I blame Foucault

Michel Foucault is the most cited scholar in the social sciences, and his book Discipline and Punish is one of the most cited works. Foucault's influence is hard to underestimate within academia. It is my contention however that his ideas have been a substantial force for ill. Allow me to explain.

Michel the Mystic

In my view, one of the central problems of postmodern-leftist academic thought is the obsession with unmasking what lurks beneath, to dig beneath what is self evident in pursuit of something substantial and profound below the surface. Reality doesn't simply present itself to us, and common sense is not so common, they say. It is almost mystical in its framing. Academics of this persuasion are like miners digging ever deeper, excavating through the layers, uncovering ever more imperceptible 'truths' (a word which must be deployed in ever-so-knowing scare quotes). Deeper, and deeper they go until the nugget is found; the thing itself, the source, the slime, or whatever.

So what do we find at the bottom of everything? This is what this post is about. In the Foucauldian analysis what we find when all the smoke clears and once all the illusions have been 'seen through', is Power [1].

Foucault's argument was that society is structured as a nexus of power relations (embedded in and sustained primarily through language or discourse), and that the struggle between and among groups and individuals is a struggle for the power to act within that nexus. It doesn't matter who you are, you are in a power-relation with those around you. As far as I can tell, given my rudimentary French, Foucault used the word pouvoir instead of puissance to convey the broad sense of capacity rather than the narrower sense of brute force. But nevertheless, it is important to recognise that Foucault consistently employed the term in a negative sense, connoting coercion and control. You are afforded more or less pouvoir by virtue of your upbringing, status, wealth and also, to a large extent, group identity. The whole of society therefore consists of overlaid and interwoven 'structures of domination'. Indeed, that is what society is.

Everything, the Foucauldian tells us, really is about pouvoir. When all the facades are stripped away there is only power. It is the bottom-most category. Your marriage is a power relation. The relationship between teachers and students is a power relation (and therefore the giving of detentions is an act of violence). The rich and the poor are in a lopsided power relationship, so too are men and women, whites and people of colour, the young and the old. There is a power gradient between any two groups you care to name, and power differentials between individuals within and among those groups. And so there is necessarily domination at every turn.

Of course, there is a grain of truth in all this. Power is a genuine category, and there are those who would utilise their pouvoir for malevolent, anti-social or self-serving ends.  We are well aware that power corrupts. (Or maybe power simply enables the already-corrupt). But, for me, Foucault and (especially) his followers go too far by insisting on the fundamental place of Power in the structure (and structuring) of social reality.

The Sorcerer's Apprentices

Why has Foucault become so ubiquitous? Honestly? My suspicion is that his ideas are everywhere because they require very little skill to apply. The precepts are pretty straightforward. Once you have been shown the 'truth' that power is the real currency that under-girds our society, that inaugurates and maintains 'structures of domination', then you start to see it everywhere. It becomes the lens through which everything must be viewed. And once you start, you just can't stop. Some might see this as evidence for the veracity of the analysis; I suggest it is evidence of a subtle perniciousness which is exacerbated by the lazy thinking of too many who have pitched their tent in Foucault's shadow.

Given how straightforward it is to apply Foucault, and how productive such an analysis can seem, it is unsurprising that there are swathes of social scientists labouring in Foucault's dreary universe. Take, as one example, this remarkable video in which an academic explains how she came to embrace the new field of 'feminist glaciology'.

She concludes (about 18 minutes in) with these remarks:
"What I am starting to suspect here is that this is not about me and this is not about glaciers...What's going on? It's about what this is really about. This is about power. It's about authorising specific knowledges and marginalising or excluding others. It pretends to be this single story about glaciers, or women, or me. But in reality this is about Power."
See? It is so broad a framework that, no matter which onion you peel (the onion of glaciology, in this case), as the layers come away you are always left with the same central concept: Power. This is the kind of thing you will find being done by Foucauldian scholars all across the social sciences and humanities. It has begun to creep into other domains. The academy is replete with such examples. A Foucauldian can conjure the very same rabbit out of a bewildering variety of hats.

Since Foucauldian academics have been initiated into the true order of things, like some occult rite of passage, it is henceforth the mission of said scholar to show how even the most innocuous and innocent of acts is in fact the insidious outworking of structures of domination hitherto unseen by the uncritical eye. 'Microaggression', anyone?

Enter the Intersectionalists

But this is a deeply damaging (perhaps pathological) way to perceive the world, and the ramifications are manifold. To reduce social relations between actors to the interplay of pouvoir rules out the possibility of free association between equals, denies the freedom and agency inherent in the interaction and reduces both individuals to less that what they each are. Both the powerful and the powerless are dehumanized in that relationship. Is it not blindingly evident that human beings and the relationships between them are multifaceted? Where do we place beauty, or skills, or ability, or intelligence, or chutzpah, among the 'structures of domination'? No, seriously.

On the surface of all of our lives there are evidences of these relational categories, and so the Foucauldian scheme must account for them. The Foucauldian simply folds these categories together, calls it power, and then pushes the locus of that power deeper within the individual, towards the unconscious and the pre-discursive. Yes, it may seem to you that you love your wife, but the 'deeper' reality is that you simply hanker after power and desire to wield it over another person. In Foucault's own words, 'the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, [is] the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us'.

To free oneself from this fascistic self-domination and self-exploitation requires the identification of the power-centres and their subsequent dismantling. Enter the intersectionalists, Foucault's offspring; they know where the power is. It is in whiteness, and maleness, and heterosexuality, and Christianity, etc.  These are simply the masks that power wears to structure the world for the powerless. Intersectionalists may well use the word privilege instead of power, but a rose by any other name...

And their stated aim? To deconstruct, de-centre, and decolonise. For them it is the lofty ideal of human liberty that fuels their efforts, that compels them to disrupt and resist.

If you happen to have the misfortune of holding all the power-full identities; white, able-bodied, so called 'cis'-male, Christian, heterosexual, married father (oh crumbs!), then your privilege is tantamount to fascism. And fascism must be denounced and renounced. You are unworthy of compassion, empathy, pity or respect, because you are (consciously and unconsciously) the privileged oppressor in every social field you inhabit. The power holder cannot be the object of compassion because it is undeserved [2], perhaps even taken by socio-historical force. What's more - since there is neither love nor forgiveness, only reparations in the economy of power - the response of the guilty woke-ling must be some (post-)modern iteration of asceticism, of self-flagellation and reflexive retribution. [3] You end up with people apologizing for things they didn't do, and for which they have no business apologizing.

The Greatest Danger

Pierre Bayle has this to say of philosophy and reason, which I think provides a pretty good description of how Foucauldian Postmodernism has proceeded in the West.
"...[P]hilosophy can be compared to some powders that are so corrosive that, after they have eaten away the infected flesh of a wound, they then devour the living flesh, rot the bones, and penetrate to the very marrow. Philosophy at first refutes errors. But if it is not stopped at this point, it goes on to attack truths. And when it is left on its own, it goes so far that it no longer knows where it is and can find no stopping place."
Thinking in Foucauldian terms (you haven't got to the bottom of something until you've uncovered the power structures) will eat away at all honesty, all good motives, all gratitude, and every display of genuine love. There is no love in the Foucauldian economy: power has eaten it up. It is an utterly impoverished and impoverishing worldview.

Take again the example of the feminist glaciologist. I will gladly acknowledge she makes some very valid points about the marginalisation of women within the field of glacier studies. But, by making her appeal to a Foucauldian power analysis, she goes too far. The best and most practicable solutions to this marginalisation become obscured by the overriding narrative of domination. It's not too many logical steps from here to 'burn it all down'. It's not so bad when we're talking about glaciers, but when the same analysis works its way from dusty university shelves and out into the real world, there's trouble a-brewing.

The real-world consequence of thinking in these categories is that abuse of power cannot be logically distinguished from unloving, or uncaring acts. (It is the good grace of God that keeps most postmodernists from living out 'their truth'). There is no internal logic (and no true morality) by which we might draw a line between the drawing of cartoons and the bombing of civilians. It cannot be said by Foucault's disciples that this thing is unloving, while that thing is evil. Because the only category is the category of power. This is how the clumsy and ridiculous bumbling of a fool in love, hitherto just fodder for TV sit-coms, can be recast as part of a deeply insidious 'rape culture'. This is degrading and dismissive of those who have suffered the grotesque physical and psychological trauma of actual rape. To the Foucauldian there is only a sliding scale, but no qualitative difference between these two 'deployments of power' in the analysis.

Since Power is a zero sum game to the Foucauldian, the only way to move toward social justice (that is, equity) is to wrest that power from the hitherto powerful and redistribute it. How? Well, get yourself a book on the history of the 20th century, and see how it turned out the last few times around.

[1] This kind of leftist conjuring is attended to brilliantly in Sir Roger Scruton's book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (which I urge you to read).

[2] See Cassie Jaye's experience studying men's rights.

[3] Such as John Lasseter's (of Pixar fame) self-imposed sabbatical for hugging too much. (in The Guardian). Or Lorde's tweet (here). Or the So Sorry movement.

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