We don’t access the internet directly – it’s always through some sort of intermediary software. For that reason, it matters – a lot – what the intermediary does, and what kind of interactivity it promotes. Concern about this dates at least to a 1996 (published finally in 2000) paper by Lucas Introna and Helen Nissenbaum called “Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters.” More recently, Tarleton Gillespie has emerged as a major voice in these debates: his book, Wired Shut, makes a strong case against Digital Rights Management techniques, and his more recent “Politics of Platforms” makes an argument analogous to Introna and Nissenbaum’s for programs like Facebook. Indeed, internal FB studies seem to bear these concerns out: Facebook discovered that it could influence voter participation with simple “get out the vote” reminders sent to some users but not others. The results could easily swing a tight election. Gillespie and Kate Crawford have a new paper out that makes the argument in the context of “flagging” content.
Foucault made a big deal in the lectures contained in Security, Territory, Population of the linkage between medieval pastoral power and modern governmentality. Although there have been skeptics – most notably Mika Ojakangas, who thinks Foucualt reads the ancient sources nearly backwards: it was the Greeks and Romans who practiced eugenics, and Jewish and Christian authors who opposed them – it’s certainly a narrative that has the feel of doxa.
What is pastoral power? According to Foucault, during the Middle Ages, Christianity “is a religion that … lays claim to the daily government of men in their real life on the grounds of their salvation and on the scale of humanity, and we have no other example of this in the history of societies” (STP 148). Through an elaborate apparatus of confession, submission, and obedience, a “subtle economy of merit and fault” (STP 173), Christianity established a series of equivalences between the salvation of the pastor and that of his flock according to which the salvation of one was a function of the salvation of the other (STP 169-72). Although these techniques of power were historically specific, Foucault argues that analysis of pastoral power shows it to be the “embryonic point” of modern governmentality (STP 165). In sum:
"We can say that the idea of pastoral power is the idea of a power exercised on a multiplicity rather than on a territory. It is a power that guides towards an end and functions on an intermediary towards this send. It is therefore a power with a purpose for those on whom it is exercised, and not a purpose for some kind of superior unit like the city, territory, state or sovereign …. Finally, it is a power directed at all and each in their paradoxical equivalence, and not at the higher unity formed by the whole" (STP 129).
That’s the story.
The problem is that there is another Foucauldian narrative about governmentality. You see it in his Rio lectures of 1973 (“Truth and Juridical Forms,” in the Power anthology). But it’s even more evident in his “Lives of Infamous Men” (also in Power, the pagination to which I will refer) (these texts are both slightly before STP).
The legal doctrine of substantive equality – roughly, that one look at not just the presence of stipulated, formal equality, but that one incorporate outcomes as relevant to whether or not equality has been reached – strikes me as a biopolitical concept, whereas its more formal counterpart is more juridical. Consider the right to abortion: a formal declaration that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability exists whenever laws do not prohibit the termination. Recent state laws that ban all abortions after a gestational age of 20 weeks run afoul of that right, because a fetus at 20 gestational weeks is not viable. On the other hand, if the right is substantive, then it matters whether women can actually take advantage of the right. State laws that require spousal consent, for example, were declared by the Court in Planned Parenthood v. Caseyto place an “undue burden” on the exercise of that right. That’s a decision based on substantive equality, and it treats women not (just) as juridical subjects possessing abstract rights, but as agents in the world trying to achieve the outcomes that such rights are (presumably) designed to allow. Current rounds of state restrictions on abortion, such as forced transvaginal ultrasounds (on the pretext of ensuring the woman is “fully informed”) or the demand that clinics look like hospitals (for the “safety of women”) seem designed to limit the substantive right to abortion, while preserving it formally. All of that is a rough-and-ready way of putting the distinction, and there may very well be any number of equality claims in particular where the substantive version doesn’t sound particularly biopolitical. That’s ok – in what follows, I want to look at education, and to propose that claims of substantive equality, even biopolitically-oriented ones, can differ dramatically in what they claim and how they claim it.
One of the notable features of Brown v. Board of Education is its reliance on social science evidence indicating the psychological harm of segregation to black children (this is the famous “footnote 11,” which cited a number of recent studies). In his reflections on Brown, Robert L. Carter, one of the attorneys who argued the case, noted that “we assumed … that educational equality in its strict educational connotations – with its emphasis on the quality of education – was the same as educational quality in its constitutional dimensions” and notes that, in a series of earlier cases, “we turned to expert testimony for the first time,” and supported the argument with two kinds of claims: by “measuring the physical facilities of the proposed black law schools against the existing university holdings and by taking into account the adverse psychological detriment that we contended segregation inflicted on blacks – all of which resulted in a denial of equal education” (Bell, ed., Shades of Brown, p. 22). The three cases prior to Brown were Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma, and Sipurel v. Oklahoma. Let’s take them in reverse chronological order.
In May, a 13-year-old named Izabel Laxamana took a selfie wearing a sports bra and some leggings, and sent it to a boy at her school. When school administrators heard about the picture, they contacted her parents. What happened next defies easy comprehension: delivering on a threatened punishment for breaking his social media rules, Izabel’s father cut off her hair. He then made a video of Izabel with her hair (in a pile on the floor), demanding that she say breaking their rules hadn’t been worth it. The video found its way to social media. Two days later, Izabel jumped off an overpass, and a day later, she died from her injuries. The reasons why Laxamana committed suicide are of course complex, and may or may not be because of the shaming (and the father may or may not be the one who posted it to social media).* But the videoed retaliatory haircut seems to be real. In a recent piece in Slate, Amanda Hess catalogues the sudden re-emergence of this medieval phenomenon – literally medieval; women were punished by having their hair cut off, often in public – and situates it as part of a more general re-emergence of the public shaming of teenagers by their parents:
In the current issue of Philosophy and Rhetoric, Kelly Happe has an interesting paper interpreting Occupy Wall Street (or at least the Zuccotti Park component) as an example of cynical parrhesia. In a time when all expression is always already co-opted by neoliberal capital as a source of surplus value (this point has been canvassed extensively by the autonomist Marxists as “complete subsumption,” and I’m going to take it for granted here. I summarize it here in my discussion of Hardt and Negri’s Empire), it becomes hard to know what kind of speech would count as protest. Anyone who has seen the branding of Che Guevera T-Shirts has some idea what the problem is. It’s also one that has been very difficult to address; in Empire, for example, which lays out the problem quite clearly, we are offered the somewhat discouraging example of Coetzee’s Michael K, a character who drops out and nearly starves to death in caves.
Happe’s move is to suggest that Occupy succeeds in avoiding cooption by way of its rejection of politically expressive speech. As she puts it, “what is striking is the time and space devoted to the material culture and everyday life of public, communal living. Indeed, in the various accounts of the Zuccotti moment of Occupy, the radical imagination is inseparable from the otherwise unremarkable practices of day-to-day living in an encampment” (214). That is, it is in the rejection of symbolic and explicitly “political” speech that Occupy evades neoliberal cooption. Such speech, she proposes, is a good example of the sort of ethical parrhesia that Foucault recounts in the ancient Cynics. For the Cynics, it is precisely the extent to which their speech is unintelligible to politics that makes it radical, suspends its subsumption into the political apparatus, and presents the contingency of a new way of life. Happe writes:
One of my summer projects is to work up my SPEP paper from last year, which used the school desegregation decisions (like Brown v. Board) as a way to think about the relations between juridical power and biopower in the courts. The role of the courts in the transition from hegemonic juridical power to hegemonic biopower hasn’t been studied a lot, and the tendency is to dismiss the courts as institutions along with juridical power. The centrality of the judiciary in school desegregation convinced me that there’s more to be said, however. Current litigation about whether corporate entities can use rights claims to deny contraceptive insurance coverage to their female employees seems to bear that intuition out. So I’ve been reading, and one thing that didn’t particularly strike me until now is the complexity of the relation between school desegregation policy in the U.S. and what Foucault calls a “race war” at the end of Society must be Defended.
It must be summer: Facebook has released a controversial study of its users. Last year, it was the demonstration that the emotional contagion effect did not require direct contact, and could in fact spread across social networks without direct, face-to-face contact (the controversy wasn’t in the result, it was in the fact that FB did the study by manipulating its users’ Newsfeeds to present more happy content) This time, Facebook’s research wing published a paper in Science purporting to demonstrate that Facebook wasn’t responsible for whatever online echo-chamber effect its users might demonstrate. Or, at least, if the site did contribute to an echo-chamber, it wasn’t the main contributor. From the FB blog discussing the paper:
I’d like to look here a little more at Foucault’s claim that Heideggerian ontology is internalist (see my discussion here), because I think it makes an important point about the political nature of context-setting. Although questions of context are of course very difficult, one can quite plausibly propose that Being and Time begins in Plato (as evidenced by the opening passage), and most of Heidegger’s career follows the sort of trajectory that opening might suggest, conducting an extended engagement with Greek philosophy, attempting to discover whatever mistake it was the Greeks (or maybe the Romans) made that led to modern technology, according to an intrinsic logic that is present at its inception. None of this is news, and I bring it up here only to notice why the shift in context (as evidenced in his rejecting the “Heideggerian habit” in the D’Eramo interview) in Foucault’s case is significant. Indeed, one can compare Heidegger and Foucault directly on the point. Foucault introduces the question of Being in the parrhesia lectures with reference to Leibniz, and Heidegger’s 1955 lecture course ThePrinciple of Reason [= PR] basically reduces Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason to the Greeks. Heidegger, though talking about the atomic age, has Leibniz channeling the ancients:
At the beginning of a 1974 interview (D&E II, 521), M. D’Eramo puts the following question to Foucault: “you always start your analyses at the end of the Middle Ages, without ever speaking of antiquity, but it seems to me that ancient Greece is important for constructing what you call an ‘archaeology of knowledge.’ Are you avoiding the subject intentionally?” Foucault’s response, which is one of the very few times in which he mentions Heidegger by name other than in the context of existentialism, should be quoted at length:
Unlike Derrida, with whom he had frequent, highly public polemics, Foucault says relatively little about Heidegger. Much of that is incidental: in a 1983 interview, for example, while talking about the postwar influence of Sartre, he notes parenthetically that “the roots of Sartre, after all, are Husserl and Heidegger, who were hardly public dancers” (Aesthetics, 452). In his 1982 lecture on the “Political Technology of Individuals,” Heidegger’s name shows up in a list of those who are in the “field of the historical reflection on ourselves” (Power, 402). But, in a late interview, he says that “my entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger” (see the discussion here). He makes a comparable remark in one of the Hermeneutics of the Subject lectures; in response to a question, he names Heidegger and Lacan as the two 20c thinkers who have dealt with the subject and truth, and says that “I have tried to reflect on all this from the side of Heidegger and starting from Heidegger” (p. 189). What are we to make of this?
The limited point I wish to make here is that there is also evidence in Foucault’s last lecture course, The Courage of Truth (CT), of an engagement with Heidegger. I suggested in an earlier post that there was a specific “parting shot” at Derrida; the evidence for engagement with Heidegger is along the same lines: he doesn’t name names, but it’s pretty clear what he’s talking about. The references matter because they some of the luster off the idea that Foucault continued to get that much out of Heidegger. At the same time, I think they establish that Foucault is not only interested in Heidegger as an existentialist. Aret Karademir makes that case, aligning an existentialist reading of Heidegger with an existentialist account of the late Foucault, specifically aligning the two of them on the idea that the sort of creation of oneself as a work of art in late Foucault strongly parallels Heideggerian authenticity. The argument here is specific to the post-Kehre Heidegger. I’ll argue that Foucault’s Cynic would get the Heideggerian stamp of approval in this post, but then that this indicates Foucault’s disapproval in the next.
In an earlier post, I took some initial steps toward reading Foucault’s last two lecture courses, The Government of Self and Others (GS) and The Courage of Truth(CT), in which he studies the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia. As I noted last time, one of the things Foucault finds is a concern on the part of the Greeks that philosophy achieve effects in the world, and not remain at the level of “mere logos.”
Here, I want to say more (warning: lots more. Long post coming!) about that framework and discussion, in Foucault’s discussion of Plato in GS. In particular, I want to look at his reading of Plato’s Seventh Letter. I have to confess that I hadn’t read the Letter until this week, despite having read quite a bit of ancient Greek philosophy. I suspect that I’m not alone. This is in part because the authorship has been contested, but also no doubt because the text is completely at odds with most of the rest of Plato’s corpus. On the surface of things, the Letter is a sort of apologia: Plato is explaining his own conduct in relation to Dion and Dionysius of Syracuse, where he consents to offer advice – parrhesia – and becomes embroiled in the feuding between Dion and Dionysius by trying to mediate on Dion’s behalf. Why did he respond to the call? Because:
Foucault’s last lecture courses at the Collège de France – recently published as The Government of Self and Others[GS] and The Courage of Truth [CT] – are interesting for a number of reasons. One is of course they offer one of the best glimpses we have of where his thought was going at the very end of his life; he died only months after delivering the last seminar in CT, and there is every reason to believe that he both knew that he was dying, and why. There’s a lot to think about in them, at least some of which I hope to talk about here over a periodic series of posts. Here I want to say something introductory about the material, and look at Foucault’s critique of Derrida in it.
The lectures contain a sustained investigation of parrhesia, the ancient Greek ethical practice of truth-telling. “Truth to power” is the closest modern term we have for such a practice, though you don’t have to get very far into the lectures to realize how richly nuanced the topic is, and how many different ways it manifest itself in (largely pre-Socratic) Greek thought and literature. The lectures also contain a number of references to contemporary events and people (from the beginning: GS starts with Kant, before going back to the Greeks), and it’s hard to put CT down without a sense that, had there been another year of lectures, Foucault would have been more explicit in assessing the implications of the study of Greek parrhesia today.
In this section, I pitch genealogy against its close cousin archeology in order to argue that genealogy really is what is needed for the general project of historically informed analyses of philosophical concepts that I am articulating. And naturally, this leads me to Foucault. As always, comments welcome! (This is the first time in like 20 years that I do anything remotely serious with Foucault's ideas: why did it take me so long? Lots of good stuff there.)
I hope to have argued more or less convincingly by now that, given the specific historicist conception of philosophical concepts I’ve just sketched, genealogy is a particularly suitable method for historically informed philosophical analysis. In the next section, a few specific examples will be provided. However, and as mentioned above, I take genealogy to be one among other such historical methods, so there are options. Why is genealogy a better option than the alternatives? In order to address this question, in this section I pitch genealogy against one of its main ‘competitors’ as a method for historical analysis: archeology. Naturally, this confrontation leads me directly to Foucault.
Daniel Zamora’s interview in Jacobin (following the publication of a book he edited), in which he claims that Foucault ended up de facto endorsing neoliberalism, has generated a lot of renewed discussion about Foucault’s late work. Over at An und für sich, Mark William Westmoreland has organized a series of posts responding to Zamora. I’m one of the contributors; the others are Verena Erlenbusch (Memphis), Thomas Nail (Denver), and Johanna Oksala (Helsinki). My contribution is cross-posted below, but you really should start with the interview and then read Erlenbusch’s post – she lays out the context of the controversy, and discusses the book (which came out fairly recently, and which hasn’t been translated yet) in considerable detail.
I’ll update with links to Nail’s and Oskala’s contributions when they’re up.
As some readers may recall (see this blog post with a tentative abstract -- almost 2 years ago!), I am working on a paper on the methodology of conceptual genealogy, which is the methodology that has thus far informed much of my work on the history and philosophy of logic. Since many people have expressed interest in this project, in the next couple of days I will post the sections of the paper that I've already written. Feedback is most welcome!
Today I post Part I, on the traditionally a-historical conception of philosophy of analytic philosophers. Tomorrow I will post Part II.1, on Nietzschean genealogy; on Thursday and Friday I will post Part II.2, on the historicity of philosophical concepts, in two installments.
Wiliams (2002) and Craig (2007) fittingly draw a distinction between genealogies that seek to expose the reprehensible origins of something and thereby decrease its value, and genealogies that seek to glorify their objects by exposing their ‘noble’ origins. The former are described as ‘subversive’, ‘shameful’ or ‘debunking’, while the latter may be dubbed ‘vindicatory’. (I will have much more to say on this distinction later on.) Nietzsche’s famous genealogical analysis of morality is the archetypal subversive genealogy, and has given rise to a formidable tradition of deconstruction of concepts, values, views, beliefs etc. by the exposure of their pudenda origo, their shameful origins. As described by Srinivasan (2011, 1),
Nietzsche’s innovation prompted a huge cultural shift towards subversive genealogical thinking – what might be called the ‘Genealogical Turn’ – including Freudian analysis, 20th-century Marxism, Foucault’s historical epistemology, certain strands of postcolonial and feminist theory, and much of what goes by the label ‘postmodernism’. These ideological programmes operate by purporting to unmask the shameful origins – in violence, sexual repression, gender or racial hegemony and economic and social oppression – of our concepts, beliefs and political structures.
We continue awaiting the decision of a grand jury on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, exactly 15 weeks ago today on a suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri. News reporters from across the globe have been camped out in Ferguson for months, their expectation of an announcement teased and disappointed several times in the last week alone. On Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in advance of the grand jury's decision. Yesterday, President Barack Obama, in what can only be judged to be an anticipation of Wilson's non-indictment, preemptively urged protesters not to use Ferguson as an "excuse for violence." In the meantime, demonstrators of various ilk remain on standby, rallying their troops, refining their organizational strategies, painting their oppositional signs, standing vigilantly at the ready for whatever may come.
But what are we waiting for, really, as we wait for Ferguson?
As I’ve suggested here before, one of the undertheorized aspects of biopower is the relation between biopower and the juridical power it supposedly supplants. Now, I think it’s a mistake to think that biopower simply replaces juridical power, at least not on Foucault’s considered view (for the sorts of reasons given in papers such as this one; nor do I think the relation should be read that way, whatever Foucault thought), but to say that is to then pose a problem concerning their interrelations.
This paper by Jack Balkin (law, Yale) offers some help in disentangling the various threads. Balkin’s concern is to outline the features of what he calls the “national surveillance state,” which he proposes is our current mode of governance, having taken over and transformed the governmental apparatus from the mid-century Welfare and National Security states. The former developed through the implementation of New Deal programs, and the latter through the Cold War. The two of them together, plus developments in computing power, enable the surveillance state, which is a “way of governing” that has developed over the last half of the twentieth-century (and thus long predates 9/11 and its aftermath):
Cloud computing – where users keep their data (and often their applications) online - poses significant theoretical and regulatory problems. Many of these concern jurisdiction: it’s very hard to even know at a given moment where data is kept, and it’s often unclear (in the case of privacy, for example), which jurisdiction’s privacy and data protection rules should apply (the one for the data subject? the company that collected the data? the companies processing it? etc.). Not only that, U.S. and EU law are wildly inconsistent on the point, even though any large big data company has to serve multiple jurisdictions.
A recent piece by Paul M. Schwartz does some valuable work disentangling these issues; here, I want to focus on one moment. Schwartz notes that cloud computing will likely induce significant changes in how firms are structured, and how they structure their data handling. Back in 1937, Ronald Coase proposed that companies will decide between doing something in house and outsourcing it based on a comparison of the costs of each. If it’s more efficient to do something in-house, using the hierarchical control structure of the firm and avoiding the complexities of dealing with markets, that’s what we can expect. If, on the other hand, it turns out that it’s more efficient to hire somebody else to do the job, we can expect companies to do that. Companies have to balance the difficulties of managing a project in-house versus the costs of negotiating contracts with independent vendors.
Several months ago, I argued here that big data is going to make a big mess of privacy – primarily because of a distinction between “data,” understood as the effluvia of daily life, generated by such activities as moving around town or making phone calls, and “information,” which implies some sort of meaning. Privacy protects the disclosure of “information,” since this can be an intentional act; big data allows surveillance of areas traditionally considered private without any act of disclosure, since the analytic computers will take care of turning the data into information. My standard talking-point here is a recent study of Facebook likes which determined that all sorts of non-trivial correlations could be deduced from what people “like:”
Yesterday's post about the the extent that mainstream feminist thinking is implicated in trans exclusinary radical feminism generated some great comments. In particular, my impression that Women and Gender theorists overwhelmingly defined gender differences as being in the contingent realm of culture and sex differences as being in the realm of nomic necessity was mistaken. However, nobody took up the main point I was trying to make (and it should be clear that no one has an obligation to do so) so I'll try to frame it more generally.
First, with respect to gender, it's not enough to problematize the gender/sex distinction merely by arguing that sexual difference itself is imbued with cultural and epigenetic factors. Has the debate gone beyond that sort of generic culturally relativist move? It was not clear from the comments. The challenge by Serano and Garcia is in part from the other direction; denying that aspects of gender difference are in the realm of nomic necessity leads to other forms of oppression. From Sullivan's post, the denial of this by many feminist activists involves systematically ignoring or dismissing the testimony of many trans people, and this suppression accounts for much of the acrimony between TERFs and transgender people.
Second, the gender/sex issue wasn't a little bit orthogonal to the problem I tried to pose, which was that much feminist theory (at least the stuff I studied seven years ago) wasn't able to navigate a Scylla and Charibdis between politics of identity and difference. Serano and Garcia argue that even recent feminist theorists (who are aware of the danger) end up denigrating femininity and telling women that they should have traditionally masculine traits. But if the alternative is Carol Gilligan or Glover type theory, no thanks. Glover critiques the "final girl" in horror movies (the last possible victim who survives and kills the killer) as a "male adolescent in drag" in part because the final girl has "masculine" attributes such as planning and use of reason. As far as infantalizing condescension goes, this is about on par with pesticide companies giving pink teddy bears to women with breast cancer.
You can find here the latest iteration of quotes from a philosopher cleverly juxtaposed with incongruous pictures.
I think maybe that philosophers divide into those whose prose works well for this kind of thing and those for whom it doesn't. Anything even slightly portentous works, and if you are skilfull in choice of images, I think that anything with technical vocabulary would probably be ripe, but the result would be funny for different reasons.
Some philosophers' work can be illustrated in a non-ironic way. Peter Singer once said that the pictures in his animal cruelty book convinced a lot more people than the actual arguments. Probably any non-trivial work of ethics could benefit from this kind of illustration. And, finally, visual artists have been appropriating philosophical sentences for decades. I forget the guy who put a sentence from Davidson next to all of his paintings (I can't find this because there is a guy who does watercolors of flowers also named Donald Davidson). It was cool stuff. More recently (due in part to the labors of the Rays, Negerestani and Brassier, as well as Armen Avinessian and Graham Harman) lots of artists are doing things with respect to Speculative Realism.
I wonder what it is about philosophy such that our sentences work so well in conjunction with pictures, both in ironic contraposition and non-ironically. In any case, we should probably be happy to provide the service.
I’m teaching a course on privacy and surveillance this fall, and one of the things I’ve been doing is reading up on aspects of privacy theory that I didn’t know much about, such as the feminist critique of privacy. The basic feminist argument is that “family privacy” has been historically used as a cover to shield domestic abuse from legal scrutiny (and not only against women – see this disturbing Supreme Court case about a stepfather who beat a four year old into serious and permanent cognitive disability; the Rhenquist Court argues that state social services had no enforceable obligation to intervene because of family privacy). It is in this context that I ran across Reva Siegel’s (Law, Yale) fantastic article on the way that claims of domestic privacy emerged out of the collapse of a husband’s legal right to “chastise” (beat) his wife. Siegel’s larger purpose is to study the ways that legal reforms can serve to “modernize” status regimes, a process in which old hierarchies are given new justifications and (perhaps) weakened, but not eliminated. It’s not that the legal reforms don’t achieve anything – it’s that it’s very, very difficult to dismantle regimes of social privilege, and that (as Foucault noted), power always entails resistance.
Here, I want to focus briefly on the move from chastisement to privacy, because I think it suggests something important for our understanding of biopolitics. As Siegel outlines it, the basic story is that, over the course of the nineteenth century, a couple of groups made substantial inroads into the old common law right of chastisement: temperance groups used stories of horrific abuse of women by drunk husbands to advocate banning alcohol, and feminist groups use the same stories to advocate for the banning of wife-beating. The feminists eventually won, and a pair of state supreme court cases around 1870 (one in Alabama and one in North Carolina) emphatically – perhaps a little too emphatically – pronounced wife beating to be the unwelcome vestige of a primitive, bygone era.
There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm. Case in point: Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance. I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether. I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation." Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.
James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis."
I am increasingly convinced that any Foucauldian effort to understand neoliberalism needs to focus on it as a strategy of subjectification (more specifically, it’s the strategy of subjectification specific to contemporary biopower, and it says that the truth of the human being is as homo economicus). One reason I think this is that one finds repeated examples of where policy or governmental prescriptions specific to neoliberalism conflict with neoliberalism as a strategy of subjectification; in such cases, the strategy of subjectification generally seems to win. Let me explain with an example which will hopefully serve as proof of concept of the admittedly very big thesis I’ve just announced.
An important and somewhat neglected topic is what happens when biopolitics intersects with juridical power in courts of law. Today, we got a good example of one way it can happen. Several years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not execute the “intellectually disabled.” They also let the states decide what that meant. Today, they specified (5-4, with the usual lineup for a “liberal” Kennedy opinion) that, although using an IQ score of 70 or below as evidence of such disability is ok, it’s not ok to draw a bright line cutoff at a score of 70 because one had to take into account the 5 point margin of error in the test itself. In so doing, the SCOTUS spared the life of a Florida inmate with a measured IQ of 71.
There is a lot to say here (and for me, quibbling about where the IQ cutoff should be distracts from the larger point, which is that we shouldn’t be executing people. And, IQ testing is its own set of problems), but I do think it’s notable the extent to which the decision is expressly biopolitical, and not juridical. Recall Foucault’s claim one symptom of the emergence of biopower is a decline in the death penalty (History of Sexuality 1, p. 138). Here, we see how that decline can manifest itself even within the judicial system.
Biopolitics – even when understood in its narrow sense of life itself being a political issue – comes in at least two different strands. The first, which historically precedes the second, was concerned with what Foucault called a “politics of public health.” In so doing, it takes on standard biopolitical issues of population optimization, public health and so forth as mass issues. The resulting policies included mass vaccination campaigns, the installation of proper municipal sewage systems, and so forth. These programs resulted in demonstrable and substantial gains in typical measures of public health, such as life expectancy.
I am aware of exactly two comments Foucault made on Vico. From Discipline and Punish, with regard to the description of the 'spectacular' and famously brutal execution of Damiens: 'As Vico remarked this old jurisprudence was "an entire poetics"' (Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, Penguin, 1977: p. 45). Then from 'What is Enlightenment':
The present may also be analyzed as a point of transition toward the dawning of a new world. That is what Vico describes in the last chapter of La Scienza Nuova; what he sees "today"; is "a complete humanity ... spread abroad through all nations, for a few great monarchs rule over this world of peoples"; it is also "Europe ... radiant with such humanity that it abounds in all the good things that make for the happiness of human life"
Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago, has died.
Becker is perhaps best known for "human capital" theory, which talks about how one might, for example, come to think of education as an investment in one's future earnings. As the absolute normalcy of a statement like this would suggest, I think it's probably hard to overstate how influential Becker has been on the development of the neoliberal world we all inhabit. Foucault's analysis in Birth of Biopolitics is essential, as are the exchanges (here and here) between Becker, Bernard Harcourt (whose Illusion of Free Markets ought to be required reading), and the Foucauldian Francois Ewald.
As readers of this blog will know, I'm no fan of neoliberalism. But, as I tell my students, if you don't see neoliberalism at least as a temptation, you didn't get it.
A few days ago, I used the lack of historical figures in its top-20-pernicious list to propose that Leiter’s poll about pernicious philosophers said a lot about the politics of academic philosophy, and not so much about anything else. “Pernicious,” in other words, is a political designation. In the comments, Jon Cogburn wonders:
“You had me up until the historical construct bit. Aren't we in danger of presupposing that something can't both be a political act of boundary policing *and* a statement with a truth value? I mean I think that it's objectively false that Heidegger is a pernicious philosopher. I also think that calling one's colleagues charlatans in public forums is objectively pernicious. Maybe I [am] trying to police a boundary here, but aren't some boundaries objectively worth policing?”
This is a fair question; let me try to pursue and answer in three slightly different ways.