Foucault On ‘Blackmail Serving To Limit The Exercise Of Criticism’

In ‘Questions of Method: An Interview with Michel Foucault‘ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 114), Foucault responds to the question of whether his writings in Discipline and Punish had an ‘anaesthetizing effect’ on ‘social workers in prisons’:

Paralysis isn’t the same thing as anaesthesis…It’s insofar as there’s been an awakening to a whole  series of problems that the difficulty of doing anything comes to be felt….’what is to be done’ ought not to be determined from above by reformers, be they prophetic or legislative, but by a long work of comings and goings, of exchanges, reflections, trials, different analyses. If the social workers you are talking about don’t know which way to turn, this just goes to show they are looking, and hence not anaesthetized or sterilized at all….And it’s because of the need not to tie them down or immobilize them that there can be no question for me trying to tell them, “what is to be done.” If the questions posed by the social workers you spoke of are going to assume their full amplitude, the most important thing is not to bury them under the weight of prescriptive, prophetic discourse. The necessity of reform musn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce, or halt the exercise of criticism. Under no circumstances should one pay attention to those who tell you, “Don’t criticize, since you are not capable of carrying out reform.” That’s ministerial cabinet talk. Critique doesn’t have to the premises of a deduction that concludes: This then is what needs to be done. It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in the processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in programming. It is a challenge directed to what is.

In the long and dishonorable list of Cliched Reactions to Political Protest and Critique, the kneejerk “but where is your positive theory?” must rank as among the worst. This form of ‘keep talking while I stick my fingers in my ears’ political theater serves several vital functions: most importantly, it instantiates and facilitates political paralysis even as it renders that accusation at the critic. As a piece of political ju-jitsu, despite being so bald-faced about its deceptions and disingenuousness, it has proved remarkably effective over the years: very little radical political critique can escape the charge of being ‘destructive’ in its formulations. But as Foucault points out, the ‘awakening’ it brings in its wake has to have its future direction determined, not on the basis of self-serving assessments of the critique, but by the opportunities it presents for further ‘conflict and confrontation,’ a process that has to be pitched at that level for long enough before anything will give. To cease and desist the critique in the face of the imperative to offer ‘positive theory,’ to smoothen its harsh edges, is to play the game of reaction, to succumb to ‘blackmail serving to limit…the exercise of criticism.’


On Not Participating In A Collective Mourning

It’s an odd business to not be participating in a collective mourning. By ‘collective,’ of course, I mean ‘seemingly widespread and ubiquitous within my social space.’ In this case, I’m referring to the mourning following the death of Prince last week. There are: musical tributes, personal testimonials, remembrances, markers in public spaces–all the manifestations of a collective outpouring of grief at the death of a man reckoned one of the music world’s most interesting and accomplished artists, a reconfigurer of musical tastes and sexual identities alike. But I have nothing to contribute to this celebration of his life; Prince’s death didn’t touch me the same way. For the simplest and best of reasons: his music didn’t.

I heard ‘When Doves Cry‘ and ‘Purple Rain‘ back in my high-school days; they were an interesting departure from the other offerings of the music world. A few years later, I heard ‘Sign o’ the Times‘ and quite liked it. (A lot; for I still remember where I was when I first heard the track play.) But that was about it. I never bought a Prince album, never played a Prince song on a jukebox in a pool hall or a bar, never bought tickets for, or attended a Prince concert. He simply did not feature on my musical radar. Indeed, from the sidelines, over the years, I watched with some bemusement as his star ascended in both the critical and commercial dimensions. A fan of Prince might say that I don’t get it. And that would be entirely right. I didn’t. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone did.

Still, as this mourning continues, on my social media pages, in the various conversations I overhear, in the many tributes, I feel distinctly isolated. All around me, there is a ritual underway; an invitation to participate has been extended; and yet, I stand on the sidelines, unwilling and unable to acquiesce. I have not been ostracized; I have exiled myself. For my older indifference to the music is still present. I watch and listen to his supposedly memorable guitar solo on a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and do not find it as compelling as the guitar work I have admired in the past; ’tis true, my receiver for Prince signals is not working and has been turned off for a while. I am beyond redemption. Perhaps the future will see me change my ways and join the fold of the faithful. Stranger conversions have been known to happen.

Of course, there is an irony present in my writing of this post. I began it by noting that I had not participated in the collective mourning for Prince’s death. But by putting these thoughts down here, by making note of my distance from his music, I have finally been compelled to step forward and throw my hat in the ring, even if only by way of explaining why I did not do so. Well played, Prince. RIP.

A Memorable Brawl, A Template For Fantasies Of Resistance

Despite a personal history that showcases an active interest–participatory, not just spectatorial–in the pugilistic arts of boxing, I’ve not been able to bring myself to become a fan of ‘mixed martial arts’ or ‘UFC’ or what have you. But that does not mean I cannot appreciate the skills of the martial arts. I did, after all, like many other schoolboys of my time, grow up adoring Bruce Lee, wishing I could attain even an infinitesimal fraction of his estimable coolness. And to this day, the most exhilarating brawl I’ve witnessed–pardon that celebratory adjective, but that’s how it felt at the time–featured a brilliant demonstration of precisely the kind of moves Lee specialized in. By a fellow schoolboy. And like any memorable event, it remains so because it quickly became assimilated into subconscious yearnings and aspirations.

Shortly after joining the ranks of fellow sufferers at my boarding school, I learned of my school’s enduring and bitter football (soccer) rivalry with a local school. Indeed, so pointed and edgy had this relationship become that by way of a prelude to a scheduled encounter at home, the student body was treated to a sonorous lecture by the headboy on the need for all spectators i.e., us, to be on their best behavior during the game. No abusive language; no yelling at the referee; and so on. I also learned, soon enough, that our last game with them had featured a brawl. Provocations were sure to ensue during this game; we were to take the high ground.

These warnings came to naught. The first twenty minutes of the game featured some hard, physical soccer with plenty of rough tackles and pushing and shoving, even as the referee–our physical education teacher–sought to maintain some control over the proceedings. From the sidelines we roared on these bruising encounters, thereby raising the temperature of all concerned.  It couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

Halfway through the first half, as our team launched a counterattack, only to see it foiled on the left flank. As our forward sought to regain control of the ball, he was pushed, hard, once again, by the opposing team’s full-back. He shoved back, and then astonishingly, we saw the full-back take a swing at him. What followed next remains unforgettable after all these years. Incredibly enough, our forward dropped into a crouching stance, his knees flexed, his arms raised: a fight was on. And then, with a quick spin, delivered a lighting roundhouse kick straight to the full-back’s face. As that worthy went down for the count, his team-mates rushed over to help. So did our team. In the next few seconds I saw the forward’s cousin–by a coincidence, playing on the team with him–come to his rescue by launching a flying kick at a miscreant approaching him from behind. And then, utter mayhem broke out, as a rolling melee developed, made only worse, by a full-fledged spectator invasion (which I did not join, realizing that was beyond the pale, and that brutal disciplinary action would follow.)

I was young and impressionable, a notoriously poor brawler, often incapable of resisting the depredations of schoolboys bigger and stronger than me. That demonstration of skill and strength was instantly memorable, and remains so after all these years. For one brief moment, suddenly, I, the perennial ninety-seven pound weakling, saw a fantasy made manifest: I would be pushed around, and I would fight back. In style. Years on, that fantasy hasn’t gone away; the tools of resistance have changed.

William H. Gass On The Dialectical Nature Of Love

In Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translations (Perseus Books, New York, 1999, pp. 13) William H. Gass writes:

During childhood, contradiction paves every avenue of feeling, and we grow up in bewilderment like a bird in a ballroom, with all that space and none meant for flying, a wide shining floor and nowhere to light. So out of the lies and confusions of every day the child constructs a way to cope, part of which will comprise a general manner of being in, and making love. Thus from the contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life is born a dream of what this pain, this passion, this obsession, this belief, this relation, ought to be.

The model that Gass presents here for understanding how we construct our evaluative and operational apparatus of love is notable for its straightforwardly dialectical nature: the child learns to love and be loved and to expect love through a synthesis of the various opposing theses presented to him about the nature of love. It is through these endlessly revisable bringings together and reconciliations that the lover and his or her love emerges. This dialectical origin is reflected in love itself: it is painful and delightful; it is enlivening and deadening (the rest of the world may come alive through the reflected glory of the love, it may appear drab and colorless in contrast, and so on); it reminds us of our unique, individual subjectivities even as we lose ourselves in someone else; it may make us find reason to live, it may give us reason to die. Most of all, love turns out to be something we find resistant to facile reductive analyses, even as we elevate it to foundational principle in philosophies of life and living.

Gass’ model is relentlessly dialectic for the theses presented to the child about the nature of love find their origin, of course, in others similarly reared on such dialectical ‘confusions’; others who, in their own upbringing, confronted the same ‘contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life.’ Moreover, the child has only constructed a ‘dream’ with normative flavor; this dream itself, as noted, is ‘endlessly revisable,’ revisions forced upon it through these encounters with others’ dreams of what love ought to be.

The complex encounter of subjectivities that we call a ‘romantic human relationship’ poses such challenges for our understanding because of this collision: each lover brings to the meeting a lifetime’s worth of painfully constructed notions of love, one devised and drawn up without the consultation of their lover. These are not geared for smooth operation with those of others; they cannot be. As battle plans do not survive their first encounter with actual conflict, so do these notions not survive their first encounter with the ostensible subject and target and dispenser of love.

Note: Gass writes the above paragraph in transitioning from a description of Rilke‘s childhood and his relationship with his mother, to an accounting of his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé.

A Memento Of Fellow Travelers, Long Since Moved On

I have in my possession, one photograph of the only graduation (‘commencement’) ceremony I have ever attended–that for my first graduate degree, in ‘computer and information science.’ (I did not want to attend the ceremony, expecting it to be tedious in the extreme–it was–but I did want to send a keepsake back to my mother in India, to let her know that her saving and scrimping had paid off, that I had not, as I had once feared, completely lost the plot and crashed and burned out of this new venture.)

In it, I am flanked by two young men, both undergraduates, and yet, among my closest, if not closest, friends then.One of them, ‘M’ is grinning broadly at the camera, positively beaming, still clasping his textbooks tightly, holding them close to his chest–he had come to campus that day to attend classes, and then, on realizing it was my graduation, had decided to join me in my celebrations. The other, ‘J,’ is also smiling, but with a difference; he is impatient, he wants the photographer to hurry up and get on with it. It is freezing cold, and J’s usual skimpy leather jacket, good for showing wimps how real men dressed for the East Coast winter, is simply not up to the task of keeping him warm through repeated poses for a shot.

‘J’ and ‘M’ were both engineering students; the former studied civil engineering, the latter, computer engineering. They were both good students, serious about their work, driven and ambitious; they both looked ahead to life after school. We all worked as peer counselors, and we spent many of our non-working hours together in the school pub, diligently working through one pitcher of beer after another, a combination of activities which led to raised eyebrows and some snickers. (Our conversations had a political flavor to them; ‘M’ was a black radical; ‘J’ a patriotic anti-commie, I was still finding my political feet, finding many of my older political certainties rudely disturbed after arrival in the US.)

‘M’ was Haitian-American, ‘J’ is Cuban-American; we were black, brown, and white. We all spoke second languages; we all had anchors of one kind or the other in lands outside the US. We were an odd trio; some called us ‘The Three Musketeers,’  others ‘The Terrible Trio,’ some just called us Black-Brown-n-White. They were, along with another Cuban friend of mine, the first serious friends I made in America. Through them, I experienced a slice of life which would have been denied me if I had confined myself to the usual graduate student life: meals with roommates, seminars, working on campus labs etc. My grades suffered, I’m sure, thanks to these escapades, but I wouldn’t do things differently if I had to. They elevated what could have been a life confined to the daily, the mundane, the weekday, into something far more variegated; they helped me look under, over, and around the fairly conventional surface of an international graduate student’s life on my campus. (Which was, at the best of times, obsessed with merely getting through the day, the week, the semester; at its worst, you struggled against the persistent racism on campus.) They were a crucial component my introduction to life in America; my ‘American imagination,’ such as it is, was formed in conjunction and co-operation with them.

It would be the last photograph of the three of us together. No one died; but we all moved away and on. All of us, I think, have mementos and markers like this, reminding us of times and peoples gone by, stations and co-riders on this journey we are still undertaking.

The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

Prisons And Boarding Schools: The Informer Phenomenon

I’ve made note here, on this blog, on some interesting similarities between prisons and boarding schools: the discipline, the regulation of time, the uniforms, the social dynamics. Yet another similarity may be found in the ubiquity of informers: moles, spies, double-agents, leakers, snitches–call them what you will–conduits for the passage for information to administrative and disciplinary authorities on inmate (student) activity.

In my boarding school, where discipline was enforced by schoolboys themselves–the so-called ‘prefects,’ drawn from the ranks of the graduating class, the ‘sixth-form‘–informers were feared and despised alike (as they always are.) Complaints and mutterings about heavy-handed punishment–perhaps via the dreaded punishment drills–all too often, and mysteriously enough, found their way to the ear of the prefects concerned, and reprisals and crackdowns against those who had dared question authority quickly followed. The identities of the informers remained artfully hidden: they never informed carelessly enough to allow their cover to be blown;  “there were only three of us present when we talked about X; you and I were punished, so the informer must be Y.” Instead, these informers only informed when they were sure they had enough obfuscatory cover. (Shades of crypto crackers not making it too obvious that a particular cipher had been cracked by not acting too expeditiously or efficiently on the revealed information.) On one occasion, a large group of students in a classroom made some bitter comments among themselves on how some prefects had been a little too heavy-handed in their dishing out of corporal punishment during punishment drills; a day later, two of the students in that group found themselves dragged out of a basketball game and forced to perform a particularly exacting drill supplemented with occasional slaps to their faces and the back of their heads. (The informer’s most valuable reward–over and above any material benefit–was to be free of the worst of these disciplinary crackdowns.)

My post today is prompted by the note on self-policing in response to pervasive surveillance that I posted over the weekend; the methods change, the effects are the same. For of course, all too soon, we, the inmates, suspected each other to varying degrees and the quality of our conversations and interactions suffered as a result; we were not sure what would be reckoned as subversive or offensive. Planning for illegal activities like sneaking off for a smoke was obviously problematic, but what about saying something rude about a prefect or a teacher? Better to be safe than sorry; better to zip it.

The informers’ cover was not perfect, of course, and sometimes, by dint of informal detective work, a pattern of sorts of emerge, and a suspect or two would be identified. Reprisals against them were brutal; they came at the end of the year, when all scores were to be settled. Sometimes these consisted of beatings on campus; sometimes these took place off-campus. If this sounds horrifying, it should be. But then, so was the system of penal discipline imposed on the students in the first place.