Reading Foucault & thinking college activism

This has been in the making for several years now – trying to identify the causal chain from ideas to action, especially since the first reading of Foucault. The ongoing trouble in colleges and universities of Delhi presents a case to reflect upon this causal chain.

There comes a phase in student life when encounters with different views and ideologies happens. These emerge not in the classroom but come in via campus gates, campus canteens, chai shops and similar such student watering holes. These are at times tensions in the real world, varieties of conflicts of interests and at times plain matters of ideological positions. All of these get overwhelming for a person who is a few years out of school and as a youngster. I remember my first experience of a political rally in a small town in Tamil Nadu. Then there were these trade union rallies (AITUC, INTUC and Mazdoor unions) that I got hooked on to. They were amazing sights and assemblies of people. As a youth this encounter – of the unfolding of ideas as action in real life, shapes one to either question what is happening and have an opinion, or walk away with an indifference altogether. These plain experiences seem to have a bearing on that student’s worldview in later years when he joins the workforce (like, sympathies to the causes of marginalized people and organized resistance as a recourse).

In this process, I find that readings can help a great deal in shaping early views which might enable a student to make, perhaps, a slightly better sense of the encounters that he is likely to have. Political events – rallies, meetings, protests, clashes etc, are referred to as “encounters” because in a student’s life in India these typically have no precedence. Often, the student has seen an action but has not known the idea that inform that action. Towards this, I recall my experience reading thinkers like Foucault and how the use of “power” began pervading my arguments and consequent formation of opinion.

August, 2012 is when I first encountered his article in – Governmentality, in Colin Gordon (ed), (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Since then, the frequency with which Foucault’s writings have ambushed me, became alarmingly high. He died in Paris in the year I was born. That somehow felt like Foucault’s experiences that inform his ideas might be a bit reachable in their nature. However, it was difficult to discern the plane at which his thought-process worked. I wasn’t quite getting a hang of the range of his engagement. Over time, I began sampling excerpts from various themes that he engaged with. The man looked fascinating to begin with and having read a bit more of him I can say that his writings can serve as an armory which can effectively enable thinkers and actors alike for the battle of ideas that rages in our contemporary society. Take for instance, the university and college campus clashes happening in India this week – Ramjas, JNU and the fight for turf. As an unconditioned student in these or any other educational institution, how does one navigate the variety of opinions that seem to be leading up to these clashes? This question seems important now because having attended two universities (which are strikingly different in their institutional values and student body) I see that the ways and means that shape student opinion in these campuses do not have a space for a student’s own reasoned choice which builds organically over time. A student today is drawn by factions and he either tunes in with them or tunes out and stays home, out of “politics” as some label it.

A reading of ideas and examination of arguments made by either sides during historic events can, in a subtle and slow manner, shape (not indoctrinate) opinion-making process in students. Back in school where I was teaching a group of 16 year old students, I tried this out. After a series of classes in “argument and reason” which were driven with thinkers like W E B Dubois, Gandhi and Robespierre (of French Revolution) we examined how these men stood for causes and defended their reasons. These were a random set of thinkers chosen only because the curriculum until then had a mention of them. Over the course of following months, I noticed the students using the methods of reasoning of these men in some of the discussions in classroom and outside. This was a useful insight.

At the same time, in those teaching years, I was also attending a full-time masters at a university where I’d be on the other side – as a student. In that classroom however, the difference was stark. The student discussions invariably escalated into arguments which were fueled with emotions than substantive reason. I tried probing into some of my classmates’ education and work trajectories. And hardly a few reported having had any systematic or coherent engagement with ideas, thinkers or seminal works. Without an intention to offend, this appeared to be an impoverished education. This lack of tradition of reading and informed debates at intermediate and university level of education, appears to be a contributing factor to the rather ugly clashes in Ramjas college and universities like JNU. One might allege that this is an oversimplified take on the events. I’d like to argue that it is not when viewed systemically. The students’ own lack of engagement (due to a variety of reasons) has amounted to this violent and unproductive environment.

I began with Foucault. So let me recall an interview that Foucault gave to Christian Delacampagne in 1980 – published as The Masked Philosopher in a volume of his collected writings. This relates to the case I am making for role of knowledge by the way of reading.

CD : Let’s risk a few concrete propositions. If everything is going badly, where do we make a start?

MF: But everything isn’t going badly. In any case, I believe we shouldn’t confuse useful criticism of things with repetitive jeremiads against people. As for concrete propositions, they can’t just make an appearance like gadgets, unless certain general principals are accepted first. And the first of such general principles should be that the right to knowledge (droit au savoir) must not be reserved to a particular age group or to certain categories of people, but that one must be able to exercise it constantly and in many different ways.

Responding to the above, CD asks the following question, which reveals Foucault’s clarity of thought as well as seems instructive to the case for reading that I am making .

CD: Isn’t this desire for knowledge (envie de savoir) somewhat ambiguous? What, in fact, are people to do with all that knowledge that they are going to acquire? What use will it be to them?

MF: One of the main functions of teaching was the training of the individual should be accompanied by his being situated in the society. We should now see teaching in such a way that it allows the individual to change at will, which is possible only on the condition that teaching is a possibility always being offered.

So, does that mean we are envisioning a society of scholars? Foucault’s reply again seems useful to our case.

CD: Are you in fact for a society of scholars (societe savante)?

MF: I’m saying that people must be constant able to plug into culture and in as many ways as possible. There ought not to be, on the one hand, this education to which one is subjected to and, on the other, this information one is fed.

Shiv Vishvanathan in a recent piece on the moral economy of a university speaks of the problem from a different end – that of the university. He reasons that the university’s “role as a nursery for the availability of eccentricity, and for dissenting imaginations, is under threat.” In a partial sense, this piece also speaks to the gap in reading and engagement with ideas and thinkers that I have spoken of above.

Bottom-line: A part of the fault lies in the disharmony between information (which emerges in the real world) and education (which is situated in a classroom) that the students in India have been living through. This is amounting to phenomenal amount of ignorance and naive behaviour among the student body.

Foucault Redux

Citations (in red box) of Foucault's work on Google Scholar

Citations (in red box) of Foucault’s work on Google Scholar

On Technologies of the Self

Foucault is back! Here at the university, where people just don’t get tired of including a paper or two in every course, from the wide range of topics he has written or lectured on. And it turns out that he is also back in academia going by citation figures of Foucault’s works on Google Scholar. Figures from the past five years suggest a surge in the references made to his papers worldwide. This seems to be an interesting development for it is hard to imagine Foucault as a philosopher, historian or a thinker aligned to any conventional field of thought or academic discipline. Yet, his thoughts on history, sexuality, power, history of ideas, modernity and social criticism are considered as essential reading in sociology, political science, philosophy and history.

His work Technologies of the Self has been an interesting read for several reasons. The prevalent structures of social relationships, identity, behaviour, thought systems and the institutions that govern such forms in the society are a consequence of how individuals construct an idea of themselves with others in the society as well as with their own selves.  The mechanism by which an individual achieves this is referred to as technologies of production of the self by Foucault. These technologies are categorized as –

Technologies of Production – includes social arrangements like family, marriage, tribe and communes. These relationships are produced to create a sense of collective existence and social order under which individuals sustain themselves and prosper.

Technologies of Sign Systems – the relationships created in a society need communicative and signaling mechanisms embedded in the practice of such relationships. These are sign systems which either establish an order or therefore guide a form of behaviour – like husband and wife in a matrimonial relationship. This determines how others should behave with a woman who is a wife of someone else.  Or the sign systems could simple serve the need for expression and communication like language, tattoos and ornamentation.

Technologies of Power – individuals in a society behave and also place themselves in a certain relation to each other. This relation is determined by how much influence one has over the other. The technologies of power include patriarchy in a family structure, chief or headman of a tribe and similar production of roles which imply exercise of a certain coercive influence of an individual over others. Social contract is another production of the self with which individuals realize a sense of security and cohesiveness within a group, society or a nation.

Technologies of Self – the range of impressions, awareness, consciousness and construction of one’s own being leads to a production of an individual’s identity. These mechanisms are technologies of self. For instance, sexuality and an individual’s own idea of it – his sense of the body, its desires, its constitution, aesthetics and form, together determine his image of himself. What he ‘produces’ of himself marks his identity and drives an idea of a personality. This then bears upon his behaviour and his relationship with others.

Technologies of the self is a fairly useful articulation of what ‘being’ can mean and how this comes into effect. Further, this could help understand what well-being could possibly mean. Well-being and the self are complementary and in some sense inextricable from each other. My interest in post-colonial identity formation benefits from Foucault’s conception of the self. Thinking through this lens it could be argued that the post-colonial subject is a consequence of power relationships that existed between t individual and the colonial master. In a post on Tranquebar, I was alluding to this phenomenon when I read a conquest in the practice of modern day religion in this former Dutch colony. Such productions have led to conflicting image of self as a subdued, submissive being, at times. On why some former colonies which are independent nations today behave and operate in the way that they do could be examined through this idea. The sense of identity that a person possesses remains an enormously interesting subject, precisely because there doesn’t seem to be a definite way of seeing onself but is always spontaneously forming itself and each emerging sense of identity is as forceful as the other.

India, Partha Chatterjee’s Political Society & Foucault

A street vendor selling blankets on a busy street, Bangalore

A street vendor selling blankets on a busy street, Bangalore

A fellow traveller writes in after his recent trip to Himalayas and then deep down south India to this holy town Rameshwaram. He says, “Something binds us!  Something beyond the gravels of Government!  Something beyond the North-South Blocks at New Delhi!  We were immersed upon this question during flashes of free mind. But we were dark!” He is a man of the Nehruvian era and of the generation which built and ran those “temples of modern India”. I agree with his thought on something that binds us (Indians) as a nation. I’d like to think that he was probably living an overwhelming moment perhaps by the seaside in Rameshwaram, reflecting upon his travel from the Himalayas to the southern most tip of the country.

That binding factor to me is more evident in this class of people which Partha Chatterjee (a political theorist) defines as the ‘political society’. Sides taken! I am partial on identifying the bond and unity as more evident in the political society.

In an ideal state-people relationship the state guarantees equal rights and benefits to all the people, assuming that “people” is a mix of all classes and groups – the rich, middle class, poor, literate, illiterate etc. Also that the laws apply equally to all the people. But, in practice one observes that the everyday experience of people in engaging with the state is vastly different. The state does not treat its people equally not it sees everyone as equal. This, some would argue is an allegation. And I say live the life of an ordinary Indian who takes the public transport to office, uses the public services and the likes. Then you might want to reconsider that position.

It turns out that the ideal and actual nature of state’s behaviour is different. Partha Chatterjee focuses on this inconsistent behaviour of the state and formulates that everyday state deals with people differently and has a different mode of conducting its relationship with them. It governs in a different style where it tends to engage with one set of literate, elite and ‘aware’ group of citizens who know what their rights are and also ensure that they extract it out from the state. This set Partha C labels as ‘civil society’. With these the state engages in appropriate legal framework and processes. The manner in which civil society relates to the state in return is different from the rest of the citizenry.

Then there is this other set of people whom the state manages and negotiates with. This other set of people are poor, often the underclass employed in jobs like domestic help, office assistance, driving, hawking etc. They are semi-literate or illiterate. To govern them the state does not extend the same set of laws that are applicable to civil society. This class is handled as “population” by the state and managed through welfare schemes, public programs etc. This class with which the state seems to be negotiating on a case to case basis is termed ‘political society’. There are exceptions made by the state. Often a cascade like laws, sub laws and further laws (amendments) are made to accommodate the demands of this category of political society. For instance, an agitation for land compensation and acquisition of land by corporates, in various parts of the country is dealt differently without the aid of a national law even when such a law exists or a bill regarding the same is pending in the parliament of the country.

In Indian context this seems to fit in a sense that Partha C’s civil and political categories of society offers a starting point for one to think about the processes and dynamics happening in post-colonial India. It often gets difficult for one to understand and reason out what is happening in the Indian society when campaigns like Anna Hazare’s against corruption or Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan occurs. What are these people demanding, its long term implications and manner in which the state handles these demands make much sense when seen through Partha C’s theoretical framework. However, this does not imply that it explains every process happening in the Indian political context.  Neither does it suggest that this theory does not have shortcomings. The point made here is that the articulation of civil and political societies is an interesting one and offers an important starting point to think about state-people relationship in India.

Governmentality as Foucault observes, is the mechanisms through which state establishes itself over its people and the levers which actuate the presence of state amidst the people. This could be seen as the numerous welfare schemes and large public planning exercises that the state does periodically. These are mechanisms through which the state asserts its presence. Large programs like MNREGA and acts like Right to Education illustrate the above mentioned mechanism of governmentality. In his conception of political society Partha C utilizes this idea by explaining how the political society is ‘governed’ by the state using these mechanisms. The state pacifies and manages this population by the way of welfare schemes. At the same time the state realizes that this section (political society) is powerful in its own way (their numbers being large & that they form a sizeable vote bank). Therefore the state adopts tactics which are in effect careful negotiations. This then emerges as a strange and unique form of governance that is being practised by the state.