Category: quotations

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 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.

Foucault on disciplinary acts of cunning

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.

Foucault and disciplinary space

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).

Foucault: criticism, judgment and assessment

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.

Foucault and the event

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

I shall sum up […] the critical operations which I have undertaken [To question] these three themes of the origin, the subject and the implicit meaning, is to undertake – a difficult task, very strong resistance indeed proves it – to liberate the discursive field from the historico-transcendental structure which the philosophy of the 19th century has imposed on it […]

There where one used to tell the history of tradition and of invention, of the old and the new, of the dead and the living, of the closed and the open, of the static and the dynamic, I have undertaken to tell the history of perpetual difference; more precisely to recount the history of ideas as the sum of the specified and descriptive forms of non-identity.

Michel Foucault, (1996) [1968]. “History, discourse and discontinuity” S. Lotringer, ed., Foucault live (interviews, 1961-1984) (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), Translated by Anthony Nazarro, pp. 41-2. Translation modified.

Random thoughts in response
Foucault defines the event as something that has a beginning and an end. Every human experience, activity, idea and cultural form can be analysed as an event or as a series of events. Foucault uses this concept as a way of arguing against metaphysical essences in history. It is important to emphasise that his notion of the ‘event’ shares little in common with the event as it has been defined by other forms of philosophy which define it as the rare and earth shattering eruption of transcendence (or the eternal) into history.

If each event has a discrete beginning and end, it does not exist on its own, it can only exist in relation to other events and to other levels of events. An event when it begins, is already part of a history and a social and cultural structure. It both perpetuates and marks a break or difference – no matter how small – from those structures. It is both the Same and the Other.

Foucault also applies notions of the event, of difference, to his discussion of the formation of the self. The self is likewise an ‘event’. We are born into a language, culture and historical situation and we are trained by, and train ourselves, with the tools produced by our history and culture. At the same time, however, we have the capacity to modify how we belong, to make a unique contribution.

People are continually trying to tie things down and render them the Same so as to maintain social and other forms of order, but the Other, that which is different, keeps on dissolving these orders. One could argue, using worn out and questionable philosophical terms, that in Foucault’s work, this Other is ‘immanent’ rather than ‘transcendent’. Hence the Other is something that is constantly present and in dialogue with what is going on here and now and in ordinary lives. Continual difference pervades our existence, opening up the possibility for transgression at every moment, not just exceptionally. Of course, whether or not people take up the opportunities offered is another matter.

Thus one can oppose the terms ‘difference’ and ‘transcendence’. There is a vast tangle of moral judgment and elitism attached to the notion of ‘transcendence’, given only some people and some situations have access to it or are effected by it. Transcendence also reductively subsumes everything into itself and removes it from history. The term difference never operates this reduction and has far fewer grand pretensions. It doesn’t merely emerge in chosen moments but remains stubbornly historical and of this world. Transcendence has reductive and elitist overtones and is rare, whereas difference is multiple, common and accessible to everybody. Transcendence tends towards a gnostic rejection of the world, a removal to an eternal outside place (or non-place), difference tends towards an active engagement in history and the recognition of injustice.

For thinkers such as Arendt, Agamben and Badiou if the event is indeed singular, only certain events count and those events are rare. These events take on the status of crisis, revolution, exception, the extra-ordinary, the definitive break, wholesale political transformation, the departure from biological or animal necessity. Other occurences simply exist in the shadow of these rare or formative events.

Hannah Arendt, while eliminating the notion of causality and championing the cause of history, posits the idea of the division of action into two forms – one that is characterised as everyday and concerned with the mere maintenance of biological life and the social and cultural status quo and the other as ‘extraordinary action’, which has political and innovative effects. The second form of action is clearly more highly valued than the first.

The risks of elitism in proposing such a divide are high – as has of course been pointed out in various ways by Arendt’s critics. Some people become capable of producing worthy social and historical action, whereas others are condemned to spend their lives as anonymous drones. And disappointingly, especially given Arendt is a woman, those concerned with the biological continuation of the species rather than grand politics, often happen to be women.

Foucault, on the other hand, argues that all actions, thoughts, experiences and physical happenings are historical events which at one and the same time both maintain the status quo and depart from it to varying degrees. Every event by sheer virtue of the fact that it appears in time (history) both belongs to what has gone before and marks a departure from it. This departure or difference can be either virtually non-existent or large – but there is no division in what qualifies as an event and what doesn’t. There are no fundamental ontological differences between types of events, just differences in levels and strategic placement and degrees to which actions or events are transgressive (or not). And further, one has to think very carefully about how one valorises the transgressive.

So rather than a metaphysical reading of the event – where the transcendent comes down and erupts into history or negates history altogether in the maintenance of transhistorical essences, Foucault offers a historical reading where difference permeates everyday existence from moment to moment. This is not to say that the notion of difference is at a fundamental ontological level any more explicable than transcendence or less intriguing, but it is certainly far less pretentious in its ambit and a far more operable and empirically observable notion in terms of the analysis of micro-events and practices.

With thanks to Eduardo Duarte for starting the discussion which prompted these ideas.