Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"On the Subject of Governing"

Chapter-by-chapter descriptions from my latest book:

This book is based on themes that are posed in terms of verbs rather than abstract nouns. There are two basic reasons for this. I have chosen to speak of ‘governing’ rather than ‘government’, for instance, in order to overcome the tendency to reduce a complex, historically evolving process to something that sounds like a static entity or, worse still, like something abstracted from human action and experience. The second, closely related, reason is that the sometimes remote and obscure theoretical writing from which I have drawn my inspiration for this text can – and ought to be – translated into a different style for a wider readership and thus linked to practical examples and events that readers can easily recall or imagine. As a writer, beginning with a verb at the top of the page, instead of an abstract noun like ‘identity’ or ‘well-being’, has been a useful reminder to me to keep things in the realm of actions and processes that people perform in ‘real life’. Hence, we can be saved from getting lost in a tangled web of abstraction.

Having said that, we cannot avoid some theoretical writing in order to understand and to draw conclusions from the material the book covers. While I hope to have made such theoretical passages as clear as possible, I cannot gloss over the subtle, often paradoxical, nature of the ideas in play here.

So, Chapter Two delves straight into political theory, ancient and modern. The word theory derives from the Greek verb theasthai, to look on, to view, or to contemplate – and hence the title of this chapter is ‘To Look’. We look especially into the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben that form the basic inspiration for the book. The reader may wish to dip into Chapters Three to Eight first, and return to Chapter Two later, if unfamiliar with these ideas, so as to gain some grounding in some of the examples used in those later, more ‘substantive’ chapters. Those later chapters do refer back to the ideas of those theorists, as required, to illuminate the meaning or implications of the examples and ideas in use. Chapter Two begins with reflections about the significance of psychological or subjective states and aptitudes (such as guilt and responsibility) in political debates that occur in everyday life (such as those about crime and punishment). It notes how the connections or analogies between the psyche and the city go back as far as Plato. Then the ideas introduced by Aristotle about the ethical ends of human life and our participation in a civil political order – the state or polis – are explained. Such connections between human ‘nature’ and just and unjust political orders are revised by the social-contract theorists of the modern era (notably Locke and Rousseau). But the present text seeks to expand upon and problematize that connection by dwelling on the intersections between subjectivity and power-relations as seen through the Lacanian and Foucauldian lenses. The psychoanalytic theories of desire and of the subject are then outlined. This leads to reflections on how this kind of theory has been applied to late capitalism and to political ideologies by authors such as Slavoj Zizek.

This theory chapter ends with some thoughts derived from Agamben’s analysis of the exception and its relation to the norm ¬– or the rule – and the power to rule, or sovereignty. His work has added an important dimension to Foucault’s concept of bio-power, but it also illuminates the method used in this text, which is very much based upon the ‘exemplary exception’ that highlights modes of micro-political rule.

Chapter Three, To Be, is about the pragmatics of becoming a recognised and credible person in a society – and so some of our common-sense notions of personal and group identities are unscrambled in the process. This permits us to explore the theoretical problem of the subject and how it has become ‘ex-centric’ in the wake of psychoanalytic theory. We consider examples of – and exceptions to – the normative means by which ‘identities’ are documented and established, as well as how they can be manipulated. The problems of collective ‘identities’ are explored in terms of relations of difference, and the movement known as ‘identity politics’ is critically examined. The political rule of persons must also be considered in its exceptional form of the exclusion from belonging, banishment, or ‘disappearing’ as a person. This then gives us the opportunity to consider Agamben’s theory of the state of exception, and to ponder the relation between sovereign powers and the subject. In this chapter, then, both the subject and the sovereign are ‘de-centered’, but also their being or recognition is characterized as a mutual ‘authorization’.

One of the basic counter-claims of slave against master, or subject against sovereign, concerns harm to body or soul. Trauma, suffering, pain and indignation are thus the topics of Chapter Four. We may thus explore the ways in which aversive forms of subjectivity become defined and their boundaries renegotiated, with an interest in tilting balances of power and justice towards various kinds of political programmes and forms of compensation. Pain and its infliction and/or relief are not merely forms of punishment and treatment, but also methods for the production of forms of truth. The recent attempts to authorize torture as part of a ‘war on terror’ are examined, and the roles of torturer and physician are compared in terms of the powers to cease pain and to produce truth. Then we consider governmental actions directed towards defining, screening and treating depression, and the shifting boundary between ‘normal’ sadness and ‘abnormal’ depression is highlighted. Thus an alleviation of suffering becomes a public obligation, but the field of actionable suffering also changes according to new forms of medical perception. Modern industrial societies have also institutionalised means for spreading the risks of work-accidents and addressing their consequences, as a technique of justice-as-compensation. This has led to developments in occupational medicine and rehabilitation that over-ride what the worker ‘knows’ about his or her capacity for work, and seek thus to ensure an attachment to the labour-process. Another contemporary means for publicly addressing suffering is the political apology to victims of past policies that are now deemed to have been wrong. A reading of Kevin Rudd’s apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples is undertaken to illuminate its rhetoric and strategic purpose. This chapter raises then the question of a politically significant subjectivity of victimhood, and considers some of its effects on the shifting balance of power-relations.

Chapter Five is mainly about the modern concern with happiness and its place as a principle for governing people’s aims and expectations. The popular and utilitarian conceptions of happiness are examined and then problematized in light of the more pessimistic or sceptical psychoanalytic theory that perceives a closer and more ambiguous relationship between pleasure and pain. Happiness is thus positioned as a regulated residue of jouissance, and is also viewed in the context of the consumer culture of late capitalism. The supposedly ‘self-evident’ place of happiness in political discourse is questioned for its circularity and emptiness, and the political programmes aimed at the maximization of happiness or well-being are examined more closely. So, we consider some of the rationality and aims entailed in the positioning of happiness and subjective well-being as objects of political action, as well as the obverse point of view – that is, the misery and melancholy that accompany the desire and the misrecognition of lack that underpin western views of happiness.

Chapter Six considers how our capacity to trust is significant in the public realm and how trust as a quality of close interpersonal relationships may be generalized to complex social systems. This picks up the traditional theory of social capital, from Jacobs to Fukuyama, but then problematizes that strand of theory as we look more deeply at the recent efforts to reify and instrumentalize trust as an economic resource. The institution of money as a social relation of trust is then used to crystallize and expand upon these problems. The chapter considers some of the theories of the origins and nature of money. Questioning Marx’s theory of money as a universal equivalent, I propose that money be seen as capitalism’s empty signifier and as the exceptional commodity; and hence its relations to other symbolic systems, especially language, and to sovereign power are clarified. Trust and reciprocity are performed within, and they reproduce, complex systems of signification, involving the tying and untying of obligations between people.

Chapter Seven places the desire to know and the processes of ‘getting to knowing’ in the context of power-relations and conflict, as distinct from the related empirical, scientific problem of knowing about the nature of things in themselves. Knowing the enemy, or the loved one, is the paradigmatic problem here, then, rather than knowing about objects or laws of nature; and the chapter begins with the example of what Colin Powell said the US ‘knew’ about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in February 2003. Some general comments on epistemology follow, drawing especially on the ideas of Nietzsche and Foucault, and using the example of the opinion poll as a political tool for knowing a population. We then explore some of the political reshaping of how and why we know in the context of the commodity logic of ‘knowledge economy’ discourse and the effects that the new era of ‘performativity’ has had on the medical profession. In the following section, we also explore the converse, or the politics of hiding what one knows and deceiving others, especially in the practice of counter-espionage, such as in the double-cross system in World War II. The chapter ends with a consideration of the knowledge that we don’t know, or the unconscious – ‘the censored chapter’, as Lacan puts it.

Chapter Eight is about how we love, and hence about how the boundaries between permissible and impermissible forms of love-relations are governed. How do you know if your lover is cheating on you? How do you know if the woman accompanying a man is a lover or a prostitute, or something else? To what kind of rule is incest the exception, and how do we know when it’s been broken? The chapter begins with the theme of sexual jealousy, and considers the ways and means of producing truth about the other’s desire when troubled by such uncertainty. This theme causes us to consider, and then to reinterpret, the story of Oedipus, partly to free our understanding from what I consider to be an intellectual strangle-hold that begins with Freud. The Oedipal theory is thus de-naturalized. Nonetheless, the links between the power to rule and the permission to love, and their unconscious enactment, are acknowledged. Exceptional familial relations that arise from unforeseen circumstances and that create ambiguities for basic forms of sexual taboos are explored through narration of non-fictional stories. And the ‘conduct of conducts’ in the field of intimate relationships is exemplified by the myriad ways in which cultural and legal principles about economic transactions, gift exchanges and recognition of relationships are played out. This leads to discussion of the role of the superego and the problem of ‘repression’, a now widely known Freudian concept that has been reframed by Lacan and challenged by Foucault. I finish the chapter with a further reinterpretation of the Oedipal drama by focusing on the parental abandonment and banishment of the infant – as an exception – at the outset of the story, and the way in which his fate unfolds not just in spite of, but because of the efforts that the protagonists take to evade it. This leads to reflections about the unconscious as law, sovereignty as the ‘zone of indistinction’ between law and violence (as Agamben would put it), and its confrontation with and regulation of desire.

As a concluding chapter, I pick up on a now rare usage of the verb to conclude that can be found in Locke’s Second Treatise and that has a legal-political meaning. This leads to reflections about the nature of the authorial voice and the position of the reader, and reflects upon writing, or concluding the reader, as a political act.