Per Caritatem

Interstitial SoundingsMy new book, Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making, is now available for purchase. Below I have included a brief description of the book. Also, Cascade/Wipf & Stock has put together a very nice promotional flyer with lengthy excerpts from the first two chapters. Those interested may download this document via this link.*

In the present work, Cynthia R. Nielsen brings music and philosophy into a fruitful and mutually illuminating dialogue. Topics discussed include the following: music’s dynamic ontology, performers and improvisers as co-composers, the communal character of music, jazz as hybrid and socially constructed, the sociopolitical import of bebop, Afro-modernism and its strategic deployments, jazz and racialized practices, continuities between Michel Foucault’s discussion of self-making and creating one’s musical voice, Alasdair MacIntyre on practice, and how one might harmonize MacIntyre’s notion of virtue development with Foucauldian resistance strategies.

*Used with permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers.

 

Travis E. Ables’s book, Incarnational Realism. Trinity and Spirit in Augustine and Barth, takes as its point of departure the late 20th century claim that Latin Christianity lacks a robust pneumatology, and this dismal state of affairs is due to Augustine’s problematic trinitarian theology. Ables, however, rejects this reading of Augustine and Latin Christianity and argues convincingly that Augustine is not guilty of the alleged Geistvergessenheit. However, this is not merely a book championing Augustine’s teachings; rather, as the book’s title indicates, Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit, contrary to charges that his overemphasized Christology eclipses pneumatology, likewise has a role to play. In other words, Ables argues that both Barth and Augustine provide us with theologically rich teachings on the Holy Spirit that, when read together and properly synthesized, offer important correctives to contemporary trinitarian theology.

In particular, Ables focuses on the shortcomings of trinitarian personalism and trinitarian idealism. Ables worries that both contemporary expressions of trinitarian teaching are too reductionistic and thus ultimately fail to maintain “the integrity of God’s reconciling act in the economy of salvation” (180). On the one hand, Ables’s concern regarding trinitarian personalism is that it diminishes the essential character of God’s act in history, rendering it as “an accidental occasion or concrete illustration of what is essentially a purely metaphorical relationship between human community and divine community” (ibid.). In other words, the metaphorical relationship becomes so primary that it downgrades the revelatory significance of the Triune God’s work in salvation history to Jesus’s “exemplary relational existence as Son to the Father” (ibid.). On the other hand, trinitarian idealism is overly smitten with Hegel’s Geist. Here “God’s self-revelation in the economy is only possible as a result of the necessity of God’s self-alienating otherness internal to Godself” (181). In this narrative, God is not depicted as pouring out his love in history but rather as incorporating “history into Godself in what sometimes begins to look like a startlingly narcissistic picture of self-reflexivity” (ibid.). Finding neither account satisfactory, Ables argues for a trinitarian theology wherein “the singularity of divine self-donation in Jesus Christ is the material content of trinitarian doctrine as such” (181). This claim is, in fact, what Ables has in mind with the term “incarnational realism.” For not only is the incarnation the “material content of trinitarian doctrine,” but it is likewise “the measure of our knowledge of God, [and] the agent of our redemption” (189).

In short, on Ables’s historically rich reading coupled with his own constructive contributions, there is no lack or absence of the Spirit in Latin theology owing to an fatal Augustinian misstep, nor does Barth privilege Christology to the detriment of pneumatology; rather, when the best insights of both theologians are synthesized, what we have is doctrine of the Spirit that emphasizes our participation in the mystery of God as dramatized or performed in the life of Christ. Since there is one work of God, Christology need not compete with pneumatology; rather, as Ables has shown, “[t]he stronger one’s Christology, the stronger one’s pneumatology” (186).

Academic Biography

Travis Ables is an independent scholar working in historical and systematic theology. His research interests focus on Christology, trinitarian theology, and anthropology in Augustine and his readers. He is the author of Incarnational Realism: Trinity and the Spirit in Augustine and Barth (Bloomsbury, 2013), and is currently working on a theological history of the cross within political, cultural, and artistic contexts (forthcoming from Fortress Press, 2017), as well as an introduction to the Victorines in the Cascade Companions series (forthcoming from Cascade Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University.

 

Martin Luther King Jr.In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” he observes that true peace requires “the presence of some positive force—justice, good will and brotherhood.” In today’s world, this sense of solidarity and concern for the good of others—the poor, the incarcerated, the immigrant, the unemployed, those with little or no access to healthcare and so forth—seems to have diminished significantly.

In contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was animated by a strong sense of human solidarity, believing that as those created in God’s image we belong to one another. In addition, Dr. King’s belief in human solidarity, the inherent dignity of all human beings, and the need to work toward creating a world where all humans can flourish compelled him to action. As we know, he chose the path of non-violent direct action and protest, convinced that this was the path most consonant with his Christian faith. Of course this was not an easy path. He received criticism from black activists as well as white society. His protests even landed him in jail and ultimately cost him his life.

In Dr. King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he writes, “‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’ Then a few lines later he continues, “[m]oreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

In what  follows I address what critical race theorists and sociologists refer to as white advantage, white privilege, white habitus, or the “invisibility” and normativity of whiteness.  My hope is that by interrogating whiteness we might become aware of and uproot racial prejudices in our own thinking and awaken in ourselves a sense of solidarity and genuine concern for human flourishing for all.

Unlike people of color, whites (focusing primarily here on America’s history) are rarely if ever confronted with their phenotypic differences (especially skin color) in ways that severely and negatively impact the course of their lives. Moreover, very few white people have given extensive thought to the advantages they have simply because they are white. For example, being white has not resulted in their being denied entrance into public spaces such as restaurants, swimming pools, social clubs, housing districts, and public schools. Nor have they had to endure constant racial profiling by police officers, routine “tracking” and surveillance by security guards when shopping, or regularly having others clutch at their purses when they enter a crowded elevator together. In contrast, people of color daily deal with these and multiple other confrontations.

Black intellectuals have described the disparities in lived experience between whites and blacks in various ways. W. E. B. Du Bois employs the metaphors of the “veil” and “double-consciousness” to describe the complex, intertwined relationship of blacks and whites in America. The African American must navigate two worlds, the “black” world and the “white” world: “two worlds separate yet bound together like those double stars that, bound for all time, whirl around each other separate yet one.”[1] If we combine the multivalent figures of the veil and double-consciousness, we see that Du Bois was acutely aware of the paradox of the African American’s world. That is, the black person was both socially and politically invisible (existing behind a veil) and yet hyper-visible given the negative meanings imputed to his or her skin color—meanings which carried significant social, legal, political, and personal implications and prevented African Americans from flourishing as human beings and fully participatory citizens.

In keeping with King’s vision and legacy, I offer the following reflections on whiteness and our ongoing need to interrogate our socialized ways of being so that we, like King, might become “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities” and commit ourselves to struggling against us/them, insider/outsider, deserving/undeserving (citizen) and myriad other false dichotomies.   Given that as humans we are complex social, psychological, intellectual, emotional, embodied beings,[2] I draw special attention to how spatial and social (re)segregation and accompanying socially conditioned practices contributes to and furthers white advantage, thus creating significant barriers for the development of interracial empathy and genuine solidarity.

In his recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone critiques Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address America’s appalling racist history. Cone cites a passage from novelist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin (1924–1987) that is worth repeating. (Baldwin and Niebuhr had been engaged in an ongoing dialogue about these issues.) Regarding white people, Baldwin states: “‘I don’t mean to say that white people are villains or devils or anything like that,’ but what ‘I do mean to say is this: that the bulk of the white […] Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands, you know. […] I don’t suppose that […] all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself’.”[3] As many contend (including myself), this white silence and lack of willingness to confront America’s violence against and exploitation of African Americans and the enduring legacy and consequences of its racist practices and policies prevents America from a true reconciliation with its past—a reconciliation required in order to achieve solidary among its citizens and to avoid repeating past patterns of oppression and violence.

Although Jim Crow laws and policies such as racially restrictive covenants are no longer enforceable, our schools and housing divisions continue the legacy of segregation. The fact that such segregation still divides our schools, neighborhoods, and parishes is a strong indicator that systemic and structural inequality and white advantage remains a serious social problem in our society. As Alex Mikulich observes, drawing upon work by sociologists John Powell, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton, “housing location is critical to predicting access to quality public education, development of personal wealth, employment, health and safety, democratic participation, transportation, and child care. The national extent of white hyper-segregation cannot happen without the participation of the majority of white people and institutions, including whites who claim good intentions toward people of color.”[4]

One’s “spatial” location with respect to housing is closely connected to one’s potential for upward mobility in the socio-economic sphere. How so? One’s residence significantly determines the educational opportunities for one’s children. With housing and schooling (re)segregation we again see a continuation and reproduction of structural racism carried on by white practices (e.g. real estate practices and unofficial “red-lining”) that have become normalized and which remain largely un-interrogated by whites themselves. Although it has been over fifty years since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregated schools were unconstitutional, our schools today are as segregated as ever.  As Gary Orfield explains in his study, “Schools More Separate” (2001), “white students remain the most segregated from all other races in their schools. Whites on average attend schools where less than 20 percent of the students are from all other racial and ethnic groups combined. On average, blacks and Latinos attend schools with 53% to 55% students of their own group.”[5]

As Mikulich highlights, there are significant overlaps between Dr. King’s vision and the Catholic social teaching. For example, both emphasize the preferential option for the poor, the interconnectedness of human beings as God’s image bearers, and the importance of and call to human solidarity. Whether official encyclicals or pastoral letters of note, Catholic social teaching presents moral, spiritual, and socio-economic principles that appeal not only to Catholics but to all people of goodwill concerned to promote social justice and the common good of all. Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, for example, penned a beautiful and timely pastoral letter entitled, Dwell in my Love, delivered on the 33rd anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 2001). The title of the letter is taken from Scripture, viz., from the Gospel of St. John 15:7–10.[6] In his letter, Archbishop George recalls his own first experiences of the reality of racism, or rather his experience of seeing his African American friends experience racism under Jim Crow laws. He had been on a summer trip in Memphis and was not allowed to sit with his African American friends on a bus. This very different experience of “space” made him aware of his advantaged social position as a white man. The every day way that he occupied space freely and non-confrontationally had been part of his world for as long as he could remember; it was taken for granted and was never intellectually scrutinized. However, his African American friends experience the world quite differently. They experienced a lack of spatial occupation on a regular basis and were daily reminded of why such spatial exclusions existed.

As his letter unfolds, Archbishop George highlights what he calls “spatial racism.” As he explains,

“Spatial racism refers to patterns of metropolitan development in which some affluent whites create racially and economically segregated suburbs or gentrified areas of cities, leaving the poor — mainly African Americans, Hispanics and some newly arrived immigrants — isolated in deteriorating areas of the cities and older suburbs. […] Spatial racism creates a visible chasm between the rich and the poor, and between white people and people of color. It marks a society that contradicts both the teachings of the Church and our declared national value of equality of opportunity.”

Whites tend to be unaware of this chasm or see it as “natural,” “normal,” or just the “way it is with different groups congregating together;” in contrast, people of color are acutely aware of this divide.

In addition, whether speaking of literal physical space or more figuratively as moral, intellectual, and social space, this separation between whites and people of color—a separation that all too often has resulted in economic, social, and other benefits for whites—makes it difficult for many whites to empathize with the experiences and frustrations of people of color.[7] Moreover, it makes practicing solidarity nearly impossible.

To be clear, class in also a significant factor in this discussion, as poor whites experience the world quite differently than whites who occupy the upper middle and higher rungs of the socio-economic sphere (the latter of which are my primary addressees under the generic heading “whites”). As is the case with other groups, whites are socially conditioned. For example, they are socialized through the spaces of privilege they occupy—their more or less all white schools, neighborhoods, parishes, etc.—to see their experience—their “white habitus” as normal, natural, and even the standard for all things intellectual, moral, cultural, and so forth.

The term “white habitus” comes from sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.[8] According to Bonilla-Silva, “white habitus” is “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ tastes, perceptions, feelings and emotions and their views on racial matters.”[9] As Mikulich explains, white habitus is cultivated “within a separate residential and cultural life that fosters a white culture of solidarity and negative views about nonwhites.”[10] White habitus involves both position and practice. Here position refers to social geography, spatial location, and possessing socio-economic dominance and power broadly speaking. Practice speaks to “the ways that whites are socialized [via families, institutions, social narratives, etc.]to perceive and act within the world.”[11] White culture not only actively shapes and forms the largely segregated social landscape or geography of residential and educational but is it also conditioned by such segregation (morally, intellectually, etc.).

Here are few examples from ethnographic studies as presented by Mikulich.[12] White descriptions of their own lives and experiences “within white gated communities” indicates that “white self-perceptions of  ‘niceness’ and fear of others” are often employed as ways to “justify living in a residential development that excludes racial others.”[13]   In addition, by describing themselves as “nice” and perpetuating a fear of others attached to certain geographical spaces, neighborhoods etc., whites “inscribe racist assumptions into the landscape.”[14]Operating within the “white habitus,” the white neighborhood is perceived as “normal” and evaluated as “safe,” whereas the black neighborhood is “racially segregated” and less “safe” or even “dangerous.”

In short, “white habitus and white hyper-segregation” not only prevent the kinds of meaningful interracial interaction and relationships required for genuine solidarity and empathy but they also—if not confronted and altered—reproduce and perpetuate racialized ways of thinking, being, and acting (as well as unjust social structures). Confronting white myths, white advantage, and the ways in which we are complicit in seeing the world and others through our own racialized “white habitus” is extremely challenging personally and communally and is (in my experience at least) often not well received. However, if we fail to engage these issues that have been part of the social fabric of our country from its very beginning and “continue past patterns of silence,” then we open ourselves to the possibility of once again confirming James Baldwin’s analysis that whites remain “trapped in a history they don’t understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, New York: Vintage, 1993, p. 8).[15]

 

 

Notes


[1] W. E. B. Du Bois. “Beyond the Veil in a Virginia Town,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887­1961,  edited by Herbert Aptheker. Originally published 1897 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 49.

[2] This list is not meant to be exhaustive.

[3] As cited in James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 55.

[4] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?” in The Almighty and the Dollar: Reflections on Economic Justice for All, edited by Mark J. Allman (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2012), 207. Significant aspects of and ideas for this post are modeled after and taken from Mikulich’s chapter.

[5] Gary Orfield, “Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/schools-more-separate-consequences-of-a-decade-of-resegregation/orfield-schools-more-separate-2001.pdf.

[6] “If you dwell in me, and my words dwell in you, ask whatever you want and you
shall have it. This is how my Father is glorified; you are to bear fruit in plenty and so be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.”

[7] Social scientists call this lack of empathy “social alexithymia.” As Joe Feagin explains, social alexithymia is the “significant lack of cross-racial empathy” (Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 89.

[8] See, for example, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 2nd ed. (Landham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2006), 103.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?”, p 210.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] As cited in Mikulich, ibid., 211.

 

In his book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses at great length how modern scientific discourses (and their attendant practices) are employed to further a rhetoric of progress and to mask new forms of violence inherent in modern socio-political institutions such as the modern judicial and prison systems. According to Foucault’s account, although by beginning of the nineteenth century the great theatrical displays of physical punishment—the tortured body—had disappeared,[1] “a trace of ‘torture’” can still be found “in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice—a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporeal nature of the penal system.”[2] Now that the body is no longer drawn and quartered, on what, if not the body, is punishment carried out? “The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”[3]

Foucault is not claiming that modern punishment in no way involves the body; rather, his analyses help us to see that the “objects” of punishment have changed and the extent of its reach has been broadened considerably. Crimes are certainly still juridical objects of concern, even if certain former offenses are no longer categorized as crimes (for example, blasphemy). However, from another perspective, our understanding of the nature of crime as an object of concern for penal practice has been transformed radically. That is, we still pass sentences on certain acts defined as illegal and criminal; however, “judgment is also passed on the passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or heredity; acts of aggression are punished, so also, through them, is aggressivity; rape, but at the same time perversions; murders, but also drives and desires.”[4] As a result, judges are no longer competent to pass judgment on their own; they must instead call upon a host of “subsidiary judges” to aid them.  This “scientifico-juridical complex,” including psychiatrists, medical doctors of various sorts, prison specialists, and educationalists, not only helps the judge decide what kind of punishment shall be enacted but whether the act is punishable at all.  In other words, if the person who committed the act is judged mad, then all talk of crime disappears and medical treatment rather than punishment is required.

This modern scientifico-judicial apparatus does much more than simply mete out sentences; it discerns what kind of “soul” a person has, speculates on how one’s past influences one’s present, and then predicts what future actions one is likely to commit. Through the complex interplay of scientific, medical, psychiatric, and legal discourses and their accompanying practices, new subjectivities are produced such as the delinquent and the pervert. Moreover, the production of new subjectivities goes hand in hand with the emergence of new scientific discourses, and the two serve to mutually reinforce one another. Not only is a greater role in the sentencing process given to psychiatric experts, but criminologists likewise come on the scene, defining new subjectivities and new “scientific” objects of study. According to Foucault, those trained in psychiatry, criminal anthropology, and related fields engage in this subject- and object-making activity as follows:

by inscribing offenses in the field of objects susceptible of scientific knowledge, they provide the mechanisms of legal punishment with a justifiable hold not only on offenses, but on individuals; not only on what they do, but also on what they are, will be, may be. The additional factor of the offender’s soul, which the legal system has laid hold of, is only apparently explanatory and limitative, and is in fact expansionist.[5]

In other words, punishment does not cease with the completion of one’s prison term; rather, one’s new identity remains fixed long after the term has been served via strict monitoring, mandatory medical or psychiatric treatment, counseling, as well as restrictions on living, educational, and employment possibilities. Now that criminals are objects of science and legal punishments are intertwined with “judgments of normality, attributions of causality, assessments of possible changes, [and] anticipations as to the offender’s future,” punishment expands into long-term treatment with the hope of curing the criminal. A new truth game has been born; although bloodless, its rules, discourses, and practices create living subjects as objects. In addition to these embodied subjects, another “body” is formed—“[a] corpus of knowledge, techniques, ‘scientific’ discourses,” which together“ becomes entangled with the practice of the power to punish.”[6] Having broadened its cabinet to including medical experts and specialists of various sorts, the judicial system presents itself as apolitical, dispassionate, and relying upon objective science to render its determinations. Thus, like Augustine, Foucault issues a warning, calling us to be alert to the ways in which the rhetoric of scientific progress is at work in our society where we might least expect it. Although it is highly unlikely that any of us would want to return to medieval torture as a means of punishment for crime, Foucault’s analyses of the genealogy of the modern prison system help us to see that our “contemporary mechanisms of power,” although less spectacular, “are no less coercive. In attempting to rehabilitate the whole individual, the modern judicial system uses its own methods of violence and force, only it administers them in such a way that they no longer appear violent or forceful.”[7]

Notes

[1] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 15.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid.  In characteristically vivid prose, Foucault further describes this new phase of bloodless, less intense yet more extensive punishment as follows:  “[t]he old partners of the spectacle of punishment, the body and the blood, gave way. A new character came on the scene, masked. It was the end of a certain kind of tragedy; comedy began, with shadow play, faceless voices, impalpable entities. The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into this bodiless reality” (ibid., 16–17).

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 18–19.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 19.

 

Anyone who has studied with care Augustine’s masterpiece, City of God, particularly the first five books as well as book nineteen, would, I believe, see a very socially engaged, politically astute theologian qua social critic. As I have noted in previous posts bringing Augustine and Foucault into dialogue with one another, both thinkers share a number of structural overlaps and common concerns—concerns for the poor and marginalized and suspicions about hegemonic discourses and narratives.  This is not, of course, to claim that Augustine was without his faults or that he was unaffected by his own cultural context—like all finite, historical human beings, he was socially conditioned and held certain beliefs about, for example, women that moderns and postmoderns would find problematic (at least I do). Nonetheless, the North African saint (faults notwithstanding) has much to say to us today.

For example, Augustine’s socio-political—and, of course, theological—critique of Roman glory narratives, in particular, the ways in which these narratives function as veils to mask what in any other context would be considered unjust, criminal activity are highly instructive.[1] As R.A. Markus explains, Augustine understood the term “institutions” broadly. Institutions, for example, consisted of “various customs, rites, arrangements, arts and disciplines in use among men.”[2] These institutions, of course, may be used for good or evil purposes.  Although critical of discourses and practices which inculcate desires and beliefs antithetical to key aspects of Christian faith and praxis—humility, truth-speaking, relational dependence, an acknowledgement of our finitude, and so forth—Augustine understood the need to develop institutions beneficial to society as a whole and which would promote as much harmony as possible among its various members.[3] Concomitant with this constructive social project, Augustine also engaged in a deconstructive project. That is, he was acutely aware of the need to critically examine the accepted political and religious narratives of the day, narratives whose incandescent surfaces dazzled, concealing the often violent, greedy, self-serving agenda of the political elites. Like Foucault, Augustine employs his own variant of reverse discourse and counter-hegemonic narratives in order both to unmask the ideologies at play in Roman political discourse and to put forth alternative ways of being in the world with others.

The first five books of the City of God, as Robert Dodaro observes, “constitute the core of Augustine’s critique of Roman imperium”;[4] in these opening books, Augustine analyzes “the ideology of Roman literary and ceremonial forms,” whose theoretical foundations “were found primarily in Sallust, Cicero, and Varro.”[5] In light of his own training as a rhetor and his service at the imperial court in Milan prior to his baptism and later ordination to the priesthood and bishopric, Augustine was thoroughly versed in the art of persuasion and the various ways it was used to further political objectives.  As Dodaro explains, Augustine understood that “Roman society was founded upon an extreme patriotism, a love for the patria above all else, which was promoted by means of Roman education, folklore, literature, civil religion, and theatre.”[6]

Like Augustine, Foucault also manifests concern for the marginalized of society, devoting himself to the study of prisons and mental institutions and to the ways in which these structures and their associated discourses, disciplines, and practices produce new, characteristically modern subjectivities. As Schuld explains, rather than uncovering how “rhetoric of imperial glory” masks the reality of violence and self-interest, Foucault analyzes how modern institutions and practices “garner and preserve power most effectively by relying upon a scientific sounding rhetoric of progress.”[7] With the transition from a sovereign-based political model wherein power is centralized and associated with the person of the king to a modern context wherein power is dispersed and diffused in a netlike fashion, a more “neutral,” “objective” discourse comes into play.  That is, in contrast with, for example, Roman glory narratives and their overt conspicuous appeals to the political realm, modern scientific narratives present themselves as apolitical and unbiased.[8] By “posing as a coldly antiseptic science,” modern narratives of progress hide their normative and moral judgments;[9] the more successfully the new rhetoric hides its “political leverage,” the more politically efficacious its possibilities and widespread its socially produced realities.[10]

Notes


[1] This post is indebted Robert Dodaro and Joyce Schuld’s work.  See, for example, Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies, Just Wars and the Politics of Persuasion,” and Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection.”

[2] Markus, Saeculum, ix.

[3] Ibid., ix.

[4] Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies,” 80.

[5] Ibid. On Augustine’s classical influences, see Cameron, “Cicero and St. Augustine”; Courcelle, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin dans la tradition littéraire; Bennett, “The Conversion of Vergil”; Markus, Saeculum; Bonner, “Vera Lux Illa Est Quae Illuminat: The Christian Humanism of Augustine,” in Renaissance and Renewal in Church History; Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life; MacCormack, “Sin, Citizenship, and the Salvation of Souls.”

[6] Dodaro, “Pirates or Superpowers,” 14.

[7] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 17.

[8] This is not to deny the reality of modern glory narratives such as theUnited States’ inflated talk of spreading democracy worldwide. Foucault would, presumably, recognize modern glory narratives as one of many discursive tactics employed to further the rhetoric of progress.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

 

 

Like Augustine, Foucault too manifests concern for the marginalized of society, devoting himself to the study of prisons and mental institutions and to the ways in which these structures and their associated discourses, disciplines, and practices produce new, characteristically modern subjectivities. As Schuld explains, rather than uncovering how “rhetoric of imperial glory” masks the reality of violence and self-interest (which was part of Augustine’s project in the City of God), Foucault analyzes how modern institutions and practices “garner and preserve power most effectively by relying upon a scientific sounding rhetoric of progress.”[1] With the transition from a sovereign-based political model wherein power is centralized and associated with the person of the king to a modern context wherein power is dispersed and diffused in a netlike fashion, a more “neutral,” “objective” discourse comes into play.  That is, in contrast with, for example, Roman glory narratives and their overt conspicuous appeals to the political realm, modern scientific narratives present themselves as apolitical and unbiased.[2] By “posing as a coldly antiseptic science,” modern narratives of progress hide their normative and moral judgments;[3] the more successfully the new rhetoric hides its “political leverage,” the more politically efficacious its possibilities and widespread its socially produced realities.[4]

In his book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses at great length how modern scientific discourses (and their attendant practices) are employed to further the rhetoric of progress and to mask new forms of violence inherent in modern socio-political institutions such as the modern judicial and prison systems. According to Foucault’s account, although by beginning of the nineteenth century the great theatrical displays of physical punishment—the tortured body—had disappeared,[5] “a trace of ‘torture’” can still be found “in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice—a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporeal nature of the penal system.”[6] Now that the body is no longer drawn and quartered, on what, if not the body, is punishment carried out? “The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”[7]

Foucault is not claiming that modern punishment in no way involves the body; rather, his analyses help us to see that the “objects” of punishment have changed and the extent of its reach has been broadened considerably. Crimes are certainly still juridical objects of concern, even if certain former offenses are no longer categorized as crimes (for example, blasphemy). However, from another perspective, our understanding of the nature of crime as an object of concern for penal practice has been transformed radically. That is, we still pass sentences on certain acts defined as illegal and criminal; however, “judgment is also passed on the passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or heredity; acts of aggression are punished, so also, through them, is aggressivity; rape, but at the same time perversions; murders, but also drives and desires.”[8] As a result, judges are no longer competent to pass judgment on their own; they must instead call upon a host of “subsidiary judges” to aid them.  This “scientifico-juridical complex,” including psychiatrists, medical doctors of various sorts, prison specialists, and educationalists, not only helps the judge decide what kind of punishment shall be enacted but whether the act is punishable at all.  In other words, if the person who committed the act is judged mad, then all talk of crime disappears and medical treatment rather than punishment is required.

This modern scientifico-judicial apparatus does much more than simply mete out sentences; it discerns what kind of “soul” a person has, speculates on how one’s past influences one’s present, and then predicts what future actions one is likely to commit. Through the complex interplay of scientific, medical, psychiatric, and legal discourses and their accompanying practices, new subjectivities are produced such as the delinquent and the pervert. Moreover, the production of new subjectivities goes hand in hand with the emergence of new scientific discourses, and the two serve to mutually reinforce one another. Not only is a greater role in the sentencing process given to psychiatric experts, but criminologists likewise come on the scene, defining new subjectivities and new “scientific” objects of study. According to Foucault, those trained in psychiatry, criminal anthropology, and related fields engage in this subject- and object-making activity as follows:

by inscribing offenses in the field of objects susceptible of scientific knowledge, they provide the mechanisms of legal punishment with a justifiable hold not only on offenses, but on individuals; not only on what they do, but also on what they are, will be, may be. The additional factor of the offender’s soul, which the legal system has laid hold of, is only apparently explanatory and limitative, and is in fact expansionist.[9]

In other words, punishment does not cease with the completion of one’s prison term; rather, one’s new identity remains fixed long after the term has been served via strict monitoring, mandatory medical or psychiatric treatment, counseling, as well as restrictions on living, educational, and employment possibilities. Now that criminals are objects of science and legal punishments are intertwined with “judgments of normality, attributions of causality, assessments of possible changes, [and] anticipations as to the offender’s future,” punishment expands into long-term treatment with the hope of curing the criminal. A new truth game has been born; although bloodless, its rules, discourses, and practices create living subjects as objects. In addition to these embodied subjects, another “body” is formed—“[a] corpus of knowledge, techniques, ‘scientific’ discourses,” which together “becomes entangled with the practice of the power to punish.”[10] Having broadened its cabinet to including medical experts and specialists of various sorts, the judicial system presents itself as apolitical, dispassionate, and relying upon objective science to render its determinations. Thus, like Augustine, Foucault issues a warning, calling us to be alert to the ways in which the rhetoric of scientific progress is at work in our society where we might least expect it. Although it is highly unlikely that any of us would want to return to medieval torture as a means of punishment for crime, Foucault’s analyses of the genealogy of the modern prison system help us to see that our “contemporary mechanisms of power,” although less spectacular, “are no less coercive. In attempting to rehabilitate the whole individual, the modern judicial system uses its own methods of violence and force, only it administers them in such a way that they no longer appear violent or forceful.”[11]

 

Notes 


[1] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 17.

[2] This is not to deny the reality of modern glory narratives such as the United States’ inflated talk of spreading democracy worldwide. Foucault would, presumably, recognize modern glory narratives as one of many discursive tactics employed to further the rhetoric of progress.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 15.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid.  Foucault continues his description of this new phase of a bloodless, less intense yet more extensive punishment on the following page (see ibid., 16–17).

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 18–19.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 19.