April 18, 2010

The Disappearance of Human

Michel Foucault

Dominant Paradigm and The New World Order

A recurring theme in the works of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is “the disappearance of man”. As a great master of suspicion, he tried to make us aware of a sinister and subterranean aspect of the Western societies. According to him, there is a dominant paradigm that actively shapes our conception of reality, in addition to our social, economic, and political institutions.

“Dominant paradigm” describes a group of people’s experiences, beliefs, and values that affect the way the group perceives reality and responds to their perception of the reality. A dominant paradigm refers to a society’s systems of thought, belief, and behavior that are standardized and are, for the most part, hypnotically conformed to by the members of the society at a given time. A dominant paradigm is shaped by cultural, social, economic, political, and historical forces. Formation of a dominant paradigm is significantly subconscious, meaning that we absent-mindedly help in forming and enforcing it—without being fully conscious of our participation therein. Some of the entities that enforce such systems of thought, belief, and behavior that are governed by a dominant paradigm are: mass media, movie industry, governmental agencies, judicial and penal systems, healthcare institutions, commercial institutions, business entities, schools, and universities.

Foucault insisted that “knowledge” (or information) is controlled in every society through mechanisms of “power”, which are driven by the dominant paradigm. According to him, anywhere one finds “knowledge”, one also finds “power”. Anywhere one finds knowledge, one will also find a power that wants to possess the knowledge, control the knowledge, manipulate the knowledge, and hence making itself more powerful. Under the dominant paradigm, an uncanny alliance is forged between knowledge and power. They are linked; they are conditions for the possibility of one another. This idea cuts deeply against our humanistic sentiments, for we like to believe, based on the long Platonic tradition, that knowledge is what can be accepted by all rational beings. But, not all rational beings belong to the power structure which controls knowledge and its dissemination.

The intertwinement of knowledge and power is ubiquitous. Consider your knowledge of mathematics. We know that two plus two makes four, but what is the structure within which we learn mathematics? What is the power structure that makes it possible for us to acquire such knowledge? Let’s put it this way: if one disagrees with one’s math teacher, that two plus two does not equal four, the teacher has the “power” to fail the person! As Foucault stated, where one finds knowledge, one will also find a power that wants to control it. The realization is that the teacher’s power is connected to her or his knowledge and vice versa. This way, the teacher enforces, in many cases subconsciously, the dominant paradigm which, through the power structure, shapes us and the system in which we find ourselves. There is clearly a relation between knowledge and power. This relation has been operative in all societies, according to Foucault. If one possesses the knowledge to produce a nuclear bomb or to cheaply and efficiently convert one glass of water into enough electricity to light a large city, such as London, for one week (which is theoretically possible), it is doubtful that the person would be left alone. Foucault wondered if there is a way to uncouple knowledge and power. This uncoupling of knowledge and power is suggestive of Jürgen Habermas’ disentanglement of reason and barbarism.

Knowledge, firmly in grip of power, is comprised of discourses, communications, institutions, and institutional rules that according to Foucault function through “rules of exclusion”. In other words, not without exceptions, not every one gets to be accepted to Yale or Harvard University. Moreover, not everyone accepted gets to have her or his papers published at the graduate or doctorate level. Many of our institutions function through rules that determine who may be their members, who may do what tasks, who may speak, to whom they may speak, about what subject matter, for how long, in what setting, and et cetera. Application of such rules is manifest in the U.S. Congress where only certain individuals get to be members, where a junior senator may not be allowed to allocate a lot of time to address an issue, or where a senator may not be allowed to talk about certain issues.

Rules of exclusion can exclude certain people from humanity. “Humanism” is a word that Foucault is highly suspicious about because, based on the history of how it has been used, it is a word of exclusion, not inclusion. In the U.S. History, not long ago, African-Americans were not considered humans; humanism had become a term of exclusion, excluding the blacks. These rules of exclusion even apply to academic philosophy. Philosophy has been described as the conversation of mankind, except certain people have been excluded from participating in the conversation. According to Foucault, they have been excluded because they are deemed as “deviants”, “criminals”, or “the mad”. How about women? One would find very few females involved in this conversation of mankind. Consider the official U.S. history that we all learn at schools: Who wrote the history? Naturally, those who belong to the structure of power define our knowledge of the U.S. history. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon.” The point is that the power structure, not the common citizens who hypnotically support it, will decide what is the official history of this nation, regardless of how true or false it might be. Ultimately, the adopted history has to serve the interests of the ruling class.

In his book Madness and Civilization, Foucault points out the long history of how the discourse of reason has excluded from it “the mad”. The mad in the ancient Greek society were considered as touched by the gods. In the Medieval period, the mad appeared as the people who brought the most important wisdom into the place. However with the advent of modernity, industrialization, and bureaucratization of the Western world, the mad began to be put away in asylums. In the beginning, excluding the mad from society was a brutal process, entailing gruesome torture and decapitation. Later, the process became more humanized, meaning that the mad would not be tortured anymore, but would be committed, for example, to a prison or mental institution. The great “reformers” of madness (i.e., the ones who are, as it were, intent on curing the mad) have created what Foucault calls a whole new “disciplinary matrix” around madness. This means that curing the mad is a project that involves a whole series of processes by which the mad can be observed, surveyed, analyzed, penalized, barred, institutionalized, or drugged.

The implication is that, as a member of this society, if you are not on a twelve-step program, something is wrong with you! If you do not earnestly make it your daily project to excessively watch television, then you are out of fashion and behind in life. If you are not a professional, compulsive shopper and are devoid of debts, then you cannot be possibly happy in life. If you are not obsessed with weight-loss and do not fanatically count the calories that you consume everyday, then you are unusual and strange. If you are not a wage-maker, then you are worthless. In general, if you do not conform to the latest version of the social program or mass culture of this society, then you are “mad” and need to be analyzed by a therapist and, perhaps, be put on drugs—so you can be brought to conformity to the prevailing norms under the dominant paradigm. The state has that spine-chilling power over you. As President George W. Bush declared to the world on November 6, 2001, “You are either with us or against us.” The implications of this statement go well beyond its political intentions.

As a result, according to Foucault, psychiatry is a growing industry. In this context, psychiatry is no great humanistic advance in medicine; it is a new form of control that is based on a new language about the mad. For instance, we no longer label them “morons” or “idiots”, but instead we call them “differently abled” or “the challenged”. For Foucault, the discourse of civilization is more totalitarian than ever, because hidden beneath it are mechanisms of power which keep the mad in their sway. A contemporary example of this is the discourse concerning women and their body weights, bulimia, and anorexia. The male-dominated societies of the Middle Ages were able to put chastity belts on women, to deprive them of food, or to starve them if they misbehaved. Today’s male-dominated societies accomplish the same feat through images that are constantly bombarding the subconscious minds of women, and hence they automatically perform the task of starving themselves to death. This pervasive behavior has rendered eating almost synonymous with death.

In the light of what happened on 9/11 (i.e., the terrorist attack on Sep. 9, 2001) and the way the world order shifted thereafter, one can be reminded of the speech of George W. Bush’s father (George H. W. Bush) given before a joint session of Congress on the Persian Gulf crisis, delivered ironically on “9/11” as well but 11 years earlier, in 1990, during the first American assault against Iraq in order to have Saddam Hussein withdraw his forces from Kuwait:

“. . . We stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment. The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective – a new world order – can emerge: a new era – freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak. This is the vision that I shared with President Gorbachev in Helsinki. He and other leaders from Europe, the Gulf, and around the world understand that how we manage this crisis today could shape the future for generations to come. . . . Once again, Americans have stepped forward to share a tearful goodbye with their families before leaving for a strange and distant shore. At this very moment, they serve together with Arabs, Europeans, Asians, and Africans in defense of principle and the dream of a new world order.”

As Foucault stated, there is a dominant paradigm that wants to actively shape and mold us and our world. Indeed, the new paradigm, which some may refer to as “the new world order”, is already in operation . . . the disappearance of man.


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