Monday, February 27, 2017

Michel Foucault - "The Subject and Power": Pastoral Power - Summary (part 3)

(Read firsts parts one and two of the summary)

In "The Subject and Power" Michel Foucault relates the modern state's power to what he calls "pastoral power". This is a form of power which assures the redemption of the individual, accompanies his throughout his life, which asks to know not only what he does but also what he thinks and his inner secrets. Think for example of the Catholic confession. since the 18th century the Church is no longer what it used to be but this form of pastoral power hasn't gone with it, says Foucault , it was passed on to the state. States aren't just built "over the heads" of individuals but rather combine them into their structure. They offer individuality on condition that it is an individuality sanctioned by the establishment.

For Foucault, pastoral power, as manifested in the state, no longer aims to redeem people in the next life but rather to insure their well being in this life (their health, security etc.). In addition the state's pastoral power is not limited to institution but rather spreads to the whole social body (like the example of the family). Finally, Foucault says that this form of power generates two types of knowledge: knowledge about the population and knowledge about individuals.

In the final part of "The Subject and Power" Foucault distinguishes between two modern philosophic traditions: a universal one and a critical one. Universal philosophy tries to assert notions about man, Critical philosophy, on the other hand, does not ask "what is man" but rather "who are we at a given time". Towards the end of "The Subject and Power" Foucault offers to divert this question to "who can we be" while refusing "who we are", thus rejecting manners in which modern power structures determine who we are as individuals and as a groups. Political struggles according to Foucault should focus on promoting new modes of subjectivity and rejecting long imposed modes of individuality. If the subject is the product of power it follows that resisting power has to do with thinking of new forms of subjectivity (see for example Judith Butler's "Gender Trouble")  

More about Foucault:

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Michel Foucault - "The Subject and Power": Opposing Power and Subjection - Summary (part 2)

(This is part 2 of the summary, if you haven't done so, read part one of the summary first)

Michel Foucault's "The Subject and Power" describes the manner in which power relations determine subjects. In order to track these power relations he examines different strategies of resisting power. Foucault lists a few such struggles of his time like women resisting men's power, children resisting parents, patients resisting the medical establishment etc. and holds that they all share a few features.

1. They are not limited to one country or one political system.

2. Resistance is not directed at entire power fields but rather at the manner in which power is wielded within the field. For example, criticism of modern medicine does not denounce its profit driven motivation but rather the way it treats people while seeking profit.

3. These struggles are "immediate" in that that engage close by phenomena and not core issues, not the central enemy but the most adjacent one.

4. The struggles do not peruse and utopic future of some sort, which makes them according to Foucault anarchistic in nature.

5. These struggles question the statues of the individual. On the one hand they advocate for the right to be different and on the other they protest separation between people which binds them to binary identities (like the distinction between homo- and heterosexuals which drives them apart).

6. These struggles oppose knowledge and skills. On the one hand they protest the tyranny of knowledge (like with doctors and patients) and on the other hand the criticize the distortion or concealment of reality (a legacy from Marx's concept of ideology).

7. Finally, Foucault holds that all these struggles revolve around the question: who are we? they protest the state's administrative notion of "population" or "groups" and demand recognition as individuals.

The essential quality of all these struggles, says Foucault, is that they do not oppose a group or institution but rather a mode or "technique" of power. This mode is characterized by operating in the realm of daily life. It classifies individuals into categories, ties them to their identities, forces them to be recognized and the recognize themselves in accordance to a law of truth. Power, for Foucault, turns individuals into subjects (very similar to what Louis Althusser says).

According to Foucault in "The Subject and Power" you can distinguish three types of politic struggles: struggles against modes of control (e.g. religious, social etc.), struggles against forms of exploitations which separate people from the product of their labor (like the socialist/Marxist struggle) and struggles against different types of subordination which bring individuals under the power of others while creating subjectivity (what he calls "subjection").  Foucault holds that all these forms of opposition are prevalent throughout history but that the latter one is becoming the dominant mode of our time.

Foucault attributes this to the development of a new form of political power that appears in the 16th century. This mode of power is manifested in the state but it originates in a technique of power wielded by the Church. While the state is often viewed as favoring the interest of the whole over the individual, Foucault says it both "individualizes" and "totalizes" at the same time. That is, the state both groups people together and separates them from one another. Through this they grant them individuality which is in fact opposite to independent autonomy since it is determined from outside.
For Foucault this technique of power is based on what he calls "Pastoral power", which is a topic worthy of its own post, which will be part three of our summary of Foucault's "The Subject and Power".

Knowledge is power, get some:


Michel Foucault - "The Subject and Power" - Summary and review (part 1)

In "The Subject and Power" (1982) Michel Foucault summarizes his perceptions on the human subject and manner in which it is determined by power structures (offered in long detail in his previous works). Foucault (like other French philosophers of his time like Louis Althusser) rejects the humanist notion of a free and rational subject for a view of it as determined by a system of power relations. At the base of Foucault's view in "The Subject and Power" is the base assumption that power is not wielded through oppression but rather through the manufacturing of "individuals". Foucault notes the double meaning of "subject", both a self-aware topic of something and something which is controlled, subjected. Both of these meaning s intertwine in the manner Foucault analyses relations between the subject and power.

Foucault starts his description of power as  turning the subject into an object, an object of knowledge, of language and of the power which is mediated through them and that create subjects. He describes three manners of objectification which turn individuals into subjects. The first way is modes of inquiry aspiring to the status of science which produce "objective" knowledge about the subject, thus objectifying life itself. The second practice of objectification Foucault describes has to do with separation and distinction such as those drawn between mad and sane, criminals and law abiding citizens (notions offered in his "Discipline and Punish" or "Madness and Civilization").  The third mode of objectification has to with the manner in which individuals turn themselves into subjects by identifying themselves in relations to larger structures, like for example sexual orientation (discussed in Foucault's "History of Sexuality").

These processes are related according to Foucault to specific forms of political rationality, a mode of thinking described by Max Weber which is concerned with appropriating means to ends. This instrumental rationality, according to Weber, takes over modernity which seeks control over society (like Weber's example of bureaucracy. see also in our summary on Weber's rationality and modernism). But unlike Weber that described a general rationality as the markings of modernity, Foucault draws our attention to more specific types and modes of rationality which developed in different fields such as sexuality, psychiatry and science which he thinks predate modernity and even Enlightenment.

The next part of our summary of Michel Foucault's "The Subject and Power" will discuss how he analyses these power relations by examining different ways of resisting power (see also part 3 of the summary)

Knowledge is power, get some:


Monday, February 6, 2017

Short summary: Death of the Author - Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes's famous essay "The Death of the Author" (1967) is a meditation on the rules of author and reader as mediated by the text. Barthes's essential argument is that the author has no sovereignty over his own words (or images, sounds, etc.) that belong to the reader who interprets them. When we encounter a literary text, says Barthes, we need not ask ourselves what the author intended in his words but what the words themselves actually say. Text employ symbols which are deciphered by readers, and since function of the text is to be read, the author and process of writing is irrelevant.

"The death of the author" notion means that meaning is not something retrieved or discovered, having been there all the while, but rather something spontaneously generated in the process of reading a text, which is an active rather than passive action. Barthes does not intend to suggest that the death of the author lets any reader read any text any way he or she like (though others aside from Barthes perused this line of thought). What Barthes is suggesting is that reading always involves at least a little bit of writing or rewriting of the text's meaning.
Barthes's "The Death of the Author" is an attack on traditional literary criticism that focused too much on trying  to retrace the author's intentions and original meaning in mind. Instead Barthes asks us to adopt a more text oriented approach that focuses on the interaction of the reader, not the writer, with it. This means that the text is much more open to interpretation, much more fluid in its meaning than previously thought.       
See additional summaries of works by Roland Barthes:

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De Saussure - The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign - summary

An important part of Ferdinand de Saussure's linguist theory in "Course in General Linguistics" is what he terms "The arbitrary nature of the Sign". Following his discussion about the nature of the linguistic sign de Saussure argues that the relations between the absolute majority of signifies to signified is arbitrary. With the small exception of onomatopoeia (words that sound like what they refer to) There is no imperative connection between words and their meanings. This can be easily proved through the fact that different languages have different words to refer to the same things.

The arbitrary nature of the sign or the arbitrariness of the sign doesn't mean that it is false or that you can just use any word you want to refer to whatever you want. What is does mean is that language is a self contained structure built on inner relations between words as opposed to external relations between words and things. One interesting implication of the arbitrary nature of the sign is that language is not built to meet a preexisting reality, but rather the other way around.

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Ferdinand de Saussure - langue and parole - Explanation and Summary

Central to Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic theory introduced in "Course in General Linguistics" is the distinction between "langue" and "parole". For de Saussure, langue (language) is the abstract structure or system of conveying meaning while parole (speech) is the particular use of language (somewhat but not completely similar to Noam Chomsky's linguistic competence and performance). De Saussure gives the example of Chess, the game which exists as a set a rules and functions (langue) with endless possibilities to be played out (parole).   

The importance of de Saussure's distinction starts in the fact that langue obviously determines any possible parole. While parole is individual langue exists only as a social entity that no one has any full control over. Since it precedes parole, langue should be in de Saussure's view the focus of linguistic inquiry. But parole is still important since it is only through the idiosyncratic manifestations of speech (parole) that we can access the langue.

The distinction between langue and parole is also important since it is central to de Saussure's structuralist view of language as a self contained system of signification. Chess exists before any actual game and it's not up to the players do decide on the rules. If you try to play checkers with Chess pieces no one will be able or want to play with you, that is you will not be understood. But when we play Chess, or use language, it's not about the pieces by themselves but their perspective relationships within the context of the game's setting and rules. This leads us to how de Saussure thinks of language as a system of inner relations between words that relate to each other and not referential reality (see The arbitrary nature of the Sign) . This means that to anything we say there is an underlying structure which determines its possibility.

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