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power, subjectivity, agency

spring 2022 classes

Week 1

Hegel et al., Phenomenology of Spirit.

  • Dialects between the master and slave
  • Master requires the slave to recongize him as the master, whereas the slave later derives self worth from their labor, which then leads to a more developed conciousness of self for the slave
  • The master/slave distinction is caused because two recongize that each other is required to distinguish the self, and from that, the one who chooses to value life over death becomes weaker, and therefore the slave
  • Fanon notes that this dialectic is not complete for the colonial, the colonized often end up mimicking the colonizers, which does not lead to a more developed conciousness of the self
    • not to mention the colonizer becomes brutalized in the process, which suggests that there is more development that the simple dialectic gives


  • Transtemporal meaning of man, argues man’s natural state is towards “enlightement” as civilization
  • Paradoxically, this requires a structure to exist to preserve it (enlightened despot)
  • Distinguishes between private and public freedoms
    • Private freedom is when you hold certain privilages, such as pastor or soldier, where your choices are constrained. In cases of rulers, their choices are even more constrained, but constrained in choosing not to do something
  • importance of “presentism”, Kant believes that we are on the verge of something radical, and that there is potential in the presentism

Du Bois and Edwards, The Souls of Black Folk.

  • A mixture of both Kant and Hegel, Du Bois suggests that post-emancipation black lives are at the precipice of something new (he calls this Canaan, similar to Kant’s presentism), but also suggests that the act of self reconigition between blacks and whites about their differences causes a dual conciousness to appear within the black community

Week 2

Williams - Marxism and Literature

  • discusses the base and superstructure formulation, and says that superstructure is the “ideaology of the class”, and the “form of conciousness” (pg 76)
    • so superstructures arise from
      • legal and political wrt to production (institutions)
      • forms of conciousness which is a specific view of the world (forms of conciousness)
      • and a process where men become concious of the economic conlfict (political and cultural)
  • aruges that these concepts almost magically appear into being (pg 77 bottom), and possibly their definitions do not capture everything
  • marx’s attempt here was to link thought and activity, which before him, had been separated, but marx hasn’t built anything radically new, rather he largely redefined thought into superstructure and activity into base, and then proceeded to link them together
    • marx’s unconvincing argument that art does not correlate to the peak of any culture
  • argues that what people are fundalmentally lacking is the recgonition that connections between material production and institutions and conciousness
    • proposes Plekhanov’s distinction of five sequential elements instead (state of productive forces, economic conditinos, socio-political regimes, psyche of social man, and other ideaologies)
    • basically says that when the analysis begins from superstructure and base, they fail to recongize that these two entities are arrived at, not started from
      • superstructures tend to reach out to big things and encompass a variety of ideas that tends to make the differences between the two entities believable
      • reudction of base to a category is something marx warned against
  • reflection and mediation talk about the processess in between the base and super structure
    • is this anything more than a finite state machine with hidden markov states?

Draft about Williams

Williams spends significant time discussing the Marxist understanding of base and superstructure as a leaky abstraction. He first describes the concept of a base (or by his art as reflection analogy, as “reality”) which represents the Marxist concept of the physical production processes, and superstructure (“art” or “reflection of reality”) as everything else non-tangible that arises from the base. This is fleshed out through an understanding of reflection/mediation, homology, and tradition/institutions. The binary of base/superstructure as two separate entities is incomplete, he says, because the entity of superstructure has largely grown to encompass so much that it has lost meaning. For example, he gives the pianist/piano maker analogy, because the piano maker can be classified as “base” through their labor, but the pianist as “superstructure” because they are acting upon the base, a distinction between the status of their labor can be somehow made, which is absurd. In addition, Williams points out how the base/superstructure duality presumes that these entities are static and unchanging, while they shape each other, processes can somehow be bucketed into one or the other easily. It also ignores the temporal aspect, just as Marx argues against the overly reductionist understanding of “theory” and “activity”, examining conditions via the duality of base/superstructure presumes their existence as forces of nature, forgetting that forces can eventually shape mold themselves into this stable state. Many contemporary studies of Iraq, for example, presume the sectarian identities that exist today (Sunni/Shia/Kurd) have always existed, and begin their historical analysis from this perspective. Yet this is completely false, research of historical conditions within Iraq would tell you that these identities were not always as pronounced, and far more fluid than we would give them. Tribes who lived alongside borders would often change their identity depending on the local hegemon of the time and would find the current hardened identities to be absurd.

Williams also has the concept of “determination”, which seems to be a combination of the concepts about deterministic processes and reductionism. He describes determination as being aware of limits and setting of pressures, this seems to align with the idea that processes that always give you the same output given the same input are considered to be deterministic. Combined with his discussion about “overdetermination”, Williams seems to suggest that the base/superstructure abstraction is too leaky, things cannot be easily categorized as base or superstructure, and inputs into the base or superstructure do not guarantee the same results every time.

What does this tell us about agency as a concept? The 18th Brumaire (“men do not make their history willingly etc etc”) suggests that people operate similar to Galton boards (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo9Esp1yaC8). The Galton board demonstrates the normal distribution, one of the fundamental theorems of probability: random trials, repeated over and over, each with the same chance, eventually end up at the bell curve. To stretch this analogy, this is the overdetermination that Williams says, while we know that eventually, processes arrive at a stable state, each trial is messy and one can only operate on marginal probabilities.

Week 5

  • Agency and structuralism, and thucydides

  • This week’s readings attempted to bridge the gap between pure structuralist and dissolution of everything into separate identities. Sahlins sets out in Historical Metaphors to note the differences between transformation and reproduction, and states that both processes are maximally distinguishable during culture contact (68). Borrowing heavily from linguistic evolutionary theory, cultural contact is destructive, the introduction of foreign actors in a previously hermetic system forces the system to respond by either transforming itself or reproducing previous practices at a greater rate. The act of reproduction is not totally separated from transformation in this case, for reproduction is at stake if transformations are not taken. Sahlin’s departure from this orthodox evolutionist process is that he believes the process of transformation activates and occurs on preexisting fault lines. The Hawaiians who go supply the British even as their chiefs had announced an embargo are acting because the presence of the British has exasterbated the divine/profane/chief/villager lines, and the villagers took it upon themselves to act in their own self interest.

    The presence of self interest is something we’ve already seen with Leach, but curiously unidentified by Sahlin. The concept of Thucydide’s trap has been vivsected, dissected, and exhumed for autopsy many times over by endless academics and pundits, but Sahlin identifies that existing systems sometimes create environments for history to be made. Without leaning into the history of great men, Sahlin provides us with a framework to attribute individual (but limited) agency within powerful (but incapable of action alone) systems.

    This framework gives us the how, but not the why. Elian’s temporary American guardians were thrust into making history due to the countervailing winds of Cuban politics and Little Havanan politics, yet we do not have a good understanding for acting the way they did. Accepting that they had the agency to shape Elian’s fate, and by connection Cuban-American relations, why did they act to defy the US government? The answers here could range from “being interested in generating clout from the local community” to “true belief that Elian was Jesus and Castro was Satan” and all the gray inbetween. If we accept that there is at least a shred of self interest involved on the part of the Gonzalez family, possibly dominant within the range motiviations but not certainly dominant, a clear picture of transformation vs reproduction appears in the relief. Transformation, from the perspective of those not in power positions, require self interest to enact. Reproduction is the inversion, where self interest serves to continue reproduction for those in power. Elian, by serving as the point of cultural contact between Cuba and America, forced the maximal differentiation that Sahlin identifies.

Week 11

Reading Notes

  • Intro
    • Readings focus on how the subject is created, and what we can interrogate from that
    • How does the techniques of living (philosphy, Christanity, medical, etc) regulate life?
    • Dissolves all things at the alter of the construct of the self
  • What is enlightenment
    • Rejects the earlier framing of enlightenment as a good/bad thing that is anchored in presentism
    • Focuses on that the achievement of enlightement is based upon the achievement of reason beyond authority
    • But we actually need to know what authority is, and whether authority is easily distinguishable
  • Uses of pleasure - morality and the practice of the self
    • What is morality? refers to the real behavior of individuals in relation to the rules and values that are recommended to them, aka how they account and comply within limits that are recommended but not forced
    • Ultimately a study in transgression of boundaries, which rules can be broken, and how can they be broken?
    • How do we determine what is ethical? By relating your acts to what rules are considered moral
      • Ethnical nature also works in line with establishment of the subject, your relation to the rule creates a subject
      • “A moral actoin tends towards its own accomplishment” (pg 28), there is the implication
        • jaywalking laws and red lights
          • nyc jaywalking is geared towards the production of a certain “new yorker” identity
    • we summon particular acts to produce symbols to realize ourselves as ethical subjects

Reading Response

A sidebar I found useful within this greater argument is the role of symbols. Signs themselves are a technology wielded to produce truth (225), acting in concert with other technologies towards the ultimate goal of the creation of subjecthood. Focault himself does not devote more time to this idea, but I think it’s useful to consider the longevity of signs and symbols. Within the internation of morals and subjecthood that Focault describes, and signs act as the contested ground: subjects produce signs all the time, some of which end up becoming reified and anchoring morals, but morals, to be portable and communicable, must be compressed into signs. Signs are more than just verbal, they must evoke a gamut of emotions or risk becoming extinct. They must also be sufficiently malleable, a rigid sign risks falling out of discourse if the reinterpretation is too fixed. Like any good text, a powerful sign must contain contradictions within itself in order to have greater life.

This week’s readings focused on the composition of morality, and how subjecthood is defined in relationship with morality. Referring back to Kant’s “What is Enlightment” we read in week 1, Focault proceeds to break down the binary of good/bad categorization of Enlightment by attempting to focus on implicit morality contained within Kant’s definition. If a human achieves enlightment via the usage of reason beyond authority, we should question what forms of authority are natural and what are results. Kant’s definition builds in authority, but Focault complicates the answer by forcing us to inspect what authority is. Morality here plays a key role as well, because morality can be defined as more than the rote following of a rule, but rather a rule that produces “its own accomplishment” (28) towards building a self-reinforcing subject.

The evolutoinary pressure placed upon signs is therefore incredibly high. However, signs have another unique property which Focault does not describe, but Sahlins does: the reproduction of signs risks the transformation of meaning. Even more interesting, signs are composable: the combination of seemingly unrelated signs can end up creating a more powerful sign.

One example I can think of is the 1452 electrical poles between Najaf and Karbala. For Shia Muslims, the walk between Najaf and Karbala is considered a holy pilgrimage, loaded with semantic context. Years after the origination of the pilgrimage, the number 1452 has become an icon for the walk itself [1][2]. There are multiple layers of meaning at work here: electrical poles have next to zero “pure” religious value, and are ordinarily a mundane part of state infrastructure. Yet, held within this religious context, simple electrical poles become a religious sign, even a sign worth selling. An additional layer of semantics is added when we consider that, after 2003, electrical infrastructure in federal Iraq has been crippled, to the point where government electricity lasts 2-4 hours during the day, which force regular famlies to devote a significant part of their monthly budget to massively expensive generator power.

[1] https://www.instagram.com/p/CQGlBKfBF28/ [2] https://lakhanipilgrimage.com/page-walkers-guide-26

Week 12

Butler’s thesis that gender must be seen with its temporal element, as a construction that produces material, which is at first unstable but eventually stabilizes, through the usage of a zone of exclusion is a fascinating and recurring pattern. This mechanism of production can also be seen with the construction of citizenship. Modern liberal citizenship, which requires the explicit production of “non-citizens” provides a similar space. As Brubaker states, “They are excluded not becqause of what they are but because of what they are not-because they are not recognized or acknowledged as insiders…every modern state defines its citizens postively, in accordance with explicit, formally articulated criteria, and its noncitizens residually” (Brubaker, Citizenship as Social Closure 29).

In addition, Keller’s intervention that the subject cannot always be considered a conscious agent (119) is especially relevant here. Citizenship, like gender, is a process that produces unevenly at start, and is not purely performative. Requiring “bodies that fail to materialize”, as Butler states, the women possessed that Keller describes find themselves as “places”. The women’s bodies as a location where power fails to materialize, but the factory floor materializes the power of spirits provides a powerful analytic tool.

I believe state/waqf relations in contemporary Iraq can be seen in a similar way. Waqfs, at least in Islamic law studies, are one of the most contested terrains, to a point where even it failed to be settled by Sultanate decree in the Ottoman empire, and incorporated local usury practices [1]. The waqf exists as a location defined by exclusion of state regulatory practices. Post 2003, waqf regulatory practices were unstable and largely left the Najafi jurists on its own, but over time, a particular stable form has emerged, one where the waqfs are defined for what they are not, rather than for what they are [2].

[1] Mandaville, Jon E. “Usurious Piety: The Cash Waqf Controversy in the Ottoman Empire.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 10, no. 3 (1979): 289–308. http://www.jstor.org/stable/162140.

[2] https://doi.org/10.1017/jlr.2020.22

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