Friday, September 28, 2012


A line in Foucault's lecture course Abnormal led me to consider the contemporary conditions of poverty. His line was about the outmoded concept of power as repressive and always wielded in the same direction, from the same source. He called that model of power "feudal." The model of power since the late 18th century, he says, is productive, and makes arrangements for production and circulation, not repression and deduction. This model of power cannot be confined to certain institutions, nor to a certain narrow range of relations.

I started to wonder if Foucault's view of power is starting to lose its explanatory power. The increasing wealth gap in the affluent parts of the world, the de-legitimation of social and political institutions, and the increase in poverty, suggested to me that the feudal model of power might be heading for a comeback.

On one level, it makes some sense to consider the emerging form of power to be feudal. The trope of the 1% versus the 99% expresses something like this: the 1% wield power over their societies, over the world, and over all resources. Democratic elections are basically meaningless exercises, because the power of concentrated wealth simply undermines any authority any elected representative might be willing to use to the benefit of citizens. Look at Greece and Spain. Look at the US.

Yeah, I thought, the superwealthy are reducing the rest of us to serfdom.

But there's a significant difference between feudalism and contemporary poverty. Serfs more or less belonged to the feudal lord, were basically required to do his bidding, and owned nothing. Serfs worked the land, the feudal lord accumulated wealth, and granted some portion of the product of their labor to the serfs -- sufficient to keep them working.

Contemporary poverty doesn't have that benefit. The very poor do not work. In a way, they are required not to work, for the profit of the superwealthy. Underemployment, part-time work, permatemped work is degraded. The work is degraded. This generates profit because the fantastic accumulation of wealth takes place these days by way of controlling how much gets produced, when, and where, and assuring that production only takes place under those circumstances. In contemporary poverty, you do not get to work the land.

Of course, there are many of our contemporary poor who do work the land, I'm aware of that. (Duh, I live in California.) Unlike serfs, they do not belong to the land they work, nor to the landowner. They do not belong anywhere except where their (note: temporary, and also illegal) work is required at a given moment. Otherwise, they are not allowed to be on the land.

Where do they very poor belong? I'm tempted to say nowhere. For the comfort and convenience of the wealthy, it is necessary that the very poor be dispatched, sent away, remain hidden. If you walk or ride your bike through enough of Turlock's streets, and pay attention to what you see, you'll find lots full of campers, in which people live. There is one in a parking lot behind a small hotel down our block. There might be 20 or 30 campers in there -- I'm talking about the kind of camper one might tow, not a 30-foot RV. The people living there are not serfs, because they have no land to work, even if they would have been granted permission to grow anything.

And this is to say nothing at all of those who do not even have a camper to their names, and who have no place at all that they have a right to be.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

ethics, education, empathy

In my Professional Ethics course, I have my students read an essay by a community college English instructor who is unsure how to deal with the confessional personal essays his students write in composition classes. His students go through all sorts of hell, tell him in their essays all sorts of private information, including details of their lives they’ve never told anyone else. His dilemma is that he can’t tell where to draw the line between responding to the essays as a composition teacher, and responding to them as a person.

I use this essay to get at a dilemma that I believe professionals in many fields face (though likely more often in education and caring professions) – negotiating the boundary between the professional-client relationship and a person-to-person relationship. I started using the essay because I was getting so many liberal studies majors (i.e., students preparing to be primary school teachers), but now that I’m getting practically none of them any more, I try to relate it to the nursing and other health-related professions students. It’s easy to imagine a physical therapist working with a patient, who suddenly blurts out information about some kind of harm or danger the patient is exposed to. What are the therapist’s responsibilities? Suppose the situation is ambiguous legally, ethically, or factually?

As I’m reading it this afternoon to prep for class tomorrow, I’m finding myself wondering why I’m so drawn to this essay. It’s good, and I think the issues it raises are real and important, but I don’t know why I think it’s all that important. I have affection for the essay and empathy for the author that go beyond my pedagogical purpose in using it in class. This is partly because I don’t think education is reducible to training, but I’m sure it’s also because of my own experience of caring teachers I had, in high school especially, who crossed that boundary, and likely (in one case at least) violated their own ethics rules, out of that empathy and care.

So here’s my confession: I love it when this happens to me. It’s impossible for me not to feel empathy and affection for my students, and impossible for me not to care about them as human beings, beyond being students. I want them to do well, to be well, and I want to help when that’s not happening. I feel like I have a responsibility not only for their learning, but also, when it comes up, for their being – in fact, their being is more important to me than their learning.

Of course, my Loveliest had been a student in a class I taught. But it would be a cheap dismissal to say I’m concerned about my students’ being because I have some sort of fascination with illicitly crossing that boundary. I’ve crossed that boundary numerous times, in mostly very minor interactions. I have listened many times to students talk about their history of mental illness. I had a student confide in me about her crisis of religious faith, brought about by a conflict over a relationship she had. I had a student come to ask for advice about what she and her girlfriend could do to form a legal marriage, in case Proposition 8 passed.

I had a colleague a few years ago who used to refer to her students as her “babies” or her “children” very often, and I think that’s going overboard. On the other hand, I do not see any reason the state of their souls shouldn’t matter to me.

(Warning: cheap punchline to come.)

This is why I am ineligible to serve in administrative positions at the CSU.

Friday, September 14, 2012

what I really need - a new philosophical task!

Right now, I've got the following balls in the air:

  • stuff about the phenomenological concepts of normal and abnormal, and the critique of these concepts by Foucault and Canguilhem
  • something about the construction of faculty subjectivity, via Foucault, in order to get at some kind of non-professional or para-professional or renewed professional ethics of faculty, given the ongoing degradation of our work and employment status
  • more phenomenology, of orientation
  • still more phenomenology, working out further the ontology of subjection
It's fun, or it would be, if I weren't teaching five classes, staring at the first of five sets of papers I'll receive between yesterday and Tuesday, and doing faculty rights work. I have also been taking all of my blog posts and turning them into Word documents, in preparation for putting them all together as a book, sort of as a gift to my mom. 

To avoid reading student papers, I was just re-reading a post about language, from a series of entries about Merleau-Ponty. In this post I said that we describe our experience using the concepts of truth and reality. It took me aback.

So now I have another thing to think about, and to try to track down, doing what could be a weird kind of Foucauldian phenomenology of the way we describe our experience using such terms, and I suppose some others. It wouldn't be a genealogy of truth like Foucault's, but it would borrow from his scholarly methods and certainly owe a lot to his philosophical spirit. It would be phenomenological: how does something like truth or reality become constituted on the basis of lived experience -- and why? And are there alternatives?

But now I have to go to class.