Saturday, January 17, 2009
The Social Misconstruction of Reality by Richard F. Hamilton, 1996
Hamilton gives us a polemic and a series of debunkings which ascend from trivial observation to war-cry:
- Wellington cared nothing for the playing fields of Eton.
- Mozart didn’t die neglected and rejected.
- Weber couldn’t connect Calvinism to capitalism.
- Hitler wasn’t elected into power by benighted shopkeepers.
- In Discipline and Punish, Foucault lied! lied! lied!
Debunkings are always fun, don’t you think? And since sociologists, like economists, advertise empirically-derived generalizations while under unrelenting pressure to justify policies which benefit specific parties, I’m sure the debunkers among them will continue to feel both vitally necessary and desperately beleaguered.
The polemic’s more problematic. Hamilton wants to fix the social sciences and humanities. His diagnosis is gullibility; his posited causes are group-think and authority worship; his posited cure is individual contrariness.
Hamilton nets most of his gulls from journalism (particularly book reviews), introductory textbooks (particularly sociology), and interdisciplinary citations. Within the errors’ overlapping discipline of history, only once did Hamilton himself blow the first whistle, and that was a case of simultaneous discovery. As corrective scholarship goes, the record compares well to “harder” sciences: physics theories can be elaborated for decades before finding confirmatory evidence, and the social impact of slanted pharmaceutical papers dwarfs any of Hamilton’s examples.
Regarding journalism, anyone appalled by reviews lauding Weber’s or Foucault’s “meticulous” research must not have opened many “poetic,” “masterful,” or “shattering” novels or examined the similarly meticulous research of popular science writers. And I don’t know from introductory textbooks. So let’s move on to the interdisciplinary mash-ups of philosophy and literary studies and so forth.
Now, I grant that an abstract argument founded on a false premise, although possibly charming in other ways, won’t advance the great Sherman’s March of scientific knowledge. But the equivalence of citations with logical premises is itself an assumption in need of examination.
As empirical ice-breaker, I took the top hundred returns from a Project MUSE search for “Foucault” and “Discipline and Punish,” along with a dozen or so Google Book results and a few examples from my general reading over the past few months. In that sample I noticed only one argument which would have been invalidated by refuting Foucault. The vast majority of citations either occurred in studies of Foucault himself (a filter which would catch Hamilton as well) or were… well, here are some examples:
For actor-network theory is all about power — power as a (concealed or misrepresented) effect, rather than power as a set of causes. Here it is close to Foucault, but it is not simply Foucauldian for, eschewing the synchronic, it tells empirical stories about processes of translation.
Discipline and Punish thus suggests a principle that can be seen to underlie many recent studies of early modern disciplinary power: “bad” discipline drives out “good.” I want to ask whether it should or must, whether a more positive view of discipline can be successfully defended. My test-case is a lyric poem, George Herbert’s “Discipline.”
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, Foucault describes four basic techniques of discipline, all of which are exemplified in Lowry’s novel and, to varying degrees, in the other dystopian novels as well.
The institutional, patriarchal discipline that serves as the dominant force in Auster’s fiction is largely identical to that described by Michel Foucault.
This makes Foucault’s view of the professions — as groups of pious experts devoted subconsciously to the establishment of narratives of knowledge, or “regimes of truth,” for the propagation of their own power — an intriguing line of investigation for those who are fascinated by the historic controlling and detached image of the librarian and by the discursive knowledge base of librarianship.
What we see here is a shift from the spectacular to the scopic, and the scopic gaze of surveillance is that of an anonymous “white stenographer,” a gaze that is stamped by the phallic authority of whiteness as it arrests the black body in its divestiture. The scene suggests the emergence of a regime of discipline with a far more generalized and anonymous system of surveillance that does not draw attention to itself as spectacular.
What the reformers likely called the Fear of God may have seemed more like the Fear of the State to Foucault. Hawthorne, too, was wary of the state’s power and skeptical about relying on its judgments for enforcing morality.
In understanding the power relations manifested in the parades of revolutionary Zanzibar, Foucault offers valuable insights.
Huckleberry Finn even more radically views subjectivity as enthrallment to convention and habit.
Jane [Eyre]’s first description of John Reed’s abusive behaviour and of her reaction to his tyranny sets a pattern that continues throughout the novel and that exemplifies the responses to tyranny outlined by Foucault.
An intriguing subcategory argues against Foucault-citers in ways that parallel arguments against Foucault’s own work:
A thorough empirical critique of this simplistic and mistaken application of the Panopticon metaphor to the call centre labour process will form the latter part of this article....
... even if one grants that panopticism may apply to the power relations represented within fictional worlds no less than to those enacted in the real world, serious problems are raised by its application to the formal relations that pertain between novelistic narrators and fictional characters.
And a few citers rival Foucault himself in the audacity of their applications:
Thus, Foucault shows us (1) that an emphasis on self-discipline and ritual conduct does not imply a lack of freedom in and of itself and (2) that self-discipline and ritual conduct can actually be used as the basis for practicing freedom deliberately, as was the case among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, Confucian codes of self-discipline and ritual behavior can become the basis for the active, participatory practices of the citizens of a modern society.
While reading Djuna Barnes’ Consuming Fictions by Diane Warren, I encounter the sentence:
In effect, the rather random operation of censorship in the twenties effectively endowed critics with a kind of panoptic power, which could at any time lead to the invocation of the law.
And I look down to find an indisputable footnote:
The ever-present possibility of being watched, and the consequences that this has in terms of self-censorship have been theorised by Foucault (see Discipline and Punish).
Warren pretends no interest in the history of penology, and she introduces no “kind of” logical dependency between claims about censorship and claims about prison reform. What work’s being performed here?
Not anything equivalent to technical vocabularies, which condense clearly agreed upon definitions. In the humanities, popular brands become stretched and baggy from overuse, and restoring them to bear a full load of meaning requires redefinition within the essay or book itself — in which case no labor’s been saved by their deployment. For instance, Michael Wheeler’s Reconstructing the Cognitive World headlines a battle between Descartes and Heidegger, but then needs to explicate both philosophers in such elaborate detail that their names obscure the cognitive science he means to illuminate.
However, not all disciplines trade in generalizations about common nouns. Disciplines of particulars and proper names boast, if anything, a longer and more continuous history, reaching from Alexandria to the establishment and expansion of vernacular canons. What determines “scholarly value” within such disciplines isn’t a correlative graph carefully sculpted from a half-hour test taken by twenty undergraduates for ten bucks each, but the prominent deployment of citations. The marking patterns of scholarship emerge from the talk of scholars, and this particular habit has nothing to do with detached analysis and everything to do with conversation: we begin each interjection with “Speaking of which...” or risk rudeness.
(Of course, political institutions which stabilize power imbalances may quickly make “politeness” indistinguishable from “coercion” and “obedience”. See Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; Foucault, Discipline and Punish.)
In these examples, the citation is analogical and the cited author or text serves as a totum pro parte for some generality, or even some mood. Rather than a logical premise, it’s an association, a hook, an inspiration, or an excuse. At its best, the arbitrary authority primes the essayist to genuinely novel insights. The middling browbeaten formula goes “I found this and was able to come up with something vaguely reminiscent in X.” At its worst, “I went looking for something that would remind me of X and I found it,” justifying pages of fond X reminiscence by one utterly unrewarding sentence’s worth of application.
The pattern holds in primary sources as in secondary scholarship — or, to put it another way, primary sources in one context (Foucault studies, say) began as secondary sources in another context. Freud’s blunder about Leonardo’s bird was a bit embarrassing, but a mistake holds only a little less truth value than references to fictions like “Hamlet” and “Oedipus Rex.” And in fact, the original whistle-blower, back in the January 1923 issue of The Burlington Magazine, also complained about Freud using Dmitri Merejkowski’s Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci. To which the editor responded:
[Freud] says: “This deduction of the psychological writer of romances is not capable of proof, but it can lay claim to so many inner probabilities, it agrees so well with everything we know besides about Leonardo’s emotional activity that I cannot refrain from accepting it as correct.” He gives his reasons for doing so very clearly. Mr. Maclagan plainly states that Freud did not even pretend to have any data beyond “the unsupported guess of a popular novelist.” Freud refers to Merijkowski on other occasions as an example of how an imaginative writer may sometimes illuminate matters that remain obscure to the merely exact investigator. We have all experienced the truth of that.
Seventy-seven years later, references to Freud himself would be defended on similar grounds:
... his work loses little if some of his sources are doubtful, and if not every single hypothesis proves to be fertile. It is self evident that, after almost ninety years, most of Freud’s answers should have been refuted. But the potential of his questions is not exhausted. He himself predicted that his essay would primarily be understood as “merely… a psychoanalytic novel,” but he also guessed that it “was especially pleasing to a few knowledgeable people”. Perhaps they understood that it was these poetic overtones that were able to direct art analysis away from dull scholarliness and away from emotionalist reveries.
In other words, Freud could have justified his ideas with any made-up shit and have achieved the same results. However, it’s particularly helpful to invoke someone else’s made-up shit — to find a third party to interrupt, to incite, to provide some friction and spark in what might otherwise become a rather dull cocooning of the author-and-topic couple. The historical fiction of Leonardo worked as a hooky and ambiguously encouraging pretense for fantasy (which, appropriately enough, stabilized narcissism’s role in Freudianism). And once Freud himself becomes primary cultural material, his historical errors matter almost as little as Shakespeare’s.
(Although again ethics turn foggier and darker as we move outside a text-delimited community of equals to, say, the business of health care. See Foucault, Madness and Civilization. But let’s leave that for another day; here I strive to understand the text-delimited community of equals.)
Since the history of referential scholarship is necessarily one of accumulation and fashion, reductionist threats of a firm theoretical foundation will always fall flat. For a long while after Discipline and Punish, most academics who wanted to talk about internally imposed constraints felt compelled to mention Foucault, if only so reviewers wouldn’t criticize them for not knowing Foucault. At other times, the super-ego or false consciousness or the Harper Valley PTA might special-guest-star with very little modification to the central plot line. Some citations take the low common ground of a Nike T-shirt, while others are worn with the fervor of a team jersey during the World Cup. In the first edition of Factual Fictions, Lennard J. Davis namedropped Foucault as enthusiastically as a cafeteria chef shaking canned parmesan over a dish to make it “Italian.”
There’s a bit more to academic truth-value than just lack of rigor, though. The “scientific” heroism of Freud (and Foucault, and Nietzsche, and so on) didn’t include careful transcription of sources, painstaking replication of results, or double-checked blind studies, but it did require expressing engaging and potentially unpleasant thoughts applicable across a range of enduringly interesting problems. Which is to say such humanities scholarship can be “true” or “false” somewhat as a novel or poem is true or false, with a truth-value that’s utilitarian and context-dependent. The utilitarian side shows naked when defenders mock the barrenness of debunkers’ “ideas”: a flourishing breed of citations in itself proves the scholastic validity of the cited source.
Returning to the out-and-out errors reported by Hamilton, their longevity may spring from a few enduring mysteries:
- Why has an abomination like Eton not been razed to the ground?
- It sucks that we can’t buy Mozart a beer.
- The New Testament condemns greed as straightforwardly as it does anything, and yet most European and North American plutocrats are Protestant. And they rule the world!
- Hitler’s father was a civil servant and Goebbel’s a factory clerk and Weimar Germany was a democracy, but normal people don’t do such things.
- Despite the work of reformers, prisons don’t seem particularly humane. Also, even though I’ve left home I feel kinda constrained instead of all liberated and shit.
The simplest explanations will probably remain the most stable in the face of argument. To take the three cases which exercise Hamilton most:
- Most people are hypocrites. And just wait a while.
- A representative electoral government can magnify minute shifts of popular advantage into unthinkably extreme results.
- Ethics, law, and the administration of justice are incoherent, shifting, and therefore inevitably clashing systems. Also, welcome to adulthood.
Unshakable though they might be, none of these snappy answers satisfy our perplexity. There must be more to it than that. A residue of an urge to explain will remain, and will be met by one plausible story or/and another.
But if I don’t quite share Hamilton’s high-colonic ideals, neither would I welcome the erasure of all distinctions between “Hamlet” as produced on Gilligan’s Island and “Hamlet” as described by Stephen Greenblatt. The pretenses of a genre don’t have to be air-tight (or thoroughly sincere) to be productive; the inevitable constructions of sociability and the “social misconstruction of reality” overlap but aren’t identical. And there are other measures of scholarly worth besides citation volume — Michael Baxandall, for example, seems worth emulating despite his low production of forever footnotable trademarks.
Moreover, quasi-refutations of quasi-premises hold their own context-sensitive utilitarian value. For example, as satisfying and useful as attacks on the fascistic aspects of your parents’ milieu were if your middle-class youth occurred in 1950s or 1960s Western Europe, in the post-Vietnam United States it might have been wiser to recall that most of Hitler’s support came from the wealthy and from rural Protestants, and that religion determined votes more reliably than economic class.
To my non-academic eye, any harm done by Discipline and Punish hasn’t been to historiography but to the ability of non-historians to keep track of the world surrounding them, a bit closer every day. For the sheer directness of its display, I’ll perhaps unfairly single out Janet Holtman’s “Documentary Prison Films and the Production of Disciplinary Institutional ‘Truth’,” published in 2002 in Virginia, which pits Foucault, Deleuze, Jameson, and Bourdieu against all of two actual films: The Farm: Angola USA, which “merely acts as another social scientific node by which the disciplinary power of the prison functions,” and Titicut Follies, which “may number among the many ‘odd term[s] in relations of power… inscribed in the latter as an irreducible opposite.’”
As mentioned above, and for perhaps obvious reasons, the documentary prison film is a type of discourse that seems to offer particularly interesting possibilities for analysis in terms of Foucault’s theories. It is perhaps here that one might look to find a discursive formation whose effects are clearly recognizable on Foucauldian terms; an analysis of this particular cultural production as a type of truth-production may evidence the ways in which filmic discourses perpetuate humanist values such as the movement toward prison reform, the continuation of the social construction of subjectivities such as “the delinquent,” and the normalization and implementation of some of the social scientific technologies of discipline that Foucault describes, such as the examination and the case study. A key question here, in other words, is “what do documentary prison films do?”
A more pressing question here and now, I would think, is “what are prisons doing?” In this regard, recent anti-humanist academics fought an enemy that in most parts of the world (notably the USA) had already been thoroughly defeated by a common foe. It’s wonderful that Foucault gave us a new way to talk about repression in a relatively comfortable material position which permits extraordinarily free movement and speech, but not insofar as that’s distracted us from H. Bruce Franklin.
Dear puzzled older Valve readers: There’s no way I have time to re-join the site’s official membership list—my schedule’s even more stretched now than it was at my disastrous departure. (Maybe in fifteen years?) But in its fat-fingered way this piece touches on some long-time Valvish concerns, so Scott was kind enough to let it run as a guest post. Besides, after commenting on John’s last, it seems only fair that I take a few lumps myself.
Dear puzzled newer Valve readers: I’m a non-academic who reads a lot of academic writing. My curiosity about this particular stylistic trait may be dumb, but it’s not disingenuous.
I’m afraid some excellent comments have already been posted on my personal site, so here’s the linkspam.
This is a really good post.
I’ve also heard that breakfast is not really the most important mean of the day, and that old soldiers actually do die, rather than merely fading away.
It’s really true, though, that Mozart offered to shit in his lovely cousin’s mouth. And Mozart’s mom talked that way too. This is called a cultural difference.
And if Salieri didn’t poison Mozart, why did he confess on his deathbed? Tell me that.
Salieri sought absolution in advance for making Amadeus possible.
Welcome back, Ray!
There’s a piece I’ve been thinking about writing - but it would be complicated. The odd analogy between, say, Cass Sunstein (or J.S. Mill or Lionel Trilling’s) peculiarly meta-moderate prescripton of mild contrariness. That is, you ought to be a liberal who doubts liberalism. The philosophical higher-Broderism. Since it is a position adopted in odd indifference to considerations of truth values on the ground, it has an odd similarity to the radical positions it particularly opposes. Foucaultian transgressiveness, for example. The attraction of the philosophy is that it makes you feel wise regarding all political/cultural subject matters, because it gives you a framework for thinking about all subject matters that is securely immune from refutation by the facts.
In short, knee-jerk moderation and knee-jerk radicalism look the same at their level of justification.
I’m taking off from your remark that “Hamilton wants to fix the social sciences and humanities. His diagnosis is gullibility; his posited causes are group-think and authority worship; his posited cure is individual contrariness.” My point would be: the actual root cause of group-think, authority worship AND individual contrariness is the psychic need for answers to more questions than you actually know answers to. Because there’s too many damn facts to keep track of, among other obstacles.
Thanks, John. And complicated is right! My reply quickly began swelling into a spiritual autobiography which would be out of place in the dignified environs of a Valve comment thread. But should you write your piece and need an anonymous case study, just let me know.
Hmm, complicated indeed! My comment was somehow banged out in thoroughly garbled and fragmented fashion. Remarkable if anyone understood it at all.
The clear bit was this, so I’ll say it again: “the actual root cause of group-think, authority worship AND individual contrariness is the psychic need for answers to more questions than you actually know answers to.” You’ve got a pocket formula for appearing wise about any old thing that may come up.
The unclear bit was where I tried to say that there can be an odd family resemblance in the intellectual impulses behind knee-jerk moderation (which is a mild sort of contrarianism) and knee-jerk radicalism. (Not always, I’m sure. And not that people who sometimes slip in this way always slip. Me, for example!)