Tuesday, March 28, 2006

We Get Mail

I received an e-mail from a reader of this site (OK, the reader of this site) who objected to my reliance on Foucault in trying to define our place among the nations. Sadly, despite its kind words about my prose style and its author's own way with the mot juste, it was too suffused with philistine anti-intellectualism and hurtful Francophobia to be quoted at any length here. The Pithlord does not want to risk his new relationship with Google Ads through a sentimental attachment to old friendships!

But (and you will have to trust me on this) the e-mail raised a few interesting points. First, when speaking of British North America's expectations about the biological assimilation of the French and aboriginal peoples, it is important not to forget how damn sexy the Victorian Brits thought most of the people they were colonizing were. (In my defence, I did allude to the Northern European view that miscegenation with Indians was distinctly unhorrible.)

Second, my correspondent suggests Old Doug Johnson may be a bit of a sloganeering chump, which seems to be true. Although I do confess to a soft spot for the bats**t crazy unreconstructed 68ers, that would really go away if they kill Aldo Moro or Pierre Laporte again.

But my correspondent's most important point was to question Foucault's S&M assumption that the relationship between a People and its Others has to be one of sumbission and domination. Why can't our relationship with the Other be one of polite interest, or exotic fascination or even pure indifference? My correspondent suspects that Foucault was being a Euro-weenie. We can have a strong sense of who we are without harbouring ill will against anyone else. (My correspondent went on to say that Canadians do have a strong sense of who we are, which, since it goes against common sense and conventional wisdom, is probably true.)

I'm not a remedial writing instructor to the post-structuralists, so I'm not going to guess what Foucault would have said in response, but I will hazard my own attempt, which I think he'd agree with.

It may or may not be true that a distinct people can happily subsist without threatening or feeling threatened, just as feminine hygeine products may not really be necessary. But just as the manufacturer of the deodorant needs the "not quite fresh feeling", so too a biopolitical state needs the people to face an existential threat. The state, like the capitalist, has something to sell. It needs to make you realize you had needs you didn't realize you had.

And Foucault actually gives the biopolitical state some credit: it emerged when the scientific revolution showed that some pretty concrete threats could be dealt with: enclosed sewers, vaccination, actuarially-assessed insurance, and the Queen's Navy all really worked to allow non-Malthusian population growth. And they all worked by defining a threat, and finding a science-based solution.

And by the time of the Great War, each of the major biopolitical states represented quite genuine threats to the others. And each found a science-based solution to the threat, and the rest was the catastrophe that nearly brought down the first, great bourgeois civilization. It certainly brought down the British Empire, and with it British North America, even though they hobbled along for a few more decades.

Now, it may be said that Foucault, in his snobby Nietzschean way, fails to credit this development with its great achievement in allowing uncounted ordinary lives to unfold without the pre-industrial Malthusian horrorshow. Certainly, Foucault is uninterested in pointing out how this all could have worked out better. That would be some pretty uncool reformism, and uncool reformism just was not his bag.

But pointing out paradoxes was. And Foucault pointed out the paradox that the modern state has become increasingly squeamish about executing even serial killers, while being invested in a military strategy of massive retaliation against civilian populations, which would have horrified the Rennaissance Popes. Both developments fit with the idea that the state's job is to nurture the growth and survival of a people, seen a bit like a slightly delicate houseplant.

For the English Canadian "people", the threat the state has tended to emphasize is a particulalry ethereal threat, the threat to "identity." The threat is particulalry insidious, in that the identity has never (or at least not since the collapse of the Imperial ideal -- and we certainly don't want to go back to that) been securely established in the first place.

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