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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

The idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.

Michel Foucault [1967] “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), 22-27.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault originally wrote this in 1967 arguing that the idea of the archive initially came to the fore in the nineteenth century. It is clear that we continue to live within these historical parameters. The desire for preservation extends far beyond the documentary archive with, for example, various heritage laws enacted to preserve housing (some of it not worth preserving in terms of its actual habitability). This operates in opposition to an ever increasing consumer disposibility. Objects such as cars, computers, home appliances are constantly and often needlessly updated and consumers are incited to buy the latest and greatest in an exhausting and overstimulating cycle that never ends. Redundancy is deliberately built into a number of these objects to perpetuate this process.

Both processes – the will to preserve every historical artefact and document from the ravages of time and decay and the ever more rapid cycles of the aquisition and disposal of consumer goods are no doubt opposite sides of the same coin – a desperate attempt perhaps to maintain some kind of cosmic equilibrium. The ever increasing and expanding dead weight of the archival past must be counterbalanced by a frenzy of consumer disposibility and the rapid and often counterproductive reconfiguration of consumer goods.

But if these goods are disposed of, examples of superseded items still persist in design museums and in the obsessive archives of private collectors. These collectors preserve in memory the most ephemeral and unaesthetic of objects – old packaging, broken down pieces of machinery, old advertising material.

Contemporary developed society and culture enact major anxieties around the passage of time and also the human relation to objects. In the contemporary era humans exist in highly uncomfortable and conflictual relation with objects. As in dystopian science fiction, they are increasingly expected to adapt to the machines they have created, rather than the machines being designed harmoniously with human comfort and the requirements of the body in mind.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Describing notions of ‘the general form of the Greek conception of language’ in the context of Socrates’ discussions of truth and philosophy, Foucault notes:

‘words and phrases in their very reality have an original relationship with truth …. Language which is without embellishment, apparatus, construction or reconstruction, language in the naked state, is the language closest to truth and the language in which truth is expressed. And I think this is one of the most fundamental features of philosophical language … as opposed to rhetorical [discourse]. Rhetorical language, is a language chosen, fashioned, and constructed in such a way as to produce its effect on the other person. The mode of being of philosophical language is to be etumos, that is to say, so bare and simple, so in keeping with the very movement of thought that, just as it is without embellishment, it will be appropriate to what it refers to.

Michel Foucault, (2010) [2008]. The Government of Self and Others. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982- 1983. Tr. Graham Burchell. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 374-5

Random thoughts in response
Foucault notes Socrates’ position that plain everyday speech which directly reflects one’s thoughts and that speaking from the heart or faith are manifestations of ‘true philosophy’. Thus plain language is closer to the truth of things than clever rhetoric: the more artifice that language involves, the more removed one is from the original purity of truth. One can see this long philosophical tradition emerging in analytic philosophy – which struggles to create a pure language to the point of attempting to distil it into mathematical formulae.

Foucault’s book The Order of Things is one long refutation of this philosophical position in relation to language. Foucault radically challenges the notion that language can be ever be a transparent tool for representing things. Language has its own materiality and solidity and its own patterns of order right from its original inception. If there appears to be a connection between words and things it is not one of a true and transparent representation but one of an analogous structure of order. Words can only resemble the order of things through a process of analogy. Neither is thought a pure entity which can be expressed, translated and mirrored by words. Thought cannot be divided from language and the other ways humans represent the world. We are always faced with degrees of fiction: human culture, language and thought are fabrications from the very outset. Culture, history and civilisation can never be stripped away to reveal the pure, naked and authentic truth. Instead it is these very things that help us access the truth about ourselves and our environment. They are the tools that we need to work with and constantly engage with for good or for ill.

To put all this another way: it is a question of the familiar idea that language is a transparent window onto ‘reality’ and that language can truly represent things. This belief has led to the idea that if you make language ‘pure’, then it will give you a clear window onto reality. A language that is full of artifice obscures what is real and fogs up the window. But Foucault argues that language – or discourse – is actually an object amongst other objects and should be treated accordingly. Hence a pure language is not going to get us closer to the truth. We can’t remove ourselves from language and culture – instead of removing ourselves a far more productive approach is to actively engage with them and use them to help us to determine how we can we can live in the present in relation to ourselves and others.

There is more I should add to this discussion. In Foucault’s description rhetorical language is characterised by Greek philosophers as an exercise of power (it is ‘constructed in such a way as to produce its effect on the other person’), whereas the language of ‘true philosophy’ that Socrates is advocating is not a deliberate exercise of power. It is not about manipulating people, it is about revealing the truth and allowing others to decide how to respond to what emerges.

Foucault has, of course, elsewhere in his work, extensively criticised the Platonic forumulation that power and knowledge (truth) are mutually exclusive. In short, the rest of Foucault’s work takes issue with some aspects at least of the way Plato and Socrates construct the parrhesiastic enterprise.

Reposted due to extensive additions and alterations. With thanks to Steve Shann for his comments on the original post.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the sign speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the sign, to define what constitutes them as signs and to know how and by what laws they are linked, semiology: the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude… ‘Nature’ is trapped in the thin layer that holds semiology and hermeneutics one above the other, it is neither mysterious nor veiled, it offers itself to our cognition, which it sometimes leads astray, only in so far as this superimposition necessarily includes a slight degree of non-coincidence between the resemblances.

The truth of all these marks – whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchments or in libraries – is everywhere the same: coeval with institution of God.

Michel Foucault, (1970) [1966]. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Tr. A. M. S. Smith. London: Tavistock, pp. 33, 38.

Random thoughts in response
In The Order of Things, Foucault describes a scientific view of the world far removed from our own. This view saw the world as a large book to be read, with signs placed there by God to help humans live and find their way in the world. The mysteries of the universe could be read by paying attention to, and interpreting these signs, reading the works of those who had already interpreted these signs and by knowing that the highest cosmic spheres could be seen in operations in the human body itself and the smallest object of nature. The microcosm mirrored the macrocosm.

This view of nature also placed humans in a very different power relation to ‘nature’ from the one which underlies current scientific knowledge. Humans relied on the beneficence of God to provide them with signs to guide them through the world. ‘Nature’ was not given to them, as in the modern view, as something over which they could exercise unlimited sovereign power without the attenuating responsibility which marks even the exercise of pastoral power. It must be said, however, that elements of pastoral power (questionable as they may be) entailing ideas of some kind of responsibility and duty of care have become stronger over the last fifty years with regards to ‘nature’.

The notion of climate change and the debate over to what extent human activity is contributing to this process is one that is at present the subject of acrimonious public debate, even entailing death threats against hapless climate scientists. For me, however, the immediate problem is the chemical poisoning and toxic modification of our environment – of our food, water and air supplies and general environment. This is already having demonstrable effects on people’s health and well-being and that of plants and animals, not to mention eliminating some species of plants and animals altogether. Human impact on climate change is but a subset of these wider problems and we should perhaps, not just publicly address the climate change factors but these others as all part of the same problem.

This problem is essentially one of how we philosophically position ourselves in relation to our environment. The current view which underpins scientific and technical knowledge and which dates back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is an instrumentalist – indeed a predatory one – if we take it to its logical conclusion. It is the view that we exist in a hierarchical power relation to the world – a world which has been given to humans as top of the evolutionary scale and the chosen of God, to use as they please with impunity. It is a view which closely aligns with ideas and practices of colonialism, social Darwinism and mercantilism which saw their apotheosis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and which continue to operate in a variety of forms.

If we can change this philosophical view to a more co-operative one which promotes a harmonious and respectful interaction with our social and physical environment, then perhaps the effects might not be so destructive. Relations of co-operation, accommodation and understanding, rather than relations of power, domination and exploitation.

One of the problems with the climate change debate is that it is highly politicised and also tends to focus people on the grand scale (‘this will happen in the future and over there’) allowing many people to simply switch off either in confusion or irritation in the face of a continual barrage of political and media posturing. If, however, direct and immediate and local threats to people’s health and lifestyles are demonstrated, they might be more willing to come to the party. There are, of course, enormous vested interests in the food, mineral resources and manufacturing industries that seek to prevent these threats from becoming a matter of public debate.

I am however an optimist and believe in people’s endless capacity to address problems and come up with creative solutions. It is not too late. The mere fact that we haven’t been globally nuked yet, given the arsenals out there is, I think, grounds for optimism. There is also wide evidence that a view and practice of scientific knowledge that is based more on cooperation than exploitation is starting to gain growing traction. (See the work of Bruno Latour, and recent work on the ethics of objects).

With thanks to Nicholas Cavanagh for providing the opportunity to think about these issues in response to a short piece he wrote on the political debate around climate change.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

I see nothing wrong in the practice of a person who, knowing more than others in a specific game of truth, tells those others what to do, teaches them and transmits knowledge and techniques to others. The problem in such practices where power – which is not in itself a bad thing – must inevitably come into play is knowing how to avoid the kind of domination effects where a kid is subjected to the arbitrary and unnecessary authority of a teacher, or a student is put under the thumb of a professor who abuses his authority. I believe this problem must be framed in terms of law, rational techniques of government and ethos, practices of the self and freedom.

Foucault, M. (1997). The ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom. In P. Rabinow (Ed.) Ethics: subjectivity and truth. New York: New Press, pp. 298-9.

Random thoughts in response
In an earlier blog post I noted:

If we regard all human culture – without exception – as a complex way of dealing with the environment and social interaction, then we all have an obligation not to dismiss certain intolerable practices as quaintly folkloric simply because they are not part of our own ‘culture’, but to work with other human communities to modify the way human beings treat each other everywhere. From the Western point of view, this does not mean engaging in the patronising paternalism of an allegedly more enlightened Western culture (along the lines that ‘Western democracy will save the world’ for example). Neither, on the other hand, does it mean the rejection of a corrupt and over-civilised Western culture which has lost touch with its primitive roots.

But if these are two positions that need to be avoided – what position can one usefully adopt? Here one needs to extend the frontiers beyond ‘the West’ and encompass all human experience. Perhaps what is involved is the non-hierarchical recognition of and respect for difference, a position which doesn’t privilege one period of history and its practices (either the ‘natural’ and ‘primitive’ or the current advanced technological present) or one geographical or ethnic location (wherever that might be on the planet). It is also a position that sees differences not as existing in unchanging and static isolation – hermetically sealed away to be revered in their unique and eternal form, but which welcomes a constant interplay between them, encouraging their constant modification in relation to each other.

At the same time, this does not mean that every human practice should be tolerated. Exercises of power that negatively impact on the well-being and freedoms of people (and other species I might add) should always be challenged. But again, this statement needs to be qualified in various ways. It is not a question of promoting unlimited individual freedoms (to take an extreme example, the freedom of a serial killer) – but of balancing the interplay of freedoms in the social body. This has always been the dilemma of human societies and remains all too clearly a work in progress with frequent and spectacular failures along the way. Foucault suggests that this situation needs to be managed through the dynamic and always open practice and examination of law, and the ethical government of self and others.

Further, as Foucault usefully argues, not all exercises of power are bad. It is possible to positively guide the conduct of another – for example in a teaching situation. To expand on this example further, the teacher student relation is necessarily a relationship of power. Just how this is managed has always been fraught with difficulties, and complex and ever changing systems of regulation continue to be formulated both at overt and more hidden levels to deal with the problem. Thus there is a difference between the kind of relationship of power between teacher and student which takes the opportunity to deploy effects of domination and authoritarianism, and the kind which uses mechanisms of power (such as those involved in the transmission of knowledge and assessment) to guide the students’ behaviour and knowledge in useful and helpful ways, while still retaining a respect for the students’ freedom.

There has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater in attempting to negotiate this dilemma in the contemporary era, an era marked by complex and conflicting forces of social and cultural globalisation. Thus, in the interests of fostering tolerance and social harmony, the claim is made that anything goes – everybody has a right to their opinion, no matter what that might be. But this position of absolute tolerance, paradoxically, can foster the tolerance of injustice and intolerance itself. It is very easy to nobly tolerate certain injustices when one is not at the receiving end, and when they don’t directly impinge on one’s own existence.

With thanks to Kelli McGraw for raising interesting questions which provoked this post.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

The dual Poland-Tunisia experience balanced my political experience, and also referred me on to things which basically I hadn’t sufficiently suspected in my pure speculations: the importance of the exercise of power, the lines of contact between the body, life, discourse and political power. In the silences and everyday gestures of a Pole who knew he was being watched, who waited to be out in the street before telling you something, because he knew quite well that there were microphones everywhere in a foreigner’s apartment. In the way voices were lowered when you were at a restaurant, in the way letters were burnt, finally in all these tiny suffocating gestures as well as in the savage and raw violence of the Tunisian police beating down on a university, I went through a kind of physical experience of power, of the relations between the body and power.

Michel Foucault, (2004). ‘Je suis un artificier’. In Roger-Pol Droit (ed.), Michel Foucault, entretiens. Paris: Odile Jacob, pp. 120-1. (Interview conducted in 1975. This passage trans. Clare O’Farrell).

Random thoughts in response
It is worth providing a few background details concerning these interesting remarks offered by Foucault in an interview with Roger-Pol Droit. The interview was not published at the time it was conducted in 1975, mainly due to Foucault’s well-known reticence in relation to making autobiographical statements in a public forum.

In 1958, Foucault was appointed head of a new Centre for French civilisation in Warsaw. He lasted only a year before being caught in a classic Cold War honey trap with a young man and was asked to leave the country. His connections with Poland did not end there however, and in the early 1980s after a State of Emergency was declared in Poland, he worked on a committee with exiled members of the Trade Union Solidarity, a committee which had been set up to provide assistance to those still in the country and to activate for international support.

Foucault spent a longer period of time in Tunisia than he did in Poland. In 1966, he was appointed to a chair of philosophy in Tunisia and remained there until the end of 1968, when it became clear that he was persona non grata with the existing regime. Towards the end of his tenure at considerable risk to himself, he helped students hide their printing presses during the Tunisian student protests of 1968, although he was of course protected to some degree by his professorial status. He saw his students being beaten violently and thrown into prison and some 14 years later he remarked that some of them still remained in prison. Foucault also used his own money to pay for legal defence for these students.

This experience was formative for Foucault. Like many other French intellectuals, he was politicised by the events of 1968. Foucault was no mere ‘armchair philosopher’, he was prepared to take his ideas beyond the library. After being subjected to the standard and usually accusatory question posed by the Left to all comers during the 1970s: ‘where were you in May ’68?’ – given his absence from the Parisian barricades – he pointed out that in Tunisia the situation had been one with far higher stakes, with people’s lives and freedom quite dramatically on the line.

What is also interesting about Foucault’s remarks is his emphasis on the miniscule actions and gestures of the everyday: mechanisms of power are not just grand external abstractions, they operate at the physical level of day-to-day existence at the most humdrum level. Also of note here in Foucault’s account is the capacity of any person, not just a few blessed with political will (Arendt), to resist mechanisms of power and change the balance. The costs can be terribly high of course, as many of those involved in the Arab spring and in Burma know, but they are costs that many are prepared to assume.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from … You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day? …

You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master.. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.

Michel Foucault, (2004) [1969] Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard. CD. [This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell]

Random thoughts in response
Foucault articulates the tension many writers – and indeed many other artists – feel between their everyday existence and their art. One wants to write and feels a blight of guilt over one’s life when it is not being done, but at the same time one wonders whether more practical, physical and social activities should not take priority. Writing can only take place when these more worldly duties have been attended to. Writers, it is often joked, have the cleanest houses in the world. If one could just get all the other tasks hanging over one’s head off one’s plate, then the clear decks and space to write will become available. The reality is that this day of freedom never comes. The only solution, as every advisor on writer’s block repeats endlessly (see Boice and Silvia), is to set aside a designated period every day (or most days) and dedicate it strictly to writing.

Foucault’s statement is all the more interesting given his immense productivity. One finds it hard to imagine that prolific writers are subject to this kind of self-doubt. But the guilt of the blank page was not the only guilt mechanism on the table. Foucault also talks about the guilt he experienced in writing itself, given his upbringing in a medical milieu which saw such activity as essentially pointless. He remarked in a later interview that contrary to all reason and evidence, he felt that his writing had no impact and was an utterly useless activity.

Foucault’s comments draw attention to a widespread and historically long-standing suspicion about the social and physical utility of intellectual and artistic pursuits. Even those engaged very effectively in such activity cannot help but be infected by this general idea that what they are doing is both a waste of time and selfish – in short, that they really ought to get out more, make more friends and save the world in a more physical way. This cultural training constantly wars with that other opposing guilt arising from the unwritten word. Yet at the same time, as Foucault observed, the act of writing creates a calm and soothing organised space where one is in control and which blocks out the vagaries and hazards of everyday existence. At the moment writing takes place, one exists in an orderly guilt free zone which unfortunately, Foucault goes on to say, is never able to reduce the rest of life or the demands of the body and the physical to the same manageable two-dimensional zone of white space and abstract black squiggles.

It is small wonder then, given these complex interplays of guilt and desire, that endless volumes of advice on the problem of writer’s block are produced and so eagerly consumed by writers balanced precariously on the fault lines of irresolvable cultural contradictions.

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In the Western imagination, reason has long belonged to terra firma. Island or continent, it repels water with a solid stubbornness: it only concedes its sand. As for unreason, it has been aquatic from the depths of time and that until fairly recently. And more precisely oceanic: infinite space, uncertain … Madness is the flowing liquid exterior of rocky reason.

Dans l’imagination occidentale, la raison a longtemps appartenu à la terre ferme. Ile ou continent, elle repousse l’eau avec un entêtement massif : elle ne lui concède que son sable. La déraison, elle, a été aquatique depuis le fond des temps et jusqu’à une date assez rapprochée. Et plus précisement océanique : espace infini, incertain… La folie c’est l’extérieur liquide et ruisselant de la rocheuse raison.

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1963] ‘L’eau et la folie’. In Dits et Ecrits vol. I. Paris: Gallimard, p. 268. [This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell]

The Australian floods in 2011

In choosing a reflection by Foucault on water and madness, I wanted to mark the occurrence of the disastrous floods in Australia this January 2011. 75% of the tropical state of Queensland has been inundated and more rain is on the way. The area covered by water is larger than France and Germany combined. Currently the state of Victoria is also experiencing the worst floods on record with 58 towns affected so far. The other eastern states of New South Wales and Tasmania are also flooding. On the other side of the continent, Western Australia is suffering from extreme heat and bushfires. Australia has long been a country of environmental extremes making human habitation a challenging and precarious affair and this long before the arrival of European settlers in the eighteenth century.

People have lost their lives in flash flooding which swept away their houses while they were inside. Farmers barely recovering from a decade long drought are seeing their entire crops under water and others have lost their livelihoods, houses and all they own with many others affected to varying degrees. Brisbane, the third largest city in Australia, built somewhat riskily on a flood plain has seen its CBD, inner suburbs and many outer suburbs drowned under water and layers of silt. Two of Brisbane’s universities were closed for a week due to major flooding on their campuses.

But for all this, one of the most inspirational things to emerge from the disaster has been the extraordinary level of community spirit and the sheer efficiency of the organisational response to these events. Contemporary communications media have been key in linking people and keeping them informed. The Queensland Police Service Facebook site kept people up to the minute and quelled rumours, the Department of Transport and Main Roads website, kept people up to date on road closures and the Bureau of Meteorology website provided up to the minute warnings on weather and flood levels. Three free to air television channels broadcast flood information round the clock. People used twitter and their personal Facebook pages to keep others apprised of local and more general developments.

In 1974, Brisbane suffered an even bigger flood, but at that time, large numbers of people had no means of communicating with each other. Even landlines were a luxury, with people having to wade through flood waters in search of working public phones to inform each other that they had survived. People owned far less and were forced to simply clean and make do with what they had, whereas the tendency in 2011 has simply been to throw damaged items away. Indeed with many items -particularly electrical appliances – they have had no choice.

I live in one of the flood affected areas in inner city Brisbane right on the river. The whole street and the riverside park went under. Fortunately the block of units (apartments) in which I live is built on a small hill and although the front garages went under, the water rose to just one brick below the first floor. Sheer luck, as it seems the water in the 1974 floods had invaded the first floor of the building. All the occupants of the block precipitously left to stay with friends and family as the waters rose on Tuesday night. Last Friday as the waters started to retreat, the street was a sea of mud and huge piles of completely ruined possessions. Hundreds of people – grimly shell-shocked home-owners, renting tenants and volunteers just turned up with brooms, shovels, gloves, wheelbarrows and high pressure hoses and got to work. People literally walked around the streets, shovel and broom in hand ready to help anybody who looked as though they needed assistance. The local councillor provided a stall with a sausage sizzle and tea and coffee. A few police (part of the anti-looting taskforce) were there as well as the media and news helicopters circled continuously overhead.

Four days later, the rubbish was gone and a great deal of the mud had been swept back into the park and the river with street sweeper trucks cleaning up the residue. Workers in the park on the river contemplated the damage with park lamps completely snapped off at the base by the sheer force of the river’s current. The river level remained still well over the banks. I ran into two electricians who had seen the news and had generously undertaken the day long drive from the neighbouring state of NSW just to volunteer their help. They got the electricity back on in my block of units where the power boards had gone completely under water.

As my mention of an anti-looting taskforce indicates, there have of course been opportunists all too ready to profit from other people’s misery, humans being what they are, but this kind of behaviour has been far outstripped by those willing to help in any way they can. The Brisbane City Council which had also organised evacuation centres for flood refugees, organised pick up points and buses to send the thousands of ready volunteers out to help those affected. In some cases, so many people wanted to help that they had to be turned away and sent to other areas of need. The army helped with some of the more heavy duty lifting and cleaning. Musicians turned up in some streets to provide live music for those working and a bit of a street party atmosphere took over in spite of the devastation. Charities have been overwhelmed by offers of goods and people have been extraordinarily generous in financial donations to the Queensland Premier’s Disaster Relief Appeal.

There has also been criticism of sightseers from non affected areas driving around to look at the devastation, or lining the Kangaroo Point cliffs in central Brisbane in their thousands to watch the water rise. But in my view, people need to see events unfolding with their own eyes and not all sightseers were simply uninvolved voyeurs. Those locals I have spoken to who only saw what was happening on the news rather than in person, had quite a different and perhaps more cynical appreciation of events. Of course, the media is always prone to exaggeration and disaster mongering but there is nothing like seeing things first hand to allow people to develop a true empathy for those affected and also an appreciation and respect for continuing human vulnerability – for all the hubris engendered by technology – to natural occurrences such as these.

I also cherish the optimistic but perhaps vain hope that all of this might lead some people to reassess their participation in the excesses of contemporary consumerism and also their subjection to increasingly regulated and performance oriented work place practices which dominate workers’ lives to the exclusion of all other considerations – be those of health, family and friends or spiritual development.

And of course now party politics has already kicked back into gear, and recriminations are starting to flow. Could people have been given more warning of the flash floods, could dam overflow management been better? Why have so many houses been built in such vulnerable places in Brisbane? Why have materials that are not flood-proof been used in construction? And what about the intricacies of insurance policies which may or may not cover such events? How is Australia and how are insurance companies going to be able to pay for all of this and what of the impact on crops and food supplies?

The consequences of this disaster – which is by no means over yet – will be felt for years to come and in the instance of Brisbane will no doubt permanently change the direction of its urban development. Brisbane has undergone an unprecedented level of expansion in the last ten years, sustained by the myth that the Wivenhoe dam built after the infamous 1974 floods and completed in 1984 would prevent further flooding in Brisbane and also by the large migration of people to the city during the drought in the first decade of the new millenium: people who had little awareness of the extremes of weather to which subtropical Brisbane can be subject. Even with the worst of the flood over, severe afternoon thunderstorms continue to drench the city with trees uprooted demolishing still further houses and cars and causing local flooding. Interesting days lie ahead.

Another notable thing in all of this is that Australia is in the fortunate position of having the social, organisational, communication and financial resources to mitigate the worst aspects of this natural disaster. People in other countries such as Brazil, Pakistan, China or cities such as New Orleans, are not so lucky.

But I would like to turn to the passage I have quoted from Foucault to close these reflections. In his remarks Foucault elegantly sets out his vision of a Reason and Unreason in the Modern Age made historically into opposing binaries – the Same and the Other. People have sought to maintain rigid boundaries between the two so that the chaos of the Other cannot swamp the orderly and reasoned constructions of the Same. The untameable force of the flood disrupts the orders so carefully put in place by humans and erases the prescribed boundaries between rocky land and dangerous and uncertain waters revealing the vanity of those orders so proudly and heedlessly imposed by landlocked reason.

See here for some before and after aerial photos of Brisbane

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