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Archive for the ‘Online commentary’ Category

Michel Foucault on prisons, power and the origin of our beliefs 

Big Thinkers series by The Ethics Centre, 13 July 2017

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, historian and psychologist whose work explored the underlying power relationships in a range of our modern institutions.

Given Foucault’s focus on the ways institutions wield power over us, and that trust in institutions is catastrophically low around the world today, it’s worth having a look at some of the radical Frenchman’s key ideas.

HISTORY HAS NO RHYME OR REASON

At the centre of Foucault’s ideas is the concept of genealogy – the word people usually use when they’re tracing their family history. Foucault thought all of history emerged in the same way a family does – with no sense of reason or purpose.

Just like your existence was the result of a bunch of random people meeting and procreating over generations, he thought our big ideas and social movements were the product of luck and circumstance. He argued what we do is both a product of the popular ways of thinking at the time (which he called rationalities) and the ways in which people talked about those ideas (which he called discourses).

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Workload survival guide for academics, Advice on how to cope with all the work and when to say no to opportunities, Times Higher Education, February 18, 2016

[Editor: This piece by Stuart Elden is part of a larger feature on current workload problems in the university]

‘I try to agree only to talks that move the writing forward, using them as deadlines for producing parts of a wider whole’

I recently spent three days at the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, outside Caen in Normandy. This houses the archives of many French writers, publishers and institutions, including a valuable collection of papers by and relating to Michel Foucault.

The reading room is in the abbey itself; the other buildings have been converted into study-bedrooms, a refectory and conference rooms. Most people using the collections stay on site, take meals together and work in the reading room all the time it is open. There is a shared collective endeavour, a comfortable silence in working hours and a genuine interest in each other’s work in the communal spaces.

All this is at some distance from the working lives of most academics today. Teaching, preparation, marking, office hours, meetings, emails, phone calls and so on make consolidated and protected time for individual study very difficult to obtain and protect. Yet much of our most important work, perhaps especially for academics in the social sciences and humanities, happens alone, in time that cannot easily be quantified, measured or evaluated. Journal articles, chapters and books need consolidated, isolated and protected time; the slow accumulation of reading, thinking and writing, repeated and repeated.

I’m in a privileged position in general in terms of my academic role, and especially this academic year, when I am on sabbatical. But I have an ambitious plan: one book was submitted in the summer before the sabbatical began, I have another that I want to complete and a third with which I want to make good progress. So I set myself some rules to try to structure the days and make the most of the time available (these work just as well for isolated research days, or even just a few hours of writing time).

Number one is not to check email in the morning; email has a habit of setting the day’s agenda for you, instead of being but one of the tasks you need to address. I try to keep nothing in my inbox. This does not mean that every email is already answered, or the associated task completed. It means that the only ones in there are ones I have never seen. Some messages are sorted into consolidated folders – things to do in the office, things to read at some point – others are turned into tasks with scheduled dates and times. So, if nothing in my inbox is older than half a day, it can’t be that urgent. If it is, it’s the sender’s problem, not mine.

I try to keep the morning, or the whole of a shorter slot, as consolidated writing time. I set the agenda. If I’ve had a few productive hours of writing, and feel I am moving things forward, then I am better placed to deal with other tasks – review work, editorial duties, reading PhD students’ work, answering messages. I restrict social media use, usually by using a plug-in to block or limit time. I can always use my phone or iPad, but then it’s really obvious that I’m not working.

I try to agree only to talks that move the writing forward, using them as deadlines for producing parts of a wider whole. There are always exceptions, but preparing a talk can become a major diversion from a focus. The same goes for writing or editing projects – often intriguing, flattering and tempting, and I do those that I can, but they have a cost.

Certain places are also associated with productive work. The specialist archives are one; I’ve also done good work in the British Library Rare Books room in the past. But the best place is still my home study. Close the door – physical and virtual – and get back to writing.

Stuart Elden is professor of political theory and geography at the University of Warwick and author of the forthcoming Foucault’s Last Decade. He blogs at Progressive Geographies.

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Gordon Hull, Republican Thanatopolitics, New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science blog, 8 May 2017

Foucault reminds us that biopolitics is describes a kind of power structure according to which some will be compelled to live (or have their lives as members of a favored population optimized), while others will be allowed to die. As he puts it, “the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (HS1, 138). Although much work has focused on techniques by which biopower works to optimize a population, it is worth attending to the disallowance of life, the thanatopolitics that is the other half of biopower, because the Republican party is engaged in producing a very effective case study.

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Gabriel Rockhill, The CIA Reads French Theory: On The Intellectual Labor Of Dismantling The Cultural Left. The Philosophical Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 Feb 2017

Also in French on Mediapart
Quand la CIA s’attelait à démanteler la gauche intellectuelle française

It is often presumed that intellectuals have little or no political power. Perched in a privileged ivory tower, disconnected from the real world, embroiled in meaningless academic debates over specialized minutia, or floating in the abstruse clouds of high-minded theory, intellectuals are frequently portrayed as not only cut off from political reality but as incapable of having any meaningful impact on it. The Central Intelligence Agency thinks otherwise.
[…]

As a matter of fact, the agency responsible for coups d’état, targeted assassinations and the clandestine manipulation of foreign governments not only believes in the power of theory, but it dedicated significant resources to having a group of secret agents pore over what some consider to be the most recondite and intricate theory ever produced. For in an intriguing research paper written in 1985, and recently released with minor redactions through the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA reveals that its operatives have been studying the complex, international trend-setting French theory affiliated with the names of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes.

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Hugo Durieux, La CIA et les intellectuels français, Durieux.eu blog, 31 Mars 2017

Après l’avoir purifiée (sanitized), la CIA états-unienne (Central Intelligence Agency) a  rendu publique en 2011 une note de recherche intitulée France : Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals (France : la défection des intellectuels de gauche)[i]. Le document original confidentiel date de fin 1985 et fut élaboré au sein de l’Office for European Analysis.

D’abord rappelez-vous le contexte politique. On est encore en période de guerre froide. L’OTAN a l’intention de déployer en Europe de l’ouest près de six cents  missiles de croisière conçus pour le transport de têtes nucléaires. Partout en Europe se tiennent d’énormes manifestations contre l’OTAN et les Etats-Unis et leur politique d’armement. L’Union Soviétique existe encore, même si elle fait déjà l’expérience de fortes résistances organisées en Europe de l’est. En France, François Mitterrand a entamé la deuxième moitié de son premier  septennat présidentiel. Le gouvernement va de crise en crise. Sa politique économique et sociale ne cesse de décevoir l’électorat de gauche ; au gouvernement  Fabius de 1984 les quatre ministres communistes du PCF ont été remplacés. Une année plus tard, en 1986, l’union de la gauche perdra sa majorité à l’Assemblée Nationale.

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The Deflationary Mind
Mark Lilla’s prosecution of radical thinkers in the name of intellectual seriousness can only lead to a flat and lifeless politics.
by David Sessions, Jacobin, 27 October 2016

During the 1990s, some of the most prominent Anglo-American interpreters of European intellectual history decided it was time to settle accounts. They brought important thinkers of the past two centuries — Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Georges Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, just to name a few — before end-of-history tribunals, and, more often than not, declared them guilty of intellectual irresponsibility, a weakness for tyranny or mythology (or both), and crazed utopianism.

The liberal reading public was delighted to read these verdicts, which convicted twentieth-century European philosophy of failing to submit to the global triumph of English-speaking liberal capitalism. The idea of “intellectual responsibility” guided both the late British historian Tony Judt’s excoriation of French intellectuals’ postwar communism, and Mark Lilla’s portrait-essays of European theorists who looked beyond the pragmatic, deflated liberal politics he presented as the exclusive terrain of legitimate intellectual engagement.

Things look different now. The limits of American power, as well as the strength of recent resistance to the global neoliberal order, have come into clearer view, making the questions Europeans faced in the first half of the twentieth century — and some of the answers they proposed — seem more current. Less prosecutorial scholars have approached the difficult ideas of European thinkers with greater theoretical subtlety, intellectual empathy, and political open-mindedness, grounding their work in its historical context.

From this vantage point, the “realism” of the fin-de-siècle American elite looks more like myopic hubris than sober responsibility. Its assessment of twentieth-century theory looks less like a reckoning with the past and more like the euphoric sanctification of what they allowed themselves to believe was the permanent overcoming of history.

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Ron Purser and Edwin Ng, Cutting Through the Corporate Mindfulness Hype, Part One Huffington Post, March 22, 2016

Extract
Michel Foucault made an astute observation: “You know the difference between a real science and a pseudoscience? A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” Hopefully, management science scholar-practitioners promoting corporate mindfulness research would contemplate on this statement.

Ron Purser and Edwin Ng, Mindfulness and Self-Care: Why Should I Care? Part Two, Huffington Post, April 6 2016

Extract

Though we are skeptical about celebratory claims, we actually do hope that mindfulness might become a disruptive technology to transform prevailing systems. However, we insist on the importance of collective attentiveness towards the workings of power, which have shaped the dominant individualistic-therapeutic approach to mindfulness and the stresses we face in our private and public lives.

I’d like to clarify the notion of governmentality that guides our work. The blended concept of govern-mentality derives from the work of Michel Foucault. Governmentality does not refer only to the processes of the state. Rather, to think about governmentality is to explore how diverse types of knowledge, expertise, and practices are developed to guide people’s voluntary conduct.

Consider, for instance, the contemporary interest in “wellness“. We learn about the research conducted by medical institutions on exercising or meditation. This knowledge filters through the advice we find in the media. With the help of a trained expert or through our independent efforts, we might cultivate a daily practice of jogging or yoga or mindfulness. Companies and institutions might incorporate a wellness program into their operations.

To put it another way, governmentality plays out formally and informally as the everyday “rules of the game” for responsible conduct. Under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism, the logics of governmentality are imbued with the moral rhetoric of “free choice” and are geared towards self-optimizing, consumerist and entrepreneurial ends.

Ron Purser, Ph.D.. is Professor of Management at San Francisco State University. His article, “Beyond McMindfulness,” in the Huffington Post went viral in 2013.
Edwin Ng, Ph.D., is an author and cultural theorist currently based in Australia. He has written commentaries on the cultural translation of Buddhism and mindfulness for Salon.com and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

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