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  • Mark 9:48 pm on December 7, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , foucault, practical intellectuals, ,   

    The missing history of the practical intellectuals 

    One of my pet hates is the legacy of the ‘intellectual’, with its connotations of heroic figures speaking truth to power. This is recognised even by those who seek to retain the notion, as was the case with Foucault’s project “to break with the totalizing ambition of what he called the ‘universal intellectual'” as Bourdieu ably described it in his tribute to the philosopher after his death:

    For him, the critical vision was applicable first of all to his own practice, and in this respect he was the purest representative of a new kind of intellectual who has no need to mystify himself as to the motives and themes of intellectual acts, nor to foster illusions about their effect, in order to practice them in full knowledge of their cause.

    Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 139

    For words to have influence, for knowledge to make a difference through speech, intellectuals require a platform. It is a platform which by its nature, facilitating a broadcast mode of one to many, can only be occupied by a chosen few. The figures who have occupied such platforms linger on in our imagination of the public role of the humanities and the social sciences, even amongst those who explicitly repudiate the role. This is problematic for many reasons but one which I’ve been reflecting on recently is how it marginalises other modes of intellectual engagement with the world and the people who undertake them. For instance Ann Oakley describes the often overlooked history of women ‘practical intellectuals’ on 4703 of her Father and Daughter:

    We’re quite ignorant about the connected histories of women ‘practical intellectuals’, who combined learning, action and public policy. We don’t know the extent to which interlocking networks of women reformers/ researchers/ social scientists/ practical intellectuals have operated in different countries at different times and with what consequences. For example, the Swedish social researcher and reformer Kerstin Hesselgren was trained as a sanitary inspector at Bedford College in London in the early 1900s (having already learnt nursing and home economics and, most extraordinarily, acquired a certificate as a barber-surgeon). She practised her passion for research-based social reform by being one of the first Swedish women MPs, the first female factory inspector in Sweden, the instigator of many social investigations, a prime mover in the first social workers’ union, and a network-builder for women across political parties and classes. When the Swedish government set up a Committee on Women’s Work in the late 1930s, Hesselgren was its Chair, and another social scientist/ reformer/ politician, Alva Myrdal, was its Secretary. Networking, especially women’s networking has, like friendship, been neglected as part of the story of 20th-century social science. A childhood exposure.

    The reach and influence of these networks was remarkable, as well as the obvious solidarity which characterised them. Though the manner in which they have been overlooked invites many explanations, I find it hard not to wonder if the oversight would be so pronounced were it not for the residual hold which the (usually male) public intellectual, pontificating from on high, retains on our imagination of how learning and action can be combined.

  • Mark 2:29 pm on April 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , foucault, , , ,   

    “A new kind of intellectual”: Pierre Bourdieu’s tribute to Michel Foucault 

    After Michel Foucault died in 1984 at the age of fifty-seven, Pierre Bourdieu wrote a tribute in Le Monde, reflecting on his life and what could be learned from it. Bourdieu attributed to his former colleague at the Collège de France a great consistency in his intellectual work, much more than is often assumed:

    The consistency of an intellectual project, and of a way of living the intellectual life. Starting with the desire to break – which explains and excuses some of his famous apothegms on the death of man – to break with the totalizing ambition of what he called the ‘universal intellectual’, often identified with the project of philosophy; but to do so in the sense of escaping the alternative between saying nothing about everything or else everything about nothing.

    Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 138

    To become what Foucault described as the ‘specific intellectual’ required foregoing the temptation to speak on behalf of others. What Bourdieu admired was his ambition to “substitute for the absolutism of the universal intellectual, specific works drawing on actual sources … without abandoning the broadest ambitions of thought” (p. 138). The point was not to counterpoise a neutral expertise, content only to make claims comprehensively licensed by agreement within the community of inquirers, against the sweeping grandiosity which characterised the pronouncements of a figure like Sartre.

    The specific intellectual existed in a new space, beyond this dichotomy between the epistemically timid expert working in obscurity and grandiose celebrity forever on an epistemic rampage in the name of truth and justice. As Bourdieu put it, Foucault “always stubbornly rejected the division between intellectual investment and political commitment that is so common and convenient” (p. 138). In this he represented a new kind of intellectual:

    For him, the critical vision was applicable first of all to his own practice, and in this respect he was the purest representative of a new kind of intellectual who has no need to mystify himself as to the motives and themes of intellectual acts, nor to foster illusions about their effect, in order to practice them in full knowledge of their cause.

    Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 139

    This entailed a remarkable humility, at least relative to the general intellectuals of the previous generation. His political action, “conducted with passion and rigour, sometimes with a kind of rational fury, owed nothing to the sentiment of possessing ultimate truths and values” (p. 138). He embodied the possibility of commitment without dogmatism, action without certainty. Bourdieu described how Foucault not only “rejected the grand airs of the great moral conscience” but also found them a “favourite object of laughter” (p. 138).

    This was a repudiation of the universal intellectual in terms of both politics and intellectualism. The specific intellectual rejected lofty rhetoric of truth and justice for the contingent realities of situated struggles. The specific intellectual rejected generality for specificity, forsaking an assumed right to speak for a methodologically grounded sense of what one can bring to the conversation. But crucially this was done while sustaining commitment, pushing against the boundaries of received wisdom. The specific intellectual remains orientated towards the universal, while always remaining embedded within the specific.

    • Martha Bell 9:32 pm on April 15, 2017 Permalink

      Nice post.

  • Mark 4:52 pm on November 29, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , foucault, ,   

    Michel Foucault – The Culture of the Self 

  • Mark 6:52 am on April 19, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: foucault, jo joseph, nikos mouzelis, , tom medvetz,   

    Foucauldian analysis and the mystification of elites 

    In a recent review of The Reflexive Imperative*, Jonathon Joseph describes subjects “being encouraged to become active citizens and consumers who must make the right life choices based on acquiring the appropriate skills and information, making informed choices about risk activities, taking responsibility for their welfare and well-being and drawing on the appropriate resources (and social capital) from their communities and networks”. These “new notions of governance” are ones which “operate from a distance” and “use market logic as a rationality”. These “new forms of regulation” are ones which “rely on the responsibilization of various actors through more normative and normalizing techniques and procedures” (pg 101).

    What does it mean to say that a ‘notion of governance’ uses ‘market logic as a rationality’? Is a ‘notion of governance’ the same as a ‘form of regulation’? What does it mean to say that a ‘form of regulation’ relies on the application of ‘techniques and procedures’ to actors? There’s undoubtedly sloppy conceptualisation here. It’s rife within social theory and I’m not exempting myself from it. But I think there’s a more entrenched problem with this conceptual vocabulary. Theoretical language of this sort has always irritated me slightly and it’s only recently, after reading Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, that I’ve finally realised why this is. It is, as Becker puts it, “a theoretical error, not just bad writing”:

    In many sociological theories, things just happen without anyone doing them. It’s hard to find a subject for a sentence when ‘larger social forces’ or ‘inexorable social processes’ are at work. Avoiding saying who did it produces two characteristic faults of sociological writing: the habitual use of passive constructions and abstract nouns.

    Becker, Writing for Social Scientists, Pg 8

    This is why Joseph can be found saying that a “notion of governance” uses “market rationality“. What could this even mean? How can a notion use anything? The process of governance may use market rationality but the notion of governance is, well… notional. The claim about “new forms of regulation”relying on various strategies is much more coherent but again lacks a subject. I find it jarring to talk about strategies and techniques in the absence of an agency underlying them. Likewise to talk of “forms of regulation”. As Mouzelis has observed, “Foucault’s insistence that practices of subjugation fulfil specific objectives in a  subjectless, disembodied manner comes remarkably close to Parson’s middle-period writings on the social system, where systemic analysis completely displaces agency considerations” (Mouzelis 1995: 46).

    Insisting on the role of agency in ‘governance’ doesn’t entail the self-transparency of agency. Nor does it suggest that the ‘techniques and strategies’ used straight-forwardly derive from instrumental scheming on the parts of agents (with the image this conjures up of closed door meetings at Davos devoted to ‘notions of governance’ and ‘new forms of regulation’). But this is an assertion that, so to speak, people make the world go round: something has gone seriously wrong with an account of ‘governance’ that isn’t couched in terms of elites, vested interests and the strategies they pursue to protect those interests. In this sense, I’m saying that Foucauldian analysis at its worst constitutes a form of mystification. It actively occludes the operation of power, obscuring the deliberate strategies of groups (and the emergent consequences which arise as a result of the competition between groups in an open system) behind an obscure rhetoric of governance without governors and regulation without regulators. Incidentally, does talk of governors and regulators as singular groupings not sound jarringly simplistic? But surely talk of ‘neoliberal governance’ is no less singular and far less concrete?

    As an example of what I mean, consider the Bourdieusian analysis Tom Medvetz offers of how ‘dependency theory’ was promulgated by think tanks and taken up by political actors in a specific context. The same process of social change, in which the relationship between welfare recipients and the welfare state was recast as dependency, could easily be ‘explained’ in terms of the enactment of neoliberal modes of governance. But is this really an explanation? It not only wouldn’t specify the concrete action involved in this transition, it would also undermine our inclination to look for it.

    However at its best, Foucauldian analysis offers something really valuable. When I talk about Foucauldian analysis I like, it’s inevitably Nikolas Rose that I think of. But even he falls into these passive constructions, as seen in this example from one of many instances where I’ve quoted him on my blog:

    Today, we are required to be flexible, to be in continuous training, life-long learning, to undergo perpetual assessment, continual incitement to buy, constantly to improve oneself, to monitor our health, to manage our risk. And such obligations extend to our genetic susceptibilities: hence the active responsible biological citizen must engage in a constant work of self-evaluation and the modulation of conduct, diet, lifestyle, and drug regime, in response to the changing requirements of the susceptible body.

    Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, Pg 154, Princeton University Press

    Surely the notion of ‘requirement’ is relational? If I am required to do or be a certain way then someone or something is requiring this of me. Are my social and cultural circumstances requiring me to be a certain way? Then what matters are the characteristics of those circumstances and how, in relation to my own characteristics, I am led to be required to be a certain way. Rose’s sheer insightfulness and detail about the former is why I like his work. He neglects the latter but, unlike many others, clearly states that this is a methodological and meta-theoretical move.

    It’s the relationship between the circumstances and the self which interests me. While it’s a contentious claim, it nonetheless seems obvious to me that it is present, though suppressed, within Foucauldian analysis. It’s logically entailed by any statement that “we are required” or “we are subject to” or “we are governed by” (etc). It’s only excluded entirely by elaborating logical obscenities like “notions of governance use market rationality” which excludes human agency at the cost of imputing agency to ideas. But if we’ve brought the self back into the picture then why not go further? I accept there is a discourse surrounding reflexivity, one which social theorists may contribute to through their pronouncements upon reflexivity (though it does always strike me that there’s a tendency towards scholastic over-estimation of our influence). But there is also a capacity to be reflexive which is not discursively constructed. However the exercise of this capacity is discursively influenced and this is precisely why I’d like to bridge the gap between relational realism and foucauldian modes of analysis.

    *It’s in Journal of Critical Realism (13): 1. I’m struggling to find a web link for some reason.

    • BeingQuest 7:13 pm on April 19, 2014 Permalink

      I hear this term often: reflexivity, here…and I imagine to cognize that it refers to Agency’ projection or enaction, whether purposive and conscious as perhaps unctuous and quasi-spontaneous (non-reflexively?).
      Might you have a moment, can you clarify how this term fits a theoretical framework for the perception, conception, practices of Agency as arising within the experiential (objective/subjective) Field? I miss a number of references here it seems…and my curiosity inclines me to believe that this operation or ‘function’ of “reflexivity” holds critical importance in your analysis of a kind of linear or liminal agency, and maybe not a good indicator for Agency, per se. I mean, if my determinations are compelled and in any way unexamined rationally, can I be said to exercise Agency, or be mere agent in an ever fluid Field of influences impinging, as some might say, upon my clearer perception of what an autonomous Agency even constitutes?

      This begs a question, on MY end. I keep query at hand for insight whether liminal agency isn’t much like a recycling process where functionally determined perception is clarified or distorted by orientations and interests ‘liminally’ adopted from the psychosocial milieu; but where more deeply grounded, as a Process of linear awareness turned ‘reflective-reflexive’, and therefore becoming something like circumferential (references of orientation) for agency, obtaining a plane, degree, standard purview of sheer historical awareness as to be virtually exhaustive for Agency, per se. The historical ‘limits’ of the linear self, as it were, somewhere along the continuum of ego and the most abstract objectification (without the falsification quibbling) of Agent conceivable. Can such a notion, concept of Agency even be formulated strictly rationally, or must we rely upon a Logic somewhat other worldly; why, after all must any ’cause’ be other than efficient and not necessarily First for Agency, per se, when calculating an empirical ‘ground’ for enactment of the same? Anticipation and Possibility, Discovery and Invention?

      These do shape the EF quite more energetically; and all those ‘selves’ that make habitation there, as they must. So, I see a stripped-down version of Agent Active (as distinct among Agent Passive) that literally Personalizes as distinct from Institutionalizes Value, being the nexus of determination for judgment, aesthetic or practical.

      I see an archetypal constellation of agent orientations expanding and deepening in references (Ferris wheel and merry-go-round) whose perimeter, limit of association may expand or contract agent awareness (bare historicity categorically cognizable-we can Think Order here (transcendental, non mathematical logic?)). This would be to locate Autonomous Agency, were it possible and not confounded with lesser orders, degrees, planes of Agent Awareness, Active or Passive, historically evaluated (HE). Involved wholly in Limits, this can produce scarcely non other than categorical identity and essence. What I aver to call Optional and Fundamental.

      Meandering terrain…Sun Day calls for re-sponsa to the existential death/rebirth cycle in archetype. (Vivat Rex?)

    • Mark 3:18 pm on April 20, 2014 Permalink

      If I understand what you’re asking correctly, I don’t think reflexivity is equivalent to action (and I mean ‘agency’ in a slightly different way to you, more sociological than philosophical). I understand reflexivity as self-regarding action rather than action as such. So things we do that are informed by an understanding of why we’re doing them, with this ‘why’ inevitably linking up the personal and the social (my motivations, aims, goals, feelings, thoughts, history // my environment, constraints, enablements etc).

    • BeingQuest 4:38 pm on April 20, 2014 Permalink

      Your clarification is helpful, thanks.

    • Mark 4:45 pm on April 20, 2014 Permalink

      I wasn’t sure I did understand though. It depends on what you meant by linear or liminal in this context – could you clarify?

    • BeingQuest 6:14 pm on April 20, 2014 Permalink

      Few aspects of ‘experience’ cannot be construed linearly, unless one posits the possibility of completely unforeseeable Invention or Discovery that literally alters the basic, synthetic nexi of working paradigms, the manifold of Value. Liminal agency is adaptive orientation, requiring as many ‘optional’ divorces from the going stream of events as observation allows or instructs. A purposive ‘model’ of Agency in the EF, here, though, has a grander scope, projection, voice, history, intellectual/affective trajectory involved with social/personal dynamics of agent orientation, impulsion, interest, gratification…the stuff our dreams are made of.

      The ‘linear’ divide is merely historicity and phenomenal empiricism as relates to agent awareness and orientation, while cultural value in the round, as critical to the dynamic manifold of the EF and making of Perception transmutes all that is liminal, sometimes a compost pile of worn-out ideas, constructs, frames, temorary ideational butresses, some flying, in the sense that degrees of awareness are graduated by the MORE inclusive synthetic of the dynamic manifold of ‘essential’ values, inherent to organic intelligence across a broad scope of evolutionary history. So, liminal as a caterpillar, linear as a song. Still clearing out the buttresses here, as mentioned in an Interlude. Gentle as she goes.

    • Mark 8:24 pm on April 20, 2014 Permalink

      I think I follow…

  • Mark 11:19 pm on March 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: foucault,   

    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.

  • Mark 12:47 pm on March 3, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , foucault, , subjects,   

    Subjects vs subjectification – getting beyond an unhelpful dichotomy (without irritating the Foucauldians too much) 

    One important objection to the notion of ‘internal conversation’ rests on a broader trend within contemporary social theory that is concerned with the possibility that theoretical claims about agency lead proponents to make claims about agents which are empirically inadequate. So too that these ensuing claims might find themselves implicated, knowingly or otherwise, in broader political contestations within wider society (though the suspicion persists that those most vocal about the purportedly intrinsically political nature of social science and social theory systematically, indeed hubristically, overestimate the influence of social scientists and theorists outside the academy). On such a view, affirmation of a  choosing, reflective and deliberative self is unavoidably embroiled within a broader project of neoliberal governmentality (Rose 1998, 1999, 2007). Nonetheless, it seems profoundly mistaken to therefore expunge conceptual talk about subjects from the admissible range of contemporary social theory. Recognising this as a mistake is entirely compatible with the methodological move Miller and Rose (2008) make in their genealogical investigations into ‘technologies of the self’: “what understandings of the people to be acted upon – whether explicit or implict – underpinned these endeavours, and how did they shape or reshape the ways in which these individuals understood and acted on themselves?” (Miller and Rose 2008: 7).

    While it might be objected from a realist standpoint that such an investigation presupposes a theory of the subject, it is important that we nonetheless understand the ambiguous role such an account occupies within a broader inquiry of this form. As the author’s themselves observe, “that question could only be answered on the basis of some explicit or implicit assumptions about human mental processes. Yet for us, the historical forms taken by those presuppositions were exactly what we were studying” (Miller and Rose 2008, 7). It is perfectly possible to accept the validity of such an injunction, construing it as an exercise in bracketing to facilitate a specific form of inquiry, while rejecting the more radical implication that all claims about the underlying properties and powers of human subjects are, in actuality, claims about the cultural resources and reflexive technologies which are distributed within a given social context at any given time. Such an absolute injunction would involve a failure to distinguish between what Bhaskar (2011: 21) terms the transitive and intransitive objects of scientific inquiry: the “changing cognitive objects that are produced within science as a function of scientific practice” and “the unchanging real objects that exist outside the scientific process” respectively.

    Bracketing the real properties and powers of human subjects may be a useful move for investigation into the empirical variety of reflexive technologies over time, insofar as that it minimises the role that our prior (transitive) commitments play in the empirical investigation. In doing so it facilitates a largely 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). In doing so it can lead to 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). Within the framework of this thesis, the objects of such investigation are understood as cultural resources (ideational objects) and reflexive technologies (the socio-cultural application of these objects). 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).

    Through investigation into such objects, whether or not it takes a genealogical form, it becomes possible to empirically flesh out the sense in which, as Archer puts it, “our reliance upon the public domain for thinking can be upheld, without this determining what we do with it – that is the contents of our mental activities” (Archer 2003, 69). The difficulty with Rose’s work, as well as the broader corpus of sociological thinking of which it is an outstanding exemplar, lies in its inability to make sense of how such cultural objects (which it has mapped in a highly detailed and sophisticated manner) are mediated at the level of an individual subject. Such subjects are perpetually implied within Rose’s work, with continual references to reflexivity in Archer’s sense (i.e. the relationship of a self to a self) implicit in the substantive claims made about shifting constellations of technologies of selfhood, yet remain curiously absent. Unfortunately this absence precludes the possibility of gaining concrete explanatory purchase on how particular cultural objects are mediated by particular subjects – Rose’s account is laudable in its detail at the level of the former yet conspicuous in its generality at the level of the latter.

    Rose actually does offer something analogous to a theory of the subject, though unsurprisingly it is framed in terms which deny this. He writes that his engagement with the question of subjectivity is offered “not in terms of the effects of ‘culture’ upon ‘the person’, or in terms of a ‘theory of the subject’, but by seeking to characterize the mode of action, as it were, of the diverse psy technologies of subjectification that I have discussed” (1998, 170). As well as the tacit admission that the lack of engagement with subjectivity was the glaring omission in his otherwise accomplished body of work, his explicit framing of the ensuing account in terms of the mode of operation of ‘psych technologies’ is telling, in that it leaves the subject as little more than an explanatory lever, invoked merely to flesh out the absent subjective moment of his broader account. What explains this continual hostility to abstract models of the subject?

    Archer (2000) addresses the same question in an exploration of a body of work which is undergirded by a similar cultural politics. As she observes of Richard Rorty’s anti-humanism, his injunction against substantial conceptions of the human has a normative component to it. Given Rorty’s desire to nonetheless make normative claims pertaining to human beings, it is inevitable that the human resurfaces and, with it, so too does the problem of structure and agency (Archer 2000, 40-43). So too with Rose and his Deleuzian account of the subject, as well as its concomitant insistence that “the ‘question of agency’ as it has come to be termed, poses a false problem” (Rose 1998, 186). On the one hand, it is denied that the human is “an actor essentially possessed of agency” and on the other that they are a “passive product or puppet of cultural forces”. The reintroduction of agency into Rose’s ontology leads him to make a move surprisingly reminiscent of structurationist theory, transcending the dichotomy of structure and agency through central conflation (Archer 1995). His attempt to avoid an affirmation of agency leads instead to a particular understand of the bridge between structure and agency, such that former is understood to continually shape the latter through an ongoing process of ‘enfolding’, only to be reproduced and sometimes transformed by the latter, as a consequence of the radical contingency and therefore underdetermination which characterises the process.

    However the point here is not to critique Rose but to elucidate the difficulties inherent in the treatment of subjectivity within contemporary social theory. I have suggested that there is a methodological objection to abstract treatments of subjectivity, which can be relativised to a particular mode of inquiry and dismissed when claimed to apply more broadly. There is also a normative objection, a broad discomfort with are assumed to be unavoidably normative implications of talk about ‘humans’ and ‘subjects’, as well as the belief that academic thought and talk about such matters entrenches the hegemony of the ‘liberal self’. But there is also a concern about the empirical difficulties which are seen to be contained within theoretical accounts of human properties and powers. Such difficulties become more pronounced when the issue is framed within a particular substantive area of investigation. For instance Heaphy (2012) adroitly identifies the implications which the widespread uptake of Giddens et al within sexuality studies has had on the empirical portrayal of the lives of LGBT individuals within contemporary Britain.

    Heaphy takes issues with a pervasive tendency to hold up LGBT lives as exemplars of reflexivity in the first sense, identifying a range of strands in the sexualities literature of which this is true (Heaphy 2012: 17). He argues that, as a whole, these represent a “powerful story” about LGBT lives as “reflexively achieved forms of existence that are the exemplars of the life politics of self-fashioning” (Heaphy 2012: 19). Furthermore he suggests that the appeal of such accounts stems from the affirmation of LGBT agency implied by them, in contrast to the previously dominant Foucauldian vision of sexualities which tended to stress disciplinary subjection. Arguments about LGBT reflexivity, as perhaps did Foucault’s account in an earlier political era, have an intuitive plausibility because of the wider social circumstances in which they are articulated. As Heaphy observes, “it seems clear, after all, that lesbian and gay sexualities hare more ‘empowered’ and visible in the culture than ever before, and recent legislation in Britain and elsewhere (such as the Civil partnership and other Acts) seems to promote and defend the legitimacy of same-sex relationships” (Heaphy 2012: 19).

    However Heaphy raises a number of problems with such accounts. He suggests that these prevailing narratives of LGBT reflexivity have been characterised by a “blurring of arguments about theoretical possibilities and empirical actualities” i.e. a theoretical affirmation of agency leads proponents to make claims about agents which are empirically inaccurate. In doing so the realities of difference are occluded, such that “exclusive and well-resourced lesbian and gay experience is valorized while other experiences are made invisible”. This, he argues, is a consequence of insufficient attention to power, particularly in an indifference to the “relationship between power and sociological narration” (Heaphy 2012: 20). He goes on to argue that in order to take the “differences that are shaped through the intersections of class, race and ethnicity, generation, geographical location and like” seriously we must acknowledge “that there is no one lesbian and gay experience or forms of existence, and that lesbian and gay living should be studied in their diversity of forms”. In doing so, we might come to ask “how significant resources (economic, social, cultural and corporeal) are in shaping different possibilities for lesbian and gay living, and how their embodiment gives rise to different possibilities for identification, relating and life political practice” (Heaphy 2012: 21). Heaphy argues that a move towards reflexive sociology within sexuality studies, as part of a Bourdieusian turn which moves the study of LGBT lives away from Giddens and Beck, would help rectify this worrying tendency to homogenise the lived experience of LGBT individuals and treat their lives as if difference didn’t matter.

    While applauding Heaphy’s broader aims and accepting elements of his critique, this direction of travel is nonetheless revealing of profound conceptual confusions relating to what reflexivity is and how it operates. The broader shift he identifies from Foucauldian conceptions of sexuality (excessively structural) to voluntaristic accounts influenced by Giddens (excessively agential) reveal an inability within sexuality studies, as well as social theory more broadly, to come to terms with the problem of structure and agency. One approach elucidates the role of structure while obliterating agency. The other elucidates the role of agency while obliterating structure. The two approaches each contain an element of truth but, in their inability to proceed beyond their own theoretical terms of reference, neither is able to do justice to the ambivalence of human experience.

    Both freedom and constrain co-exist in our daily experience. We choose and yet we are denied choice. We shape our circumstances and yet our circumstances shape us. We make our way through the world and yet the maps we use and the paths we choose from forever elude our full understanding, let alone our control. We are subjects and we are subjected. In fairness to Giddens, attempting to reconcile this duality is at the heart of his theoretical project. Yet the empirical inadequacies which so often result from attempts to adopt his approach as an explanatory framework are indicative of the conceptual error at its heart. Unless we conceptualise reflexivity in a properly mediatory manner, as being the human power which allows the pursuit of courses of actions by (fallibly) taking stock of objective circumstances and our subjective concerns, the problems Heaphy correctly identifies will inevitably ensue. But if we do understand reflexivity in such a way, these problems do not occur. The issue here is not reflexivity as such. The issue is conceiving of reflexivity in a way which detaches it from the constraints and enablements an individual is contingently subject to at any given moment. If we conceive reflexivity in a manner which is fundamentally relational, such that our degree of freedom or constraint is an empirical matter emergent from our circumstances at a particular moment in time and the biographical pathway which led us to such circumstances, then these contrasting images of human life (LGBT or otherwise) as either overly-free or overly-constrained simply do not emerge.

  • Mark 10:47 am on July 22, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: biopolitics, foucault,   

    Podcast: Foucault, Biopolitics and Critique 

    In this podcast recorded for Sociology@Warwick I talk to Claire Blencowe about her new book Biopolitical Experience. When I post this up on the department site, I’ll collect some of Claire’s papers as well.

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