Thursday, July 20, 2006

 

Sex and Power at Disneyworld!

The Happy Panopticon


At Crooked Timber, the question is asked, was Foucault secretly a Habermasian? Tongue in cheek, but also semi-seriously. Without getting into the whole argument (read the post and thread if that's your thing), this caught my attention:
To me, Foucault is a little like Bourdieu – his theory of power is less valuable as an abstraction than as a method; an intellectual tool for critiquing social practices that we would otherwise take for granted. But for a critique to really work, it should hint (at the very least) at a vision of how things might be better if they were organized differently. The Foucault of Discipline and Punish isn’t entirely the Foucault who wrote The Order of Things and is more attractive for it (just as the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire is more attractive and complicated than the Marx of the Grundrisse).
Foucault and Bourdieu are not often mentioned together, at least in the States. I think part of the reason is to do with an assumed distinction between "method," as the CT post calls it, and capital-T Theory. Foucault and Bourdieu don't necessarily work well together as Theory, perhaps because of the pressure that you first start to feel in grad school to sort of pick your theorist to be loyal to like you'd pick a football team to root for. But for practical purposes I see no reason why various aspects of what they say about specific social and political modalities can't be used in a complementary way to illuminate a particular issue or phenomenon in literature or history or literary history or whatever. The question is, what do you put first, the work to be done or the theoretical theorizing? I've always thought it was the work before all, and then you install the theory to support it, as it were, or, maybe a better image, to help you examine and reweave the knots as you untangle them. (I mostly lean towards Bourdieu myself, but really, my work on censorship owes a lot to Foucault, whose insights on sexuality and repression are more or less right on and indispensible for my project.)

This is why I'm a bit suspicious of the remark that "for a critique to really work, it should hint (at the very least) at a vision of how things might be better if they were organized differently." I don't see why; if a theory helps one produce a compelling description, that is a fairly major accomplishment. Description, I've come to somewhat sourly observe, is rather a lost virtue in the humanities. More of a premium is placed on arguments that are directed at ambitions such as "liberation," or an overthrow of the patriarchy, or an end to neocolonialism. Not that these aren't worthy goals. I just could never get my head around how an analysis of the minor works of Walter Scott was supposed to advance them particularly. (My dyspepsia here is genuine, though my more patient readers will be perhaps recognize the comedy of the fact that this has been my position for literally years in the light of certain of my recent online adventures. Oh well, what the hell.) Anyway, I don't like the notion that the ultimate value of criticism lies in its ability to point a way forward to a better future for all humanity. This strikes me as the ghost of Arnoldian sweetness and light knocking feebly at the door. Ah... that's maybe too harsh. I really have no beef with progressive literary analysis. I just stubbornly refuse to concede to it the capacity to ultimately judge what is and is not good theory or analysis. If that makes sense. And if it does, drop me a line, and explain it to me...

Oh, and yes, Disneyworld. (I admit, I used the word "sex" in the title of the post purely to titillate. I am SO ashamed.) ANY-way, a brief aside here:

Is it not obvious that the architecture of Foucault's Discipline and Punish is precisely the inverse of that of the EPCOT Center attraction Spaceship Earth? Disney sees the emergence of new communications technologies, such as video cameras and computers in every home in the world, all connected to a central "Network Operations" command center, as profoundly liberating, in that in the future it can help your extremely blond kids talk about karate with some prepubescent Japanese girl with an accent like she grew up in Scarsdale (I'm not making this up). Foucault was perhaps somewhat more skeptical of these sorts of technological advances.

Comments:
You're getting into literary theory again. That means you're about to be called mean names by rather tall 5 year olds.

Meanwhile, having just read Billmon's comments on our fearless leader's grand strategic vision, this comment caught my eye:

"I've always thought it was the work before all, and then you install the theory to support it, as it were, or, maybe a better image, to help you examine and reweave the knots as you untangle them."

Be nice if the people in charge would worry more about doing some of the hard work before they set off to prove another one of their grand theories, wouldn't it?
 
That last bit is what bugs me about the otherwise good people at WorldChanging. They talk on and off about the advent of a "participatory panopticon," which is supposed to liberate us in various ways. Granted, there have been some cases where the ubiquity of small recording devices helped to prosecute thuggish police, or what have you. But failing to recognize who has the ultimate advantage, and that the overall idea does more harm than good in any case, is a serious mistake, as I've argued here and here. Among other things, I worry that "democratizing" inconspicuous surveillance techniques is going to have far more uncomfortable consequences for women than for a handful of corrupt officials.

My most favoritist idea, though, is spying on people and then selling them the tapes. Disney would've hit on it sooner or later, I betcha.

As for the part about "hinting at a vision of how things might be better," I agre...that's just silly. Whether or not a critique "really works" - whatever that's supposed to mean - depends on any number of things that are completely beyond the author's control. And of course, a false vision offered as a solution to an accurately described problem can be worse than no solution at all.
 
Is it not obvious that the architecture of Foucault's Discipline and Punish is precisely the inverse of that of the EPCOT Center attraction Spaceship Earth?

You are Slavoj Zizek, and I claim my five Slovenian krudnuks.

Anyway, I see Foucault as the descendent of Bachelard and Canguilhem, and don't quite place Bourdieu in that milieu.
 
The problem of theory and practice (or praxis, as they wanted us to learn to call it in seminary; every discipline has its jargon, the better to represent its portion of the conspiracy against the laity): it's a very Anglo-Saxon one, as British-American thought is rooted in empiricism.

The ghost of Hume simply will not go away.

French thought is rooted in rhetoric. Not for some obscure and vaguely racist reason, but because the French educational system is founded on rhetoric. So it is very comfortable with abstraction. This is why phenomenology (existentialism, deconstruction) are so thoroughly French. And why German phenomenologists (with their emphasis on the scholastic approach) are so difficult to understand: they try to root the ephemeral notion of "being" in a European tradition of, well, scholasticism (had I but world enough, and time, and more space than a comment allows!).

Foucault is not interested in results, as you point out, so much as explanation. I've always liked Foucault because his point was not even critique (I think CT misses the point there, but understandably so): it was analysis. For Foucault, "these are the conditions that prevail," and understanding them clearly, is enough.

"Fixing them" is, frankly, a foreign concept. Derrida has the same approach (although in a radically different direction): he's not interested in "fixing" anything, just explaining it clearly, removing the illusions we have about what we know and how we know it.

Which is what makes deconstruction so difficult to grasp. The same is true of phenomenology, of course; as Heidegger observed, in a rare moment of clarity, "being" is a very slippery concept.
 
Years ago in a feminist theory class I integrated a critique using Habermas and Foucault. Since my two interests are citizenship/civil rights and sexual politics -- I've found both useful.

Of course, I use theorists in a fast and loose way - and I'm sure I don't understand the nuances of both of them. Habermas, for example, was bad at talking about feminist issues & the public sphere. And Foucault - well, I'm sure that he'd disagree violently with some of the ways I'm using his ideas. Ah well.
 
I use theorists in a fast and loose way

Um, could you use me in a fast and loose way?

NTodd, Theorist
 
If you put Emerson in a centrifuge and spin it a few times you get Habermas. Demonstrated that in a thesis trying to unlock the door to doctoral work and got the door slammed in my face, twice. The second time it was punctuated with the news that Ivy league rejects needed the air I'd been breathing.
 
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