Parrhesia implies that political subjects constitute themselves as ethical subjects, capable of taking risks, posing a challenge, dividing equals according to their positions, in other words, capable of governing themselves and of governing others within a situation of conflict.

Sleepwalking Through the Ruins - The New Inquiry

Just got around to reading this review essay, of a book by sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity. It sounds a bit beyond my reading comprehension (“demands that you have a theory graduate seminar or two under your belt”) and I don’t know if “molar hierarchies” derive from chemistry or dentistry; but the above quote, seemingly from the book itself, is a very lucid summation of what Foucault discusses in his last two lecture series.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the Scottish referendum result and what it says about how we as individuals ‘take sides’, and make political choices which, crucially, feed back into our sense of community. First, on the empirical side - because this may not be evident in the news reporting focusing on party politics or national emoting: there was a strong class gradient in the voting, as measured by opinion poll ‘social grade’ (60/40 amongst the ABs) and the fact that the four districts that voted Yes have higher unemployment rates, as well as gender (women more likely to oppose) and age (over-65s the strongest No voters, by a ratio of nearly 3:1).

My pessimistic reading of the result - and this is somewhat undermined by the fact that 45% did vote Yes overall - is that the populace of an advanced capitalist society, when posed a direct question about the structural underpinnings of it, are unlikely to choose the more radical option in the face of what the establishment terms - and creates - ‘uncertainty’. Everything being so interconnected, individual freedom and security so limited and circumscribed in economic terms, by employers and by the government, means that the risk is too great: except for the voter moved by a greater cause, or with much less invested in the current system (the over-65s, naturally, were particularly concerned about pensions). The narrative that the Scots ‘bottled’ it, that it was a failure of national will, seems to me distasteful in respect of perceived practicalities (not to mention reasonable disagreements about the role of sovereignty) but does express in some sense the ethical demand of parrhesia, the ‘courage of truth’. 

Of course what this ‘truth’ entails is, eminently, debatable. Foucault, the Enlightment sceptic and anti-rationalist, notes more than once I think that what he is looking at in discussing parrhesia is how the truth was perceived, as a part of discourse, not so much what it actually was. At the same time relativism is irrelevant, because parrhesia is not about stating a truth, but the truth, at least in the context of that particular discourse, its subjects and political organisation. It is ultimately about power (and knowledge). It’s also about how democracy works, or is supposed to work, in a social setting ultimately defined by who speaks and how.

Like I said before, I have my deep historical and cultural scepticism of nationalism, and ‘independence’ so defined. I’m also aware that there was a broad swathe of non-nationalist support for independence, from the Scottish Greens to the Radical Independence Campaign group of leftists, against the opposition of the centre-left insofar as it is represented by UK/Scottish Labour and (some) of the trade union movement. If I knew more about the particular political, economic and social circumstances of Scotland I might be more willing to venture an opinion (though it still wouldn’t really be my place). It comes back to the Irish experience: I don’t see our establishment as any better than the British one, while our left is still as much of a social and political minority as it was before independence, if not more. 

There is that seductive idea, however, that self-determination represents a genuine kind of democratic being (though the category of self-determination is I think inevitably awkward). That even in defeat, the referendum, in the words of one academic, has created Scotland as a ‘more serious polity’. That this creates a demand for more democracy, for more genuine political interaction, that will be irresistible. But what shape will this discourse take - what shape can it take? The satirist Armando Iannuci has a piece in today’s Guardian putting a very positive gloss on this, though not without using some well-worn if equally well-tailored clichés about political behaviour. In one of the more original parts, he notes:

"In a world where we can now source anything online, download anything we want to see from any country in the world, and where we can pick and choose individual tracks, whatever programme, whichever individual item we need from whatever outlet – in this complete shopping basket world, they must be asking why on earth they’re being forced to pick one party and its entire list of policies, rather than their own playlist of ideas. It simply doesn’t make any kind of sense."

Normally I would object to this as a kind of libertarian naivety (though it is hardly disingenuous as that). Party politics won’t just disappear because of the internet - they are a fundamental part of organising group interests into bargaining positions, and significantly giving them some measure of distance from powerful private interests. The alternative of governing by marginal preference is, in fact, the marketplace, and even if theoretically equality could be assured, there is the question of how opinions are developed reciprocally, and intersubjectively. Still, a true kind of ‘computational politics' is an interesting mental goal, and it does express the idea that freedom of choice, in the true parrhesiastic sense, ought to be a constituent part of our political self, as it is supposed to be elsewhere.

What I’m trying to get at is that democracy needs to become more of a ‘bottom-up’ process (cliché, I know): beginning in the way we think and express ourselves, before we become individuals - neoliberal subjects - making our ‘choice’ at the ballet box which, however noble, is constrained by the very complexity and inequity of our society. I’ve ended up voting Yes to every Irish EU referendum I’ve been eligible for, even the dodgiest ones, because I didn’t see an effective alternative (as a democratic exercise in the context of the rest of the EU’s governmental procedures, they’re a bad joke) and I think there is still considerable value in the European project and its institutional form, even if the latter in particular is increasingly flawed in relation to economic over political freedoms.

In my thesis, which was largely about that latter issue, all I could conclude was that it was an irresolvably political challenge (against the context of law, which I was of course writing in) that has to begin with awareness of the existing restrictions on genuine democratic choice. As to what the progress to an alternative would involve, I don’t know and I haven’t found anyone else who really seems to either. Of the two polar extremes of the left, anarchism is too small, too laborious; revolution too grand, too far-fetched; a happy, workable medium is perhaps encouraging some everyday activity that rejects the petty tyrannies and grand illusions of neoliberal life in favour of humanistic (pace Foucault) discourse. Parrhesia is a useful tool towards understanding the latter, although it’s important to remember it does not itself define democracy (in fact, it opposes and restricts it in some sense by placing an ethical value on some voices above others) nor truth. Only we can do that.

So some dudes were complaining lately, “Women are telling guys to stop telling them how to dress, but not all guys are total misogynists!  Women do it to each other too!”

So. People.  Let me tell you a thing.

This is a picture of a panopticon. It’s a kind of prison.  See, it’s a giant circle, with all the cells around the rim.  The tower in the middle is where the guards are.  The guards can see into all the prisoners’ cells, but the prisoners cannot see each other, and they have difficulty seeing the guards.  Each prisoner knows that at any time, they are being watched, and if the guards see them behaving incorrectly, they will come with truncheons and beat the prisoner up.  They learn to feel that gaze on them, all the time; every movement makes them think, “What if this breaks the rules, and they see, and they come and punish me?”  Soon, prisoners don’t need guards standing over them all the time to follow the rules; they do it themselves, because that gaze is omnipresent.  Even when the guard house is empty, they still think, “What if someone is watching me?”  (This is all from Michel Foucault.  You want more on this, go read Discipline and Punish, enjoy the descriptions of medieval torture.)

The panopticon is a metaphor.  In our society, we are constantly watched, tracked, disciplined, and punished, from childhood. The school says you skipped class today.  The babysitter says you wouldn’t follow the rules.  The police saw you at the park with your friends.  We are held to valid rules, and to bullshit rules; some of them are necessary to make our society safe, and some of them just make us easier to exploit.

You are held to rules.  I am held to rules.  They vary.  As a woman, I am held to rules that say be small be pretty defer to someone else and I’m punished in different ways if I don’t obey.  My brother is held to different rules, that say be strong don’t feel dominate the situation.  We end up policing each other; we meet and he says, “Looking good,” and I remember: people are watching how I dress and how I look.  If I disobey, they will notice, and I could be punished.  I meet him after his job and ask, “Do you think you’ll be promoted soon?” and he remembers: people pay attention to whether or not I’m in charge, and if I’m not dominant, I could be punished.

Sometimes the guardhouse is empty.  Sometimes nobody is paying close attention to what I’m wearing.  Sometimes the guards don’t come to punish me, so whether or not I am pretty or attractive does not affect whether I get to own property.  (It used to: whether or not my ancestresses were married affected their legal and economic statuses hugely)

Feminism is about the work of dismantling the prison when it comes to bullshit rules.  It’s about saying that we shouldn’t be held to stupid rules based on gender.  So it’s about the work of getting rid of the cells and the watchtower, and getting rid of the guards with truncheons.  We can stop telling each other these stories about all the rules we’re held to, and we can stop punishing each other for breaking them.  My brother stops telling me, “You’ll never get a date if you dress like that.”  I stop telling him, “You need to be strong and work hard so you come out on top.”

So no, feminists don’t believe that all men everywhere are 100% misogynistic.  It’s just that a lot of women are conditioned to think that 100% of the time, there is a risk that someone is watching us, and we will be punished if the break the rules.  It is really hard work to break the social structures and the internal attitudes that imprison us.

And yes, women can enforce the panopticon.  Hell, I’ll even tell you a womanly secret: I cannot count the number of times I’ve received cruelty at the hands of fellow girls for the way I looked or dressed.  My entire middle school experience was basically that and algebra. We’re working on fixing that!  Please, do not doubt that we’ve been working on that among ourselves as a gender.  Women have spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears trying to change how we treat each other.  Now we’re asking you to pitch in.

If you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing
—  Michel Foucault, Interview (1975)

Relations between the points have stayed the same, or the relations of contrast and of opposition between white and black have remained the same […]. Deep down, in a very broad sense of what structuralism is, we can say that structuralism is the method of analysis that consists of drawing constant relations from elements that in themselves, in their own character, in their substance, can change.

So to all you haters out there who say Foucault never defined structuralism - yes he did, and he changed colour while doing it, too. [x]

Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or as something which only functions in the form of a chain … Power is employed and exercised through a net like organisation … Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application
—  Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge p. 98

Today is the birthday of Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, born in 1821 to a publisher in Paris. In addition to defining and inventing the Foucault pendulum, Foucault is credited with naming the gyroscope. But first, the pendulum. Since the time of Galileo who defined the laws governing the motion of pendulums, but Foucault was the first to use the pendulum to show the rotation of the earth independent of celestial observation. Before he was thirty he devised an experiment to measure the speed of light. Today he is known more for the pendulum that bears his name than any of his other achievements. The word pendulum is a New Latin neuter of the noun pendulus meaning hanging down from the verb pendere meaning to hang.
Image of a Foucault pendulum at the Pantheon in Paris.

All human behavior is scheduled and programmed through rationality. There is a logic of institutions and in behavior and in political relations. In even the most violent ones there is a rationality. What is most dangerous in violence is its rationality. Of course violence itself is terrible. But the deepest root of violence and its permanence come out of the form of the rationality we use. The idea had been that if we live in the world of reason, we can get rid of violence. This is quite wrong. Between violence and rationality there is no incompatibility.
—  Michel Foucault, ‘Truth is in the future’
Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity—a pursuit without a terminus, requiring that women constantly attend to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion—female bodies become docile bodies—bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, “improvement”. Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup, and-dress—central organizing principles of time and space in the day of many women—we are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focused on self-modification. Through these disciplines, we continue to memorize on our bodies the feel and conviction of lack, of insufficiency, of never being good enough. At the farthest extremes, the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralisation, debilitation and death.
—  Susan Bordo, The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity

This is a Foucault Pendulum. Awesome to watch, most big science museums have one somewhere.

It’s conclusive proof the Earth is rotating with the pesky need for all the awesome space travel.

Imagine you’re at the North Pole. I’m cold.

You start the pendulum swinging and then hide from polar bear. The pendulum swings up, then the Earth turns, but there’s so little friction that the pendulum doesn’t, so when it comes down it crosses a different line of Earth. You can watch it go, knocking over the pins here. It’s a gorgeous, simple experiment.

I find it frustrating when people imply that there is no way to analyze power because it’s ubiquitous, fluid, and purely relational. The idea that power is impossible to possess, anchor, and pinpoint can suggest that power relations are completely socially unintelligible and impossible to examine. However, even though there is no external view of a fixed locus of power, there is still the possibility of illuminating alignments of power through an examination of webs of power relations and patterns of effects. That how we might arrive at an analysis of, say, patriarchy, which isn’t reducible to the concentration of power into the hands of men, but rather is maintained though “mobile, polymorphous, and contingent techniques of power” that include multiple strategies, whether it’s the naturalization of women’s inferiority in scientific discourses or the day-to-day performance of gender in order to be perceived as an intelligible human subject. Even Foucault was very aware that something like “constellations” of power or “alliances” exist even in the absence of absolutist and fixed configurations of power. Confluences and bundles of relations of power are produced within disciplinary configurations of power. These constellations can accrue power and resemble classical “oppression,” as links, alliances, and alignments of power coalesce.
—  [Jackie Wang]