[xmca] Thoughtsnotools

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Thu Aug 30 2007 - 17:40:42 PDT

Here's one of the few Foucault quotes I like:
  “There can be no doubt that the existence of public tortures and executions were connected with something quite other than this internal orgnaization. Rusche and Kircheimer are right to see it as the effect of a system of production in which labour power, and therefore the human body, has neither the utility nor the commercial value that are conferred on them in an economy of an industrial type."

  Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison. (Translated by Alan Sheridan) New York: Random House.
  pp. 54-55.
  Now, if he had any Marxist or even materialist sense, Foucault would stop right there. Better yet, he could expand this into a very interesting discussion of why European imperialism abandoned its earlier model of genocide ("exterminate") for a model of slavery ("appropriate") and eventually a model of relatively "laissez faire" exploitation (India) and finally today's model of indirect exploitation (neocolonialism rather than, as it is popularly known, "postcolonialism").
  This would be a REALLY good example of the replacement of the power of violence by the power of knowledge, the creation of a network of power out of productive economies of scale, and (Foucault's favorite theme) the replacement of a technology of coercion with a science of persuasion. Instead, Foucault, being an incurable idealist, goes off into an insipid disquisition on mortality and Christianity! Listen:
  "Moreover, this ‘contempt’ for the body is certainly (???) related to a general attitude to death; and in such an attitude one can detect not only the values proper to Christianity but a demographic, in a sense biological, situation: the ravages of disease and hunger, the periodic massacres of the epidemics, the formidable child mortality rate, the precariousness of the bio-economic balances—all this made death familiar and gave rise to rituals intended to integrate it, to make it acceptable, and to give a meaning to its permanent aggression.”
  This has NO explanatory power; there was NO sense in which the ravages of disease and hunger, or the massacres of epidemics, or the high child mortality rate were a NEW phenomenon in the eighteenth century; quite the contrary. If anything, the ravages of disease and hunger were on the decline because of better drinking water, cotton underwear that was washed more often and greater productivity in agriculture, and child mortality had greatly decreased (compared to the middle ages).
  The thing that was REALLY new was the discovery that "we are not alone" on this planet, and that it is in fact full of "lesser breeds without the law" which can be exterminated, expropriated, enslaved, and eventually exploited for greater and greater profit.
  Now, why does Foucault make this sophomoric mistake? I think one reason is that Western academics have a VERY hard time coming to terms with what we might call the "Needham Problem" (because it was first raised by Joseph Needham): the great technologies that made "modern science" possible (printing, paper, navigation, etc.) were NOT made in Europe but rather in China.
  Since that is true, why did the THEORETICAL knowledge that made "modern science" possible (Galileo, Newton, Faraday, etc.) arise in the WEST? In other words, why did the TOOLS arise in China and the THOUGHTS arise in the West? Why did the Chinese invent gunpowder and then make fireworks instead of weapons of mass destruction, invent paper and make playing cards out of it instead of mass literacy, invent navigation and then conduct GIFT-GIVING missions to Africa instead of colonizing it?
  One answer is a rather unpleasant one for Westerners to think about: the violent uses of modern technology that were adopted in the West and that gave America and Europe the bully's advantage of getting in the first violent blow in a struggle for world playground domination, are not the "natural" uses of these inventions at all, and still less are they the most human ones; they are merely the uses that would occur to mean, lesser minds obsessed with dominating a world inhabited by people who were, for the most part, noticeably more noble and human than Western white people were and are.
  As a white immigrant to Asia, this is the explanation that naturally occurs to me on a day to day basis. Last night, for example, I received a knock on the door well after ten. Being a barbarian immigrant on the doorstep of a vastly superior civilization, I have a lot of cultural baggage; my imperfect command of Korean also inclines me towards suspicions of non-linguistic violence. So I slipped the police lock on the door and held a worried colloquy through a crack with a poorly dressed but powerful looking man in the darkened hall.
  But it was only the fruit seller from down the street. The project manager of a construction project on my block was worried about the noise he was making and had paid for everybody in the building to receive a crate of fresh grapes from his rural hometown. I was absent all day (and therefore did not even hear any noise) but the fruitseller did not simply pocket his profits or eat my grapes. Instead, he waited patiently for me to come home and then knocked on my door, though it was well passed his normal closing time.
  Of course, there is another explanation for Needham's problem, and when I am not thinking like a white immigrant to Asia, it is the one that I accept. It is Mike's explanation in "Psychology of Literacy" that tools are not thoughts; that technologies like literacy do not have cognitive benefits that stand head and shoulders above the contexts in which they emerge, that the meaningful uses of tools cannot far outstrip the material and social environments in which the tools arise and the challenges that those environments present. Westerners took Chinese tools and turned them to imperialistic ends because those ends corresponded to the perceived challenge that they found themselves in.
  For the same reasons, although we have the "tool" of modern medicine, and anti-bacterial drugs, and public health measures implicit in the scientific discoveries of Pasteur, the white plague which killed our beloved LSV (and also Volosinov) is on the rise again. The problem is simply that the tool Pasteur bequeathed us to vanquish tuberculosis is not enough (and in fact was largely not responsible for the decline in the disease in the first place).
  In order to conquer TB, we need a SOCIAL environment that recognizes poor housing, poor education, poor public health and the very gap between rich and poor as the true causes of the disease rather than a humble bacillus. But that requires more than a new tool; it requires a new mode of thinking. It requires, in other words, thoughtsnotools.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Thu Aug 30 17:53 PDT 2007

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