Archive for the ‘Foucault’ Category

Orientalism and the Colonized Mind

November 14, 2011

This post is a more indepth examination of Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism as a discourse and how, post-colonization, the formerly colonized have internalized colonial epistemes, often described in psychological terms. Some (Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993) call this phenomenon the post-colonial predicament in general, and some call the particularly psychological aspect of it the colonized mind. Post-colonial scholars call for a process of de-colonizing the mind in response.

Orientalism, in the sense that I will be using it throughout my analysis, refers to a systemic discursive regime—a way of thinking, speaking and thus acting—that reifies a distinction between East and West, Orient and Occident, that perpetuates a hierarchy privileging the West. This usage of term was conceived by Edward Said in Orientalism.  As Said argues:


Our Sexuality

October 11, 2010

I’m teaching a class on sexuality and I thought I should collect all of my preliminary thoughts about it into one place and, hey, that’s what this blog is for!

So, to begin, I’d like to say that my perspective on sexuality is quite Foucaultian. I think taking into account the insights (whether one agrees or not) of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is necessary for an understanding of our contemporary sexuality. Not only does he provide a very interesting account of where our sexual mores and proclivities belong in a historical continuum, he provides a very interesting methodological perspective about how to think about sexuality. It is not whether we possess in some essential way a certain sexuality, rather it is that we should question where sexuality comes from and what effect certain discourses on sexuality have on producing that sexuality. It is less important, for example, to determine whether or not we possess a repressed sexuality: it is rather to ask what does the very idea that we have a repressed sexuality do? How does thinking we are repressed effect the way we think and act about sexuality.

So, the first insight of The History of Sexuality and probably the most famous is that:

1) Whether or not we are actually repressed, the very idea that we are repressed (which we buy into a lot) impacts us. It makes us want to be liberated from this repression. It allows for a whole swath of discourse and activities open up that make us more and more concerned about sexuality. Because we think we are repressed we intensify our concern with sexuality. The idea of Repression actually produces more and more discourse about sexuality. (more…)

Foucault and Buddhism Redux

June 28, 2010

Caveat: Comparing two distinct trajectories of thought–considerably removed in time, place, historical development, context, background assumptions, socio-cultural surroundings etc. is a problematic endeavor. Why do it? One is essentially appropriating some aspect of each trajectory for one’s own uses. So one must be careful not to contribute to the various systemic forms of domination that play out: e.g. those that inform why we are choosing to care about these trajectories of thought as opposed to others and may not be independent from problematic interests; the way we speak about each may be impacted by forces that contribute to systemic oppression (i.e. orientalism); our goal in comparing is never separate from our own interests, and we must be careful about the potential productive use our comparing can do).

Taking these concerns and others into account, I’d like to compare Foucault and Buddhism to elaborate on why one would compare Foucault and Buddhism. Just as in the caveat above, any contribution to knowledge is the putting into play of a discourse for certain effects. In this (my) interpretation (i.e. for this post, this instance of comparative work) the intention is to speak about social justice. Social justice is many things to many people, so perhaps a working definition is in order. To whit: Social justice is the idea that domination should be eradicated, and socio-economic, gendered, sexual, racial (etc.) equity is a major part of combating domination. Domination comes in many forms, but the most productive forms of domination are institutional and structural and impact the individual lives of everyone. With this insight, social justice is the analysis of, critical engagement with, and strategic operation against the institutions and systemic processes within which domination operates.

From this perspective, when comparing Foucault and Buddhism, we can see prima facie (and understandably, given that idea of social justice is already heavily influenced by Foucauldian thought), that Foucault’s analysis of discourse, genealogical history, the construction of the subject and the disciplining of the self through institutions is an important and insightful examination of domination. One way we can think about Foucault’s answer to domination is to imagine that he is saying that these broader structures  are only continually reified in local instantiations–the sum and interrelation of which through history is what enables domination. Thus, strategically, and ethically, the opposite is true: it is only through local instantiations of strategic resistance to, and positive alternatives from, dominating relations that the work of social justice happens.

Buddhism’s concern is somewhat removed here. The telos of  Buddhism is different things to different people. Without going into the historical and comparative background, I think a plausible universal within Buddhism is the goal of the cessation of suffering, most commonly through the work of the cessation of attachment. How these two things play out in Buddhist history is exceptionally varied: from the 8-fold path, to the bodhisattva vow, to the six or ten perfections (depending on the tradition), etc. Two common themes develop in Buddhist history: the cessation of suffering at an individual level (in Foucauldian terms, the construction of the self that suffers less); and, the cessation of suffering at a universal level–that is, the goal of alleviating suffering for all sentiant beings (or sometimes just ‘the most one can reach’). The latter can speak to something similar to social justice: within the category of suffering are those things that lead to the more ‘mundane’ sufferings of poverty, illness, violence, etc., and also the more ‘existential’ suffering of uncontentedness engendered by, say, impermanence. The former theme of the cessation of suffering is a very local one: how does one produce one’s ‘self’ in such a way as to continually decrease one’s own suffering.

The trite part of my analysis comes in here: it seems to me, from the perspective of social justice, Buddhism only works at the level of the individual subject and at the level of a universal abstract. From this same perspective, Foucault’ s analysis works in between these, but only offers up the method for challenging and producing subjects and also leaves for continual re-imagining the goal (the abstract universal telos) of strategic work. In both cases, one could say that he leaves the end-product up to each of us. I would like to imagine, for this comparison, that these two ways of thinking about Foucault and Buddhism are complimentary. The open ends that Foucault leaves us, when filled with my abstract Buddhist analysis above, can be interpreted to speak towards social justice.

The work of re-imagining the subject could be predicated on constructing one’s subjectivity (through whatever practices) towards the goal of the alleviation of suffering. This subject-construction must work in tandem with the more abstract end of one’s reconstructions: the alleviation of suffering for everyone (or, in utilitarian terms: the least suffering for the most amount of sentient beings). What Foucault’s analysis allows us are the tools to interpret the systemic and institutional forces that shape domination and the expanding of suffering, and allow us a method towards which we can work for the cessation of suffering at an individual, local level for broad universal effects. Put another way, perhaps more negatively, Foucauldian analysis fills in the gap between the individual and the universal goals of dukkha-nirodha (the cessation of suffering) that is lacking in Buddhism. Buddhism can help concretize the open-ended nature of Foucualdian subject-construction.

Indeed, put in this light, I would argue that Buddhist goals and aims are on par with other social justice perspectives like feminism, post-colonialism, anti-racism, marxism, etc. that attempt to use Foucault to develop strategies of analysis and resistance to fight Patriarchy, Orientalism, Racism, and socio-economic imbalance, etc. Buddhism, when put within the list of social perspectives, could use Foucault for strategies to fight Suffering. Add dukkha to the list of intersectional oppressions, and use it in conjunction with feminism, post-colonialism, etc.–perhaps even include it, from this perspective, within the list of progressive doctrines. And, since we love labels, call it Progressive Buddhism.

Inspired by this thread: by Klonke at Feministe.

Philosophy as Sadism

April 2, 2010

In “The Language of Sade and Masoch,” Gilles Deleuze discusses the differences and similarities between the writings of The Marquis du Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. “The Libertine may put on an act of trying to convince and persuade; he may even proselytize and gain new recruits (as in Philosophy in the Bedroom). But the intention to convince is merely apparent, for nothing is in fact more alien to the sadist than the wish to convince, to persuade, in short to educate. He is interested in something quite different, namely to demonstrate that reasoning itself is a form of violence, and that he is on the side of violence, however calm and logical he may be. He is not even attempting to prove anything to anyone, but to perform a demonstration related essentially to the solitude and omnipotence of its author” (19).

This small insight caught my attention. Aside from concisely elaborating post-68’ French theory’s critique of “rationality-as-given” in whatever form it comes, it also reminds me of my work in comparative philosophy and the history of Asian thought. The story of colonialism was a story of the West claiming a “rationality” over and against the irrationality of the other that justified, after the fact, colony and control. Justify might be too forceful a word. Perhaps it might be better conceived as an ideological apothecary to relieve the unpleasant symptoms of a bald grab for control. Having perused the great thinkers, the marginal thinkers, a wide variety of thought from the three most influential civilizations in the world, I am not yet convinced that there is a single universal rationality. Nor am I convinced that there isn’t. What I do know, is that the discourse of rationality has been used in the past to help legitimize power. Indeed, all rationality is the veneer that covers over brute will with flowery language. We desire, we feel, we intuit and then we talk, we rationalize it afterwards. Nietzsche pointed this out, and I have a hunch that this is what Heidegger misses in saying Nietzsche’s will to power is a further metaphysics. It seems to me that Heidegger himself falls into Nietzsche’s trap as much as he struggled against it.

But, all of the “greats” of western metaphysics have been deeply aligned with power, colony, imagined communities, justifications, rationalization after the fact for desire and will. Marx saw this, to some degree. But to bring back Sade into the discussion, reason and rationality are an intermission, a segue between the movement of forces. Or, more appropriately, rationality is the movement of force relations. Rationality is the show of violence. It is the ability of those with leisure enough to learn it, power enough to bend it, and sadism enough to use it. No matter what culture, with some exceptions who only reify the illusion that it is not the case, rationality and “great thought” is the violence of elites working through language. Even the most noble, ethical, pacifist, turn-the-other-cheek, satyagraha thinking can only happen in a language build from the productive power of a socio-political-economic system that is their opposite. In other words, the violent sadism of rationality is subtle enough to allow for it to be an opiate too (to use a Marxist analogy).

But, this is amplified in the work of philosophy and the academy in the 20th century. The life of privilege and wealth that allowed thinking was brought under control in the form of the discipline. Modern philosophy is a zoo, regulated to produce in small spurts the opium and violence needed. Philosophers are often the most violent and most caged of the show. They want to let loose their sadism, they want to be freely sadistic. And yet, they know they are impotent. The impotence of the academy expresses itself as a more vile and petty sadism of little feuds and petty ideas only because it cannot unleash its own yearning to be a true libertine, in the Sadian sense. The older academy of apprentice and master, a pedagogy of taking care to gently ween new scholars into the Chateau has been replaced by the machine of jagged edges that culls and tears, small minutiae of pains and pleasures. The cogs—the tenured, the doctored, the post-doc, the grad student—they all tear little pieces of each other here and there. To what end? Ask Marx. Ask Nietzsche. Ask Foucault.

Philosophy as a discipline (that the irony of this word in this context has not been noticed shows how much I may be correct here) is the petty, violent sadism of last men who want to lord over the belief that they have already perfected knowledge, meanwhile convincing themselves that they are searching for it. Constructing knowledge when one thinks one has all the answers already (at the very least, the answers are all predetermined by the questions—questions, as Heidegger points out, that have nothing to do with thought—which is even more insidious) is exactly the solipsistic, omniscient sadism of a libertine.

Old Writings: Foucault and Buddhism

March 29, 2010

I have recently decided to start posting some old writing that I’ve written, for whatever reasons you may choose to impute on me–should you choose to do so. The previous post on Our Pedophilic Society was one such. This will be another. I’m not sure if I will start distinguishing these from those things I write recently, but for now I won’t. Without further adieu, here goes:

“Foucault’s notion that we construct our own subjectivity, especially in his later works, leads to important questions about why we act, think, believe and feel the way we do. Why do we choose to interpret the world in some ways as opposed to others? What ethos are we supporting when we act, believe and speak in the ways we do? The hermeneutic question here is: Why do we choose a certain subjectivity instead of another? Underlying this question is a tacit opening up of the malleability of one’s subject-position and the consequence that we can take an active part in constructing our own subjectivity. We can engage with all of those forces that shape our subjectivity, and attempt to reconstruct it in other ways. Foucault’s hope is that we challenge dominant paradigms and create new, less hegemonic/oppressive forms of subjectivity. The idea that we can take an active role in constructing our subjectivities is a key element of some Buddhist thought. One of the insights underlying much of Buddhist thought, including the Four Noble Truths, is the understanding that we actively create our own dukkha. While samsara is characterized by duhkha, nonetheless, the project of liberative action in Buddhism is the cessation of duhkha. This is engendered by an analysis that attempts to show how we can actively change our interpretations of the world, and how we can specifically reshape our attitudes about reality, our emotional states—in general, our subjectivity. To be more clear, the insight that we can transform and engage with our attachments is a position that at root is about transforming our subjectivity. The similarly key insight for both is that our subjectivity is not a given, it is a product of forces around us that shape how we construct ourselves. For Foucault it is power-relations and interests that impact our subjectivity; for Buddhists it is our collective attachments that shape our subjectivity (or conversely, the world as samsara of our being-in-the-world). And in both cases, a program of reconstituting the subject in ways that liberate the subject from these forces that shape our subjectivity engages directly with how we dominate ourselves through the disciplining of our own subjectivity.”

Let me provide a bhasa or auto-commentary. My first response is, so what? Almost every ideology demands the transformation of the subject. Why are these two so special?