Archives for posts with tag: Michel Foucault

To understand postmodernism, one must first have a basic understanding of modernism. Luckily, modernism is far less complex than postmodernism, which hopefully makes understanding postmodernism easier as well. Modernism is a paradigm that says that we’ve figured everything out, science has won, our current institutions never need to change again, and any form of progress will only be the refinement of things that we currently have got going for us right now. It’s the paradigm of Fukuyama’s “End of History.” There’s no point in talking about things anymore; this is it.

Postmodernism is the reply to that which says, “Wellllllll….. I mean…. really? Literally everyone in the past has said that their way of thinking is irrefutably true, but you’re super sure that you’ve got it this time?”

This of course is completely reasonable. Modernists give primacy to science; science is about the refutation of existing theories (except apparently when it comes to the primacy of science and other modernist principles which can never possibly be refuted), so why is there such blowback against attempts to refute existing theories? Postmodernism is applying rational skepticism to firmly entrenched ideas and values. This is usually done by looking at an idea that is taken for granted as true, analyzing its history, and then pointing out flaws that have been imbued in that idea since its inception. Postmodernists usually leave it up to us to decide what to do with their criticism, but it’s generally assumed that a revaluation of that idea is the implied minimum.

For a couple of examples, capitalism is an economic system founded in colonialism and slavery. Tracing its history to today, one can see threads of that continuing in the exploitation of third world countries for first world profits. Postmodernism stops there. It has never been big on solutions, just pointing out the problems. I’ve also outlined the general thesis of Foucault’s evolution of punishment here. This blog is essentially a postmodern analysis of contemporary justice. Basically if you’re criticizing something by looking at how its history has shaped its current incarnation, you’re doing postmodernism. Nietzsche was actually one of the first postmodernists. In The Genealogy of Morals, he takes the firmly established Christian way of life, and then deconstructs it as the “slave morality” response to the Roman “master morality”, thus leading to the insipidness of his time. The difference I guess is that Nietzsche offered a solution.

Here’s the thing: nobody likes postmodernists. Which is weird because skepticism has been around for a looonnnng time. Postmodernists are attacked for not liking science and reason; David Hume posited that causality is unknowable; Renee Descartes suggested that mathematical truths could be the deception of an evil demon, and thus could not be held self-evident; Sextus Empiricus, one of the most famous Greek skeptics, provided proofs both for and against the gods; Socrates denied traditional piety, values, language, epistemology, justice… so many things. Much like Socrates, postmodernists get a lot of grief because they attack the paradigm of those in power. They are the gadflies of modernity.

If you watch any video on postmodernism, you’ll probably see somewhere in the comments advice from helpful Youtubers to check out Jordan Peterson, because he knows about postmodernism, and he says it’s bad. Let’s look at some of his criticisms:

It’s an attack on rationality/empiricism/science: That’s one way of framing it, sure, but that isn’t unprecedented even in the most enlightened of circles, and it’s not actually the case. Postmodernism appreciates other ways of knowing, rather than baldly accepting the deification of reason. Maybe beauty has some truth worth knowing, or empathy might reveal something about the universe. Ask yourself, “How can I prove that reason is the ultimate way of knowing?” You can answer either with reason, which would lead to an infinite regress (proving reason with reason would require further reason to prove the second reason), or with some other way of knowing, which shows the value of an alternative. It’s not that science is wrong or bad, it’s that it’s not alone.

It suggests multiple viewpoints, which means there can be no true viewpoint. The only reason we have an agreed upon viewpoint is because it belongs to those in power: Well, yeah. Read a book. History belongs to the victors, right? Those with the most power are going to organize things so that they keep winning. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Everyone knows politicians are corrupt because they do everything to keep their power, but nobody can make the leap to other facets of our society functioning on the same premise? Please.

Next would be the relativism implied in the criticism: the difficulty we have with truth does not mean that there cannot be a best viewpoint, and deciding which is best is a lot more complicated than accepting the current system simply because that’s the way it has always been. Perhaps with a postmodern lens, we can better understand which viewpoint has the greatest benefit.

There is no individual in postmodernism, just identity. It splits people into an oppressor and oppressed class: Again, yes. Economists and statisticians split people into identifiable variables all the time. It makes measuring trends easier. It’s a way of analyzing social phenomena. If one group is lumped together into an oppressor class, that’s because historically that group has tended to behave in that pattern and now benefits from that history, even if you don’t accept that that practice continues today. It’s not complicated.

Postmodernists are all Marxists. They don’t engage in dialogue. They want to destroy everything: To sum up, postmodernism corrupts the youth. Peterson is famous for wanting to shut down university courses that he believes perpetuate postmodern ideas and “cultural Marxism.” This is the exact charge the Athenians levied against Socrates. There is a lot of propaganda against postmodernists by those who stand to lose under their dissecting eye. Peterson is a buffoon.

There are some valid criticisms of postmodernism, even in this blog. You may have noticed I repeatedly pointed out that it doesn’t offer solutions. Beyond this, it denies any Grand Narrative, which in theory could be used to unify people even if today they are mostly used for jingoist purposes. When people call postmodernism a philosophy I usually cringe because I see it more as sociology rather than philosophy. A postmodernist is more likely to criticize bourgeois philosophy than participate within it, and fair enough.

The true skeptic holds that every belief must be questioned, including the belief that every belief must be questioned. Postmodernism is not beyond criticism, and nobody says it should be. It’s just that too much of its criticism has been coming from people who lump it in with “Cultural Marxism“, and those people are just so, so dumb and are ruining things for everyone. I just want to go back to writing about how empathy isn’t real and the Marxist implications of Facebook, but NOOOOooooo! I have to write out entire blogs explaining why alt-right talking points are wrong.

Post-script: In that Jordan Peterson video, he says that he read Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and then says that its theme is that the presentation of mental illness is shaped by the conditions of its surrounding environment. That’s… not what the book is about at all. The book is about showing how mental illness is framed in moral terms, as a manifestation of an unreason contrasting the social norms of its environment. Kind of like how being transgender is seen as morally deviant because it flies in the face of the traditional understandings of gender. It’s actually exactly like that. Peterson either never actually read the book and is posturing (so smugly) to seem smart to his followers, or he’s just really, really dumb and didn’t pick up what Foucault wrote out explicitly like, a bunch of times throughout the book. It really seems to me that Jordan Peterson learned about postmodernism from a Jordan Peterson video, and didn’t investigate further because whatever, he gets to be famous for being the stupid man’s smart person.

Remember back in the day when you would get your hand cut off for stealing? Or how about having your limbs ripped off for murder? Or publicly hanged for basically any reason? Life used to have a lot civic sadism in it, didn’t it? Whatever happened to that? It’d be nice to think that we’ve become more civilized, that we’ve realized visceral punishment is not longer acceptable, but according to Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish, we’ve just gotten better at introducing mechanisms of control. We no longer need to torture people because we’ve learned that it doesn’t actually work all that great for keeping the population in line; what’s far more effective is constant surveillance. What deters crime isn’t any threat of punishment, it is the certainty of being caught.

Foucault describes the Panopticon, originated by Jeremy Benthem, as the ideal mechanism for social control. “It had to be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere, mobile attentions ever on the alert.” However, the Panopticon is not just a method of ever-present observation, it also has to veiled. “This power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible.”

Imagine the Eye of Sauron, but wearing reflective sunglasses so you could never see when the eye was actually looking at you. The Orcs of Mordor, knowing full well the expectation on them to behave in a certain way, would instinctively conform to those expectations if they felt an eternal gaze resting on their shoulders, but also never knowing if that gaze has left them. That ambiguity, mixed with the certainty that observation is always possible, creates an unease in the mind that makes conformity to social rules simply the most comfortable choice to make.


Artist’s Representation

The dominant method of punishment has evolved from simply focusing on the body of the perpetrator to focusing on their soul. The Panopticon creates “a permanent account of individuals’ behaviour” to shame them, to degrade them, and to isolate them.

Now of course, the Panopticon is useless if the rules aren’t understood. Constant, unrelenting judgement needs to be a lifelong process enforced by those who hold the current power. “It is not the beautiful totality of the individual that is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.” The ideal of the Panopticon is universal surveillance from birth, where the comfort of conformity molds our personalities before we even have the opportunity to develop genuine autonomy. “The ideal point of penality today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytic observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of examination.” Today, that indefinite interrogation exists on a global scale without controversy.

Today, we no longer require a sovereign gaze to hold us to account with our lives underneath a microscope. We have the technology to discipline ourselves under a new, social gaze, one that we submit to willingly. We put every aspect of our selves onto social media, to endure the judgment of the unrelenting, ever-present gaze of our peers.

Those who have grown up under the Digital Panopticon suffer under its gaze far more than those who developed autonomy outside of it. In the UK, polls have shown that social media leads to increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in those aged 14 to 24. Girls especially, driven to focus on their image by other social pressures, buckle further under the social gaze as they strive for perfect conformity; the biggest internet worry for 35% of girls aged 11-21 is comparing themselves with others.

We are ever-examined, ever-judged, ever-molded by the expectations of others, and we will exist under this social gaze for as long as the internet holds out. New cultures of shame have arisen. New methods of bullying and harassment follow us wherever we go; the Digital Panopticon is inescapable. And we love it. We embrace it as modern human connection, seeming to forget that we block out all the humans around us when we focus on an inert, lifeless screen. Who hasn’t edited a thought to avoid controversy? Or customized their photo albums to present a unified, perfect presentation of what is expected? We’ve put ourselves under ambiguous, yet constant surveillance, without the intervention of any elite group, simply because the technology is there. We’ve given up our souls to be up to date.

Big Brother is obsolete. We are our own oppressive regime.