Archive for March, 2007

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.

Northern Voice, open knowledge and the most famous “Robert”

Monday, March 5th, 2007

So I went to Northern Voice last weekend.

I giggle to think that I’m blogging about a blogging conference one week (exactly) after it happened. I’m so lame.

But no, I”m not (said with all humilty). Like all but the professionally unemployed or the geekily employed, I find there’s not a lot of time left to blog after paid work, school work, house work and kids – not in that order, of course.

But I’m blogging about it now, and all should be forgiven. For me, it’s not part of membership in a club. Indeed, it was in the name of fieldwork that I attended. I have this blog for my research, not for the integrity of blogging (if such a thing may be said). That said, I’m uncomfortable in my role as “researcher” because my “subjects” (again, a problematic term) are human – living, sentient beings, not in fact objects to be studied, extracted from life and later “coded” for my empirical results. I get an icky feeling about it all – in grade school, they would have called me a “user”.

So I don’t approach conferences like this with half the amount of professionalism I “should.” I go, check out the panels that even vaguely corelate to my work, and then go for a beer. What else is there?

And it was over a beer that I met the most famous Robert on Google. I innocently asked the man across form me at the bar (apres conference) – so, what’s your blog? He said, I’m the number one Robert on Google. And he is. Two above Robert DiNero (he’s occupies spots number one AND two) and four above Canadian children’s author, Robert Munsch.

You don’t say!

I learned later that night that his fortune rose as the “Microsoft blogger” and the rest (as “they” say), as far as his place in the blogosphere goes, is history. I have two things to say about the guy: 1. He looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman (perhaps a tad handsomer?) and 2. He was very nice. I’ll leave you to pronounce on his geekiness.

But back to Northern Voice. It was full of the usual suspects – that is, the “who’s who” of the Van tech scene, plus many more my ignorance prevents me from immortalizing. I missed the opening addres by Anil Dash (I could only think of Damon Dash – what does that say about me?) but I made it in time for coffee (which was very important, given my haul on the B-Line and hike halfway across UBC campus – a vast and alien territory for me). There was one panel that was, in fact, a perfect match. It was called “Building Rich Communities with Wikis” and the discussants were Stewart Mader and John Willinsky. Now Mader was interesting – he spoke of his experience publishing a book about wikis on a wiki. You can check it out here.

But it was Willinsky, a UBC english prof, who really caught my attention. He was an engaging and fascinating speaker, but it was the substance of his talk that really fired me up. Willinsky is in deep in the Public Knowledge Project, a federally funded research initiative at UBC and Simon Fraser University that “seeks to improve the scholarly and public quality of academic research through the development of innovative online environments. PKP has developed free, open source software for the management, publishing, and indexing of journals and conferences. Open Journal Systems and Open Conference Systems increase access to knowledge, improve management, and reduce publishing costs.”

Willinsky described how he used wikis in the post-secondary classroom setting. I’m fairly familiar with this through CMNS 253, which I’ve TA’d for two semesters. Nonetheless, I was inspired. I asked about my pet interest – open knowledge. I take this to be similar to the products of wiki collaboration (Wikipedia, for one) but within the academy. Can scholars collaboratively produce “authenticated” knowledge, given the restrictions of copyright, and the requirement to innovate new ideas to ensure career advancement (e.g. single authorship, the “coining” of terms, notions, concepts or methods, “it’s MY idea” etc.) Essentially, the question is: Can we “wikify” academic knowledge?

Willinsky mistook my question, and corrected me: “Open access.” And proceeded to explain his involvement in this movement. Which is entirely worthy, and certainly adjacent to my concerns. But if we want to democratize society further – if we believe in the liberatory and progressive elements of knowlege; if we want to challenge the limits of capitalist democracy (My Friend says I have to stop using the “C” word if I want to make any headway…) we need to take on the Academy (and here I use it with a capital “A” for emphasis) head on. I mean, in a no-holds barred, street brawl kinda way. If the academy is the last bastion of free thought, the preserve of rational (and hence progressive) thinking, then why is access to its knowledge restricted (see the Public Knowledge Project); why must academics “publish or perish” with all the sacrifice to education (and quality of knowledge production) that entails; why the stinginess, the slyness and the lack of openness when it comes to presenting one’s ideas to the public (e.g. publishing)?

These are some (!) of my burning questions. I’m going to ask Willinsky, see what he has to say. I support his project. One of my collegues has been quite involved in the Open Journal Systems that supports the Canadian Journal of Communication’s online presence. There’s no question it’s innovative, important. But I maintain it goes beyond access to knowledge – right to the heart of the matter, to knowledge production itself. Open knowledge. How will it play out?