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Answering to Foucault June 18, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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When I started reading the 1984 lectures, I was hoping that I’d be able to provide a different interpretation to that offered by the likes of McGushin and Bernauer, because their take seemed so unFoucauldian. As my notes have perhaps indicated, I believe these lectures are atypical Foucault in a range of ways that I’m not going into. The point is that some (but not all) of the arguments that made me uncomfortable did originate with Foucault and not his interpreters. So I feel obliged to give an answer to them, because I have taken these issues seriously. So in what follows, I will give my answer to Foucault. (more…)

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Describing the Person June 15, 2009

Posted by Andy in pedagogics.
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There has been a fair amount of activity around the question of describing the human situation through the person of Christ of late, and my position has largely been that the whole project of describing who we are is all wrong. I started off my PhD being naively suspicious of the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, and this caution has cropped up again in the wake of my teacher training. So I thought I’d just justify this fear by sketching out something I’m working on at the moment.

Educational studies are full of wonderful words about the human being. The good teacher should give space to his/her students so that their inborn talents may have free reign to develop unhindered; students love to discover if left to their own devices; it’s important to have a positive view of the person. The classic expression of all these beautiful thoughts is in the general part of the national curriculum in Norway (isn’t it pretty?). In addition to ensuring that students can follow the normal development of the human species, teachers should address all parts of the student.

This document is divided up into a series of sections called “the x human being” – where x stands for spiritual, creative, working, liberally-educated, social, environmentally aware and integrated. The grammar of each chapter basically states that children are x anyway, and so the teacher needs to accommodate and direct that x-ness so that it is conducive to learning and being together. Children are creative, so let their creativity find expression in the classroom for everyone’s good.

OK. So this is clearly a move away from a kind of academic cerebral classroom towards a more holistic education no doubt. But the argument employs a familiar move. Why should we all be utilitarians? Because everyone wants to be happy anyway! This insight is at least as old as Aristotle (Nich. I.iv). Why does it become so important in Mill’s time? Well, I think the answer lies in the concerns common to Mill and the writers of national curricula. It is important for the art of governing.

If you are disillusioned with exclusionary tactics like exile, the death penalty, and seclusion (or in school, expulsion, selection and failure), and you want to find ways of being together that compensate for everyone’s different tastes and peculiarities, you need to find some common ground in the population. Utilitarianism was a way of building a society based on everyone’s common need to be happy. As long as everyone is trying to be happy – which is to say, as long as everyone is being human – then utilitarian government works. Similarly, as long as every child is trying to be creative, social, integrated, etc. then Norwegian pedagogical theory works. The teacher uses those human characteristics in constructing learning contexts for classroom activities.

The dark side of this is perhaps that those who do not pursue happiness, attempt to be creative, etc. are thereby labelled subhuman rather than just in the wrong, and that has certain consequences. But they don’t have to be serious consequences: as long as human sciences can develop, you can keep them in the system by re-interpreting what you mean by the pursuit of happiness, being creative, etc.

The point is that the model of current class leadership is based on compensation rather than discipline. It’s about allowing for weirdness whilst appropriating the universal. The human sciences allow the leader to calculate the levels of dissidence, transgression and lawlessness whilst finding a human common denominator that can give them a handle on the classroom population. It’s a kind of intervention through human independence (and this model is largely worked out in Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population).

As soon as we know what is essential to the human being, we can compensate for it. The current political model is not the disciplinary prison, but the indulgent uncle. I allow my daughter to run away as far as she likes because I know she doesn’t like to run away further than is good for her. And by letting her run off, I don’t have to discipline her movements or teach her to walk independently. I use her own independent desire for my company (whilst it lasts!) in order to control her movement.

And that’s why I think describing humanity is complicit with government.

Christian Philosophy of Education April 8, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, pedagogics.
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Whilst writing about Negative Theology and Foucault’s take on asceticism, I’m currently doing a teacher training course, and whilst reading up on this, I’ve come across a curiosity and a problem. (more…)

Final Lecture: the fear of obedience March 30, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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Foucault’s final lecture (whose 25th anniversary was on Saturday: I celebrated by getting a cold) makes the move from Cynic sovereignty to Christian obedience. He marks out the clear differences between Christian and Cynic parrhesia, and then goes through the uses of the word in the Old Testament (LXX), the New Testament, and the church fathers and mothers. His conclusion is that it is basically in cenobitic, or at least with institutional monasticism that pastoral power has its main roots, but that mystical Christian experience – which he associates with intimacy and freedom before God – will always have the potential to resist the more sinister ascetic pole of Christianity. (more…)

Lecture 8: spiritual combat March 27, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The penultimate lecture of the 21st March sets out to conclude Foucault’s study of Cynic philosophy so that he may move on to early Christianity in the final lecture. Once again, he is ill at the point, and warns that he may not be able to complete. There is no sign that this lecture was any shorter than the others though. It is certainly packed full of insight: he founds the philosophical life and later asceticism on the notion of the sovereign self militantly exercising its athletic reason to change the world. He argues that the ascesis of enduring insults, celibacy and separation from the world are all logical outcomes of the ethical thought of the classical world. Cynics are at the centre of occidental ethics by their installation of love in the relation between insulter and victim. Their disgrace is part of their pedagogical task of teaching the world the difference between happiness and unhappiness. That is their political program. (more…)

Lecture 7: the Other life March 25, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The seventh lecture, of the 14th March (I hope to catch up with myself and pretentiously post the final lecture on its 25th anniversary) takes us from the Cynic transformation of the philosophical understandings of the true life up to a mode of being that is beginning to resemble early Christian asceticism on a great number of points. That is where my interest in Foucault started, and so the points are more obvious (and perhaps contrived) to me, but he outlines these resemblances and transformations in the final lecture so everyone’s clear about it. So we start the lecture with a philosophical account of Cynicism and end it with an examination of Cynic humiliation/humility. (more…)

Lecture 6: Foucault wrings his hands about Cynics March 23, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The 6th lecture, from the 7th March, 1984, presents a picture of Foucault the Cynicism-researcher diametrically opposite to the last lecture. Whilst last time he drew wild parallels between the historical movement and the colourful developments in European art, politics, and religion, this lecture sees Foucault agonising – even obsessing – over the historical problems with studying Cynic philosophers in late antiquity. But then he’s back on track again, and sets up Plato’s notion of the true life as a framework against which to examine the transformations wrought by the Cynics. (more…)

Lecture 5: Arts of Existence March 18, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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Foucault’s fifth lecture is an excellent example of how surprising it can be to read his stuff. There are three parts to it: first he wraps up Laches, then he introduces Cynic philosophy, and finally sketches out some of the ways this school can be detected in European history. It’s surprising because it involves discussion of Gregory of Nazianzen, the aesthetics of existence, Paul Tillich, the modern revolutionary, Dostoevsky, Christian spirituality and suicide bombers. (more…)

Le Courage de la Vérité 4: Plato’s Laches March 11, 2009

Posted by Andy in Le Courage de la Vérité.
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Foucault’s fourth lecture on the Courage of truth is a reading of the Plato’s Laches. He says that no self-respecting professor of philosophy can avoid giving a course on Socrates and his death at some point in his life, and so this is it (“Salvate animam meam” he adds). This lecture sketches out a few more details concerning Socratic parrhesia before he leaves the period and goes on to talk about the Cynics. This is also the only lecture he gave this year without a break. I don’t think that’s significant… (more…)

A cock for life: Foucault’s third lecture March 10, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The third lecture of 1984 (the 15th February) examines Socrates’ appropriation of parrhesia. The transition I think he’s getting at is from the kind of truth-telling that opposes the powerful for the good of the collective towards the kind of truth-telling that opposes vanity for the sake of the good life (and this is where life is inserted into philosophical practice). But the main locus for this history is the last words of Socrates. (more…)