Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Society's Implicit War: Foucault's "Discipline & Punish" and Military History - Chapter V

Part III - The Pragmatics: Being A Guerilla of Power/Knowledge
So this is a very strange point to be at in this series of essays. In 114 pages I have established a few things (i.e. rough summary of chapters): 1. That social order rests on violence, or at least its implicit threat. 2. That in the modern age this implicit war is waged primarily through elaborate forms of knowledge and representation. 3. That these forms of knowledge penetrate people's minds by controlling the way that individuals are able to simulate other people's thoughts. 4. That this can be described as a transition from low-level to high-level simulational mindreading in which people are encouraged to think more abstractly about other people, and that we may even be bypassing simulations in favor of pure theory-theory mindreading. My discussion of these things is far more nuanced than this, but that is the rough flow up to this point.

Having established this war of simulational mindreading, I now want to explore some practical ways that we may be able to exert some control over our minds. I have this divided into two chapters. Chapter five is called "Politics as the Continuation of War by Other Means and the 'Politics of Ourselves'". The purpose of this chapter is to establish generally how it is that all of this business about war has to do with me and the way I live my life. In chapter 5 I simply want to establish that all of this should be thought of as very personal. I suppose this sounds a bit like the feminist idea that 'the personal is political'. Chapter 6, called 'Intellectual Insurrection: Waging Mental War', will then propose much more practical and specific ways that we can hope to do battle within our own minds. So chapter 6 is much more about how to actually bring about these personal changes through this historical and philosophical work that Foucault describes.

Here is a table of contents for chapter 5.
5. Politics as the Continuation of War by Other Means and the 'Politics of Ourselves'
a. Disciplinary Society's Power/Knowledge and our Identity
b. Power/Knowledge as Creating Our Mental Models and Tacit Theories
c. Ethics and War: Practices of the Self as a Personal War

Politics as the Continuation of War by Other Means and the 'Politics of Ourselves'
In this section I am going to try and make all of this a bit more personal. In particular, I want to explore three things. First, I want to explain how disciplinary society's forms of knowledge/power serve as the basis for our identity, and thus govern our basic conceptions of ourselves. Second, I want to explore how it is that these socially constituted identities probably take the form of mental models or tacit theories of reality, thus specifying this as the level at which our identity really functions. Third, I want to explain how all of this comes back to the level of 'practices of the self'. This third part of chapter 5 is particularly important because it brings Foucault's ethical work into the picture. In a volume called 'The Politics of Truth', Foucault introduces the idea of 'The Politics of Ourselves'. This is an idea that he implicitly explores in Volume II of the History of Sexuality, The Use of Pleasure. His main concern in TUOP is to explore how individuals use forms of power/knowledge to constitute themselves as ethical subjects. He wants to understand how it is that society forces us to relate to ourselves. By bringing Foucault's ethical period into the picture I can establish a clear connection between the idea of a social war (i.e. politics as the continuation of war by other means), and the politics of ourselves (i.e. a war that we wage with our own thoughts and behavior). That is the point of part III, of these last two chapters: To make it so that we can conceptualize ourselves as waging a personal war against society's forms of power/knowledge. Foucault actually describes this in terms of an insurrection, in terms of guerilla warfare. So that is what I want to do. I want to explain how we can wage a guerilla war of power/knowledge in our own minds and relationships. Here I go.

a. Disciplinary Society's Power/Knowledge and our Identity
So here first I want to make this personal by explaining how our identities are actually constituted by the forms of power/knowledge that we encounter in our society. Our identities are so closely related to social knowledge due to the density and richness of social knowledge. Our society has defined so much about people, already articulated so much about people, that our lives and identities naturally revolve around these terms. It doesn't even matter if these terms are historically contingent or completely inadequate, it still serves as the knowledge that we have to ground ourselves in something like identity. As Foucault says, in disciplinary society "all offences must be defined; they must be classified and collected into species from which none of them can escape. A code is therefore necessary and this code must be sufficiently precise for each type of offence to be clearly present in it" (98). While here Foucault is speaking of the codification of penal practices, this applies to all other facets of life, and he explores this in all of his other books. Our society has codified so much knowledge that we cannot escape it. These codes, these articulated bodies of knowledge, these serve as the basis for our sense of self and thus our identity. So we have to admit that our identities are a direct result of social, historical, and institutional processes. Again, Foucault believes identity comes from"the constitution of the individual as a describable, analysable object, not in order to reduce him to 'specific' features, as did the naturalists in relation to living beings, but in order to maintain him in his individual features, in his particular evolution, in his own aptitudes or abilities, under the gaze of permanent corpus of knowledge; and secondly, the constitution of a comparative system that made possible the measurement of overall phenomena, the description of groups, the characterization of collective facts, the calculation of the gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given 'population'" (190). Our elaborate, modern forms of identity are not possible until a large body of articulated knowledge has been produced.

It is this rise in terms for describing people that leads to our modern forms of identity. Just think of all the complex ways that we can now identify ourselves. We can be gay, straight, queer, bi, metrosexual, gender-queer. Think of all the subsets within these categories, butch lesbians, lipstick lesbians, bull dykes. People really identify as these things, and I doubt it is in their essential nature to be these things. In any case, I think it has much more to do with the rise of elaborate forms of knowledge that allow people to be described in this way at all. It is a chicken/egg question of sorts, and I am inclined to say that these identities were first articulated, and then they were constituted by individuals who began to identify this way. Lip stick lesbianism did not just exist in the shadows waiting to be discovered. It did not exist until it was articulated. This Foucault quotation demonstrates this point nicely. These forms of knowledge "seem to extend to the general forms defined by law to the infinitesimal level of individual lives; or they appear as methods of training that enable individuals to become integrated into these general demands. They seem to constitute the same type of law on a different scale, thereby making it more meticulous and more indulgent" (222). We are not the words that we have come to label ourselves with. The labels that we place on ourselves, and thus our sense of self, our identity, is the result of historical processes. We cannot ascribe to an identity without ascribing to some of society's forms of power/knowledge. Perhaps that is fine, perhaps we find these socially produced terms adequate, but they are still a result of the social construction of knowledge.

In short, our identities are inseparable from the implicit war that is being waged by society's forms of power/knowledge. Our identity is thus a battle ground. We have to care about the way we think of ourselves. Is identity always good? Does it restrict us? If you feel choked by your identity, constrained by labels, then battle them, reject them, call them our for being historically and socially constructed terms. Do not regard identity as final, regard it as a point of contest. Regard it as a battleground.

Now I just want to bring a bit more technical terminology into this discussion of identity and power/knowledge.

b. Power/Knowledge as Creating Our Mental Models and Tacit Theories
Yesterday (8/17), I published a blog post on mental models and tacit theories. I believe that these two concepts, which come from cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind respectively, can help me get beyond the language of a priori thought. I believe that these two terms can help me explain how it is that socially constructed forms of power/knowledge would effect our minds at an unconscious level.

The basic idea with both mental models and tacit theories is that there is an unconscious structure to our thoughts. We are only able to think certain things, and certain forms of thought simply are not allowed because our brain has a certain model or tacit theory of the world. We have underlying sets of assumptions that shape our thoughts and actions. Take for example the idea of the physical world. We cannot reasonably jumping off of a 50 story building and living. We can fantasize about it, but we could never believe that we would simply land on the ground. Our brain has a certain model of how our bodies engage with the physical world. We have an unconscious knowledge that gravity exists and that our bodies would die falling from that height.

Apart from those models of the physical world, our brain also has intuitive models of the social world. We have a basic set of assumptions about the social world. We assume that everyone is either a man or a woman, that people are either children, teenagers, young adults, adults, or elderly people. Our mind intuitively classifies people in this way. We even intuitively classify ourselves in this way. Among our peers we see people who might be hipsters, wanksters, gangsters, goth kids, and so on. We have all these basic models of genders, ages, and personality types.

So above when I talked about how power/knowledge forms our identities, and now that I am saying that power/knowledge creates our mental models, the conclusion is that our identities are constituted by these mental models. That is all I want to say here. That the real thing going on is that our unconscious models of the world are what is being changed by power/knowledge. We are being changed so that we unconsciously perceive the world in certain terms.

Power/knowledge, therefore, constitutes our own identities and our perceptions of others by modifying our unconscious models and tacit theories of reality. As I said, I just believe that the language of tacit theories, and especially the language of mental modeling, is very useful here, and helps me specify more clearly the level at which we have to try and change ourselves. We have to try and change our unconscious models of reality.

c. Practices of the Self and Foucault's Ethical War
Now I want to try and explain how Foucault's notion of practices of the self plays into all of this. I find this idea very compelling. Foucault was not speaking in these terms while he was writing Discipline & Punish. He only started thinking in these terms very late in his life, during the 80s. In The Use of Pleasure he explicitly focused on how it is that power/knowledge enables individuals to work on themselves. He essentially said that he focused too much on dominance and disciplinary power. It isn't so much about how social institutions dominate people, society does not force identity on people. More so, it provides people with ways of working on themselves. The transformation brought about by disciplinary institutions have to be enacted on a subjective level. It is up to individuals to transform themselves. There can be no disciplinary power without a practice of the self. People cannot be forced into being certain ways by power/knowledge unless there is an ethical component, unless people transform themselves. So in D&P Foucault says: "The wages of penal labour do not reward production; they function as a motive and measure of individual transformation" (243), he is describing this way that power/knowledge transforms people. But he pulled back and claimed that practices of the self were more important. What is really important is how people relate to themselves, how they transform themselves.

This relationship to the self is what Foucault means when he talks about ethics. It is this addition of ethics that is so important in Foucault's work, and allows the pragmatics of his project to be specified that much more clearly. No longer are his histories simply about exposing the limitations of our thought. With the addition of ethics his histories can become a way for us to transform ourselves, to find new ways of relating to ourselves, and therefore find new ways of relating to others (power) and new ways of relating to things (knowledge). The level of ethics, therefore, is the level at which we must wage our own implicit war. We can only become a guerilla of power/knowledge by attempting ethical transformation within society's systems of power/knowledge/ethics. We no longer have to be passive subjects that are produced by power/knowledge, we can become active agents that are able to transform ourselves and thus overcome society's forms of power/knowledge that are forming our identities and our sense of others and the world.

In short,
once Foucault specified ethics as the point of transformation,
we can begin to wage an intellectual insurrection against the power/knowledge of the institutions, only with the addition of the /ethics can we become a guerilla of power/knowledge.

In the last chapter I'll specify how Foucault's work is meant to enable us to become guerillas of power/knowledge.

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