17 July 2006

"The Architecture of Authority"

I always have found it curious how academic political theorists in the U.S. have taken up "postmodern" thinkers to try to argue for a more or less relentlessly skeptical stance, one that presumes we have no more or less stable normative criteria for assessing politics. Nearly a decade ago (1997) I published a paper in Political Theory entitled "Communication, Criticism and the Postmodern Consensus." There I suggested that far from being systematically skeptical about the grounds of normative criticism, postmodern thinkers actually are committed to a standard of equal and reciprocal communication. I relied specifically on writings by Michel Foucault on disciplinary power to make this point. Although the paper has been widely ignored, I think the point I make is correct. Here is a brief passage:

"Foucault . . . discusses the disciplines in . . . general terms . . . as "those systems of micro-power that are essentially nonegalitarian and asymmetrical." And he goes on to explain that disciplinary institutions -- not just prisons, but schools, the military, factories, hospitals, mental health clinics -- "have the precise role of introducing insuperable asymmetries and excluding reciprocities" (Foucault 1979, 222, stress added). Jeremy Bentham's panopticon is the most telling example of the asymmetrical, hierarchical, non-reciprocal nature of disciplinary power. It is, on Foucault's account, the quintessential disciplinary institution. There: "Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication" (Foucault 1979, 200 stress added). Disciplinary mechanisms, then, do not just render social relations less symmetrical and reciprocal but, crucially, they do so by simultaneously disrupting the communicative relations that nourish social and political agency and replacing them with patterns of thoroughgoing objectification."

The implications of this seem clear to me and it seems clear too that Foucault's actual views run counter to standard ways of characterizing his work as thoroughly skeptical and nihilistic. As I wrote then and still think: "What Foucault seems to argue here -- and what the postmodern consensus obscures -- is that disciplinary power is normatively objectionable precisely because it imposes unequal, asymmetrical, non-reciprocal relations and because, in so doing, it obliterates the sorts of extant communicative relations that, potentially at least, could promote social relations characterized by equality, symmetry and reciprocity." Foucault does not think we actually all inhabit a "disciplinary society" - at least he didn’t think so in the mid-1970s. He (like Hobbes writing about a different modality of power in The Leviathan) was warning us about the dangerous tendencies of modern societies.

My point here is not simply to promote a paper that has languished in obscurity. It is, instead, to provide some theoretical background to a project by photographer Richard Ross that he calls the "Architecture of Authority." Ross is busy documenting the spatial features of incarceration and prosecution in BushCo’s "war on terror." You can also find his work on this Frontline special on the use of torture by the U.S.. (The image here - © Richard Ross - is of the intimate space of an interrogation chamber at Guantanamo.) Interestingly he not only invokes Foucault, but suggests that the spatial structures of interrogation, incarceration and prosecution operate, as Foucault suggests, by subverting relations of communication. Maybe in the thirty years since Foucault wrote we have moved closer to the sort of disciplinary society he warned against? Maybe Ross understands Foucault better than the legions of American political theorists who regularly get him wrong?

This image, also © Richard Ross, is of a newly constructed cellblock at Guantanamo that the photographer describes with direct reference to Foucault.
[Thanks to an anonymous commenter for bringing Ross's work to my attention.]
UPDATE - My friend Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber initiated a thread of commentary on this post. You may be interested to see just how little support there is for my reading of Foucault!

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Foucault and Habermas do share some common language? I enjoyed reading this post - I will have to look up the neglected piece you reference. (Regarding its neglect, it is a cliche, but you could take comfort in the fact that many great artists and thinkers are not recognized as such during their lifetime! Perhaps your reward or recognition will come in the next lifetime).

There are many more disturbing images in the news today. I think you have raised the question as to whether we become desensitized to them with repeated viewing; and also whether, if they are beautiful images, we overlook the reality they depict. A set of images in the NYT today caught my eye thinking of your questions. They were taken by Farah Nosh who photographed and interviewed Iraqis wounded in the war. The collection is called
"Baghdad Survivors - Wounds of War"
http://www.nytimes.com/pages/world/index.html
Anyway, they seem interesting because they are black and white shots, clearly posed, of Iraqi's who have suffered loss - many of limbs - as well as numerous other things. Though a number of the victims have prosthetic limbs (they are depicted in the pictures) the photographer chooses to have the victim remove them and take the picture in ways that accentuate the physical deformities. A family member of the victim is often also in the frame. I think these images may be more (if that is possible) effecting than the colour images of victims with wounds laying in the street or in hospitals. I am not sure why - perhaps they depict situations that are more permanent and settled, or draw connections to the impact on these Iraqis everyday lives and struggles. I would welcome your thoughts - I did not listen to the audio that is available while looking at the images, as I prefered to let them "speak" for "themselves."

17 July, 2006 20:29  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon: I am glad you liked the post. Two things.

First, I would not want to overstate the affinities between Foucault and Habermas. My own leanings are pragmatist and I think most of what is interesting in Habermas comes from pragmatism (most of what is unbelievable comes from kant), As for Foucault, I think he is intriguiing but not for the reasons most American political theorists do. If you do carry through with your threat and look up my essay, you will be a very rare reader - and I prefer to worry about what might happen in my life rather than posterity!!! In any case, my interest in Foucault is partly driven by a concern to rescue contemporary pragmatism from Richard Rorty who tends to conflate pragmatism and post-modernism in unhelful ways. That is a tale for another day, though.

Second, I saw the slide show on the Tines site also. I was tempted to post about it and may still do so. I am not sure what I think about the images. Clearly, it would be wonderful if they had some impact on American public opinion. I am dubious; if anything they will likely induce compassion in viewers which, for many reasons, I think is politically problematic. That said, they remind me of immages by Bobby Neel Adaams of civilians in various war zones who'd lost limbs to land mines. I learned of these through an essay by David Levi Strauss a terrific critic of photography about whose work I have posted before.

Thanks for your copmment!

17 July, 2006 22:07  
Blogger Bro. Bartleby said...

Conrad had Marlow had Kurtz (or should I revise that to Coppola had Brando?) gasp, "The horror, the horror" when the horror was really in the imagination of the reader. The artist's attempts to blindfold the imagination with brutal images do two things, shock and then desensitize. Repeated exposure furthers the desensitizing process, so much so that an ER physician can greet the carnage atop a bloody gurney with calmness and purpose. So I would think that one must weigh the purpose of 'shock' and 'disturbing' and what is lost when one becomes desensitized to what formerly horified us. With the overload of horror images, Hollywood and real, I can only pity our children who equate horror with a good laugh.

18 July, 2006 00:08  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Bro Bartleby: Your comments make me think three things. First, the claim that photos of hardhip and suffering desensitize viewers is common and, to the best of my knowlewdge, pure speculation. I teach in a social science department and would love to figure out a way to actually determine with some confidence whether or not the claim is true. I think we owe it largely to Susaan SOntag - but thata is her reply to her own feelingss, I think and her disdain for mass culture in the US.

Second, What right do we have to not confront thte horrors our government is perpetrating?

Finally, what role does photography play? How does it work? If, as I suspect, it operates as a technology for depicting things it may well amplify imagination rather than subvert it. That is something too that I'd like to expxlore.

Thanks for your remarks!

18 July, 2006 07:54  
Anonymous Tim said...

"What Foucault seems to argue here -- and what the postmodern consensus obscures -- is that disciplinary power is normatively objectionable precisely because it imposes unequal, asymmetrical, non-reciprocal relations and because, in so doing, it obliterates the sorts of extant communicative relations that, potentially at least, could promote social relations characterized by equality, symmetry and reciprocity."

I imagine you go into more detail in your PT article, but the passages you quote from Foucault don't seem to me to clearly support this. One portrayal of Foucault is that he says that the modern age which aims norms of equality, etc., also has these countervailing norms. Even on the Enlightenment's own terms, Foucault's argument could be, its institutions fail. The further point might be that there is (always?) a dark side to "progress". The "dark" side to progress could mean "bad" in a normative sense, as you seem to interpret it. Or dark could mean "hidden" from view. The Enlightenment's boosters might not present all sides to modern society, and this is what Foucault aims to do. (I put this forth as an alternative hypothesis based on the limited quotes here). One might show that the American conservative movement is flawed because it can't even keep up with its norm of cutting spending. Can't I do that without saying the norm of cutting spending and limited government is good?

18 July, 2006 10:20  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Tim: As you suspect the paper actually offers an argument for my claims with significant textual support from Foucault, his accolytes and his critics. It is pretty easy to show that on Foucault's account of disciplinary power the central mechanisms through which discipline operates in fact revolve around disrupting relatins of sysmetrical communication. In that sense he must tacitly (I do not claim more than that) ascribe independent normative value to such relations.

The postmodern consiensus (to which both critics and defenders of Fouccault subscribe) does not just claim that our norms are inconsistent, it claims that there are no normative standards that are not themselves products of some more or less nefarious discourse. Nothing I say here implies that all good things go together or that we do not sometimes undermine our own normative projects by acting inconsistently.

18 July, 2006 11:36  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

18 July, 2006 11:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so it seems that after a decade or so your paper is getting more attention via a blog post than through publication in an academic journal. Is there something wrong/disturbing or perhaps hopeful about that? Of course there is no telling if the bloggers will read the paper - but even if not the ideas are being debated and that seems to be important. It would be fun to experiment with readership comparisons of academic journals and blogs - maybe in the future we might see a journal go interactive?

19 July, 2006 20:42  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

The irony was not lost on me!

As for academic journals going interactive, I think there is a case to be made for that too.

19 July, 2006 21:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Bro Bartleby: Your comments make me think three things. First, the claim that photos of hardhip and suffering desensitize viewers is common and, to the best of my knowlewdge, pure speculation. I teach in a social science department and would love to figure out a way to actually determine with some confidence whether or not the claim is true. I think we owe it largely to Susaan SOntag - but thata is her reply to her own feelingss, I think and her disdain for mass culture in the US."

It seems to me, from an evolutionary, or survivalist stand point, that it would make perfect sense for us, as human beings, to quickly adapt to, and become desensitized against, "gruesome" events. If human beings can't overcome their fear and horror of blood, and death, quickly, then I would love to know how this species survived?

21 July, 2006 23:10  

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