Equipment against habitus

A few years ago, I wrote a paper for a medical anthropology seminar comparing Foucault and Bourdieu, and I thought I'd give an account of the argument, prompted both by some recent discussions in the seminar, and by the assigment of both authors in the same week during my teaching of “History of anthropological thought”, both of which raised the collective blood pressure.

In that paper, I argued that Bourdieu and Foucault both put the “question of the subject” at the center of their work, a question which was opposed not only to what Bourdieu calls “objectivism” (exemplified most powerfully by structuralism), but also a “philosophy of the subject” (as in Sartre). In Pascalisn Meditations, Bourdieu writes that “the question of the subject is raised by the very existence of sciences that take as their object what is customarily called the ‘subject,’ that object for which there are objects . . .” (PM 128), yet this scientific question of the subject is “diametrically opposed to [the presuppositions] defended by ‘philosophies of the subject.’” Foucault, similarly, claimed he had “tried to get out from under the philosophy of the subject through a genealogy of the subject, by studying the constitution of the subject across history which has led up to the modern concept of the self” (The Politics of Truth 150).

My next point was that by raising the question of the subject, and in particular, the question of the subject as object which defines the modern human sciences, both Bourdieu and Foucault necessarily turn to reflection on their own knowledge practice. That is, the “question of the subject” becomes a question of the limits, possibilities, and tools of inquiry. For Bourdieu, the first step towards achieving a theory of practice is not to attempt to better capture the “native's point of view” (he constantly warns of the danger of this practice), but rather to “objectifty objectification”. The creation of a theory of practice can only be the outcome of an analysis of the conditions of observation and knowledge production of the social scientists. At the same time, Bourdieu makes very clear that the purpose of this analysis is not to destroy science, but to arrive at the possibility of a theory of practice. Description of the habitus is contingent on analysis of the habitus of the observer.

In the paper, I focused on Foucault's Birth of the Clinic to describe how Foucault enacted a “philosophy of the concept” rather than a “philosophy of the subject”. In Clinic, Foucault makes clear that there is no consistent subject of history (in the sense of an 'I' that sees and speaks); in different historical configurations, seeing and speaking are figured differently.

“New objects were to present themselves to the medical gaze in the sense that, and at the same time as, the knowing subject reorganizes himself, changes himself, and begins to function in a new way” (90). The purpose of this analysis of the concepts was not to abandon the subject, as if the history of concepts was wholy removed from subjects, but rather precisely to understand the sense in which the subject reorganizes and changes.

“In sum, it is a question of searching for another kind of critical philosophy. Not a critical philosophy that seeks to determine the conditions and the limits of our possible knowledge of the object, but a critical philosophy that seeks the conditions and the indefinite possibilities of transforming the subject, of transforming ourselves” (Politics of Truth 152-3).

For Foucault, of course, the subject cannot be liberated from the episteme, because there is no 'subject' pure and simple, independent of modes of veridiction and jusridiction. Rather, critique must illuminate the relations of veridiction, jurisdiction, and subjectivation, in order to seek the possibilities of transforming the subject.

It now seems to me that Foucault's writing on 'equipment' more intensively raises a contrast with Bourdieu and the habitus. For Foucault, equipment (paraskeue) are maxims--true statements--and practices that take on a material existence, for example, the embodying practice of keeping a diary. Foucault located these equipment amidst his large distinction of the care of the self (epimeleia heuteau) from the 'know thyself'. As I understand it, Foucault was interested in how subjectivation could be altered, not through the form of knowledge of the self, or consciousness raising, but through certain exercises (from meditation to confession). What was important about these exercises, that is, is not the knowledge of self they provided, but rather the way a self or subject could be shaped, developed, given form.

For Bourdieu, on the other hand, I believe that the 'habitus' remains a concept devoted firmly to the side of “know thyself”. Although 'habitus' describes embodied dispositions and habits, the “dialectical” access to a legitimate 'theory of practice' that he outlines can occur only through “objectifying objectification”. It seems to me, the purpose of his work (as a “theory of practice”) is only to achieve this outcome of making the habitus available to consciousness, something that can only be an endless dialectical process and activity (because never fully conscious). In this endless partiality, the theory of practice approaches an equipment; and yet, it never leaves the domain of self-knowledge and consciousness raising.