Sunday, May 23, 2010

Feeling and Not Feeling: I Don't Know What to Think, but Here is a Summary of my Current Reading and my Thoughts on Violence and Social Order

I'm not quite sure how to make sense of my inconsistent thinking and behavior.

This statement is really broad and can apply to a lot of different things. But the one thing that I feel the most curious about is my tendency to flip between lots of reading and writing, and not quite so much reading and writing.

I think these days I am feeling more things than I am thinking things. I mean, I'm thinking lots of things. But I have more curiosity about the social world. About other people.


I still just feel like since I finished my essay of April 30th I don't quite know how to gauge my thinking.

But the 30th post was a beast. An absolute beast. Just in terms of how it felt for me to produce it. It felt beastly. Confusing. Exciting.

Lol also I am eagerly anticipating The-Dream's new cd. All 4 songs he has released so far are tighttt. So good. Can't wait. Very excited.

But I am reading slowly.

I am reading W.G. Sebald's Vertigo. A novel that is written like it is a memoir. It is just one guy reflecting on himself and other people he knows. He has been traveling over Europe. Spent some time talking about a guy in the Napoleonic wars. I read Sebald's Austerlitz, which my dad loved, and I thought was pretty good. Sebald's style is meandering and reflective. He takes his time. A paragraph, or even a single sentence, might go on for a couple pages. It just toddles. Plus, I like to read in bed when I'm tired, and I find it really hard to follow when I'm tired.

I am also reading Michel Foucault's Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Foucault is always a challenge, so I have been taking it slow. I finished the first chapter. So I am done the intro and getting ready to go into the rest of it.

After the first 30 pages, it seems like Foucault's major questions are, why did social discipline change from public torture to confinement in an elaborate prison system? What elements of torture remain in modern prison systems? If the body is no longer involved, then what is it that prisons torture? Is it the soul? How is the exercise of power (prisons as the specific example) related to forms of knowledge?

The last one, the power/knowledge question, is something Foucault is quite well known for, and a part of his work that I am pretty familiar with from other books, essays, and interviews. But, I would like to say a few things about the way Foucault describes power within society.

There are two things that I'm not quite sure how to reconcile right now. First, Foucault's claim (which I know he believed and makes sense) that every use of power comes along with a certain form of knowledge that enables that power. Further, the exercise of power creates knowledge. This is a complicated idea and I don't feel like explicating it heavily right now. I just don't. Also, I think reading D&P I feel a bit like I am in the process of coming to a fuller understanding of the idea of power/knowledge, so I'll write about it later.

In addition to the idea of power/knowledge, I want to understand how Foucault believes war plays into the exercising of power. I know he took Clausewitz's phrase (war is the continuation of politics by other means), and said the inverse: 'Politics is the continuation of war by other means.' Foucault said in an interview from the volume "Power/Knowledge" that he was trying to figure out how fundamental war was. Did it stand at the center of everything? Is it really the basis of all other power relations? Does violence, or the idea of it, the implication of it, stand at the heart of all power relations? I sorta like this idea.

Reading the intro of D&P I wrote something in the margins that I have been thinking about for a long time. I was a military history major, so I have read a lot about war and I tend to think about it in relation to a lot of things. But anyways, Foucault said that with the decline of torture and the rise of government juridical institutions the idea of punishment changes. "it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime; the exemplary mechanics of punishment changes its mechanisms. As a result, justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice." I italicized that line. I want to reflect on this.

In the margins I wrote, 'society's implicit war.' For a while I have been thinking about how the rise of stable governments corresponds with the rise of stable military institutions (Jon Sumida, you changed the way I think). Why do these things correspond? What is the link between society at large and the government's ability to monopolize armed force?

Well, I have thought for a while that society rests on violence far more than people are aware. Police carry guns. The government gets very worried when anyone tries to buy a lot of guns. So much of the American budget is spent on the military. Historically, governments have spent so much money on their military. Often over 50% sometimes over 75%, I have 85%? But that was like 18th century. Anyways, I think that society is the way it is because we have people with guns that will hurt anybody that breaks the social order.

The idea of the social contract I guess I have a problem with. I don't think that people are just engaged in an agreement with a government where they sacrifice and exchange or whatever. I don't understand the idea very well, so forgive me if I am misrepresenting it. But, I think it is about violence. It's about being able to hurt people if they don't do what you want.

Once I had a conversation with a friend about how we could find a more peaceful way to help the Middle East. They went so far as to say that we shouldn't even have people on the ground with guns. That we should be able to find a way to help them without all that. She admitted it was probably a pipe dream. I think it is a full blown pipe dream.

If you don't have guys there with guns, other guys with guns are gonna take your shit. Why were so many tons of U.N. aid diverted by warlords? Why did people with guns manage to take so much stuff from an international institution that was trying to help? People with guns take things, and you need people with guns to stop them. Sounds kinda terrible. But it seems hard for me to think otherwise.

The first step to creating social order is to have guys with weapons that can kill anyone who tries to break your idea of social order. You can't have a society unless you have a stable means of killing or hurting.

In March I was sitting in a hotel lobby reading The Order of Things and I started daydreaming about something. I was thinking, what if someone took this book from me and refused to give it back. What if I asked them and they refused? How would I get it back? I would perhaps tell the front desk staff, and they would tell him to give it back. And if he refused they may call security, then they may call the police.

The bottom line is someone has to get physical.

If someone really refuses to give you something that is yours you have to take it. This seems like what the use of power is. Forcing another person to do something. It is a relationship with another.

Now, I think that this last example I gave of myself to hotel staff to security to police. A hierarchy of power. The hotel and legal rights, security and legal rights, the police. Power is very much facilitated through modern institutions these days. But I think at its most basic element it still comes back to physicality and violence.

If someone refuses to give me my property then someone has to make him. How do you make other people do things? Power? Sure, but what type? Well, at its most basic it is physical, but again, modern power is facilitated by these institutions. I can make someone do something by calling security or police, both whole hold the implicit threat of violence.

I have gone astray. Let me try to just wrap up.

I think all society rests on the implicit threat of violence. The government has a monopoly on armed force for a reason. Their police need to be able to hurt us if we step out of line, and the military needs to be able to hurt people if nations step out of line.

Interestingly, in America, the line of what is appropriate behavior seems to be so broad and flashy that we don't notice the armed guards standing on either side of us. We have lost touch with society's implicit violence in America, I think.

Anyways, a closing thought that I find somewhat interesting.

If the maintenance of the social order is contingent upon violence, then how should political leaders think or talk about violence? Well, I think they should embrace it. They need to recognize the centrality of violence and war. If politicians are reflective and intelligent individuals, then they need to handle the issue of violence straight up.

In other words, society's most brutal and violent decisions should be made by the most thoughtful and sensitive people.

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