The Genealogy of Labor

3 September 2012

Monday


Michel Foucault

A Reflection for Labor Day

Foucault is perhaps most remembered for his early books, written in a very dense and at times elusive style, which constitute what have been called “critiques of historical reason.” Foucault takes up the ideas of madness, the clinic, prisons, philology, biology, political economy, and eventually (later on) sexuality, providing a staggering wealth of documentation from original source materials, even while one understands that these details are only there to serve a grand plan that is never made quite explicit. I have previously quoted the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who characterized Foucault’s style as, “sweeping summary with eccentric detail” (cf. Foucault’s Formalism). Foucault’s effort owes much to Nietzsche’s earlier efforts to formulate what he called a genealogy of morals. Foucault said that, “Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary,” but for Nietzsche it was colorful, inventive, and exciting, and I think these are also qualities that made Foucault’s intellectual genealogies so interesting.

Since Foucault’s fascinating genealogies have appeared, others have taken up the task and gone on to write genealogies of all manner of historical phenomena that had, until recently, been regarded as largely unproblematic. Foucault was the next great “master of suspicion” after Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud (as identified by Paul Ricoeur), and Foucault’s influence has spawned suspicion enough to call into question every received institution of Western civilization. From this perspective, Foucault can be seen as part of a reaction against progressive Whiggish history more than as a continental embodiment of the largely Anglo-American history of ideas, to which genealogy is related, but only distantly.

I wonder if any of Foucault’s followers has written a genealogy of labor — certainly it would be a rich field of study. Foucault discussed labor in his The Order of Things, and even called one chapter of this “Labor, Life, Language,” but Foucault takes up labor from the stand point of the discourse of political economy and not from the stand point of the labor movement. I started thinking of this today when I was writing a post on my other blog about the labor movement in recognition of Labor Day, A Celebration of the American Laborer. A genealogy of labor that brought sweeping summary with eccentric detail to the gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary work of a critique of the historical reason as it underlies the labor movement would be a real achievement, and something that someone ought to take up if they haven’t already done so.

In that post I discussed my discomfiture with labor slogans and the labor movement generally speaking. I did not do justice to my chosen topic because there is so much more to say, but while I was struggling with setting limits to how far I would go in attempting to understand the social semiotics that characterize labor today, which is to say labor in industrial-technological civilization, I realized how easily this topic would play into a Foucauldian critique.

Foucault’s constant drumbeat throughout his critiques of historical reason is that the institutions of contemporary society that we have become accustomed to seeing as expressions of an emerging and growing humanitarianism are rather methodologies of control, and the professionalized discourses in which they are formulated — whether psychiatry or economics or penology — are in fact discourses of power that serve to channel privilege within a society. Although Foucault distinguished himself among philosophers of his generation by sedulously maintaining his distance from Marxism, it would be difficult to imagine a more thorough-going Marxist critique of the oppression of the masses than that formulated by Foucault.

The labor movement has been dominated, intellectually speaking, by those on the left coming from a Marxist perspective (even if, in the US, they could not for obvious socio-political reasons make their Marxism explicit), and as such one ought to expect the labor movement to be part of the critique of power relations in the industrialized world, but the labor movement has itself become a part of that industrial-technological establishment and now would rightly be subject itself to a critique for its professionalized discourse of labor relations and worker protections. The AFL-CIO campaign Work Connects Us All, which I just mentioned on my other blog, is a perfect example of this.

While the labor movement is part of the Marxist tradition as I mentioned above, it is also part of the humanist tradition. In so far as the labor movement is part of that broad social movement that seeks to humanize the institutions of industrialized society, it is vulnerable to the same critique that Foucault leveled against “humane” psychiatry, mental institutions, clinics, and prisons. Just as utopian dreams usually issue in dystopian nightmares, so too humanitarian good intentions more often than not issue in dehumanizing, depersonalizing policies. The “humane” workplace is more and more coming to resemble those other institutions, what Erving Goffman called “total institutions,” that interested Foucault.

In the attempt to make people feel involved, connected, and important by way of their labor, the labor movement must inevitably treat human beings as laborers, and it may well be that, even though the working class spends the greater part of its time engaged in alienated labor, and that this engagement necessarily has a formative influence on life and personality, workers might not want to be identified with their work or reduced to their labor. Some may even feel that this identification with a task they perform in exchange for financial compensation is an insult and slight in view of their other talents and abilities. Certainly not all, but some.

The contemporary workplace has become a regime of observation and documentation and regimentation far more encompassing than Bentham’s panoptican, which latter drew Foucault’s attention and has been a consistent point of reference for Foucault’s followers ever since (I wrote about the panopticon in A Flock of Drones). The panopticon only observed individuals at a particular moment; the regime of workplace surveillance now encompasses the life of the individual entire, from cradle to grave, and in so doing eliminates the personal life. An individual’s history before being employed may be investigated, their pictures and statements on social media examined, they will likely be tested for drugs that have nothing whatsoever to do with their performance on the job, their e-mail, web browsing, and phone calls while working may be monitored, and so long as they are employed they will continued to be monitored on the job and off the job, to whatever invasive extent sanctioned by the professionalized legal discourses constructed as a means to relieve individuals of the responsibility for their own lives. (I’m sure Freud would have had something interesting to say about the professional classes monitoring the urination of the working classes.) Of course, all of these things are done in the name of safety and order and the well-being of all — but aren’t they always?

What has the labor movement done about this unprecedented invasion of privacy? Nothing. What has the labor movement done about the extirpation of the private life? It has contributed to it, by identifying the private life with work, job, career, and professional status. The labor movement has only served to facilitate the institutionalized regimentation of worker’s lives, acting as agents for the powers that be, because they obtain their living by the same means as the owners and the managers they affect to confront.

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The Genealogy of Ideas

24 October 2010

Sunday


Previously I discussed idea diffusion in Civilization and Idea Diffusion, but even as I posted that short contribution, I realized the inadequacy of it. A suitably detailed treatment of idea diffusion and its place in the history of human experience would run to volumes. What we need is perhaps, rather than the traditional history of ideas, is a genealogy of ideas. “Genealogy” in this sense comes from Nietzsche’s use of the term and his implementation of the idea, but it is Foucault who brought this kind of Nietzschean genealogy to maturity.

In his essay “Nietsche, Genealogy, History,” (collected in the volume Language, Counter-Memory, Practice) Foucault wrote:

Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times…

Genealogy… requires patience and a knowledge of details and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material. It’s “cyclopean monuments” are constructed from “discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method”; they cannot be the product of “large and well-meaning errors.” In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition. Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for “origins.”

Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” pp. 139-140

These are obviously the principles and practices by which Foucault pursued his scholarly research. And this is exactly what we need for the mind: instead of a history of ideas, as that discipline has been practiced, we need a genealogy of ideas that is as gray and patient and meticulous as the research that Foucault imagines (and which he in fact pursued) in reference to more familiar topics of history.

Equally obviously, I cannot do anything to even approach this in the space of a blog post, except to point out the need for such an approach, and to observe the relationship that a genealogy of ideas would have to the idea of idea diffusion as an historical process. A genealogy of ideas would trace, in detail, the paths of idea diffusion, if there are any such paths in a given case. Ideas diffuse over both time and space. The diffusion leaves a trace along the path those ideas have taken. In time, ideas experience descent with modification, and in space ideas experience adaptive radiation. These processes are not isolated from each other, but rather occur concurrently.

Foucault emphasized the meticulousness and detail required by genealogy, and we need to bring these scholarly habits to the genealogy of ideas. Because it is so difficult to deal with ideas with precision — it requires an unfamiliar effort of thought to do so — ideas have more often been given vague and ambiguous treatment that has caused them to be held in low repute. But if we can bring rigorous habits of mind to the genealogy of ideas, we could contribute to restoring ideas to their proper dignity.

For example, idea diffusion can occur on many different levels. We must pay careful attention to how we count our ideas, and how we place each idea within a hierarchy of ideas, so as not to conflate ideas of different orders of magnitude. Idea diffusion can take place on many different levels because any given particular falls under many different ideas.

How many squares are there on a chess board? It depends upon how we count them, and how we count them will depend upon how narrowly we have defined “square” in this context. Moreover, some definitions will admit of more than one answer because of the vagueness they incorporate, while some definitions will be more precise, and precisely because they are more precise they will exclude instances that are included under broader, less restrictive definitions. On a chess board there are, of course, the individually colored squares, and there are 64 of these. But the chess board taken on the whole is also a square. If we count both the individual squares and the whole, there are 65 squares. But there are also squares made up of 4, 9, 16, and so forth individual colored squares. There is no right or wrong answer here; it is only a matter of setting up a convention upon which we can agree. And once we have agreed upon a rigorously defined convention, we are prepared to treat the question of the number of squares on a chess board with precision.

This may seem like a silly exercise, but it is very much to the point. Without rigorous definitions, we will never be capable of thinking precisely about ideas. And given that few people ever make the time or take the effort to formulate rigorous definitions of ideas (except for mathematicians), it follows that ideas are usually not conceived with the requisite precision.

All ideas, and not just chess board squares, are to a greater or lesser extent subject to ambiguity, and therefore can only be treated with precision after we have made the appropriate effort to conceive them rigorously. Yesterday in Epistemological Warfare we remarked upon how all phases of the OODA loop (AKA the Boyd cycle) are theory-laden, therefore subject to interpretation, and therefore potentially ground for divergent observations, divergent orientations, divergent decisions, and divergent actions. This is partly a consequence of the ambiguity of the ideas employed in formulating the OODA loop. The more rigorously we can deal with each element of the cycle, the more we can minimize (though not eliminate) divergencies.

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