Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wtf Is A Swiss Everything Bagel?: Airports and Status Functions

It is an everything bagel covered with melted swiss cheese.


I'm eating one in Seatac airport.

I'm waiting for my flight that will leave at 7:30 am. For now I am simply relaxing, eating this bagel, sipping this coffee.

I talked to my dad on the phone a moment ago and he told me to people watch and to write about them.

But when I look around me at this airport I see structure much more than I see individuals.

John Searle's work on status functions is on my mind.

Right before I went through security I saw a sign: 'You are now entering a zone where any person or item may be inspected'. Boom. Because they say it they make it so.

Or on the airport shuttle there was a sign: 'For your safety, the driver must open this door'. Boom. Bio-power and status functions.

When I was standing in the security line I thought about all the people around me, talking to one another, looking at one another, being with one another. They were living an emotional and social life. But this world of airports has made it structured in such unique ways.

I, for example, love my family and am eager to fly across the country to see them. But in order to do it I have a huge institutional apparatus to deal with. I have to go through security zones where people might rummage through my things, where people might touch me.

And here we all are. Living this life that has been structured in these ways. Structured by our language and the ways that other people use language.

So here is a question: What is the relationship between that sign and their actual ability to search people? Does the sign make it so? Is it truly a status function declaration? Or is it somehow that they are able to do it anyways, but that the sign just lets us know?

Well, I think that the sign and the possibility for action are inseparable. It seems to me that the way all of us are behaving, all of this walking and buying in this airport, is inseparable from the existence of status functions.

But where did they begin? Because certainly that sign I saw wasn't the initial status function that made security officials able to search people. It happened before that. There was the original status function at some point that allowed this type of behavior to become institutionally legitimated.

I'm driving at a crucial point here that Collingwood has put on my mind: the unity between thought and action, the unity between language and action.

We all behave these ways, stand in these lines, be rude to one another, run through airports, because of the way that language has constituted our social reality.

Our actions line up with the status functions, the 'collective thoughts' (if I can call them that), that make up our social structure. We typically act within those lines. We stand in airports, we drive on the right side of the road, we pay our taxes, we get married. Our actions are governed by the things we think and the things that people around us think.

But what if we could think differently, would we also be able to act differently? It seems like it.

This is what I'm going to be writing about in 'art and status functions'. I'm going to be writing about how identifying status functions inevitably changes them and therefore changes our emotions and behavior.

But another point comes to mind, one that is Foucaultian. Specifically, it is a question that I think Foucault addressed in Discipline & Punish. In The Order Of Things Foucault established that it was language that mattered in constituting social knowledge, and it was the growing complexity of systems of language that allowed scientific discourses to have their social legitimacy. But then in D&P he took up the very serious question: If language constitutes social reality, then how do we explain the violent, coercive, purely physical elements of our social existence?

When your body is being torn apart or incarcerated words don't mean quite as much.

But how to reconcile those things? How to recognize the power of language to create social reality, to transform itself and our world at the same time, and to also see it as secondary to violence and coercion?

Well, I think that Foucault's answer has a lot to do with the way that language legitimates the use of coercion. This is the issue that I tried to handle in my 'Society's Implicit War' essays. The idea is that language and the creation of knowledge became a more effective way of coercing people. We no longer needed to rip apart criminals because we could articulate forms of knowledge that would exclude them from our social organization.

Searle also does some work on status functions and power.

It is such an important issue, this relationship between physical coercion and violence and the world of language. I wish I could say the world of 'mere words'.

But they are not mere words. They allow behavior to take place that destroys bodies and exhausts minds. Language structures our emotions, structures the movements of our bodies. There is a very intense and intimate relationship between language and violence.

Teasing those connections will likely take me a long time. But I think that Searle, Collingwood, and Foucault all have a piece to offer me.

Searle specifies the existence of status functions, shows me how language structures society.

Collingwood challenges me to recognize that there is a unity between thought and action, and that it is the task of moral philosophy to unify them.

And Foucault helps me understand that the world of physical violence and coercion needs to be analyzed in relation to the way that language structures social reality.

What a weird early morning piece of writing this is.

I look forward to being in Farmville in less than 18 hours.


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