Subjectification of Foucault

My love affair with Foucault goes way back. Joseph Campbell is said to have spent five years (1929–1934) living in a shack, engaged in intensive and rigorous independent study. In my dreams, I’d spend five years with Foucault, Galen Strawson, and David Guignion.

Michel Foucault is likely the most well-known of these three, and I’ve written a few Galen Strawson-related posts lately, but who the hell is David Guignion? I’ll tell you. David is a PhD philosophy student studying conspiracy theories if his bio is up to date and otherwise relevant. I’ve shared some of his content and insights over the years.

The reason I love David is that he introduces me to contemporary philosophers I had not been aware of as well as material or perspectives on classical philosophers to broaden my horizons. I think it’s safe to say that David and I are both Foucault fanboys. Hell, I don’t even have a tee shirt with Foucault’s likeness, so he’s even ahead of me in that game.

So, where’s this all leading, you ask. And I’m glad you did. A couple of days ago David posted a clip on YouTube called Michel Foucault’s “The Subject and Power”. I was drawn to the mention of Foucault, but I decided not to visit. I get so many distractions on my anti-agency endeavour—and that’s not even accounting for the sheer quantity of research—, and I didn’t need yet another. But the synchronicity was determined.

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I decided that I’d just let the video play as I fell into slumber. Spoiler Alert: That never happened. Topic after topic caught my ear, and it took all of my will to not get out of bed and start reading and writing. But it was almost 4 am, so that worked in favour of remaining supine—though alternately prostrate.

Kumi Yamashita, Building Blocks (2014)

My thesis is that the free will versus determinism or indeterminism debate is not inherently critical to the agency versus structure debate. My position is that agency has little breathing room and no material degrees of freedom to matter. Foucault’s subjectification or subjectivation makes the same argument. In effect, this is an argument about structure over agency. It’s about conscious and unconscious forces to conform. Full disclosure, I identify most as an indeterminist, but in the end, I don’t think it much matters. I disclose this being it may provide a clue as to how I ended up here—of my own free will, it goes without saying.

I’m not going to summarise David’s summary because you can just watch his clip for yourself. But the gist of it is that we are all subjectivised or moulded. Foucault tries to convince us that this is the crux of his decades of teaching, but to me, it still comes down to power—to the pressure that creates these diamonds. Diamonds have no free will; they just become diamonds. And so it goes for humans cum subjects.

Not to come across like Rousseau, but I am still interested in understanding what happens to those outside of this sphere of influence.


Cover Image Credit

Kumi Yamashita

BUILDING BLOCKS  2014
H200, W300, D10 cm
Carved wood, single light source, shadow
Permanent Collection Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo, Japan

Under the Influence

Galen Strawson is my latest male crush. With almost everything I read or hear from him, I say, ‘that’s what I think’, over and over and over again. So I thought I’d share some of my journey to now. I made a post about female influences not too long ago. This is a bit different.

My first obsession, let’s say was the Beatles. I can’t pinpoint precisely when, but when I was a child, it’s been said that I would sing ‘she’s got a chicken to ride’ when it came on to AM radio. I asked for or bought all of their albums, and read everything about them that a kid could get his hands on back in the day. This obsession lasted for years and overlaps some of my next interests. My interests were in John Lennon’s political interests and George Harrison’s spiritual interests. I didn’t really find Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr very interesting beyond their musical abilities. And to be honest, I also got all of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and so on. At my peak, I had over a thousand vinyl records—all lost in a house fire because vinyl and heat are generally incompatible. Paper didn’t fare much better, as I lost hundreds of books, too. A lesson in impermanence.

I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist

In grades 5 to 8, National Socialism and World War II were fascinating to me. Not Hitler, per se, though I do recall reading Mein Kampf at the time. There was just something about the sense of unity. Upon reflection, I realised that this meant me conforming to some other trend, and that was no longer interesting, as I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist, so there was that.

At some point, I came across Voltaire’s Candide and it just struck me. This may have commenced me on my path to becoming somewhat of a francophile. I extended my interest into the language and culture. My WWII phase has already primed that pump. I remember reading Dumas, Hugo, and some Descartes.

After I graduated, I was a recording engineer and musician. I remember reading Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony and being enamoured with Dvořák and Stravinsky. I was influenced by many musicians, engineers, and producers, but there was just something about Schoenberg.

I went through a Kafka phase—that eventually included Donald Barthelme. His Absurdism was a nice foundation for my subsequent interest in Camus. It was something that just resonated with me. After Kafka, I discovered Dostoyevsky and consumed everything of his I could get my hands on.

I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor

In the 1990s, I discovered Carl Jung and eventually Joseph Campbell and a few years I spent reading Jung’s Complete Works and peripheral material related to Archetypal and Depth Psychology. I absorbed the material. I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor, but it never really resonnated beyond this.

Somehow, this experience led me to the Existentialism of Sartre (and Camus and Beauvoir). At the same time something clicked with me, I was always put off by the teleological imperative these guys seemed to insist upon—Sartre’s political involvement and Camus’ insistence on Art. These were their paths—and I certainly had an interest in Art and Politics—, but I felt this was too prescriptive.

For a brief time, I really liked Hume (and Spinoza), but then I discovered Nietzche and felt compelled to read his major works. It all made sense to me. It still does. Nietsche set me up for Foucault with his power relationships and the sense that morality, good, and evil are all socially constructed and contextual.

And Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power. These two still resonate with me. I investigated a lot of postmodern thinkers after this.

Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power

Daniel Dennett came next. He seems brilliant, and I tend to agree with most of what he says. I was still absorbing. Where biologist Robert Sapolsky gets philosophical, it’s about the same.

But Galen Strawson is different. And I have a lot of catching up to do in my reading of his direct work. The difference is that with these prior influences, I was absorbing and synthesising—creating my own perspectives and worldview. By the time I am finding Strawson, with every encounter, I am ticking off boxes.

  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think

Only, he started publishing in the 1960s. I could have been reading his work all along. Since I agree with 99.999 per cent of what I get from him and he is such a deep thinker, I am looking for two things:

  1. Something that expands rather than confirms
  2. Some spaces to operate that he has missed or ignored

As I continue on my Anti-Agency project and gather more inputs and perspectives, I’ll be considering a lot of Strawson. Here’s a clip I really enjoyed. I am thinking of doing a sort of reaction piece, but whether or not that happens, here’s the source.

[Video] Galen Strawson — Is Free Will a Necessary Illusion?

Spoiler Alert: I believe that free will is a cognitive bias related to apophenia. It’s a Gestalt heuristic.

Descriptive Postmodernism

I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended Postmodernism (PoMo) from attack, so I am publishing this, so I can link to it. Perhaps I am not defending PoMo, but my flavour of it, but I’ve read a lot of work published by the usual suspects—some who eschew being lumped into a poorly defined category—or at least a nebulous category.

Before I get too far, I also want to remind the reader to take care to separate the philosophy from the person. One popular attack is the conflating of identity politics and social justice advocacy as PoMo phenomena. In fact, I consider myself to be PoMO—to be defined here in a moment—and a social justice warrior (SJW), this despite contesting the very notion of identity to begin with.

By definition, a summary is a reduction of some thing, but one needs to be careful not not arrive at reductio ad absurdum. Where appropriate, one may also wish to differentiate postmodernism with postructuralism. So as not to create a definition partir de rien, I’ll reference other accessible versions. A critic may disagree with these definitions, but they will serve as the foundation of my position and vantage.

Wikipedia gives us this definition (their reference links retained):

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of scepticismirony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us this

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/

Notice the commonalities. PoMo is a descriptive, critical activity. It’s descriptive. As language and grammar can be approached descriptively of prescriptively, so can philosophy. Some ‘schools’ do both. PoMo is exclusively descriptive. PoMo was born as a reaction to Modernism, especially the unstated foundations labelled by Lyotard as metanarratives—the grand narratives and underlying ideologies of prevailing beliefs that were uncritically taken for granted, many of which that were formed or catalysed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Jean-François Lyotard defined philosophical postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition, writing “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives….”[4] where what he means by metanarrative is something like a unified, complete, universal, and epistemically certain story about everything that is. Postmodernists reject metanarratives because they reject the concept of truth that metanarratives presuppose. Postmodernist philosophers in general argue that truth is always contingent on historical and social context rather than being absolute and universal and that truth is always partial and “at issue” rather than being complete and certain.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy

My defence is that PoMo cannot be for social justice or engage in identity, as it has no positive position on these. It functions to critically deconstruct. People unfamiliar with PoMo concepts often misunderstand this notion of deconstruction. All to often, I see people criticise Derrida for his brand of Deconstruction, but that only illustrates the fact that they never read or simply misunderstand what Derrida means by Deconstruction. Perhaps, I’ll elaborate on that in future.

My point is that PoMo is corrosive—like lye. It eats away at ideologies, dissolves them. It is not meant to construct anything. So where does this constructive expectation come from? It derives primarily from two places.

Modernism

Most people casting dispersion are modernists. They need to construct things. To be fair, this perspective has been an evolutionary advantage, but some people can’t allow a bunch of Lego pieces to remain unconstructed. This is fine, but you need another tool to perform this task. It’s not PoMo.

Ad Hominem

The other challenge is the inability to distinguish between the person and the idea. Michel Foucault was very vocal in the political realm and actively promoted Marxism, but, firstly, Foucault was not a self-professed PoMo—and for several reasons, one could come to accord with his assessment; secondly, in his deconstruction of history, he discovered a foundational component—this activity being squarely PoMo—, but he reconstructed historical narratives employing the lens of power. This rebuilding is not PoMo activity.

Parting Shot

Besides—or in addition to—ignorance, some people have an agenda, and they play ad hominem games, so if they can vilify a person and associate that person to an ideology, it can have the tendency of poisoning the well. Uncritical people won’t even notice the sleight of hand and redirect.

never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance*

Hanlon’s Razor

A textbook example is Stephen Hick’s attempt in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault to conflate feminism (a positive mechanism) with postmodernism (to reiterate, a negative mechanism). In it he claims that feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mckinnon are proponents of PoMo thought, but he is apparently unaware that McKinnon has explicitly attacked PoMo as destructive to feminism. A fuller critique of Hicks‘ work can be heard on YouTube. I recommend it highly if you have the better part of an hour to spare. Jordan B Peterson is a celebrity personality whose primary exposure to PoMo is Hicks, so when you understand how off-base Hicks is, you’ll realise why Peterson is so off-base, too.


* Hanlon’s razor is originally cast as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, but I prefer the term ignorance, as it it less value-laden and more broadly applicable. Besides, to be ignorant does not mean to be stupid. Many ignorant people are not stupid. I am ignorant of the Russian language, but I am not stupid.

Utilitarianism

As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.