Search results for "michel-foucault "

The question of identity

Author: joe

Tuesday, 20 November, 2012 - 22:09

One of the concerns that arises in the analysis of the relationship between selfhood and computerised media is a focus on authenticity. There is a tension that arises between the various personae that people are able to adopt in any given situation and the centripetal force that unites them in some supposed inner core. The relative status of these different personae - the extent to which they have fidelity with respect to the "primary source" of the "inner core", or the extent to which they perhaps mislead other inter-actors as to the true nature of that "real person", or even threaten the supposed integrity of the authentic self, is instantiated in the very functionality and interface of the computer screen which permits the same "logged-in, authenticated user" to adopt pseudonymous guises in online environments that can be slipped in and out of, framed as they are by windows one can "cycle through".

The people that Turkle describes, who find in the windowed interface a serendipitous enactment of their sense of their plural selves might, as Zizek puts it, be enabled to "discover new aspects of 'me', a wealth of shifting identities, of masks without a 'real' person behind them". In the postmodern world of simulation, where we as subjects trust in the fantasies presented on the digital screen rather than become modernist masters of the inner workings of the device, (the technics), instead we should "endorse this 'dissemination' of the unique self into a multiplicity of competing agents, into a 'collective mind'" and appropriate the logic of the "'decentred' subject".

Zizek provides a number of analogies for thinking about the efficacy of the production or construction of the decentred self, albeit that it might involve an "immanent violence and arbitrariness" since it has no authentic hinterland to which it must pay some sort of deference. Capra's film "Meet John Doe" portrays a character who adopts a "fake identity" but learns to adopt the subject position that the role demands of its actor. The cultural landscape is awash with imaginative explorations of the consequences of identity play, and in many of those story experiments, the narrative is resolved only when the protagonist learns to accept the identity which was at first mere play or a reluctant contingency. In "Sommersby", the interloper who adopts the identity of Jack demonstrates the fullness of his sincerity by accepting the penalty of death that is its price. The transience of identity necessary for persons to "become someone else" has its corollary in the tradition of fictions in which disguised characters become the object of some lover's affection, only for those affections to switch target as the disguise is revealed or passed along: in Twelfth Knight, Olivia easily accepts Sebastian as a husband despite having fallen in love with his disguised sister Viola, suggesting that accepting someone for who they appear to be is a perfectly adequate strategy.

Such ways of thinking about the self are clearly in contrast to traditional conceptions in which an authentic, continuous self acts as a guarantor of identity. Odysseus' testing of Penelope by adopting a disguise is an early instance of the depiction of a "true" identity which should be immune to the vicissitudes of changing circumstance or outer appearance. Woolf's “Orlando” is another case where a distinct and unitary identity both survives and underpins a shifting collection of personae and genders, adopted in dramatic episodic shifts. The protagonist's picaresque adventures are intertwined with the trope of 'The Oak Tree', the work which Orlando eventually completes, and which acts both as the "spine of the earth" and as the embodiment of change as it "flowered and faded so often", as it had over many years, "put forth its leaves and shaken them to the ground".

Erving Goffman provides useful tools for thinking about the shifting personae that we adopt. Using a dramaturgical model as the context for understanding interpersonal interactions, Goffman suggests that in any given situation we are actors on stage, a context which entails the existence of an audience whose observation of us is a primary structuring factor in our self-awareness. While on such stages, we stick to particular scripts - those we have learned, through normal processes of socialisation, which are appropriate to the context.

Such performances, enacted under the consciousness of observation, occur where Goffman calls front ‘stage’ or ‘region’ – the situation in which ‘act out’ the appropriate sorts of behaviours that we know are expected of us. Distinct from the ‘front’ region is a corresponding ‘back’ region – where alternative modes of performance can occur. Note though that this ‘back-stage’ situation need not be thought of as the refuge of the true or authentic inner self which can express itself away from the gaze of the audience: the back region is rather ambiguous, since it is commonly co-habited by fellow-performers who are also part of our ‘team’, also ‘letting their hair down’; and it is also a place where habituation can result in back-stage scripts becoming every bit as socialised in our behaviour as the formulae we follow front-stage. The back can be though of as just another front.

This dramaturgical metaphor opens the way to anti-essentialist conceptions of selfhood: contrary to traditional notions of the dimensions of our identity that have been considered to be stable, material and inescapable - sexuality, gender, kinship, race – not to mention the tangible common sense that we ‘are who we are’ (‘I am that I am’) – there is no inner core as such, but a constantly evolving and self-monitoring sense of self whose coherence is the subject of constant vigilence – either of ourselves or of circumscribing institutional and social apparatuses and their many ‘techniques’. It is only in the light of such possibilities that Butler could articulate the trouble with gender, and suggest that discursive formations of selfhood are anterior to the traditional material considerations of physiology and instrumental knowledge practices.


Categories: identity, performance, authenticity, front, back, queer theory, Goffman, Turkle, Zizek, Butler, Foucault, selfhood,
Comments: 2

A History of Madness... ii

Author: joe

Monday, 21 May, 2007 - 22:27

The incommensurability of epistemes [a History of Madness... i] and some moot questions: is the past not only a foreign country, but the story of what might as well be another species? And in any case, how would we know?

The thesis is: as societies develop new ways of knowing the world - such as Enlightenment principles, rationalism and science - new epistemes arise which mark a profound break with the past. This throws into chaos the Whig theory of history, and any sense of teleological progress - whether Hegelian or Marxian. It also implicitly renders such rationalism and scienticity equally subject to future overhaul and justified revolt. It forces us to confront the rise of 'ways of knowing' as manifestations of the 'will to power', if not merely the 'will to will'. And it opens all humanities types who inherit this intellectual hinterland to the criticism that they are postmodern relativists and, therefore, cowards.

I don't quite understand this criticism myself. Today I heard Clive James offering up a precis of his latest book on Start the Week, Cultural Amnesia (the 'fate' of liberal democracies). He described Jean-Paul Sartre as 'the villain of the piece', saying that as an intellectual, his ideas offered comfort to extremists on both the right and the left, Nazis and Stalinists, in the middle of the 20th century; but he also offered the disclaimer that he picked on Sartre because, of all the relevant intellectuals, he hadn't been vilified as much as others. Quite apart from wondering why appropriations of Sartre's version of existentialism are necessarily to be laid at his door, it does imply the vilification is simply a case of it being 'his turn'.

James' book looks worth reading, but his off-the-cuff remarks point at a common tendency to ravage intellectuals of the last half of the 20th century for the flimsiest of reasons. In any case, no-one I've ever come across has persuaded me that any anti-foundationalist argument, whether based on Foucault, Sartre or Derrida, inevitably leads to the collapse of anything at all. Actually it seems to me that to rely on some 'universal principle' - whether God, morality or evolutionary imperative - is intellectually bankrupt, since it ultimately requires argument from authority - faith in something beyond comprehension.

The attacks on Foucault's ideas, however, are based this time on less flimsy reasons, and it requires some sophistry to argue the case for or against. The argument is that Foucault's historiography is flawed, lazy, incompetent and ultimately inaccurate. His example of the ship of fools, which was supposed to be a floating asylum, sailing up and down the rivers of central Europe, and which Foucault claimed was much more than a mere symbolic notion dreamed up in art and story, was in fact precisely an allegory rather than a fact, and no such loony vessel ever hove into any medieval port.

It is claimed, then, that such oversights, or incompetencies if you prefer, render the other claims Foucault makes redundant. If the man couldn't even manage the basic task of accurate historical research, why should we pay any mind to the conclusions which he bases on such inadequate foundations?

It is a very good question: if we want to understand the functions and mechanisms of history and of knowledge, surely we should at least start by getting the facts right? But then, if Foucault is right, then perhaps our demand for methodological coherence, evidence and facts is just another symptom of the episteme we found ourselves operating in. Perhaps the attack on Foucault is exemplary of the competition between kinds of knowledge, an expression of the will to power of those who come after.

And perhaps my distrust of argument from authority is just a symptom of my existence at a point in time? The question is, how could we tell? What is my method?

Categories: michel-foucault, knowledge, episteme, epistemology, history-of-madness, enlightenment, postmodernism, whig-interpretation-of-history,
Comments: 4

A History of Madness... i

Author: joe

Monday, 14 May, 2007 - 23:34

A new edition of Foucault's A History of Madness (previously translated as Madness and Civilisation) was published earlier in the year, and there has been some notable turbulence in its wake. Foucault, (along with Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, Kristeva) seems often to be a lightning rod for the different sections of the left who were split in the culture wars in the US in the 90s, and more recently for the scientific disciplines' criticisms of contemporary humanities - the lack of rigour, and indeed, the lack of attention to 'reality' itself. Meanwhile those same critics are often referred to by Foucauldian sympathisers, rather disparagingly, as members of 'the reality based community', as though anchoring oneself in an objective world were naive and unintellectual, rather than an obvious choice.

I don't intend to attempt to resolve any of the antipathies here, or even to single out the likeliest candidate for 'correspondence to truth'. This piece of reflection is simply a working through. Much of my time is, besides, spent explaining the relevance of Foucault to undergraduate media students, a task which is itself not without some irony. More to the point, I'm currently embarking on a (currently nebulous) research project, which will involve attempting to unite various domains of knowledge which range from rhetoric, hermeneutics and creativity to health and physiology. As part of my search for and resolution of an appropriate research methodology, it seems a good idea to grasp what it is about Foucault that polarises scholars and their disciplines so much.

In order to complete my bachelor's degree in Eng Lit, I sat, amongst interminable others, an exam on medieval literature, for which I later discovered I scored a distinction. I remember distinctly one of the essays I wrote was a response to a question along the lines of: what is the relevance of medieval literature (I think it referred specifically to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls) to contemporary society?

I responded confidently with my assertion that the nature of human experience is no different today than it was in the 14th century. While the complexity and number of cultural 'things' may have increased, and there may be more 'units of meaning' in the world today than there were then, though many social values may have changed, though the way society is structured may have evolved - nevertheless, what it means to be a human being has not. We still are born into a world as humans, experience it as only humans can, and die a human death as an unavoidable symptom of living. While there may be worlds of nurture and convention between me, Chaucer, Plato and Ugh the caveman, if we all somehow came together in some timeless place, we would look at each other with recognition.

We are defined, I argued, by our species. The challenges, both philosophical and sociological, involved in living together as creatures with will and freedom, desires and sympathies, have not permuted. The compromises of rule and negotiation are constant; the paradoxes of society and the individual are immutable; the human instinct to compete, and our propsensity towards altruism, do not alter from one generation to the next. Humanity, while it may be a temporary phenomenon on the face of the earth, is in itself an eternal thing. Hence, (I argued with reference to some talking birds), the challenges of Chaucer's protagonists are the challenges of our own brothers and sisters, and therefore of ourselves.

At the time I imagined I got the distinction because my argument was sound. Now I think I got it because my argument was conservative, and met with approval. It was a British answer, sound in the face, back in the early nineties, of French post-structuralists. I remember it must have been 1992 when I got my first lecture on deconstruction, delivered by a young turk of a lecturer, rather than any of the old grandees who prefered to keep their fragrant noses in Shakespeare and Hardy.

It seemed to me that this view was unassailable; and of course, I will now problematise it, though I may still leave it unassailable: the question is not simply, what if I were wrong, but also, how would we know? And even if humanity at base were the same, if we say that social values have changed, how can we dissociate those changed values from measuring whether our nature were the same? What does it mean for two human beings to have a similar nature, but see the world in entirely different ways? Mightn't we just as well be members of different species? If our values and hence ways of apprehending the world metaphysically are incommensurably altered, what can we possibly share, except a physiology, which we're unlikely to bring together, unless by force, since we clearly have no common values through which to court?

In the other, Borges tells the story of how he, as an old man in his 70s, finds himself sitting on a bench with a young man who turns out to be himself, 50 years earlier. As we may think, the child is father to the man, but whether we consider the youth or the elder as the leading edge of a man moving into the transdimensionality of potential, it turns out that nowhere can they commune, or establish a point of common recognition - even with oneself there can be no intersubjectivity:

"Half a century does not pass in vain. Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike... Either to offer advice or to argue was pointless..." (Borges, 1979, p9)


Borges, J. L., 1979, 'the other' in The Book of Sand, (London: Penguin)

Categories: michel-foucault, epistemology, knowledge, human-nature, jorge-luis-borges, history-of-madness, working-through, endlessly self-similar universe,
Comments: 0

April is the Pantagruelist month

Author: joe

Monday, 30 April, 2007 - 22:27

Some silence - due to reading.

I'm trying to zone in on an appropriate methodology to explore relationships between health, therapy, media production and creativity. As someone who has always had one-and-a-half feet in the humanities, a toe in the natural sciences, and the rest of my metatarsals in a world of bullshit, it is kind of tricky to decide on a methodology to pursue research which will speak to non-objectivist, phenomenological concerns, while managing to deflect the scorn of positivist cognitivism, and striving to stay somewhere on the left.

It just so happens that a number of the writers I've been reading also intersect with literary theory, which is the other subject I've been brushing up: it seems as though our school is going to start offering English as a joint honours subject with various flavours of media production. I've been unblunting my literary memory on Berube's recommended curriculum, the literary website 'The Valve' and - something I intend to write about here very soon - the reception of the recent edition of Foucault's History of Madness. Meanwhile it was a fabulous pleasure to hear Robert Hampson, my old tutor in English and world expert on Conrad, talking to Melvin Bragg about the Heart of Darkness on Radio 4 recently. Crack open any act of charity, he concluded, and you reveal the will to power. I'm glad he never said that to me when I was an undergraduate because I would have had no fucking idea wot he ment.

Categories: theory, methodology, Nietzsche, Foucault,
Comments: 0

Symbolic Exchange and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 11 March, 2007 - 23:10

I was 17 when the Berlin wall was flooded over by hordes of retro 80s-permed East-Germans. I was at the house of my first girl-friend and it may not be unconnected that I believed that I lived in a world where things got better with time - that we're on some (as I only later learned cynically to call it) Hegelian journey to an ever better world.

I was 26 when I finally sat down and got my head around Paul Rabinow's presentation of Chomsky vs Foucault and (as he saw it) their opposing views of the examinability of human nature. By this time I was corroded enough to be swept along by Foucault's deconstruction of the institutional motives behind every instance of human discourse, but intellectually curious enough to wonder whether Chomsky wasn't onto something with his fundamentally structuralist proposition that human nature might be a knowable thing.

I'm not sure that being 34 and watching Adam Curtis's latest adventure into televisual propaganda that is 'The Trap' will be as seminal, but it is worth comment right now. I love his programmes, but in a somewhat problematic elitist manner, I have 'issues' with this one.

Before watching I heard at least two radio reviews of it in which it was praised for being intelligent for TV, but damned for its flaws in polemic. However, in watching it I was unprepared for my over-riding response - which was that it was surprising that Foucault would make such good telly.

Televisually it is journalism - not gonzo, but nevertheless featurish in its one-sidedness - but as close to polyphony as TV gets, with its intersection between (unattributed and frustratingly unverifiably quoted) images and deterministically argued voiceover.

As a media lecturer it is hard to escape the feeling that this is going to be a great clip to illustrate the Foucauldian relationship between discourse and power, especially in relation to the psychiatric industry's will to legitimacy. The downer in all this though, is the sick feeling at the back of my throat that, not unlike the discourses Curtis damns, this is an egregious example of manipulation and self-serving ellipsis of the worst kind - possibly inescapable due to the simulative medium for which it was made (can't let my distaste for TV pass by without comment), but partly too, of course, because Curtis can't afford a dissenting voice.

If anyone with half a grasp of political history were to be interviewed with full knowledge of Curtis's agenda, they would necessarily point out that his notion that John Nash is the cause of modern woes is ludicrous; his example of the prisoner dilemma is as far from the usual prisoner's dilemma as you could get; the idea that the psychiatric profession's attempt to gain legitimacy in the 80s was an attempt at a 'new kind of control' is a desperate form of amnesia; and his conflation of rationality and impersonality is deeply simplistic.

Curtis problematised Nash's version of game theory by presenting his schizophrenia, but his argument that his equations went on to become the basis for an era of cold war politics is unsubstantiated. The prisoner dilemma as most of us know it shows that collaboration is a better strategy than betrayal, even if for selfish motives - and in the so-called deterministic world of the gene, what is the difference between selfishness and selfish altruism? Neither selfishness nor altruism exist at the mathematical level that game theory addresses. The psychiatric industry was exposed in Foucault's genealogy of the doctrine as being the will to power from its inception in the Enlightenment - far from a new thing in the 80s. And finally, since rationality, as predicated on human logic, is merely a constructed, self-negating reflexive system, recognised now by most mathematical and scientific methodologies, to portray it as somehow 'inhuman' is stereotypical and simple.

However, to conclude in as elitist a fashion as I began, I recommend this programme to anyone who hasn't yet realised that the world is not getting better as we hurtle inevitably towards the implosion predicted by last weeks' obituary filler, your friend and mine, Jean Baudrillard. I await with interest to hear what exactly 'The Trap' is, if it is not that we tend to unquestioningly believe what the TV tells us, whether the voice is a manipulative politician, or a manipulative film-maker.

Categories: adam-curtis, jean-baudrillard, TV, propaganda, michel-foucault, freedom, manipulation, game-theory,
Comments: 2

Enlightenment

Author: joe

Thursday, 16 February, 2006 - 00:53

Last Sunday morning I went to the British Museum's exhibition on the Enlightenment. I found it a quite profound experience, and only partly because I'd had only 3 hours' kip :)

Seeing Linneaus' sketches of different kinds of plants and the way he developed a taxonomy to describe them is just an awesome thing - a whole collection of people, who devoured swathes of their lives in the pursuit of finding ways to organise and explain the world.

Of course, in a fairly reflexive way, the museum draws attention to their part in some of the things we tend to criticise about the Enlightenment - the cultural imperialism, orientalism, the use of Classical Art as a yard-stick by which to measure the cultural achievement of other cultures, the plunder of riches, the subjugation of nations...

But nevertheless, man! what people they were. The orreries are something to see - and imagine trying to build your own astrolabe. I dare anyone to find the maker of an astrolabe and tell them they're misguided imperialists exercising arbitrary discursive power over oppressed peoples.

Pondering this, I came home and reread Foucault's essay, 'What is Enlightenment' (hey it's my job, okay!). Something struck me in a way it hadn't before - Foucault talks of the 'modern' perspective as being transformational, about the way in which the real becomes 'more than real', the beautiful 'more than beautiful', and the changing interplay between the constraints of reality, and the exercise of freedom.

Seeing those fossils, not just the literal fossils displayed there, but the fossilised remains of a era which totally transformed the real world and man's freedom within it, really made me admire them even more.

I recommend it :)

Categories: enlightenment, exhibition, museum, reason, classicism, Foucault, Linnaeus,
Comments: 4