Book Review: Ben Golder’s ‘Foucault & the Politics of Rights’

‘…man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end’ (Foucault 1973, 387). Foucault goes on to conclude The Order of Things with the evocative image of man being erased ‘like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea’. Foucault’s anti-humanism, especially as expressed in these lines, has long been considered to preclude the possibility of human rights entering his thought.

In a 1981 interview questioned on this very point – ‘Do you reject any engagement in the name of human rights on the grounds of the death of man?’ and later ‘I am wondering if it is possible to reconcile the movement in favour of human rights and what you have said against the humanist subject’ (Foucault 2014, 264-65).

It is these questions of engagement and reconciliation between Foucault and rights that Ben Golder explores in Foucault and the Politics of Rights (Stanford University Press, 2015).

pid_24011

‘Foucault’s curious deployment of rights’

Golder is not the first to address Foucault’s discussion of rights in his late interviews and lectures. However, he is one the first to do so without characterising Foucault as betraying his earlier critiques of the subject and sovereign models of power in order to embrace liberalism. Rather, Golder exegetes Foucault’s lectures and late interviews as a continuation of his previous work.

Foucault’s rejection of the universal human subject (The Order of Things) and critique of sovereign model of power (Discipline and Punish and The Will to Knowledge) are examined alongside what Golder calls ‘Foucault’s curious deployment of rights’.

For example, Foucault states, ‘we should be looking for a new right that is both anti-disciplinary and emancipated from the principle of sovereignty’ (Society Must Be Defended) and claims to the ‘rights of the governed’…‘a new right – that of private individuals to effectively intervene’ (Confronting Governments: Human Rights). Golder examines these remarks on rights as tactical and useful instruments for political struggle.

Rights as critical counter-conduct

Drawing on the Security, Territory, Population lectures, Golder argues that Foucault’s deployment of rights in the late-70s and early-80s is akin to the counter-conduct tactics used in the lead-up to the Reformation. Foucault argues that in response to pastoral practices that sought to govern or conduct the life of the church, a series of tactics were developed to counter this conduct. John Wycliffe, Jan Hus and associated Christian communities re-purposed the governmental instruments used by ecclesial authorities (e.g. scripture or community or ascetic practices) and opened the possibility for insurrection and resistance.

In a similar manner, Golder suggests that Foucault’s appeal to rights is not a late embrace of the liberal subject of inalienable rights derived from their humanness, but a ‘critical counter-conduct of rights’. There are three dimensions to this use of rights:

  1. contingent ground of rights;
  2. ambivalent nature of rights (both liberatory and subjectifying);
  3. tactical and strategic possibilities of rights as political instruments (Golder 2015, 23).

In conceiving rights in this manner, Golder is able to take Foucault’s late discussions of rights seriously without suggesting that there was a serious break with his earlier work. While Foucault may critique the anthropological and political foundations of rights, this does not preclude the possibility of making use of rights discourses in specific political contests.

Golder’s formulation of rights as critical counter-conduct can be read as part of a wider literature seeking to move away from tired debates over whether Foucauldian analyses of socio-political struggles are self-defeating with little room for meaningful action. Like Amy Allen (The Politics of Our Selves, 2008) and Colin Koopman (Genealogy as Critique, 2013), Golder appeals to the idea of ‘critique’ and Foucault’s relation to Kant to argue that there is an affirmative (if not normative) dimension to Foucault’s project.

Critical ambivalence of rights

In his essay discussing Kant’s “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” Foucault puts forward a notion of critique that is genealogical rather than transcendental. While the Kantian critical project sought universal structures of knowledge, Foucauldian critique is opened up via “historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subject of what we are doing, thinking, saying” (Foucault 2000, 315). Through his own historical or genealogical investigations into punishment, sexuality or subject-formation, Foucault opened up space for critical questioning of ourselves. Importantly, this ‘critical ontology of ourselves’ is not a new body of knowledge or information, but a critical ethos or attitude that is performed and lived.

foucault2-163x250

Golder rightly identifies the way narratives of human rights and associated events have formed a prominent story that we tell ourselves and in which we recognise ourselves as subjects. Drawing Samuel Moyn’s historical analyses of human rights, Golder suggests a genealogical critique can reveal the contingent grounds of rights and expose areas vulnerability to contestation and reform. In this sense, Golder’s use of critique is more than a negative project. It is in the process of the critique of rights that he makes the affirmative move of re-deploying rights a critical counter-conduct.

Like the proto-Reformers who used ecclesia tools to create openings to resist the pastorate, Golder suggest that rights, as a practice of critical counter-conduct can resist governmental strategies that subjugate and govern too much. In putting forward this argument Golder stresses the ambivalent nature of rights, which corresponds to the reversibility of power relations described by Foucault in The Will to Knowledge. That is, the use of rights as a political instrument or tool is always vulnerable to co-option by the governmental strategy – a liberatory moment can be transformed into another instance containment and constriction.

To demonstrate the ambivalence Golder examines Foucault’s discussion of gay rights, abolition of the death penalty, and right to suicide. While on the one hand, Foucault was concerned that a dependence on a traditional liberal rights discourse would cede too much political ground and, as Golder summarises, leave “unquestioned (indeed, it reinforces) the powers of law, state, and medicine to regulate…the character and quality of that life itself” (Golder 2015, 132). On the other hand, Foucault recognised the danger of tactical deployment of rights as a means of merely reforming or refining the object of critique. For instance, rights-based arguments against the death penalty may serve to simply fine-tune methods of execution to account for humanistic concerns.

Rights: strategic or tactical reformulation of power relations?

While the ambivalence of rights cannot be avoided, attention to the relationship between tactical and strategic deployment is an important precaution. Following military theory, a strategy is the general plan, while tactics are transitional decisions or acts contingent on the circumstances and overarching strategy – or in different terms, tactics are to strategy what apparatus is to dispositif.

Golder, like Foucault, is concerned that the use of rights as a tactical counter-conduct will eventually be co-opted by the overarching strategy (i.e. the juridical order). And, while useful for a time, the tactical deployment remains within the strategy and may serve to further refine and reinforce its effects. Rather than remaining at the tactical level, points of vulnerability and weakness need to be exposed in order to shift and subvert the strategy itself.

Golder cites the controversial French criminal defense lawyer, Jacques Vergès (with whom Foucault had some dealings), as an example of the way his strategy of rupture “contest the law’s legitimacy and its self-presentation so as to effect a rupture in the system itself”(Golder 2015, 125). Verges would uses the French courts as performative space to expose the French State’s criminal past (e.g. colonial violence and occupation in Algeria) and hence inability to sit in judgement on other criminal matters (e.g. Klaus Barbie, the Nazi war criminal).

In a similar way, Golder argues that Foucault’s use of rights is not merely tactical and local, but “connected to a broader and concerted strategic engagement” that skews the liberal game of state versus individual and “to inaugurate a different game, with a different mode of relation to life” that can contest the dispositif or strategic network of power. It would seem that at this point, the significance of genealogical critique returns. That is, to be able to strategically rupture and destabilise our present and our understanding of ourselves.

Golder’s argument for a Foucauldian politics of rights is provocative and productive. There are areas that I would have liked to seen explored further – especially a reading of this Foucault-as-rights-theorists in relation with other similar theorists more aligned with rights discourses, e.g. Arendt and Agamben. It would have also been useful had Golder discussed a contemporary example of rights-based politics where this Foucauldian approach could be adopted e.g. first or stateless peoples.

Golder contends that a Foucauldian account of rights “actually facilitates a range of different political possibilities beyond, and potentially critical and transformative of, liberalism itself” (Golder 2015, 62). This is perhaps the real test of Golder’s book – does this account of rights provide something that is more useful that than juridical, universal and anthropological right discourses?

References

  1. Foucault, M. (1973) The Order of Things, Translated by. New York: Vintage.
  2. Foucault, M. 2000. “What is Enlightenment?” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin.
  3. Foucault, M. (2014) Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice, Translated by Stephen W. Sawyer. Edited by Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Golder, B. (2015) Foucault and the Politics of Rights, Translated by. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

‘You Are What You Eat’: The Place of Food in Caring for the Self and Others

This article first appeared on the ABC Religion & Ethics website, 12 Oct 2016

In 1825 the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin declared, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” By this he seemed to mean that he could tell something about a person’s character and class by what they eat.

Forty years later, Ludwig Feuerbach echoed Brillat-Savarin with the pithier, “You are what you eat.” Feuerbach’s intent however was to highlight the materiality of what it is to be a human being – you are material like what you eat is material.

His phrase has since developed a life of its own. A quick Google search reveals multiple documentaries, hundreds of books and thousands of articles and blogs taking “You are what you eat” for their title. Most of these are very prescriptive. You are fat, unhealthy, diseased or unhappy because you eat too much of one thing and not enough of the other.

While varying in rigour and sophistication, proponents of the “you are what you eat” mantra express the sentiment that there is a connection between the food we eat and some ill-defined moral, aesthetic and psychosocial reality.

This sentiment, however, did not originate in the nineteenth century with Brillat-Savarin or Feuerbach. They are part of a much longer tradition that extends back to the food practices of almost all ancient peoples.

Broadly speaking, in the ancient world food was deeply entwined with social, political and religious life. Often this was expressed terms of purity and impurity, which in turn would indicate who was inside and outside of the community. A well known, although immensely complex, example is the Mosaic dietary laws as recorded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The dietary laws ordered the daily, political and ceremonial life of the ancient Hebrews and set them apart from surrounding peoples. What you could eat, whom you could eat with and how the food was prepared were governed by these rules.

It was in the context of the tightening of these laws that Jesus sought to break the link between diet and religious-moral status – “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11). A lot of ink has been spilt over these words. Generally speaking, Jesus’s point is that assiduous observance of the Mosaic dietary law does not create a pure and holy person. It is not what a person eats, but the orientation of their heart and its alignment with the will of God that makes them clean.

The ancient Greeks were also concerned about the relationship between food and status within the polis. This was not in the binary of pure or impure as practiced by the ancient Hebrews, but was seen in terms of prudence or temperance. As Hub Zwart has shown, Greek dietetics was a way of life through which an individual would subject themselves to a regimen of self-discipline and self-governance to develop an eating habit that is rationally ordered. Food diaries and other self-inspection devices were used for these purposes.

To stray from a dietetic regimen would not necessarily indicate that one was unclean, but that like an animal they could not control their appetite. And if they couldn’t govern their appetite, then they probably couldn’t govern more significant things such as the household or the city.

Greek approaches to food and sex were similar in this regard. The example of Nicocles the ruler of Cyprus illustrates this point. According to Isocrates, Nicocles explains his conjugal fidelity in saying, “I am the king, and because as somebody who commands others, who rules others, I have to show that I am able to rule myself.” Nicocles could have sex with whomever he wished, but if he wished to rule others and the city with glory and authority then he had to rule himself first. The Greek free man was at liberty to seek culinary and sexual pleasures, however if he sought to cultivate an existence characterized by self-mastery and beauty, then he recognized the particular rules of conduct that were constitutive of that subjectivity.

In more recent times, these ways of thinking about the relationship between food and moral character has been transformed. Nutrition science has narrowed the frame so that the effect of food is limited to physiological health. The social, moral and religious understandings of food give way to understandings provided by chemistry and microbiology.

A shift in ethical theory also contributed to the transformation in understanding of the ethical relevance of food. Rather than cultivating an ethical character through certain practices, the concern is over the consequence of choices, duty to others and the capacity to act as an autonomous individual.

These transformations of food play out in debates about the ethics of consumption and the right to know what is in our food. Much of the focus on ethical consumption is on duties or the consequences of certain choices for others. While I have been sceptical about the extent to which ethical consumption can solve global problems such as slavery or climate change, I do think the retrieval of ancient practices of care of the self is an important way for developing an ethical relationship to food.

Some of these resources for this retrieval can be found in Michel Foucault’s work on the “care of the self.”

In his final years, Foucault directed his attention toward Greco-Roman ethics and the constitution of the ethical subject around the use of pleasure. In the books The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, as well as numerous lectures, seminars and interviews, Foucault investigates the constitution of the subject through specific techniques, practices and knowledges of the self.

Ethics in this context does not indicate principle-based normative action that, if followed, is considered morally praiseworthy. Rather Foucault refers to ethics as a practice that forms the subject, guides action and mediates the subject’s relation to oneself, others and the world.

In his analysis of the constitution of the subject through an ethics understood as practice, Foucault isolates four aspects in the process of subjectification: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, the ascetic work, and the telos of the ethical subject. The relationship among the four aspects is not linear but dynamic and interconnected.

Using the Greeks as an example, Foucault suggests that the “ethical substance” was pleasure, the “mode of subjectification” was politico-aesthetic choice, the ascetic form or ethical work was a variety of the techniques used to govern particular relations around pleasure and, finally, the telos or goal was the mastery of oneself. While the content of these aspects (for instance, concern over pleasure) may no longer be relevant, this orientation towards ethical cultivation and care of the self may still be relevant.

The philosopher Paul Thompson uses Foucault’s approach to argue for a revitalisation of agrarian virtue in relation food practices. In his book The Agrarian Vision, Thompson embraces the idea of agrarian virtue not as an ethics learned from books or philosophy classes, but as an ethics that is lived and demonstrated in the character of the person. “Farming itself,” writes Thompson, “was thought to form the character of rural people.”

For example, in cultivating the land individuals develop an awareness of the limits and conditions of life, which in turn encourages a humble and patient character. By encountering the fragile temporality of life, a person views food, health, prosperity and land not as calculable commodities but as gifts. It is argued that by humbly and respectfully relating to the land as a gift, agrarian virtues of self-reliance, interdependence, sustainability and community are cultivated.

Of course, it could be argued that this is all very nice, but as less than 2% of the Australian population actually farms these ideas are quite irrelevant. Thompson argues that even if the social and material conditions of agrarianism are not currently present to produce virtue, people “can come to understanding of virtue when such a society is taken as a model.” Thompson suggests that these virtues can be cultivated in a “vicarious manner.” Although the actual social and material conditions of agrarian life would make it easier to cultivate agrarian virtues, Thompson suggests that surrogates such as poetry, literature, farm experiences and farmers’ markets make it possible to cultivate virtues.

Thompson’s cultivation of agrarian virtue is just one example of an attempt to renew thinking about the relation between food and the self. There are many others. However, these approaches are not without their problems.

For starters they can be terribly bourgeois. As the historian Thomas Govan wrote in the 1960s, it is the teachers, writers, philosophers and poets who propagate this nostalgic notion of virtuous food practices – those “who milked no cows, shovelled no manure, and picked no cotton or peas.” Writing in the same period, Richard Hofstadter suggested that the “more commercial society became … the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian values.”

The mid-twentieth century nostalgia for non-commercial values has reappeared in the food practices of urban-dwellers in first decades of the twenty-first century. Farmers’ markets, homesteading, community-supported agriculture, slow-food, or dumpster diving are all old yet new food practice that some people are adopting.

Echoing Govan and Hofstadter, critics today have pointed out the way an overwhelming sense of these virtues has blinded some advocates to past and present gendered, class and race inequalities. I have discussed aspects these at greater length elsewhere.

However, a related problem is when the benefits of intentional food practices are overstated. Growing tomatoes on your windowsill may be a useful practice for cultivating a particular attitude towards food and the environment, but it is not going to stop climate change or revolutionise the food system. These limitations, however, should not mean that we simply disregard any value in thinking and acting differently in the way we acquire, prepare and consume food.

It isn’t surprising that the critiques of romantic nostalgia and bourgeois individualism aimed at alternative food are also levelled at Foucault’s idea on care of the self. Lois McNay, for examples, contends that Foucault’s care of the self focuses too heavily on the individual and “amounts to an amoral project for privileged minorities.”

These are important criticisms that cannot be fully dealt with here, except to emphasise that the care and cultivation of the self is not performed in self-imposed isolation or exile. It is in the context of relations with others – an ethics of the self in community.

Likewise, food practices are not performed in isolation, but are social practices that structure ways of relating with others. Food is a central site for relating to oneself and others in material, social and moral registers. The etymology of companion as “bread fellow” or “to break bread with” illustrates the shared ethical practice of food.

There are many examples of the way food is being used to transform individuals and communities, particularly as a means to reconcile differences and dispel fears of the other. For example, an Israeli hummus restaurant is offering a 50% discount to tables seating both Arab and Jewish diners. The Welcome Dinner Project is using a shared meal to connect newly arrived people with more established Australians. The rising interest in Aboriginal foods presents an opportunity for deeper understanding of Aboriginal foodways, which has often been denigrated and dismissed as “primitive.”

The transformative potential of these practices also carries the risk of co-option, either through commercial exploitation or the shallow sentiment of chasing culinary exotica. These practices can also be crushed under the weight of unrealistic expectations. Getting people to share a meal is not going to solve the conflict in Israel and Palestine, eradicate xenophobia, or redress the dispossession of Indigenous Australians. But such practices of the self with others can serve to transform the lives of those sitting at the table.

“You are what you eat” has become hackneyed and calcified with moralistic health messages. Perhaps instead we should start thinking and acting on the idea that “as we eat with others, we become who we are.”

Make good choices, kid: biopolitics of children’s bodies and school lunch reform in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (2015)

 

Perhaps my favourite description of Jamie Oliver is “mockney gobshite”. This analysis, however, seems a little more sophisticated and looks at the biopower of moralizing discoursed around food, schools and young bodies in the US.

Foucault News

Gibson, K.E., Dempsey, S.E.
Make good choices, kid: biopolitics of children’s bodies and school lunch reform in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
(2015) Children’s Geographies, 13 (1), pp. 44-58.

DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2013.827875

Abstract
In recent debates surrounding childhood nutrition and US school lunch reforms, the child’s body serves as a contested battleground in a destructive politics of blame over obesity and diabetes. Scalar discourses of the body play a significant role in constructing food-related problems and their solutions. We illustrate our claims through a critical analysis of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution; a celebrated national television program centered on chef Oliver’s attempts to address childhood nutrition through school lunch reform. Informed by Foucault’s biopolitics, our analysis highlights how moralizing scalar discourses of the body frames nutrition as an individual problem of personal choice. Food politics, when played out at the scale of young bodies, masks class divisions, marginalities, and governmental policies that…

View original post 59 more words

Foucault and Neoliberalism Today (2015)

 

“If the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal is not a new one, the claim that Foucault might have had less than radical politics is much less novel still. Attempts to paint Foucault as a crypto-Right-winger date back to the publication of his The Order of Things in 1966, which was attacked by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, Satre himself denouncing Foucault as the “last rampart of the bourgeoisie.”
The essential stake of this discussion, and I think some of the continuing invective, is that Foucault was articulating a radical position that was explicitly anti-Marxist. Foucault has been consistently opposed by the more doctrinaire sections of the Marxist Left, who view his challenging of their dogmas as reactionary insofar as it stands in the way of the single path to revolutionary progress.”

Foucault News

Mark G. E. Kelly, Foucault and Neoliberalism Today, Contriver’s Review, March 2015

Late last year, a PhD student in Belgium, Daniel Zamora, published a smallish edited collection of essays in French called “Criticising Foucault” (Critiquer Foucault). An interview he gave in relation to the book was translated into English for the Leftist journal Jacobin and then widely shared on social media. This interview contains some interesting and worthwhile discussion, but the strapline of the English translation (absent in the French original) focuses on an allegation that Michel Foucault had an “affinity” for neoliberalism, and indeed it is this claim of Zamora’s that leads the subsequent interview. The interviewer sets up the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal as something new and shocking, but it has been aired in Foucault scholarship for a decade at least (not least in articles now reprinted in Zamora’s collection). Despite…

View original post 179 more words

Hyper Obedience, Malicious Compliance and NYC Cycling

In Security, Territory, Population Foucault analyses a number of themes of counter-conduct in relation to the Christian pastorate. Choosing counter-conduct, rather than dissidence, Foucault is drawing attention to the way relations of power shape and invest the body, postures, comportment and conduct. To resist these relations, they need to be countered with practices and strategies that “redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth”.

One such strategy is hyper-obedience – an “exaggerated and exorbitant element” of obedience. This is not merely disobedience against an authority, but an intimate work of the self on the self that disrupts the pastors authority.

Foucault describes this strategy as  “a sort of close combat of the individual with himself in which the authority, presence, and gaze of someone else is, if not impossible, at least unnecessary.” In adopting the countering-conduct of hyper-obedience the individual or group “stifles obedience through the excess of prescriptions and challenges that the individual addresses to himself.”

The logic of hyper-obedience is articulated more precisely by Gary Ransom, a change management consultant. When asked “What kind of obstacles should business leaders anticipate as they endeavour to manage change?” Ransom responds:

[T]here are even worse things than outright resistance. One of our financial services clients coined the term “malicious compliance”… essentially, doing exactly what’s asked of you – no more, no less. Malicious compliance can be a killer because it’s hard to reprimand and because it undermines the credibility of the whole process. People come back to you and say, “See? I did just what you asked, and look at how it screwed things up”.

In doing the very thing that is being asked, the employee frustrates the goals and processes of the authority asking them to act in a particular way. A similar approach has been suggested by Matthew Woessner in response to Penn State University’s wellness plan. According to Woessner the plan requires all staff to

“complete an online wellness profile” as well as undergo a “preventive physical exam” designed to “help employees and their spouse or same-sex domestic partner learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”

Failure to do this will result in a $100 monthly surcharged deducted from the employees paycheck. Woessner calls on his colleagues to resist not through disobedience, but compliance. He proposes that employees fill out forms with volumes of irrelevant “lifestyle” information and use personal doctors rather than the insurers mobile medical teams. According to Woessner,

if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable. (More details here).

Woessner calls this approach civil disobedience. I would suggest it is hyper-obedience. But whatever it is, I hope it works.

Here is another humorous example:

Gary Ransom and Tom Knighton, “Stepping up to the challenge of change,” Managing Service Quality 6, no. 5 (1996): p.13.

see Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. (p. 200 – 201)

Neoliberal Public Health and the Rhetoric of War

If we look beneath…the State and State apparatuses, beneath the laws and so on, will we hear and discover a sort of primitive and permanent war? (Foucault 2000, : 46-47)

At dawn, on 11 November 2008, Julien Coupat was seized by French police and ‘preventively arrested’. French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie regarded Coupat and his associates as ‘pre-terrorists’ part of an ‘anarcho-autonomist cell’ (Anonymous 2008; Nardi 2009). Prior to the raid and arrests of November 2008 Coupat and his eight friends were not ‘pre-terrorists’ but nine individuals seeking to establish an alternate form of life to the consumer-driven existence found in the affluent suburbs of Paris from which they came. Moving to the village of Tarnac the nine grew their own food and “reorganized the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly” {Toscano, 2009 #191}. According to the villagers they were charming ‘self-sufficient students’ (Anonymous 2008). However, when a nearby section of railway was sabotaged through a small explosion the farmhouse transformed into a cell, the individuals into ‘pre-terrorists’ and the friends became known as the Tarnac 9 an anti-capitalist anarchist group with global reach.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations. Photo: C. Mayes

The seizure of Coupat as a ‘pre-terrorist’ serves as an example of the political rationality influencing governmental strategies seeking to forecast and control not only threatening events, but pre-empt the very possibility of the events occurrence. The governmental drive to pre-empt, mobilizes the biopolitical seizure of life by taking control of individual bodies and regulating the life of the population. The imperative to target subjects that threaten the security of society produces a need to identify subjects prior to the actualisation of the subject as a threat. For Coupat, his irregular form of life attracted the gaze of the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI), provoking preventive intervention in order to secure the population from a possible terrorist threat. Thus the urgency to prevent a terrorist event provided the conditions in which the production and seizure of ‘pre-terrorist’ subjects is possible.

The identification of pre-terrorists in order to lead a preemptive battle in the war on terror is mirrored by features in the public health’s war on obesity that seeks to identify and target pre-obese bodies in a war on obesity.  Although some may object to the suggestion of parallels between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on obesity’, particularly the comparison between counter-terrorism and public health, however, it is important to note that these comparisons are not my novel creation or the cynical and hyperbolic imaginings of social theorists (Biltekoff 2007). Politicians, public health advocates, health policy makers and the media have drawn metaphorical and literal parallels between the threat to global and national security posed by terrorism and that posed by obesity.  Perhaps the most widely publicised comparison was made by the former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who described obesity in the US as ‘the terror within’ and that ‘[u]nless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9-11 or any other terrorist attempt’ (Carmona 2003). Public health advocates and the media in Australia have also drawn links between the threat of obesity and the threat of terrorism (Bartlett 2008; Gard 2007). These comparisons could be explained as merely misguided attempts to draw on the rhetorical force of the post-9/11 terrorism discourse in order to heighten the urgency for action on obesity. However, I contend that the appeal to war is not merely rhetorical, but indicative of the ambiguous relationship between neoliberal politics, public health and war in the West.

created by Brandon Knowlden, an art director from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com/#/obesity-is-suicide/

“Obesity is Suicide” by Brandon Knowlden from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com

The militarisation of public health discourse and policy serves as an example of Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s principle that “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” (Foucault 2004, p.48). The appeal to war enables the neoliberal state to justify intervention in the life of the population and individuals as matter of security. Rather than considering the ‘war on obesity’ as merely mirroring the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’, I contend that they share a political rationality that aims to secure the life of the population by pre-empting future threats through acting on subjects prior to their manifestation as an actual threat.

The suggestion that the ‘war on obesity’ and public health campaigns are manifestations of neoliberal political rationality could be seen to jar with critiques that such initiatives are examples of the Nanny or Welfare State. However, while the neoliberal state may withdraw from nationalized financial system, it does not abandon its monopoly on war and violence (Foucault 2004, p.48; Harvey 2009, p.82).

Of course the war waged against terrorism is of a different order to that waged against obesity. While the former requires an explicit appeal to the state’s monopoly on violence, the latter is a ‘peaceful’ continuation of war through a politics that is “perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language and even the bodies of individuals” (Foucault 2004, p.16). The continuation of war through politics “sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war” and instils this disequilibrium in the political institutions and the bodies of individuals.

In launching a ‘war on obesity’, the intervention in the life of the individual and population is framed by the Hobbesian mythos that the state provides security and protection. Considering obesity as threat to be secured and in employing the terms of war, the neoliberal state can justify intervention into the lives of the people. Against the background of the neoliberal monopoly of war the future is secured through the production and governance of subjects in the present. It is here that the wars on obesity, drugs, gangs, poverty and terrors begin to resemble each other.

References

Anonymous. 2008. “Cabbage-patch revolutionaries? The French ‘grocer terrorists’.” The Independent, December 18, 2008.

Bartlett, Lawrence. 2008. “Obesity more dangerous than terrorism: experts.” The Age, February 25, 2008.

Biltekoff, Charlotte 2007. “The Terror Within: Obesity in Post 9/11 U.S. Life.” American Studies no. 48 (3).

Carmona, Richard H. 2003. Remarks to the American Medical Association’s National Advocacy Conference. edited by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Foucault, Michel. 2000. “Society Must Be Defended.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin.

———. 2004. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76

. Translated by David Macey. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. London: Penguin.

Gard, Michael. 2007. “Is the War on Obesity Also a War on Children?” Childrenz Issues: Journal of the Children’s Issues Centre no. 11 (2):20-24.

Harvey, David. 2009. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nardi, Sarah. 2009. The Coming Insurrection. Adbusters, 14/07/2009.

No Opinion: A lesson in silence from Cambodia and Kierkegaard’s lilies

Yesterday, Cambodia held a general election. It appears, as most commentators expected, Prime Minister Hun Sen will continue his 28 year rein. However, the opposition – Cambodia National Rescue Party – gained an additional 26 seats (55 in total). I have added little to my knowledge of Cambodian politics since high school classes on Indochina, at a time when Hun Sen was still in the early stages of his career. So I am not trying offer any analysis of these election results. My interest however is in a report that the Cambodian people are not too fond of opinion polls.

Unlike Australia, where opinion polls seem to be conducted on a daily basis and have the power to overthrow Prime Ministers, in the lead up to the Cambodian election there were only two polls. What interests me about these polls is not what was said, but in what was withheld. In the two polls 60% and 21% offered “no opinion”. I do not claim to know why this was the case, it could be due to a variety of factors: fear of expressing an opinion, distrust of the polling agency, or unfamiliarity with the polling process. However, I do think that the “no opinion” option is something alien yet instructive for Australians.

In a Newspoll survey from 1st July 2013 on Federal voting intentions and leaders’ rating only 2% of Australians polled refused to answer. Refusing to give an opinion goes against much of Australian and Western culture. We are all unique individuals. We have voices. We have desires. We have opinions. And they should be heard. Or in the sardonic grist of Harry Callahan, “opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one”. Blogs, facebook, twitter and the humble letters page all reflect the idea that we have opinions that should be heard.

Yet perhaps it is in voicing these opinions, specifically in allowing them to be quantified in opinion polls, that the quality and power of the opinion is eroded. In a society where the cacophony of voices is reduced to quantifiable data, then perhaps it is better to follow Bartleby and respond with – “I would prefer not to”. This strategy obviously has its risk, however perhaps it is time our culture valorized silence and inaction.

In examining the confession, Michel Foucault traces the way power induces speech and “spread its effects far and wide”. The imperative to speak occurs in private and public, in the most intimate relations and “in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life”. Speech, we are told, distinguishes us from the beasts. But speech also makes us a particular kind of beast. According to Foucault “Western man has become a confessing animal“. In response to the imperative to speak, silence and refusal can have a subversive power.

While agreeing that speech “distinguishes man above the beasts” (and the lilies), Søren Kierkegaard does not think this means that “to be able to keep silent is no art”. Kierkegaard invites us to use “the lilies and the birds as teachers” of the art of silence. It is an advantage to be able to resist the temptation to speak and “it is a great art to be able to keep silent”. Perhaps in learning from the lilies and following Bartleby, we can begin to value silence and recognize its political force.

Silence and refusal to answer is not without risk or effort. Bartleby starved. And Kierkegaard notes that it is an art to restrain oneself from speaking, an art that requires practice. However, if this art was more widely practiced, then a refusal to participate in opinion polls could serve to limit their eroding effect on democracy and strengthen speech when it really matters.

Reference

Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, Penguin: 1998, p 59.

Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses and The Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air, and Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays. trans. by Walter Lowrie, D.D. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1974.