Friday, 27 November 2009

The Process of Power/Knowledge in the Institution

In Discipline and Punish (1975) Michel Foucault discusses how mechanisms and processes within institutions become normalised as part of an exercise of power. Foucault explains that the classical age brought with it a different approach to education. The body was required to become “docile” through its management by “disciplinary power” (1991: 156). The operations required to be carried out by the student were controlled down to the finest detail and Foucault provides information on how this training was carried out: students were given strict instruction on how to sit and write (1991: 152). Foucault makes it clear that this form of direction was not about teaching or instructing the student in a specific gesture; it actually imposed “the best relation between a gesture and the overall position of the body, which is the condition of efficiency and speed.” (ibid.). Not only was it required that the individual (the body) was controlled to the minutest degree, but also that, with the required training, eventually these gestures would become 'natural' (1991: 156). It is essentially for the perpetuation of any ideology that the subject assumes their position (both within the apparatus and in his/her body): the student in the school makes the appropriate gesture which has not only become organic for them but also concretises them in the material process of the institution. They act as they are instructed: they carry out actions (Althusser) in the form of these gestures (Foucault) which are materially inculcated in the body-politic.

For Foucault this body-politic is: “a set of material elements and techniques that serve as weapons, relays, communications routes and supports for the power and knowledge relations that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge.” (1991: 28). While it may initially seem that describing the contemporary student (or member of staff) as subjugated is a gross exaggeration of a state that the modern body could possibly be forced into in a democratic world; on closer examination it becomes apparent that power is applied in a much more subtle way in postmodernity. The seeds of the application of the power/knowledge process, that still operates in the institution today, are apparent in Foucault's exploration of education in Discipline and Punish. Before discussing how I believe Foucault's model of power dovetails with excellence in the posthistoric university, I shall briefly explain how, for Foucault, power works in relation to knowledge.

Foucault explains that thinking of power and knowledge as separate from each other, that they exist in detached domains, is a mistake; in fact “power produces knowledge” (1991: 27). Foucault says “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does no presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (ibid.). Knowledge of something – for example, a field of theory or, indeed, knowledge of individuals – produces power; but also being in a position of power enables knowledge to be gleaned. Foucault explains that this reciprocal power/knowledge process involves the knowing subject, the known object and also the modes used in the procurement of that knowledge (1991: 27-28). In relation to micro-politics, this works in regards to knowledge of the individual, in particular the body, as is apparent in instructing students on how to sit and write. It is this that Foucault describes as “political anatomy” (1991: 28). However, he makes it clear that this is a procedure that does not decontextualise the subject, or the body; it is the analysis of a process, the body-politic, which means the individual cannot be removed from this activity and examined on their own in relation to power (ibid.).

Previously I discussed how the term 'excellence' fits in with the actions of the subject who is part of the university: excellence requires processes of qualification that materially situate the subject who is partaking in that process in the institution, and therefore in the ISA. Foucault explains how an obsession with procedures and rules becomes an economic process:
The meticulousness of the regulations, the fussiness of the inspections, the supervision of the smallest fragment of life and the body will soon provide, in the context of the school [...] an economic or technical rationality for this mystical calculus of the infinitesimal and the infinite. (1991: 140).

In the University of Excellence these are the qualifying gestures that measure the system's efficiency. However, describing them as simply 'gestures' implies that they are innocuous. By employing Althusser's ideological model we have seen how the individuals in the university become subjected through their actions. However, by applying Foucault's power/knowledge theory we can see how this process operates on the body itself. So, in a sense, this could be described as doubly material. If we hold that Althusser's subjection of the individual is material (actions take place within concrete apparatuses); and that, for Foucault, knowledge of the individual brings with it a process that propels them into a relationship of power through the control of the body (the material body as it functions within that particular domain of power), then excellence does not only invest the subject in the ideology of the specific ideological apparatus, it also physically represses them at the same time. While repression seems like an extremely strong term to use to describe what occurs within the university, when examining Foucault further it becomes apparent that this repression (subjugation) is actually quite subtle.

Interestingly, Foucault also uses religion to examine power in relation to what is required of the disciplined individual, as does Althusser when he talks about how by carrying out the actions required by God you are showing that you believe (for example, kneeling to pray). Foucault says that details are essential to theology, God expresses his wishes through these details: “For the disciplined man, as for the true believer, no detail is unimportant, but not so much for the meaning that it conceals within itself as for the hold it provides for the power that wishes to seize it.” (ibid.). The detailed procedures that are part of the practice of religion - instilled in the actions carried out by the individual - provide access to power which becomes utilised elsewhere. In the university this works in a number of ways. One example to consider would be the feedback students are constantly required to 'volunteer' on the various service sectors in the university, for example: teaching, accommodation, catering or the library. It may not initially seem that power is being relinquished in these moments: a tick box form may not appear to have any other function than that of an attempt to improves services. Could a feedback process that asks for your individual experience of your BA be considered differently: a qualitative form, taking part in a meeting or an interview. All the information collected is saved and used within, and outside, the institution. This is knowledge about the student, detailed information that, in fact, most members of the university are constantly providing, without question. This information becomes the data on which the university operates: plans are formed form it, ranking takes place based on it.

For Foucault ranking is part of the theme of classification which he situates in an epoch centred around the 18th and 19th centuries (the classical age). However, this ranking does not fix individuals, in the more obvious sense, in physical space; rather it propels them into this power/knowledge process (1991: 143). Foucault explains how disciplines of power work in relation to ranking: “Discipline is an art of rank, a technique for the transformation of arrangements. It individualizes bodies by a location that does not give them a fixed position, but distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations.” (1991: 146). The student at the university is constantly being assessed, and therefore ranked, through examinations, essays or feedback from lecturers or tutors: “The examination that places individuals in a field of surveillance also situates them in a network of writing; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them.” (1991: 189).

The data produced from these assessments is considered in the light of excellence; ultimately appearing in ranking tables which enable the university to sell themselves in the national and international marketplace. But, simultaneously, the effect on the individual – this process of evaluation does not just apply to students, but also staff – is one that puts them into circulation in relation to power: “[...] the table has the function of treating multiplicity itself, distributing it and deriving from it as many effects as possible.” (Foucault 1991: 149). In a sense, the data produced and circulated becomes a form of currency: the university exchanges its ranking tables for new students (fees). In a Marxian sense the students and staff sell themselves (their bodies) to the university in the form of their labour – the student may appear to be the customer but they also bring in fees from elsewhere, by attending the university (and completing their course) they bring in funding. In becoming “the target for new mechanisms of power” (Foucault 1991: 155) the knowledge produced by the interrogation of the student/staff creates another level of product, one that is utilised when it is put back into play. When the data collected from individuals appears in the ranking tables, it provides an financial return.

Foucault, Michel. 1991. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin Books).

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Action, Excellence and the Naturalisation of Subjection

The term 'excellence', which Bill Readings describes as the “watchword of the University” (1999: 21), requires internal operations in order for it to be measured. These operations exist in the form of actions and practices carried out by individuals within the university: in particular, administrative staff, but also teaching staff and students. The assessments are considered to be quantifying procedures but are actually qualifying ones. The measuring systems used attempt to quantify something that cannot really be quantified (excellence is an empty and fluid term with no absolute measure). Really what is occurring is a qualifying gesture: the measuring of excellence is circular, it just enables excellence as a unit of measure to be reconfirmed. Thus, excellence is qualified (justified) in the measuring of itself. This is how the ideology of the university - this mirror-like process - enables actions to be sutured into its practices, at the same time reproducing itself as an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA), and its staff as subjects.

Louis Althusser discuses this mirror relationship in relation to how the subject of ideology connects with the Subject of ideology through a process of misrecognition. Providing an example of Christian religion he explains that “God is the Subject par excellence” (2006: 121). It is essential for the Subject of ideology that He reproduces Himself in the form of His subjects; and since man has been made in the image of God he will see himself in Him (2006: 122). Althusser explains that it is this “universal recognition” that becomes the “absolute guarantee” that subjects within the relevant apparatus will do what is required of them by the institution (2006: 123). However, he does acknowledge that there are “bad subjects” (those who do not conform) who might require some form of repressive action (ibid.).

Althusser uses the example highlighted by Blaise Pascal to demonstrate how actions inserted into practices actually work. And, here I am quoting Althusser quoting Pascal: “Pascal says more or less: 'Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.'” (2006: 114). For Pascal, to believe in God all that is required is that you pray. Althusser explains that, from the perspective of the single individual, this works through how the individual acts within the particular ISA: “[...] his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.” (ibid.) (Althusser's italics). For individual staff who are part of the process of measuring excellence, this would involve such actions as: collating information on key performance indicators; processing student's feedback forms on their lecturer's; involvement in the peer review process; or developing knowledge transfer processes. But, the list is endless - mostly because these processes cannot be separated from the everyday operations of the university. One some level, everyone is working towards excellence.

Nevertheless, in the educational institution I do think there are individuals who might behave as 'good subjects' - they may go-through-the-motions of carrying out the relevant actions - but may not 'believe'. Not all the staff of the university who participate in its practices are unaware of what is occurring on an ideological level. I do not believe that all the university's members believe in the term 'excellence' or accept that the 'corporate university' model is the right one for them or others to exist in: some do not, in a wholesale way, relinquish themselves to the corporatised university, they understand the term 'excellence', how it works, and its ideological origins. But, I do think that the institution requires a certain level of 'buy-in' to its ideology in order for it to operate in the way that it does.

What is important to the university is that enough individuals are prepared to perpetuate the ideology of what Readings calls the “University of Excellence”. This is often done through the use of the word 'quality' - although, the term 'quality' is usually afforded to the university that operates as if it was a corporation, as opposed to the term 'excellence' which relates to the university as corporation (Readings 1999: 22). But Quality Assurance (QA) is still part of the process of measuring standards of excellence1. At the University of Leeds there is an Academic Quality and Standards Team that measures the excellence of the university's quality assurance procedures. So, even the processes that measure excellence are themselves measured. It is required that, in a kind of panoptic way, the university measures itself measuring. And, in relation to students, this works by seeing the student as a customer, and by so doing, creating a reciprocal relationship: the student also sees him/herself as customer and is, hence, supplied with a product-service - Althusser's “double mirror-connection” (2006: 122).

Readings says “Students in the University of Excellence are not like customers, they are customers.” (ibid.). So, providing that students within the institution behave like customers – they 'act', in the Althusserian sense, by participating in customer-like practices – then the university has customers rather than students. Students pay tuition fees and therefore demand a return on their investment in a product: a degree. Many students now believe in the supplier/customer dialectic which is manifest in the form of the educational institution. The phrase 'I've paid course fees and therefore I should get a better [insert university service/product/function]' is not uncommon. This equates to value-for-money. Readings says that what this does is situate (or for Althusser: 'subject') the student as “consumer”, rather than as an autonomous individual who can make their own well thought-out choices (1999: 27). This ties in to how it is essential that the ISA is able to get the subjects to “work by themselves”, which is done by making the subject think they are making a free choice, but also by “submitting them to a higher authority” and hence simultaneously requiring they relinquish that freedom (Althusser 2006: 123).

It is essential that this ideological process be seamless, opaque and 'instinctive' for its subjects: in other words, natural. Althusser says that the effect of this subjection is that it seems like a normal state of affairs, it is just the way things are (ibid.): we all live “'naturally' in ideology” (2006: 116). We take up 'positions' that, by definition, are subjected ones, without realising we are doing so. According to Althusser we are “always already subjects” (2006: 117): we are hailed as such and we take up our place in the apparatus.

Readings, too, discusses the 'natural'. He says that business management processes appear natural to those carrying them out, and he even uses the word “actions” when making this point (1999: 30). He explains that this works through the language used within management structures as part of administrative procedures; the processes adopted, and the language used to further their use, imply they are a natural path to take (ibid.). When discussing Total Quality Management Readings states: “[...] it is natural to adopt these means of planning, which are as old as humanity even though they were not formalized until the end of the 18th century.” (ibid.). While Readings is talking about procedures rather than individuals; it is the attitude of the subject adopting those procedures that naturalises their subjection due to their actions carried out in relation to them. A procedure is adopted, a material activity is carried out.

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Althusser, Louis. 2006. 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)', Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (Delhi: Aakar Books) pp. 85-126.

Forgotten Solo Dérive

Saturday November 21st 2009. I set off at 4.59am from the Parkinson Steps, on my own. Still dark, although a few birds were chirping, anticipating dawn which was still a while away. There were more people around than I had expected; mostly students coming back from their night out. My original plan was to walk the periphery of the campus (as shown on the map), to see how defined the edge of the campus is in real space, as compared to how it appeared on the map. I was also interested in how long it would take to walk around the university's circumference.

My secondary project (Freud always thought it useful to have a secondary project) was to look for university signs giving prohibiting instructions. As it turned out, this didn't reveal anything particularly interesting, so instead I decided to look for buildings that appeared on the map to be university property, but actually turned out to not be.

I did notice quite a few more of the monolithic university signs that are so commonplace within the campus boundary. While I do find them attractive, they do have a flavour of Kubrick's 2001, and are quite imposing. I guess we (the students) are the apes surrounding the stone (wisdom) and developing our tools (knowledge). I don't propose to continue the analogy, as it's too disturbing to contemplate.

Students beating their chests to get what they've paid for...

I found a large part of what appears on the map as the campus space dedicated to the NHS: The Mount. The NHS Choices website does acknowledge the existence of this site, located in Hyde Terrace, but provides no information on it, although one person seems to have 'rated' it. Further searching revealed it is for mental health teaching.

At one point, while photographing a clamping sign, I heard a man coming up behind me - I'd previously seen him pulling into a car park nearby. He asked me if he could help me, which translated basically means 'what do you think you are doing?' I told him I was a student doing research. He told me not to photograph the place next door, which he called 'Covance'. I actually hadn't noticed it, so then became interested in it. The sign said 'Covance. The Development Services Company.' which sounds very innocuous and actually turns out to be a clinical pharmaceutical company which carries out trials here, on students (people desperate for money) – particularly in anti-obesity and dental pain (possibly considered to be a target group due to their perceived as stereotypical lifestyles). The sign is clearly hiding that it is drug-related as it only says ' Development Services Company', where the website says 'Drug Development Services Company'. Interesting.

Covance Website

Drug Trials at the University of Leeds

Another business space I saw was near the business school: It is a business centre. This is what the website says “Find out how close operational links with the University of Leeds and a personal touch from our staff really do make us different.”

The Leeds Innovation Centre

While walking towards Clarendon Road I saw a small sign attached to the wall saying 'isg' and an arrow. If you type in: isg leeds university into google, the first return appears with this headline: “ISG Wins £4m Leeds University refurb contract”. It turns out the ISG (Interior Services Group) are completing the final stages of refurbishment on the Michael Sadler building (according to the front page of Construction News), so perhaps the sign points towards the site office.

Constructions News on the “refurb contract”

Another link says that ISG are also doing the landscaping for the new childcare centre. So that's another £2.5m for them!

Building Talk on ISG's coup on the childcare centre

In total I saw four foxes on my walk: two crossing Woodhouse Lane and two near St Georges Field. Other nocturnal beings were a man working for Metro, the bus company, whose job was to clean all the bus stops. I went to the Metro website to see how much he might be paid, but the only vacancy was for a Bus Station Manager £23,489 - £28,579 per annum. I was also asked if I had a light by a young man who crossed the road to ask me. I said I was sorry but I hadn't and then he swore quite angrily, I was worried for a few yards that he might be behind me (originally he had been walking in the opposite direction), but it turns out he wasn't.

It was a short dérive and I was back at the steps by 5.37am. I headed into town to get breakfast at probably the only establishment open at that time. I noticed that the Rusty Building has a red light on top. I have decided to rename the building the Ginger Building in order to support the minority group.

The Ginger Building

After eating I walked back to Headingley. I suddenly realised that since I'd left home a mist had descended.

Note: The dérive has been named the Forgotten Solo Dérive as I forgot to pick up the customary souvenir.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Louis Althusser, Ideology and the Practices of the Institution

In 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)' (1969) Louis Althusser explains how he has developed his term 'ideology' from that of Karl Marx. He explains, that for Marx, ideology was a set of “ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” (2006: 107). Althusser then goes on to distinguish the differences between a theory of ideologies and a theory of ideology: a theory of ideologies is grounded in history due to the class positions represented in the social formations taking place around it; whereas a theory of ideology is not oriented in history, because there is no position outside of ideology that can enable history to reflect ideology's position (ibid.).

Althusser explains that in Marx and Engel's The German Ideology the term 'ideology' is reworked, and he describes it as no longer being a Marxist one (ibid.). In this version ideology is completely unreal and can be compared more to a dream: “All its reality is external to it.” (Althusser 2006: 108). Althusser states that it is because of this that ideology's history is outside of it, leaving the individual with only their own concrete bearing (ibid.). It is this that distinguishes Althusser's project – the development of a theory of ideology – from a theory of ideologies in general, and he puts a convincing argument forward to explain how he works on the term 'ideology' in The German Ideology to form his own version in respect to his thesis. He demonstrates that if ideology is a dream, this means it must be a “negative determination”; also if ideology has no history that pertains to it (all it has is a perverted version of history) then this too is a negative thesis as “it has no history of its own.” (ibid). Althusser's main problem with this negative thesis in relation to The German Ideology appears to be with his observation of the work in general being a “positivist and historicist” one. To clarify his position, to propel his own thesis forward, and to demonstrate the difference between a theory of ideologies and one of ideology, Althusser states:
[…] I think it is possible to hold that ideologies have a history of their own (although it is determined in the last instance by the class struggle); and on the other, I think it is possible to hold that ideology in general has no history, not in a negative sense (its history is external to it), but in an absolutely positive sense. (ibid.).

This would be a 'positive' thesis for Althusser because he believes that there is a structure in which ideology rests that transcends history: the form that ideology takes, and how it operates, has been the same throughout time (2006: 108-109).

Before discussing how Althusser's model of ideology fits into my discussion of the educational institution, and in particular the university campus, I would like to introduce Althusser's two theses that make up his essay. The first, which shows a radical displacement of Marx's original model; and the second which materially situates ideology.

“Thesis I: Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” (Althusser 2006: 109). Whereas for Marx ideology is an illusion because it it misrepresents 'reality' to the proletariat, for Althusser it is the actual relationship between the individual and 'reality' that is misrepresented. Althusser concedes that this first thesis is a negative one in its representation of the object which is distorted (ibid.). He also believes that if ideology takes the form that he proposes, then this dispenses both with the idea that the authors of ideologies are powerful groups of people who deliberately mislead the less powerful 'other'; also the concept of alienation that was so important to Marx also, therefore, becomes irrelevant (2006: 112).

“Thesis II: Ideology has a material existence.” (Althusser 2006: 112). This material existence exists in the practices which are oriented in the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) - the ISAs being the following institutions: religious, educational, political, cultural, legal, along with the family and communications (Althusser 2006: 96). Because for Althusser this misrepresented relationship which is ideology, is “endowed with a material existence.” (2006: 113), these practices are “the realization of an ideology” and they “always exist in an apparatus” (Althusser 2006: 112). Althusser offers the church as an example of an institution that provides an apparatus for the individual to partake in a practice and thus realise its ideology. This is what he says about how this process works:
The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which 'depend' the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject.
(2006: 113).

Althusser sees the actions that are carried out in relation to, for example, belief, duty and justice, correspond to attitudes in the subject that mean that they render themselves to a particular worldview (ibid.). And, for Althusser, both the attitude of the individual, and the practices in which they are involved, are material (ibid.); as he confirms, they are “actions inserted into practices.” (2006: 114).

A particularly interesting point Althusser makes in relation to how these practices operate on ideology is how by actually participating in them belief is produced (ibid.). It does not matter whether you believe or not, because the actions you carry out presuppose a belief that exists within that apparatus. Hence, the effects of the practice retroactively produces its cause through subjecting the individual. Therefore, the individual as subject is both the cause and effect. These actions are the effects of the ideological apparatus of which the individual is subjected, but they are also what produce him as the subject, as the cause of the effects. This is an integral part of Althusser's theory on structural causality. Why this is important for the institution (useful in terms of the promulgation of its ideology), is that those engaging in it, perhaps even at first sceptically, will eventually become subjected to it. This, I believe, is how the administration of the educational institution works, specifically in relation to 'excellence'.

Althusser, Louis. 2006. 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)', Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (Delhi: Aakar Books) pp. 85-126.