Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Foucault 3 (week 4)


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  2. [revised to fix a few typos and attempt to make a few points a little more clear]

    Bernie Sanders' proposed form of socialism, in the words of Foucault, has the potential to reinvest “the very power-mechanisms constituted by the capitalist State or the industrialist State” (BioPolitics: A Reader, 79). Ta-Nehisi Coates recently pointed out in an article in The Atlantic that Sanders dismissed the idea of reparations because it had no chance of passing through Congress. Coates asserts that some of Sanders’ other main talking points also have about the same chance of getting through a Republican controlled congress—single payer health care, a trillion dollar jobs and infrastructure bill—and yet he is talking about those very issues as issues that define him as a candidate.

    In general, between both of Coates’ articles on this subject, his main points seem to be that Sanders is not living up to the ‘socialist’ label he has claimed over and over, and, perhaps more importantly, that raising the minimum wage will not make significant changes to the inequality that has been oppressing black people throughout the entirety of American history and to this day. Foucault’s claim that “you will always find a racist component in socialism (79)” brought these articles to mind and had me looking over Sander’s speeches about what the term “Democratic Socialist” means to him.

    Though Sanders platforms sounds (and I believe is) well-meaning, it isn’t difficult to see how, as Foucault predicted, it is also not addressing the issue of biopower but in fact sometimes embodying the very definition of biopower without exploring in a critical way what the outcome of these changes might mean (79).

    A free college education, as Coates alludes to, will not give a black person and a white person the same chances of securing a job that they both apply for, because this bottom up strategy has no effect on the person doing the hiring. A 15 dollar minimum wage is also a way to normalize the unemployed black youth that it is meant to directly address, inserting them into the technology of the economic machine instead of addressing any issues of race. A raise in minimum wage has no real effect on the racist mindset of a corporate vice president, except for the face that her company may have to start paying more money to its workers. But it still won’t put her in direct, meaningful contact with anyone who might benefit from that raise. To be somewhat cynical, the most appealing effect it has to people who fear unemployed young black people is that it essentially ‘locks’ them into a job that keeps them too occupied and tired to leave them to ‘their own devices’.

    Obviously there is much more to this. But I am very interested in what it means when Foucault states that socialism requires the “right to disqualify”, among other more heinous rights that Foucault insists it must have (80). Is the ‘revolution’ that Sanders is advertising still going to be at the expense of the same people who are always oppressed in this country, further locking them into situations they can never break free of?

    1. First: I think this series of tweets regarding racism and the sort of muddle socialism being peddled right now is very relevant to the argument you're making:

      Second: I'm very interested in Foucault's very aggressive assertion in the final part of "Society Must Be Defended" that socialist programs do not criticize the technologies of biopower and racism but rather "whenever you have these therefore have racism" (80). Foucault refers to Blanquism, the Commune, and anarchist as reference without exactly going into detail as to how these racisms play out in these regimes. Further, as I understand it, Foucault's definition of racism is not necessarily the definition of racism that we would use today - that is, his is a form of biological racism that would include physical disability and mental atypicality in addition to the ethnic racism that we know. I guess what I'm questioning is not if the socialist regimes are actually racist, but rather how Foucault would expand on his assertion and justify his claim in his own terms.

      I chose to piggy back on David's post because of my first note but I think my questions concerning Foucault's assertion of racism within socialism is also a question of the idealistic socialism that has been newly discovered in the past ten months because of Sanders.

  3. I have to admit to not really following the election but I will piggy back on other aspects of this post. My own research is starting to focus on the welfare reform of the mid-90s. It is difficult to speak of such reform without speaking of race in this country, especially considering that much of the policy discourse in the mid-90s involved attacks on 'welfare queens' (read African-American women). The strong family values language in the bill is directly geared at the 'breakdown of the African-American family'.

    Foucault's provides many tools for analyzing this welfare reform. I am especially interested in the sites that welfare recipients are now required to go to in order to receive 'training'. These 'workfare' sites can be analyzed as disciplinary sites in which a norm is set up, and then the trainees are instructed on how to enhance their capacities to be at the norm. In STP, Foucault distinguishes disciplinary normalization as, "positing a model...constructed in terms of a certain result, and the operation of disciplinary normalization consists in trying to get people, movements, and actions to conform to this model" (57). Based on current research on what goes on in 'workfare' training sites, it is safe to safe that the norm posited is the ways of speaking, behaving, etc of a white person. There are other norms posited too, mainly norms around the idea of a protestant work ethic, which I suppose is also a very white norm.

    Moving on to how norms work in 'security', Foucault says that the normal is based on the statistical average of population. Based on statistical data, different groups, towns, etc. can be analyzed according to this deviation from the norm (62). I think chapter two of Birth of Biopolitics connects well with the discussion of African-American wage rates. Foucault talks about how the market goes from a site of justice (middle ages), to the site of truth (30). The market, when left alone, reveals a 'natural' or 'true' price for a good, which can also include the price of labor power. Whether higher wages will help fix racism, Foucault is pointing out how calling for justice in terms of higher wages for a certain group is so difficult.

    There are so many other insights that Foucault offers that I could connect, but I will only offer one more. He discusses the productive/destructive relationship liberalism has with freedom and even provides the example of the free labor market needing enough “competent, qualified, and politically disarmed workers to prevent them exerting pressure on the labor market”. Again, the welfare reform sites are a great example of this. The reform promises empowerment and the freedom of working, but the training sites ask invasive personal questions, monitor behavior everyday, and are geared to push individuals off welfare as quickly as possible and typically into insecure, minimum wage jobs—a strange form of freedom indeed.

  4. My partner somehow gave me his cold on this glorious snow day, so I’m willing to accept this post may be a sinus headache in its own right. While reading Foucault’s parsing out of discipline and security, my (Kenneth) Burke senses were going off in regards to the tragic and comic frames. I can't say I'm a hardcore Burkean (or proper rhetorician, for that matter), but let's see where this takes me.

    Hear me out:

    Discipline works from the tragic frame. As a “centripetal” strategy of forces, discipline “circumscribe(s) a space in which its power and the mechanisms of its power will function fully and without limit” (44-45). Additionally, “discipline regulates everything. Discipline allows nothing to escape” (45). It works off of a “code of permitted and the forbidden” (46) that ultimately treats humans as “wicked, bad, and… [having] evil thoughts and inclinations” (47). This sounds a lot like Burke tragic frame, where humans treat each other with tons of suspicion. They are seen as flawed, evil, (maliciously) motivated, and controlled by the gods (whatever they may be). From this standpoint, the way to correct for human (mis)behavior is through destroying evil people. While certainly not a generous way of being, I sense hints of this mood and disposition while thinking through how discipline is textured.

    Security works from the comic frame. As a “centrifugal” strategy of forces, security has “the constant tendency to expand” (45). It encourages “standing back sufficiently so that one can grasp the point at which things are taking place,” (46) to “‘lets things happen’” with the understanding they “are not valued as good or evil in themselves” (45). Security is thus efficient because it uses “the components of reality to work in relation to each other, thanks to and through a series of analyses and specific arrangements” (47). The comic frame, in Burke’s view, promotes a view that life is a “comedy of errors.” Humans aren't evil; they’re just ignorant, mistaken. People just need to be educated, not destroyed. This “education” feels a lot like an investment in life to “free” people of their beliefs. I'm being a tad cynical here as to the power of a comic approach, but I think Foucault should give us some pause as to why we're celebrating the comic frame as a seemingly ethical approach to conflict.

    Yes, these terms are pretty run-of-the-mill when it comes to Burke. However, I'm not quite sure if these connections have been teased out properly when read through Foucault.

  5. I’ve been a little perplexed trying to trace Foucault’s power from our previous readings to our current ones. Before the dominance of biopower, it seems as though power operated in terms of functions of the perpetuation of power. That is to say, powered seemed concerned with its self-preservation and legitimization. My instinctive reading of Foucault’s language lends me to believe that there is a progression of the vitality of power. Power as exercised juridically became unstable (public responses to the scaffold threatened to impinge upon the cost-efficiency of the operation of power) and so it had to seek new points of penetration. It is difficult for me to not think of the change (I hesitate to say ‘evolution’) in the modes of power as following a linear progression, particularly because of Foucault’s insistence that power always seeks to increase yield while reducing force that goes into labor. However, I believe it would be a misreading of Foucault to impress progress onto power. It certainly does not seem that he is concerned with any notion of progress, given his emphasis on the surface nature of power (i.e. non-transcendental). I’m not quite sure how we are to understand these changes in the modes of power as an “intensification” of power, while at the same time understanding that intensification as non-progressive. Intensification seems to imply at the very least a progression of intensity; that is, the forces of power progress in their intensity of frugality. Perhaps I’m missing something bigger altogether when thinking about this.

    I find it interesting how Foucault turns primarily to economic explanations for the emergence of biopolitics here. He characterizes the opposition of neo-liberalism as: “non-liberalism-by which I mean interventionist policies, whether in the form of Keynesian style economics, planning, or economic and social programs” (218). It’s interesting that Foucault explicitly mentions Keynes, characterizes an opponent to such a way of thinking, and yet never explicitly mentions Friedmanite economics. I imagine that Foucault would have been knowledgeable of the events going on in South America that were concurrent with this particular lecture, but perhaps the Chicago school influence was not publicly known at the time. If I haven’t read incorrectly, it seems Foucault is linking biopolitics and neoliberalism, at least in the sense that neoliberalism is an exemplar utilization of biopolitics. It seems strange though, that Keynesian economics, as representing direct interference with people’s lives, is placed in opposition to biopolitics, the goal of which is also the management of lives. Instead it seems implied that Friedmanite economics—intervention through the monetary system—is linked to biopolitics.

  6. In reading Foucault's "Society Must Be Defended" lecture I was reminded of an interaction that occurred during the conversation with the last Humanities on the Edge speaker, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson. During the session with her and grad students I asked a question regarding whether or not she believed in the biological "framing" of race. I would say that a good amount (perhaps not most) people understand that there is no "true" biological basis to race, that there is not genetic switches for ethnicity and culture; but, and I think Foucault argues this to some extent, because of racism the biology of the non-white body has been changed (Rachel C. Lee explores this question at length in The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America). I had asked Jackson's opinion on this notion a biological basis for race and she argued that because of racism the biology of the black body has changed, citing the sickle cell disease which predominantly affects African American communities as an example.

    I think the water crisis that's currently occurring in Flint, Michigan among other cities that have been affected by a history of racism is another contemporary example of the racism as justification for killing is asserting. Foucault writes "when I say 'killing,' I obviously do not mean simply murder as such, but also every form of indirect murder; the fact of exposing someone to death [....]" (75). The acts of red-lining, segregation, housing discrimination of so on that have created and perpetuated the exposures to death are acts of racism and, in turn, functions of biopower. Most news on the water crisis reminds us that the crisis is not the result of some immediate reaction but has been a long coming crisis - the leader in the water is not the right of the sword to inflict death but the new right to make live and let die.

    see the HOLC maps and redlining here:

    1. I just want to throw out that it's ridiculous you can't edit comments after the fact. To protest this complete disregard of user needs by Blogspot I will be letting any spelling and grammar errors stand as it.

  7. My primary thought comes from reading Foucault’s “Society Must be Defended” lectures and has to do with literary genres. Or rather, the anxieties that come with organizing individual texts into generic tendencies. Whenever revisiting Foucault, I am reminded why, despite its usefulness for certain literary conversations, genres tend to inspire a certain sense of anxiety.

    Running the risk of being obvious, Foucault’s passages detailing the transition from a disciplinary power concerned with individualizing behaviors to a biopower more preoccupied with “massifying” bodies, to me, easily translate to a discussion of narrative genres. This is to say that I am interested in seeing how far one can take a notion of biopower in strictly literary terms. Unlike traditional close reading, which is addressed to individual texts, the new “distant” reading is applied not to meaning-as-text but to the textual meaning. To be more specific, I would say that traditional close reading tries to rule a genre of texts to the extent that their generic-ness can and must be dissolved into individual texts that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and, if need be, punished. And that the new reading that is being established is addressed to a multiplicity of texts, not to the extent that they are nothing more than their individual texts, but to the extent that they form, on the contrary, a generic mass that is affected by overall processes (loose and crass play off of pg 64). I suspect that this is most likely the subject of what Foucault addresses in “What is an Author” and what he means to delineate in describing the “author-function”. I do still wonder, if we take Foucault’s claim of biopower seriously, how does this effect a literary discipline’s (though non-disciplinary) approach to literature? Or perhaps I should ask how each of us individual reads differently in the face of biopower?

    I am, on some level, thinking about my own text analysis training as a digital humanist. I think about the way we look at texts for thematically generic or linguistic tendencies, though we still care about the individual behaviors of texts, and yet also receive a fair amount of criticsm for reducing a text’s individual complexity. I do sometimes wonder whether dh comes off as the application of biopower in a textual capacity.

  8. Foucault identifies the emergence of security as a form of power at around the turn of the 18th century and on into the century. This being the case, I found it really interesting to think about the concurrent shifts in moral theory at the time - one of the most important periods, dare I say, for the development of moral theory - and how these might reflect the changing notions of political theory, the application of sovereignty/governmentality.

    On the one hand, we've got Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) establishing a comprehensive theory and justification of deontology - the idea that right and wrong is in the character of the act, not its consequences. And then on the other hand, we have the emergence of utilitarianism (which Foucault talks about in relation to the pragmatic practices of government, sort of a political realism), the moral theory of which was primarily associated with Jeremy Bentham (1747-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

    Foucault says that sovereign power required a telos, an end - "the common good and the salvation of all" - which he argues amounted to, essentially, submission to the law in itself (Security 98). The law is an end in itself, and the good is in performing submission to that law for its own sake. For governmental power, the end is not the "common good" but rather "an end suitable for each of the things to be governed" (Security 99). The law here is no more than one tactic among others in managing the population, continually orienting the population around its own interest.

    It's not difficult to see the correlation of deontology and utilitarianism to the sovereign and governmental forms of power, respectively. For the utilitarian, the good is that which maximizes the general happiness of all people - it is a non-individual, mass form of morality which, at times utilizes the law (in what is called "rule-utilitarianism"), but only as a tactic in the management of general wellfare/happiness. To be honest, I think people are kidding themselves when they try to bring this sort of governmentality of mass happiness down to the level of individual agents, using ridiculous "utility calculi" as formulas for immediate action, as though desiring to retain moral agency of the subject while presuming that the subject can view herself always in light of the whole population.

    On the other hand, Kantian deontology is the quintessential morality of the law-in-itself, for its own sake. This was Kant's great achievement, that he provided a theory of the law which required no external justification but which justified itself. So the timing here is important. Kant developed the ultimate theory of sovereign power, but such that the sovereign will or agent was entirely removed from the equation. He focuses instead on a general will, which, when according with reason, will always fulfill the demands of the law. The law is good because living rationally is the only way to be free, and ironically, to be free is to live in accordance with the law. In Kant's system, rational beings must govern themselves as though living in a "Kingdom of Ends." His theory takes the sovereign form of power and implants it in every single individual. Therefore, in the contemporaneous shift toward consideration of populations and governmentality, Kant both reveals a nostalgia for the moral agency/dignity which characterizes sovereign power, and also establishes a conception of the moral agent such that when hegemonic ruling powers shift in form from a sovereign monarch to a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," a sense of the dignity and duty of individuals is retained and justified. The question, then, is whether such a theory only offers an illusion of agency, abstracting the interest of a population in the form of specific actions, and is thus also only a tool of new forms of power, or whether Kant offers salvation for the individual subject.

  9. Hello everyone,
    below is something I wrote in response to an email I received from David about the question of racism in MF. He asked for further clarification, so here's my attempt.... (will be multiple posts)

    So, I suppose the first thing to flag is that MF is making a claim about a historical phenomenon. He is talking about the past, not 1970s, let alone 2016. This is always important to keep in mind. Whatever he says about socialism is both of his own time and about the time he observes—in this case it seems twofold: the late 19th century (Blanquism, anarchism of the time, socialism) and more closer to his time the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it is worthwhile paying attention to MF’s own targets, as I repeatedly argued in class over the last three meetings. For example, MF is debating--however implicitly and perhaps invisible to contemporary readers not familiar with French intellectual and political life of the 60s and 70s--a group of theorists and intellectuals on the left that have sympathies for the French Communist Party that by and large was Stalinist-leaning. MF had no truck with the French PK. So there’s a polemical thrust to his argument notwithstanding him saying that he’s not interested in polemics (I forget in what text he says that but it’s in one we read).

    MF’s version of racism is very precise (however satisfying it may be is debatable). As he says on 74 (in Society must be defended), racism is simply that which introduces a break in the biological continuum, namely the domain of life that is under power’s control (here: biopower). It creates a division between what must live and what must die. It is a tool, then, for that mode of power that in and of itself seeks to foster life and thus, by definition, should not be interested in killing (and maybe should even be unable to kill, since that’s different from letting die). How, then, can that sort of power, which targets life itself, as it were, still also terminate life—something that pragmatically seemed to be necessary? Racism was biopower’s answer—but a racism that operates on the level of life, of biology, that is, as instills, as he writes, a “biological-type caesura. (74). So racism allows power to fragment life, to divvy up the biological continuum addressed by biopower. It makes managing that continuum more manageable for biopower. Moreover, the 2nd function of racism is to reinvent the war relationship of if I want to survive someone else must die. MF argues that biopower reinvents the war relationship, which is about clash of enemies, into a biological relationship, which is about species—and does so precisely in the age of Darwin (survival of the fittest etc kind of social Darwinism). So racism establishes a positive relationship, as MF writes, of the kind that states that the more inferior species vanish the healthier the others, stronger will be. The death of the other is not just a matter of being being safer (war relationship); life itself will be healthier all around if the inferior species vanish. That’s a difference in kind: the former is simply about my survival or safety, the latter is about life itself. This is why MF says this kind of racism reinvents the war relationship as a biological relationship.
    More to come....

  10. MF then shows how this kind of species or biological racism played itself out in two historical cases: Nazism and socialism of a certain type. W/r/t the latter, it’s the kind of socialism predicated on a narrative of struggle that MF accuses of having failed to provide a proper critique of biopower, which resulted in that kind of socialism’s own complicity with and indeed reliance of racism—not because its thinkers or activists were ideological racists or even aware of it but because it itself—its practices—were bound up with those of biopower, with its technologies of power. This is why what he’s talking about is not about a “race war” (77)—which is often how “we” understand racism to be (right wing demagogues at times use this term). It’s an internal racism working upon the species itself. Most importantly, it’s the tool that allows the State, which is obligates, says MF, to use race, to exercise its sovereign power (which after all hasn’t vanished but is simply overcoded by the logic of biopower—the latter has permeated older modes of power, which in and of themselves don’t vanish, however).

    W/r/t socialism, MF is in a bit of a speculative mode. He first says that all States are internally affected by the play of sovereignty and biopower but then puts that claim into question (79) before saying that at least as far as socialist states are concerned they are marked by racism as much as capitalist states are. So he first of all suggests that socialist States (and remember: there is no socialism without a State; Communism is without a state form but not socialism) doesn’t get to have the moral high ground. Note further how he defines racism as a “social-racism” that, he says, came into being before a socialist State, but that’s why the socialism was racist from its birth.

    MF is a bit uncomfortable making these claims (“I find this very difficult to talk about,” 79), but then goes on to argue that to the extent that socialism did not analyze the mechanics and technologies of power it “inevitably reaffected or reinvested the very power-mechanisms constituted by the capitalist State” (79). Socialism, he says, made no critique of biopower; and if biopower is run by the engine of racism as he defines it then such failure by definition ties socialism to the very racism by which the mode of power—biopower—operates also in the socialist state form. Socialism agrees with any other State form that it must manage life, take control of it (bottom 79)—this is why it inevitably will have to have recourse to racism as racism is the technology that divides life up into species (races). Any State that seeks to control life—which is the case under conditions of biopower—has to do this and can do this only through racism. Such a state, including a socialist one, finds itself in a position where is MUST exercise the sovereign right to kill. But how can it do this if its mode of power is biopower as defined by MF? Well only by mobilizing the form of biological racism as MF characterizes it.

    More to come

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  12. The final part of his argument is that he also looks at analysis from a socialist perspective (so not just at political instantiations, meaning: actually existing socialist states). Here too he argues that most socialist analysis reveal their racism, or to be more precise: those socialisms that are forced to stress the problem of struggle, as he writes. Struggle, in a way, divides socialism up: Blanquism, anarchism etc on one hand and social democracy on the other (in MF’s version); the latter, MF suggests, isn’t necessarily racist, whereas the former is. Racism is the only way in which biopoliticized socialist thinking can rationalize murder of its enemies (in other words: older form of rationalization were no longer available or viable). There’s a need for racism only in conditions where one’s own life has to be put at stake; if it’s just a matter of taking away certain privileges, or “eliminating adversary in economic terms” then there is no need for racism because life itself is not at stake. And this is why one has to look carefully at how race works in contemporary politics. Whether or not Sanders—who really is a social democrat more than a socialist, it seems to me—promotes ideas that are tied to racism is up for debate of course, but to read him through MF’s argument we’d have to do a fair bit of work: first, to see how MF’s doubly historical argument—about a time past and made from a time that’s 40 years ago—is still applicable (given that MF already looks beyond biopower should give us some pause….); second, we would have to look at the nature of racism today and whether that is the kind of racism MF talks about—he is specific, whether or not we like it, that he does not talk about ethnic racism but biological racism which he clearly wants to say are different, even if he doesn’t offer a full fledged description of the differences; and third we’d have to think about the kind of socialism Sanders is advocating and also what the relation between the State form and socialism is today in the context of whatever regime of power we might be in (is it still biopower or is it control societies, for example, and if the latter then what happened to the former, how is it still active but more as a residual form of power rather than a dominant mode, how has it been overcoded by control—controlization of biopower?).

    Finally it’s worthwhile noting again that MF says that socialist racism was eliminated at the end of the 19th ct in Europe. He says this even tho he says the Soviet Union was a racist state. Here we could suggest that perhaps MF did not even consider the SU as a socialist state but as Stalinist. Maybe. Also note that he says it was eliminated in Europe; he doesn’t say it was eliminated elsewhere. We could of course question the claim that it was in fact eliminated. But maybe most important is the concluding question of the essay: how can biopower be made to function and exercise its right to war etc without also becoming racist? That is still “our” (in the late 70s) question. Here he’s suggesting, I think, that biopower would in many ways prefer not to be racist: it’s not that it wants to be racist but simply has to be. (Elsewhere MF is arguing that capitalism does not want to produce bad effects; it simply does this because it’s part of its “nature” (not his word)—the way it works it cannot NOT produce misery, but this misery is not produced “intentionally” etc. It would be happy to function without such bad effects; it’s just that it’s “designed” in way that doesn’t allow it to not produce exploitation.)