Sunday, August 04, 2013


Figure 1: Paul Krugman And Bill O'Reilly Talk To Tim Russert

"My problem was ... to pose the question, 'How is it that at certain moments and in certain orders of knowledge, there are these sudden take-offs, these hastenings of evolution, these transformations which fail to correspond to the calm, continuist image that is normally accredited?' But the important thing here is not that such changes can be rapid and extensive or, rather, it is that this extent and rapidity are only the sign of something else - a modification in the rules of formation of statements which are accepted as scientifically true. Thus, it is not a change of content (refutation of old errors, recovery of old truths), nor is it a change of theoretical form (renewal of a paradigm, modification of systematic ensembles). It is a question of what governs statements, and the way in which they govern each other so as to constitute a set of propositions that are scientifically acceptable and, hence, capable of being verified or falsified by scientific procedures. In short, there is a problem of the regime, the politics of the scientific statement. At this level, it's not so much a matter of knowing what external power imposes itself on science as of what effects of power circulate among scientific statements, what constitutes, as it were, their internal regime of power, and how and why at certain moments that regime undergoes a global modification.

It was these different regimes that I tried to identify in The Order of Things, all the while making it clear that I wasn't trying for the moment to explain them, and that it would be necessary to try to do this in a subsequent work. But what was lacking here was the problem of the 'discursive regime', of the effects of power peculiar to the play of statements. I confused this too much with systematicity, theoretical form, or something like a paradigm. This same central problem of power, which at that time I had not yet properly isolated, emerges in two very different aspects at the point of junction of Madness and Civilization and The Order of Things." -- Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power", reprinted in The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature, The New Press (2006), pp. 144-145.

I do not know that I understand Michel Foucault, and I have not read much that he wrote towards the end of his life. I had thought Foucault's discursive formations were to be grouped with Thomas Kuhn's paradigms and Imre Lakatos's scientific research program. To me, economics is like medicine, psychiatry, and penology. It fits in well with the disciplines that Foucault analyses. Superficially, the epistemic status of these disciplines is more questionable than a hard science. And they have been used to help nation states categorize, partition, and rule their subjects since, say, the eighteenth century. But I want to drop talk of science for now. I look at a concrete example to help me understand what Foucault might mean when he talks about government, power, the political economy of the sign, a discursive regime, and politics. Doubtless, I will miss many, many nuances here.

You can see many commentators and supposed experts in the media, although, for many, I am none too clear in what area they are expert. (I have in mind such people as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and even Wolf Blitzer and Thomas Friedman.) Many write best-selling books. A book store will classify them, when they come out, in a section labeled "current events". I suppose libraries will put them somewhere in social sciences. People with the sort of media presence I have in mind can be said to benefit from a sort of power for their statements. From an analytical point of view, you might know a drunk at the end of your local bar who is more worth listening to. Yet these commentators react to one another, take each other seriously, and end up having effects on laws that are passed. At least one kind of power circulates among their statements, a power that is not easily available to those taking their own way at your local.

Foucault also writes about power being productive, not solely a matter of prohibitions. How does the above clip illustrate this theme? Those who have power circulating their statements can sometimes dismiss others as living in a "fantasy world". But I think the power we see in right wing commentators in America extends to individuals in communities across the country. You can find many who think they keep informed by watching TV news. And they will have conversations with one another, maybe conversations that you could not participate in without being seen as rude, dismissive, and condescending. Some of these people might even participate in governing your community by participating in, say, the school board, the city council, or state government. Within such groups, you might find an intellectual who has read, for example, Hayek's Road to Serfdom on Glenn Beck's recommendation. So this power I am vaguely pointing at helps form local communities, as well as national discourse.

I consider Krugman to be at a different level of seriousness than the other two people in the above clip. Still these questions arise for him. What power gets his statements listened to and to circulate widely? It would be a mistake to classify his statements solely as part of the academic discipline of economics. For example, his newspaper columns about the Iraq war do not have much to do with economics. And a regime in which he occupies the acceptable left wing of the public face of economics seems quite limiting to me. When Krugman debates Keen through their blogs, it seems clear who is doing the other more of a favor to acknowledge the existence of the other's work, whatever you make think of the outcome of that debate.

I trust that one can see that in merely acknowledging the existence of political power that allows Krugman's statements to circulate, I am not thereby criticizing their content or what Krugman does with this non-personal power. In fact, I think Krugman has quite often acknowledged the power of his platforms and talked about how that influences his topics. As far as I know, he does not read Foucault. (Has not Brad DeLong written a bit on Foucault?) I am not sure what Krugman has said about his willingness to participate in the sort of hurlyburly babble seen in the above clip, other than that he sometimes has a book to promote. I suppose the bit where he leans back and rolls his eyes at the ceiling is comment enough on his particular antagonist there. I think Krugman would even be receptive to claims about the lack of agency of the author. He is rarely as forthright as in the above clip about calling a lie, "a lie". And he knows that his conventions do not allow him to comment on nonsense spouted by his fellow columnists, except very elliptically.

By the way, the video clip above is not directly from a major network. Apparently, it was put on YouTube with annotations added by Jim Gilliam. And, of course, I do not claim the power of those you might see babbling on your television.


Unknown said...

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Unlearningecon said...

I agree with the spam commenter, although I am suspect far more sincere than them.

Have you watched the Chomsky-Foucault debate, Robert?

Semi-relatedly, what would you classify your political views as? When I first started reading I'd have had you down as a social democrat, but it appears to me that you have some strong anti-capitalist sentiments.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,
just a few thoughts on the terminology used by Foucault and Kuhn whom I read a very long time ago.
I think the concept of discursive formation is broader than Kuhn's paradigm (which I think is closer to Foucault's episteme), the difference being that Foucault, as a historian of ideas, needed a concept to allow him to talk about disciplines over a much larger timeframe than, say, Kuhn and in various twisted forms. When you adopt a longish perspective, you run into a major problem: what are the actual defining criteria of a discourse (discipline), that is how do you delineate the borders of, say, biology over five centuries? Note that it is far from clear whether, say, medieval accounts of fantastic animals should be regarded as a precursor to modern biology, or not (as you note in the qoute: they do not share the same form nor the same content).
Note also that tracking the development of a discourse over time can hardly be done by simply looking, chronologically, at competing pardigms within a discipline, as, historically, a discipline may emerge as a combination of previousely totally disconnected discourses.
I'll stop my gibberish here.

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comment. I've watched a little of that debate on YouTube. The book I reference has a transcript of the debate.

Where I live in upstate New York, the distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism is purely academic. (It might not be in Ithica, NY.) I think that generally capitalism does not deliver the goods to most without sustained, continuous, institutionalized agitation from below.

I am skeptical of blueprints for societies. I follow Popper in thinking it is better to try to ameliorate what we have now. I see the worth, though, of a general direction for guidance.

I have thought of posting something on political philosophy, but I find myself none too clear.

Robert Vienneau said...

I had not thought of it in such long time frames. But I did understand from Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge that he questions the grouping of documents.

In terms of my example, does it aid understanding to group Krugman's journal articles, textbooks, newspaper columns, tv appearances, and his scene in the movie Get Me To The Greek as all part of a single body of work?

Anonymous said...

"Does it aid understanding to group Krugman's appearances into single body of work?"
Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the movie itself, but I would think that the very fact that some director has thought it fit to include Krugman in a movie basically tells us that Krugman is something of an icon, which could provide, at least in part, an answer to your question concerning his power / ability to get listened to.
People must know you, so any appearance (unless you mess up really bad) should help you politically (make you more visible and therefore worth considering listening to; today, it seems, it is mostly journalists who decide what is worth talking about).
Of course it does not explain how Krugman came to be a well-known person, which I think is something historical analysis could, in principle, do.
But as you say in your article, the fact that Krugman is a household name certainly does have an impact on what and how he writes, so one type of discourse he is involved in clearly has an impact on the other. In my opinion the very fact that Krugman takes into account other blogs, even those of heterodox economists, is a non trivial factor, (and great publicity for these heterodox economists).
In this vein, what do you think of his recent blogs and column where he expresses doubts about the economics of Samuelson and refers to Kalecki, btw.?

Robert Vienneau said...

I think I might have written somewhere that Krugman cannot acknowledge, in his column, getting insights from Marxists. If so, I was wrong.

But that is a great Kalecki article, predictive of whatt came afterwards.