point being made by a number of philosophers at present.

I’m not so keen on the concept of ‘mastery’ referred to below however, as this all smacks a bit too much of domination for my tastes. I would prefer to think of ‘working with’, rather than submitting things to our will. And because I can never resist throwing in a reference to Foucault: this focus on our interaction with the physical and the material, a materiality which is both human and non-human, and the necessity of patiently working with it at a whole range of levels, is arguably one of the primary focuses of Foucault’s work as well, and what makes his work so easily applicable to so many domains.

Reviewed by Nick Romeo at The Daily Beast, 5 March 2015.

Extract from review:

Crawford’s solution [to the distractions of the modern world] is not that we retreat into soothing sensory deprivation tanks; he advocates engaging with the “the brute alien otherness of the real” as apprentices and eventually masters. His ideals of focused attention are activities in which we exercise freedom not by purchasing products to express our will, but by submitting to the intrinsic demands of the external world in some restricted domain and accommodating its realities in skillful and intelligent ways. This sounds far more obscure than it actually is: playing ice hockey, practicing glassblowing, learning Russian, working as a short-order cook, building pipe organs, and playing an instrument are some of the examples he gives.

Nietzsche once said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. Crawford appropriates the remark to argue that getting good at skilled actions fulfills a fundamental human need that our culture often neglects by offering instant technological solutions. In one fascinating section, he compares Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle 20th century to children’s television today. The older shows present the physical world as a source of menace and humor: one thing that the constant collisions, crashes, explosions, and general slapstick show is that characters are subject to immutable laws of physics. Nature does not pander to its denizens; it follows that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the world and try to understand how it works rather than how you would like it to work.

In the contemporary Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, by contrast, a Handy Dandy machine solves problems by presenting pre-approved options on a screen menu. Technology has conquered risk and peril, and material reality meekly obeys the wills of characters, provided they have the appropriate gadgets.

read more

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This is such a wonderful description of how institutions work from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The disciplinary society is only too alive and well – with a whole new technology at its disposal.

‘There can be no question here of writing the history of the different disciplinary institutions, with all their individual differences. I simply intend to map on a series of examples some of the essential techniques that most easily spread from one to another. These were always meticulous, often minute, techniques, but they had their importance: because they defined a certain mode of detailed political investment of the body, a ‘new micro-physics’ of power; and because, since the seventeenth century, they had constantly reached out to ever broader domains, as if they tended to cover the entire social body.

Small acts of cunning endowed with a great power of diffusion, subtle arrangements, apparently innocent, but profoundly suspicious, mechanisms that obeyed economies too shameful to be acknowledged, or pursued petty forms of coercion – it was nevertheless they that brought about the mutation of the punitive system, at the threshold of the contemporary period.[…] They are the acts of cunning, not so much of the greater reason that works even in its sleep and gives meaning to the insignificant, as of the attentive ‘malevolence’ that turns everything to account. Discipline is a political anatomy of detail.’

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, (A. Sheridan, Trans.), New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1975), p. 139.

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I just came across this interesting passage in an article by Dave Hickey on The Brooklyn Rail discussing his experiences teaching French theory.

[…] since the texts we read were written in French and being read in French or translation, there are some eccentricities of the French language that need to be acknowledged. First, the standard English vocabulary is about 900,000 words. The standard French vocabulary is about 100,000 words, so French words aren’t surrounded with garlands of synonyms and adjectives. Each word does a lot of work in French, so it is possible to write a sentence in French in which the same word appears four times and means something different every time. American translators, sadly, thanks to the New Yorker, are fearful of iteration, and identical French words blossom into bouquets of synonyms. Americans fall back on synonyms to avoid iteration and this blurs meaning and euphony. It stains the architecture of the sentences. So English translations, with few exceptions, distort the text, and the French is very meticulous. So we should return to the Renaissance practice of the paragone. We go back and forth from one text to another, from one language to another. Add into this the fact that American translators invariably try to make these theorists into liberals, and you have a built-in moral paradox that can’t be redacted.

I was interested by the numerical difference between English and French vocabulary he cites. I’m not sure whether Hickey is suggesting here that the same word needs to be used in translation each time. Because of the diversity of meaning of single words in French, using the same word in every instance doesn’t always work. One needs to look carefully at the other surrounding words in order to give the word the right feel in English.

This doesn’t apply to all words. If we are considering Foucault’s work, for example, he often uses a very precise technical vocabulary – and some words do indeed need to be translated with the one term in English in order to provide continuity for readers in English. One word that might qualify here is ‘dispositif’ to which Foucault attributes a precise meaning. This word has been confusingly translated in a number of ways in English. The word – which is not an uncommon one – used by another French author, however, would be entirely susceptible to translation in a number of ways.

Not all French theorists are as precise as Foucault. Hélène Cixous, for instance, is very hard to pin down and translation of her work needs to be very creative. It is not simply a matter of differences in the respective sizes of vocabularies. The structure of French sentences is very different from the structure of English sentences. French sentences can be very long and complex with many conjunctions and gendered pronouns and the phrase order is often different. These sentences need to be shortened, reorganised and additional nouns inserted when rendered in English translation to make for an elegant and clear style in English.

Hickey’s point about Americans turning these radical theorists into ‘liberals’ is an interesting one (in the American sense of the term presumably. See the Political Compass site for a useful discussion on this). Certainly, the kind of debates and problems Americans conduct around the works of French theorists often seem to be at odds with the debates that interest commentators in Europe and elsewhere.

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I have been doing some research around the increasing trend towards constructing open-plan offices for academics in the UK, the USA and Australia and thought this passage from Discipline and Punish might be apposite. Open-plan office design is now widespread across all industry sectors and around the globe and universities are starting to follow suit.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

The camp is the diagram of a power that acts by means of general visibility. For a long time this model of the camp or at least its underlying principle was found in urban development, in the construction of working-class housing estates, hospitals, asylums, prisons, schools: the spatial ‘nesting’ of hierarchized surveillance. The principle was one of ’embedding’ (`encastrement’). The camp was to the rather shameful art of surveillance what the dark room was to the great science of optics.

A whole problematic then develops: that of an architecture that is no longer built simply to be seen (as with the ostentation of palaces), or to observe the external space (cf. the geometry of fortresses), but to permit an internal, articulated and detailed control – to render visible those who are inside it; in more general terms, an architecture that would operate to transform individuals: to act on those it shelters, to provide a hold on their conduct, to carry the effects of power right to them, to make it possible to know them, to alter them. Stones can make people docile and knowable. The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure — thick walls, a heavy gate that prevents entering or leaving — began to be replaced by the calculation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies. (pp. 170-1)

[…]
This infinitely scrupulous concern with surveillance is expressed in the architecture by innumerable petty mechanisms. These mechanisms can only be seen as unimportant if one forgets the role of this instrumentation, minor but flawless, in the progressive objectification and the ever more subtle partitioning of individual behaviour. The disciplinary institutions secreted a machinery of control that functioned like a microscope of conduct; the fine, analytical divisions that they created formed around men an apparatus of observation, recording and training. How was one to subdivide the gaze in these observation machines? How was one to establish a network of communications between them? How was one so to arrange things that a homogeneous, continuous power would result from their calculated multiplicity? (pp. 173-4)

[…]
Discipline makes possible the operation of a relational power that sustains itself by its own mechanism and which, for the spectacle of public events, substitutes the uninterrupted play of calculated gazes. Thanks to the techniques of surveillance, the ‘physics’ of power, the hold over the body, operate according to the laws of optics and mechanics, according to a whole play of spaces, lines, screens, beams, degrees and without recourse, in principle at least, to excess, force or violence. It is a power that seems all the less ‘corporal’ in that it is more subtly `physical’. (pp. 176-7)

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, (A. Sheridan, Trans.), New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1975).

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Delacampagne But don’t the public expect the critic to provide them with precise assessments as to the value of a work?

Foucault I don’t know whether the public do or do not expect the critic to judge works or authors. Judges were there, I think, before they were able to say what they wanted. It seems that Courbet had a friend who used to wake up in the night yelling: “I want to judge, I want to judge.” It’s amazing how people like judging. Judgment is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you know very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible.

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would not try to judge, but bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be a sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault. (1997) [1980]. ‘The Masked Philosopher’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume One. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, Allen Lane, p. . [trans. mod]


Random thoughts in response
I am currently buried in an enormous pile of marking – the volume of which can be attributed to one of the increasingly regular endemic and pandemic financial crises to which universities are globally subject at present. There is no money to pay already exploited and poorly paid part-time teaching staff, so full-time staff have to pick up the short-fall while somehow miraculously maintaining their expected research output at the same time.

One of the consequences of an increased marking load is that the volume of complaints from aggrieved and pained students convinced they were worthy of much better grades also increases. Providing more detailed feedback in response simply aggravates the situation in a culture where self-esteem is promoted at the expense of a realistic assessment of capacity to perform in a given area.

Given current staff student ratios, neither can these students be given the instruction that they need to genuinely improve their work. Much as the warm and fuzzy rhetoric produced by educational researchers would like to argue otherwise, assessment is not a teaching tool in the context of enormous student to teacher ratios – it can only be the simple grading of lemons – the disciplinary mechanisms of examination Foucault speaks of in Discipline and Punish aimed at assigning and fixing individuals to their designated social niches. A further problem is galloping credentialism which forces people to rely on the imprimatur of educational institutions to clamber up the social and career ladders. This is a firm requirement in a society based on performance and the expectation that every individual should be the ‘entrepreneur’ of their own lives and subjectivities as they stare bleakly down the barrels of ‘life-long learning’ and mandatory annual ‘professional development’ requirements.

Under these difficult institutional conditions, I cannot help but think of this passage from Foucault – only in my own case I wake from a nightmare of undergraduate essays, postgraduate dissertations and requests to referee journal articles stretching into the mists of an infinite horizon, yelling ‘I don’t want to judge! I don’t want to judge!’ I can only consider wistfully the utopian alternative that Foucault proposes and wonder if there is some practical way in which one could bring just a tiny element of this into the forced march of the endless assessment of one’s students and peers.

The introduction of these kind of resistances or elements of hope and human feeling into the system are increasingly difficult to imagine, let alone implement, in an environment where holes in the chain mail of the meshes of power, as described by Foucault, have become smaller and smaller. Lyotard argues that cracks in the system are papered over by terminally overloading people with busy work, allowing them no time to repair those cracks or to even become aware of their existence in the first place. Even more difficult is the option of tearing down the entire building to replace it with something more in line with some of the more positive aspects of what it means to be human. But it is essential that one keep trying, somehow. This is one of the great forces of Foucault’s work – that constant hope that in spite of everything and under difficult circumstances we can always do better.

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