Archives for posts with tag: Foucault


The deliberative democracy project, in which politics can be governed by rational decision making and the process of public deliberation can be guaranteed to have reasonable outcomes, makes sense only when conditions of ideal discourse prevail. These conditions, however, imply the removal of power relations from discourse; or in other words, they assume that ideal speech situations exist in which discourse is driven communicatively, rather than strategically; a position which must be rejected. One must understand that language use itself is colonized by power. The goal of greater inclusivity through discourse fails to stand up in the face of the undermining of inclusivity by the use of language. What is at stake in the claim that politics is unnecessarily adversarial is the denial of the central role of conflict in politics and collective identity formation. This is the work the concept of hegemony does, as the point of convergence and collapse between objectivity and power. The hegemony of a depoliticized public discourse, that of ‘third way’ politics is that there are correct answers to be had, which politicians are unwilling to take for whatever reason. This is rubbish, the answers in reality become clear only in retrospect (http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/30/opinion/toobin-government-not-broken/ argues for a similar point, but without being willing to take the final step the argument entails, perhaps the government is not broken, but the point is that social conflict such as #occupywallstreet shows that the polity is not broken. Such movements are properly agonistic rather than adversarial, they still seek to include other members of the polity, unlike an adversarial movement such as the tea party which seeks to expel members from the polity.) And then only because they are now historically imperative. This concept mirrors Foucault’s description of human history:

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination… Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose… [I]nterpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game. (Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews)

All language, and by extension politics, is warfare by other means.

Without the presence of the Lacanian master signifier, the signifier of symbolic authority founded only on itself, language has no meaning. The introduction of the master signifier to discourse distorts the symbolic field by introducing the intrinsic violence of language, which is generated by clashes over what constitutes appropriate language use, and who can use it, without which the entire symbolic field would evaporate. Similarly, the same violence is perpetrated, for example when some events are deemed worthy of public attention while others are marginalized through a refusal to acknowledge them. However, if the violent, authoritarian, master-signifier were removed from the symbolic field, then the field itself would vanish.

One must acknowledge the existence of power relations and the desire to alter how power is allocated, but perhaps more importantly one must renounce the illusion that we can ever be completely free from power. The complete dissolution of all power is a naive goal, one must instead see that power is constitutive of human relations and what is contingent is how it is used and by whom it is held. Of course protestors at #occupywallstreet will hold different goals, we already understand that every consensus is merely the temporary result of a provisional hegemony, that is, nothing more than a stabilization of power in the moment which can just as easily fracture the next. When establishment groups joined the protest after 2 weeks what effect can be expected? Will this lead to increased resolve, will the strategic rationality of large organizations give power to the movement, or will it undermine the truly radical potential? These mainstream groups joining the protest provide legitimacy but the ability to speak always already represents recourse to systems of power that give one the authority to speak, and to require the other to listen. By gaining legitimacy in this way the movement gives up part of its status as “outside” the order. To this point, many claims are made that the protestors are just children with nothing better to do, or only the unemployed; but isn’t it obvious that those are exactly the people who capitalism has most let down. The future that past generations have been able to count on is not available to today’s youth, and of course the high rate of unemployment is a symptom of the economic situation. If these are not the voices we should hear, the voices of those most affected, then who should we turn to.

The question is if such a political move is capable of building up a broad coalition of support without diluting its message too far. Will’s recent post brilliantly argues that the true meaning of the protest can be read off from its many messages, that is a disillusionment with the capitalist hegemony. One can read the endless interrogations by commenters online about how the protest is unguided and ask how can they not see the common theme, the solution which is already evident in the protest, but such a question comes about only after making the subjective determination as the one’s role. If one has already committed themselves to such a change then the question is obvious, but for one who still holds onto the ideological blinders of the prevailing hegemony how can such a solution ever appear ready-at-hand? Such a solution is already part of the counter-hegemony (that is a new hegemony, not a naive anti-hegemonic stance).

EDIT: Another interesting post by Daniel Drezner, at Foreign Policy, which moves in a similar manner to my argument, went up several hours after this post went live, for more check it out.

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Alternative medicine advocates point to natural remedies opposed to mass produced medications. An interesting parallel can be found in the music industry. Many bash pop music for its simplistic, cookie-cutter style, but to spin this point on its head, pop music is denigrated for being a purer form of enjoyment, perfected through time.

Pop music stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers regardless of what a person’s intellectual opinion on the music is (papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1742971). Further, simple, catchy songs result in a release of dopamine as the brain successfully anticipates melodies (sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811909013068). This leads to a number of interesting connections. The human mind experiences a high when it correctly anticipates the ending of a melody, which provides a disincentive to the inventive. The mind wants to hear familiar, predictable chord changes (For example, youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I, youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM or youtube.com/watch?v=F4ALd-Top2A). These familiar patterns then get used repetitively because, as “the fittest” musical ideas, they survive through many generations of memes. The question one has to ask then is what is the purpose of art. We have succeeded at discovering the formula for a musical high just as surely as we have discovered the formula for any number of mass produced medicines with few side effects which in a vast majority of cases have predictable results on the human body.

If one listens to music for enjoyment then one is, in light of this, forced to admit that pop music is the epitome of music. Any more cerebral forms are the musical equivalent of homeopathy; a rejection of systematically tested results. Alternative Medicine is medicine which lacks proven results, in the same way, perhaps, alternative music lacks the ability to efficiently stimulate the brain.

Now, certainly one can easily make the argument that music is not meant purely for enjoyment, but even a more cerebral form of music is ultimately intended to bring enjoyment to the listener, just in a different (diluted) form. By subverting predictable melodies one represses desire and furthers the chain of desire which must ultimately lead nowhere, to the hole that is the objet a. One falls prey to the hipster’s dilemma. One must not enjoy this (pop music), but instead enjoy its absence elsewhere. The superego dictates that what one should enjoy is not what immediately satisfies, but rather what sublimates, represses and turns aside enjoyment. Why else the well known saying “you probably haven’t heard of it/them.” Because the hipster denies their immediate pleasure derived from pop music so that they may later redeem it in linguistified form when they receive status for their denial of pleasure.

Here the biological connection again resurfaces with Foucault’s discussion of the history of sexuality. Briefly, only in controlling one’s impulse (to seek immediate gratification) can one be seen as having mastery. The result of avoiding pop music is not to eliminate desire, but to maintain it through the denial of consummation. Through self-control one endures the lack of the desired, and only through its lack do they heighten the excitement of the experiences that they allow themselves.

Willow bark may alleviate the pain of those who avoid the concentration of aspirin, but to do so is to abandon the enlightenment’s legacy of humanity’s ever expanding mastery over its surroundings; as is foregoing pop music in favor of more esoteric genres.