Theater of Cruelty

Foucault's tool box

Foucault's concepts are a brilliant overview for Foucault enthusiasts.


Knut Ove Eliassen:
Foucault's concepts
Scandinavian Academic Press, 2016

"Read the book as you play a record: Play what you like and drop the other tracks," suggests Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in his book A thousand plateaus. To them, philosophy was a tool, where concepts could be used for local thought tasks as needed, more than a grandiose system where everything had to be seen in context.
The same can be said of Michel Foucault, who just emphasized the practical and societal relevance of thinking. To be specifically intellectual, as he called it, was about thinking in the situation, acting where you were, rather than immunizing thoughts in the academic or professional philosophical stronghold.
The specific intellectual "is not the steward of universal truths, but rather he is enabling others to be put in a state where they can act politically in their own name," writes author and professor at the Department of Nordic Studies and Literature at NTNU Knut Ove Eliassen in his new book Foucault's concepts, in the chapter on experience. “The theory rather serves two conditions: It is to map the elements that are part of an experience, to assess the tactical and strategic efforts and to help make the interventions more effective; the second is to contribute to a description of a historical situation that changes the way it is perceived, and thus also to contribute to change, ”he continues.

01163_Foucault understands coverUtility Explanations. Eliassen's book is a little gem – it makes Foucault even more specific to interested readers, but this time in the form of a set of concepts, ready for use. The concepts are derived, relatively frictionlessly, from their original text contexts and reproduced as pivot points in their own chapters. Essential concepts such as discourse, dispositif og biopolitics form the principal coordinates. The various sections begin with quotations from Foucault texts, in which the term in question is illustrated by the protagonist himself. This is how the book moves close to the original texts.
Eliassen gives a reading of a textual passage before placing the relevant concept in context, so that it is evident both within Foucault's own writing and in a larger ideological context. Clarity lies as much in the author's ability to clarify the terms as in his ability to show how these change through Foucault's writing.

The term concepts. Chapter one, which appropriately addresses the term concepts, is a good angle because Foucault's concept of the term is a focal point for the characteristic interweaving of theory and practice we see throughout his writing. "Philosophy is action," says Foucault (through Eliassen). Concepts intervene in how you live, and how you live interferes with how the concepts work.
“The concepts of the language available make the interface conditional on the recognition of the world. They are accompanied by forms of recognition and subjects of recognition; concepts are life forms. Therefore, they have the potential for different and transcending life practices. ”

The awareness that the questions we ask depend on who and where we are, and on the forms of thought the discourse we are a part of enables us to shape, opens up a field of opportunity that has to do with caring for ourselves. The same applies to the concepts we create. The recognition that the words we use are always used before us, as Foucault said in his accession lecture at the Collège de France (and which Eliassen uses as an introduction to the chapter on the concept of discourse), enables self-work. These thoughts about changing life practices are, in my opinion, one of the most interesting things about Foucault.

No matter what we do, we cannot escape power – no business springs only from ourselves.

Stoic self-relation. The late Foucault discusses how power and self are interconnected in a variety of practices, or – as he himself put it – ways of controlling himself and others. With the status of the confession in early Christianity, a relationship between introspection and soul-sorrow came to light, where the one you tell about your inner life to is the one who sits with the answer to the truth about yourself. In this way, the priest could administer the citizens. By locking this basically insoluble power relationship, the confession became to a small extent something you could use to work on yourself for itself.
The confession nevertheless led to an inner structure of emotions such as conscience and shame, which apparently created an autonomous inner life independent of the "expert". Such relationships are equally relevant in our time, for example through the roles of confession in a courtroom or the openness to a psychiatrist player. The authorities are given knowledge and authority to tell the "truth" about yourself that you do not own.
Around 1980, Foucault began to explore other self-employment techniques that were not locked into the "expert's" grasp. It was especially stoic thinkers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius who recorded him. In ancient cultures, the teacher was only temporary tutors who would empower the student rather than lock him in an addiction relationship. Eliassen writes accurately and well about this: “The soul is not examined to uncover hidden processes and bring them to light, but to enable the individual to better manage himself. For Seneca, the subject is not an abyss where Satan runs his purse game, but a meeting place for social codes, experiences and aspirations. ”

Speak the truth. No matter what we do, we cannot escape power – there is no business that only springs from ourselves, even as the language Foucault spoke was his own. But it also becomes insufficient to talk about a pure subjugation of the individual. In the reproduction of languages, actions and practices, we also have room for self-care based on curiosity, playfulness and creativity. Here we find a place where the outside power cannot force us to our knees. "It is not about giving up the self to reveal a truth hidden in the interior, but through the acquisition of techniques to make oneself a place 'where the truth may appear'."
In the same way that no truth can be found through confessional procedures in the individual, no scientific investigation practices or forms of confession can establish any definitive truth. Rather, it is a fluctuating relationship between truth and falsehood, which changes in context.

Caring and dissent. There are a number of institutions that insist on procedures that will lead to Truth in capital letters, which we know from both textbooks and courtrooms. Such processes are alethurgical, says Foucault, of the Greek word for discovery (aletheia) and the sacred ritual (liturgy).
As Foucault finds techniques that free the individual from confessional practices and "masters" we can also, he argues, develop a care for the truth. Dissenting, speaking the power against, is valuable in itself because it maintains a room for something other than hegemonic truth. "The truth, it's never the same. There can be no truth other than in the form of another world and another life, ”says Foucault at the very end of life.
There is hardly any time when truth and self-care are more important to get a productive grip on than today. Foucault is still the best starting point for thinking about this – and Eliasson's book helps us get started.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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