Michel Foucault presents those revolutionary sorts of analyses that are rich not only for their content but for their implications and novel methodological approach. Just beyond the surface of his works lies such philosophical wealth that one can be overwhelmed by considerations of which vein to mine first, and what to make of the elements therefrom extracted.
I’ve broken earth in several attractive sites this last week. Some, it seemed, hid their treasures too deep for the scope of this excavation. Some presented me with granite barriers which I do not yet have the tools to penetrate. At other sites, the earth gave way easily and I made great progress, only to be flooded out. Finally, at the fifteenth hour, I have struck something shiny.
I wish to use Foucault’s accounts of socialisation, categorisation, and discipline, as the background for my analysis of a modern entity I call the “identity package.” I will define this concept and show how it fits into and is suggested by Foucault’s works. Following this I will deal briefly with supposed problems with Foucault’s account (or lack of an account) of subjectivity.
Narrative gives coherence to a life. Particular episodes make sense in light of a uniting theme. The simplistic world view of the Middle Ages left people satisfied with fairly simple narratives. One knew their personal obligations and had a vague idea of how they fit into the systems of king and God.
For the sovereign and the elite, their special status was confirmed in ceremony and artistic representations.1 The masses were unrepresented. The lack of demand for empowerment or change may be partly due to the fact that, having no representations of themselves in culture [where “culture” means: those products of a society which will characterise it historically], they were denied the opportunity of seeing themselves as objects. Since the average person could not take themselves as an object, they had to rely on that Other who does have himself as object (the sovereign) to tell them who they are, and what their relationship is to him, since he is capable of knowing both at once, and thus of comparing.
The Classical age saw an increased interest by the ruling classes, and the emerging intellectual class,2 in the affairs of the productive classes. The realisation of the significance of microphysical power is parallelled by the establishment of the subject as the final authority on belief (Luther), the foundation of knowledge (Descartes), and the establisher of rights (Locke).
These ideas gave power to masses who had hitherto seen themselves as having none (hardly having “seen themselves” at all), and fuelled the Age of Revolutions. The Classical discovery of the individual led, by the Romantic period, to its exaltation.
The belief in individual power and rights created a demand not only for access to the privileges previously enjoyed only by the elite (such as say in the direction of society), but also for comparable narrative distinctiveness.
As the romantics idealised the life of peasants, and socialists proclaimed the rights of workers, common folk began to see their images in culture. Individual enshrinement remained the privilege of a few, but the opportunity to see at least one’s class validated by culture gave that much more content to one’s personal narrative. Membership in a distinctive group provides a unifying theme to the events of one’s life. Especially effective unifiers are social or economic categories, since these provide themes that explain the daily material life of a person. Membership in the category “proletariat” makes each day at work part of my plot rather than incidental to it.
On one hand, the classification of persons is an act of limiting and controlling. It assigns expectations and prejudices. It also makes one a target for specialised forms of manipulation.3 The act of classification has more poetic, but no less significant…