Monday, August 31, 2015

214. Language games of power

Here I make a connection between Foucault’s notion of knowledge embedded in structures of power, and Wittgenstein’s notion of language games. Perhaps the two notions are complementary, enriching each other.

According to Wittgenstein, if you want to know what the meaning of a word is, see how it is used. Then you see that it is connected with meanings of other words, in a language game. If you do not play by the rules, or are unfamiliar with them, you are out of the game. The meanings of the words you use are not those of the game, and you get excluded or ignored. This connects, I propose, with Foucault’s notion of ‘savoir’, knowing the system and how it works, needed to be seen and accepted as a legitimate participant. Knowing how to play he language game.

As suggested earlier in this blog (in item 206), this seems to be part of the Greek crisis: the Greeks were not ‘in the know’ and did not play by the rules of the dominant language game imposed by the officials and politicians of the EU.

According to Foucault, discourse is embedded in a non-discursive context. In the Greek case this included, among other things, the condition that EU politicians feel the electoral pressure from rightist, nationalist populist parties, which presses them to resist further financial aid, let alone any cancelling of Greek debt. The IMF, being less, or less directly, political, did plead for substantial cancelling of debt.

Apart from the more or less visible structures, of participants, discourse, interests, positions, resources, etc., Foucault recognized the importance of the ‘deep structures’, the unconscious, of thought. Those are embedded in language, I add.

In his Archaeology of knowledge Foucault assigned several types of rules to ‘discursive formations’, as follows[i]:

1.      Rules for the formation of objects, i.e. what the discourse is about, including their source, in a selection from a social context, to be transferred to the discourse, those who have the authority to decide what objects are admitted. For example, in the Greek case the discourse is about financial viability, not about social justice.

2.      Rules for regulating discourse, in determining who has the right  to use a given mode of speech, the site where legitimate discourse takes place, the position of someone making a statement about the objects of discourse. In the Greek case: members of the established constellation of the EU (with the IMF more peripheral), Brussels as the site of discourse, and whether the participant in the discourse is a minister of finance, head of state in the EU, head of the central bank of the EU, or official from the IMF.

3.      Rules concerning who governs the formation of concepts, i.e. the basic logic, methodology, range of accepted statements, statements admissible from other discursive formations, and relevant memories from history associated with accepted statements, and ‘procedures for intervention’ in the approximation and delimitation of statements and the generation of new ones. In the Greek case, I propose that this is largely a rhetoric of globalized markets, statements from (mainstream) economics and finance, the history of capitalism, and the management of meetings and reports.

4.      Rules for the formation of strategies, i.e. specific doctrines, principles and guidance for the efforts of individual participants, the possible branching out of discourse into different, possibly mutually conflicting directions, and influences from non-discursive. Here, the Greeks tried to open up the discourse to issues of European solidarity, social justice, and historical antecedents. A branching occurred between the positions of the EU and of the IMF.

Is this analysis helpful to better understand the Greek case? Or, conversely, is it helpful for a further elucidation and specification of Wittgensteinian language games?      

[i] P. Gary Gutting, 1989, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of scientific reason, Cambridge University Press, p. 234-239.

Friday, August 28, 2015

213. The causality of power

If power is indeed a matter of ‘actions on actions’, as assumed in foregoing items in this blog, then perhaps one can analyse it further on the basis of a causality of action. As earlier in this blog, in items 96-100, here I use the multiple causality of action proposed by Aristotle. The efficient cause is who/what acts, with the material cause of means, according to the formal cause of knowledge/skill/technology, with the final cause as the goal of action, under the conditional cause of circumstances (that enable or constrain the other causes), possibly following some model (the exemplary cause).

In one of his publications[i] Foucault considered ‘how to analyse the power relationship’, and proposed the following elements:

1.      The efficient cause concerns who is able to act. That seems to appear in what Foucault called The system of differentiations that permit one to act, in ‘differences of status or privileges, economic differences in the appropriation of wealth or goods, differing positions within processes of production, linguistic or cultural differences, differences  in know-how and competence, etc.’
2.      The final cause concerns why people exert power. That seems to appear in The types of objectives ‘pursued by those who act upon the actions of others: maintenance of privileges, accumulation of profits, the exercise of statutory authority, the exercise of a function or trade’.
3.      The formal cause concerns how power is exerted. It seems to appear in Instrumental modes such as ‘threat of arms, … speech, … economic disparities, .. means of control, systems of surveillance, .. rules, .. means of enforcement’.
4.      The conditional cause concerns the conditions under which power is exerted. That  seems to appear in Forms of institutionalization such as ‘legal structures, .. habit or fashion, .. hierarchical structures, .. the state …’ I would add: the structure of networks and one’s position in them. I discussed this in item 209.

In Foucault’s account I see no clear material cause. That might include information used to exert power.

Why is this multiple causality useful here? If it is valid, it renders Foucault’s analysis less arbitrary or ad-hoc, more systematic, thus linking it to other issues and analytical perspectives.

While power can be positive, widening options and freedom of choice, the analysis focuses on the negative side. To include the positive side, in the final cause one might include a striving for justice, equity, legitimacy, etc. In the formal cause: development of capabilities, forms of complaint and redress, debate, opposition, etc. In the conditional cause: democratic procedures, elections, plebiscites, laws and regulations of labour, competition, reporting, civic responsibility, etc.

Also, a causality of action might be used it for the other side of the coin: of actions of those who are subjected to power, in an analysis of counter-power. This would yield something like the following.

1.      Efficient cause: Coalition formation, …
2.      Final cause: Justice, equity, countervailing power, ..
3.      Formal cause: capabilities, know-how (‘being in the know’, as discussed in the preceding item in this blog), forms of control (e.g. the ‘horizontal control’ discussed in item ….), whistle blowing, protection against ostracism or retribution, …
4.      Conditional cause: democratic procedures, a culture of trust, …
5.      Material cause: access to information, …
6.      Exemplary cause: role models such as Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, …..

Finally, consider the phenomenon of ‘involuntary power’, where people, organizations, or governments are caught in prisoners’ dilemmas. I discussed this as part of ‘system tragedy’, in items 109, 113, 159, 187, 190.

The example was banking, where employees and banks, or some of them, see the unethical nature of their conduct, and may honestly want to change but cannot afford to do so unless the others do so as well, and governments do not intervene to impose proper conduct out of fear of driving out their banking sector. Here, the final cause is institutionally imposed rather than chosen. The conditional cause determines the final cause.

[i] The subject and power, first published in English as an appendix to Hubert Dreyfus & Paul Rabinow (eds.), ‘Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics’, 1982.

Monday, August 17, 2015

212. Pervasive power

Here I start a series on power, using the work of Michel Foucault, with some additions, criticism and modifications.
Michel Foucault used the customary definition of power as ‘actions upon actions’. Power is the potential, and its exercise, to affect the choices and actions of people. I also adopted that notion, in item nr. 50 of this blog. Thus, power can be positive, in creating novel options, eliminating constraints on choice, or negative, in reducing options or imposing choice.

 When novel options for choice are not just offered but imposed, coerced, power turns from positive to negative. Force of imposition need not be physical. It can lie in threats of position, property, reputation or social acceptance, or in ideological exhortation or seduction, insidious because covert, and presented as all to the good of the self or a collective.

According to Michel Foucault, knowledge is tied up in relationships, social systems, institutions, which constitute and exert power. He famously analysed such systems in psychiatric wards, health clinics, and prisons.

I find this useful, but I do run into the following problem. Institutions are ‘enabling constraints’. They are humanly constructed rules, guidelines, values, models, etc. that enable and guide actions but in doing so necessarily also constrain them. A path through a swamp enables its crossing but also constrains walk to the path, not to drown. A teacher offers a perspective and in so doing focuses and thus narrows attention. Since institutions both enable and constrain actions they entail both positive and negative elements of power. They enact power of normalization.

Heidegger talked of the need and difficulty of getting away from ‘Das Man’, the force of convention.   
Then all institutions entail power. Language, traffic signs, advertising, values, … Since there can be no society without institutions, and no self without society, and institutions are everywhere, power is everywhere. Then, what do we do with the idea that knowledge is tied up with power?

The notion works only when we differentiate specific types (positive, negative) of power, the structure of a system, levels and concentration of power, forms and degrees of subordination and coercion, and bring in associated notions of authority, legitimacy, forms of force, debate, appeal, redress, ….

Foucault in fact did that, by focusing on specific cases (madness, illness, imprisonment). He was, in fact, against intellectual universalism and demanded analysis to apply to specific cases. Here, I do want to add more general considerations. I reject absolute universals but want to maintain generalization by abstraction, as a method of science.

Foucault made a distinction between ‘connaissance’ as state of knowledge, and ‘savoir’ as the process of its constitution[i]. From that I make a distinction between ‘substantive knowledge’ and ‘procedural knowledge’ or ‘being in the know’.[ii] This connects with a distinction between ‘scientific’ and ‘political rationality’. Being ‘in the know’ one knows who is what, in what roles, who are accepted as ‘legitimate speakers’, who has authority in what, what legitimate discourse is, on what subjects, with what terms, with what meanings, according to what logic, on what occasions, and on what locations. Foucault conducted such analysis, as I will discuss in later items in this blog.

Not being ‘in the know’, one will be marginalized, ignored, or disciplined, no matter how much relevant substantive knowledge one has. This is how intellectuals often become ineffective. When in political wrangling a plan of action has finally been arrived at, at great cost of lobbying and compromise, those ‘in the know’ are not going to let themselves be side-tracked by some lone, errant intellectual or band of outsiders. Or even voters.

Earlier, in item 206, I suggested that in the Greek crisis, what happened was that, as I would now say, ‘the Greeks were not in the know’.       

[i] In an interview conducted by D. Trombadori in 1978. See James D. Faubion (ed), Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984: Power, Gallimard 1994.
[ii] Among Dutch policy makers there is the expression of ‘knowing which way the hares are running’.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

211. Identity formation in modern work

Like a modern Marx, Richard Sennett claimed that in present capitalism people cannot express or develop their identity in work.[i] Work is no longer a career, or even a job, but is made up of spot activities with no history or future.

No history in struggling to build up professional competence, because competence has largely been taken over by automated processes. That turns the worker into a mere monitor without specialist understanding of what is going on, how it works, and how to intervene when it fails.

No future since due to ‘downsizing’ and flexibilization of work there is high insecurity of volatile employment.

There is risk not in the sense of an entrepreneurial project that may fail, but ‘risk as a continual state of vulnerability’ (in losing employment).

Sennett goes back to Luther, and further to Pico della Mirandola, for the notion of life not as a mere string of unconnected, incidental activities, but as a connected whole, as a ‘narrative’. Lacking that, in modern work, people ‘no longer have a sense of a real self’.

Going further back to classical Greek philosophy, we find happiness, ‘eudaimonia’, as a coherent whole which at death one can look back on, asking whether it was a life well spent.

So, the challenge is to find coherence in duration, between successive activities. In item 185 of this blog I referred to Henri Bergson’s notion of ‘duration’, where instants gain significance as part of a stretch of time as a whole. In walking, steps make sense not in isolation but as constituting a walk.

Is change ceaseless flux, unpunctuated, without stability?

Sennett recalls the farmer living with the rhythm of seasons.

Earlier in this blog (in item 31) I argued for a ‘cycle of discovery’, with an alternation of stability and change. Novelty consolidates, deepens and widens, and then, in shifting to novel areas of application, encounters the seeds and conditions for renewed change.

In the famous debate on scientific methodology between Popper, in favour of continually looking for the falsification of theory, and Lakatos, rationalizing stability and protection of existing core beliefs and assumptions, Popper in the end granted that one does not jettison a theory at the first sign that it is not perfect. One needs to exercise a measure of conservatism, maintaining a theory in an accumulation of misfits ‘to see where its real strengths and weaknesses lie’.

So, this is the form of change that I propose, with stretches of stability and consolidation alternating with steps of transformation.

Also, patience and coherence in time are needed to build relationships and trust, in order to carry development to fruition. Then, as the potential of the new is gradually seen to become exhausted, and new opportunities arise, one can happily and adventurously engage in the next swing of the wheel of change.

I believe this model offers a workable combination, not compromise but complementarity, of stability and change.

In items 8 and 9 I argued that personal identity arises from a life history, where one comes from, where one is going, and where one belongs: what positions, connections and relationships on has. I argued that identity is not an essence that one contains but a position in overlapping networks. I elaborated on this in item 209.

Team hopping may yield an incoherent sequence of incidents, but it can also contribute to the formation of networks, if the relations in the team had some substance and continuity.

[i] Richard Sennett, The corrosion of character; The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, W.W. Norton, 1998.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

210. Teams as communities

Richard Sennett[i] painted a dark picture of team work in present capitalism, in times of ‘downsizing’ of organizations and flexibilization of work.

Managers make themselves immune by profiling themselves as ‘facilitators’ rather than ‘bosses’. They do not give orders but challenge team members to form their own work. Thereby they achieve two things for themselves.

First, they abdicate their responsibility and accountability, since it is not they but the team that decided where to go. The hypocrisy next is that nevertheless teams are evaluated, rewarded or ‘made redundant’ for their performance accordance to standards set by management.

Second, management disarms critical employees. Why complain if it is up to yourself and colleagues to make things work.

According to Sennett, collaboration is professed but no time is allowed to build the mutual dependence and trust needed for collaboration. Team members pretend to collaborate but in fact compete for positions and continuation of employment.

Is Sennett exaggerating? All this certainly happens. But not necessarily. Teams may also take the form of durable relationships of complementarity, trust and mutual support, as shown in the literature on ‘communities of practice’.

There, the underlying principle is that professional practice (of  mechanics, repair engineers, designers, doctors, research teams, …..) is too rich, too complex and variable to be caught in complete and codified protocols. Practice is stronger than theory. This makes the work opaque, hard to monitor and control, for outside managers. Newcomers have to go through a stage of imitation and initiation to ‘grow into’ established practice, absorbing the ‘tacit knowledge’ that cannot be codified.

In fact, this form of work may become too stable. Then, not to lose out in innovation, ties in the team may have to be weakened, or some turnover of participants may be needed not to get caught in rigidity. I discussed this in the preceding item in this blog.

There is in fact a whole range of different forms of community, with different degrees of depth and stability of relationships.[ii] But there is one feature they all share: members need to invest in each other, in mutual understanding and trust, to utilize the opportunities that arise in combining different capabilities.

Such investments are specific to the team, do apply outside it, and will therefore be made only when a sufficient continuity is guaranteed to recoup them. Managers who are ignorant about this, or ignore it, will be competed away by managers or firms that do take the point.

Opacity of team work, with the resulting difficulty of outside control, plus the crafting of high quality from complementary competences, give the team countervailing power. It evokes the need for what earlier, in item 75 of this blog, I called ‘horizontal control’, with a minimum of outside control, in forms that are negotiated between teams and outside controllers. Again, managers or firms that ignore or are ignorant of this will lose out, with higher costs of control

[i] Richard Sennett, The corrosion of character; The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism,W.W. Norton, 1989.
[ii] Bart Nooteboom & Irma Bogenrieder, ‘Learning groups: what types are there?’, Organization Studies,
25 (2004)/2: 287-314.