Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue: A Conversation between Akeel Bilgrami, Veena Das, and Bernard Harcourt

Akeel Bilgrami: The two questions you posed to Veena Das and Emmanuelle Saada immediately following their presentations at Foucault 5/13 brought sharp focus to what preceded them. I’d like to raise a quick question about each of the two questions.

1) To Veena Das, if I understood correctly, you asked:  How does Veena relate two things she had said (one of them apparently in an earlier conversation at Johns Hopkins)? The first is her point that the individual subject can be a generator of new norms; and the second is that the power/resistance pair should not be rigidifed—in other words there should be scope for other responses to power than resistance. If I am right so far, then the specific question to Veena was: Can we infer from these two claims of hers that she was suggesting that such new norms as were generated by an individual subject might constitute a response to power that did not take the form of resistance?Now, the conversation went by fast at the tail end of a long session, but if I have this right, it really is a most interesting point to raise. And it occurred to me that Veena, however she responded, would first have to register that the very idea of “norms” had become ambiguous in her making this point.  What I mean by this is: If norms come to be on the side of power in the standard sense that the deliverances of normalization come to be on the side of power (for instance, by the familiar discursive movement that Ian Hacking pins down with rigour in what he calls “the taming of chance”), then given the fact that the norms generated by individual subjects have an entirely different pedigree than the process of normalization, does that not make ambiguous the very notion of norm? If so, perhaps Veena should acknowledge that the response to power that she would like to make a space for which is not resistance, is really another way of saying that she is making a plea for an alternative notion of norm. I think that is an interesting claim, but it is only implicit in what she did say yesterday, when she said she thought the subject could be a generator of new norms, and we should perhaps suggest to make it more explicit so as to see the full implications of her suggestion that power/resistance is uncompulsory.

2) To Emmanuelle, you raised the question about the extent to which her remarks were steering her towards a commitment to mechanism.  And there too I think it is a hard question to answer given Foucault’s insistence that such force as norms possess and deploy is not the force of natural laws.  When a norm coerces, it is not the coercion, say, of a twig that is propelled into the air by a gust of wind or an apple that falls to the ground when dropped from a height. But if one finds oneself talking of mechanisms of power in any literal hydraulic sense it is indeed more akin to a natural law than to a norm. The mechanism that pops the toast up when the temperature reaches a certain point is an exemplification of laws of nature. And so we are left with a puzzle for Foucault, at least as Emmanuelle presented that part of his work.

Bernard Harcourt: Regarding your first point, Akeel, I am not entirely sure why the generation of new norms by the individual subject should give rise to a conception of “norms” that is different than the generation of new norms by the psychiatrist (in his/her capacity as representative of an institution, a psychiatric practice, or a particular knowledge). I’ll confess that I am not sure about this, but I do not immediately recognize why norm generation would differ when it is being produced for “disciplinary” purposes or for other purposes. Now, if that is the case, then we would not be dealing with an “alternative notion of norms,” right? But at the same time, it would not make sense to necessarily call the first related to the exercise of power and the second related to the exercise of resistance. Instead, they would both be exercises of power taking a particular form, i.e. normalization.

To be very concrete (because, unfortunately this gets muddled quickly in all these abstractions), the psychiatrist for example could be trying to cast the young patient as abnormal or monstrous in wanting to kill his mother; the young patient, by contrast, in speaking English and asking about PhD’s, could be trying both to place himself on a new spectrum that involves education, ambition, life projects, and at the same time to normalize his relation with the psychiatrist (or ethnographer). If that is all right, and query whether it is, then we are now in a theoretical space where one cannot speak of compulsory power/resistance because the “resistance” is nothing other than another instance of the exercise of relations of power. I think that Ann Stoler was gesturing to this in her intervention. Again, if that is correct, then all that we have are competing strategies that involve different forms of normalization. Those normalizing tactics cover the entire ground as it were.

Regarding your second point, I wonder if the mechanism that Emmanuelle Saada is worried about is more social scientific or historical than physical or hydraulic. In other words, Emmanuelle’s fear is not so much falling into a natural science paradigm, perhaps, as falling into a “dialectical materialism” type of mechanism:  where we impose a predetermined schema on everything we see. Foucault criticized academic marxists all the time for doing that: for having the schema ahead of time. I had the impression that Emmanuelle was more worried about applying pre-fabricated theory, rather than physics. I am not entirely sure, and would benefit from your and her perspectives, but if this reading is close, then I think it is a provocative warning to all of us, no?

Akeel Bilgrami: Thank you, Bernard, for the questions you pose. Let me address them in order.

In my comment regarding Veena Das’s argument, I was making some assumptions, assumptions that were perhaps not explicit and perhaps also mistaken, in which case you’ll set me straight.

First, I was taking for granted (perhaps mistakenly) that in Foucault normalisation is posited as one of the ways of accounting for how forms of power in the disciplinary sense (and in his somewhat later writing in the bio-political sense, the differences between these two turning, among other things, on a difference in the target — the body in the first case and the whole species in the second) get socially constructed in the modern period, which he contrasts with its earlier pre-Enlightenment forms. If I am right in assuming this, then the young patient you describe, if he is participating — in the way you describe — within the framework of normalization, he is, eo ipso, also working within the disciplinary (later, bio-political, though there he is just one indvidual cog in the machine of the species) regime.

And then, I also assumed something about what Veena was saying (again perhaps mistakenly, but here if I am wrong about what was in Veena’s mind, I can present it as something I am saying on her behalf as my own interpretation of her interesting remark). Veena’s refusal of the power/resistance binary was intended to imply that there are ways to respond to power (in particular, by individuals generating new norms) which need not take the form of resistance — perhaps instead they are ways of finessing it or bypassing it, or perhaps they change the framework within which power is exercised (not change it wholesale, of course, like some sort of massive kuhnian paradigm/episteme shift since individual norm-generation could hardly amount to that, but in a sort of bricolage of local reversals). So her positive proposal, I was saying, might have been that this (non-resistance kind of) response to power takes this form of an individual generating new norms outside the framework of normalisation, not as the young patient is said by you to do, participating within the normalization already in place in the psychiatric scenario you described.

Now it is true that Veena, at least while I was present that evening, did not mention what she had in mind by how this generation of new norms might sometimes be effected by individuals. But if I myself were to explore the subject (I make no commitments here to the eventual feasibility of such an exploration, I haven’t thought about it hard enough), I would think we would have to turn to things more self-consciously in the methods that Foucault would count as technologies of the self in pursuit of ideals, ideals which in his traversal of them are largely in the renunciative traditions of Christianity, as well as pagan and Oriental traditions, but which we may also find in Aristotle’s extensive discussions of the cultivation into the dispositions of virtue. (Foucault’s own discussion surprisingly starts instead with Plato’s Socrates in the context of the relation with Alcibiades and seems to ignore this central theme in Aristotle, which I think is much more straightforwardly of a piece with his idea of the technologies of the self.) And if so, given its radically different pedigree from the norms that are the deliverances of normalization, this would amount to an alternative notion of norm itself. And it is this that I was finding as an interesting possibility in Veena’s two remarks that you were conjoining in your own comment on her at the seminar—first her remark about non-resistance forms of response to power, and second her remark about how new norms might sometimes be generated by individuals.

On the second point I made, you distinguish between mechanism in the natural scientific sense and in the study of society (I just can’t get myself to say ‘social science’).

Let’s ask for the most salient sense in which Foucault’s insistence that the coercive force of norms are to be distinguished from the coercive force of natural laws, is true. I would think that the real distinction here is due to the fact that somehow what normalisation does is to draw transformatively out of a field of force described in detached, numerical and explanatory terms (essentially descriptive, probabilistic and statistical terms that are used in the natural sciences), something that we cannot look upon in a merely detached way but rather something which triggers our practical agency, something distinct from a theoretical and detached understanding which we exercise in the explanations we give in the natural sciences — in other words it transformatively draws from a world of mere descriptively understood nature, a prescriptive element or an ‘ought’ (that’s the transformation that Hacking elaborates in his discussion of the use to which the notion of average is put, and in general, notions of health, and other such ideals are said to emerge in this way). Now, if this is a genuine transformation, which it must be, else norms can’t be distinguished from natural law, then these norms are irreducible, they cannot be returned to a purely descriptively characterised domain from which normalisation has alchemised them. If so, I was saying in my second comment on Emmanuelle Saada, they cannot be understood as constituted any more by a mechanistic conception of the world, even if they were drawn from the world (so understood and described) by this remarkable transformation that normalisation achieves. If they were, they would not be distinguishable from natural laws. Now, one could of course just simply say that ‘mechanism’ is not a notion to be understood in descriptive terms only. But if that is so, then the term ‘mechanism’ is hostage to a bad pun. We would need to give a quite distinct meaning to it. But if you look at the discussion in Security, Territory, Population, on p 20, and again p 26-27 and the footnotes 33 and 37, Foucault’s entire talk of biological naturalism in the field of force from which norms were, as I keep saying, ‘alchemised’ by the normalisation leading to the bio-political and disciplinary regimes of modernity, his understanding of mechanism is explicitly classical Newtonian. And so it would I think be misleading to use ‘mechanism’ in some sense that departs radically from this. Rather, I think he thinks that mechanism is precisely what one alchemised oneself away from in erecting a normativist regime of the sort that emerged in this period. Thus my comment on the question you were putting to Emmanuelle.

Veena Das:  Thanks to Akeel and Bernard for joining the conversation on the individual as generating new norms and especially my disavowal ( or bypassing) of the power-resistance pair.

I take this possibility of the individual as generating new norms from Canguilhem’s formulation that “strictly speaking, the norm does not exist’ as he refers to health as “life lived in the silence of the organs’ (Leriche, 1936). This leads him to think of the bipolarity of life as between the normatively normal and the pathologically normal. Foucault when citing Canguilhem in this book (The Abnormal) says . “Canguilhem calls it a polemical concept. Perhaps we could say it is a political concept.” (p.50) And hereby hangs a tail in which Foucault is not simply modifying Canguilhem but in my opinion taking a very different path for better or for worse. I think Canguilhem is more radical with regard to the norm than Foucault is giving him credit for here – because in characterizing disease as an experiment with life, he sees pathological states as generative of new forms of life for the organism – they reveal the normal functioning of the body. This generative capacity of pathology is what variations at the level of the individual reveal.

In taking up Swapan’s case I wanted to suggest that there is a pathology in search of its own normativity. Does this make the very idea of the norm “ambiguous” as Akeel suggests? I certainly think that the polarity to which Canguilhem refers does make the idea of the norm more ambiguous in the following sense. Disease is not simply a resistance to health – it generates its own norms. I tend to think that underlying this conception is a theory of time in which time is the instrument or cause of decay and destruction, eventually destroying what is in it (Aristotle, the Hindu notions of kāla). In this conception of life, the individual cannot but generate new norms that allow her to be normative within more restricted environments as time does its work – so if the normatively normal is where normalizing power is expressed then this kind of alternative norm is not a resistance to normalization but it is something else altogether. Thus, though Foucault speaks in HS of normalization of life processes by modern technologies of power that take life as their object – in fact as Didier Fassin has shown , the object that normalizing power gives itself is not life, but either population (biopolitics), or the abnormal (Abnormal).

Let me briefly return to Swapan, the young boy I evoked in my presentation – he lives in a milieu, that of the slums in Delhi, that one might describe in their entirety as embodying that pathological normality – almost everyone lives on occupied land, ever susceptible to be evicted and yet people have been able to hold on to these houses by series of contingencies, including court petitions, electoral calculations, sometimes the sheer topography that makes entry into the area on anything other than on foot impossible, and so on. In my book Affliction, from where the excerpt on Swapan in my presentation was is taken, I have described Swapan’s desire for English as a desire for a phantasmal modernity – English is an obsession in these areas. I would have to do a much more dense ethnographic description to show how much money parents spend on getting tuitions for children so that they can become English speaking – or the fantasies around what English can achieve for one- and yet, all that the young man or woman recently graduated from school or college can often say after years of mugging up words and sentences in English is “My good name Sarita- your good name, please?”

So when Swapan speaks to me in a smattering of English, which he claims he learnt from the Professor in the mental hospital, he provides a parody of the normatively normal – it is the failure to be normative in the world that slum dwellers inhabit that his madness seems to me to be about. Others settle for less – as if living with a chronic illness or with head wounds, that inspired Canguilhem’s reflections on disease being another form of life and not simply a quantitative deviation from the norms of health. In a state of disease one learns to take on norms that allow one to function by restricting the environment in which one functions so that progressively one learns to restrict the diversity of environments in which one earlier functioned normatively. From some perspectives life in the slums seems like this – but from other perspectives I would agree with Akeel that a different kind of technology of the self or self-making would need to be elicited to see what such a milieu generates for the individual – what is the nature of this debate between the two? In a milieu that is radically different from the one in which confessional techniques were refined to elicit every minor thought that could become a mortal sin in time – what kinds of techniques of the self might be generated? We know rather little about this whole question but I can say something about the case of Swapan that I discussed.

In commenting on Swapan’s case, Sandra Laugier coined the notion of “ordinary realism” in Face aux Désastres (2013). I placed Swapan’s story within the concept of everyday life and the skepticism that lines it – against which, I said, one is neither allowed to win nor lose. I must confess that the picture of normalizing power simply does not do work here – nor does that of resistance. I need to think harder here but the issues would touch on such questions as what is the place of the subjunctive in one’s relation to the pathological normativity that I characterized Swapan as embodying, what is it to finesse or bypass or go around the normativity (of the normal) that is impossible to achieve?

One last thought – I have written elsewhere that the picture of the rule is so different in the philosophical traditions of India– think of the fact that when Vishvakarma (the architect of the world) made rules , he made a substitute rule for every possible rule since rules could never be expected to be followed – or the obsession in the philosophical traditions in Sanskrit on the fact that grammatical procedures could never cover all situations – so they asked, how were valid projections to be made since no norms could be specified in advance? I guess a fuller discussion would, for me , ask how one might articulate differences between disease, anomaly, error, mistake, nonsense, exception, superstition – (the set of terms taken from Canguilhem, Wittgenstein, Anandwardhan, Panini) – and what bearing would that have on notions of what constitutes the individual as the one who generates newness, the individual as a site of variation but from the place of all the negations I have indicated. For Foucault once these negative values are consolidated under the sign of the abnormal , psychiatry gets its object and the power of normalization is unleashed. I am not sure if assembling a different picture of the norm itself might generate a different picture of power.

To return to abnormal – it seems to me, as I said in my presentation, that psychiatry becomes the receptacle of all that cannot be resolved within the adjacent institutions – especially, the judicial and the confessional. The delimitation of the normal seems more like the discursive consecration of practices that are supplementary to the issues of judicial and administrative culpability. In Abnormal, it seems that psychiatry is still aiming to establish its own normativity with regard to its claims for being a branch of medical science. In the Birth of the Clinic Foucault had said that “medical gestures, words, and gazes took on philosophical density that had formerly belonged to mathematical thought.”  This observation follows his understanding that an epistemologically solid clinical anatomy was enabled by the particular architecture of the clinic (as distinct from the charity hospital). What if there are other pictures of knowledge that take philosophical density from say, grammar ( as in Indian philosophy) – would it be right to then think that the very idea of norm might take different paths? Just as the norm, conceived on the analogy of health, “does not exist” so in Panian grammar it is the signification without signs – an absence or disappearance – that defines how we may speak correctly.