Monthly Archives: February 2014

Examples of Foucault’s Project of Problematization: the written and spoken word

(Although it was not assigned I ended up reading the final twelve pages of chapter two of Discipline and Punish, and thought it might be interesting/useful to make a blog post about some aspect of it as I found it very interesting).

I think that Foucault’s project of problematization becomes especially salient in his descriptions of how one or another method of communication, construed in the broadest sense of the term, can both be used to promote and undermine a given institution. One exemplary example which Foucault uses to illustrate the multiplicitous nature of methods of communication is the operation of the written or spoken word in promoting or undermining the penal system viz. the last words of the condemned or “gallows speeches”. At the moment of the execution, the condemned was given another opportunity to speak, not to proclaim his innocence but to acknowledge the crime and justice of his conviction. The victim was made to legitimate the torture he had undergone, consecrating his own punishment by proclaiming the heinousness of his crimes. Whether the speeches were actually delivered or merely fictional, (in many cases, Foucault suggests, the latter was likely), the speeches were circulated and served as exhortation against crime. Sometimes, accounts of crimes and the lives of infamous criminals were even published as propaganda before the advent of a trial, to “force the hand of a court that was expected of being too tolerant”. Just as the written and spoken word could help to enforce the penal system, however, these methods of communication could also help to harm it. The condemned man was sometimes transformed into a kind of hero by the sheer extent of his widely advertised crimes and subsequent repentance; if the condemned man was shown to be repentant, is was as if he had come through some process of purification. In addition, Foucault argues, the struggle of the condemned man against the law and the powerful titles associated with the latter was a struggle with which the common man could easily identify; it was viewed as a magnified version of the tiny struggles “that passed unperceived in everyday life” (67). In this way the criminal was almost entirely transformed into a positive hero. Thus, the written or spoken word justified justice but also glorified the criminal. Just to provide a present day example of the latter, one might mention the particular fascination which contemporary American culture seems to take in the lives and notorious deeds of serial killers and other notable criminals. Whether or not these criminals are portrayed in a positive or negative light, there seems to be a blatant fetishism of the condemned man which suggests that the common individual finds something in the latter to perhaps relate to. Notably, musical artist Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about John Wayne Gacy Junior, an especially publicized serial killer, in which I believe he tries to alleviate some of the confusion surrounding the sympathy and attention offered to such a criminal and which compliments Foucault’s genealogical analysis:

Subsequently, Foucault suggests, the literature of crime is a paradigmatic locus in which the multiplicitous natures of the written word can be seen to do battle through two pure minds belonging to the criminal and the detective. While the detective generally triumphs, crime literature also glorifies the criminal for his crime is portrayed much like a fine art that can only be the work of an exceptional nature; the criminal was wicked but also intelligent and subsequently powerful. One needn’t search very far for an example; the struggle between the genius detective Sherlock Holmes and his equally intelligent adversary, the criminal mastermind, Professor James Moriarty, has experienced a cultural resurgence in the past ten years with two movies and two separate television series.

Punishment as Redemption: Life and Death

I’m curious as to what other cultural elements allowed for this transformation of public executions to the more “humane” forms of punishment. For some reason, suggesting that Western societies were adopting more humane approaches to punishment just seems a little too general. What I find interesting is the notion of redemption through death, as illustrated with Damiens and various others killed by the state. The specific need for a designated role, the “confessors,” surely suggests that apart from the act of punishment, there is a secondary element of punishment that involves God, which comes in the form of a confession. When Damiens cries, “Pardon, Lord,” he somehow appeases the crowd and the executioners with his pleas. While the confessors are there to secure an apology for the state, there is a significant religious portion to the confession itself, hence the crucifixes and priests. So, as the state has already committed to the criminal’s execution, they also have a secondary commitment to unite the criminal with God before they perish. In this sense, redemption comes through death. A perfect example would be Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony where the victim’s crime is inscribed in their body for numerous hours, and right before they die they have a chance to read what their offence was, which allows them to fully conceptualize what their death signifies. Again, redemption through death. We still witness small remnants of these old procedures with the death penalty when inmates are given a prayer and encouraged to confess their sins to both God and the witnesses.

Modern forms of punishment are directed in the here and now: corrective measures by rehabilitating the soul. Redemption does not come with death, but comes with a long sentence isolated from society with the hopes of one day reacquainting themselves with the community. In other words, redemption comes with time. With all this said, why did this transformation occur? A change in values is not really an adequate answer. I’m almost inclined to think that this transformation is linked to the withering away of religious authority as a centralized sovereign power. It would be wrong to suggest that the Enlightenment was just a period of religious critiques–a notion many scholars subscribe to. However, in the case of the transformation of punishment, there is a striking parallel between the disintegration of religious authority and new forms of punishment. The most significant change, however, would seem to be the reappraisal of redemption as a means of restorative peace. Why? 

The Guilty Soul

Daniel M’s post on the history of the soul has got me reflecting upon my Christian upbringing.

The word soul arises early in the book of Deuteronomy, but is used to describe a faculty of the human very similar to intention. It is almost always in conjunction with the word “heart,” until the book of 1 Samuel 1: 15 when the author writes, “I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.” Thereafter, the word largely is used to describe one’s inner person. King David commonly refers to the soul as if it were the core of his being. Furthermore, the soul is often associated with one’s anguish, and thus already reflects the ascetic ideal.

This would suggest that somewhere close to a thousand years before Christ, the internalization of the person had already largely begun. This leads me to wonder whether it was only Constantine’s move to broadcast Christianity as state religion that Nietzsche was focused on. Also, it was the state’s adoption of the notion of the soul for punishment that Foucault focused in on. That is, perhaps these authors are only concerned with the soul insofar as it relates to widespread political ideology & practice.

I think Feuerbach hit the nail on the head when he argued that Christianity is nothing more than humans projecting their values and then being dominated by them in the form of a deity. Therefore, it seems that the value of the ascetic ideal was present the moment that David believed the divine was meaningfully concerned with his personal suffering. That is, the moment David valued his suffering. I say this with some hesitation because I believe that this sentiment must have showed up elsewhere and not just in Christianity, nevertheless, it seems a more appropriate place to historically place this shift than Nietzsche or Foucault. It also makes sense that collectively valuing suffering might come afterward. Insofar as the book of Psalms is deeply personal, it might be too hasty to say that this value had gathered cultural recognition in 1000 B.C.

Nevertheless, I think Foucault is concerned with the arrival of the soul as a state device for punishment and not, as Daniel M. was apt to point out, the actual genesis of this notion.

Focuault vs. Nietzsche on the Emergence of the Soul

Foucault and Nietzsche seem to define the soul in at least somewhat similar ways. Both see the soul as a human construction, and for both it plays the role of something interior that exists behind a person’s actions. For Nietzsche, as we know, the idea of the soul really emerges and is popularized around the time of the slave revolt in morality: the slaves internalize their will to power, they self-reflect, they create “bad conscience,” etc., and thus we now have a “doer” behind the deed. I’m a little bit more unclear as to the point in history during which the soul emerges for Foucault. From what I can gather, it seems like it is a much later process, around the time that modern penal systems evolve. As he discusses, penal systems start to focus more on remedying the “drives and desires” behind a criminal’s actions, rather than just the actions themselves (e.g. pg. 17). The difference from Nietzsche here is that—rather than people creating their own internal “doer”—this doer is a product of power being exercised on people.

So, each writer’s conception of the soul has important similarities (though of course I am sure there are many differences as well), but the biggest difference seems to be in how each views the soul’s origins. I’m a huge skeptic about Nietzsche’s historical accuracy, but in this case it actually seems to me that Nietzsche’s arguments have the edge in terms of historical grounding, which would date the soul’s origins earlier than Foucault’s estimates. Nietzsche situates the soul’s emergence around the climax of the slave revolt in morality, which happens around the time of the shift from Judaism to Christianity, after which Christianity becomes the dominant western system (this obviously takes place over a period of several hundred years). It dawned on me today, though, that we can interestingly see this idea of the internal “doer” emerging in Judeo-Christian writing from the time period in which this shift takes place.

The traditional Jewish laws from the Hebrew Bible are largely focused on actions: restrictions on what to eat and wear, how much money to give, categorical commandments of the type “thou shalt not commit adultery.” However, during Nietzsche’s “slave revolt” period, the focus largely shifts from deeds to doers: in the Gospels, Jesus replaces commandments like “do not commit adultery” with commandments like “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”; the early Christians decide that Gentile converts to Christianity do not need to follow Jewish laws bout diet, circumcision, etc. A really good example of these types of shifts from outward action to interior disposition is Mark 7:14-23, which I’ll link to so as to avoid lengthy quotation:

It’s interesting to me that in passages like these we can see that judgment is being passed on the actor’s “drives and desires,” rather than his or her actions, which is exactly what Foucault says leads to the construction of the soul but at a much later period in history. Although, I also might be reading Foucault wrongly—maybe he can recognize that these ideas existed for a long time, but that it wasn’t until the modern penal system the state’s motivations for punishing criminals began to focus on interior motivation rather than just actions.

Ultimately, I don’t mean to say that Nietzsche is correct or Foucault is wrong, but just to point out that within western, Judeo-Christian thought (the limited scope to which Nietzsche and Foucault mostly stick), the idea of this type of soul or internal self does seem to emerge as early as Nietzsche says it does. But, I’m interested to keep reading Foucault and see where his discussion of the matter goes.

Knowledge/Power – Does every act of power have a corresponding field of knowledge?

After today’s class I wanted to write up a few thoughts concerned the discussion of Foucault’s claims surrounding the relationship between knowledge and power and to try and propose a satisfactory interpretation of these claims.

Whilst we agreed that in many of the examples raised by Foucault it seems plausible to claim that for each example of a power relation there is a corresponding field of knowledge e.g. prisons, confession under torture, surveillance etc. we did not agree that there is necessarily a corresponding field of knowledge for less amenable cases such as a gun-toting robber and her/his victim. I would argue that it is possible to preserve Foucault’s claims by positioning his claims within the post-structuralist tradition that he belongs to, by this I mean that it is necessary to bear in mind that there are mediating structures that lie between concrete experience and our abstract rational thought and that these structures are fluid, responsive and operate as a kind of filter. Moreover, within these structures we create roles or paradigms that we utilise to make sense of the world and to organise our experience; necessarily, these roles and paradigms place demands or expectations on us when we occupy them e.g. certain codes of behaviour are expected from me, Max qua student and these are different to those of Max qua son or Max qua citizen. Just as Foucault states that there is always a possibility to change power relations, so it is possible to constantly change and update our structural schemes along with the new knowledge we accrete.

With this in mind, I contend that even in apparently simple clear-cut cases of an individual exercising brute power over another there is still a corresponding field of knowledge because these experiences are not simply mediated through our structural conceptual scheme but also alter this scheme as they are filtered. Consequently, if we are held at gun-point by a robber then we immediately draw upon our particular conceptual scheme to make sense of the event i.e. we might draw upon our knowledge of the area we are robbed in, or the social position, race or gender of our robber, or we might infer that these things are ‘always happening to me’ and that helps to contribute to our individual identity. The point is thus not as simple as merely claiming that all past experience of power relations is a form of knowledge, which surely must be taken for granted, but instead the message here is that everyday power relations contribute to our broader conceptual scheme which can be analysed and deconstructed (which I think is certainly part of Foucault’s overall project) and it is through a critique of these broader structures and the roles created for us within them that we find an avenue for dissent and change.


Still on Nietzsche

So as I am finishing my non-conventional artifact; which is on Nietzsche, I have come across many concepts and ideas and theories and things that we haven’t truly discussed in class. So I wanted to take the opportunity to maybe talk about it over this blog.

The first is, as I’m reading Beyond Good and Evil (indeed, I couldn’t get enough of this Nietzsche) I’m realizing more and more the extent to which he forwards a collective subjectivity. Now, that sounds utterly paradoxical, but I sense some truth in it. I see in Nietzsche’s texts, a disdain for the universal, the objective and unconditional, obviously – secondly, I sense an allusion to a common reason, maybe an intuition that we all share. Something that doesn’t appeal to an external, objective truth, but rather a purely subjective one, which everybody can hear. I believe that everybody has their own way of thinking and of formulating meaning for instance, but I also believe that at the root of it all – we experience the same intuition, or satori, or furor poeticus, or bursts of creativity- here’s the tricky part: the metaphysical process of formulating meaning from the intuition is a process of individualization. This is a big theory I’m most definitely working on. So, like Nietzsche, I think that to truly engage in an epistemological enquiry is to deceive one self. However, there is not knowledge “out there,” in the noumena. Therefore, we must use our imagination and fantasies as a tool to fuel our nature; that of creators. So to come back to “my theory,” I sense a common access to a collective subjectivity, what perhaps Jung phrased: Collective Unconscious, that we subsequently formulate into earthly meaning. This access is thus purely subjective to the individual, but the place, or essence that is accessed is common to all… So i’m not talking about Jung, but my own take on this intuition, and which I’m currently in the process of formulating. Now the examples: I suppose the theory could explain why certain pieces of creation such as Arvo Paart’s “Tabula Rasa”, or Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”, or even Pythagoras’ theorems are formulations that evoke such a similitude to the intuition under which they came, that everybody has access to the truth in them – this collective subjectivity. I believe this collective subjectivity is experienced in the mind’s eye. Bon, this is quite all over the place – but I find it fascinating however, how every thinker I’ve been reading so far discusses this access to a collective subjectivity, whether it’d be Plato, Freud, Kant (transcendental philosophy), and Nietzsche with his sovereign individual, that which he attempts to provoke inside each of his devoted readers.

Secondly… Actually I’d rather keep this as it is. And I’ll submit the rest under another post. Thank you.

Bottom-up vs. Top-down Analysis

In reading Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended”, one point in particular stood out to me, which is that a bottom-up approach to understanding power is likely to be much more productive than a top-down approach, because one can conclude anything from the generalities of a top-down approach, and besides it is far more likely that larger power structures were built on top of the foundations of micro-level power dynamics, and not the other way round.

I definitely agree with Foucault here. There is a simple logical reason why top-down approaches are more liable to error – as one constructs a system with more independent propositions (implied or explicit), the probability for mistakes increases. Hence, a bottom-up analysis tends to be less susceptible to error because it starts off not by assuming large chunks of theory, but by establishing the simplest relationships first. One is reminded of the track record of macro-economic forecasters, who tend to do no better than a random coin flip. In contrast, financial traders who focus on a specific commodity or stock tend to predict financial movements better, even when they have no understanding of the underlying macro-economic theory that causes those movements.

As to Foucault’s second point, it reads as a remarkably nuanced justification of evolutionary psychology, and its approach of determining human behaviour by looking at our biological roots as a species. At the end of the day, despite our scientific and technological progress, human nature has stayed largely constant over the ages. It clearly makes more sense to start from the elements that have remained common for far longer than civilised society has existed, instead of beginning with the current socio-political status quo. One needs only look at any of the talking heads on Fox News to see that this realisation that “how things are” in today’s society is not necessarily the “natural” way of doing things, is far from a common understanding even in modern poolitical discourse.

There is a danger, though, with generalising family dynamics to larger social power structures, which is that one might be tempted to use the simple model found in the former to analyse the latter, which might lead one to an inaccurate, overly simplistic account. Looking forward to seeing how Foucault deals with this challenge as we go through the course.

Punishment and Justification

I want to examine the justification of punishment Foucault discuses in his first two chapters of Discipline and Punish. Foucault states that guilt existed in degrees, and these degrees were proven by evidence. A suspicion that John committed a crime would mean that John was slightly guilty, and his guilt would increase the more evidence which was found against him. The degree of guilt then correlates to the degree of punishment which can be inflicted on the accused. The accused’s guilt then acts as justification for the punishment. When torture is used to gain more information, the confession which is gained justifies the torture which has already been committed. (36-37)

It is important for the state to provide justification for the torture and execution of the accused. My problem is that this creates an inconsistency in the legal code. It implies that justified murder is acceptable while unjustified murder is not. There are legal guidelines for when execution is and is not acceptable. This is even broken down to set out the different methods of execution which are justified in different situations. However, the legal code does not set out circumstances when justified murder is acceptable for the layman. If one man murders another, the state is justified in murdering the murderer. But if an everyday person were to avenge the murder this would be a problem. I am not attempting to make an argument for why the death penalty is wrong, but more focus on the inconsistency on behalf of the state when it strives to justify its own actions. If the state were to say, ‘we hold the power so we can execute whoever we want’ this would be morally deplorable, but it would not be inconsistent for them to state that murder is never ok for the general populace.

If the state did make ‘justified’ crimes legal for the population I do not think this would be an improvement. Likewise if the state did not feel the need to justify its actions this would also be extremely problematic. I just find it interesting to look at how society is based on the ability of certain entities to do certain things so long as it is ‘justified’, while others cannot do those same actions even if they are ‘justified’.

On the Body Condemned: pain

There are so many interesting elements in the first chapter of Discipline and Punish that I have had a difficult time deciding what to write about. I find Foucault’s description of “the slackening of the hold on the body,” through the “double process [of] the disappearance of the spectacle and the elimination of pain” (11), an especially interesting topic, however, with some potentially intriguing and strange implications. As Foucault reports, “one no longer touches the body…physical pain…is no longer the constituent element of the penalty. From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights” (11). In addition, punishment has gained a certain degree of anonymity; while people were once executed in public, “the condemned man is no longer to be seen…capital punishment is fundamentally a spectacle that must actually be forbidden” (15). Subsequently, the law “is not directed so much to a real body capable of feeling pain as to a juridical subject, the possessor, among other rights, of the right to exist” (13).

People often hail the current systems of discipline and punishment as a monumental improvement on the systems of the past in which people often endured excruciating physical pain for their crimes and, personally, I don’t disagree with them; I can’t say that I would like to be draw and quartered or have any of my limbs hacked off in public in case of any future misgivings.  Pain is generally unpleasant and to have one’s pain exhibited, is demeaning and, as most people would probably agree, anti-humanistic. I think there is also, however, a very strange way in which, based on Foucault’s descriptions, current systems for discipline and punishment also have an unexpectedly anti-humanistic element which actually appears in virtue of the disappearance of pain and the elimination of spectacle. When we intentionally inflict pain upon another human being in public, we are forced and force others to acknowledge a human subject who feels pain. But when the condemned man is no longer observable, the human body/subject starts to disappear. Discipline and punishment become impersonal, as Foucault describes, they are directed towards “a juridical subject…not so much a real body capable of feeling pain”. Wow! How strange! (And, potentially problematic?) I don’t know! What do you think?

Differences of Style

Foucault in the first two chapters of Discipline and Punish begins the chronicle of the evolution of penal system. It was interesting to see how his genealogy differs in style from that of Nietzsche.  Although it must be premature to discuss Foucault’s style opposed to Nietzsche having only read two chapters of Foucault, reading the first two chapters, what really interested me was the difference in the style of narrative.

Foucault I believe attempts to give much more of a complete picture of his subject. Following him to the public execution in France of 18th or 17th century, he leaves not much pertinent details to imagination. We get descriptions of the convict, executioner, scaffold, the crowd, and he walks us through the details of the execution. Throughout the narrative, he provides us with statistics and excerpts from other texts to validate his claims. Whereas Nietzsche would go straight to his proclamation of his view right away perhaps with an analogy, Foucault tends to take the position of a scholar that condenses the historical evidence and views of other scholars to make his own point.  It was refreshing to read genealogy done in such a different style as in the passages about confession of the convict and punishment as the act of vengeance on the part of the sovereign.

Having grown accustomed to Nietzsche’s style of writing, I first notice that the voice is not as dominant in Foucault. Reading Nietzsche’s GM was almost like having a dialogue with him, albeit to a lesser degree than with his aphoristic works, and one cannot escape the feeling that he seems to be addressing an individual reader.  Foucault’s Discipline and Punish strikes me as much more of a descriptive philosophic writing than Nietzsche’s GM. I think it has some advantages pertaining to how one approaches the work. With Foucault, I believe the reader can critically engage with the historical picture that Foucault gives us. Although he focuses on one topic at a time such as judicial torture, secrecy, spectacle, and power, by providing a more complete historical account of the subject, it makes it much easier for the reader to employ his own critical faculties. Nietzsche’s historical account was limited in detail at best. However, I believe the two philosophers’ approaches are just different. Whereas Nietzsche is very much present as a voice that provokes the reader to question his own perspective on values from the beginning of the book, Foucault in D&P on the other hand seems to take the readers as the book finds them and initiates him into the genealogy of the penal system.

However, by no means do I expect fewer penetrating insights from D&P than Nietzsche’s GM since as descriptive as the work can be, Foucault I felt really drove the point home at times when he made the point of the public execution being the sovereign taking its vengeance upon the convict. When I critically engage with his point such as this one, I feel like I have more to work with than in GM where Nietzsche would have gone straight to making his point without prefacing his remarks, which to be honest, is often exhilarating.