Some thoughts on Foucault and Foucauldians I’m cutting from my thesis

In an intellectual context within which there is a pervasive and multi-faceted hostility to the idea of the human (Archer 2000 : 17-44), it follows that there is also a widespread scepticism about the notion of interiority, with doubts about the human going hand-in-hand with a mistrust of subjectivity (Giddens 1979: 38). The most sophisticated articulation of such scepticism can be found in post-Foucauldian author Nikolas Rose who offers detailed genealogical analyses of socio-political modes of control and intervention into the ‘private’ life of what are deemed to be irrevocably social subjects. Such analyses are framed around the questions of the form “what understandings of the people to be acted upon – whether explicit or implicit – underpinning these endeavours, and how did they shape or reshape the ways in which these individuals understood and acted on themselves?”. For such investigations it is deemed necessary to avoid “assumptions about human mental processes” because the “historical forms taken by those presuppositions were exactly what we were studying” (Miller and Rose 2008: 7). This argumentative move, essentially constituting a methodological bracketing, facilitates a primarily descriptive, though nonetheless valuable, mode of investigation which traces out the socio-cultural factors involved in empirically observable changes in how human beings “recode variations in moods, emotions, desires, and thoughts” (Rose 2006, 223).

This approach has generated empirically rich accounts of how, for instance, the rise of a “psychological language of self-description: the language of anxiety, depression, trauma, extroversion, and introversion” was connected, inter alia, to the use of psychological tests of intelligence and personality from vocational guidance to military promotion” and the rise of “psy technologies for marketing commodities” or the “proliferation of psychotherapies” (Rose 2007, 187-188). The difficulty arises because Rose, like Foucault, “only shows how micro technologies of power construct subjectivities, he never shows how micro technologies of power are themselves constructed” (Mouzelis 1995: 184).

However there is no reason why this methodological bracketing need preclude a direct engagement with subjectivity in other areas of inquiry, as Rose (1998: 170) implicitly affirms when he offers a theory of the subject (though resists designating it as such). This account is strikingly reminiscent of the Giddensian duality of structure but with the depth psychology Giddens accords subjects instead constituted by an ossification or ‘enfoldment’ of the technologies of self intervening at the level of the individual. Furthermore, it poses no great challenge to translate the concerns of Rose into the framework of this thesis, seeing the objects of his investigation as cultural resources (ideational objects) and reflexive technologies (the socio-cultural application of these objects) of which it is necessary to understand the properties and powers of such cultural objects in order to explain socio-cultural variation in modes of “seeing, judging, and acting upon human normality and abnormality” and how we “our desires, moods, and discontents” are mapped onto differing images of the human (Rose 2006, 187-193).

The scepticism towards interiority displayed by theorists such as Rose is partly methodological and, on this level, it poses no real challenge. Certainly, it may be beneficial to some inquiries to ‘bracket’ questions pertaining to the constitution of the subject but for others, such as the one at hand, it clearly is not. The deeper objection stems from the theoretical insight upon which this methodological move is predicated, namely that subjectivity is symbolically constructed in some way. The more radical forms of this claim have been dealt with comprehensively elsewhere (Archer 2000) and, it has been argued, the more restrained claim that subjectivity is symbolically mediated is entirely compatible with an approached focused on internal conversation (Archer 2003).

Assuming we reject a radical subjectless view of the social, the similarity between the Foucauldian and functionalist versions of which is interestingly observed by Mouzelis (1995), then any a priori objection to interiority tout court becomes incoherent. Contrary to some of the overdrawn claims made on the basis of Foucault’s work, the recognition that the social sciences have played a role historically in constituting their object of study does not entail that present social scientists do nothing more than study discursive objects constructed by their predecessors. As Mouzelis puts it (1995: 51) there is a failure here to “specify the conditions in which this phenomenon does and/or does not obtain” and while changing understandings of ‘interiority’ may be intimately bound up with social scientific accounts of them, it does not follow that the former is thereby reducible to the latter. In fact the account Giddens (1984: xxxiii) offers of the tendency for “reflection on social processes (theories, and observations about them) [to] continually enter into, become disentnagled with and re-enter the universe of events they describe” represents an excellent example, in spite of the many criticisms made of his work in this thesis, as to compatibility of recognising the core post-structuralist insight while resisting the absurd implications which follow from their contextless universalisation.

This leaves us instead with a question of the adequacy of specific approaches to conceptualising this interiority, with this having been established comprehensively in the case of ‘internal conversation’ in the work of Archer (2000, 2003, 2007, 2010). However a further question remains: even if we accept that people have internal conversations, how can we possibly acquire knowledge of them? While this is certainly a significant theoretical and methodological question, it is not so specific to the subject matter as such a hypothesized critic might be moved to suggest.

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