Archive for the ‘Comps’ Category

Comps: Rocked, locked and kicked to the curb

Monday, September 10th, 2007

I finished my second comprehensive exam last Friday: The social construction of the Internet. It went a lot smoother this time round; I wasn’t writing scared in the final hours. I learned a few things. Imagine.

About a week before this second exam, I found that my brain reached a saturation point. I managed nonetheless to read a few new texts (!) and reread some ones read 4 months ago – texts I knew were foundational. That was very helpful. The main thing I did differently was write up some stuff ahead of time. This was something TedH had recommended way back, 6 months ago or so. For whatever reason I just didn’t have it in me for the first exam. But this time, I started my exam a day earlier. That is, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided 1. what I wanted to write on; and 2. what was likely going to be on the exam. Happily these things coincided. So I began writing out Marx’s theory of technology, based on my contention that he was, in fact, a social constructivist. Seen from another light, this amounts to a defense of Marx against charges of technological determinism.

The first question (of the 5 I received) was a doozy (thanks Rick!) and it was exactly that Marx question. I took that as a good omen. The second and final question I chose happened to be the subject of a conference paper I’ve been thinking about for my panel at the Union for Democratic Communication conference this fall. So that was a great chance to write out some ideas that have been fermenting; I hope to use that answer as a starting point for my paper.

I kept up my same schedule as the first time, breaking for lunch, taking tea as I worked and heading out for a run at 6pm. I wrote the exam in Point Grey, so runs along the ocean were amazingly invigorating. Dinner at 7, then writing till too tired, around 11 both nights. I finished the first question on the first day; last time I was still writing the first question part way into the second day which, obviously, wasn’t good.

Nonetheless, by the second day I was feeling it – the pressure, the brain drain, the exhaustion was setting in. But I just kept plugging away and you know, I think things turned out ok. I even had a chance to proof read this time, so there were limited embarrassing typos. It is an exam after all, so I have to believe there’s a bit of grace.

The experience of the first exam really helped, I think. In part, just knowing what to expect is hugely valuable. Also, writing ahead – even a few hundred words of a coherent argument – is immensely advantageous. And also thinking about what it is you want to write about, and then selecting your questions and framing your answers with that in mind, is key. I mean, this is my career – my life, really – not some random hoop I’ve got to jumpt (though in truth, it is that too). I should be writing about what I’m interested in, what I’ll be researching in the near or distant future.

While I felt my first exam was was a hazing ritual with little pedagogical value (and said as much to the Grad Chair), it seemed this time that I really got something out of it. I could, at last, see the value of this process.

So now the oral defense in three weeks. But before that a few things: 1. first day of teaching CMNS 253 solo tomorrow; 2. Web of Change, where I’ll present; and then back in town for the defense. God love Rick Gruneau for calling it a chat, b/c that’s about all I’ll be in the mood for.

Marx vs. the Machine

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

I’m going talk more about Marx’s contribution to the study of technology, as well as his ideas on the relationship b/w sociological and economic analyses of technology. But I’m going to do this with the help of Donald MacKenzie. Just so’s you know…

MacKenzie, in chapter 2 of his book Knowing Machines, details Marx’s account of the way the machine was made stable, highlihgting how social relationships (within which production occurs) impact production technology – indeed are a major factor in the shaping and success or failure of technical systems. This jives with Marx’s insistence that, when analyzing markets, one must remember “capital is not a thing, but a social relation b/w persons which is mediated thru things.”

One of Marx’s big ideas is this: with the advent of large-scale mechanized production, social relations molded technology, not vice versa. The determinist reading of Marx views the forces of production as technology itself. But the forces of production also include labour power, people, skills, knowledge. Indeed, Marx always afforded agency to workers, stressing that what was specific to human work was that it was conscious: people as much as machines make human history.

Marx defines the machine as “a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs w/its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did w/similar tools.” With the machine began the Industrial Revolution: it undermined the basis on which manufacturing workers had resisted emergent capitalism. Whereas in manufacture, the organization of the social labour process was purely subjective (a combination of specialized workers), the machine system of large-scale industry was a totally objective organization of production, which appears to the worker as a pre-given material condition of production.

The machine contributes to valorization via “relative surplus value”; the reduction in labour time required to produce the equivalent of the worker’s wage generates an increase in surplus value accruing to capitalist. Thus the machine liberates capital to accrue absolute surplus value; by undermining skilled workers, by drawing new sectors into the labour market, by threatening/generating unemployment, the machine “is able to break all resistance” to lengthening the working day. Alienation of the collective and intellectual aspects of work achieves its technical embodiment in the machine. Further, the machine embodies the power of the capitalist: science + natural forces + mass of social labour converge in the system of machinery, which represents the power of the “master”. Thus, capitalist social relations achieve technical embodiment in labour process

For Marx, the “conditions of work” represent the means of production in their social form as capital; the means of production therefore employ the worker instead of the worker employing the means of production. This was the goal under manufacture and handicraft labour BUT its only w/machinery that this inversion acquires technical reality. Not surprisingly, then, the worker regards the machine is a direct threat; it is capital’s material form. Indeed, the connection b/w class struggle and technical innovation was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution in 19th c. Britain. Skilled labour, especially, stubbornly resisted the discipline of factory work. Marx links worker recalcitrance directly to technical innovation, which was a response to and a weapon against working-class revolt. New machinery did not always increase efficiency or profit but DID reduce the capitalist’s dependence on highly skilled and paid labourers with minds of their own. Marx thus concludes that Luddism was, in fact, a working class critique of machinery.

Marx’s account of the machine is an attempt to theorize the social causes of organizational and technical changes in labour process (how perfect for a “social shaper” like MacKenzie!). For example, technical changes in the steam engine resulted from shifting relations b/w capital and labour as a result of new labour legislation that shortened the working day. While machines were more efficient than human muscle power, there was still the need to squeeze more from the worker during the shortened period

Again, Marx stresses that capital is not a thing (e.g. not a sum of money or commodities) but comprises social relations b/w persons mediated through things. Thus the relation b/w capitalist and worker consists of wages, hours of work; the law and the state; supervision discipline, culture, collective organization, power, conflict and so on. Here MacKenzie points out a weakness in Marx’s understanding of this: the social relations of production (w/in which technology develops) are not just b/w worker and capitalist but also worker and worker. That is, relations b/w men and women workers, older and younger, workers, and likely immigrant and native workers must be accounted for.

He lists three ways the split b/w male and female workers influences technological production: 1. New machinery caters to highly unskilled and low-paid worker, always women (and children), who initially displace the highly skilled male workers (left over from days of manufacture). 2. Some skills, like sewing, were considered women’s work, and learned at home. There was no need, therefore, to automate this process. Such work was entirely unregulated and devastatingly underpaid and because in the home, isolated, with little to no chance for workers to organize. 3. Skilled, all-male unions marshaled their power to keep at least some control over the new technology and defensively keep women out of their organizations.

At this point, MacKenzie asks a Feenbergian question: Does the design of machinery reflect the social relations w/in which it develops? Marx equivocates on this, he says, sometimes treating machines as victims of capital and not in their design inherently capitalist. Nonetheless, a specifically capitalist form of production emerges, including at the technological level. This is a rather orthodox interpretation, then, one that accepts that social relations impact the pace of technical change (e.g. mechanization was spurred by valorization-imposed needs to displace skilled workers and their power to resist) BUT denies that those relations influenced the design of technical artifacts.

If technology is neutral, and the system of social organization corrupt, then progressive social change will occur simply by changing how society is organized. No need to worry about the technological infrastructure, which can, apparently, be coopted, adapted and reconstituted. Substitute a workers’ government for the capitalist’s government, add water and presto! A workers’ utopia.

MacKenzie’s social shaping self concludes by suggesting that understanding how social relations interact with technical design turns on the contingency of design, and the need to identify where and how things could have been different. This leaves only one (albeit burning) question: why one design was chosen over another. Indeed.

So… is this enough Marx for you?

Learning to love Latour

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Bruno Latour is a funny guy. At least in his very cheeky essay, “Where are the missing masses”. Now he may be (along with Michel Callon and John Law) the innovator of Actor Network Theory and a very famous French sociologist of science. But this is also a dude who insults his own colleagues and profession, not to mention myriad others – engineers, technologists, feminists, believers, novelists, the French. He lies, berates, misleads, tricks and teases throughout, yet still comes off as someone you’d like to have a beer with.

Calling himself a “mere philosopher”, Latour reserves most of his feigned disdain for sociologists, who have too long ignored the role of “non-human” actors in social life. When I first read Latour, I thought he was crazy. But a few years later, and a more considered reading (including Science in Action) of him has me reconsidering. I think, in fact, he might have gone crazy, but I haven’t touched his later works. At any rate, Latour insists that to “balance our accounts of society” we must pay some attention to non-humans, the “hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality.” I love it.

As quirky and irreverent as this sounds, Latour is really saying something rather simple. The social world has a material foundation with which humans necessarily interact. It is sensible, then, to consider how these material artifacts, techniques, devices interact with their human users, non? We must consider the fonction (Latour has no qualms about leaving French words untranslated in his English writings) of these non-human artifacts beyond the performance of their obvious, immediate task.

One of the major concepts in this essay is translation. In his case study of the automatic door-closer or “groom”, he defines translation as the transformation of a major effort into a minor one. It is this reversal of forces (the type of David and Goliath tale of which the moralists, er, sociologists are enamoured) that the sociologists should examine to understand the social construction of artifacts, “and not a hypothetical social context they are not equipped to grasp” (ouch!).

Other classic ANT concepts discussed here are delegation and prescription. Humans (engineers, mechanics) delegate to non-humans certain tasks that translate a major (human) effort into a minor (technical) exertion. In many instances, an unskilled non-human (door w/powerful spring mechanism) presupposes a skilled human user (knows how to get through the door w/out receiving a bloody nose). This, says Latour, is an example of prescription – the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms. We have been able to delegate to non-humans not only force (closing the door) but values, duties, ethics.

Latour anticipates the cries and charges of anthropomorphism by admitting it and throwing the question back at his accusers: “Are they not our brethren?” he says of non-human actors? He gives 3 reasons why the groom is, indeed, anthropomorphic: 1. It is human-made (constructed); 2. It substitutes for actions of people (it is a delegate that permanently replaces humans; 3. It shapes human action by prescribing certain actions (e.g. what sort of people should pass through the door … the hydraulic door closer discriminates against the weak: children, the elderly etc.)

Instead of differentiating b/w humans and inhumans (as the sociologists say), Latour sees only actors – some human, some non-human, some skilled, some not – that exchange their properties. The divide b/w human/non-human actors is “untenable”, he says, with what I imagine to be a flourish.

Things get a bit tricky when Latour describes the attribution of the roles and actions of human and non-human as a choice. So far, I have not understood this idea. He talks about how builders and users are inscribed in a mechanism; how a mechanism prescribes certain behaviours and qualities. In other words, technologies both prepare their users for a certain interaction, and at the same time anticipate this interaction. Think of a traffic light. The red signal prepares the driver (or walker) to stop, but it also expects that she will, indeed, stop. However, there is nothing to stop her from not stopping. Chances are, not wanting to get into an accident, she will stop. “There might,” Latour concedes, “be an enormous gap b/w the prescribed user and the user-in-the-flesh…”

Latour goes on to explain the problem here: sociologists (damn them!) confuse the human-nonhuman divide with the differentiation b/w figurative and non-figurative actors. In a text, the choice of granting actors figurativity is up to the author; a character is more or less personal, depending on how framed. It is the same for techniques, where engineers are the authors. The label “inhuman” applied to techniques overlooks translation mechanisms (e.g. door-closer to groom) and the many choices that exist for figuring/defiguring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors.
It follows that the “enunciator” (the author of a text/engineer of a mechanism) is free to place (or not) a representation of herself in the script (texts/machines)

At the end of his mirthful narrative, where he recounts self-deprecating stories (I like the one about him screaming to his toddler who, unrestrained, would not stay seated in the back of the car: “If I brake too hard you’re dead.”) and heaps scorn upon all who’ve come in contact (however peripherally) with his topic, he concludes.

Technical translation, delegation, shifting out is the claiming of a once-human competence. In this way (says Latour) what we define as our social relations is silently prescribed back to us by non-humans. “Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability, is not a property of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations w/out non-humans is impossible.”

And there you have it: Latour in a half a nutshell. Corrections and comments are most welcome.

Philosophical duels in dreamland

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Early this morning I awoke to the rain – a heavy, steady downpour that I most associate with Vancouver. I lay in bed, windows open, deep under my covers with only my face exposed to the chill, listening to its soothing rhythm, and felt at home. Not in a geographical sense, of course, but in that way when things just feel right. And you are at ease with yourself and everything around you, if only for a moment.

In that peaceful moment I recalled a dream; in fact, I’d been woken out of it. Feenberg and Bijker were sitting at a table somewhere, talking. And Bijker, in his affable, gentle way, challenged Feenberg to a duel (that’s what he called it). Of course, this was to be a philosophical duel, a battle of the brains, a theoretical tangle. Feenberg, naturally, accepted, and the two men sat quietly, pondering this turn of events, while my dream scene changed.

This is funny because these men are in no way philosophical opponents. I suspect they might even be friends. And both seem to be mild mannered – not the least bit predisposed to dueling of any sort. In fact, when Bijker visited our lab last year, he acknowledged the debt he (and really SCOT) owed Feenberg for introducing a critical approach to the study of technology.

The thing about preparing for your comps is, you never escape it, not even in sleep. Bijker has been on my mind because I just reread his Bakelite essay, and am reading Winner, who of course, has no patience for social constructivism whatever. So I guess I’ve got SCOT on the brain, and in my dreams…

Habermas’ strange birthday gift

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

When Marcuse turned 70, his old Frankfurt School pal, Habermas, gave him an unusual present: an essay reworking the former’s notion of technology and science as “ideology”. I’m sure it was just what Marcuse always wanted.

Anyway. The article, creatively titled “Technology and science as ‘ideology’” unfolds after Habermas’ painfully dense fashion (what is with these German theoreticians!?). But after pecking away at it for awhile, I finally got into its groove. What he wants to say – and does so repeatedly – is that the so-called rationalization of society is intimately connected to the institutionalization of scientific and technical development. And this has dire implications for human liberation (or our continuing unfreedom). You’re thinking, yeah, whatever, what’s the newsflash? I’ll tell you:

Rationalization, following Weber, is the “disenchantment” of the world, the secularization of traditional worldviews. Sounds good so far. But the formal concept of rationality derives from purposive-rational action – that of the capitalist entrepreneur, the industrial wage earner, the modern bureaucrat. As such, it is not really “rationality” but a masked or unacknowledged political domination (says Marcuse). The structure of this rationality is oriented to technical control through subjugation of man and nature; the “rationalization” of the conditions of life is therefore equated to the institutionalization of a type of domination whose political nature is unrecognizable. Rationality is technical reason.

This kind of reason – oriented to control and domination and leading to unfreedom – is accepted by the masses, made palatable, due to the bourgeois ideologies of reciprocity and equality in the arena of economic exchange. In this bourgeois dream society, all are emancipated from domination and power is neutralized. But Marx’s labour theory of value destroyed the illusion of freedom and the root ideology of just exchange. It revealed that, in fact, the free labour contract obscured the relations of social force that underpinned the wage-labour relationship.

Habermas sets out to reformulate Weber’s concept of rationalization in order to discuss Marcuse’s critique of Weber, as well as his notion of the “double function” of scientific-technical progress – as both productive force and as ideology. What Weber tried to do with his concept of rationalization was understand how subsystems of purposive-rational action (the economy, the state) extended into societal institutions, and with what effect. Habermas proposes a new categorical framework to comprehend this phenomenon: the fundamental distinction b/w work (purposive-rational action) and interaction (communicative action). Purposive-rational action comprises both instrumental action (based on technical rules) and rational choice (governed by strategies based on analytic knowledge). Communicative action is symbolic interaction, and it’s governed by binding consensual norms.

We can distinguish social systems based on the type of action (or reason) that predominates. “The institutional framework of a society consists of norms that guide symbolic interaction. But there are subsystems… in which primarily sets of purposive-rational action are institutionalized” (93). In other (Habermasian) words, the lifeworld and the system confront one another in an ongoing struggle for supremacy. The passage from traditional society to modernity is marked by the continuous development of the productive forces, which causes the permanent encroachment of subsystems into the lifeworld of communicative action and interaction. The institutional framework of society thus adapts to the developing systems of purposive-rational action

The depoliticization of the masses must be achieved in order to legitimate this new society (where state intervention now compensates for the dysfunctions of the market). Marcuse says this will occur by having science and technology take on the role of an ideology; that is, by institutionalizing scientific-technical progress, causing people to lose consciousness of the dualism of work and interaction. Insidiously, it becomes a background ideology, penetrating into the consciousness of the depoliticized masses. “it is a singular achievement of this ideology to detach society’s self-understanding from the frame of reference of communicative action and from the concepts of symbolic interaction and replace it with a scientific model (105).

After a lot of writing, Habermas tells us that two concepts of rationalization must be distinguished. Rationalization at the level of subsystems of purposive-rational action, where scientific-technical progress can only be a liberatory force if it doesn’t replace rationalization at the level of the institutional framework. This kind of rationalization can occur only via symbolic interaction, by removing restrictions on communication. It must be public, unrestricted discussion, free from domination etc. etc. (You are thinking, correctly, of the public sphere and the theory of communicative action, two major Habermasian themes).

“The question is not whether we completely utilize an available or creatable potential, but whether we choose what we want for the purpose of the pacification and gratification of existence” (119).


Comprehensive Exam #1 – the lowdown

Monday, May 14th, 2007

I know, there is a lot of sex-related spam to this blog and I need to do something about it soon. I will, I promise.

But in the mean time, I will tell you about my comprehensive exam. It went something like this:

i recieved 4 questions at 10 am. They appeared equallly difficult as I assessed the 48 hours before me. I figured it should break down, 50-50 (or 24h-24h).

I picked one question -almost at random. I had to pick something. It was the historical question:

“Outline the main developments in Marxist theory from Marx’s day down through Habermas, discussing Lukács, the Frankfurt school, and any other trend that you reviewed in the course of your reading.”

The answer to this question, I realized, was the justification for my exam, and I felt impelled to answer it, in order to answer myself.

And so I did, but it was *painfully* slow and long and belaboured. I looked EVERYTHING up, not leaving a thing to chance, and it took a long time. Hence, I encroached on the next 24h, earmarked soley for Question#2. What could I do? I was going as fast as I could. I got tired. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. When I fell asleep, I awoke mere hours later (like 3). I thought it was time to get up, and did. After my shower, and boiling tea, it was 6:15am. I began.

I finished, I don’t know when, and began the next question:

“What advice can you give for the social activist of the twenty-first century that is consistent with or builds upon what you have read in these comp areas? In particular, what “emancipatory communication” strategies seem likely/possible and what would the practical steps necessary to create them, learning from the lessons of the 19th and 20th centuries?”

It was the only one (of the remaining 3) that allowed me to continue my first question (which I had not finished answering), using it as a rhetorical device. I felt clever (I know you’re reading this Richard).

Anyhoo, that question was much more creative, and dare I say fun, but I didn’t have quite enough time to answer it in the way I’d like. I finished at 1 am the 2nd day, and set my alarm for 6am the next. The exam was due at 10 am.

Upon waking, I wrote for 4 hours straight. No shower, no breakie. Just the me and the computer, locked in battle. Who would be triumphant? Unfortunately, I won’t know till September, after I write the next comp, and then defend both exams orally. But I’ll say this: it *was* an experience (Ted was right, natch). I accomplished something. I *did* it, whatever “it” is. I don’t agree with the pedagogical method of this exam – perhaps I’ll go more into it later. Suffice it to say, it’s more like an endurance test e.g. a marathon, than a proper test of academic ability. But I fucking did it. And I’ll do it again, only better.

But for now, I’m teaching. And studying. And thinking about summer (deadly). Right now, things are ok.

After the dreaming, the doing

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

It’s been awhile since I’ve written here. I’m swearing a lot, and shaking my head, in that “tut tutting” manner of mother hens and busy bodies. I have little to no patience with the world. Things are fucked.

On another note, my first comprehensive exam (written) is in 2 weeks. This is the reason for my wracked emotional state. Not enough sleep, too much coffee. Too many children. Way too much stress. Will I be done? No. Yes. Who cares? Let’s write it and see. I could be the first person to fail this thing ever, or in a long time, in our department.

Things I know: 1. I don’t have a photographic memory. 2. I don’t speak well publicly under pressure.

That is a deadly combination for comps. If I believed in anything, I’d pray, but since I don’t, I feel oddly at peace with it all since there’s nothing beyond what I’m doing – nothing superhuman – that can help me. It’s just me. All me. And in the end, that’s all you’ve got for certain anyhow.

Below is my final (I think, hope) definitional essay of the first exam. In other words, this is supposed to map out and somewhat justify or explain the texts in my bibliography. Most people have this thing done way WAY a long time ago. Not 2 weeks before their exam. But who really fucking cares? See, I’m swearing. And now for some light reading…

Toward a theory of change: Radical social theory and emancipatory communication

This comprehensive exam considers radical social theory in its efforts to liberate humanity, particularly through communication. To this end, it investigates the history of thought that attempts to understand how human society is organized as well as articulate visions of progressive social change based on appeals to freedom, justice and equality. A recurring theme in this account is human oppression – the domination of (hu)man and nature that ensures the rule of a minority elite to the detriment of the masses. Radical social theory therefore comprises theoretical frameworks that are both sociological (analyzing “what is”) and philosophical (considering “what should be”) in an effort to realize the good, to create a better world. One of the critical components needed to foster this aspiration is communication.

This exam is guided by questions that take on an urgency in the contemporary era of perpetual war, increasing global human immiseration and ongoing ecological devastation. These questions are founded on notions of power, democracy, agency and – naïve though it may sound – ethics. Is another world possible, as the global justice movement proclaims? Can we reorganize society based on human need versus corporate greed? Can we collectively administrate our affairs without devolving into totalitarianism? Can we create a power structure that is networked, self-propelling and self-fulfilling? Can we build a sustainable and holistic social order that cares for people and the earth they derive life from? These questions have answers only in the social imagination, which is the basis for many of the texts on this exam. Before we build it, we must dream it.

The exam is divided into two subsections in order to clearly identify alternatives for social reorganization as well as the function of communication in achieving this; the first is organized historically, the second, thematically. Visions of a Liberated Society traces the lineage of socialist thought, beginning with pre-socialist utopian writings, following the evolution of socialist thought, and outlining recent progeny: post-Marxism, post-colonialism and feminism. The Enlightenment offers an obvious starting point, when ideas of progress, guided by reason instead of religion, began to be linked with ethics in examination of the individual, society and the state. Social theory emerges at about this time, with intense deliberations on inequality, the nature and limits of power in society and human liberty. One of the central debates that arose dealt with the relation of the individual to society, and the competing rights and obligations of both. Here we see the seeds of socialism being sown, especially in ideas of the benefits of association, common ownership and collective organization of the state.

Both democracy and capitalism took root in the fertile soil prepared by the dramatic shift in scientific, intellectual and philosophical thought during the Enlightenment. In turn, these developments nurtured a response in social critics who observed the concomitant rise of extreme poverty and other societal ills. With the rapid rise of modern industrial capitalism, socialism shed its utopian foundation and was transformed into a political doctrine in the 19th century. Anarchism distinguished itself from other currents of socialist thought with its theory of freedom, which accounts for human liberty in the context of nature, value and social conditions (Crowder, 1991) This is manifest in anarchism’s opposition to the state as the destroyer of freedom: redemption is achieved only in free and voluntary association. Marx considered anarchism a critical position with no practical application. For him the state is a transitional but necessary stage that anticipates a classless society. Marx locates human oppression in class struggle, which arises in the division of labour and characterizes all of history. Marx’s dialectical approach provides a framework in which to understand social change through contradiction and negation; indeed, his method of historical materialism produces an analysis of capitalism that implies an alternative mode of social organization. Marx’s notion of praxis is central for this exam, which considers generally the problem of social transformation: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, No. XI). Agency is thus the key to emancipation.

Marx’s work inaugurated a new system of philosophical, political and economic thought, which sparked countless, and continuing, debates. Heirs to the Marxist legacy include Western Marxism, which emphasizes culture over economic analysis, and Critical Theory, which salvages the radical, emancipatory elements of Marxism. Capitalism as a source of repression (of human and nature) was a persistent focus for critique, while peace, freedom and happiness remained the inspiration for alternative visions of society. Key debates concerned the failure of the Enlightenment (particularly the technological basis of rationality), the viability of the revolutionary project, and the loss of the working class as an agent of change. New interpretations of Marxism continued to evolve out of the foundational tenets; by the mid-twentieth century, the material basis of analysis broadened, and other dynamics, such as gender and ethnicity, gained equal footing with class. Post-colonial theory customized a Marxian analysis to comprehend the devastation wrought by colonial rule, conceptualizing imperialism through the prism of class struggle.

The convergence of race, class and gender heralded a post-modern turn in radical social theory, and anchored theoretical approaches to “new social movements.” This exam considers such movements dialectically – as both products and creators of modernity and hence, social change. The post-Marxist approach contended that social inequality and unfreedom can no longer be reduced to considerations of class, and identified patriarchy, nationalism and racism as intersecting sources of oppression. Thus there was an insistence upon a reflexive relationship between the classic Marxist dualism of base and superstructure. Reinterpretations of Marxism flourished in light of the changing dynamics of capitalism in late modernity – especially technological advancement. Key Marxian concepts were rearticulated: power was decoupled from its material base, becoming decentralized and relativistic; praxis became pedagogical; and emancipation was no longer self-evident.

The loss of the revolutionary class caused a shift in radical social theory toward communication as a means to achieve liberation. Arguably, the development of communication theory imbricates with the evolution of socialist thought, culminating with Habermas’ (1981) concept of communicative reason. On this account, rationality is the cornerstone of both emancipation and domination. It is through the action of communicating that society operates and evolves; only when communication is free from domination and oriented toward mutual understanding is emancipation possible. Habermas relocates agency from its traditional class base to communicative action, which is both the instrument of progressive social change and the foundation for deliberative democracy. The transfer of agency from the working class to the citizen is also evident in the notion of the public sphere (Habermas, 1962/1989), that civic space between state power and private interests where rational-critical debate can occur among members of society on matters of public interest. The public sphere enhances and defends democracy by facilitating free speech and assembly and enabling organization against oppressive forms of social and political power. As the public sphere presupposes a free press, this concept has contributed much to theoretical debates in communication theory about the media’s role in social transformation, particularly in relation to democracy.

Communication is central to human interaction; it is the cornerstone of all social organization. The task for creating a society free from domination, where human needs are fulfilled and human wants are satisfied through self-empowered activity, lies before us. That it is a task that relies a new approach, one guided by holism, collectivity and sustainability, is clear. It is ours to first dream – and then communicate – this new approach. And after the dreaming, comes the doing.

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Habermas or Haber-ass? Acting communicatively

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

For some reason, I felt I needed to know Habermas’ theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality. When I first read Habermas, back in my early masters days, I learned of his theoretical wranglings with Foucault, and how the German philosopher/sociologist had called the French philosopher/historian a Young Conservative.

According to Nancy Fraser (1985), “this epithet was an allusion to the ‘conservative revolutionaries’ of interwar Weimar Germany, a group of radical, antimodernist intellectuals…To call Foucault a ‘Young Conservative,’ then, was to accuse him of elaborating what Habermas calls a ‘total critique of modernity.’ Such a critique…is theoretically paradoxical because it cannot help but presuppose surreptitiously some of the very modern categories and attitudes it claims to have surpassed. And it is politically suspect because it aims less at a dialectical resolution of the problems of modern societies than at a radical rejection of modernity as such. In sum, it is Habermas’ (1981, 1982) contention that, although Foucaualt’s critique of contemporary culture and society purports to be postmodern, it is at best modern and at worst antimodern.”

When I told My Friend of Habermas’ critique of his beloved Foucault, his retort was, “Who? Haber-ass?”

I was all, good one.

Anyhoo, reading Theory of Communicative Action is the equivalent of chewing on cardboard, albeit more (mentally) nourishing but certainly not tasty, or easy to get down. What is with these German philosophers and their dry, dense writing style (Marx’s flourishes not withstanding)? Communicative reason is different from the rationalist tradition, which locates rationality in the structure of either the knowing subject, or the cosmos. Rather, Habermas grounds rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication. As a social theory, this advances the goals of human emancipation as it maintains an inclusive universalist moral framework. Such a framework rests on universal pragmatics, the notion that speech acts have an inherent telos, that is, a purpose or determined end. “Reaching understanding is the inherent telos of speech” (287). He is assured that people have the ability, the communicative competence, to achieve such understanding. Habermas is concerned to carry the Enlightenment project forward, and seeks a more humane, just and egalitarian world by developing human potential for reason through discourse ethics.

Habermas distinguishes communicative rationality from its strategic counterpart (cmns oriented toward success); the former attempts to explain human rationality as the outcome of successful communication. He contextualizes reason in the everyday practices of modern individuals; he further examines the presuppositions and validity dimensions of everyday cmns, which in turn explain deep structures of reason, defending against relativism. He identifies three validity dimensions of communicative rationality. These “worlds” are: normative rightness, theoretical truth and expressive or subjective truthfulness. These validity claims must be criticizable; that is, the speaker is expected to be able to justify her statements, to give acceptable reasons for her position. Thus the hearer is rationally motivated to accept the conditions of the speech act, and ultimately, the content. Communication is successful only if there is agreement regarding the validity claims raised in the speech acts exchanged.

Through his formal-pragmatic analysis of cmns, Habermas has shown that rationality shouldn’t be limited to objective concerns – indeed, the very structure of cmns indicates that normative and evaluative concerns can and should be addressed rationally.


Foucault on power

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

So cliche, I know!

Foucault has been a pain in my ass since beginning graduate studies. I decided I need to get to know him better, to clear it all up, so I put him on my comps list. Not the least reason being his adamant, outspoken opposition to Marxism. It’s important to know the important critiques of whatever it is you’re studying. Also, there might just be something to what he’s saying … his notion of power certainly can be adapted to bolster or nuance other conceptualizations. We’ll see. Anyway, here’s my limited grasp of what Foucault was on about in his essay: The Subject and Power.

What is Foucault’s concept of power? He suggests we need new economy of power relations – one that is more empirical, implies more relations between theory and practice. The starting point is the forms of resistance against different forms of power; “it consists in using this resistance as a chemical catalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, find out their point of application and the methods used” (129). Instead of analyzing power relations from the perspective of power’s internal rationality, the new approach considers power relations through the antagonism of strategies. In other words, to understand power relations, Foucault suggests investigating forms of resistance and their attempts to subvert or alter these relations. These are not simply “anti-authority” struggles; their main objective is to attack a technique, a form of power (vs. attacking this or that institution of power, class etc.)

For Foucault power is inextricably linked to subjectivity. People become subjects in and through existing power relations. He offers two definitions of “subject”: 1. Subject to someone else by control and dependence; 2. Tied to one’s own identity by conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power that subjugates and makes subject to. Foucault casts the modern state as a sophisticated structure that integrates individuals on condition that this individuality would be shaped in a new form and submitted to a set of specific patterns. Precisely, the state is a modern matrix of individualization or new form of pastoral power, whose objective is salvation in this, not the next, world; “worldly” aims thus replace religious aims. The result is a political “double bind” – the simultaneous individualization and totalization of modern power structures. The problem of our day is therefore NOT to try to liberate the individual from the state and its institutions BUT to liberate us both from the state and the type of individualization linked to the state. In other words, we need to promote new forms of subjectivity through refusing this kind of individuality.

How is power exercised? Foucault distinguishes three types of power relationships. There is power that is exerted over things and gives the ability to modify, use, consume or destroy them [objective capacities]. There is power that brings into play relations between individuals [power relations]. Both of these are not to be confused with relationships of communication that transmit info (by means of a language, system of signs or other symbolic medium). The consequences and objectives of the production/circulation of communication can have results in realm of power [relationships of cmns]. These three types of relationships always overlap; they constitute “blocks” – regulated systems in which the adjustment of abilities, and resources of communication and power relations constitute “disciplines.” European societies have been increasingly disciplined since the 18th c. – this means that an increasingly controlled, more rational and economic process of adjustment has been sought between productive activities, cmns networks and the play of power relations. THUS, it is power relations, not power itself that is the object of analysis.

What constitutes the specificity of power relations? The exercise of power is “a way in which some act on others” (137). There is no such entity as power. Rather, power exists only as exercised by some on others – when it’s put into action. Power is not a matter of consent, not a renunciation of freedom, not the transfer of rights or power of each and all delegated to a few. A relationship of power is a mode of action that doesn’t act directly and immediately on others; instead it acts upon their action. It can only be articulated on the basis of two elements: 1. “the other” (the one over whom power is exercised) is recognized as a subject who acts; and 2. faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions etc. may open up.

The exercise of power is a management of possibilities; power is less a confrontation between two adversaries than a question of “government” – the way in which the conduct of individuals or groups might be directed (e.g. the government of children). “Government” is not just political structures or the management of states; it covers not only the legitimately constituted forms of political or economic subjection but also modes of action destined to act upon the possibilities of action of other people. To govern “is to structure the possible field of action of others.” The relationship to power is sought in that singular mode of action (neither warlike nor juridical) which is government. Power is exercised only over free subjects, those free to choose among several kinds of conduct etc. Power and freedom are not mutually exclusive facts – freedom is the condition for exercise of power (and its precondition and permanent support). The power relationship and freedom’s refusal to submit cannot be separated; at the heart of the power relationship are “the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom” (139)

How to analyze the power relationship? Power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus, not a supplementary structure over and above “society,” which may be obliterated. The analysis of power relations is politically necessary to discover the conditions that are necessary to transform some, abolish others. Although there can’t be a society w/out power relations, it doesn’t mean the current ones are necessary or that power constitutes an inescapable fatality that can’t be undermined… Because power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social (and against Marxism) one can’t reduce power relations to study of institutions. They have been progressively governmentalized (e.g. come more under state control) – elaborated, rationalized and centralized in form of state institutions.

Foucault concludes by discussing the relationship between power relations and confrontation strategies. He basically states that at the heart of power relations (and as permanent condition of their existence) lies insubordination and obstinacy on the part of the principles of freedom. THUS there can be no relationship of power without means of escape. Every power relationship therefore implies (at least in potentia) a strategy of struggle; each implies for the other a certain limit, a point of possible reversal. A relationship of confrontation reaches its term (and the victory of one adversary) when stable mechanisms replace free play of antagonistic reactions (allowing for the direction of conduct of others).

“For a relationship of confrontation, from the moment it is not a struggle to the death, the fixing of a power relationship becomes a target – at one and the same time its fulfillment and its suspension. And, in return, the strategy of struggle also constitutes a frontier for the relationship of power, the line at which, instead of manipulating and inducing actions in a calculated manner, one must be content w/reaching to them after the event. It would not be possible for power relations to exist w/out points of insubordination that, by definition, are means to escape” (143).

Every strategy of confrontation dreams of becoming a relationship of power and every relationship of power tends to become a winning strategy. At every moment, the relationship of power may become a confrontation between two adversaries; the relationship between adversaries may at every moment put into operation mechanisms of power. For Foucault, then, domination is a general structure of power but it is also a strategic situation.