The confessing animal. (fwd)

Date: Sat, 3 Dec 1994 11:56:56 -0800
From: mjackson.DOMAIN1 <mjackson.DOMAIN1.oramail@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: The confessing animal.

In a recent post, Ben suggests that we should analyze our *own* power
relations, our *own* discourse; that we should engage in serious self-
reflection about the language that we speak. It is curious to me that
somebody could "seriously" read Foucault and suggest this. Ben seems to
imply that it is a Foucauldian move to rigorously reflect on one's own
use of language, to counter power relations with the neo-Socratic ethic
of "know thyself". Three points about this call to self-reflection (even
of the discursive sort).

1 This is not really a method advocated or used by Foucault. --Did he
rigorously reflect on his own language, his own power relations? Not
really. He goes where the action is, where power and discourse are most
densely imbricated (e.g., the clinic, the asylum, the prison, the human
sciences). In his major work, he interogates various discourses and the
practices related to them, but the kind of personal reflection and
insight Ben suggests is completely lacking. For instance, when MF
analyzes sexuality, he gives us no indication of his own use of terms
and practices related to sex and sexuality, no self examination/disclosure;
instead, he provides an analysis of how sexuality is deployed in our
society, how sexual practices and discourses produce certain types of
power relations. MF, then, really had little use for the kind of self
reflection Ben's calling for. --And frankly, it wouldn't have added
anything of interest for me to hear MF's personal disclosures about sex
in the _history of sexuality_: the self-reflection is simply irrelevant
to a Foucauldian analysis of discourse and practice.

2 Ben ironically reinscribes one of the major tropes in Western societies:
the confession. This call to develop self-awareness, reflect on oneself
and one's actions, avoid wrong, etc., is linked to various modes of power
relations in our society. Most obviously, religious practices, but also
psychiatry, school psychology, prison rehab, and so on. One of the ways
in which many relations of power in our society are created and sustained
is precisely through this ethic of self-reflection, self-analysis, and
confession. MF points out that we are, in the West, "confessing animals";
Ben apparently wants to reinforce that ethic in an attempt to challenge
power relations. But I think it's clear that this whole ethic of self
examination and disclosure is a tool for the reproduction of the status
quo, not a means by which society can be transformed. (MF's
aesthetics of self--life as work of art--strikes me as much more useful
here than neo-Christian self-examination.)

3 Finally, the call to self-reflection is individualistic. I hear a
similar argument on the net and in my classes about racism or sexism:
If we monitor ourselves rigorously, if we examine ourselves closely,
racism or sexism will disappear. What this individualistic view overlooks
is that racism, sexism, power and not *only* the products on intentional
human conduct; in many cases, power relations exist with no specific
intent to derogate or subordinate people. Power is not the attribute
that some people have in our society but others do not; power relations
are what produce specific subject-positions with various potentials for
action. In this network of power and discourse, intent isn't all that
important; for instance, poor wages for women relative to men can exist
in our society today with no intent to discriminate against women. People's
intentions do not animate relations of power; rather, intentions are a
product of certain power arrangements. From this Foucauldian view, then,
rigorous self-examination won't get us very far, for there are entrenched
patterns of practice and discourse that persist regardless of people's
"self-awareness". --To put it bluntly: the idea that things will change
if we all just interrogate ourselves and the way we talk and act is pretty
silly. --And, come to think of it, a bit egotistical: "if I change, this
will surely have some effect on our society!"

In sum: this call to self-reflection is clearly problematic. If we want
to understand how power works, how discourse and practice link up in our
society, this neo-Christian ethic is neither necessary nor useful. On the
other hand, this sort of discourse provides an interesting topic of study:
How does the production of the modern, confessing animal manifest itself
in apparently "radical" discourse? [bell hooks' early work is another
good example of this.]

Miles Jackson

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