Archive for April, 2010

Foucault and Pope Benedict XVI

April 25, 2010

Recently in the news, there have been many articles and much discourse over the sex abuse scandals surrounding Pope Benedict XVI.  This seems to have everything to do with Foucault’s discussion of sexuality in discourse, as identity, and as stemming from the Christian confessional.  Simply typing in ‘Pope Benedict’ and ‘sex’ in any online search engine brought up pages upon pages of websites speculating and reporting on the matter.  One particular article I read in looking up this story can be found here:

Before this particular scandal arose, the pope had received praise for his ‘zero tolerance’ policy on sex abuse scandals and, as the above article states, he had publicly “denounced ‘filth’ in the church – widely viewed as a reference to clerics who abused children.”

Only in recent months has news emerged over Pope Benedict concerning cases from his time as Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich.  These cases accuse him of having allowed certain priests involved in sex abuse to be transferred to other parishes, or at least having turned a blind eye to these cases.  One case involves Ratzinger in the decision to transfer Rev. Peter Hullerman, accused of abusing boys, to Munich for therapy and then allowing him to continue parish work only days after being admitted for psychiatric treatment. (Ratzinger’s ‘then-deputy’ later took responsibility for this).  Another prominent case involves a priest in Milwaukee accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys being put on trial only to have the case continually halted by Ratzinger who was then head of the disciplinary office at the Vatican.

Throughout the past few months, the Vatican has been surprisingly silent in response to attacks against the pope, only recently coming out with vague ‘apologies’ and promises for action to the victims of these abuses.

There has been an explosion of discourse and interest in sexual scandals of the Church since 2001, and it seems that as Foucault suggests, victims are speaking out and attempting to achieve some kind of sexual liberation by doing so together (acting in concert as Arendt discusses).  The case with Pope Benedict XVI is of particular interest because he is the leader of an institution (the Catholic Church) that has long ‘repressed’ sexuality as something that needs to be confessed or ferreted out as Foucault explains.  The pope’s entire identity and authority is being questioned. In the above mentioned article, a poll recently released in Stern magazine shows that only 39 percent of Germany’s (the pope’s home country) Catholics trust the pope, as opposed to 62 percent before the scandal.  The research & reporting worldwide on the subject trying to uncover the extent of the pope’s involvement in the scandal is another example of Foucault’s ‘scientia sexualis’, turning matters of sexuality into something to be studied or investigated.  As the article states: “It all comes down to the question of what the pope knew and when.”  This quote even bears resemblance to the same principles of a Catholic confessional.  There is a public need or desire to know the earliest stirrings of the pope’s transgression and everything that lead up to his actions. Sending one of the priests to therapy for his abuse is also part of this scientia sexualis mentality.  The fact that all of these cases deal with sexual abuse by priests demonstrates an interest in the “sexually perverse”.  Perhaps the reason the Vatican and Pope Benedict have had mysteriously little to say in response to accusations is because of the link between sexuality and secrecy.  The private confessional of the Catholic Church has turned into a very public worldwide confessional.

Take home final (due Thursday, May 6)

April 21, 2010

General instructions: The final exam consists of two parts; the first part consists of a few short identifications of some of the key terms we’ve discussed in this class.  The second part consists of two short essays.  Please answer each question.  The final exam will be due to me on Thursday, May 6 by 2:00 in the afternoon.  I will be in my office (Eastman Theater, 402) between 1:00 and 2:00 on that day; you can give me your exams then.  You may also e-mail me your exam, and I will send you a confirmation e-mail.  If you do not receive a confirmation e-mail you must assume that I have not received your exam.  It is your responsibility to see to it that I get a copy of your exam.

I. Short identification (6 points each): for each of the following terms, write a 3-4 sentence identification.  Your purpose here is to identify the meaning of the term, explain its importance, and perhaps give an example that helps explain the term more fully.

  1. Genealogy (for Foucault)
  2. Biopower (for Foucault)
  3. Power (for Arendt)
  4. Authority (for Arendt)
  5. Briefly: what is the “juridico-discursive” conception of power and what is Foucault’s attitude toward it (pp. 85)?

II.  Short essay (30 points): Please answer the following question. 

Question 1 (2-3 pages):  What is the “repressive hypothesis” and how does Foucault challenge it?  Hint: in explaining Foucault’s challenges to the repressive hypothesis, it might be useful to categorize them; Foucault, for instance, challenges the historical accuracy of the repressive hypothesis, but he also rejects the conception of power at work in the repressive hypothesis.  It might be a good idea to explain both of these challenges.

III.  Short essay (30 points). Please select and answer ONE of the following questions:

Question 1 (2-3 pages): The original idea for the “initiative grade” in this class was to have you all engage in self-assessments.  That is, my original plan was to provide the criteria by which I will evaluate your performance on the initiative grade, and then to require each student to write a short essay explaining which grade they deserve, given this criteria.  In this essay, analyze and critically evaluate this sort of grading technique from the perspective of Foucault’s conception of biopower. 

Make sure you offer a clear understanding of Foucault’s concept of biopower.  Also, if you are inclined to say that the act of self-assessment is a path toward freedom, you’ll need to explain what you mean by freedom and how education/writing might lead us toward that end.  Here you may wish to draw upon some of the other theorists we’ve studied (for instance, Arendt or Marx).

Question 2 (2-3 pages): Explain and critically evaluate Arendt’s argument that increasing use of violence in the activity of governance actually increases the impotence of the political system rather than its power (cf. 54-56).  Develop an example that illustrates or challenges Arendt’s point.


April 19, 2010

The other day, after the ESSO concert, my girlfriend, a friend, and I went out to Anchor Bar to get some wings.  That part of East Ave is very crowded on Friday nights, and finding a place to park was proving to be especially challenging.  However, we did see a half-full lot a few blocks away with no blatantly obvious ‘no parking’ signs, and we took this opportunity.  Once we were done, we walked back to the lot, and my car was not there. After walking to the back corner of the lot, we found a faded sign with “North East Towing” and a number, and so I called and left my number, as the very unpleasant auto-answer machine requested. Ten minutes later a man called me back, and I asked if he had my car, which he indeed did.  I told him that I believed it was an honest mistake and that I was just a college student. I would have to draw the conclusion that empathy way not in this person’s pallet of emotions. $180 cash would be the price to get the car, and I could absolutely not get anything that was in the car unless I paid the price, “in fact you’re lucky it’s not more because you spiked the parking break for no reason, which made my job a lot harder”.  (I was parked, was I not?)

My wonderful girlfriend took out the cash from her savings and was able to contact her friend who kindly drove us to the essentially hidden address, non-metaphorically on the wrong side of the tracks. I was greeted by two most assuredly unfriendly men from behind a large fence, who gruffly asked me if I had the cash. I said yes, and requested to see my car to them to check for damage before I gave it, “because it was so ‘difficult’ for you to get it out. “No”. “What if I give you half, then look at the car then the other half?” “No”. I was getting frustrated – “you cant just steal my car like that and then tell me ‘I’m lucky that you not charge me more’ because I did something I was taught to do! This is an unfair business practice and nothing more than a lewd act of piracy!” A hand placed on a hip clearly holstering a firearm and a “stop being a smart-ass” was his reply.

In reflection, the whole thing seams like a rather reveling case of power and powerlessness. I guess that it is essentially straight up Hobbeasian power in the fact that his actions were legal, thus a manifestation of sovereign power (or doing the will of the sovereign in terms of property rights).  However, it also seemed very different than the usual wielding of this power: when I think legal enforcement, police officers and the army pop in to my head, not two men in a seemingly abandoned warehouse at 12 at night.  Further, if I had decided to take matters into my own hands, I feel that Hobbeasian power fits equally as well: his violence power holstered so bulgingly to his belt would have been more than sufficient to put me in my place.

I feel we do a lot of ripping of Hobbes, but at that end of the day, when a man with a gun is legally holding your car for ransom, it all starts to make a lot of sense.

Arendt and the miracle of action

April 14, 2010

I was doing a bit of research today and came across a passage from one of Arendt’s famous books, The Human Condition. Let me start with the passage:

Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one achievement among others.  It is then, indeed, no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object.  This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy.  In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward an end whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda (180).

As in all things with Arendt, there are a great many things going on in the passage (e.g., the reference to the “disclosure of the agent in the act” would take quite a while to explain); however, I want to highlight one core aspect, which is the interplay between the “miraculous” and the “ordinary” in this passage.  Let us note first that, in the first sentence, Arendt is alluding to the idea that action is not just one achievement among others; to be sure, it can become this when “human togetherness is lost” (her example of this loss of togetherness–modern warfare–is interesting; on the one hand, the loss of togetherness is obvious in the sense that we are no longer together with the enemy, but even among “us”–the friends–this togetherness is lost, since in becoming unified against “them,” plurality is lost.  The space “in between” disappears as we become a unity).  Nevertheless, her language is quite clear: the “specific character” of action is to be something different from other achievements–different from, say, making a chair or cleaning the house.

Now, let us recall Arendt’s conception of power, which describes as an action in concert.  Let us also note what makes this action in concert possible: in On Violence, Arendt notes that power (action in concert) derives its legitimacy from the “initial getting together rather than from any action that might follow” (p. 52).  In other places, for instance in her book On Revolution, Arendt makes it clear that this initial getting together is legitimate insofar as it is based on free and sincere promises.  So we can say that legitimate power is a form of action in concert that arises on the basis of free and sincere promising.  What is interesting here, however, is that promise-making is a rather ordinary activity.  Action in concert–which as we see in the quoted paragraph above is extraordinary–is deeply connected to something rather everyday and mundane.

This, I want to suggest, is not an error or a contradiction; rather, part of what Arendt is trying to do is to orient us toward a recognition of the extraordinary in ordinary life.  When we look at the world from this point of view, we can see that ordinary practices–promise keeping, speaking, and so on–can take on heroic or extraordinary casts.  Action and speech sustains the social fabric, or maintains political reality, often in the face of extraordinary pressures to undo or destroy it.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean: In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes the remarkable case of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt.  Schmidt ended up providing significant material support to the Jewish underground resistance movement in Poland.  His actions were eventually discovered, and he was executed by the Germans in the spring of 1942.  Arendt’s discussion of Schmidt is, I think, quite telling.  One of the arguments frequently made by Germans in the aftermath of the war is that they didn’t resist the Nazis because such resistance would have been useless.  Not only, the argument goes, would it have failed to achieve any real changes, but the resistance most likely would simply have been fully forgotten: it is in the nature of totalitarian regimes not just to purge all resistance but consign it to oblivion–to make sure that all traces of resistance are forgotten.  Arendt counters this argument in the following way:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June 1942 on, to erase all traces of the massacres…were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain.  The holes of oblivion do not exist.  Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible.  One man will always be left alive to tell the story.  Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run.  It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told.  For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp.  Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation (pp. 232-233).

Anton Schmidt’s actions were at once ordinary and extraordinary: nothing could be more ordinary and normal than helping another in need, in acting morally and with integrity; yet under conditions of terror, these ordinary acts become miraculous.  And this is why his actions were not (and are not) in vain.  In acting in ways that disclosed his integrity, in acting to maintain the social fabric, in reproducing human togetherness, he in fact achieved something extraordinary, perhaps even the greatest thing humans can achieve in this world: he made the world fit for human habitation.

Coming out of the closet

April 13, 2010

Apropos of Foucault, the Daily Show comes through with this story:

Open Carrier Discrimination

Part of the issue, from a Foucaultian perspective anyway, is that the rhetoric of these “open carriers” apes the older discourses about overcoming discrimination by expressing one’s lifestyle.  It is as if one cannot act politically or endeavor to enact social change without first locating this as part of one’s identity.  In this case, of course, the identity in question is not one’s sexuality, but one’s particular set of preferences regarding fire arms.  Yet there is, so to speak, the same tactic of power at work here: in this rhetoric, society “silences” gun owners, and they must challenge this silencing by becoming visible, by expressing who they really are.  There are, of course, a lot of really odd things going on here, but one obvious issue is the effort to position gun ownership as something integral to one’s identity, and further, to assume that the expression of that essential identity (or becoming it touch with what one truly is) is simultaneously an expression of freedom

In any case, Foucault might suggest that this logic has now become an integral part of our political vernacular.  We increasingly understand the articulation of an identity as–of expressing the essentially hidden secrets of who one is and rendering this identity visible–as the political act.

Major League Baseball and Steroids

April 13, 2010

As Major League Baseball enters it’s 2010 season, fans everywhere are more skeptical about the sport’s integrity and legitimacy than ever before.  In light of Mark McGwire’s recent admission to taking steroids during his celebrated career, I think Major League Baseball has reached a point where someone needs to speak out about what they have done to the American public over the last 20-30 years.

The obvious question is “Who is to blame?”  The answer to this question is multi-fold.  The blame lies in so many places, from the players and their representatives, to the offices of Major League Baseball itself, to television, and even on the fans themselves.  The past years have been very complicated, so I will attempt to present a very possible set of events that has led to the loss of credibility that Baseball has seen in America.

30 years ago, baseball players made a discovery.  They could get stronger by taking drugs that were not forbidden by the league.  This extra strength made them appear to be better players, which then led to them making more money.  This monetary incentive caused more and more players to take Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s), and MLB’s ignorance, whether ignorant or intentional (a theory I will discuss later), led to America’s pastime being ensnared in what could be the biggest scandal in the history of American professional sports.  However, players would never have gotten away with their cheating for so many years without the MLB Players Association.  This union has misplaced its priorities, placing a higher value on money than on fans, and recently has blocked efforts by the League office to institute mandatory drug testing for all players.  However, the office of the commissioner, in the eyes of the fans, did not seem to make too much of an effort to force this drug testing onto the players.  But why?  Wouldn’t the league care about its public relations and how it was perceived by society?  The answer is no, because there is one thing that trumps all in professional sports: Money.

Money is the ruling principle of Major League Baseball.   This is the league that starts World Series games at 8:00 PM, making it impossible for the younger fans to be able to see the entire game, which aces out one of their largest fan demographics, just so that they can get an extra hour of prime-time airing, leading to an increased revenue.  What does this have to do with steroids?   Steroids make players stronger, which allows them to hit more home runs.  The home run is what draws the average fan to the ballpark.  The more of these average fans show up to games, the more money the league will makes through ticket sales, parking, concessions, and souveniers.  Let us look at the typical day at the ballpark.  How much money does a fan spend on a day at the park?  (For this section, I will be quoting prices from Sun-Life Stadium, or at least that’s what I think they call it now.  Anyways, where the Florida Marlins play their home games.)  First, the ticket itself.  The cheapest area to sit where you can still see the game action is the bullpen box, a seat there costs $25.  Parking at Sun-Life costs $20 for general parking with a quarter-mile walk to the stadium.  Lets say you get hungry an you get a hot-dog and a soda (or a beer).  Between your 12 inch jumbo hot dog (they don’t sell any other dogs) and your drink, your tab will be somewhere around $13.  To refute the argument that you can just not eat or drink, or just bring your own, let us think.  Baseball is played in the summer.  Summertime in florida is very hot (average in the 90’s with humidity at a near-constant 100%).  You are at the very least going to need to get a bottle of water.  That right there costs $5, and to make it worse, you cannot bring your own snacks or drinks into the stadium because of liability concerns.  Baseball is also a long game, so the chances of not wanting to buy some kind of snack are very slim.  Even a bag of peanuts will run you up $5.  Now, let’s say you want to keep score.  A program will cost around $5.  So, for 1 person to go to a game, it would total around $60.  $60 is a lot of money for 1 person, but think about this: if a family of 4 were to go to a game, they would be spending $240, and that is without the kids wanting to get an ice-cream, more drinks, a foam-finger, etc.  Last year, the Marlins sold an average of 18,770 tickets per game (2nd lowest in the league).  Let’s say that every one of those fans spent $60 at the games.  The SINGLE GAME TOTAL IS $1,126,200.  Multiply that number out over a 81-game home-schedule and you get a grand total of $91,222,200.  Subract expenses for player salaries, advertising expenses, money that they are required to share with the front office of Major League Baseball, and other costs, the team will bring in a grand total of around $40,000,000 yearly (the Marlins have one of the league’s lowest paid teams, which accounts for their low attendance and ticket prices, yes I said LOW ticket prices.  For $25, you cannot even get a seat at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, or Wrigley field, where games are routinely sold out.  Also remember that this is a very low-ball number because I am assuming that every fan will be sitting in the cheap seats).  Let us now say that this coming season, the Marlins call-up a young minor-leaguer with prodigious power.  He goes on a season-long home run tear and the fan-base gets excited.  More tickets will be sold to people who want to see this phenom in person.  Not only does this sell more tickets, concessions, and souveniers, it also gives the team a better chance at receiving more nationally broadcasted games, which in turn generates even more revenue for the team.  The same thing happens with any player, young or old, who suddenly discovers the ability to hit awe-inspiring home runs.  The key, however, lies in something I just mentioned: Television.  TV ratings rule baseball.

If it is true that home runs draw more fans to the stadium, then it can be assumed that more people are likely to tune in to a game being televised if more home runs are being hit.  The networks understand this and will then tend to televise teams with dynamic sluggers and high-scoring offenses in order to increase their ratings.  With that being said, how can you place the power on the networks, or the players, or the teams, or the people who run the league itself without realizing that the fans have been the one’s who continued to celebrate the tainted feats of the athletes?  Even though we (yes, I include myself here) have been taken advantage of, doesn’t some of the blame fall to us for continuing to buy tickets, buy expensive TV packages that allow us to see every game at once, and buying MLB merchandise?

This situation is very similar to what we explored in the excerpt from “The Grapes of Wrath”.  Like the farmers, baseball fans have been kept in the dark about something that greatly affects both our wallets and us, the fans.    In fact, the same kind of power that operated in “Grapes of Wrath” applies here.  What we see here is a very complicated form of systemic power.  We, the fans are caught in the middle of a corrupted system that works to increase profit at the expense of the fans.  It works so well because they are selling a commodity that people care so much about.  The players begin the cycle by taking PED’s.  Fans gain an interest in the game that leads to higher attendance, profit for the league, and TV ratings.  Eventually, the league figures out what the players are doing but don’t do anything because of their increased profit and popularity.   We, the fans are then being told a massive lie, as we sit in amazement, wondering how players can be so talented.  So, here it is.  A massive conspiracy theory that has been floating around in my mind for months, and I know I am probably blowing this up way beyond what it is.  But it is something that needed to be said after all of this time.