Friday, September 19, 2008

Why aren't you reading Foucault?

Anne and I presented our previously postponed research seminar today. It was lovely to have such an appreciative audience both here in Bundaberg and at other campuses.
Here is the title and abstract:

"Why aren't you reading Foucault?": Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk of Research Practice at a Regional University

Over the past two years, Anne Monsour and Wendy Davis at CQU Bundaberg have engaged in a number of collaborative and scholarly activities, including reading Foucault's Discipline and Punish. In this presentation, they will discuss the background and motivation for participating in such research based activities, the outcomes and results in terms of their own research practice, and why they believe it is important for such collaborative activities to be part of academic life at a regional university.

In response to Roger's comment I have expanded the post to adequately present the topics covered on the day.

  • Introduction and background to starting the Discipline and Punish reading group

When people follow Foucault, when they're fascinated by him, it's because they're doing something with him in their own work, in their own independent lives (Deleuze 1990, p. 86)

What we both thought was really important was that we read this so-called "theory" not just for theory's sake. It is interesting and valuable for the very reason that it can be applied in some way to real events and practices. For instance Anne found many resonances for her own work on the Australian-Lebanese migrant experience. I have used it in my writing on television.

Wendy: Over the past few years Anne and I began working together in CQUniversity's STEPS (Skills for Tertiary Preparation Studies) Program. With Anne teaching Language and Learning and myself teaching Tertiary Preparation Skills, we found ourselves talking regularly about work and other things. In particular, as we were both experiencing the PhD process we often found ourselves talking about research. This was combined with a recognition that as researchers we led rather sedentary lifestyles (well I did anyway!) and we began doing some exercise together - walking, and sometimes swimming, in the afternoons and on weekends. All these combined activities led to increasing collegial activity, exchange of ideas, reading each other's work and general conversation around the issues of our research. While we worked in different areas (Anne in history, myself in television/cultural studies) we had a common interest in the humanities, and soon realised the benefits that could be gained from formalising this research activity. The clincher came in late 2007 when Anne presented her work in a university research seminar, discussing the police and government surveillance of Lebanese migrants in early 20th century Queensland. Following this, I asked (as I had done a number of times previously) whether Anne had read any Foucault. It seemed to me that Foucault's historical practice, particularly in Discipline and Punish, which concerns itself with the exercise of power through mechanisms of surveillance and observation, was peculiarly resonant with Anne's empirical studies of the Australian-Lebanese experience.

Anne: Wendy and I were both researching and writing in relative isolation. We had that in common, but Wendy was a theorist and I was an empiricist. I had left university before postmodernism and poststructuralism so in terms of age and academic training, we were a different generation. Still, Wendy very kindly gave me feedback on a couple of papers and each time would make some comment about Foucault and his relevance to my work. Meanwhile, I increasingly felt that there was a whole way of thinking about and explaining the world that I appreciated yet couldn't quite grasp. When I listened, I could understand but I would struggle to explain the concepts in my own words. Finally I decided it was catch up time so the next time Wendy mentioned Foucault, I agreed to take the plunge and read whatever she recommended.

  • Our connections to Foucault (before beginning reading)

Wendy: My own connection to Foucault was as a theorist whose writing on technology and power I had drawn on throughout my PhD on television. In particular I had looked at the connection between his writing on resistance and power, and the writing of Deleuze and De Certeau on power and resistance as a way of understanding a particularly televisual mode of resistance - what I called "inhabited resistance" - a complicit and pragmatic mode of operating from within an operation of power. In other words, I was already something of a Foucault convert.

Anne: When Wendy suggested we read Discipline and Punish I was excited to be embarking on a new intellectual challenge but a little apprehensive that it would all be beyond me. After all, I had managed to get through several decades of life, study and research without Foucault. Still, I trusted Wendy, and Geoff Danaher's assurances that getting to know Foucault would make my life more complete and would particularly inform my research and writing. Moreover, I knew I was really fortunate to have Wendy going through the book with me, particularly because of her ability to explain difficult concepts clearly. (Wendy notes: Anne actually said this, she is being very kind!).

Specific Outcomes and Thoughts about the book

  • Foucault as historian

Deleuze also writes: History's certainly part of his method. But Foucault never became a historian. Foucault's a philosopher who invents a completely different relation to history than what you find in philosophers of history (1990, p. 94-95)

Wendy: What was interesting for me in reading Discipline and Punish with Anne (a historian) is that it highlighted Foucault's fairly idiosyncratic historical practice. Not being trained as a historian, but rather coming to Foucault through cultural studies, I had not considered whether Foucault's episodic, yet highly empirical historical practice was unusual. It was only in having the contrasting point of view reading alongside me that this was sharply brought into focus. So apart from the specifics of Foucault's method and what he achieved in the writing of Discipline and Punish, this made a broader point about the value of collaborative reading - particularly in terms of widening one's appreciation and understanding of particular works.

Anne: I was a complete novice when it came to Foucault. It wasn't that I had not heard of him. Indeed several years ago, someone had highly recommended him to me and even given me the three volumes of The History of Sexuality. But I had put them away...I was too busy to read Foucault. What changed? Well, Wendy's recommmendation of Discipline and Punish and her offer to read and discuss the book with me was a powerful incentive. So too was the feeling that there was a gap in my intellectual education that I could no longer afford to ignore. Thanks to the global economy, I obtained a copy of the book from and with highlighter in hand and some trepidation began. Well, I have to tell you the joke was on me. I was expecting to find this difficult, highly theoretical text and pleasantly surprised to find that Discipline and Punish was written in a dense but accessible and engaging style, and furthermore, I felt like I was reading history; not a traditional narrative, chronological history but an empirically based, original and perceptive history of the birth of the modern world. Most impressive is how Foucault takes micro details and pulls them together to create a macro perspective and even though Foucault is writing about the past, time and time again, it felt as though he was writing about the present! For me, the sections on discipline highlighted many techniques and ideas that are taken for granted in education and parenting (see p. 147, p. 149, p. 154, p. 159). I found reading Discipline and Punish transformative not so much because it introduced me to new information but because he introduced me to a new perspective, a new way of critically viewing the developments of the modern world.

  • The triple definition of writing

To write is to struggle and resist; to write is to become; to write is to draw a map: 'I am a cartographer' (Deleuze 1988, p. 44).

Wendy: Again it was in the practice of reading collaboratively that the idiosyncracices of Foucault's writing style and practice were really brought into sharp relief. This time through I was often particularly struck by Foucault's evocative and sometimes poetic turns of phrase (which shamefully I had totally missed the first time round). I decided it was a book that really requires reading more than once (as is the case with so much "theory"). Because of Foucault's writing style which is intuitive, it is difficult to read the book like a formal argument where the thesis is clearly and completely stated up front and then supported with evidence in a descriptive or narrative way. Rather, the thesis evolves through his engagement with the historical evidence. He states and restates, refining and adding more detail to his argument as he goes through. He investigates andmaps...modelling a style of critical thinking and engagement with the world as it was and as it is now. The quote by Deleuze perhaps crystallises just what this writing practice is all about. For it implies that writing is a creative and productive experience. Writing marks out a territory, a shape. Writing makes real an imaginative landscape. It translates ideas and produces something entirely new. Writing can also be immensely powerful. It can effect real change in the world in which it emerges.

Anne: This is definitely a book that requires more than one reading. The only point I want to add in terms of writing style is that it was often difficult to distinguish between Foucault's words and the primary sources he was quoting.

  • How reading informed our teaching and research practices

Wendy: Teaching in a skills based program for some years now, it was an interesting experience to return to focus on content. That is, it was rewarding to focus on understanding just what Foucault was trying to say, as well as how he might be saying it. For me, it reinforced the fact that we must be very careful to realise that skills in isolation are not sufficient. It is the combination of skill and content that should be encouraged at all levels of academic teaching and research.

Anne: The benefit of interactive learning gained through the reading group reminded me of its importance in teaching and learning but also in research and writing.

Wendy: I also quickly realised that it is of vital importance to regularly practice thinking and writing to maintain a skill level. This is what we emphasize to our students...but it is something we should be modelling in our own daily and weekly practice. Without any incentive to do this - such as collaborative activity - it is sometimes difficult to maintain one's own momentum.

Anne: Surely in a university environment it is important for students to see the practice of lifelong learning as modelled by academics. For example, Wendy and I often had our reading group discussions in the university library. It is helpful for students to see their "teachers" also reading, researching, writing and presenting.

Wendy: In terms of the writing style Foucault uses, both of us found ourselves questioning the intensity of the scaffolding we use with our students as a result. For if you go looking for topic sentences and clinching statements you aren't going to find them here. In other words, what the book reinforced fo us is that perhaps there is no one correct way to write.

Anne: Reading Discipline and Punish reminded me to think critically and the reading gorup gave me the chance to voice and to discuss these thoughts. SPecifically I was challenged to think about what we are actually doing as educators. It has reminded me to think about what we do within a wider perspective. Are we unconsciously and despite our best intentions creating "docile" bodies? Are we actually acting as instruments of surveillance and control? For example, performance evaluations can be viewed as panoptic practice. Tutors and lecturers evaluate and assess students, students, in turn, evaluate the performance of lecturers, tutors and lecturers regularly undergo performance evlauations via their supervisors and so on.

Wendy: As a result of returning to Foucault I have found myself writing a paper which incorporates some of the ideas I came across during the reading process.

Anne: Studying this book has given me a different framework to use in evaluting the results of my empirical research. Foucault's analysis of techniques of control have informed a paper I wrote for the Palma journal based on a presentation I did last year. These ideas and frameworkds are also contributing to the way I am thinking about the policies and practices of assimilation and multiculturalism.

Wendy: And a further outcome of reading together was that we have begun our own local history project. My Life/ Our Life: Conversations with the Women of Bundaberg. What is its connection to Foucault? Well, it is a local empirical study using oral history interviews and other forms of documentation, that seeks to construct a map of the lived experience for a variety of women living in the Bundaberg region. In other words, it is a small step in creating our own local archive.

Anne: And the idea grew as we were chatting over coffee one day! Something that really impressed me in Discipline and Punish was the way Foucault outlined the development of disicplinary techniques which were part of a "new technique for taking charge of the time of individual existences; for regulating the relations of time, bodies and forces; for assuring an accumulation of duration; and for turning to ever-increased profit or us of the movement of passing time' (p. 157). While I am sure we have gained much from the resulting pedagogical practice, which I could recognise as part of educational practices I have experienced and employed, let's not forget the value of practices that may not be able to be quantified and controlled but which stimulate thinking, the joy of learning and the generation of ideas. Put differently, indulging in collegial chit chat is a constructive rather than frivolous activity.



Anonymous said...

I read the above article and I think you should put the long version, it's so important. if not please send it to me personally i'd like to read it.

Wendy said...

Thanks for your interest in the work. What I will do is expand this post I think during next week