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Vol. 13, No. 3, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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Anthony Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over 70 reviews. He is a ceramic artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary ceramics.

Michel Foucault wrote anti-historical histories. He is most noted for his histories of four social domains: mental illness, crime and punishment, health systems, and sexuality. With a few exceptions, he does not talk much about art. He wrote a short book on René Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” French for “This is not a pipe,” and in The Order of Things, Foucault wrote on Diego Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas.” Foucault has been called a lot of things: historian, structuralist, Marxist, linguist, colonialist, nihilist and sociologist. He wrote two books on art, but these were not central to his work. So, why read Foucault? His influence on contemporary thought and society is profound. His thought seeps through academic disciplines into popular culture. Intellectual paranoia permeates his writing. For Foucault the most insidious forms of domination are those guised as given. Foucault was also a serial inverter who constantly switched cause and effect. Foucault’s writings say nothing about making a ceramic pot. The process of making a pot can however, illuminate many of the more difficult theories Foucault promoted.

Foucault used the terms ‘archaeologies’ and ‘genealogies’ to describe his writings. Replacing the standard chronological armature of history with geometry, Foucault reorients history. They are less analysis of the past than diagnostics of the present. Foucault defines diagnostics as “a form of knowledge that defines and determines differences.” It is how the differences are articulated that shift Foucault’s histories from chronological to geometric. Chronological histories are calibrated on cause and effect. Geometric histories are based on placement and displacement. In Sartre, Foucault and Historical Reason, Volume 2: a Poststructuralist Mapping of History, Thomas R. Flynn, Professor of Philosophy, Emory University, cites an interview given by Foucault addressing his obsession with space and geometry. Foucault states:

People have often reproached me for these spatial obsessions, which indeed have been obsessions for me. But I think it was through them that I came to what I had basically what I have been looking for: the relationships that are possible between power and knowledge. Once knowledge can be analyzed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture by which knowledge functions as a form of power and disseminates the effects of power. There is an administration of knowledge, a politics of knowledge, relations of power which pass via knowledge and which, if one tries to transcribe them, lead one to consider forms of domination designated by such notions as field, region and territory.

Foucault’s obsession with history is how what happened creates spaces in the present. This is one of the most difficult elements of his work. The shift from what causes to what shapes the present is a shift from the simple and singular to the multiple and complex. Think of making a pot. While there are multiple reasons for a pot to be made -- vocation, avocation or a grade -- in general their cause is singular, however, the physics of the forming of a pot are complicated and several. The beginning of making a pot consists of taking a ball of clay and throwing it down in the center of a ceramic wheel. Why this is done is not as important as it is done. Once it is done, and this discursive shift takes place -- the actions on it and the actions it causes become instrumental to understanding the present.

One of the most difficult elements of Foucault’s work is his insistence on discursive formations. Basically, history changes by discursive events. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, he describes a change where the philosophy of punitive action changed from corporal punishment -- assault on the body, to confinement -- segregation of the body. He cites this as a radical shift in how non-compliant behaviour was addressed. He provides no cause. In Foucault’s history, change happens and is not caused. Foucault addresses this notion of an archeological change in the essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History” stating: “What is found in the historic beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.”

Thomas R. Flynn articulates three primary axes to understand Foucault’s work. He imposes on Foucault’s history by using a three dimensional grid with the axes as the line in a grid. They are “of knowledge or truth, of power or governmentality, and of subjectivation or ethics.” These pairings are set up as abstractions and actuality. Knowledge is manifested in truth; power in governing and subjectivation in ethics. Flynn creates a kind of three dimensional map on which Foucault can be plotted. It is important to note that the present is movement on these axes so changes in history can be viewed as vectors within each axis.

How do these vectors interact? The metaphor for the act of throwing a lump of clay into a pot sheds light. There are three primary movements in making a pot: the revolution of the wheel head, the force applied to the clay by the interior hand, and the force applied to the clay by the exterior hand. These three movements reflect Flynn’s axes. The specific details of which axis is represented by which movement is irrelevant. What is important is that all three of the motions are interdependent. The only way for a pot to form is for the force caused by the moving wheel to be choreographed to the push of the interior hand and the pull of the exterior hand. The art of throwing is the art of coordination. I propose that this is the construction of history. This metaphor does fail in one important way. The idea of making a pot assumes a potter, but Foucault clearly rejects the idea that this process is governed by a thought of purpose. The purpose of knowledge, power and subjectivity are themselves. To understand the physics -- it is crucial to understand each term in its Foucauldian sense. The metaphor of the potter’s wheel also serves another crucial function. Recounting that Foucault histories are anti-chronological, he states: “Discourse is snatched from the laws of development and established in a discontinuous atemporality.” So the traditional visualization of history as a line where change is manifested in curves and breaks becomes inadequate. A more adequate geometry would be that of the motion of clay revolving on a wheel. In discussing the need to let go of linear history, Foucault complains that people must free themselves from history that does not account for the effect of “coincident and superposition.” Even the most novice thrower is aware that creating a pot is nothing but superposition. The skill of throwing is the skill of the wedding succession with succession. The force on the clay both defines the next and is defined by the previous force placed against the clay. This results in a conception that the past is far more fluid then traditional history.

The first axis Flynn articulates is that of knowledge and truth. Flynn describes Foucault as a historical nominalist. This is to say that knowledge (truth) does not exist prior to or separate from and unlinked to history. In The Order of Things, Foucault states:

From the first object that first object is manipulated, the simplest need expressed, the most neutral word emitted, what man is reviving, without knowing it, is all the intermediaries of a time that governs him to infinity. Without knowing it, and yet it must be known, in a certain way, since it is by this means that men enter into communication and find themselves in the already constructed network of comprehension. Nevertheless, this knowledge is limited, diagonal, partial, since it is surrounded by all sides by an immense region of shadow in which labour, life, and language conceal their truth from those very beings who speak, who exist, and who are at work.

In this sense, Foucault teeters on the brink of nihilism. He rejects the idea of the a priori. In describing Foucault, John Rajchman states: “Foucault maintained that there exists no subject, empirical or transcendental, individual or collective, that is prior to and constitutive of history.” David Couzens Hoy states that Foucault’s understanding of knowledge is that “The increase in knowledge is not the progressive discovery of the nature of things themselves, but the spinning of ever more subtle webs of beliefs and practices.” Rendering Foucault’s conception of knowledge down to its essential difference one can state -- knowledge is the construction of, not the awareness of truth.

Embedded in this idea of knowledge and truth being construction, the linkage to power becomes clear. How does Foucault define power? In his essay “Michel Foucault, 1926-1984,” Edward W. Said states: “Foucault is best understood, I think, as perhaps the greatest of Nietzsche’s modern disciples” This legacy is manifested in how both men link power with knowledge. John Rajchman observes that Foucault gleamed from Nietzsche the ability to term the problem of power into the problem of knowledge. Rajchman elaborates:

Central to Foucault’s turn to genealogy was thus his own attempt to analyze the connections between bodies of knowledge and techniques of domination, and to develop a new conception of critique in terms of revolt or resistance in such ‘knowledge-power.

What both Said and Rajchman identify is the dependence of truth and power.

Foucault himself comments on this interdependency in an interview stating:

The important thing, I believe, here is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of the world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power.

Understanding the forces applied to clay to make a pot illuminates how power and knowledge interact. The magic of the thrown pot is that it redirects force. The kinetic force of throwing is vertical -- the rotation of the clay. The act of throwing changes this force to a vertical force. This redirection of force happens in Foucault’s power/knowledge dynamic. Think of knowledge -- what we know as truth -- as a spinning ball of clay. When power is applied, it actually changes what it is. The key to understanding Foucault is grasping that the inverted metaphor works as well. Think of power as the ball of clay. When knowledge -- specifically discourse -- is applied to that power, reformation occurs.

One of the first steps in going from a novice to an advanced thrower is learning that when lifting a wall, one needs to lessen the force applied to the clay when moving nearer to the top. Further, each pull or formation requires less force than the previous for two reasons. First, the mass of clay acted upon is less and second, the clay is absorbing water throughout the process and becomes softer. This dynamic reflects one the more specific aspects of Foucault’s definition of power. He reverses Clausewitz’s dictate; Foucault asserts that politics is the continuation of war by other means. He articulates the ramifications of this: “Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.” So just as in a thrown vase, the skilled potter does not change the essential forces applied to the clay from the opening of the ball through the finishing of the lip; the application of the force becomes much more subtle. Just as the power structures of society do not essentially change from warfare to politics, they also become more subtle.

Central to this form of domination is a shift from property to the body. Foucault sees domination as the impact of force on the body. The penal system removes the body. The health system dictates application of motion and diet. The sexual mores of a time determine the limits of manipulation of genitalia. All of these are profound forces that determine how the body should be shaped, where it should be situated and how it should act. Reflecting this, Foucault states:

We believe that feelings are immutable, but every sentiment, particularly the noblest and most disinterested has a history. We believe, in any event, that the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology and that it escapes the influence of history, this too is false. The body is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating habits and moral laws; it constructs resistance.

It is through this totality of influence that power and knowledge become tied to the last axis Flynn articulates -- subjectivity and ethics.

Articulating subjectivity and ethics, in an article “The Subject and Power,” Foucault writes: “My objective . . . has been creating a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.” In an interview, Foucault articulates each of these three elements. Knowledge is how we orient ourselves in relation to the truth we inherit, power is how we orient ourselves in acceptable manner in which we impact others, and ethics is how we constitute ourselves as moral agents. Like all of Foucault’s construction, this creates a complex and counter-intuitive connection between power and subjectivity. Once this connection is constructed, a subject manifests a form of contemporary power. In an interview given in 1983 Foucault defines his interests and in so clearly likes truth (discourse), power and the self, stating: “I wish to know how the reflexivity and the discourse of the truth are linked --‘How can the subject know the truth about itself -- and I think that the relations of power exerting themselves upon one another constitute one of the determining elements in this relation I am trying to analyze.” The power of society is the power to make subjects and that subject manifests a form of contemporary power. Ethics is the exercise of this power on the self.

Think of a ceramic vase as a metaphor for the self and society. Logically one would position the self as the interior and society as the exterior of the vase. Foucault, barrows from Kant to reverse this analogy. Foucault based his essay “What is Enlightenment?” on an article written by Kant entitled “Was ist Aufklarung”(Enlightenment). In it he states that Kant defines enlightenment as the process of coming out of our immaturity. This is defined as abdication of reason to someone else. Foucault moves forward and describes two main areas of reason: public and private. Of these two spaces, Foucault states: “The distinction he introduces is between the private and public uses of reason. Yet he adds at once that reason must be free in public use and must be submissive in its private use.” The shift occurs through how Kant defines the private use of reason as those moments when the person functions in role in society -- an employee or a tax payer. In these instances the reason becomes secondary to their function or role. The inversion seems to take place because Kant is not defining private/public based on individual and many but as engaged and disengaged. When people are disengaged from the roles in society, they are truly within the public. The metaphor of a ceramic vase as vessel can illuminate this distinction. Consider the self to be part of a body of water. When water is put into a vase, it has to conform to the dimensions of the vase. So when the self is engaged in its private function -- it must conform to the parameters of that function. But when the self is put back into the body of water, it is in with the other selves. It is in this position where Kant and Foucault-- by extension -- would say that reason must be applied. The aims of these are disciplines. Rajchman states “Foucault advances a new ethic; not the ethic of transgression, but the ethic of constant disengagement from constituted forms of experience.”

The final extension of the metaphor is that like a potter, history constructs containers. We are defined by the vessels that history constructs to put us in. This metaphor is crucial to understanding one of the key elements of Foucault’s thinking. He inverts our common understanding of the role of study. There is the world. The world is a vast menagerie of subjects. But like truth, Foucault rejects the idea of subjects as being transcendental of knowledge. In this aspect, we see a Foucauldian reversal. Conventionally, subjects create disciplines. Foucault inverts this. Disciplines create subjects. In Discipline and Punish , one can argue that criminology did not develop because of the presence of delinquency but rather the idea of delinquency was created in order for criminology to have a subject. So history creates these vessels which define people as either being part of or un-part of the body of society.

Knowledge, power and subjectivity interact. It is their coordination that constructs disciplines. Think of the act of making a pot. No single application of force whether it be the turning of the wheel the interior push or the exterior pull can create a discipline. They must balance and interact. This metaphor works when looking at how Foucault maps changes in how society deals with anti-social behaviour in Discipline and Punish. The discursive formation is the shift from corporal punishment to confinement in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. This creates a subject in the form of the delinquent. It also creates a form of power defined as force applied to the body in the prison system. It also creates a subjectality -- the delinquent. These forces not only work together, but like the hands of a potter -- they are coordinated.

In Foucault’s mind, the past forms – but doesn’t cause -- the present. “We live inside an ensemble of relations that define emplacements that are irreducible to each other and absolutely nonsuperposable.” To what end? What good is it to know the source of the emplacements that define and marginalize us? Knowing is the first step to resisting. “As soon as there is a power relationship, there is the possibility of resistance. We are never trapped by power: we can modify its grip in determinate conditions and according to a precise strategy.”



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Very interesting, thank you so much for sharing. I am doing an Action Research MA by Research on the Trade Unionisation of Irelands Early Years (Childcare ) workforce and have found Foucaults ideas iro power & knowledge to be very relevant. The clay ball analogy is very good. Thanks again, Colette = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
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