Feb 2, 2015

Monday Morning Quote (Foucault, 2/2/15)

"The incredulity currently elicited by the prospect of a life lived free of a preoccupation with penises, vaginas, and orgasms, may one day seem as myopic, and historically curious, as the Victorian dread of masturbation."

Michel Foucault

Foucault spent much of his career exploring the relationships of power and knowledge. Power is traditionally viewed as the exercise of force or control over individuals or particular social groups by other individuals or social groups. Foucault was one of the first thinkers to systematically reconsider this view. Power is seen as being constitutive of both the relationships which exist between the groups and therefor power takes form in the individual and social group identities.

Knowledge is subjectively influenced and controlled by power. This is not Foucault's innovation, however. This idea is expressed by the sophist Gorgias in Plato's dialogue of the same name. In the dialogue Gorgias makes his famous claim that 'man is the measure of all things.' In modern philosophy we find the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes making the claim that knowledge is in fact an expression of power. Foucault's innovation is to explore how power takes form and what effect it has on our understanding of things. Ultimately, knowledge can not be analyzed in absence of a discussion of the relationships of power. An understanding of knowledge, therefor, won't take the form of a study of epistemology but rather an intricate study of social relationships.

The basic message explored in today's quote is that many of our current day values may be drastically altered in the future. Indeed these types of changes can be seen all throughout history. Although humans have remained genetically similar throughout recorded history, the manifestations of their values have altered considerably. All this is in direct opposition to the common sense view that there exist a 'correct' value system as set out in the Christian religious dogma that has plagued us for thousands of years. 'Thou salt not' begins the most wrong-headed sentences in existence. There are no moral facts.

The stability of a society was thought to rest upon its ability to cohesively indoctrinate its people and to have them internalize standard values which are practiced consensually. So the idea that there are no moral facts may be a frightful one indeed as one has to then rely on each individual successfully adopting the social norms. However, the study of deviancy suggests that this is not the case. It is rather the case that we can have different conscience collectives for different sub-groups within society and that individuals can and often do break social norms without punishment.

The theory of labeling posits that the person expressing consistent deviant behaviour in one area eventually becomes recognized according to a value-laden term. In today's quote the deviant person, by expressing their sexual freedom, may come to be labelled as a pervert. This label serves to isolate the person from 'normal' society and they may resort to escaping from society and finding social significance within a deviant subculture. Foucault was no stranger to this path as, apparently, he regularly spent time in clubs that were apart of the BDSM world. It follows that the institutions put in place to prevent extreme deviancy (deviancy that is considered illegal, not simply a deviancy from the norm) can be seen to encourage deviant behaviour by forcing the individual to take this shelter and become the label. I argue that the labeling of an individual allows change to occur to the dominant value systems in a society. For example, if the people that make up the gay community of today never joined forces in their 'deviancy', we would perhaps still be in a society that has no toleration of gays, societies that still exist in the world.

In the end, individuals do retain some freedom as to their chosen values. Perhaps there is hope that we can adjust our current values and one day, as Foucault suggests, live in a world free of an obsession of sexuality or whatever other aspect of social life that we currently find hindering.

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