Jim Johnson summarizes the argument of one of his more provocative papers on the way to making some points about photography, architecture and Guantanamo.
I always have found it curious how academic political theorists in the U.S. have taken up “postmodern” thinkers to try to argue for a more or less relentlessly skeptical stance, one that presumes we have no more or less stable normative criteria for assessing politics. Nearly a decade ago (1997) I published a paper in Political Theory entitled “Communication, Criticism and the Postmodern Consensus.” There I suggested that far from being systematically skeptical about the grounds of normative criticism, postmodern thinkers actually are committed to a standard of equal and reciprocal communication. … Foucault … goes on to explain that disciplinary institutions—not just prisons, but schools, the military, factories, hospitals, mental health clinics—“have the precise role of introducing insuperable asymmetries and excluding reciprocities” … [In] Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon … “Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication” (Foucault 1979, 200 stress added).
As I wrote then and still think: “What Foucault seems to argue here—and what the postmodern consensus obscures—is that disciplinary power is normatively objectionable precisely because it imposes unequal, asymmetrical, non-reciprocal relations and because, in so doing, it obliterates the sorts of extant communicative relations that, potentially at least, could promote social relations characterized by equality, symmetry and reciprocity.” Foucault does not think we actually all inhabit a “disciplinary society” – at least he didn’t think so in the mid-1970s. He (like Hobbes writing about a different modality of power in The Leviathan) was warning us about the dangerous tendencies of modern societies.
One of the reasons that I enjoy Jim’s papers is that he’s a bit of a shit-stirrer. But I also really like this reading on its own merits; it seems to me to extract much of what’s valuable and important about Foucault’s work. To me, Foucault is a little like Bourdieu – his theory of power is less valuable as an abstraction than as a method; an intellectual tool for critiquing social practices that we would otherwise take for granted. But for a critique to really work, it should hint (at the very least) at a vision of how things might be better if they were organized differently. The Foucault of Discipline and Punish isn’t entirely the Foucault who wrote The Order of Things and is more attractive for it (just as the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire is more attractive and complicated than the Marx of the Grundrisse).