Friday, November 30, 2007

Is Tom Hicks Going to Sell?

The latest rumours are clear. Tom Hicks wants to sell his majority share in Liverpool F.C. He has provisionally set the price at 1 billion U.S. dollars--which city analysts describe as "ludicrous". Furthermore, the persistent Dubai Holdings, which got turned over by previous Chairman John Moores' greed for a few extra million, are in the picture again and look willing to make another offer. Rick Parry, senior Liverpool executive for the day-to-day running of the club, has declared that he knows nothing about Hicks having such a plan--but that doesn't mean much. The man himself has angrily denied the rumours, but there are substantial reasons to believe that Hicks might be glad to get rid of the Liverpool franchise just a few months after taking over.

First of all, Hicks is not a "soccer" man and knows little about the game. He does run successful American sports franchises and it was his friend George Gillet (apparently the two are not so friendly anymore!) who convinced him to get involved with Liverpool. Since then, the two American tycoons have seen the world credit market take a downturn and they have been struggling to finance the loan deal needed to pay for the new 76000 stadium. This is one thing. Another has been the very public row with Rafael Benitez the manager of Liverpool. It seems that as an American tycoon, Hicks is used to having his employees living in the shadow of the sack: "cross me and you're out" seems to be his philosophy--and no doubt the American felt it would be the same at Liverpool. However, there are many things Hicks didn't realise. First of all, Liverpool is traditionally a poor area of Britain that often tends towards the extreme side of socialism. Liverpool F.C. became world famous under Bill Shankly in the sixties on the basis of a combination of Liverpudlian and Glaswegian working class values. Shankly even changed the kit to all red in order to emphasise the point. Whatever happened in the rest of Britain, Liverpool F.C. would always be a bastion of working class pride. This tradition was continued by Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, Souness and Evans. No one is sure of Rafa's politics, but he has embraced the down-to-earth values of the club: these include a simple morality which says that every man should be given his chance. Not all supporters have loved Rafa's rotation policies and occasional fits of egotism, but in three and a bit years he has done OK, winning the Champions League, FA Cup and reaching another Champions League final. He has also done OK in the Premiership amassing a points total of 82 (a Liverpool record) just two years ago. In other words he definitely deserves to have the chance to complete his strategy at Anfield before being judged--and that still has three years to run. Hicks is the old fashioned boss of the type who is very willing to forget past successes after a few under par performances--and it was essentialy this, together with Rafa's insubordination over transfer plans, that led to the very public row between the two men (over which Hicks was said to be "incandescent" with rage). The Kop and Liverpool supporters, however, remember the successes and have vocally supported their manager in the stand-off. What can Hicks do? Sack Rafa and become the most hated man in the history of LFC? Also, could he get a better man to replace Rafa? (who remains one of the best coaches in the world). What would be the result of a downturn in results if Rafa left? Finally what would happen if the great Spanish players of the club--Torres, Alonso and Reina--all wanted out after Rafa's departure? Even Gerrard might go if he thought Liverpool were facing another long rebuilding exercise. Of course, all this would greatly devalue the club--which would also mean the devaluation of Hicks' financial assets. In the final analysis then, Hicks, as things stand at present, would be crazy to sack Rafa.

No doubt all these thoughts are going through Hicks' head right now--and it is quite possible that he has decided that the best solution is to prepare an exit strategy. If "knowledge is power" as the French philosopher Michel Foucault contended, then Hicks' lack of knowledge about football in general and Liverpool in particular, makes his position as owner peculiarly vulnerable. Let us hope that after thinking things over in a level headed fashion, he decides that the best thing to do is sell his shares to someone who has a greater passion for the traditions of the club (hopefully Dubai Holdings, that apparently is still interested in spite of being cheated by Moores first time round).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Foucault and Virtual Reality

Foucault died a long time before computers became a serious part of our everyday life, but I often ask myself what the great proponent of "knowledge=power" would have made of it all. We are all beginning to live "virtual" lives which are separate from our actual identities and, in some cases, even a substitute for them. It might reasonably be said that many of us have a "virtual identity" that seems just as real as our true everyday selves where we react bodily with people. More than this, we might also say that online identities have a certain indestructibility which our bodily selves are lacking: online friends don't get sick for example and exist not bodily, but somewhere "out there" in cyberspace. If online friends die, we are spared their dying throes; we simply find new virtual friends and forget the ones that don't appear any longer. Everything is sanitized and the unpleasantnesses of "bodyliness" where we need to excrete waste materials and fill our bellies with animal flesh is forgotten. In front of our computers we become something akin to the jelly like creatures that existed somewhere deep inside the mechanized Daleks in the Dr. Who series of the 1960s: hidden and superior.

I am really thinking and trying to develop ideas as I write this down. Perhaps Foucault would believe that online activity was depriving us of our ability to interact with other human beings. Maybe he would think that the whole world was effectively being manipulated and used by Microsoft and the other big computer companies like Apple and Intel. What, perhaps he would ask, is driving the search for ever faster computers and programs? I am sure he would dismiss the idea that this development was happening for the benefit of the individual or consumer. Undoubtedly, given his fascination with methods of surveillance, he would clearly understand the ways in which the Internet could give the state and other controlling organizations ever more subtle systems of observation and control. On the other hand, I'm sure Foucault would also see the potential "transgressivity" of computers and the way in which they, no doubt unintentionally, give power and knowledge to anyone who can surf the still largely unregulated Internet. No doubt a great struggle is just beginning for control of the knowledge and power given by the Internet and computers. At this stage, it is by no means clear who will eventually emerge as "guardians" of the "knowledge" that computers give. Everything is still in a profound state of flux: governments will fall, revolutions will take place, old methods of organizing power structures will be discarded and new ones be adopted. Censorship will grow and online access to some groups denied. The picture is hazy and too much in fluid motion, too much at the mercy of whim and design, to be at all predictable. One thing, however, is sure: everything is changing and we are living on the cusp of momentous new methods of directing power and of establishing irresistible systems of control over both actual and virtual bodies. On the other hand the knowledge that computers give seems to also include an unpredictable element that may equally enable discontents to acquire power and knowledge, turning it against the more traditional controlling elements in society.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Benitez Out?

As a long time supporter of Liverpool F.C., I'm very sorry to see the present mess between the manager and the owners playing itself out in the press. From what Rafa Benitez has said--and reading a bit between the lines--he could be sacked by his American bosses: and he may even want to be sacked (which would be a sad comment on how quickly events at Liverpool have spiralled downwards since the summer). Benitez is a top manager and can walk into another job without any problems. Could the present row be making him consider the possibility of cutting his losses, taking his contractually guaranteed six million pounds (in the event of a sacking) and making himself available as the next England manager?

Sadly, it's all gone pear shaped since the summer. At that time, the Americans thought they had Superman as their coach and splurged out on Torres. Given that they don't know much about the game, but know only too well what it means to win and lose, they will not have been impressed by Benitez's feeble European campaign which even now can only be rescued by two outstanding performances in the weeks ahead. If Liverpool crash out at this stage then twenty million pounds will be lost. In spite of this Rafa has been asking for money to strengthen his squad in January. No doubt the Americans think they are being reasonable in saying to him effectively: "We gave you what you wanted in the summer; now let's wait and see if you qualify for the next stage of the European tournament before we discuss spending more money". The problem is that Benitez is right in saying the Americans should think about the transfer window now and that by doing so they'll save money in the long run.

The water has been muddied further by the fact (as rumour has it) that the Americans are finding it difficult to raise the five hundred million pounds they need to build the new 76000 seater stadium they promised. The money will be a loan and the present world credit squeeze is giving them problems. If they get the loan, it will be at a far higher rate of interest than they had planned on and, indeed, might make taking the loan unviable without raising ticket sales or selling players. In other words, Benitez is asking for more transfer money just at the time of greatest uncertainty for the American tycoons. Benitez's request has revealed a major fault line in the Americans' financing plans and naturally they are furious with Benitez for embarrassing them at a tough time. For his part, Rafa Benitez had thought a new era was beginning at Liverpool with the American takeover: at last, as he thought, he'd be able to compete financially with Manchester United and Chelsea. However, that idea is now proving to have been a costly illusion.

The probability is that Benitez will leave. His remarks may have been untimey for his American bosses, but it is unlikely that such a highly respected coach will accept a public reprimand that makes it sound like he's on trial. Furthermore, I guess that RB is particularly incensed by the point he keeps repeating: that Hicks has told him Rick Parry is now in charge of buying and selling players. Apparently, before Bill Shankly came, the directors used to pick the team, but that was another age. There is no way a top coach in the modern world is going to accept not being in charge of transfers. In these, circumstances, it is unlikely that Benitez will continue at Liverpool for much longer without a major and humbling climb down by Hicks in particular (which I don't think is going to happen).

In many ways all these present problems are the result of Parry and Moore's bad decision to sell the club to two Americans who are famous for juggling money which isn't their own. The alternative was the fabulously wealthy Dubai Holdings which, in my opinion, would have given the club the money it needed, without recourse to giant debts and refinancing. Furthermore, they would have left the running of the club in the manager's hands. As things have turned out, Gillette never had enough capital and Hicks is only interested in using loan capital on the Liverpool project, which is not particularly high on his priority list.

Unfortunately, Liverpool F.C. look like being the losers as this messy internecine war plays itself out to its predictable conclusion.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thoughts on Marx

How many people completely swallow the ideas of a philosopher or thinker? I am a great admirer of many thinkers: Foucault, Wittgenstein, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Nietzsche, Saussure, Gramsci, Deleuze, Guattari, Sartre, Heidegger--and Marx himself. However, I don't accept the ideas of any of them as some "absolute truth". I value them insofar as they are able to help me struggle with intellectual problems I have in my life. What would it mean anyway to be a "Wittgenstinian" or a "Lacanian"? One takes certain insights from different thinkers and one is often grateful for their very diversity. The problem with Marx is a quasi religious one: he is the founder of a secular faith and it is considered bad form to use his ideas piece-meal--"accept these ideas as the truth or leave them alone" seems to be the message from both the left and right of the political spectrum. However, as we become more historically distanced from the horrors of Stalinism/Leninism and Maoism, perhaps it is easier to view what was stimulating in Marx. As a way of living together Marxist-communism has clearly failed and surely it is only a matter of time before China also abandons communism. In these circumstances, Marx can cease to be the new prophet of the apocalypse and become simply a 19th century social philosopher who sometimes had interesting ideas.

So what is still relevant in Marx today? Certainly not his idea of the historical dialectic: this cumbersome, quasi religious "deus ex macchina" has been discredited in a thousand different ways and is hardly worth referring to in serious terms: though it should be remembered that Engels "dumbed down" a lot of Marx's ideas after his death (including this one). Nevertheless, many of his ideas remain stimulating. For example, his view that most of what happens in the power structures of a society is hidden from view remains striking, as does his idea that those who hold power will do absolutely anything to hang onto it. Even his historical materialism, though wrong in itself, has helped us appreciate that ways of living in society are not static, but are always changing according to the economics of production. Marx also remains inspirational to those who seek a more egalitarian way for masses of people to live together in the technological age. His "discovery" of surplus value may have been spurious in the end, but it did bring attention to the fact that the less a capitalist paid his workers the higher his profits would be (and that it was therefore in his interests to keep wages down to around subsistence level). Indeed, perhaps we have Marx to thank for the ways in which capitalism adapted its procedures in the later industrial age to start giving a fair wage to the manual workers. At least in part, employers were responding to very real fears that Marx's prediction of working class revolution could actually take place. We might go on to say that our modern tendency to look for deeper structures in societal and governmental networks owes a lot to the work of Marx. Today we are all a lot more doubtful and cynical about the workings of government and society than people were even a hundred years ago. Finally, there has been the positive influence of Marx on so many modern thinkers. Gramsci immediately comes to mind whose concept of "hegemony" was developed directly from Marx's oblique comments on economic base and superstructure. Post WW2 French philosophers like Foucault, Deleuze, Sartre, Althusser and Derrida were clearly influenced by Marx's ideas--especially in their studies of "transgressive behaviour" and the deeper structures that lie behind a superficial surface discourse.

I hope that the age of Marxism is over and that now we can begin to appreciate the contribution to humanity of Marx the thinker.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


This is a truly delightful opera and, in many ways, despite its comic character, it is probably Donizetti's best work. The melodies are numerous and delicious to listen to, the story is simple but funny to follow--and the score is a joy to hear! (and probably also to perform). It is difficult to believe that this was Donizetti's penultimate opera and last "opera buffa". Just three years later he was living in a Paris asylum. Two years after that he was dead.

I had the chance to compare two performances of this opera at La Scala, Milan. The first was from 1994 and was conducted by Riccardo Muti. Muti is well known for often preferring faster tempi and his approach works well with "Don Pasquale". The orchestra is tight and well drilled in its performance and the very fast patter sections benefit from the quicker tempi (though they must be the devil to sing!) Ferruccio Furlanetto is a comic buffoon and all the characters are caricatures of a well known "Commedia dell'arte" type. The production really benefits from the minute attention given to realizing the comic differences between the characters and the performance crackles with an intense energy that circulates in the interstices between the interpretations of the four main characters. Nuccia Focile makes a beautiful Norina, though one is not sure whether she isn't too sweet to play such a cunning little vixen. Lucio Gallo is a fine comic actor and is very much at his ease playing Malatesta; the American tenor, Gregory Kunde, is in fine vocal and acting form as Ernesto. Apparently he discovered he had cancer in the same year as this performance (1994). Fortunately he recovered and is still one of the most sought after tenors of the present day. The costumes and sets in this 1994 production are sumptuous and the sheer colour, energy and opulence of the performance make it absolutely top notch.

The second portrayal is from 2002, again at La Scala. Apparently they dusted off the mothballs from the clothes, sets and props of the 1994 production, because they seem to be all the same right down to the plastic grapes! It has to be immediately said that the direction and comic acting in the 1994 production was of a far higher standard than in this 2002 "revival". Alessandro Corbelli is a fine singer and actor but his Don Pasquale just doesn't have the "joie de vivre" of Furlanetto's earlier portrayal. Roberto Di Candia is an embarrassing block of wood next to Lucio Gallo's frenetic interpretation of Malatesta in 1994 (even though Di Candia seems to be wearing Gallo's earlier outfit!). Gregory Kunde is a better actor and singer than Antonino Siragusa, so that leaves only Eva Mei's Norina to consider. I think Eva Mei is the star of this performance. She sings very well and her acting is excellent. Furthermore, it is easy enough to think of her playing naughty jokes on old men: Nuccia Focile just didn't have this in her (though Eva Mei certainly can't match the cute way Nuccia Focile goes cross eyed when hitting the highest notes!)

All in all, if you want to purchase a DVD of this opera go for the 1994 Riccardo Muti production: it's excellent and a lot better than most other performances on the market!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Conspiracy Theorists

As we all know Americans love conspiracy theories. Indeed, they are fascinating to everyone because they confront commonly accepted truths and ask us to consider if we can really be sure that things happened in precisely the way we think they happened. This is always an interesting and appealing project as we are asked to consider the possibility that a small group of people--of which we could be a part--is smarter than everybody else.

Perhaps we should consider first the differences between a healthy suspicion of what we are told by those in authority and conspiracy theories. I would say that I am not going to believe much by Bush and his cohorts concerning the details and interpretation of what happened on 9/11. Everything has clearly been doctored to clear the President and his close colleagues of any blame in the matter. Furthermore, the attack on Iraq was clearly unjustified and this administration twisted what happened on 9/11 to suit their long term strategic aims. In other words, there was a wholly unexpected event that took everybody by surprise and then different groups began to use what had happened for their own purposes. However, the event did take place--just as man did land on the moon and the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor (two other well known events that have been reinterpreted by conspiracy theorists). Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the central event itself in a discourse (using "discourse" in its widest sense to mean an interrelated set of happenings) never happened or happened in a way that is completely different to the way we perceive it having happened. The problem is that in the hours and days after the occurrence of a global catastrophe, everybody has the chance to look at and study what has happened: to talk with the survivors and sift through the evidence (in the case of 9/11). The world is in shock and thousands of views are expressed about the central event. Films are made, photographs taken, experts consulted, emergency services mobilized, articles and books written as the wounded and the empowered try to come to an understanding of what has happened. It is certainly interesting that conspiracy theories usually emerge only later, after the initial shock has worn off, so to speak. An event like 9/11 is as near to a completely naked event as can be realized in the modern world. It happened with thousands of people watching. Friends died together, preferring to jump from the building than face the flames inside: firemen lost their lives battling to save the people trapped in the building. Moreover, everything was watched minutely by millions of people on TV. The idea of such an event being planned by people within the administration really beggars belief. What a can of worms would have been opened! These people would know that the whole world would be watching their own rescue teams die trying to save the people inside the building. Furthermore, the event would be destabilizing in all sorts of political and financial ways. Certainly before the event, one might have thought that such an occurrence would cause a greater financial crisis on the stock exchange. Less traumatic events have led to world wars (think of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that led to the outbreak of WW1). Politicians are mostly conservative in their actions unless they openly support confrontationist policies (like Hitler): the grey suits don't take chances on big events that may have unknown consequences.

If the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 are unlikely (and I haven't actually gone into the individual theories, as when one wishes to believe something, the mind is wired to make connections) why do they abound so abundantly? Some critics say that conspiracism has been common throughout history after a traumatic event when mythologisation inevitably takes place. Thomas W. Eagar, an engineering professor at MIT, suggested conspiracists "use the 'reverse scientific method". They determine what happened, throw out all the data that doesn't fit their conclusion, and then hail their findings as the only possible conclusion." Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American, said: "The mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking (as well as Holocaust denial and the various crank theories of physics). All the "evidence" for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under the rubric of this fallacy. Such notions are easily refuted by noting that scientific theories are not built on single facts alone but on a convergence of evidence assembled from multiple lines of inquiry." "We tend to associate major events — a President or princess dying — with major causes," says Patrick Leman, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, who has conducted studies on conspiracy belief. "If we think big events like a President being assassinated can happen at the hands of a minor individual, that points to the unpredictability and randomness of life and unsettles us. In that sense, the idea that there is a malevolent controlling force orchestrating global events is, in a perverse way, comforting."

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Evolution of Man

Thanks for your interesting email Mark. As I have never been a great believer in "innate whatevers" my enthusiam about Fetzer's counter claims are correspondingly lukewarm. Actually I often think about the differences between our own minds and those of domesticated animals: the latter are quite smart in some ways, but are often totally incapable of putting 2 and 2 together. The past hypothesis that makes sense to me is the one put forward by most evolutionary biologists. Man lived in the trees at a time when Africa was full of tropical forest. Due to climate change, the trees started to disappear and the ancestor of man had to find a way to get across desert regions to the next oasis--and the best way of doing this was walking upright. Of course this was a desperation measure of survival and for a long time man became an easy prey of big cats and other animals (interestingly, lions still suffer from a pancreatic disorder which was apparently caused by a lion eating a human in the distant past!). However, this desperation measure also led to making man far more resourceful than the other creatures and he began to protect himself using weapons constructed from wood and stone: a stupendous leap forward as regards the other animals. In the process the hands also developed dexterity--and of course with our subtle hands we can do things no other animal is capable of. Eventually fire was controlled and a creature that had been easy meat, suddenly became king of the beasts. I am sure that during this long and desperate process of crisis evolution the brain also had to develop subtlety in order to use the hands and make the tools and generally avoid extinction. Eventually the process of survival was too great and complex to survive without simple language. My suspicion is that communicable languages began from a very early date--though not in the complex forms which exists now. In the early days, no doubt man communicated with different types of grunt, eye contact, body language, etc. Over a long period simple but effective methods of communication emerged and developed into languages.

I am aware that Fetzer might not disagree with much of this, but he is concerned with a polemical exercise to prove Chomsky wrong. Personally I never really invested in Chomsky's kind of idealism in the first place, so I feel no urge to defend my views against his. While there is clearly a lot of hocus pocus in his views, he may be right in thinking that a cognitive approach to language learning is often better than behaviourist techniques.

I would agree with what you say about the human brain. For me, the great problem with Freudian and even Lacanian psycho-analysis is the idealistic--not to say simplistic--view of the human brain. Freud is essentially an idealist in that he postulates a structure of the brain without anatomical study. Why should anyone believe that the brain is divided into 3 parts: pre-consciousness, consciousness, and the unconscious? This is an idealistic concept that avoids the question of the anatomical structure of the brain. I also tend to believe that most of his work on dreams is, in essence, a kind of literary criticism rather than being scientifically valid.

Conspiracy theories are interesting and, sometimes, even true as well. However one also has to defend against becoming a serial conspiracist seeing cover ups and green visitors from other planets everywhere!

At present I'm reading Foucault on Greek tragedy. Fascinating!

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Unreliability of History

It is a truism to state that most of human history has not been written down--and that which has been has ordinarily been falsified, exaggerated, distorted and simplified for a variety of non historical purposes. Michel Foucault demonstrated how history up until the Enlightenment was basically monarchical, seeing everything in simple linear terms; the monarch was the ruling power and historians wrote with the intention of glorifying him. After the Enlightenment, Foucault suggests, our more modern concern with underlying trends appeared. However, according to Foucault, this was with the intention of empowering the aristocracy who had been sidelined by the church and the King. The aim of exposing this hidden history was to show the way in which, since the Frankish conquest, the Gaulish aristocrats had entered into the church, acquired knowledge of Latin and Roman law and become advisers to the King. This had led to the decline of the traditional French aristocracy and the point of this new history was to call upon the First Estate to reclaim its birthright.

Today we have leftist history, rightist history, the history of the conquered and of the conquerors. We have Marxist history, bourgeois history and revisionist history. There is also the history of origins. According to this, everything has its starting point in a clear and well defined moment. For example there is the moment when spoken language first appeared and the moment when the first language was set down in written form. Most historians believe that Sumerian cuneiform was the first written language, but new discoveries in the Balkans cast serious doubt on this. The Vinca culture was Europe's biggest prehistoric civilization and 4000 years before the CE it had achieved high levels of sophistication in various areas including metalwork, pottery and urban planning. It seems the women were even highly fashion conscious and wore something akin to the modern mini skirt! Most interesting of all, a kind of proto-language appears on more than 1000 artifacts discovered (an example of which can be seen in the picture above). Was this a fully developed written language in every day use around 2000 years before the written script in Sumeria? (which bears no similarity to the Vinca script). Experts are in disagreement about this: some say, the Vinca script is no more than a primitive symbolic script, others are more ready to argue for the script's status as a language. In any case, it is certain that the vested interests of academia do not change long cherished ideas easily, so if the Vinca script should prove to be an early language, the proponents of this idea will have their work cut out to prove it.

Finally, the essential point is not whether the Vinca script predates the Sumerian one. Rather, it is to ask ourselves how many of the arbitrary points in time that we learn in history really represents "an origin". The human mind likes to think in easily manageable time periods and events. Long millennia, when change happened imperceptibly isn't exciting or sexy enough for the historical taste. However, it is likely enough that this is the way that things really happened.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Most modern philosophers seem to agree that there is no direct relationship between the Saussurean "signifier" and "signified". First, there is a sound (word or signifier) that, in the mind of the subject, connects with the object or idea "signified". It is a mental process of signification then that in no way connects with the logic of the real world. This was a conclusion reached by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the latter part of his life. His "Philosophical Investigations" proposed the idea of multiple logics the rules of which were often mutually exclusive. Wittgenstein gives the famous example of the boy who goes to the shop with a note from his mother; on the note is written: "Six red apples". First, the shopkeeper opens the drawer marked "apples", then he consults a colour chart and finally he counts six. The point of the story is to demonstrate that there are three different kinds of logic even to a simple statement like this. The French philosopher Michael Foucault also speaks of "multiple subjectivities" in his work echoing the German philosopher Niezsche. For Foucault, knowledge is fragmentary and often more significant in its omissions and contradictions than its affirmative statements. In this context, he developed the idea of multiple discourses each with its own rules and truth foundation. Internally each discourse is logical, but this logic disappears when confronted with the logic of another discourse. The ideas of both Wittgenstein and Foucault tend to lead in the direction of a moral and linguistic relativism: one can be logical only within the limits of one's own discourse.

This leads me on to my theme of what I call modern "metalanguages". It is amazing how many fields operate their own special language within which a particular logic is utilised; outsiders who don't understand the particular language and logic employed will probably find the field unintelligible (nor will they easily be understood). Marxism would be one obvious example of a metalanguage: everything is seen from the perspective of sopme key principles that animate all linguistic content. Key words in the discourse might be: exploitation, class struggle, dialectic, capitalism, etc. Another discourse would be Catholicism where key concepts such as: resurrection, after life, hell, damnation and prayer will permeate every discourse. Of course these are two obvious and easy discourses, but every academic discipline also has its metalanguage. These days, it is difficult to talk of literature, for example, without reference to postcolonialism, contact zones, structuralist and poststructuralist ideas, deconstructionism, semiotics, etc. Furthermore, most scientific discourses possess their own metalanguages which are often indecipherable to outsiders and sometimes interenally contradictory (for example there is the current debate concerning macro and micro physics).

Perhaps the eventual outcome of this process of "discorsification" will be to set people more at odds with each other than ever before: everybody is right within the confines of his/her own discourse or metalanguage and there is no absolute authority that is going to back up any of them. On the other hand, it's just possible that, given the right perspective, people could become more tolerant of the other's point of view knowing that truth is not absolute but a construct of interactive discourse.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Foucault is endlessly fascinating in his elliptical and paradoxical conclusions. I have been reading his lectures at the College De France from 1976 which dealt mostly with the theme of war as the determining factor in civil society. In a nutshell, the dynamics of power in a state are determined by the results of the last war it fought in. Fascinating as this idea is, I was taken by another point in one of the lectures. Foucault tells us that since the 19th century the state has practiced a kind of bio-control with its plethora of statistics and information about life expectancy, population growth and medical treatment of illness. Foucault makes the point that before the 19th century death was seen as an occasion for a great ceremony that symbolically marked the transition from earthly to heavenly dominion. However, since the onset of bio-control death has been hidden away as the secret that cannot speak its name. In fact, Foucault makes the point that death has replaced sex as the taboo subject in modern society. The reason, for this, according to Foucault, is that death represents something that bio-control doesn't want to admit to: the limits of its own power. Death is precisely the moment when the individual is finally able to escape from the all encompassing power of the bio-state. The individual, upon his/her death retreats into a region where the bio-state no longer has dominion and, for this reason, it faces bureaucracy with the reality of its own inevitable failure.

Now this is all very interesting, but it occurred to me that it might be possible to give an extra Foucauldian twist to this idea. Is the call for the abolition of the death penalty no more than an attempt by the bio-state to maintain its power over criminals for a little longer? Surely, to immediately send them off to a place where the bio-state can no longer touch them, no longer control them, doesn't seem like a punishment at all. Why not keep them alive and in suffering instead?

An appropriately Foucauldian--if somewhat Mephistophelian--thought!