Power, Action, Signs

Garnar, Andrew 2006. Power, Action, Signs: Between Peirce and Foucault. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 42(3): 347-366.

Yet, pragmatist have tended to leave the social under-theorized. In particular, what is left untouched is power. Pragmatists tend to be rather optimistic philosophers, which is perhaps part of the American ethos within which they work. There is a fundamental assumption that people should, and often do, work together in particularly earnest, good-hearted ways. This can be seen in Peirce's remarks on the community of inquirers or Dewey's histories of how our concepts come about. It seems that the basic supposition is that people are essentially good. An engagement with power threatens to undo this because power implies that one person is in a position over another. It disrupts the peaceable relationships between subjects that most pragmatists assume. So, the question of power has been ignored by pragmatists. (Garnar 2006: 348)
I wonder if in light of this my work - which is mainly a study of power in hithero undiscovered terrains - is therefore pessimistic and presumed people to be essentially evil?
This paper seeks to show what an engagement of pragmatism with power looks like. I focus on the writings of Peirce for two reasons. First, Peirce is pragmatism's initiator. Many of the central concepts later pragmatists developed are to be found in his thought. He gives a very clear introduction to the leitmotifs of pragmatism. Second, Peirce's theory of signs, which is one of the sites I will investigate, provides a surprisingly elegant example of the operations of power. His concept of the self≈sign, the idea that the subject is the sum of the signs it uses is particularly revealing. What I will demonstrate is that the self≈sign is only realized through a field of power. This shows the very intimate effects that power has on the subject. (Garnar 2006: 349)
Alas, an elaboration of the "man is a sign" equation!
I begin by introducing both Peirce's and Foucault's concept of action. Action plays a significant role for both and by drawing out this point further connections can be made between the two. The first intersection involves Peirce's remarks about habits and one of Foucault's definitions of power. With this understanding of how power operates on habit, I turn to Foucault's power/knowledge complex. It is in this complex that power influences subjectivity. After this description I begin to explore how habit-creation is influenced by power/knowledge. This sets up discussion of semiotics, since knowledge is essentially a set of signs. To bring these strands together, I focus on Peirce's "symbol," a general sign. I then turn to Peirce's semiotic triad as a whole. In this discussion I show that the operation of power is thoroughly semiotic. With this point in mind, I briefly describe Peirce's conception of the self≈sign. I conclude by exploring how power is implicated in the self≈sign, drawin in the previous discussions of habits and symbols. In this, we find that the self is distributed through a field of action, structured by power. (Garnar 2006: 349-350)
Remarkable intersections, yet the argumentation remains to be seen.
...Peirce states: "[belief] involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit." (CP: 5.397) Our habits guide our conduct. Habits are performed without thought, though thought is key for their development. "What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result." (CP: 5.400) So there are two key parts to any habit. First, the conditions under which we are lead to use the habit. Second, what actions result from the habit, what it causes us to do. This is not just the mechanism of habit, what motions are gone through, but also the aim, the purpose, of that action. (Garnar 2006: 350-351)
Wow. Habit as a rule of action is extremely helpful for my purposes. This is one of the keys I was searching for; if I could now discover the 87 other such keys necessary for my work... I'm thinking a dozen will suffice for a semiophrenic conception of power, but there's still a long way to go.
For Peirce, the scope of the habit is quite large. Within the Popular Science essays, Peirce confines himself to habits of the mind. These habits guide our reasoning. In later writings, Peirce makes clear that habits are not purely mental. For example, in discussing habit-change he makes clear that muscular effort is one way among others to modify actions. By sheer practice, we can create the habit of being able to move in strange ways. Both mental and physical habits are different manifestations of the same phenomenon. The function of the habit remains the same for both mental and physical: for both they are rules for action. (Garnar 2006: 351)
This sounds familiar. I am reminded of Gourdjeff's "stop exercise", the purpose of which was to create habits for strange physical movements.
In this account, power is bound up with action and the possibiility of acting. Power is a set of actions that influences the actions of others. Power operates on the potential actions that a subject might take. It creates a space in which actions occur. It establishes the limits of possibe actions.
Power involves a field or structure of actions which transforms other actions. These actions upon actions are not violence. "A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things." (Foucault 1983: 220) Violence directly impacts bodies. "It forces, it bends, it breaks on the wheel, it destroys, or it closes the door on all possibilities." (Foucault, 1983: 220) While violence is the "primitive form" of power, that from which power arose, power cannot be reduced to violence and vice versa. Still, violence can be mobilized by power, since violence is a form of action. Yet the two should not be confused since violence is a direct action upon things, while power acts on the possibility of actions. Power is a more complicated set of actions than violence. Power limits or encourages actions in a certain directions. Power limits or encourages actions in one way or another. For example, teachers are involved in a power relation with their students. Teachers structure the possible actions of their students. Certain actions are encouraged, while others are prohibited. These are rules that the students are trained to obey. In other circumstances, violence might be a part of discipline, but rarely. Other means of correct training tend to be employed over brute force. (Garnar 2006: 351-352)
The complicated relationship between power, action and violence.
Unlike traditional discussions of power, Foucault argues that power is not simply repressive, involved with limiting freedom. Instead, power rewards the development of some habits and punishes others. Power is involved at every stage in "constructing" the individual. This point is significant, since Peirce sees habit as key aspect of being. Habits are what grounds the subject in the world, connecting it to the world. Habits allow the subject to successfully navigate through the world. (Garnar 2006: 352)
Power, habits, subjectivity. Identity construction.
Since power is understood as actions upon other actions, it cannot be seized or aquired. Actions are doings and cannot be held on to. This implies that there is no central nexus of power. Power is distributed through society. This is not to imply that such a distribution is equitable. Certain nodes have more power than others. The nodes function as sites where habits are structered. and restructured. (Garnar 2006: 352)
Power is distributed in society. Everybody is a nexus. People's actions structure power.
At the end of the day, we find that power and knowledge sustain each other. There is a circular relation between the two. Power creates knowledge and knovledge sustains power. Knowledge creates spaces for power to operate, while power provides sites for knowledge to be produced. In producing a field of knowledge, one develops techniques for transforming the actions of subjects that fall within that field. Furthermore, every power relation presupposes a body of knowledge about the subjects on which that power is operating. (Garnar 2006: 353)
This can also be read as the relationship between ideology/culture and power.
Techniques involve the construction of habits. (Garnar 2006: 354)
Sounds Maussian.
While there was theorizing about Man-As-Machine, much of the knowledge generated about controlling the human body was developed by the militaries of Europe through making soldiers. (Garnar 2006: 354)
Another reason to presume that a study of bodily techniques in military context will prove useful.
It is my contention that the power/knowledge complex is thoroughly semiotic. The starting place for such an assertion is Peirce's 1868 essay "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities." I will discuss the incapacities as a whole later, but at this point it is the third that concerns us. He simply states: "We have no power of thinking without signs." (CP: 5.265) It is from this proposition that we sketch out the connections between these divergent themes. Let me explain.
Peirce proposes that we are always caught up in sign-action; what he refers to as semiosis. Any thought we have is a sign, and the "end" of one sign leads to the next sign and so on. The Peircian sign has "three references: Ist, it is a sign to some thought which interprets it; 2nd, it is a sign for some object in that thought it is equivalent; 3rd, it is a sign in some respect or quality, which brings it into connection with its object" (CP: 5.283). (Garnar 2006: 355)
So is this pansemiotics?
Meaning arises out of this semiotic process. Meaning is never present within a sign. It is derived from the relations of signs to each other. For this reason: "we may say that meanings are inexhaustable." (CP: I.343) It is always possible for new interpretation of a sign to arise. (Garnar 2006: 355)
Cf. Every meaning has its homecoming celebration.
In order to make clearer the implications of this account of power, let me turn to the self. As discussed above, all thought occurs in signs. This means that any thought about the self will be a sign. All of the material we use to conceive of ourselves is signs. Peirce draws out the conclusion of this position quite bluntly: "Thus my language is the sum total of myself." (CP: 5.314) All we are is a self≈sign. Our subjectivity is constituted by signs we use. (Garnar 2006: 358)
#Self-commubication. #logocentrism. #semiotic repertory.
Two things here are all-importanh to assure oneself of and to remember. The first is that a person is not absolutely an individual. His thoughts are what he is "saying to himself," that is, is saving [sic] to that other self that is just coming into life in the flow of time. When one reasons, it is that critical self that one is trying to persuade; and all thought whatsoever is sign, and is mostly of the natural language. The second thing to remember is that the man's circle of society (however widely or narrowly this phrase way be understood) is a sort of loosely compacted person, in some respects of higher rank than the person of an individual organism. (CP: 5.421)
Here thoughts are self-communication. And a person's whole lebeswelt is a person, a holistic "alter".
It is through the effects of power, certain disciplinary techniques, in particular cases that the vaguness of language is eliminated. This is merely an example of power operatign in tis most repressive form, the creating of a strict right/wrong use of symbols. (Garnar 2006: 361)
This can be translated into behavior by means of orthodoxy.
Peirce argues that we have no such capacity for introspection. We do not have such open access to the mind. Instead, when we reflect on ourselves, this is reasoning about those things "commonly called external." This is the reason why the self is not given. The self must be inferred. It is a conclusion that is drawn from chains of signs. This is also the move that begins the distribution of the self. No longer is it some isolated entity, a complete, self-contained, self-knowing whole. The self becomes interpreted, inferred, derived, smeared out across time, society and power. (Garnar 2006: 363-364)
This is very much to my liking. The self is not given, it is taken.


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