Power And Rationality

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Index And Introduction To The Subject And Power By Michel Foucault

Foucault begins his essay The Subject and Power by telling us that his project is understanding how human beings are made subjects. By this he means both a) objects for others to study, and b) objects for domination and exploitation. We generally study things, including human beings, through methods which “try to give themselves the status of science”; or by dividing things into groups and studying the groups; or by dividing ourselves into parts and studying those parts in ourselves or others.

Foucault describes three of the ways in which people are enmeshed in relations with each other: relations of production, relations of signification (communication), and power relations. He says that economics gives us tools to consider the first, and linguistics and semiotics give us tools to understand the second, but he couldn’t find any similar academic-type disciplines useful in considering power relations. Legal models point us to the proper uses of power, and other considerations point to the role of the state, but these are only small parts of power relations. That awareness pointed him to study of power relations in a broader context.

So, Foucault’s overall project is to create a theory, a systematic way of thinking about power relations. To create a theory, we have to objectify the thing to be studied. That requires conceptualization, through critical thinking. He says he has to check his thinking constantly.

1. He says the conceptualization should not be founded on a theory of the object. That is, we don’t start with a theory of the object. Instead we start with a description of the object in the context in which it exists, and the history of how it came to be. We have to recognize that that history influences our thinking in a deep way. It can make it very hard to see the thing objectively. This ties back to the point I made in the first post in this series: the importance of Foucault’s methods.

2. We must examine the kind of reality we are considering. Power is a matter of lived experience, not of abstract theory. Its manifestations are a central problem of our time. Our recent history includes two “pathological forms” of power relations: fascism and Stalinism. Neither was new. They both used existing techniques of power, existing mechanisms and devices. Despite their internal madness there was a kind of rationality.

We have to limit our rationality to the boundaries given by experience. One possibility is the use of reason. This was the goal of the Enlightenment, to use reason to solve problems, material problems, social problems, and even psychiatric problems. It might make sense to consider the rationality of various subparts of society, as Foucault has done, with sexuality, crime, madness and more.

But Foucault has a very specific idea for studying power:

//It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point.//

This is a smart move, because we do not directly consider an unknown object called power, which we haven’t even defined yet. To do this Foucault will look at ways of identifying resistance, the history of that resistance, its motivations and its goals. The hope is that in the process of considering resistance, we can get a clearer picture of the thing resisted, as if we were defining it by its boundaries.

For example, to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity.

And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality.

And, in order to understand what power relations are about, perhaps we should investigate the forms of resistance and attempts made to dissociate these relations.

Here’s my example. We have an enormous code of laws, regulations and procedures. We say we are a government of laws, not men, and that the rules and procedures define legality. But in the real world, we can understand legality better by looking at the parts of that legal structure that we actually enforce, the people we hold accountable and the way we enforce it against different people.


1. We generally think of the Enlightenment as leading us to the scientific method, the foundation of all our sciences today. A key element of the scientific method is that we understand things in the context of a paradigm, as we saw in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example here. The paradigm predicts an outcome so we check to see if that’s what happens. If not it’s possible we have reached the limits of validity of the paradigm.

Foucault is forced to start from the beginning with the theory of power because in his view there are no acceptable existing theoretical frameworks. He needs a method for studying things without a paradigm.

2. But his argument has a broader implication. He writes:

… [S]ince Kant, the role of philosophy is to prevent reason from going beyond the limits of what is given in experience; but from the same moment-that is, since the development of the modern state and the political management of society-the role of philosophy is also to keep watch over the excessive powers of political rationality ….

We saw this idea in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism. Both the Nazis and the Communists carried their theories from their more or less empirical beginnings in Darwin and Marx to murderous extremes, but in an inexorably logical way. Here’s my discussion:

The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is devoted to discussion of the totalitarian regime, which comes when the totalitarian movement has taken power. Arendt says that totalitarian movements don’t offer a specific program for government. Instead, they propose to operate under a “scientific” program. For the Nazis, this was the law of nature with its eternal progress towards perfection, which Arendt thinks arises from a corrupted form of Darwinism. For the Communists it was the laws of history as supposedly discovered by Marx. Once in power, the totalitarian regime becomes an instrument for the will of the leader, who in turn is an instrument for imposing and acting out those laws.

Earlier in the book, Arendt discusses one of the reasons people found this irresistible. She points to their loneliness, their alienation, their rootlessness, their irrelevance, their impotence:

That thought processes characterized by strict self-evident logicality, from which apparently there is no escape, have some connection with loneliness was once noticed by [Martin] Luther …. A lonely man, says Luther, “always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.” The famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists indeed in this “thinking everything to the worst,” in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions. P.477-8.

Foucault’s discussion of rationality is similar to the idea expressed by Oliver Wendell Holmes quoted and sourced here:

… the whole outline of the law is the resultant of a conflict at every point between logic and good sense — the one striving to work fiction out to consistent results, the other restraining and at last overcoming that effort when the results are too manifestly unjust.

I think this is a pretty good description of the political problem we face today. The Democrats at bottom are trying to work with reality, sometimes aware of the limits of theory and sometimes willing to learn from experience. The Republicans at bottom are only interested in their truth: a vile and corrupt form of neoliberal capitalism. They intend to follow this “truth” to the ends of rationality regardless of the consequences in the real world.

And it finds a receptive audience in the mass of alienated people who make up the Trumpian base,

68 replies
  1. Jim Crittenden says:

    For the past few days I have been living with the discovery that while it is self-evident that a crime proceeds the law addressing it, the legal system defines a crime as breaking of a law. This is the Ptolemy/Copernicus situation all over again, and explains how it is possible for there to be political prisoners in the USA. It is an obsession with predictability as a strategic power advantage that seems to be blocking real justice- in the Dept. of Justice, and in the Supreme Court.

    Without the Preamble (unicorns in 2022), the US Constitution is immoral- it still enshrines slavery, for example, and it has enabled the course of case law to bring us to the brink of societal collapse. It took 72 years for me to realize that justice in the courts is only tangential to existing power interactions, all of which, however, still hinge upon democratic principles.

    Was Foucault seeing what we are witnessing today- the breakdown of the nation-state, and the rise of corporate warlords?

    Hopefully, I use the correct username I somehow mixed up. Thanks.

    • bmaz says:

      Despite thinking it is navel gazing rambling BS, I approved your comment so I could ask you a question. Who exactly are the “political prisoners” in the US? Please give us a detailed list.

      • gmoke says:

        Some say Leonard Peltier is a political prisoner in USAmerica. Some say Mumia Abu Jamal is also a political prisoner in USAmerica.

        I’d say all those who were forced into copping pleas when they were actually innocent because they did not have the money or access to a good lawyer like you are political prisoners and their names are too numerous to mention.

        But you weren’t asking me and I wouldn’t be surprised that you know all this already.

      • Jim Crittenden says:

        I’m no bull. Are you? Everyone is a political prisoner in a nation of unjust laws. Some people say we are a nation of laws, without adding that in the US legal system, laws define the crimes. This is the tyranny of case law, bill riders, countless courtroom technicalities, and arbitrary exclusions. In the last ten years, I have been overwhelmed by the overt injustice of a Supreme Court that proclaims that the meaning of the word, ‘trust’ is different for Native people than it is everywhere else. (https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/537/488/) This is the real bs that is happening every day. “Justices” clothed in the finery of egalitarian public servants even make bank on it. If the cornerstone of a nation is power, then it is a failed state from the start. That is the case with the US, and it has yet to be reckoned with. I appreciate this website because you are people who, despite my aformentioned “bs”, are working valiantly to make justice a part of this legal system we endure. In my work as a teacher, I try to do the same. But I also teach it’s important to keep it real. And I stand ready to do my best (admittedly poorly articulated) effort to help justice, as a remedy for basic human rights violations by predatory acts of others, prevail.

        • bmaz says:

          I have practiced and argued in front of juries for 35 years, and your ranting is such bullshit, it is beyond credibility. I don’t know where you came from, but you are so full of shit your eyes are brown. You are in the wrong place for this tripe. And, by the way, Mumia is a stone cold cop killer, get lost with that garbage.

          PS: Whether you or I think marijuana ought be fully legalized, and in some states it is, the fact of the matter is it still as listed as a federal Schedule I drug. Such convictions do not a “political prisoner” make.

        • Jim Crittenden says:

          Sorry, like the judge who, five minutes into the hearing, threatened me with contempt for defending an indigent man who was being chemically restrained- in violation of existing law- you just don’t get it. Maybe year 36 will be the charm. Goodbye.

        • bmaz says:

          I don’t know enough about the facts and circumstances to answer definitively. You do, however, already have a history here of extreme hyperbole. That could have been a bad judge, may have been an incorrect application of law, maybe bad lawyering. It does not, however, make out a case of a “political prisoner”. If you are saying goodbye, don’t let the door hit you in the ass.

        • Artemesia says:

          While ‘political prisoner’ is hyperbole on marijuana convictions, it is pretty well known that the impulse to the ‘war on drugs’ particularly with regard to marijuana was to be able to imprison black people and remove them from the political system. John Ehrlichman laid that out very succinctly.
          “You want to know what this [war on drugs] was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying?

          We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.

          Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

          It is not. huge leap to see the jails filled with marijuana users as a political gulag severing them from the polity.

      • Jim Crittenden says:

        Sorry, I forgot the list.
        Cannabis prisoners;
        Every person in a “domestic dependent nation”;
        Every effing person stuck in a deathrow job just for the healthcare, housing, food and other necessities;
        Every woman who just lost her bodily integrity this year.

        In a nation founded on power, it’s all political.

        • Knox Bronson says:

          Jabar & Peltier were rightfully convicted for their crimes which they did commit, by juries of conscientious citizens. If one doesn’t believe that, then one is the same as election deniers.
          As far as Foucault goes, it seems to me he’s kind of where you end up if you are an atheist living in a pachinko machine universe, twisting word pretzels to avoid declaring that good and evil actually exist.
          I remember bumperstickers around Berkeley “If some are oppressed, no one is free.” I wanted to get my own bumper sticker, or cut up one of them so it read, “If some are free, no one is oppressed.”
          But I chickened out because I figured some bonehead would actually notice it and grasp the implication and key my car as a result.
          One must get beyond the material plane. That said, I still don’t want my car keyed.

        • Silly but True says:

          Your points on process are both true and miss the point.

          In the face of Scalia’s infamous opinion in Herrera v Collins:

          “There is no basis, tradition, or even in contemporary practice for finding that in the Constitution the right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence brought forward after a conviction.”

          SCOTUS declined to overturn the State court’s determination even in the face of Herrera’s bona fide innocence.

          The fact that your truth misses is this: If you are a wrongfully convicted man or woman in this country, it is extremely difficult—if not outright impossible—to win your case by advancing the simple argument that you are innocent.

        • timbozone says:

          This is almost the definition of a manifest injustice. The fact that someone at the pinnacle of judicial power in the United States thought that it was not the job of the court and Federal legal system to correct such injustices when they become apparent is a blot upon the legal system of the United States. A system of power that refuses to stop punishing manifestly innocent people, via incarceration or worse, is not a humane or decent system. “Of course they’re innocent—but there’s nothing the system can do about that now…” is not a form of justice that should be greatly supported…unless one is some degree of misanthrope.

        • Silly but True says:


          We can both recognize that US system of justice is the best there is.

          But much like our Union, we can still make it more perfect.

          The Court’s staunch position that (bona fide) innocence is no defense against process normally rendered is going to forever mark our system as unjust.

          This was just reiterated last week when LA Supreme Court refused to revisit nonunanimous convictions for past convictions already done. The highest court is aware of the wrong, and is aware there sits innocent people in prison, and just tosses it’s hands up like it has no authority to rectify it:

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Collapsing a whole lot of lived experience into a few reductionist points.

      Perfection does not exist. Was the Constitution, for example, a practical, if flawed, attempt to create a system of government that was a considerable improvement over then existing alternatives? Many of its flaws were apparent to its drafters, including its limited ability to work over time without being amended, something its text explicitly took into account.

      A reliance on equity and changed circumstances – rather the court’s perception of them – has allowed the common law to improve the lives of millions. Brown v. Board of Education, for example, or the common law development of the law of negligence. It can also do the reverse, in the hands of powerful corporate interests or proto-fascist religious zealot priest/judges.

      One thing I think Foucault would do is reconsider your chicken-and-egg problem by including an assessment of who does the judging and why they get to do it. That’s also a way to appreciate that any one step – prosecuting Trump, for example – will solve fewer of the problems that need attention than one hopes.

    • Tetman Callis says:

      What would be useful in any attempted explanation of “how it is possible for there to be political prisoners in the USA” would be as precise as possible a definition of the term “political prisoners,” including more precisely defining its components, “political” and “prisoners,” both in this context and more generally.

      One might respond by saying that everyone knows what the term “political prisoners” means. Could making the claim that the meaning of the term is evident, or even self-evident, not in fact be an obscuring of meaning in order to make some other point?

      We can probably agree on what the word “prisoners” means without trotting out dictionary definitions. To contextualize the prisoners as being part of a political structure then raises the questions of the form and legitimacy of the political structure. The strong implication in the term “political prisoners” is that there are persons who are held imprisoned in some fashion through means of a self-justified political structure that is tolerated or even in some significant measure supported by the population within which it exists.

      I’m not trying to be sophist. You have made a claim that it is possible for there to be political prisoners in the USA. That may well be the case, and I’m not attempting to argue for it or against it. My point is that, by deploying an emotionally charged term, which “political prisoners” could well be found to be, without more precisely explaining what you mean by it, does a disservice to your argument, leaving it resembling little more than ill-digested propaganda.

      • bmaz says:

        Yes. And I renew my demand to be told by new commenter Jim who exactly the “political prisoners” in the US are.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Jim and gmoke think you know already, and are merely trying to bait them – rather than asking them to support their claims.

          There must be a popcorn sale somewhere. I’ll check.

  2. L. Eslinger says:

    Communism and Nazism may both have philosophical roots, but opportunists have repeatedly “embraced and extended,” tuned, and applied these ideas to establish social power and control over others (be they willing or not). Communism may always ultimately fail because it doesn’t produce a satisfying long-term response to the question “what’s in it for me?” The Nazis sidestepped this question by focusing and exploiting hate, fear, insecurities rooted in perceived past failures and embarrassments, and nationalism. Trumpism is very much like Nazism in these regards. Trumpism is a coalition of opportunistic, self-dealing, hypocritical, sociopathic grifters with an innate talent for manipulating fools and unprepared minds, but with the advantage of powerful, real-time tools for getting and disseminating information. And, like Nazism, Trumpism has a symbiotic relationship with wealthy parties (individuals and corporations), who have no qualms over using any tools to engage in corruption and expand their wealth and power. Communism, Nazism,and Trumpism are all likely to be unsustainable, but have and will inflict incalculable damage before collapsing.

    Democrats have a weaker position in part because rationality and sacrifice, which are needed to address systemic problems, don’t motivate with the power of fear, hate, anger, greed, and selfishness. And, unfortunately, critical thinking skills and altruism appear to be mostly learned, not innate, so Trumpist/GOP efforts to censor information and control curricula hurt Democracy (but are great for any form of kleptocracy).

    A marketing executive once told me (during a product concept review) that our product roll-out would fail if the customer needed to learn anything – or even think. This is a debilitating problem facing Democratic concerns, theories, and actions today.

    • Matt___B says:

      Carl Schmitt, a Nazi political theorist, posited his theory of the “State of Exception” in praise of authoritarianism:


      …which seems eerily similar to the “Unitary Executive” theory that Barr (and others) promote. The dictator should feel free to act decisively, above all laws and rules, to deal with “exceptional” times. (And then doing the work of sustaining and creating emergencies to justify the continuance this behavior).

      Knowledge of civics, critical thinking and appreciating the value of co-operation are not part of their agenda. Being relentless and overpowering is. Civil war of the psyche.

      • rip no longer says:

        Isn’t this the “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” doctrine?

        Only that some of the current crop of politicians and cohorts have no intention of asking for forgiveness – or even thinking that they ever needed permission.

    • Rayne says:

      The post’s author has laid out both what he’s read and a series of questions/points for discussion as he has for all his work under ‘Left Theory’ and its philosophical underpinnings. The work is right there in the post. It’s now up to community members to discuss and provide their own work in doing so.

      In your 17 comments to date you’ve proven a community member of few words. This may be one of those times when more is better, but only after reading the post and learning how the community here works.

  3. sleutherone says:

    The scientific method as it is often taught in schools pushes that one must form a hypothesis that tests for one variable only and all results must be measurable with numbers and repeatable. It may work well in some situations but in practical use it fails. Humans and systems are complex. Single events such as heart attacks, bridge collapses, storms, and stabbings at a crime scene cannot be repeated exactly and every variable accounted for.

    Most people interface with science through applied science, not research science. Doctors, engineers, meteorologists and forensic scientists are examples. They play a crucial role as research translators and use practical applications of research instead of experimenting on their subjects.

    The average citizen is ignorant of the breadth and limitations of science. This negatively affects their ability to absorb complex issues and determine truths. They become intimidated and fall back on the messenger. Like the messenger; like the message. Politicians rely on this.

    We would do well to teach students not only the scientific method but the practical applications and limits of it. Science would then be more real to them. With a strong dose of logic, we might also get them to not fall for health scams and scammers and to evaluate more than the pretty face or bombastic messenger.

    • Bobby Gladd says:

      Nicely stated.

      The current issue of Science Magazine is having a good go at some of these issues.

      ‘Science, misinformation, and the role of education
      “Competent outsiders” must be able to evaluate the credibility of science-based arguments‘

      • sleutherone says:

        Thanks. I am an applied scientist who speaks to juries and other groups. I have a speech prepared about the use of applied science. Opposing counsel likes to put research on a pedestal and tries to dismiss my findings because I am not a researcher. I have been one in other fields, but I can’t use real evidence as research.

        • L. Eslinger says:

          Thanks Washed-Up Guitar Player – I enjoyed that!

          Will add: Inspect what you get, particularly when it’s what you expected.


        • rip no longer says:

          Very impressive, at least to this self-certified “statistician”. I’ve struggled with “normalized” statistics since the 60s having run into so many cases that don’t fit our nice bell curve. I really like the anomalies in any case.

          Not recommending but on my bookshelf: “How to Lie with Statistics” (Huff), and “What is a p-value anyway” (Vickers).

        • Bobby Gladd says:

          Yeah, I have that book “How to Lie…”

          I worked for five years as a risk analyst in a credit card bank. We didn’t give a shit about P values. The name of the game was stress-tested expected value modeling. We made successive record profits every year I was there.

        • bmaz says:

          This is baloney. When it comes to things scientific, “real evidence” is always usable (the correct term is admissible) if a proper foundation is laid. I speak to juries too. And nobody is going to let you make a little “speech”, nor should they.

        • David B Pittard says:

          I could be wrong, but I think “real evidence” was intended to mean the same as “anecdotal evidence” that, however actual, if contrary to overwhelming statistics relevant to the inquiry should not disprove the conclusions that follow from those statistics (with the suggestion that, although the reason for its status as contradictory yet real evidence is for reasons unknown but which, if known, would remove it from the status as contradictory (the same as distinguishing one case for others in law).

        • David B Pittard says:

          I could be wrong, but I think “real evidence” was intended to mean the same as “anecdotal evidence” that, however actual, if contrary to overwhelming statistics relevant to the inquiry should not disprove the conclusions that follow from those statistics (with the suggestion that, although the reason for its status as contradictory yet real evidence is for reasons unknown but which, if known, would remove it from the status as contradictory (the same as distinguishing one case from others in law).

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        A very 1950s prejudice, unless I missed the snark tag. But then the discussion was about the limits and purposes of what’s accepted as the “scientific method.”

        • John Paul Jones says:

          Okay, but how have the “social sciences” really advanced since the fifties? Some of the statistical stuff is more sophisticated, but the problems identified then haven’t really been solved or gone away, principally that in anything involving human action/actors, you can never adequately assign causation; the same components of a situation will repeatedly result in differing outcomes. (And forgive me for such generalities, I don’t have books and papers to hand since I don’t read much in this area any more.) It seems to me that the rise of so-called “qualitative studies” in sociology in particular, for example, is an admission that the “science” part of the social sciences has never had a very secure footing, and that those sciences might best be thought of as providing interesting things to think about, rather than delivering secure knowledge. As for Foucault, meh, I’m not a fan, not since trying to unriddle L’archéologie du savoir as a grad student in the late 70s and thinking to myself – “This doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you grant him his premises; except he gives you no good reasons to do so.”

        • DrStuartC says:

          Well, there’s health psychology, and it’s myriad areas of research (sleep research, stress and hardiness, physician/patient interactions and much more), family systems, EMDR and trauma research, assessment and testing, attachment research …honestly, pay more attention if you think psychology and sociology haven’t advanced much since the fifties. And oh yea, the Milgram experiment from the fifties? These days that study would never get past an IRB review. The whole process of psychological research is much more protective of subjects who have volunteered since that era as well.

        • timbozone says:

          I generally agree with your assessment, that there has been some significant progress here in the social sciences.

          Below are some observations that came to mind when I was trying to hash this all out in my own mind. I wrote this without a strong grasp of Foucault’s work; my apologies if this is too much for some but here goes…

          You cannot “cure” gravity simply by studying it. That does not mean that studying gravity is pointless. The same can be said of the human condition. You cannot “cure” “social ills” simply by studying them. There is no magical scientific elixir there, just more knowledge about methodologies that provide “better” or “worse” outcomes over time.

          In general, the modern scientific method and scientific progress is accomplished by development of better and better feedback methodologies that provide better and better knowledge over time. None of these methodologies are “cures” in and of themselves, and, in most cases, any “cures” found are incidental to the research itself. Science might eventually help develop improved conditions but it doesn’t begin with that guarantee. This is the difference between basic research, where systems are understood better and better, and that of applied research where a goal is set to be achieved, external to the basic research methodology.

          In the realm of the social science, one problem that we often run into is that what a “cure” is is relative to what one believes is a desired or desirable state of existing. The problem here is that there are often competing desired states of existing claimed by various social institutions with little to no regard to the immediate preference of the individual. Interestingly, one of the realms of where these competing interests are often explored is in dystopian science fiction stories. See for example, Brave New World by Huxley, 1984 (Orwell), The Sleeper Wakes (Wells), etc, wherein individuals are considered “cured” if they have become useful/willing prerogatives of the state… Is one of the desired “cures” for everyone to feel/”know” that they are loved? Or is it that “all shall be sane”? Employed/productive? Literate/proficient? “Functional”/perfected? Equal? Free/”happy”? Materially wealthy? Healthy/fit? Nonviolent/docile?

          What we often desire in the abstract is not always wise in the concrete, particularly when we seek a uniform solution that is up to species wide in its scope. Thus, “cures” may effectively seek to stamp out diversity, diversity being a trait of human existence that may have some benefit that we can only dimly grasp, particularly when we live in an increasingly homogeneous and materially wealthier period of human achievement. (And this brings me back to Foucault’s premise that the study of what power is, a structural description of it in the abstract, may best be started by examining perceived opposition to power structures, willful opposition and/or because an individual’s very fact of demonstrative existence is an open challenge to the dominant institution(s)…without reaching any conclusion I guess…other than that we should be wary of people hocking cures that are unlikely to be achievable without drastic impositions.)

        • John Paul Jones says:

          With respect, the examples from Dr Stewart strike me as refinements rather than advances, though I admit, both terms are squishy. But that’s part of the point. Humans are diverse, so searching for general rules doesn’t get us very far beyond relatively trivial observations. As well, most of the examples cited are on the borders of actual medicine, rather than psychology per se. I’m not a complete nominalist; but I remain skeptical about the “science” part of social science, May I point out in passing that “pay more attention” is an ad hominem approach?

          Timbozone: When The Sleeper Wakes is a dystopian tale, but it’s a nightmare of unrestrained and barely controlled capitalism that ends in a worker’s revolt. Quite different than the totalitarian dystopias of Huxley and Orwell. Both of those writers cribbed some of their ideas from an earlier Russian writer, Zamyatin. His novel was called “We,” that is, subordination of the individual to the collective. In all three books, it is love relationships, which feel unique, that disturb the serenity of the state’s control of the individual.

        • timbozone says:

          Yes, thanks for mentioning “We”!

          I was going to include “We” but, for some reason that now escapes me, I left it out above. I believe that the most widely known derivative work in the West is the film THX-1138 (1971/1977), although its plot is not parallel in any strong sense to Zamyatin’s novel.

        • Ed Walker says:

          This is pretty close to what motivated me to read Foucault on power. I don’t expect a cure for power or a way to cope with it. I just wanted to see how it might fit into the discussion by Graeber and Wengrow of decision-making in various cultures of our ancestors, and to help me think about their question of how we got stuck with our current nearly global systems of power, domination, and exploitation.

        • Silly but True says:

          A fundamental question when someone is acting outside the norm: should “solving the problem” be in their interest or society-at-large. Sometimes, but not always these may align. But often they do not, and whose interest should receive more weight?

        • timbozone says:

          I think that Foucault is asking how someone’s weight in a power dynamic is increased or magnified relative to an other. What are the common mechanisms for this that are not specific to an individual or immediate physical compulsion?

        • skua says:

          In as much as “the social sciences,” have been successfully weaponized by marketing/advertising/reputation management/FoxNews/PRC/Google/FB then I’d say their advancement is obvious.

    • David F. Snyder says:

      As Wikipedia states, the scientific method “ involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; the testability of hypotheses, experimental and the measurement-based statistical testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings.”

      Critical thinking is what needs to be taught, as opposed to “limitations” of the method. What is limited is the observer’s ability to remain engaged in rational thought. Daniel Kahnemann’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” attempts to clarify the real issue: it is more energy efficient to generate a quick yet biased interpretation to observations rather than “thinking it through.” Everybody’s subconscious is very clever about maintaining self-confirmation bias. It’s not the simplification of the scientific method that is such a problem in our education system; it is the lack of successfully teaching (self-) critical thinking and (self-) reflection. Assumptions are powerful and, thus, must have their authority questioned.

      • Epicurus says:

        Kahneman observation about the great power of System 1 thinking is perhaps best shown in his self-applied example. He was part of a team creating a manual for the Israeli armed forces. A survey among those creating the manual indicated a long timeline for the manual, which the team then ignored. They ignored their own experiences because they wanted to believe something else.

        I would think it isn’t the lack self critical thinking or self reflection education, which may be true. Kahneman’s warning is even with that teaching, the power of System 1 will still most likely prevail in part because those administering the education system are themselves captives of System 1 processes and are extrapolating those processes to others through the education system they create and apply.

        • sleutherone says:

          As has been said there are uses for the scientific method if is adaptive to allow new hypotheses and new facts to advance knowledge. Every field, including the sciences has old dogma that is difficult to break, not because new data is lacking but because the dogmatic old guard does not want it to see the light of day. It is a power dynamic.

          Dogma is present in religion, medicine and education. Those three areas play a significant role in people’s lives. They block the full education of students by preferring dogma to thoughtful discourse by banning books, canceling classes and dismissing real science. In the “age of enlightenment” enlightenment was in still in the hands of a very small group.

          Current politicos and some religions fighting for supremacy understand that an enlightened people are a threat to their dogma and their bank accounts that give them power.

        • Christenson says:

          You should look up the history of plate tectonics….which took a generation or two to become accepted,. The old guard simply would not believe it, kept demanding more evidence,…which, interestingly, kept showing up.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Hence, the proverb that science progresses one funeral at a time.

          That is, as excessively dominant figures, obsessed with the views that led them to the top, leave the scene, it allows for more openness to new data and new ways of looking at the old.

        • Silly but True says:

          A very interesting case study example where rubber meets road for power dynamics, science, legal theory and practical scientific understanding was the some $33b (or was it “t” I forget as too many years have gone by) Hurricane Katrina class action “In Re Katrina Canal Breach Combined Litigation” lawsuit. This was the composite of lawsuits of the 80% of New Orleans that was flooded by the levee failure.

          The litigation was interesting with twists and turns: “Corps of Engineers has sovereign immunity, but wait —that is only for navigation and the breached levee was for flood control,” et. al.

          But at end of day, peel away everything else and the science had become so taken for granted, so mundane and that generations far removed from initial construction, no current property owner ever just stepped out the back door of their house and ever projected where the design elevation of the levee would coincide with their house, some 12’ above the top of their head at that point, were there ever to be a problem with the manmade thing which required periodic maintenance in perpetuity to work, and assuming that it was even designed correctly to begin with.

        • Christenson says:

          The very words you use for the New Orleans levies are extremely loaded with implicit assumptions about the purposes of science and the existence of “correct” design, and the value of science itself.

          Science is the art of prediction, its handmaiden of correctly assigning cause to the past, and causing future consequences. It’s actually amoral, but we lionize it because science was essential to winning both of the world wars, and, in general, is a path to power. Never mind that our system has produced a replication crisis in experimental psychology.

          The current political crisis is in part because the liberal half of the country implicitly assumes that power relations should ignore sex/gender/sexual attraction, race, and national origin and is not threatened by the natural variation, and the other half is in a panic about the rise of those they discriminate against taking away their power and privilege. The signs along the road in Mt Airy, NC tonight were about how republicans were going to save America.

          Foucalt is right to explore how power works, and we need to ask what that power is to be used for — amoral science has no answers about to the goals of those who wield it; the Russians wield it as hard as the Ukrainians.

        • Silly but True says:


          One needn’t get too far in to encounter whole spectrum of power dynamics:
          1. Federal projects’ impact on local communities;
          2. science behind the design of federal project associated to local impacts: design elevation, maintenance requirements;
          3. economic power of property owners vs federal “eminent domain” projects

          It is by no means easy to say who should have known what, why and when associated to failure and it’s impacts.

        • Fredric Weizmann says:

          It’s not a proverb. It’s a quotation from Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum physics, although he did not know what new world his work would lead to at the time he did it. Interestingly enough, quantum physics is in the forefront of debates about the relationship between science as a revealer of objective truth or of a state of affairs which observers (also a ambiguous term–does it refer to a conscious being or anything which records a measurement) play a role in creating the phenomenon it is studying. Quantum physics is a good illustration of an ironic state of affairs. It (and science generally) is our best guide to reliable knowledge. At the same time it throws the question of what knowledge is about into doubt.

  4. Savage Librarian says:

    Ed, I wonder if you happened to read the article below. It takes both a wide angle view and focuses in on some fascinating particulars. Seeing as Dobbs is on our minds as we wade through the midterms, I thought this might add a little something to the discussion about power and rationality:

    “The notion that men are superior to women is the root of all human inequality. That’s why we must fight it.” – Robert S. McElvaine, 10/23/22


    • gertibird says:

      Scary, terrifying article and it is happening now. When I first heard of the Dobbs leaked possible ruling this is exactly how I viewed it. I told my women friends and posted on my Facebook page. For so many women and men it just wasn’t important to them. Or thought I was exaggerating. I am still hopeful women and men will be voting for abortion rights even though they aren’t mentioning it in the polls as it is a personal issue that isn’t publicly discussed.

  5. mospeck says:

    The modern monsters of the midway, the once wannabe Russian rocket scientists, now look to be working out targeting solutions:
    And NYT just in, hot off the presses — “Despite the precarious position Russian forces find themselves in, U.S. officials say President Vladimir V. Putin has resisted calls from local commanders to withdraw. Kherson, a fortress city founded in 1778, was the first and only provincial capital to fall to Russian forces after their invasion of the country in late February. Russian retreat from Kherson would be a military and symbolic disaster for the Kremlin, which sought to make the city a showpiece of its occupation..Ukrainian forces are advancing in Kherson from multiple directions ..Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s Intelligence said Russians have around 40,000 soldiers west of the river ”
    So Stalingrad’s coming right up. But now it’s called Kherson. And vlad the brave says no retreat, no surrender. And it comes right before All Souls Day and the All Hallows Eve when the dead get to walk the earth. And the young Russians going to the big meet your maker party west of the river know that they’re never gonna meet their grandkids.
    But still one has to remain the optimist, and who knows, things may go better for them on the other side

  6. wetzel says:

    Thanks, Ed, for this essay. It got me thinking about the intersection in Foucault’s ideas with bmaz’ post from the other day on privacy

    This is Foucault from ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison’

    “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

    In Foucault, power isn’t so much ‘wielded’ or ‘oppressive’ but operates to manufacture ‘individuals’. What kind of meaningful ‘resistance’ is there to the panoptic surveillance embedded in modern life? It makes us all ‘subject’ There is no center of resistance. We are ‘etherized on the table’, and the structures wielding the power are vanishing if they even exist. Resistance is futile!

    Cool post!

    • Silly but True says:

      Constraints are good; even if we could accept such unicorn as a benevolent dictator perfectly aligned with one’s own views. Limits would still be good.

      Foucault here seems to suggest the right approach of a politician should be unitarianist, regardless of whether you’re a unitarian executive, unitarian legislative that jails reprobates in the Congressional basement, or unitary judicial seeking to usurp precedents like they were nothing. That’s the way you could wield the most power to do the most god for your inclination. But I’m not sure that’s a good approach.

  7. oldtulsadude says:

    Most religions are based on a hierarchical structure with an authoritarian atop the pyramid and total faith the required entry fee, no matter if you name god Jehovah or capitalism. Only enlightenment can shake that foundation.

  8. timbozone says:

    Here’s an article that looks at one recent social science study. The study found that some of tactics being used to possibly bring our nation together (pointing our how a politician has friends across the partisan aisle) might actually be fueling the success extremist political candidates?


    This is an example of why such statistically significant studies might be important when seeking to improve a given situation, where human emotional reaction to appeals for bipartisanship may actually fuel the opposite, etc.

    • skua says:

      Yowsas, that’s a disturbing result.
      The naive reach-for would be extensive building/rebuilding of trust between Dems and Trumpers through them experiencing success in projects that made interdependence and the fruits of cooperation obvious.
      But currently, mutual agreement between these groups about which essentials are in danger/scarce, and so are worth working together for, is pretty much inconceivable.

    • Fredric Weizmann says:

      Statistical significance is easy to achieve. In comparing two or more populations if the samples are large enough, you will probably get differences which are statistically significant. Statistical significance only means that the differences between the groups, no matter how small, are not due to chance. What you want (and one way that the understanding of statistics has become more sophisticated) is that Effect Size (one way of measuring how large the difference is) is usually more important than simple significance..

      I would make a more general point. Scientific methods make assumptions and those assumptions themselves are not always true or are only accurate within limits.. Ultimately, you cannot separate what we know about a phenomenon from how we know it. Scientific progress and change are often due to improvements in method and a more critical understanding of the ways we have of measuring phenomena. An even broader point: years ago the American Association for the Advancement of Science tried to come up with a single definition of the Scientific Method. They gave up because they couldn’t find enough communality across disciplines to justify the search. Different fields of study use different kinds of methods and bring different perspectives even when they are studying what would appear to be the same subject matter. Most generally, you can characterize science as a critical, systematic analytical approach to studying the world using a number of different empirical and theoretical tools and methods . However, if you try and get to much more specific than that , you can quickly get into trouble.

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