Sunday, February 22, 2009

Asad, chs 2 and 3

Asad, Formations CH 2 “Thinking about Agency and Pain”

SUMMARY: This chapter looks at 2 genealogies: those of pain and agency. Asad says that in anthropology, both are generally taken for granted. The notion of “resistance” takes for granted that individuals have “agency.” But definitions of agency really depend on the cultural context, and in the modern world, they include the aim of eliminating pain. However, early Christians and some Muslims look at pain as important for their religious experience.

68-there is a “secular idea that ‘history-making’ and ‘self-empowerment’ can progressively replace pain by pleasure—or at any rate, by the search for what pleases one.”

-anthropological literature hasn’t dealt enough with agency and pain

-“when the word ‘body’ is used, it is more often than not a synonym for the individual whose desire and ability to act are taken as unproblematic” (except for Freudians); in Passion and Action, Susan James describes how “’desire’ came to be thought of as the central force governing all actions.”—there was “an increasingly generic conception of desire” and “passions” are increasingly equated with ‘desire,” “Taken generically, desires lack the inflections that would make them explanatory.” [direct quote from James, p292]

69-and when Freudianism is a sophisticated idea of dynamics of the passions, “it holds out the problematic promise that the passions can ultimately be mastered by reason through systematic observation and interpretation, thereby giving rationality primacy in the constitution of modern, secular subject.”

-there’s no agreement about what emotions are (cf The Emotional Brain); some say they are impulses in the brain, some say they are located in social space, sometimes all emotion is equated with desire, and most people know “some emotions (‘passions’) can and do disrupt or disguise intentions. And yet conscious intention is assumed to be central to the concept of agency in most anthropological work.”—note #6 says: “The intimate anecdotal style of ethnographic writing now favored reflects a preoccupation with intentionality that isn’t always carefully though through.”—and even in medical anthropology which (70) translates all the sick body’s “states and movement directly into ‘dissent’” or “resistance”

70-“The anthropological use of the notion of ‘resistance’ has rightly been criticized for underestimating the strength and diversity of power structures.” (cf Abu-Lughod “The Romance of Resistance”) and it presupposes an idea of “agency”; (71) “The tendency to romanticize resistance comes from a metaphysical question to which this notion of ‘agency’ is a response: Given the essential freedom, or the natural sovereignty, of the human subject, and given, too, its own desires and interests, what should human beings do to realize their freedom, empower themselves, and choose pleasure? The assumption here is that power—and so too pain—is external to and representative of the agent, that it ‘subjects’ him or her and that nevertheless the agent as ‘active subject,’ has both the desire to oppose power and the responsibility to become more powerful so that disempowerment—suffering—can be overcome.”; Asad disagrees with this assumption

72-theorists of culture are conflicted about how they look at resistance/agency: are people always autonomous actors or are they conforming to cultural norms? And because the body and mind decay with age and chronic illness, we should not assume that every act is the act of “a competent agent with a clear intention.”; it’s (73) a paradox to think the free self must be subject to a “liberating self already and always free, aware, and in control of its own desires.”—susan wolf offers an alternative: “rather than constant certainties,” we can think of moral agency in the way we think of sanity (in the common sense way), so that agency (and sanity) are judged in relation to the world in which they live; so different historical contexts make different definitions of agency, with the secular definition being only 1 of many

73-“Agency today serves primarily to define a completed personal action (74) from within an indefinite network of causality by attributing to an actor responsibility to power. Pragmatically, this means forcing a person to be accountable, to answer to a judge in a court of law why things were done or left undone. In that sense agency is built on the idea of blame and pain.”

74-“moderns tend to think of responsibility for something as being founded on a relation between an act and the law that defines the penalty attaching its performance or nonperformance.”; Intention doesn’t matter; and agents (75) can be representatives of principles (which can also be other agents), though there is debate over this when it comes to representative government, and the fact that “crimes of passion” and those of the insane are “not considered to be the consequence of the agent’s own intention.” Reinforces the idea “that agency requires the self-ownership of the individual to whom external power [eg “passions”, “insanity”] always signifies a potential threat.”

78-in 18th century England, Christian agency was that people must be passive and let god take care of them

79-generally cultural theory sees agency of having 2 aims: “increasing self-empowerment and decreasing pain”

80-the secular understanding of pain is that it is inscrutable, and (81) Asad believes it “may arise in part form the experience of animal experimentation of the kind I discussed in the previous chapter, in which observable reactions of the flesh that is subjected to constitutes ‘pain.’”

81-“Whether one can be certain of another’s pain depends surely on who is expressing it to whom, how…and for what purpose ‘certainty’ is sought.”—pain is private and in a social relationship; (83) and “All feelings of pain involve physical changes that are not only internal to the body (muscular, biochemical) but also externally visible (voice, demeanor) and culturally readable. This fact alone complicates the too-neat distinction between physical pain and mental pain.”—distressing emotions cause chemical imbalances, which “are as ‘physical’ as torn ligaments.”—and though maybe “physical pain is typically located by the sufferer in particular parts of his or her body and that this is what distinguishes it form mental distress. But mental states—themselves closely connected to social circumstances—are central in the experience of pain.” As proven by the fact that tolerance to pain is culturally variable

83-and phantom-limb pain shows that “pain is not merely experienced in the mind…but generated by it.”; (84) and in some cultures, “distressing emotions are experienced as being located in particular organs of the body (liver, belly, heart, and so forth).” (cf The Origins of European Thought About the Body); and even in modern society people can feel “sick with anger” and have physical experiences with emotions

84-so pain is a cultural relationship, and “the idea that an agent always seeks to overcome pain diverts attention away from our trying to understand how this is done in different traditions”; (85) pain “is part of what creates the conditions of action and experience”

85-early Christian martyrologies did not see their broken bodies as defeated, but as victorious over society’s power; (86) and generally the Christians, unlike the rest of the ancient world, were “positively oriented…to sickness and human suffering. Where sickness could not be healed, Christians insisted that pain could be understood as valuable.” While Stoics denied suffering and Galenic medicine saw “pain as a bodily condition subject to appropriate technical intervention.”

86-in The Suffering Self, Perkins says stoicism was ruling ideology, though Asad disagrees

87-a study showed that some Native American women often give birth with no drugs to give them a sense of empowerment, knowing that men can’t experience it; (88) and pain is also part of birth

90-some Islamic practices look at pain from fear and other suffering as important in development of virtue

95-McKeon notes (in Freedom and History) that the word “responsibility” appears in England and France in 1787 in the context of the American and French revolutions, and since then its primary use has been political, and so “responsible government”—meaning constitutionalism, the rule of law, and self-determination—has come to be the model not only for political behavior that is imbued with a certain moral quality, but for morality itself.”

96-habitus [(95) “an embodied capacity that…includes cultivated sensibilities and senses…”], in contrast, is not something one can reject, it is essential to what you are and must do—though people often conflate this with “responsibility” (eg conflate morality with criminal law)

98-pain is part of reform; and the (99) Abrahamic traditions of obligations; and secular tradition of individual responsibility

CH 3 “Reflections on Cruelty and Torture”

SUMMARY: The modern idea of ending cruelty conflicts with other values. Legal torture declined in 17th through 19th centuries with rise of circumstantial evidence, and philosophical ideas that criticized its effectiveness and raised the value of imprisonment (107-109). This ideas were imposed on colonized countries where “torture” was a label only given to the colonized and not the colonizers. Also S&M sex is a contradiction in modern society of the idea that people don’t want pain.

100-the simple association of religion with violence, a tactic of some secularists, “will not do” because there have been many atrocities done in the 19th and 20th century without the support of religion; (101) “the modern dedication to eliminating pain and suffering [as articulated in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] often conflicts with other commitments and values: the rights of individuals to choose, and the duty of the state to maintain its security.”; cruelty has an unstable character in modern secular society

101-G. R. Scott’s History of Torture shows “physical cruelty as a feature of barbaric societies”, and (102) “remains a latent possibility (sometimes realized) in civilized society.”, but Scott “is not entirely clear whether he thinks that human cruelty is merely an instance of bestial cruelty…or whether human cruelty is unique…”; (103) and “savage races” inflict “torture” on modern European Americans, not the other way around (eg pain inflicted on native Americans is not considered “torture”), though he believes modern police use torture

103-in Torture and Modernity, Drius Rejali says, unlike Scott, that torture is integral to the modern state, Rejali says he refutes Foucault’s idea in Discipline and Punishment (and thus also Page DuBois’ Torture and Truth), that torture in modern society is replaced by discipline, Rejali believes torture persists, (104) though Asad this is a misreading of Foucault by Rejali—who Asad says ignores that Foucault says torture persists in secret by police

105-liberal societies no longer approve of torture used in the law, that’s why it’s often denied

107-and today even the “secular Christian must now abjure passion [reveling in pain] and choose action” (early Christian ideas of goodness of pain aren’t used)

-Torture declined with the decline of “Roman canon law of proof—which required either confession or the testimony of two eyewitnesses to convict” in the 17th century with the rise of circumstantial evidence, and that philosophers pointed out that it could not achieve accurate results with confession; (108) plus the rise of the philosophical doctrine in the 19th century that freedom was the “natural human condition”—(109) so imprisonment was equal punishment for all, while fines hurt the rich less and pain hurt the stronger people less

110-Asad says that the imposition of the European modern justice system on colonies was not done out of concern for sufferers of local punishments, but was “dominated” by a need to “create new human subjects”; (111) and sometimes even the colonizer inflicted pain, but this was justified in the name of civilization; (112) and they even forbid religious practices that had self-torture; and their moral superiority was justified by westernized natives who supported it and whoever else agreed with European views

113-today, some pain is accepted—war, sports, science experimentation, death penalty, and in sex (S&M); (115) and new forms are acceptable (eg mass imprisonment and new types of warfare); (116) and while the Geneva Convention tries to regulate conduct in war, medieval war also had rules, which were, “in one sense…even stricter”, “killing and maiming, even in battle [in early medieval times], was regarded as a sin for which the church demanded penance.” (cd The Just War in the middle Ages); and “paradoxically”, by its proscribing certain ways of suffering, other kinds are legalized, and more painful ones were produced with the development of weapons to take out tanks, large guns, planes, etc.; (117) plus the limits of the geneva convention says human destruction cannot outweigh the “military necessity”—but this can be interpreted for any amount of killing

118-sadomasochism is another contradiction between idea that suffering is simply not good; and (122) the UDHR does not say it makes an exception to cruel punishment if people who do it are consenting adults.

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