Tag: education

Foucault, power and difference

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.

Foucault on lectures and seminars

I would like to say that it is often rather difficult giving a series of lectures like this without the possibility of comebacks or discussion, and not knowing whether what one is saying finds an echo in those who are working on a thesis or a master’s degree, whether it provides them with possibilities for reflection and work … On the other hand, you know that in this institution … we cannot give closed seminars, reserved for just a few auditors… All the same, what I would like, not so much for you, but selfishly for myself, is to be able to meet Off-Broadway, outside of the lectures, with those of you who who could possibly discuss the subjects I will be talking about this year, or that I have talked about elsewhere and previously.

Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983 Lectures at the Collège de France (Volume 7). Translated by Graham Burchell; Edited by Frédéric Gros; General Editors: François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana; English Series Editor: Arnold I. Davidson, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. p. 1

Random thoughts in response
Foucault commented a number of times on the difficulty of lecturing at the Collège de France. These lectures were public and anybody could attend. On a couple of occasions he tried to open the floor up to questions but this didn’t really work given the large number of people in attendance. He remarked that he would see the same people attending week after week and would wonder who they were and what they thought of his lectures, but there was no means of making contact with them. At the end of each lecture, people would race to the front podium where he sat, not to ask him questions but to collect their tape recorders. In truth, it was actually rather difficult to approach Foucault after these lectures. He would be surrounded by an intimidating group of young men and everything in their demeanour and his own demeanour suggested that you could only approach him at your peril.

Foucault tried to counteract this alienating effect by organising private work seminars where specialist work could be done on subjects he found of interest. Foucault enjoyed these kind of specialist collaborations. Although Foucault did not regard his lectures at the College as a ‘teaching activity’ more as ‘public reports’ on his research [1] it might be worth drawing attention to comments he made elsewhere on the difference between the lecture and the seminar when these do function as teaching tools. In the lecture, he says, in spite of appearances, there is less of a relation of power between the teacher and the students than in a seminar. The auditors of a lecture can freely adopt a take it or leave it approach to the content and could admire the lecture (or not) as one would admire a well-crafted shoe. Foucault comments

‘I see myself more as an artisan crafting an object and offering it for consumption rather than a master making his slaves work’. On the other hand, seminars with discussion meant that by the end of the series, students could no longer be sure whether their ideas were their own or had been subtly and insidiously moulded by the seminar leader during the course of discussion. [2]

[1] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended” Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey; Edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana; General Editors: François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana; English Series Editor: Arnold I. Davidson, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 p. 1

[2]Michel Foucault, ‘Conversation avec Michel Foucault’, Dits et Ecrits, vol II. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp. 190-191.

Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction

Rebecca W. Black. (2008). Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies). New York: Peter Lang.
My rating: ***

Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction by Rebecca W. Black

This book uses current educational theory to discuss adolescent fan fiction. The book is useful in that it attempts to argue for the importance of fan fiction as an educational tool in promoting literacy. It also points out the fundamental discordances between the way knowledge is structured and delivered in schools and the way fan writing and communities work. However some of the characterisations of what is happening in schools are perhaps a little old fashioned – but this might in fact be a reflection of what is occurring in American classrooms and as such does not necessarily apply outside the USA.

Unfortunately the author only offers rather vague suggestions as to how teachers might work with fan fiction and their students. It could indeed be done but would require teachers who were very experienced and knowledgeable in terms of how fandoms, media technology and social networking operate.

But this is definitely a start. Fandom and fan fiction have been highly stigmatised, and given fan fiction is the fastest growing type of writing in the world today it is good to see some recognition from the educational sector of this form of literary engagement.

For extended discussions on how fan reading and practices might be harnassed in an educational setting see Henry Jenkins’ blog Confessions of an aca-fan.