Edkins and Foucault

January 10, 2010

Jenny Edkins’ article “The Local, The Global and the Troubling” sets out to question the very act of academic problem solving. Underpinning her assertions are Foucauldian assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the way knowledge is implemented. The title of her essay is a bit of a pun; it is nominally about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but it also proposes to trouble the assumptions that many academicians make when approaching “problems” identifying “causes” and proposing “solutions.” She states as her thesis,

“I argue that the alternative in the case of violence in particular is to engage in intellectual activity that brings to light struggles hidden in detailed historical records or localized knowledges– an activity that Foucault calls genealogy– and emphasizes the necessity for a gradual remaking of the world, not through narrative accounts that regularize and normalize history in terms of cause and effect, but through a slow rebuilding, brick by brick.”

Edkins begins her critique by undermining the traditional method of academic theorizing, arguing that it is insufficient to actually explain events in history. “The idea that conflicts have causes, and that if we could understand what those causes were we could remove them and put an end to conflict, relfects a specifically modernist, Western, academic approach, where answers are sought in technical terms.” It may well be that in phrasing all things in terms of cause and effect academic literature has created a series of self-fulfilling prophesies. To Edkins, the traditional method is impoverished in its understanding as it by its very nature shuts itself off from considering all angles of a question. In discussing this point, Edkins uses the example of famine, a subject that academic writing has long been interested in discovering the “causes” of.

Foucault speaks of “truth regimes,” and this is what Edkins is drawing upon as she makes her arguments. In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” Foucault says, “Origin lies at a place of irretrievable loss, the point where the truth of things corresponded to a truthful discourse, the site of a fleeting articulation that discourse has obscured and finally lost.” In deciding upon a way of explanation, a “truth regime,” an examiner necessarily closes his or herself off from other ways of explanation; in creating a truth regime all other possibilities are lost. These regimes arise out of historical events, and have not always been so, no matter how hard the proponents may insist to the contrary. Because of this fact Foucault takes it that “objective” knowledge of a subject is itself contingent upon a historical perspective. This is what Edkins is drawing upon when she makes her famine example. For a long time, scientists assumed that the problems must be simply environmental, and if humankind could mend those environmental factors the famine would cease. Over time, scientists came to understand that some famines were human caused, and the emphasis because focused upon reducing humanity’s drain upon the growing potential of the earth. In any case, these understandings of famine hinge upon the idea that something failed.

This is unconvincing in light of the fact that for some people a famine is a success. To see famine exclusively as a failure unnecessarily removes the color from the picture: While some people starve, others make out like bandits, profiting from increased prices. Sometimes famines are deliberate and genocidal, or they are engineered in order to make land grabs. To take famine down to the level of “cause” removes the politics from the event. Famines “happen because particular people take particular forms of action– when they could do otherwise.” It can be argued, then, that a famine is a product of the system identifying it, not a breakdown thereof, and it works exactly as desired. In striving to reconnect the political with the historical Edkins, and Foucault, are seeking to fill the picture out more fully.

Foucault thought that truth regimes were directly connected to power– which should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing. In the Western truth regime which most consideration of the Troubles is sited in, truth is scientific knowledge, the product of specific scientific methods. Because of this intimate connection with power, certain topics are off limits for questioning. Foucault uses the silence of French left intelligentsia on matters of interment in the face of the existence of the Gulag system as an example of exclusion of questions in truth regimes. According to Foucault “We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” making “the political question… truth itself.”

Furthermore, Foucault and Edkins see in the idea of cause and effect a narrative that does not exist in truth. In Foucault’s idea of genealogy, the roots of things, events are singular and unique; they do not fit into an explanatory narrative. In this view, a narrative history is nothing more than a superimposition of a nonexistent purpose upon contingent events in human history. Creating a narrative history for human events may as well be telling a story about the origin of oxygen in the atmosphere. In Madness and Civilization Foucault never attempts to explain the changes in Western attitudes towards insanity and internment; he merely observes that things change. He does, however, uncover the power interactions that made the changes possible. Instead it is in the interests of those in power to construct narratives that make their position seem justified. If history is best understood in terms of battle and struggle, then it makes sense to view events in human history as the interaction of power relations not grand narratives.

Edkins points out that “identifying something as a problem in the first place is already to take a particular stance in relation to it.” This is much the same as Foucault’s denunciation of narrative. In the context of the Troubles identifying the violence as a “problem” immediately sets a researcher down a certain academic path to follow prescribed academic patterns; it instantly cuts the researcher off from other paths of understanding. The search for cause and effect undermines itself, then, by closing the researcher off from understanding the full subtlety of the situation. Furthermore the taking of academic observation and applying it to the real world also assumes that there is a meaningful distinction between our thoughts and the world, between “thinking” and “reality.” Because Edkins bases her work around Foucault’s idea of truth regimes, which are contingent and temporary, the distinction is untenable for her. Thoughts constitute reality in this formulation, so by taking the “problem solving” stance, a researcher is limiting his or her reality.

For Edkins and Foucault, a key question is left unasked when cause and effect are sought: Who benefits? Foucault identified the ulterior disenfranchising use of prisons in modern society. Prisons end up denying a class of people a say in the political sphere. Felons cannot vote in the United States, for example, and criminals are exploited for fear purposes in political campaigning. To use a concrete example Mike Huckabee has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Presidency in the United States. While he was governor of Alabama Huckabee pardoned a convicted criminal who recently killed several police officers. Already several of his potential opponents have used the specter of at-large criminals against Huckabee. The important thing to look for here is not what causes events, but what function do those events serve. Foucault locates the existence of crime as being a thing that society would tolerate, because an absence of crime would diminish the state’s ability to adequately monitor its population through surveillance.

Edkins is asking for the same attention to the genealogy of conflict; a close examination of the roots. Who profits? What interactions lie at the heart of conflict? What historical incidences have set the stage for the present? Edkins thinks that intellectuals have a unique way of answering these questions, if only they would attempt to do so. Because truth regimes are centered around scientific discourse and the institutions surrounding science, intellectuals occupy a particular space as a class. They also have a unique “connection to the way that the politics of truth works.” Since intellectuals are so close to the nub, they can influence these politics and the regimes underpinning them. They can only go so far as if they are seen to be dangerous to the regime, their critiques will be undermined. This cuts both ways, obviously, since an intellectual can also use that privileged space close to the truth regimes to reinforce the power structures and silence critique.

Foucault and Edkins want intellectuals to push the experiences of marginalized truths to the forefront of public consciousness. In her recalling of Foucault, Edkins thinks it is important to engage in the “recovery of the detail of events, detail which demonstrates that the outcome was hardly ever as inevitable as it might appear in retrospect and that struggles contain violence and illegality which are later disowned or suppressed.” In the writing of history, the oppressed have historically lost the opportunity to tell their story, and Foucault and Edkins want to recapture that lost voice. Scholars should even attend to the most marginalized of voices– the hyper-local, individual voices which do not in any way reflect the common feeling. These voices may be the most vociferously opposed, and in that sense derive their power from the volume of their opposition. The winner of historical battles may well have won, but the manner of that victory should be laid bare for all to see. This requires precise scholarship that leaves no stone unturned.

In discussing this hyper-local, marginalized favoring approach to genealogy, Edkins includes a quote from Susan Buck-Morss, writing on terrorism post 9-11:

“We co-exist immanently, within the same discursive space but without mutual comprehension, lacking the shared cultural apparatus necessary to sustain sociability. We are in the same boat pulling against each other and causing great harm to the material shell that sustains us. But there is no Archimedean point in space at which we could station ourselves while putting the globe in dry-dock for repairs– no option, then, except the slow and painstaking task of a radically open communication that does not presume that we already know where we stand.”

Further, “the incoherence, the ruins, the ruptures in the global terrain must remain visible.” She states this over and against milquetoast difference accommodation advocated by many seeking “human universality.” In doing so, Buck-Morss is saying that she, too, thinks that overarching stances– “problem,” “cause,” “effect”– are undesirable and damaging to real understanding.

As she relates these topics to life in Northern Ireland, Edkins proposes to “Trouble” the examinations of “conflict” by broadening the scope of what is considered. Looking for causes and solutions inscibes the event into a sphere of relevance, and excludes potentially salient factors– trauma, violence, testimony, forgiveness, etc. Anyway, when people attempt to make truth claims about the nature of conflict, they reveal more than anything else their own philosophical position. This is why Foucault, when talking about the ways that power can only be achieved through the creation of truth, leaves power and truth entangled rather than attempting to break them apart, because he wants us to see how fragile truth claims are. In light of this fragility, Edkins is proposing piece by piece remaking of the world. She uses a picture of the bombed out remnants of Berlin after the Second World War as an example. In the picture, women sift through the rubble of the city, cleaning off the bricks of ruined buildings one by one and stacking them to be reused. Edkins argues that only in this way can a society move on from trauma. No expedited recovery is possible; in fact a rushed implementation of a “solution” to a “problem” may in fact slow the healing process.

Another example used is that of the recovery effort in New York City after the attacks against the World Trade Center towers. Firefighters and volunteers meticulously sifted through wreckage, separating victim from rubble, and in so doing, naming and reclaiming the victims. In the name of normalcy, the city government attempted to bring in cranes to remove the wreckage to a landfill where it could be sorted through more efficiently. At one point a widow asked “Last week my husband was memorialized as a hero, this week he’s thought of as landfill?” Instead of a rushed return to “normalcy,” something the controlling powers want because it is in their interest, which may in fact slow the process of healing, Edkins wants societies in conflict to engage in “careful, sited listening,” the kind of hyper-local, neighborhood based peacemaking that can take generations to cement.

To state the answers to the questions before me simply:
What assumptions is the author making about how we are to acquire knowledge as opposed to opinions of social or political life? Edkins would say that knowledge is a historically seated phenomenon and must be treated as such. Knowledge cannot only be said to be that which is scientifically verifiable or accepted. In fact, the very academic posture of scientific verifiability leaves unaccounted for many other types of knowledge because in choosing to go down the scientific path it closes itself off from other ways of knowing. The typical ways of knowing are unconsciously cloaked in power politics and are just as contingent as other ways of knowing. Instead, Edkins would advocate going down the road that Foucault advocates, meticulously studying the power relationships behind history and explicitly searching out and giving voice to marginalized voices and ways of knowing.

What, for the author, is the underlying purpose of this research? The purpose is, as stated in her thesis, to “Trouble” the typical attitudes that academics take towards problem solving. Since the very stance of “problem,” “cause,” and “effect” is troublesome, Edkins wants to go further than this surface understanding and exhort her colleagues to look at the hidden side of conflicts and the power struggles and relationships that form them. She’s trying to assist in the demolishing of the narrative, homogenizing history, and instead move social sciences toward brick by brick rebuilding.

What position would the author adopt on the question as to how to assess the objectivity of a piece of research? “Objectivity” as a desirable attribute of research is itself a historically created and contingent attribute. Foucault and Edkins both think that the supposedly “objective” methods of science are, in fact, subjective historical creatures and should be treated as such. A scholar prejudiced towards “scientific” ways of knowing will find him or herself cut off from other vibrant ways of knowing about the world, to their detriment. Instead, the only way to be truly objective is to seek out as many voices as possible and giving them a change to tell their story.


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