Faux-Academics and Foucault

By Ryan Moyer (Bishop’s)

Teaching through t-shirts

Teaching through t-shirts

A mentor of mine recently told me that I need to decide whether I want to be one of those guys who brings a Foucault book to the café to pick up chicks, or a real academic who lives his work. If I remain the former, sooner or later, someone who embodies the latter will pose the question;what have you actually done?

A question I think myself along with many scholars do not wish to answer for fear of a definitive lack of a substantial answer. Technically speaking, all I have done in my undergraduate career up to this point is researching and rearranging large amounts of information to manifest some form of a cohesive argument. It has become a science. I go through these motions every class like clockwork. Time for  a change. Now that I am here in Malawi, let’s see if Foucault can provide some clarity in reflection.

In 1977 Foucault said that we must look at power not as a “dyadic relation of rulers and subject” but rather a power that manifests through the liberal and humane practices of bureaucracy, medicine, education and the production and distribution of consumer goods. Those involved in these systems of power, like my colleagues and myself, usually do not understand themselves as agents of oppression. Am I an agent? I’m most definitely not wearing a tailored suit.

Now that I am on the ground in Malawi, Foucault’s theories have become animated. One theory that I have been contemplating extensively is his notion that for every group that is oppressed there is one that is privileged in juxtaposition. Most Malawians are continually exploited and marginalized under the unilateral imposition of neo-colonialism, market fundamentalism and paternalistic policies rolled out by the global sharks. This institutional oppression has been written about by countless scholars (Caplan’s The Betrayal of Africa), but what about those acting in an oppressive role who do not realize their complacent agency in the nourishment of oppressive objectification? For instance; those working for charities working under the veil of generosity, but in reality are constraining those they work “for”. What about tourists?

I write this next to a pool at a Safari resort in Zambia, surrounded by rich mahogany and waiters on standby. I could jog to the nearest village where the poverty is violent. This lodge employs some locals and sells a few local goods, but what is it doing for those really on the fringes? What are we doing here? I search for witty anecdotes to impress my professor as these questions tear a hole in my already perforated epistemic fabric. None come, anxiety rises.

The last lodge we visited, Lukwe Lodge in Livinstonia, served as a place of solitude in the depths of human suffering, as it was one built and run utilizing permaculture. I felt as if I was part of the solution while I was there. But here in Zambia I am contributing to the cultural imperialism of the tourist industry, here I am an agent. An agent that just walked next to elephants.

Although omnihelpful (just made that up) in healing the nausea of uncertainty, I have begun to realize that, as Foucault alluded to, conceptualizing this type of exploitation solely in a macro Marxist framework does not do the situation’s depth justice. Let’s analyze a scenario; copper mining in Zambia.

Like Malawi, Zambia gets large amounts of foreign aid from the United States and the European Union, splendid. Splendid like potential partners in the darkness of that dingy club you went to once. Let’s turn on the lights. Natural resources that are extracted from Zambia, like copper, are worth twenty times the amount of foreign aid that goes in. These mining corporations sell the materials internally to avoid paying Zambian tax rates. The materials are funneled like cheap booze at a frat party into the mouths of a handful of multinational corporations-funnel held high by high priced Harvard lawyers, swarms of uneducated citizens, educated African elite and apathetic or unconscious Westerners. The latter being the type of people to travel to Zambia to sit around a pool at a Safari lodge. So who takes the blame; the sadistic elite or the apathetic majority?

Everyone plays a part in the continuation of these abject conditions, or, to use Paulo Freire’s term, dehumanization. How can we be human if our whole lifestyle is served through the systematic exploitation of other human beings? Ask yourself; why do your socks only cost four dollars at Wal-Mart? Ask yourself why the majority of people travel home from work and sit in front of a television rather than making music, engaging in dialogue with their neighbors, making love or making improvements?

What’s my excuse? I need to find one quickly. Bad breakup, sick mother, bullied, I couldn’t be bothered, I was weak. I am weak. I have not faced centuries of murderous oppression and manipulation. My father does not have AIDS. I can read, write and buy three dollar coffees and ten dollar cigarettes to fill the depths of alienation brought about by a steadfast Facebook addiction….and yet I can not engage in daily praxis for the alleviation of human suffering. It seems that this trip may be serving my own healing more so than the healing of the people of the Chilanga region.

For impoverished Malawians the excuses are a little easier. If you can’t read or write, how do you understand the legislation put in place to ensure the reduced tax rates for the corporations plundering your resources? The government is speaking in tongues of elitist verbosity, and I speak their language of complacent global objectivity with every breath of Folgers caffeine I exhale. At Livingstonia I’ve seen the coffee plantations from the top of the missionary castle built on the backs of slaves. What a view.

Even if the coffee bean farmers do get “fair wage”, who says what’s fair? Is fair being able to not suffer from starvation while plantation owners suffer from liver cirrhosis and high blood pressure via salty sirloins? I believe I have begun to think critically, as here there is no Facebook, music production capabilities, bars or relationships to provide temporary solitude. This solitude has been wonderful. The conclusions from this lucidity are breath taking…cardiac arresting.

How do you mobilize and animate your brothers and sisters if you do come to these conscious realizations? Charity work is the all encompassing solution for the West, in reality it mostly solves the public relations problem of having its cut-throat geo-political maneuvers criticized. Hand outs from the healthy to the homeless in the form of foreign aid, from the very countries providing solitude for the sinister, in castles adorned with geometric logos and archers armed with litigation and weapons of mass confusion.

Rhetorical question of the day: why is the education system flawed? Maybe because we aren’t taught to ask that question. Foucault, Friere, and my mentor may be on to something.

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