12 Ekim 2010 Salı

Michel Foucault and Post-Structuralism

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is a famous French philosopher who is known as one of the founders of post-structuralism. Foucault was an active member of French Communist Party in the early 1950’s but his disillusionment with Marxism directed him to form new theories. Foucault is well known for his critiques of various social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine and the prison system and also for his ideas on the history of sexuality. Foucault’s method of binary oppositions can be said to be the source of inspiration to Edward Said in creating “Orientalism”. Foucault analyzed power relations in different social institutions and criticized enslaving discourses. Although Foucault said that he never intended to create a discourse by his post-structuralist approach, we can claim that together with his friends like Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze etc., he established his own school of thought. In this assignment, I am going to make a general assessment of Foucault’s post-structuralist method in the light of Michelle Barrett’s book “Politics of Truth” (Part III, Chapter 6, “History, Discourse, Truth and Power: Foucault’s Critique of Ideology) and Foucault’s “The Body of the Condemned”, “Two Lectures” and “Panopticism” articles.
With the emergence of post-structuralism, we see a shift from ideology to discourse in social theory. Let us begin with the two main tendencies in post-structuralism: textuality and discursivity. Textuality refers to a movement within literary, cultural theory and in philosophy emphasizing the revaluation and revalorization of text as text. Textual researches focus on language as a producer of meaning rather than a pale reflection of some prior reality (Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva etc). Jacques Derrida even rejects such things as summary and translation and thinks that there are only other texts. In accordance with textuality wave, historical legal and medical records are analyzed as producers of their own right rather than a pale reflection of some prior reality. Discursivity on the other hand, has an area of research much broader than textual analyses. Foucault’s discourse contains all traditions, norms, rules, texts, symbols, words and expressions where hierarchical power relations could be found. Discursivity unlike textuality, not only deals with the “text”, but also with the “context”. Discursive researches focus on the question of “how” rather than “why”. They do not look for causal explanations but instead, they try to understand the working of an incredibly complex mechanism that creates subordinations and produces hierarchical power relations. Edward Said explains Foucauldian discourse analysis as follows: “Foucault specified rules for those rules, and even more impressively, he showed how over long periods of time the rules became epistemological enforcers of what people thought, lived and spoke” (Barrett, pg 126-127). Foucault analyzes different institutions (prison, clinic, hospital, bordello etc) and other discursive unities (book, oeuvre, traditions, genre or discipline) to detect power relations. He says; “Whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, such a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and fuctionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation” (Barrett, pg 128).
Foucault rejected the notion of ideology, which is very important in Marxist thought, on three grounds. First of all, ideology is always in opposition with another truth claim. Secondly, it refers to something of the order of a subject. Thirdly, it is based on determinist infrastructure (base) – superstructure model (criticism of economic determinism). Foucault rejected the objective truth and so called “scientific” truth claims made by Marxism which is based on economic determinism. He mentioned tat Marxist insistance on economics, shadowed systematically other considerations of power. Foucault borrowed the term “genealogy” from Nietzsche and together with the term “archaeology of knowledge”, he used it to refer to the need in deconstructionist social science researches to go back to the origins of discourses by solving different layers of the discourse and find the origin where power relations began. In “Two Lectures” article, he defined “genealogy” as “a particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity and which owes its force only to be harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it” (Foucault, pg 82). Foucault admits that some totalitarian theories might help us to discover micro realities and they are “useful tools for local research” but the important is to get rid of the enslaving nature of totalitarian theories and to catch up “the local character of criticism” (Foucault, pg 81). Foucault calls this approach as “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” by which he means that we should get rid of the totalitarian functionalist theories and to go back to naïve, unrecognized, local knowledge. He claimed that the whole history was constituted around a set of linked ad mistaken assumptions. Unlike Marx, Foucault saw power as something that is exercised rather than possessed. In other words, power is not attached to agents and interests, it is incorporated in numerous practices.
In “Panopticism” article, Foucault talks about three types of power. In his view, the relation between a master and a slave is not a relation of power. The first type of power is based on classical discipline and punish principle. The second type of power which Foucault calls as “panopticism” takes its name from Jeremy Bentham’s famous prison design: Panopticon. In Panopticon, prisoners are closed in dark cells and all cells are arranged in a way to see a long tower at the center of the prison. The tower’s inside is invisible but people in the tower can observe the behaviors of the prisoners. According to Foucault, this fear of being observed is strongly felt by the prisoners and after a period of time it becomes a habit for the prisoners. Thus, people act very carefully with the fear of being observed in the social life. Foucault asserts that liberal society does not need chains to force people to do something. Rather, Panopticism fulfills this duty. “So, it is not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behavior, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations. Bentham was surprised that panoptic institutions could be so light: there were no more bars, no more chains, no more heavy locks; all that was needed was that the separations should be clear and the openings well arranged” (Foucault, “Panopticism”, pg 202). Foucault believes that Panopticism is one of the most important aspects of modern societies and it “automatizes and disindividualizes the power” (Foucault, pg 202). Panoptic power works with the internalization of the fear of surveillance. The third type of power is called as “plague power” and it is based on record keeping and the controlling of individuals by their records.
Foucault also criticized Marxism because of its reductionist look towards human beings as productive units (homo economicus). Although Foucault, while creating his theory of discourse, was affected by his Marxist teacher Louis Althusser’s thesis on the “ideological apparatuses of the state”, he rejected ideology-science distinction of Marxists and the notion of the subject both as an individual agent and as a class member. We can say that he worked outside of the Marxist problematic of determinism rather than seeking to retrieve a polymorphous model of causality within it (response to Gramscian understanding). Foucault said: “Marxism exists in the 19th century thought like a fish in water; that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else. But, Marxist thought is irredeemably confined by an episteme that is coming to an end” (Barrett, pg 139). The problem of subject, which constitutes a central place in Foucauldian research, does not exist in Marxist theory. Foucault believed that the subject is constituted rather than given. Foucault’s interest in the practices constituting thhe subject (discursive, social and so on) is much broader than any other modern theorists. Foucault’s interest in the subjectization is not based on social class but it constitutes all discourses. That is why Foucaldian method is used for defending the rights of all disadvantaged social groups (homosexuals, the East like Edward Said did in Orientalism, women like feminist theories did), all subject groups. Foucault’s special interest in the body especially attracted the attentions of feminists.
In his article “The Body of the Condemned”, Foucault begins by comparing a public execution from 1757 to an account of prison rules from 1837. According to the first public execution model, torture and punishment are used as public spectacles and included characteristics like physical punishment, the art of inflicting pain, visible display of suffering. By doing this, a confused horror spread from the scaffold; it enveloped both executioner and condemned, it often turned the legal violence of the executioner into shame. However, later the exhibition of prisoners, the pillory and the public execution was replaced by the model of “punishment as a cure”. Punishment had to become the most hidden part of the penal process according to this new model. The effectiveness of punishment is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity. It is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime. The body is invested with relations of power and domination. Its constitution as labor power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection. This subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology. It can be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence. It may be calculated, organized, technically thought out. It may be subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain as a physical order.
Finally, in my opinion, Michel Foucault is one of the most important names that made a contribution to social sciences in 20th century. Foucault’s method of binary oppositions and discourse analysis can be used by different ideological movements, researches. Marxists have chance to revise their theory and make the discursive analysis of the capitalist discourse. Discriminated social groups have chance to criticize the official ideology by looking at the sovereign discourse that works in their disadvantage. For me, Foucault opened a new are in social sciences, by creating a very strong and valid method for social theory.

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