Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Foucault and the Debate Team

with 5 comments

A few weeks ago, Wiz jokingly blamed “all of the Left’s problems” on Michel Foucault, but he wasn’t sure that he could articulate why. I thought this piece in the New York Times about a New School University debate team using Foucault’s ideas to justify denying prisoners access to higher education (in a debate against actual prisoners) might help provide some reasons behind his hypothesis.

In a very amusing passage, the article explains:

“The New Schoolers could not quite bring themselves, as one of them, Santiago Posas, put it, to make some ‘Republican we-can’t-coddle-criminals argument.’ Instead, they went nuclear, debate-style, rejecting the education system altogether: Even if higher education in prisons is ethical, Mr. Posas argued, that premise ‘does not address the basis for true equality within our society that is structured by complex and hierarchal racist, classist and gendered norms that produce the prison-industrial complex.’

Why import into prisons the same flawed educational system that landed inmates there in the first place? The undergraduates spoke of ‘the dominant discourse’ and ‘hegemony’; there was talk of ‘the revolutionary praxis’ and, of course, Foucault.

There were also more than a few awkward pauses. ‘I was reading my speech about how to deal with the fact that education comes from the oppressors to the oppressed, using big words sometimes I myself don’t understand,’ Mr. Posas said later. ‘And I’m thinking: I’m the oppressor! I’m the oppressor here!'”

To be fair, Foucault himself actually did advocate for prison reform, and one of the inmates in the debate observed (probably accurately) that the students seemed to be misquoting him. Maybe Foucault isn’t responsible for the decline of the Left after all. Instead, blame the debate club (and the rise of neo-liberalism since the 1970s).


Written by Julian Nemeth

May 9, 2010 at 10:30

5 Responses

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  1. From Martha Nussbaum’s smackdown of Judith Butler:

    “Try teaching Foucault at a contemporary law school, as I have, and you will quickly find that subversion takes many forms, not all of them congenial to Butler and her allies. As a perceptive libertarian student said to me, Why can’t I use these ideas to resist the tax structure, or the antidiscrimination laws, or perhaps even to join the militias? Others, less fond of liberty, might engage in the subversive performances of making fun of feminist remarks in class, or ripping down the posters of the lesbian and gay law students’ association. These things happen. They are parodic and subversive. Why, then, aren’t they daring and good?”


    May 9, 2010 at 15:52

  2. oy–I’d been avoiding that article. I think Foucault’s critique of discourse or recognition of all-encompassing epistemology is the thing that gets criticized most often, when instead we might consider how to integrate it into current normatives. After all, he’s the one who makes us question why exactly we think the mad are mad, or the imprisoned deserving to be imprisoned (not to mention provokes us to consider the prisoner-subjectivity that gets created through imprisonment (recidivism, baby), which yes might be a reason not to bring higher education into prison if it really were just part of a fully integrated system–Foucault’s carceral– but I actually don’t think the purpose/discourse of our society’s higher education (to form critical thinking) is in line with that of the prison system (to drain it). Hence even in Foucault’s world, we could argue for the inclusion of higher education in the prison system in the interest of setting one subject-forming hegemonic system against another. But really that’s too theoretical and that middle sentence way too german for the basic point I’m trying to make.

    I do think there’s firm ground on which to criticize an overtly political Foucault, which is pretty much exemplified by this article and the New School kids’ awkward juxtapositions of ‘hegemonic prison-industrial complexes’ with the lives of individual inmates trying to work their way, in their own way, out of the system (and fuck the system). (The whole thing reminded me a little too much of an undergrad radical group I had the misfortune to attend, which used to hold “Sundae Revolutions” (Gramsci and ice cream! every Sunday!) Well, at least these kids seemed self aware. and good for them getting out of Manhattan) In any case, Foucault et al’s issue being that, in an immediate political context, they are sometimes a little too keen to speak for the people they are trying to save from the [name]-industrial complex without having first consulted what those people might be aiming for.


    May 12, 2010 at 23:13

  3. Great comment, but I’ll I’m going to say for now is that I can’t believe you’re not making up that story about “Sundae Revolutions.” Wow.


    May 13, 2010 at 22:49

  4. I’m not. Well, I may have re-imagined the name, but I swear that was the basic premise.


    May 14, 2010 at 22:55

  5. Hi! I’m actually the Santiago quoted in the article. I wanted to clear a couple things up. (I found this by googling my name, which I did for completely unrelated reasons. Long story.)

    1) Our argument wasn’t based on Foucault. It was based on Paulo Freire and on the concept of the schools to prisons pipeline (this style of debate (required us to separate our arguments into discreet concepts). The idea is that bringing in the same oppressive kind of higher education into the prison would not help anyone, that it would be better to restructure the high schools the prisoners are funneled in from, which is where Freire comes in.

    2) One of my teammates quoted (or at least alluded to) Foucault. It wasn’t a misquote. He said something like (if not exactly) “As Michel Foucault wrote, there are no machines of freedom.” The actual quote is, according to him at least “Men have dreamed of liberating machines. But there are no machines of freedom, by definition.” -Michel Foucault: Space, Power, Knowledge

    So, yah. I don’t know if that changes your mind any, but I thought it was relevant and had the time to spare (summer vacation and all!).


    June 2, 2010 at 15:21

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