it lives!

nik, matt, i'm sorry, i've gone home and thought about it, i've slept on it, but i refuse to believe in the "death of the social" (from: Economy and Society. August 1996 (25:3). pp. 327-356). your assertion that, under a pervasive system of neo-liberalism, the social has ceased to be a functional object (and thus subject), i feel is, if not completely false, let's say, to be kind, a gross exaggeration. nay, perhaps even an over-exaggeration. allow me to explain:

lets start with what i understand from you/agree with:

i accept that neo-liberalism, far beyond being a mere organization of the "economy" (in the narrow sense of the word), is an ideology and a structure of (can't avoid it) society as a whole. it pervades every aspect of our lives, creating us as subjects, as individuals, and most importantly, as citizens, which of course entails rights and responsibilities, in the proper old liberal sense. i understand that this "command to make live" implies that we must make ourselves live, that we understand that it is our responsibility to stay healthy, to manage our own finances, to raise our own children, to govern our own behavior. i completely agree that this then creates us as individuals, and thus makes the individual the privileged subject/object of power, in the sense that we know and accept that we must govern ourselves and that if we get poor and fat and our kids hate us and we end up in jail, its our own damn fault. yes, of course, "government" these days is more about how we can get ourselves to govern ourselves as individuals better. no, government doesn't force us to. yes, government does construct us so that we want to. and blablabla knowledge is power etc. yes, i get it.

ok, now that we've gotten that straight. besides not believing that any of that can't be found in Discipline and punish if you look hard enough, i don't believe that any of that implies the destruction of the social as a grand idea that we actively and occasionally (or constantly) inadvertently create and even act upon. the object of the state in its most raw form is to organize and manipulate (and yes, i know that this can be a positive thing, stop reminding me) society. it doesn't give a shit about what you or i do, we're simply numbers, blips on the radar, ripples in the pond, drops in the bucket, literally one of millions. see, just as statistics and the social sciences bring us to the forefront, it does the same for everyone else. they exalt us as the "one indivisible", and they debase us as "just another". we're constantly studied, analyzed, observed, and put back on the shelf, classified and put in our place. in both the taxonomic and the bitch-slap sense.

the point is, i guess, that power paradoxically is constantly creating what it destroys. or that these powers are constantly creating what they destroy. an example that you brought up, matt, was about how social (social! you said social! ha i win!) change actually comes about: by destroying, othering, excluding, rendering voiceless and unimportant, it creates communities of those to whom it has applied the labels, it energizes, it very, very literally tells people what they are and points them in the direction of other people that they should identify with and tells them to all sit together at lunch, and eventually the table's gonna fill up and they're gonna start taking spots at other peoples' tables, and eventually they're gonna catch on that there's no special reason that they have to all sit together, especially now that they're all sitting at a bunch of tables, and they're gonna start demanding to sit with everyone else just like everyone else. or something like that, that was a very long metaphor. so, where i was going...was that in creating these groups, these labels, this power actively creates the groups that will challenge its hegemony. it creates by destroying and is thus destroyed by creating. brilliant.

it acts slightly differently in creating/destroying community. neo-liberal power, and generally any power that could possibly fall under the rubric of "governmentality", is completely dependent on the existence of society for its own perpetuation. we've been going on in class for a couple of weeks now how suddenly there's this "innovation" that, instead of seeking to promote its own power, power justifies itself as being "for the good of everyone". which is measured precisely through reference to a "whole" (society) constituted by the "parts" (individuals). yes, the social is destroyed as the object upon which power acts so that it may be reconstituted as the sum and goal of the new objects of power.

moreover (and now i remember why i made that argument a paragraph ago), those who dream of a coherent society, who see individuals as being created by a society and not creating it (among whom i would assume foucault to be, of all people), by being excluded by the neo-liberal workings of governmentality, are not destroyed, are not made to disappear, they are forced together, energized, organized, motivated, inspired. anyone yelling about structural violence, the poverty trap, fuck, those applying critical theory in developmentalism, they call themselves postdevelopmentalists (sometimes), they're yelling exactly about this, that neo-liberalism's got the focus wrong, its working on the wrong level (or at least not working on all the right levels). there's a very strong push in postdevelopmentalism to "encourage" (and the terminology is already in a minefield) government involvement, promote government initiatives that, instead of "empowering" the individual to suffer the consequences of the global economy, seek to rectify the negative effects power on the individual through society-wide initiatives.

dude, like, wouldn't it be cool if we could all be nicer to each other?

so this is an email i wrote today to a friend who challenged me to come up with a way that i might apply what i've "learned" in critical theory (especially gender theory) to real life (other than the ability to use "scare quotes" all over the place--look, i did it again!). unfortunately, it is long and ultimately i came up with nothing at all concrete above and beyond "i guess i can try to be nicer to other people". so much for my first foray out of academia and into the real world. nevertheless, i really enjoyed writing it and wanted to share it with my imaginary audience. enjoy, my imaginary electronic friends!

[my friend], i've been thinking about what you were saying. i understand your frustration with so much of the talk about feminist/gender/critical theory. i know it gets tedious, depressing and a lot of time seems ultimately futile. but i've thought of a few things that i can and will endeavor to do that spring from my ideas on gender: (i don't mean to make this super-personal by always referring to i/you, but it seems easiest to take our relationship as an example)
  1. i can see you as an individual first, someone who is religious, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, passionate and eager to learn and understand. i don't know where seeing you as a woman or (doing my best at) understanding you through your experiences as such comes in, but i know that it will not be first, and possibly might not even be in the top five.
  2. as such, i will not make facile assumptions about your sexual preferences based upon your gender as you present it. i know that whether you wear a skirt or pants has nothing to do with whether you like to have sex with men, women, both, neither or another category altogether (that i must admit i have difficulty in imagining--but hey, i know that i'm a product of my (necessarily) limited cultural formation).
  3. because i refuse to accept the validity of any link between your (or anyone else's) anatomy and your sexual behavior, i will not recognize any combination of the two as "natural" or "normal", and thus will not judge. the creation of "sexual minorities" necessarily implies a cultural preference for those in the majority.
  4. moreover, i know that your sexual behavior is only one set of behaviors out of literally thousands that you go through everyday. there is nothing necessarily more telling about what gender you prefer for sex than, say, whether or not you floss, or if you prefer tea over coffee.
  5. if you choose to base your identity around your sexual preferences, your anatomy, your gender, etc., i will of course accept that as a valid form of self-expression and self-identification, and do my best to see you as you see yourself (though of course i will still see you as i see you, as a product of my own life experiences and understanding of the workings of the world--we are all products of our environments, and we perceive as such). i will not, however, accept it as necessarily any more or less valid than if you instead chose to base your self-expression and self-identification around your skin color, your language, where you were born/grew up, where your ancestors were born/grew up, your religion or your socioeconomic place in society (and anything else that i couldn't think of). i understand that throughout your life, hell, throughout your daily activities, you will express different identities with differing strengths based on different circumstances and situations. your identity is your own, and it is certainly a lot to ask that it remain static.
so, based on those five points (and probably others that i can't think of off the cuff), i hope to see you as an individual with varied, overlapping identities, among which are your sexual and gender identities. of course i will see you as a gendered and sexed individual, but i will do my best to keep those identities in context, and without making value judgments. i know that i can't ever see you exactly as you are, because through my upbringing i was taught to always associate certain signs with certain characteristics, but hopefully i will be able to recognize those instances and do my best to overcome them.

hopefully i can bring those ideas into my interactions with everyone, and, i hope, they will do the same for me. i know im reaching for the metaphor (and there are all sorts of problems with me evoking it now, from my specific place in history/society), but: i know the civil rights movement wasn't perfect, wasn't complete by any means, and it's certainly not over. but it was a start. it told us that hey, it's not ok to assume anything about a person based on the color of their skin. and even though we all still do it, it's a start, because hopefully now we can recognize that we do it. and slowly learn to stop doing it, over the course of generations. there are going to be setbacks and problems, this is by no means a linear progression from racist to race-less, and it will probably never get all the way there, but at least it's a goal to work towards. the same with gender.

the civil rights movement (and the preceding experience, especially in the south) also was a vivid example of the inherent inequality of separation. separate implies inequality. the same goes with gender.

gender studies (and critical theory, more broadly) seeks to understand how we very literally construct our reality. we assign names, values, normalcy, pathology and deviance to all sorts of behaviors, attributes and random little traits without even thinking it. you can't really be "ok" with homosexuality unless you think of it as completely "normal", and in order to do that you have to expand your definition of normal (and then on infinitely for every minor variation in the theme of human sexuality), or better yet, do away with your understanding of normal altogether. by defining, listing, ranking and grouping, we simplify the world so it is possible for us to understand it (which is probably completely necessary--i doubt that the human mind could make sense of anything without placing it into some sort of pattern). but in so doing, we also lose detail, and, more importantly (i think), we create hierarchies and power dynamics.

which of course is inevitable. the best we can do is seek to work within the system (which of course is a strange thing to say, since it's impossible to imagine anything that's truly outside of the system), putting our best understandings into practice, using our knowledge of power to get it closer to equal. i'm not an activist, i don't know how to get this message out to "the people". i'm not a politician, i don't know how to legislate this and thus give it the authority of law. i'm a student, the best i can do is understand, acquire knowledge and build upon it in new and creative ways. but i'm also an individual, and society is made up of millions of individuals like me: if individuals take these ideas up, so does society.

so that's about all i can tell you right now. i can take these ideas, apply them to my life and my interactions with others, and hope that in the future perhaps other people might as well. i know that that doesn't go much beyond some naive hope that "maybe we can all just get along?", but to be completely honest, that's the best i can come up with right now. we can also share our knowledge, our understandings and our experiences, and hopefully combine them in new ways to come up with the "next big thing" and put this stuff into practice in the larger society.