'When' is the Form of Collective Life? A short reflection about 'alephs'
This paper was written for the Master course in Building and Urban Design in Development of the DPU at the University College of London. Despite the simplicity of some of the reflections contained here, we decided to publish them in order to keep trace of our learning process, which is, and will always be, an unfinished work open to critiques and further ruminations.
The hallmark of Foucault’s work embodies the acts of unveiling and pointing out as acts of resistance. By staging inedit perspectives on power, identity and knowledge, he actually managed to unfold some unseen spaces and modes of oppression within our inherited societies. By doing so, Foucault’s intention was to undermine the ability of oppressive systems to be reproduced unchanged over time within transformed forms of ‘collective life’. Notwithstanding only few clear alternatives to the ‘unveiled system’ emerged from his theory. In this article my aim is to single out, around Foucault and others, some positive and possible thinking frameworks of ‘being collective’ as a systemic practice of freedom informed by a design-oriented approach.
Foucault, aleph, collective life, dualism, otherness
What we inherited from Foucault’s work is a messed up living room where something seems to have been stolen, to be missing. Michel Foucault has grabbed at least two things in his premature outrush. First of all, a clear epistemological overthrow. He mainly stretched out his ‘being political’ through the act of unveiling and countering power as exercise of freedom. The emergence of the identity hence frequently occurs as embedded in its deposition, in its refuse to ‘speak the truth of the subject’, and not much but warnings have been staged regarding the pitfalls of conceiving ‘freedom’ as ‘resistance’ or ‘counter conduct’. In his studies on knowledge, theoretical perspectives to subvert epistemological antinomies partially remain a goal unmarked.
Secondly, a positive construct. Foucault rarely glossed over a pure analitical discourse on society, so that a sort of dead point for ‘practice’ comes out. Foucauldian divesting tactics weakly reckon with a strategy for a systemic collective performance of freedom. The idea of ‘collective’ itself in his own words seems to be unfinished: “I admit not being able to define or even propose an ideal social model for the functioning of our society” (Philosophy Overdose, 2017). To sum up, I would say that the unsolved quandary of epistemological ‘dualisms’ and the absence of structured alternatives for a ‘collective life’ could be linked in Foucault.
In this short paper I would like to play with some foucauldian concepts, such as identity, knowledge and power in relation to the idea of ‘collective life’. What is the form of ‘collective life’ in Foucault? How and when can it be embodied into a systemic practice of freedom? My discussion here around the concepts of identity, knowledge and power in relation to the structures of the ‘collective’ has been articulated into three main blocks of inquiry, on the wake of Foucault: two ‘what’ questions and one ‘when’ quest.
The first question concerns the cross cutting tensions between identity, knowledge and power. How can they be represented? By a parallel comparison between Foucault and some postcolonial scholars I propose here a visual perspective from which ‘dualism’ can be framed as the underlying assumption upon which both identity and knowledge have been socially constructed to perform power.
In the second part of the paper I proceed reflecting upon the relation between ‘otherness’ and ‘collective’.
By comparing different authors like Deleuze and Ahmed I wonder here: how can the ‘diverse’, the ‘strange’, the ‘unfamiliar’ be embedded within the ‘collective’? Which theoretical horizons have been proposed by Foucault on this regard? In the last part I finally try to single out a possible shift from the foucaldian perspective on the ‘collective’ – a plurality without a centre whose very ontology is a dimension in which all subjects occupy the same space without overlaps or transparency, towards a systemic practice which can activate this theory within an ethic/collective framework of doing that overcomes individualities without kindly demanding for their surrender or their assimilation to ‘the same’.
DUALISM AND POWER
Knowledge and identity are entangled concepts in Foucault to the point that all his efforts to unveal the different forms that power embodied in our societies moved from the analysis of this primitive relation. According to his position we could stress that in the ‘West’, identities have been epistemologically constructed over centuries to impose and reproduce dynamics of oppression and domination through the exercise of power.
The dyad ‘subject/object’ in particular still proves to be the main conceptual framework within which we are able to produce any knowledge or identity, which thus always ends up being imposed to someone. Foucault himself, in my opinion, only partially diverged from this ‘dualism’ in his perspectives on ‘resistance’.
Going the long way round we could identify the attitude to dualism with a brain process selected by our ancestors across millenia for survival reasons. Evolutionary biologists in particular have highlighted how ‘dualism’ has evolved from the reiteration of ‘intentional stances’ according to which natural entities are not “merely assumed to be designed for a purpose but to be, or contain, an agent with intentions that guide their actions” (Dawkins, 2006, p. 182).
In western tradition in particular, this stance evolved into a profound rupture between man and nature structured around logics of domestication. In Greek culture namely, the ‘self’ (me, us) does not only appear in constant friction with an ‘otherness’ (them, the nature), following the principle of non-contradiction (“I am what I am not”). It equally appears as a rationale over nature which turns the ‘otherness’ into an object. As Ahmed stated: “the otherness of things is what allows me to do things ‘with’ them. Rather than othering being simply a form of negation, it can also be described as a form of extension” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 115). It is here that ‘subject’ firstly rhymed with ‘master’.
The ‘otherness’ as space of extension and domination becomes all the more evident if we start looking at the first letter, the monade, of many ancient alphabets of the Mediterranean basin, namely the Phoenician’s, the Aramaic’s and the Egyptian’s, just to name a few. It is telling on this regard that the original pictograph of the “aleph” does not actually represent a man, a ‘self’, rather an ‘otherness’, and more specifically an ‘ox’. In both Arabic and Hebrew, moreover, this word still mantains today an explicit meaning of ‘tamed’. [figure 1]
The ‘aleph’ thus perfectly collects the convergence of all these mentioned concepts above: detachment from nature and domination. Rather than representing only a ‘non-self’, this letter equally embeds a meaning of ‘breeding’ which finally informs us around one more ‘western’ habit: extractivism. The nature so that ends in the ‘aleph’ to exist only as ‘otherness’ since it becomes henceforth artificially reproduced and ‘owned’: it becomes property.
To turn the ‘otherness’ into a ‘domain’, however, it must be reduced as much as possible: oxen are always controlled through castration. More possible insights on that should consider the reflection proposed by Foucault around ‘shepherd’s power’ as exercised upon an herd “in its movement from one place to another’, ‘over a multiplicity in movement” (Foucault 2007, p. 125). It is in fact with the universalizing taming claim of Christianity that these structures have been globally reproduced to perform oppression.
In the colonial experience and in the invention of ‘race’ in particular we can find all these tensions expressed at their apex. The idea of ‘race’ in Quijano winks at Foucault. Race becomes here a sort of universal taming device to legitimize oppression, control and exploitation. Needless to say how this refers to the ‘aleph’.
The recourse to the ‘race argument’ always comes in fact as an imposed return to nature since a definitive domination would had been legitimately possible only by turning the native into an ‘infant’ at best and into a ‘beast’ at worst: “all it gave away to an evolutionary historical perspective, so that all non-Europeans could be placed vis-à-vis Europeans in a continuos historical chain from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilized’, from ‘irrational’ to ‘rational’, from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’, from ‘magic-mythic’ to ‘scientific’“ (Quijano, 2000, p. 221).
By the way, race is just one form of objectivization, and the aleph a metaphor: comparable logics of domination are constantly produced in our societies to prevent someone from being a ‘subject’, from ‘being able to be’ (Boano, 2020) by classifying people “into categories, designating them according to their particular individualities, binding them to their identities, imposing upon them a law of truth that must be acknowledged and that others must recognize” (Foucault 1994: 227). On this regard it is actually alarming to notice how patriarchy itself calls us back to the parallelism we made among ‘race’ and the ‘aleph’. [figure 2]
DISMISSING THE 'CENTRE'
Drawing on Spinoza, Deleuze showed that we are constantly shaped by encounters in which the ‘self’ can be confirmed or contested, reproduced or extinguished: “the evil is a bad match between your body and another in which one of your subordinate structures, or your own constitutive structure, are threatened, invalidated, or even permanently disrupted”. Starting from here he stated that the ‘otherness’ always comes as a potential drag: being contested by the diverse “implies a decrease in my power to act” (Deleuze, 2007, translated from italian by the author), which Spinoza defined as ‘sadness’.
The very existence of the ‘diverse’ informs us that the world is not available for an infinite, unhindered reproduction of the ‘self’. In the ‘western body’, as we have seen, the ‘extension of the self’ has been solved as well as for nature: by imposing the ‘subject’ [the West] as a center of truth, as “a point of reference and orientation” that “provides perspectives and worldviews on how ‘the other’ should be seen” (Turner, 1979, p. 33) and used.
The ‘unfamiliar’ so that can be only solved in the collective “by making what seems strange ‘just about’ familiar, or by transforming ‘what is strange’ into an instrument” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 117).
Again, into an aleph: in this ‘collective’ the ‘other’ rarely can remain ‘diverse’ without being used. By adopting a dualist perspective it is hence clear we cannot eschew the reproduction of the unjust patterns upon which this world is being constructed. By the way this cannot occur by simply dethroning the ‘whites’, the ‘males’, the ‘straights’, the ‘developed’ and so on. The only framework within which freedom can be conceived, and positive identities can emerge is not one that dismisses one centre rather the idea itself of ‘centre’.
This is also why, in my opinion, ‘counter conducts’ are not resolved acts of freedom in Foucault: taking the floor during a meeting in which you are not supposed to speak is not always enough to challenge structured powers.
It is not by ‘centering the otherness’ only that freedom can be systematically performed. How can we imagine then ‘collective lives’ that do not consider the ‘reduction’ and ‘objectivization’ as options? How can we deal with dualism in the production of knowledge?
Here is where Foucault proposes his own definition of plurality in which the “relation to the other” is lived “in such a way that differences – the self, the other– are neither reified, objectified, reduced to the least common denominator (such as a contrived universalization, or a reduction to sameness)” (Revel, 2009, p. 48) . This concept can be visualized as an ‘aleph’ in Borges:
“On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realized that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe” (Borges, 1971, p. 13)
Personally I appreciate this foucauldian dimension “in which subjectivation is the renewed constitution of a commonality based on differences” (Revel, 2009, p. 49). Notwithstanding Foucault’s definition is pure entropy. As Revel noticed “subjectivation in Foucault proceeds according to a complexification of what it is, given that becoming is a process that not only integrates new differences to its own initial difference, but proceeds by an increase of attributes”: male, black-male, black-albino-male, black-albino-blind-male, and so on (Revel, 2009, p. 49).
I then asked myself: how can we represent it? How can we visually conceive this dimension in which diverse identities are both incremented and undiminished in the same body? How can this reflection be similarly applied to the collective one?
Perhaps an interesting hint comes here from Cantor who is considered, not by chance, the founder of the modern mathematical theory of sets and equally used the ‘aleph’ to measure the incremental ‘growth’ of the infinites.
Having no possibility here to report his theory, suffice it to mention that he managed to demonstrate how a ‘part’ of a set can be equivalent to the entire set itself.
Imagine for example to take the set of whole numbers. How many elements does it have? Infinite. Split it now in half by extracting all the even numbers and count them. They are infinite as well. It is mathematical: ‘something’ can be part of ‘something wider’ by being both partial and diverse as undiminished.
The classic division between ‘actual relative’ and ‘potential’ infinity is interesting too. The former represents the infinite as we usually know it: an infinite sequence of elements along a line, as the whole numbers. The latter, on the contrary, represents the infinitely dense, the infinite series of points within a perimeter as, namely, a circle (a body, a community). For our purposes here we could approach the foucauldian idea of plurality as a ‘potential infinity’.
In this ‘space’ entities are not discretized through hierarchies from a center: what is clear indeed is how an uninterrupted reality emerges from their proximity. That is what Cantor called the ‘Continuum Hypothesis’, a continuum, here, in which neither distinctions nor transparencies are possible.
'WHEN' IS THE FORM OF COLLECTIVE LIFE?
As we have seen Foucault partially succeded in providing a theoretical horizon within which it becomes possible to topple down the subject/object adage in a collective that “is always inclusive of a relation to others, that is an apprenticeship, a mutual construction and a subjectivation” that “forbids a return to individualism” (Revel, 2009, p. 49). A visual parallelism could be found in nature around ‘emergentism’ in starling flocks.
It is throughout this ‘mutual subjectivation’ in Foucault that is finally possible to frame both the ‘otherness’ and individuality as constitutive, incremental elements of pluralism. On this wake the ‘being collective’ can be only performed in providing access to the ‘other’. I say ‘performed’ here not by chance.
The relativistic idea of plurality we discovered in Foucault and Borges appears in facts a sort of ‘Zenon paradox’, given that it cannot be achieved once and for all but only performed through time. A further reflection should consider here a difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’. At the same time, to consider reciprocal logics of ‘subjectivation’ that cut across individualities and diversities is not enough in practical terms. What I found lacking in Foucault indeed is a clear discourse about what could be considered the ‘centre’ around which this process of becoming can be conceived.
In other terms, by subtracting the ‘objects’ from the equation of pluralism it then becomes difficult to understand towards what these ‘subjects’ should be oriented in order to perform their ‘being’.In practice we need to find new ‘centres’ and ‘objects’ for the ‘collective subject’ in a dimension in which both ‘centres’ and ‘objects’ are contested.
On this regard I would call back to the distinction made by Ahmed between being orientated ‘towards’ and ‘around’: “to be orientated around something is what allows us to ‘hold the center,’ or even to constitute our selves as at the center of other things” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 116). To be orientated ‘towards’, on the contrary, it is a stance always constructed around logics of possession, domination and control. In my opinion, collective lives are always structured around something in motion (an action, a vision, a project, never a property), not towards someone (the diverse, the other, the foreign).
Moreover, this centre has always a creative dimension. It is here that we find the collective as an ‘instant’ produced around the act of ‘designing’ (in its broadest sense) which reconstitutes a space for action in time rather than in space.
My intake here is that the only way to dismiss the aforementioned ‘towards gazes’ is to constantly foster a vision for ‘being collective’ by displacing it towards a potential, not-yet-here space in future structured around the production of new knowledge. On this regard a definitive overthrow in the production of identities cannot come from marginalizing the centre or by centering the ‘otherness’, as we have seen, rather by producing new collective knowledge through a ‘design’ process. The real ‘otherness’ here, the object, so that becomes the future itself in its way to be constantly defined as a participatory, creative space for extension and visions, a when that constantly melts down into new forms of ‘being us’ in the design outcomes, within a circular and endless motion. A ‘return to individualism’ thus can be suspended, new knowledges can emerge and new identities with them: as I said ‘collective life’ is always a creative dimension.
In conclusion, I am convinced that it is in both this very precise potential, external space in future and in the practice-as-meeting in present that conceiving a collective greater than the sum of its own parts, in which every identity can be embedded without reductions, finally becomes possible. ‘Collective’, for me, is always goal-oriented.
Ahmed, S. (2006). “The Orient and Other Others”, in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 109 – 156, doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822388074-004
Boano, C. (2020). Recalibrating Urban Design: what is the form of collective life?, Online lecture, DEVP0002: Transforming Local Areas: Urban Design for Development, Development Planning Unit, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College of London, 5th October 2020.
Borges, J. L. (1971). “The Aleph”, in The Aleph and other stories 1933-1969; Edited and translated by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in collaboration with the author New York: Bantam Books, 1971, pp. 3-17.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press, 2006.
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Foucault et al. (2007). Security, territory, population : lectures at the College de France, 1977-78 / Michel Foucault; edited by Michel Senellart; general editors, Francois Ewald and Alessandro Fontana; translated by Graham Burchell., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Philosophy Overdose (2017). Chomsky & Foucault – Giustizia vs Potere. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5wuB_p63YM&t=268s&ab_channel=PhilosophyOverdose (Accessed: 9 December 2020)
Quijano, A. (2000). ‘Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America’, in International Sociology, 15(2), pp. 215–232. doi: 10.1177/0268580900015002005 Revel, J. (2009). “Identity, Nature, Life: Three Biopolitical Deconstructions”, in Theory, Culture & Society, 26(6), pp. 45–54. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409348854
Turner, H. W. (1979). From temple to meeting house: The phenomenology and theology of places of worship. The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton.
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