Re: foucault on slavery and politics --Psych/physical tools?

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Tue Mar 22 2005 - 20:09:26 PST

This is an interesting discussion thread, though I've missed a few early
postings related to it because of a peculiarity of my email downloads (some
go to one computer, some to all of them).

A thought that has stayed with me for many years, and I think is relevant
here, is that culture is not just about reproduction, though clearly
cultures persist because they can and do colonize across generations. But
to be sustainable, a culture has to manage too not ossify too much, not
become too rigid and so remain labile to adapt to changing circumstances
(internal and external). I tend to frame this in terms of a more complete
eco-social-cultural system, not just the Ideal elements but the material
ones as well, tightly interlinked, but a fortiori, they apply to cultural

So the thesis is that cultural systems, consisting of many interdependent
themes, ideologies, practices, classification systems, norms and values,
etc. are not sustainable and do not persist over relatively long timescales
(say centuries, multiple generations across historical change in other
elements) unless they have a way to fend off their own ossification. It is
the notion of neoteny applied to social systems.

And how might they do this? I have thought over the years of a number of
strategies, and I think all of them occur. One that fits very well with
dialectical views of historical change is that cultural systems incorporate
contradictions. Not as a matter of accident, but as a matter of cultural
evolution toward greater sustainability over longer timescales. The
contradictions, or at least some of them, are not flaws in the cultural
matrix, but adaptive features of it. They are also, perhaps, not always by
necessity (as classical dialectic has it), but perhaps by design (i.e. they
satisfy functional constraints rather than purely formal ones).

Another is that there are always gaps, missing bits where you might expect
to find that the culture has an opinion on something, or a norm or
practice, but it doesn't. These are hard to see from inside, but visible to
comparative perspectives. I think here, for example, of political
ideologies and philosophies. They don't really have an opinion on new
issues until they generate one, and what they generate could easily be
otherwise. I often think that liberals and conservatives, right and left,
could easily have traded positions on many issues historically (and in some
cases have). They are expanding into gaps or open territory, which allows
them to be opportunistic, to take the position which is politically
advantageous to them at the moment.

Leaving it at that for now, I think that cultures evolve not just by
generational rebellion (though that is another mechanism, as a special case
of conflicting perspectives within a society that has special leverage on
history), but by the playing out and opportunistic exploitation of their
built-in reserves of plasticity ... and this may perhaps explain why plus
ca change, plus c'est le meme chose ...


At 09:30 PM 3/22/2005, you wrote:
>Mike- looking over my mesaage I probably should have been more specific-
>with the l.a. stuff I was thinking more of 2-4 year olds. Then I would
>just redirect to my last q's, and connect with what you seem to be saying-
>i.e., that breaking away is not just about adolescence (though it was the
>first thing I thought of).
>Going back at Iraj's post- I think also of some of the kids in the K-12
>charter school I used to work for in Ohio. As an online public school, it
>is an interesting example of rebelliousness against local school districts
>that in turn attracts rebellious parents and/or kids that want something
>different and in some cases, better. A 5th grader attending a public
>online school deprives the local district of its $5000 allotment, and
>sends a message that either the kid, the parent or both are perfectly
>happy with rejecting the accepted mode of schooling. Parents are still in
>charge up to a certain age, and thus the decision makers about where their
>kids go to school, but I think once in the online environment, perhaps
>kids these days are in their element, and enjoy a kind of freedom and
>power from parents and adults because of their superior techno-fluency.
>Mike Cole wrote:
>>The analogy to language acquisition is probably not accidental, although
>>I would
>>not restrict it to adolescence. In the work on Nicaraguan sign
>>language, there is firm evidence that in order to progress beyond home
>>sign, kids need to be brought together and if they are, each succeding
>>"generation" (in quotes because it can be new kids coming into the
>>school where deaf kids have been gathered) it is the young kids who
>>take the complexity of the language beyond home sign to a pidgen to a
>>creole and (I am pretty certain, if the right social circumstances
>>prevail) to a fully developed sign language like asl.
>>On Tue, 22 Mar 2005 17:33:41 -0500, Andrew Babson <> wrote:
>>>When I think of breaking away, I think of adolescence. I suppose two
>>>questions are when does this process begin, and what constitutes a clean
>>>A couple of things come to mind. First, the phrase "must be enculturated"
>>>conjures an image of kids being fed culture by some discrete and knowable
>>>agent. I know it doesn't sound useful to say "culture's in the air"- but I
>>>think avoiding a reference to specific culturizing agents is important.
>>>Sperber et al.'s research on how our brains are wired to do certain things
>>>with the cultural information we're exposed to is meant to specify how
>>>universal and relative cultural similarities and differences happen. The
>>>analogue to this is lanaguge development, in that kids learn languages-
>>>acquire lexicons, grammars phonologies, etc.- and correct their own mistakes
>>>without much help from those around them. So, enculturation happens. But
>>>though it will happen, like language acquisition, whether we like it or not,
>>>the extent of the exact roles of species-wide traits, personal genetic
>>>makeup and environmental factors are still unknown.
>>>The second thing that comes to mind is the usefulness of rituals. Van
>>>Gennep's model of the rite of passage- separation, liminality and
>>>reintegration- was explored by Victor Turner, who discussed the feelings of
>>>otherness and togetherness of initiation groups. There is a connection to
>>>Levi-Strauss's bricolage here, too, in that rituals might bea kind of
>>>"tidying up" of the loose ends of experiences. Rituals put a boundary to
>>>things, make the inchoate whole, give meaning to meaningless experiences-
>>>irnoically through acts which in themselves have no social meaning outside
>>>the ritual context (e.g. dance around in a circle, clap three times, etc.).
>>>So, the breaking away is facilitated in some way by the initiation ritual.
>>>Perhaps this is why people look the other way when college teenagers do
>>>"power hours" or the Skull and Bones rituals are guarded so secretly-
>>>rituals are gleanings of meaning that solidify life transitions and breaking
>>>away. But I'd like to know what other people think- what about breaks that
>>>are less clean, that take place less drastically and/or less systematically?

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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