Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

Foucault and post-structuralism

December 10, 2013

Foucault is often identified as a “post-structuralist.” But what exactly is post-structuralism? I have found this to be a much-discussed question in courses about social theory. In a lecture delivered in 1973, Foucault discussed how his intellectual approach differs from that of structuralists. Specifically, he noted that he is not concerned with what is traditionally called “structure”:

Neither Deleuze, nor Jean-François Lyotard, nor Guattari, nor I ever do structural analyses; we are absolutely not “structuralists.” If I were asked what I do and what others do better, I would say that we don’t study structures; indulging in wordplay, I would say that we study dynasties…I would say that we try to bring to light what has remained until now the most hidden, the most occulted, the most deeply invested experience in the history of our culture–power relations. (p. 17)

Foucault went on to suggest that, “curiously,” economic structures have received much more critical attention than power relations. However, this is a problem, because there are certain phenomena “that can be explained only if they are related not to economic structures, to the economic relations of production, but to the power relations that permeate the whole fabric of our existence” (p. 17).

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

A proper level of modesty

February 3, 2013

How to go about beginning a lecture with a proper level of modesty? Here is one idea:

What I would like to tell you in these lectures are some things that may be inexact, untrue, or erroneous, which I will present as working hypotheses, with a view to a future work. I beg your indulgence, and more than that, your malice. Indeed, I would be very pleased if at the end of each lecture you would voice some criticisms and objections so that, insofar as possible and assuming my mind is not yet too rigid, I might gradually adapt to your questions and thus at the end of these five lectures we might have done some work together or possibly made some progress. (Foucault, 1973, p. 1)

This was how Foucault opened a series of lectures about truth and juridical forms at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 1973. By using the term modesty, I refer to a postmodern-inspired idea about recognizing the limits of any epistemological stance. This is a modesty which recognizes that although we may develop a stance that is valid, it may not be possible to develop an epistemological position that is fully complete. This is, of course, not to say that “anything goes”; recognizing the validity of multiple positions does not necessitate declaring that all positions are equally valid. Rather, all positions must be appropriately justified and supported. However, maintaining a certain level of modesty in our claims is key in leaving ourselves open to the possibility of growth and learning.

Thoughts on history, postmodernism, and politics…

March 16, 2010

While reading James Loewen’s (2007) Lies My Teacher Told Me, I recently learned about the Florida Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3), a 160-page bill signed into law by then-governor Jeb Bush in 2006, which contains provisions designed to “meet the highest standards for professionalism and historic accuracy.” The bill seeks to mandate that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It further specifies that “the history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” Other provisions in the bill seek to place emphasis on “flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute” and on teaching “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” The passage of such regulations may be less than surprising given that, as Loewen points out, the requirement to take American history originated as part of a nationalist campaign in the early 20th century.

In somewhat similar example, the Texas Board of Education is reforming curricula to, well, in the words of one board member, “history has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.” Specific to sociology, another board member won passage of an amendment stressing “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices.” As the board member explained, “the topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything.” Interesting to note, “there were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted.”

Coming across these issues made me think back to Doug Booth’s (2005) book The Field, in which he contrasts reconstructionist, constructionist, and deconstructionist approaches to history.  Specifically, while both reconstructionists and constructionists regard materials of the past as the foundations of historical knowledge that yield truth, deconstructionists view history as a constituted narrative devoid of moral or intellectual certainty. Overall, having seen debates take place within academia, and in considering the examples of legislation in Florida and Texas, I am reminded of just how political sociology or history (or any academic field) is. Perhaps ironically, I would suggest, the fact that academic fields are so political seems to lend support to the need for “postmodern” approaches that seek to deconstruct knowledge.

UPDATE: What U.S. history would look like if written by the Texas Board of Education.