Category: Foucault

Home and the ‘Californian cult of the self’

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

To add to my miscellany of definitions of home, Cooper Marcus (pp. 105-6) refers to a 1979 work by David Seamon with a strong Heideggerian theme, A geography of the lifeworld. Movement, rest and encounter. ‘David Seamon, who has written on the phenomenology of the home, suggests that a feeling of at-homeness for most of us seems to combine the qualities of rootedness, security, a sense of “ownership”, restoration, feeling at ease, and warmth’.

My initial enthusiasm for Cooper Marcus’s book has waned a little. My response, to quote Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan from the original Star Wars, is: ‘these are not the droids you are looking for’. The book was originally published in 1995 and uses field research collected over a period of twenty years in California from the mid 1970s. It also refers to the author’s own childhood and some of her adult experiences. Cooper Marcus grew up in Britain and her account of her childhood, evacuated to the countryside away from the blitz in London during World War II, shares the same sometimes bitter sweet utopian flavour of early and mid-century twentieth English children’s fiction, notably the novels of Edith Nesbit and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The examples of other people’s relation to their built living spaces are redolent of a Californian culture of consciousness raising and alternative self culture, now faded into memory and whose remnants exist only in the margins of sub-culture. Much of her literary research refers to work published in the 1970s and 80s and earlier.

Foucault’s assessment of Californian cultures of the self very much applies here.

In the Californian cult of the self, one is supposed to discover one’s true self, to separate it from that which might obscure or alienate it, to decipher its truth thanks to psychological or psychoanalytic science, which is supposed to be able to tell you what your true self is. Therefore, not only do I not identify this ancient culture of the self with what you might call the Californian cult of the self, I think they are diametrically opposed.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 362

Reading the various stories of people and their relation to their houses, one is left curiously hanging, the psychological ‘truth’ of their relationship to their living space is exposed, but one wonders – what then? What detailed techniques can be used to go from there?

In the end, Cooper Marcus’s book is a great starting point for reflection but bound by a particular time, place and discipline (Jungian psychology) that I find all a little remote. The book serves to emphasise how much has changed since the mid 1990s and the exponential speed of that change. Next on my reading list for this topic is Alain de Botton’s more philosophical, contemporary and European focused book, The Architecture of Happiness.

The human and the relation to the non-human

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

Cooper Marcus argues following Jung that:

“In the course of our lives, other people enter, and sometimes leave the field of our psychic awareness. […] What is less obvious is that the same thing happens with the objects and places in our lives. We selectively pay attention and invest them with emotion as it serves the deeper, largely unconscious process of individuation, or becoming who we truly are. […] In our own lives we select the sets and props of different “acts” (or periods of life) in order – often unconsciously – to display images of ourselves and to learn by reflection of the environment around us.” p. 8

Cooper Marcus over the course of the 20 year period of gestation of her book developed a fascinating technique which invited people to visually draw a representation of their home, then to speak to that representation of home as they would to a human person and then invite the home speak back to them. What interests me about this is the recognition of the non-human as a person in its own right and the idea that the human is not the only existent who acts in the world. The human, in fact, exists in relation to a very broad network of the human and non-human. This is of course Bruno Latour’s actor network theory (orginally derived from aspects of Foucault’s work).

But in Jungian fashion, Cooper reads this as the material things simply reflecting back to us our own preoccupations and projections, or alternately our manipulation of those material things. I would perhaps modify the statement I made in my last post and suggest that Jung’s thought was just as colonising as Freud’s in that it appropriates and colonises the other in the interests of the self. The New Age movement which has taken on many aspects of Jungian psychology tends to reduce the external world to the desires, wants and failings of the self. The external is simply a subservient instrument in the expansion and fortification of the self.

I always feel a sense of unease when encountering psychological and existential/phenomenological systems of thought and note my preference for an approach like Foucault’s. In psychology and the systems of Freud and Jung, the starting point is always the self which spreads to occupy every aspect of existence. Everything becomes a reflection or projection of the self and the hard boundaries of the other are eliminated, colonised and assimilated. Jung argues that what we see in the external are projections of our own unconscious. One becomes trapped in a claustrophobic system where there is no outside to the self. The unknown, the unconscious is a substrata of the self which either waits to be discovered or exposed to the light of day (Freud), or are unrecognised projections of the self, both individual and collective which are then open to manipulation (Jung).

Foucault however, begins with the premise that we are born already belonging to a historical, cultural, linguistic and material situation. The human self is born into this complex network and the measure of freedom of the self is the capacity to modify that belonging, even if it is only in the tiniest of ways. Those modifications are networked into the broader outside and we use and modify tools already available in human culture and history to effect changes to ourselves within this broad network. It is not about creating an ever expanding fortress of identity (Jung’s strange Bollingen Tower project might be an example of this), but of understanding our limits and intersections with the network of which we are a part.

The new school of Object Oriented Ontology or Speculative realism also argues for the position that non-human things are not simply screens onto which the human self is projected, but have their own autonomy. These ideas find predecessors in the structuralist movement, including Foucault’s own ideas.

I noted in my book in relation to structuralism:

In the place of research centred around an unchanging and introspective human subject, the structuralists advocated the exploration of the unconscious structures underlying culture, knowledge, society and language – in short the structures underlying all human endeavour. They examined structures of cultural production without linking them back to a central human agency or to individual psyches, to consciousness or to individual lived experiences of existence.
Clare O’Farrell, Michel Foucault, London: Sage, 2005

Going on to quote Foucault

It is humanism that is abstract! It is all these cries from the heart, all these claims concerning the human person and existence that are abstract: that is, cut off from the scientific and technical world which is actually our real world … Well, the current effort being made by people of our generation, is not to set up man against science and against technology, but precisely to show that our thought, our life, our way of being, right down to our most everyday way of being, are a part of the same systematic organization, and thus emerge from the same categories as the scientific and technical world. It is the ‘human heart’ which is abstract, and it is our research which seeks to link man to his science, to his discoveries, to his world, which is concrete.
Foucault, Entretien avec Madeleine Chapsal. In Dits et ecrits, vol I., (Paris: Gallimard), pp.517-18)

What is a good translation?

These remarks are prompted by a recent short interview in The Guardian with Sam Taylor, a novelist and translator of 30 books from French into English. He comments

‘Ultimately, it’s a question of taste. My personal ideal for a translation is one that makes the reader forget they are reading a translation at all, but not everyone feels the same way.’

This happens to be my own view as well. I prefer reading well-crafted English, rather than English that is constantly reminding me that it is a transliteration from another language. One could compare the two translations of Foucault’s Histoire de la folie in this context. The first translation of the abridged edition by Richard Howard, Madness and Civilization was a wonderful poetic excursion that flowed beautifully in English, just as Foucault’s book flowed in its original language. The two translators of the more recent and complete History of Madness have opted for the transliteration style – constantly reminding the reader that it was a book originally written in French. Perhaps these respective choices were made due to the relative celebrity of Foucault at the time of each translation. Howard’s translation appeared in 1964 when Foucault was little known even in France. In 2006, when the second translation by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa was published, Foucault’s name brought an immense baggage of previous translation and interpretation.

To turn to other examples – this time in the realm of television. The 1970s American buddy cop TV series Starsky and Hutch was immensely popular in France as witty asides were added in the French dub that were not there in the original.

The late 70s Japanese TV show, Monkey  was also entertainingly rendered into English by David Weir who didn’t speak Japanese. He worked with a translation of the dialogue and rewrote it to work for an English speaking audience and also to fit what was happening on screen. (See a short list of lines from his script -some more dubious than others- that I put together back in the early days of the net). As Rebecca Hausler remarks in a recent article in The Conversation the “translation of Monkey was really more of a complete re-writing … adding plenty of puns, double-entendres, and pseudo philosophical musings”. I would qualify this by saying that perhaps the musings are not always so pseudo given that many of them refer to Buddhist scripture.

So which is best – a meticulously and technically accurate translation or one that works in the language into which it is translated? I would argue that there is a place for both approaches.

Foucault and Violence

“A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks on the wheel, it destroys, or it closes the door on all possibilities. Its opposite pole can only be passivity, and if it comes up against any resistance, it has no other option but to try to minimize it. On the other hand, a power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that “the other” (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up.

Obviously the bringing into play of power relations does not exclude the use of violence any more than it does the obtaining of consent; no doubt the exercise of power can never do without one or the other, often both at the same time. But even though consensus and violence are the instruments or the results, they do not constitute the principle or the basic nature of power. The exercise of power can produce as much acceptance as may be wished for: it can pile up the dead and shelter itself behind whatever threats it can imagine. In itself the exercise of power is not violence; nor is it a consent which, implicitly, is renewable. It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions.”

Michel Foucault, (2000) [1981] ‘The Subject and Power’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, p. 340-1

Random thoughts in response

As Frédéric Gros point out in his useful article Foucault – philosopher of violence? (2012), Foucault has little to say directly on violence per se. The above quotation is perhaps one of his most extended discussions on the topic. Earlier in a 1973 lecture after working through the notion, but not coming to an entirely satisfactory conclusion, he defines ‘violence [as] the physical exercise of a completely unbalanced force’.[1] In the more refined argument he produces in ‘The Subject and Power’. Foucault argues that when violence is exerted it is no longer a power relation. Power relies on people willingly and freely agreeing to modify their behaviour (even if under extreme duress and threat). Power is about changing people’s actions – which is different from the simple act of destroying and exerting physical force on their bodies. Violence can certainly be used as an instrument of power to threaten people and the result of power can be violence, but the exercise of power is not in itself violence, just as power is not equivalent to knowledge.

Making this distinction can lead to interesting ways of conducting a nuanced discussion of the tensions between power and violence. One might discuss, for instance, how different people choose to respond in differing ways to acts of physical force. When violence is exercised the victim has no choice. In the exercise of power both sides have choices – even if these are restricted.

One could perhaps argue that the difference between power and violence is the issue of choice on both sides of the equation.

[1] Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France 1973-1975. Edited by Jacques Lagrange. Translated by Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 14

With thanks to Steven Ogden for provoking these thoughts.

Foucault, Cassian and the money changer

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.

Foucault: the specific intellectual and universities

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 changed in emphasis since the late 1970s when Foucault made this remark. If 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.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

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.

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