Manning Clark on making the most of faculty meetings

I have been reading Manning Clark’s A Historian’s Apprenticeship – a short book about writing the 6-volume History of Australia.

He sketched many of his initial piecemeal ideas and impressions in a little black book – ‘I began to write down ideas in all sorts of places’. He continues,

I wrote many an entry in the little black book when my colleagues at the Australian National University were telling each other at meetings of the Professional Board or the Faculty of Arts, in long a dreary speeches, how important their subject was and what a contribution they had made to the advancement of wisdom and knowledge. Sometimes the entries record the comfort derived from imagining these colleagues on the hoist in a garage for an oil and a grease in preparation for their next encounter with their academic rivals; sometimes they too are seen as being nailed to a cross, viewed from the eye of pity as men and women who would never get what they wanted – the power they coveted, or the applause or the recognition that were forever out of reach.

Sheep as the settlers’ totem: Lamb of God, sheep of the field

In working on the manuscript for my book, I have been reading and thinking about sheep and their role in settler-colonialism and the frontier wars.

Robert Kenny’s, The Lamb Enters the Dreaming, is fascinating on many levels. I particularly liked this reflection:

‘It is important to appreciate here that the connection between the religious symbolism of the Lamb and the white things wandering around the paddocks was lost to the settlers, but not to the local people. Having been brought up a Christian, it never occurred to me until I came to write this book that Jesus as Lamb of God, or myself as Lost Sheep found, had any connection to the dumb, fluffy animals that dot the countryside. Of course, I would recognise “the Lamb” as a lamb, but I would not look at a lamb in a field and think of Jesus. Or a sheep that had wandered alone onto a road and think of an apostate Christian. Since I was a small child, the separation of the symbolic Lamb from the wool-bearing sheep has been granted, the result of centuries of separation. But if I had come across the Christian symbolism of the Lamb at the same time as the novel presence of sheep, this separation would not be – and it would certainly not be if I understood the spiritual and physical worlds as unseparated.’ – Robert Kenny, The Lamb Enters the Dreaming, Melb., Scribe: 2010.

Also, it is disturbing how much of the frontier violence revolved around sheep and agriculture. This map makes the impact of colonial expansion on Indigenous life obvious.

Sheep & Wheat copy


Boycott: A Twitter Poem

I am not Boycotting #Coopers
Boycott Upcoming ‘Avengers’ Movie
Boycott Apartheid Israel” billboards
27 Trump Brands to Boycott
Boycott Merchants Who Submit to Islam.
boycott backfires

Effective Conservative Boycott continues.
Boycott film ‘Sarkar 3’
Boycott @cnn tomorrow night
boycott these paper towels
so-called boycott

 boycott ExxonMobil.
Boycott ‘Beast’
boycott Disney?
Boycott Everything!

boycott threats over refugee hiring hasn’t hurt
Keep the boycott on Starbucks – they are hurting badly.
Boycott Good Morning America!
Women Boycott of Women’s Day
boycott self-service
ignore our Boycott

Let’s boycott
Boycotted everything I see here long ago

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).


‘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.


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?


  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.

Cornel West, 25 years ago


“We live on the brink of a new wave of social activism in America. The defeat of the Bush administration unleashes new possibilities to enhance the plight of working and poor people in this country. Bill Clinton has shown that he is a clever and adroit politician. His pivotal victory should signify a crucial turn toward revitalizing the public spheres – from public health care, public education, public transportation to public conversation. Yet this turn will yield significant progress only if prophetic and progressive fellow citizens bring power and pressure to bear on the fold – a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power that includes the elimination of poverty, a head-on assault against white supremacist ideas and practices which embraces moral accountability of police power in the inner cities, a monumental pushing back of patriarchal and homophobic structures and a cultural renaissance that gives moral meaning and social hope for citizens in a more free, just – and ecologically sound – future.

As I travel across this nation I sense a deep hunger and thirst for a more compassionate country – one in which public service supercedes private opulence, institutional fairness triumphs over individual greed and the common good prevails over group xenophobia.”

– Cornel West, ‘Introduction’ to Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times, 1992.


Special Issue: Words, Things, and Beyond: Foucault’s Les mots et les choses at 50

“The fact remains that Les mots et les choses merits our continued admiration and attention, and it especially calls for reconsideration today, after a half century of interpretation. Fifty years is a long time, and for many books it would mark the shelf life of relevance, beyond which they would fall out of the canon and out of memory. For a great many of us, however, Les mots et les choses remains a provocative and paradigmatic work. At its core it offers startling insight into what we might call the historicity of the transcendental. In all of its scrupulous if occasionally bewildering detail, it radicalizes the nominalist lesson that lurked in Kant’s dictum: intuitions without concepts are blind. But it deepens and temporalizes this nominalism, to such a degree that even our concepts lose the allure of permanence, and we are enjoined to contemplate the instability of knowledge, the making and the unmaking of epistemic categories, and the heteronomy of the present with respect to the past.” – Peter Gordon

Table of Contents: History & Theory Volume 55, Issue 4, December 2016 


Mr. Toledano: A meditation on death or narcissistic empathy?

The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano is an intriguing documentary following Phillip Toledano’s quest to “know what’s going to happen to me…in the future”.

Basically, Toledano is a successful photographer who takes a DNA test and visits fortune tellers to find out how he may die. He then gets a professional make-up artist to transform him into an obese person, a stroke victim, a person obsessed with plastic surgery, a bath-tub suicide, a homeless drunk, a depressed office worker and so on. Toledano then orchestrates scenarios and photographs these potential future selves.

Watching the documentary, I initially thought of Toledano’s creations as modern versions of the ancient practice of meditating on death – albeit in a very elaborate and expensive form. Speaking of the ancient Greek practice, Michel Foucault describes meditating on death as,

placing yourself, in thought, in the situation of someone who is in the process of dying, or who is about to die, or who is living his last days.

  • Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 357.

However, as the documentary continued and Toledano reflected on his experiences as “being” one of his potential selves it seemed to be less a matter of Toledano projecting and experiencing his own demise, but more a gauche fantasy in how terribly depressing life would be as a fat person or office worker or to suffer a stroke.

In documenting these experiences Toledano does not appear to be following Jacob Riis and the way he experienced and exposed “how the other half lives“. Rather, it seems to be an individualistic project (not itself a bad thing) that neither meditates on coming death or meaningfully engages with the lived experiences of the dying, depressed, ageing or the outcast. Instead, I was reminded of Pulp’s Common People‘:

‘Cause everybody hates a tourist
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh

Perhaps this is all too harsh. I do like the way Toledano emphasises the contingency of the present and openness of the future. He entertains the possibility that despite occupying a privileged position today, like Job, his tomorrow may be very different. However, this thought does not seem to transform his present in any significant way, at least as documented on camera.

‘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.”