Chomsky – Foucalt Debate, Justice vs Power

“But by the extension of physical science to incorporate hitherto unavailable concepts, entirely new ideas, it became possible to successively build more and more complicated structures that incorporated a larger range of phenomena.”

“The history of knowledge has tried for a long time to obey two claims. One is the claim of attribution: each discovery should not only be situated and dated, but should also be attributed to someone; it should have an inventor and someone responsible for it. General or collective phenomena on the other hand, those which by definition can’t be “attributed”, are normally devalued: they are still traditionally described through words like “tradition”, “mentality”, “modes”; and one lets them play the negative role of a brake in relation to the “originality” of the inventor. In brief, this has to do with the principle of the sovereignty of the subject applied to the history of knowledge. The other claim is that which no longer allows us to save the subject, but the truth: so that it won’t be compromised by history, but only that it reveals itself in it; hidden to men’s eyes, provisionally inaccessible, sitting in the shadows, it will wait to be unveiled. The history of truth would be essentially its delay, its fall or the disappearance of the obstacles which have impeded it until now from coming to light. The historical dimension of knowledge is always negative in relation to the truth. It isn’t the other: the phenomena of collective order, the “common thought”, the “prejudices” of the “myths” of a period, constituted the obstacles which the subject of knowledge had to surmount or to outlive in order to have access finally to the truth; he had to be in an “eccentric” position in order to “discover”. At one level this seems to be invoking a certain “romanticism” about the history of science: the solitude of the original through history and despite it. It think that, more fundamentally, its a matter of superimposing the theory of knowledge and the subject of knowledge on the history of knowledge.”

“Take for example medicine at the end of the 18th century: read twenty medical works, its doesn’t matter which, of the years 1770 to 1780, then twenty others from the years 1820 to 1830, and I would say, quite at random, that in forty or fifty years everything had changed; what one talked about, the way one talked about it, not just the remedies, or course, not just the maladies and their classifications, but the outlook itself. Who was responsible for that? Who was the author of it? It is artificial, I think, to say Bichat, or even to expand a little and to say the first anatomical clinicians. It’s a matter of a collective and complex transformation of medical understanding in its practice and its rules. And this transformation is far from a negative phenomenon: it is the suppression of a negativity, the effacement of an obstacle, the disappearance of prejudice, the abandonment of old myths, the retreat of irrational beliefs, and access finally freed to experience and to reason; it represents the application of an entirely new grille, with its choices and exclusions; a new play with its own rules, decisions and limitations, with its own inner logic, its parameters and its blind alleys, all of which lead to the modification of the point of origin. And it is in this functioning that the understanding itself exists. So if one studies the history of knowledge, one sees that there are two broad directions of analysis: according to one, one has to show how, under what conditions and for what reasons, the understanding modifies itself in its formative rules, without passing through an original “inventor” discovering the “truth”; and according to the other, one has to show how the working of the rules of an understanding can produce in an individual new and unpublished knowledge. Here my aim rejoins, with imperfect methods and in a quite inferior mode, Mr Chomsky’s project: accounting for the fact that with a few rules or definite elements, unknown totalities never even produced, can be brought to light by individuals.”

“So even though the process of, let’s say, deriving knowledge of physics from data is far more complex, far more difficult for an organism such as ours, far more drawn out in time, requiring intervention of genius and so on and so forth, nevertheless in a certain sense the achievement of discovering physical science or biology or whatever you like, is based on something rather similar to the achievement of the normal child in discovering the structure of his language: that is, it must be achieved on the basis of an initial limitation, an initial restriction on the class of possible theories. If you did not begin by knowing that only certain things are possible theories, then no induction would be possible at all. You could go from data to anywhere, in any direction. And the fact tat science converges and progresses itself show us that such initial limitations and structures exist.”

“That is true if you limit yourself to a fairly short period of time, whatever it may be. But if you consider a longer period, it seems to be that what is striking is the proliferation of possibilities by divergences.”

“I would like to know whether one cannot discover the system of regularity, of constraint, which makes science possible, somewhere else, even outside the human mind, in social forms, in the relations of production, in the class struggles, etc.”

“Why shouldn’t I be interested [in politics]? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.”

“There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will.”

“If one understands by democracy the effective exercise of power by a population which is neither divided nor hierarchically ordered in classes, it is quite clear that we are very far from democracy. It is only too clear that we are living under a regime of a dictatorship of class, or a power of class which imposes itself by violence, even when the instruments of this violence are institutional and constitutional; and to that degree, there isn’t any question of democracy for us… I admit to not being able to define, nor for even stronger reasons to propose, an ideal social model for the functioning of our scientific or technological society.

On the other hand, one of the tasks that seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the relationships of political power which actually control the social body and oppress or repress it.

What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in European society, to consider that power is localized in the hands of government and that it is exercised through a certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the state. One knows that all these institutions are made to elaborate and to transmit a certain number of decisions, in the name of the nation or of the state, to have them applied and to punish those who don’t obey. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.

One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university, and in a general was, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. Institutions of knowledge, or foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.

It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

This critique and this fight seem essential to me for different reasons: firstly, because political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centres and invisible, little-known points of support; its true resistance, its try solidity is perhaps where one doesn’t expect it. Probably it’s sufficient to say that behind the governments, behind the apparatus of the State, there is the dominant class; one must locate the point of activity, the places and forms in which its domination is exercised. And because this domination is not simply the expression in political terms of economic exploitation, it is its instrument and to a large extent, the condition which makes it possible; the suppression of the one is achieved through the exhaustive discernment of the other. Well, if one fails to recognize these points of support of class power, one risks allowing them to continue to exist; and to see this class power reconstitute itself even after an apparent revolutionary process.”

“Yes I would certainly agree with that, not only in theory but also in action. That is, there are two intellectual tasks: one, and the one that I was discussing, is to try to crate the vision of a future just society; that is to create, if you like, a humanistic social theory that is based, if possible, on some firm and humane concept of the human essence or human nature. That’s one task.

Another task is to understand very clearly the nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our own society. And that certainly includes the institutions you mentioned, as well as the central institutions of any industrial society, name the economic, commercial and financial institutions and in particular, in the coming period, the great multi-national corporations”

“But if justice is at stake in a struggle, then it is as an instrument of power; it is not in the hope that finally one day, in this or another society, people will be rewarded according to their merits, or punished according to their faults. Rather than thinking of the social struggle in terms of justice, one has to emphasize justice in terms of the social struggle.”

“I would agree that we are certainly in no position to create a system of ideal justice, just as we are in no position to create an ideal society in our minds. We don’t know enough and we’re too limited and too biased and all sorts of other things. But we are in a position – and we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings in that position – to imagine and move towards the creation of a better society and also a better system of justice. Now this better system will certainly have its defects. But if one compares the better system with the existing system, without being confused into thinking that our better system is the ideal system, we can then argue…”

“I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class it considers such a war to be just.”

“… because I imagine that in general a system of centralized power will operate very efficiently in the interest of the most powerful elements within it.”


The road to character – D. Brooks

Nice book; strange to read this after Sapiens, but a lovely balance nonetheless. There is a pervasive note of religionism (perhaps too strong a word) that permeates throughout this book, but it remains full of necessary discussions and arguments.

“The goal of leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and competing goals. He seeks to be a trimmer, to shift weight one way or another as circumstances change, in order to keep the boat moving steadily forward on an even keel. He understands that in politics and business the lows are lower than the highs are high. The downside risk caused by bad decisions is larger than the upside benefits that accrue from good ones. Therefore the wise leader is a steward for his organization, and tries to pass it along in slightly better condition than he found it.”

“He who can talk only one one subject, or act only in one department, is seldom wanted, and perhaps never wished for, while the man of general knowledge can often benefit and always please.”

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

“…came as close as it ever did to the still perfection of art.”

“Social sin requires a hammering down of the door by people who are simultaneously aware that they are unworthy to be so daring. This is a philosophy of power, a philosophy of power for people who combine extreme conviction with extreme self-skepticism.”

“…change comes with relentless pressure and coercion”

“A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to his or her sport, a doctor’s commitment to the craft of medicine, is not an individual choice that can be easily renounced when the psychic losses exceed the psychic benefits. These are life-shaping and life-defining commitments. Like finding a vocation, they are commitments to something that transcends a single lifetime. A person’s social function defines who he or she is. The commitment between a person and an institution is more like a covenant. It is an inheritance to be passed on, and a debt to be repaid. The technical tasks of, say, being a carpenter are infused with a deep meaning that transcends the task at hand.”

“Cicero wrote in Tusculan Disputations, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fright, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.”

Now there’s a book I need to read…

“On the contrary, moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict. If you think that the world can fit neatly together, then you don’t need to be moderate. If you think all your personal qualities can be brought together into simple harmony, you don’t need to hold back, you can just go the whole hog for self-actualization and growth. If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized all at once by a straightforward march along one course, you don’t need to be moderate either. You can just head in the direction of truth as quickly as possible. Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together. Politics is likely to be a competition between legitimate opposing interests. Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths. A personality is likely to be a battleground of valuable by incompatible traits.”

“My own conviction is that every leader should have enough humility to accept, publicly, the responsibility for the mistakes of the subordinates he himself has selected and, likewise, to give them credit, publicly, for their triumphs.”

Everything is wonderful

Lovely read over someone’s thoughts whilst living in Estonia. I find that one must have lived in both Western and Eastern Europe to relate to much of what is written here, which is not a bad thing, it is always nice to come across thoughts that resonant with one’s own, to realise that these thoughts are not unique to you, and find others similar, but as yet, still in the box of things “I would never have thought of”.

“‘Why do you think we have such thick paper in the Soviet Union?’ she said. ‘Central office in Moscow demanded that a certain factory produced a certain amount in tons, and so it was easier to produce heavier paper than to produce more paper!’ The same was true for tins: the tin factories had targets of weight, which meant that the tins became absurdly heavy. The machine weights, too, she said, were about ten times their weight from those in the West: ‘Everything was very heavy!'”  Continue reading

Bending Adversity – David Pilling

“We are lost and don’t know which way to go. But this is a very natural thing, a very healthy thing”

  • Haruki Murakami

“I loved that Japanese people always put their hands together to thank their food before they ate it, and the way they apologized before they asked for money in a shop as though payment sullied the otherwise pleasant human interaction. I learned the correct place at which guests should sit at a table – furtherest from the door, a position in former times that was safest from suprise attack. I gained an appreciation for small, considerate gestures. My teacher had told me, for example, that it was rude in a business conversation to say that you were busy, since this might imply that you were more in demand than the person to whom you were speaking. I liked it that even cheap restaurants handed out a hot hand towel before you ate and that, when it rained, there was a machine at the department store to seal your wet umbrella in a plastic cover. I marvelled at how social convention trumped laws. The streets were entirely litter-free. No one would dream of answering their mobile phone on the train or in a lift, not because it was illegal but because consideration was expected. Even in the street, people cupped their hands over mouth and phone to muffle the sound of their voice.”

“Social systems, however, are not always easy to disentangle. Their strengths are often their weaknesses and vice versa. Cultures are not menus from which one can order a la carte.”

“Now they came to appreciate the incredible endurance of its people: in Japanese it was called gamanzuyoi – steadfast patience.”

“One Japanese playwright said their actions drew on ‘an intriguing tradition of forging onward while holding on to a sense of our impermanence’.”

“Mourners burn incense and stay up through the night, chanting prayers to keep the deceased company.”

“Japan’s struggle to find a place in the international hierarchy goes back centuries. Its self-imposed isolation fro 1630 only delayed the necessity of joining the internation discourse. When it finally did so, through its embrace of western learning in the Meiji Restoration, it was initially triumphant: a ‘European’ Great Power in Asian garb. But Japan’s timing was terrible. It became a colonial power just as the naked colonism practised by the likes of Britian, Spain and Portugal was fading as a legitimate practice. Its hopes of becoming the Great Britian of the Orient were dashed. That Japan’s colonial compaign was out of step with history was only compounded by the disastrous miscalculations of its semi-fasist government, whose adherence to the fanatical cult of emperor worship blinded it to the inevitability of defeat. Japan’s near-annihilation by war’s end closed for good any hope of achieving international ‘status’ thorugh military means. All that was left was to take the economic route.”

“By 1878, European nations and their offshoots controlled 67% of the world’s landmass, a figure that would jump to an ashonishing 84% by 1914.”

“What was expected of a ‘civilized’ power was neatly summed up by Kakuzo Okakura, author of The Book of Tea. ‘The average westerner was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace,’ he wrote. ‘He calls her civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on the Manchurain battlefields.'”

“From the early 1930s, Japan had shifted from light to heavy industrialization, emphasizing warships, bombs and chemicals over textiles and handicrafts. Fukoku kyohei – ‘rich country, strong army’ – had been the centrepiece of the Meiji project, an objective that slipped into militarism. Now that Japan was forbidden from fighting, it could concentrate solely on building a strong economy.

Washington was soon to regret writing the pacifist clause into Japan’s constitution. But in what became known as the Yoshia Doctrine – after Shigeru Yoshida, prime minister for much of the decade after the war – Japan used its lack of international obligations to its own advantage. Released from the burder of defence and pretected by the US military, it was able to throw all of its energies into economic development. Wealth creation was seen as the alternative way of getting national prestige. The link between pre- and post-war ambitions, and the means of achieving them, was sometimes explicit. Kiyoshi Tomizuka, a professor of engineering at Tokyo Imperial University, wrote in his diary in April 1945, ‘An army in uniform is not the only sort of army. Scientific technology and fighting spirit under a business suit will be our underground arm.”

“Honda was by no means the only entrepreneru to invent a business from scratch. More than any company, Sony exemplifies Japan’s rise from the rubble and its transformation from a producer of shoddy trinkets to a manufacturer of world-beating technology. It began its life, quite literally, in a bombed-out building, the shell of the Shirokiya department store in Nihombashi, where Masaru Ibuka opened a radio repair shop in late 1945. The following year, he and Akio Morita, who had been expected to take over his family’s 300 year old sake business in Nagoya, founded a company with the unpromising name of Tsushin Kogyo, of Tokyo Telecommunications Enginerring Corporation. The initial investment was $500.”

“The entire economy revolved around exports – a legacy that Japan still lives with. At home, thrifty households were given meagre interest by banks and the post office, allowing the government to lend cheaply to industry. Big business were allowed to pollute the environment in the interests of profit and to charge Japanese consumers more than foreign ones in the interests of the nation’s balance of trade. Some of the fruits of Japan’s rapid growth were, in other words, sacrificed to the greater, abstract, goal of nation-building. These were the seeds of what some have called Japan’s ’empty-affluence’.”

“There is a certain absurdity to the obsession with maximizing long-term average income growth in perpetuity.”

“Women waited around for Mr Right, putting off marriage and childbirth. ‘Not only are they living in a dreamland but they’re not waking up.’ Yamada despaired. ‘They’ve given up. There’s no idea about changing society, or changing their own life.’ Perhaps, I ventured, they didn’t want to change society because their lives weren’t all that bad. Maybe they were contented as Furuichi said. ‘Those who live outside the established system have no way of getting in,’ Yamada said a little contemptuously. ‘That’s why they remain’ – here he curled his lip mockingly – ‘so-called happy and free.'”

“To the extent that we keep talking about things in that way, there’s not a lot of room for change and progress. I don’t want to pigeonhole Japanese society in that way. It is not very challenging for men. They’ll just say, “Oh yes. We’re the villians of the piece. How terrible.” But it doesn’t actually challenge them to come up with their own ideas about how things are, or where they should go. It lets them off the hook.”

“Once nulcear power became a national imperative, it was almost an article of faith that it be safe. How else to justify building fifty-four nuclear reactors, roughly one in ten of the world’s total, in the most seimically unstable country on earth? That imperative bred a culture of denial, arrogance and cover-up that was breathtaking.”

“If one takes the view that culture is immutable, Kurokawa’s cultural explanations were, indeed, next to useless. To view culture as fixed and unchangeable borders on geographical and racial determinism. But Kurokawa may have been trying to say something quite different. Few who have lived in Japan would edeny they recognize some of the natinoal traits he identified – a tendency to look inwards, to defer to authority, to play down on the importance of the individual. No serious observer of Japan, however, would pretedn this was the whole story.”

“When the harried officials eventually concluded the meeting and made for the exit, they were chased down the corridor by townspeople waving bottles of their children’s urine, which they demanded be tested for radiation. The meeting ended in disarry with the mandarins surrounded – one suspects for the first and only time in their careers – by protesters chanting, ‘I implore you take this urine.'”

American vs English English

Hinted at by

“American and British writing has always been and continues to be a common language. Except for a few idioms and typographical conventions, it is impossible to tell whether a writer is American or British. There are more differences between the styles within each tradition than between the two traditions…

the degree of divergence varies inversely with the degree of importance of the subject-matter. That is, where the ideas to be expressed are trivial or facetious the two vernaculars differ so widely that they may almost be said to be foreign languages to each other. When the subject-matter is purely practical or commonplace, the divergence, though noticeable, is of secondary importance; and, finally, when the subject matter is of the highest quality, being concerned with ideal values and fundamental concepts, the divergence is so slight as to be almost negligible. 

Although it may not be possible in a collection of formal written documents to discern, except by spelling, which are by British writer and which by Americans, it is easy in any gathering of speakers to distinguish the British from the American. The pronunciation by which British speakers are distinguished is Received Pronunciation, Oxford English, Public School English, BBC English, or standard British English, as it is variously designated.

Received Pronunciation developed at the end of the eighteenth century, during the period of the American Revolution. At that time there was no pronunciation by which people in America could be distinguished from the people in England.

In the eighteenth century, British society began to shift from caste determined by birth to class determined by wealth and occupation, and tools began to be provided for upward mobility. London had long been the political and cultural focus of Britain, so the language of London was recognised as the prestige dialect.

London grammar and lexicon were propagated by grammarians and lexicographers … London pronunciation became the prerogative of a new breed of specialists – orthoepists and teachers of elocution. The orthoepists decided upon correct pronunciations, compiled pronouncing dictionaries and, in private and expensive tutorial sessions, drilled enterprising citizens in fashionable articulation… John Walker introduced the term “Received Pronunciation”. London pronunciation, he wrote, “is undoubtedly the best… that is, not only by courtesy, and because it happens to be the pronunciation of the capital, but best by a better title, that of being more generally received.” .. ‘Received’ in the sense that Walker it, means, “Generally adopted” or “approved”.

The Old Ways – R. Macfarlane

As I’ve mentioned, I don’t really like fiction; well this can’t particularly be categorized as fiction… This book is a work of art; words that do no more than paint the loveliest of portraits in the mind. I absolutely loved it.

“…subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move”

“There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”

“John Clare was fond of footpaths because they were ‘rich & joyfull to the mind’: ways of walking that were also ways of thinking… William Hazlitt walked radically… acclaiming foopaths as lines of communication… by which the flame of civil and religious liberty is kept alive.”

I’ve never thought of footpaths so richly before.

“…she found herself not walking ‘up’ but ‘into’ the mountains. These are the consequences of the old ways with which I feel easiest: walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing”

“Walking was a means of personal myth-making, but it also shaped his everyday longings: he not only thought on paths and of them, but also with them.”

“I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry with us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, can ‘enlarge the imagined range for self to move in’. As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded in its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places – but we are far less good at saying what places make of us. For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”

This book is full of the loveliest of passages 🙂