Open as a Power Relation

foucault-1I’ve been co-teaching a True Crime course here at UMW (which is a blast), and last night we discussed Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. If any of you out there were in grad school during the 1990s or early ’00s like me, just seeing this book title may cause you to break out in hives. Apologies. That said, it still remains one of the most powerful things I ever read in grad school, and returning to it with a group of Freshman last night reminds me how viscerally accessible and conceptually cryptic this book is all at once.

The discussion about the book last night was led by three students, and as my collaborator Paul Bond noted in this post they did a good job of breaking down the reading and trying to contain the conversation. One of the things they didn’t mention, and which I think is crucial, is Foucault’s methodology—the way in which he’s trying to avoid an over-determined argument about crime and punishment that results in some totalizing claim that as a culture we have become somehow greater (or even worse) than those who have come before us that engaged in ritualisitic public torture and execution.¹

It’s really compelling, and somewhat easy, to fall into an evolutionary theory of history whereby we are the best of all possible developing cultures—not unlike Steven Pinkers’s argument in The Better Angel’s of Our Nature. There’s a methodology at work in D&P through which the transformation of crime and punishment is examined along the lines of specific historical, political, and cultural shifts in the Western world from 1760 through 1840, namely the democractic, scientific, and humanistic revolutions that coalesce as a broader historical moment known as the Englightenment. Foucualt refers to the way he reads this moment as a genealogy, the four general rules of which I outlined here for the truecrimers. Foucualt doesn’t come up with a sensational thesis about whether the Enlightment happened or not (something which Steven Pinker’s argument seems to do with the changing nature of violence), rather he challenges the ways in which it’s couched as a necessary improvement over what was when it comes to crime and punishment. The move away from the body towards the soul, as he describes it, is not so much suggesting that punishment was brutal and is now humane—but that the way we administer punishment has changed for broader political, economic, and cultural reasons. It’s a way of reading and “writing the history of the present” (pg 31 or the final line of chapter 1).

As I was reading the chapters again it reminded me a lot of my facorite cultural critics of edtech right now, namely Audrey Watters, Mike Caulfield, and Brian Lamb. And while all of them may or may not care for my comparison, I think they’re all are doing just the kind of critical studies that I found most enthralling about graduate school, save the jargon and egos of course. They’re constantly looking for a broader “complex social function” of education technology. EdTech is not simply about whether it can save educational from “failing” or not, but how that very frame is connected to a broader complex of social functions. Which immediately begs the second point of Focuault’s genealogical method: “regard punishment edtech as a political tactic.” Exactly, how is edtech being used as a means to shift the larger culture of education as it reales to just about every element of our culture.

Third, “make the technology of power the very principle of the humanization of the penal education system and of the knowledge of man.” How does edtech become the platform and possibility through which power is continually maintained as a relation in the education system. Shit starts to get real. And four, “study the metamorphasis of punitive educational methods on the basis of the political technology of the body”. How does the current shift in our ideas of education move us into different relationships to power, the body and the poltiical technology that everywhere mediates this relation. In other words how do we read and write the broader cultural shifts in education right now in relationship to power, knoweldge, the state, etc. This is crucial to “writing the history of the present” —and when I am looking for such frame for the world of edtech (which is in desparate need of it) I have my goto sources.

This is not something I just discovered, however, I have been counting on all of those folks as filters for these ideas for years. What the reading of Foucault did was to help me reframe it as a kind of methodology that brings some of their underlying methodology of their critiques to light for me. What’s more, it helps me come to terms with increasingly convoluted and denatured concepts like “open” in the sphere of edtech. Nicole Allen tweeted a couple of hours ago that….

The “Open” in MOOC is only meaningful if it is granted with a license

To which I started thinking, hmmm, this suggests that the license undergirds a whole series of relations that are impossible without it, but at the same time that’s not true. In fact, I responded….

And while it seems simple enough, the idea has actually helped me come to terms with the idea of open in a different way than a somewhat linear narrative of good to bad, pure to spoiled, punk to corporate. The problem with the term openwashing, at least for me, is it suggests that open was pure and is now sullied. But I’m not sure that’s the case, because if we just give it a new name the same thing will happen under a different title. The same goes for license, somehow the license became the means by which open became defined, and as a result in many ways transformed a sense of how we understand it. Changed the very nature of its soul, if you will 🙂 Open represents a series of power relations right now that tell us a lot about our cultural moment. Tracking the word, it’s uses and abuses, as well as its limits and possibilities traces a broader cultural shift through the lens of educational technology and beyond that is both truly fascinating and politically important. I seems to be very much what Audrey Watters is already doing with her forthcoming book Teaching Machines (in terms of a methodology if not a particular subject matter)—but that’s no surprise because she’s a million years a head of most of us with all this stuff.

It’s cool for me to start making these connections while teaching a class on True Crime. The ability to move from 17th and 18th century crime narratives to genealogy as methodology to open in edtech on this blog is awesome. This is the reason I signed-up for the higher ed racket in the first place. I wanted to see broad, cultural connections that not only demonstrated something about our moment, but also provide the possibility of staging an intervention all the while. That’s what I want.


1. We’ve read more than a few narratives and sermons framing public executions in 17th and 18th century colonial America. So the “barbarity” of that era is very much with us.

This entry was posted in open education, open source, True Crime and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Open as a Power Relation

  1. I like any post that puts me in a sentence next to Watters and Lamb, but where this comes together particularly for me is in the critique of the word openwashing. Open was never pure. We defined open in a way that we thought would get us to the sort of world we believe in, just as Thrun has now done.

    But there is a sort of signal jamming that is going on there. It’s not so much that people are wandering around looking for 4R’s openess and see Thrun’s stuff and say — oh, this will do the trick! Thrun’s antenna is bigger than anything we ever had, really. He doesn’t need to piggy-back on our good name.

    The bigger issue I feel is his use overrides our signal. We’d developed a vocabulary and mythology around this word, and invested a lot of time, money, and effort in it. We told everyone to tune into 91.5 FM on the assumption that was what we’d be broadcasting from. But now when they tune in all they will hear is bleed-over signal from Thrun’s 24/7 91.3 FM station blaring crappy Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry tunes. The real problem is not open-washing, but open-jamming. It’s not that we have an audience that Thrun is stealing, it’s that we lose the cultural bandwidth to reach our prospective audience…

  2. Reverend says:

    I think that calls for some Gramsci by way of Adorno and Korheimer then 😉

    But, the real gold here is the fact that you are using Clear Channel as a way to describe the idea of co-opting open. Fact it, I’m trying to get my mind are the idea of co-opting anything, it seems to suggest that something was what it probably wasn’t anyway. It’s almost like a past perfect mythos of what was: I was EDUPUNK before DIYU came, and idea that ideas supersede one another rather than exist in some kind of ongoing tension. And despite Thrun’s clear channel space, I don;t really feel threatened by the xMOOCs, never really have. I feel like this sapce continues to be more fluid and open continues to be as rich as an ethos and a relation within our community that hasn;t been co-opted really. Defusing the word EDUPUNK and moving it to ds106 helped short circuit that conversation, but the vision remained and movement towards a framework (of technology framed power and control, mind you) remained.

    I don;t understand Foucualt vision of genealogy entirely as the above post demonstrates, but it seems more akin to a process of start to udnerstand how folks like you, Audrey, Brian, and Scott Leslie too (who I forgot in the actual post, but who is absolutely on his game in this regard), anchor edtech in a critical discourse that makes it so much richer. So thanks.

  3. Luke says:

    I don’t understand both of your critiques of openwashing, and I hope you two don’t give up your defense of “open” in the face of its appropriation. I never saw the phrase as demarcating some pure construction so much so as I saw it as a defiant assertion of a set of values inscribed in practices forged by experience and reflection. It’s not a defense of purity, it’s a defense of meaning. Words have them, and we need to assert that.

    But that’s also not really the core of our work. I don’t see what we do (if I can be so bold as to lump in) as expansionist with potential audiences we might lose, so I’m a bit uneasy with Mike’s radio analogy. I get how we have to acknowledge their programming, but we’ve been doing that for years with Blackboard’s Lawrence Welk hour. Ultimately I don’t see us as operating on the same bandwidths as Thrun, but on whole other media like what Grant built. They can call theirs pirate radio if they like, we’ll call bullshit, and then get back to our programming. The conflict is eternal and our role is oppositional and struggle is the endgame.

    Strummer said it best.

    • Reverend says:


      I actually agree with you, oddly, and I think what I was trying to get at, but not so clearly I admit, is that open becomes a realtion around which we do struggle for meaning. And open as a relation is far mroe productive for asserting that meaning, like you note and concur, rather than positoning a before and after as some unsullied idea that corporations moved in on. It seems simple enough, and 16 years in grad school should have taught me otherwise, and that why I think teaching is key. it forces me out of edtech, out of my spaces of intellectual comfort, and into idea that I floundere around with. I don’t understand Foucualt entirely, but his methodology for a genealogical history of sorts (though you may have deep issues with that framing given you are a Historian—and I would love to know more about that) continues to compel me when examining something like crime in North America over a three hundred year span. Days like this I really miss my time at the Grad Center. It’s more than a bit strange to write that last sentence.

  4. This post contains multitudes.

    And I think this is one of the reasons why Foucault can be wielded so interestingly in all these regards (and not just for the “panopticon!!!!1111” cries that are pretty easy to make with the likes of “Top 10 Ways Google Glass Will Revolutionize Higher Education Forever” or “Top 1000 Things We Can Learn From Your Mouse Clicks in Coursera” claims). Schooling is, like it or not, a “disciplinary regime.” How do we analyze and resist that — and not just via the barricades or bullshit claims about revolution — but in everyday and undisciplined exercises?

    Foucault also helps us understand the way in which “power” isn’t simply the top-down — “those elites at Stanford and Google” — sort of machination.

    Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.

    Power is, in Foucault’s framework, an incredibly complicated interplay, one that deals with politics and money, sure (and oh, Thrun is so adept at this), but also with bodies (but oh, look, he’s wearing Google Glass…). Again, schooling is a “disciplinary regime” at the level of mind and body. How does the Web change that? (Does it?) How do “teaching machines” (xMOOCs, adaptive learning, etc) enforce that? (Do they? Do they necessarily?)

    And how do we resist all this? Because it isn’t “revolution” in the classical political sense, in which we unite under one banner (a political party, or, as you note, a particular radio channel or class call number).

    And most importantly — how do we empower actors to locate themselves and to resist? Despite those who wring their hands at despair when reading Foucault’s assessments of power, it is important to remember that he was always an activist. A scholar. A thinker. A philosopher. An activist.

    Revolution isn’t so simple as overthrowing those “in power” — administrators, politicians, Silicon Valley fancypants. Power, in Foucault’s framework, is too messy. It’s too slippery. Sorta like “open,” whatever that is or was or might be.

    And when framed in terms of “revolution,” it’s all too easily recuperated by those in power. Much like MOOCs, I’d argue. Much like Edupunk.

    But fight on, we must, growing our own networks of resistance in response to all and some and none of it…

    • Reverend says:

      I was on the right track then, your book is really gonna nail it all. I’m really looking forward to it. Edtech has been waiting at least a decade for something that starts to do what you are doing as a critique, and the space from which you are doing it is fascinating for a whole host of reasons. You’re outside of formal journalis, outside academia, outside of a pro forma “job” in many ways—you have gone about ti all in a compelling way. What’s more, between you and Kin it’s a god damned techno-cultural thinktank. From what I am reading of your work with Papert you’re marrying this frame to an alternative history of 1960s and 1970s ed/tech that is being erased by ahistorical capital. Such a rich complex to write about, these days I wish I was doing something similar. I await your book (and more) as if it were the latest Avenegrs comic during the 1980s starring Vision adn Scarlet Witch 🙂 You rock. Be seeing you!

  5. Pingback: Joe Strummer on Open | bavatuesdays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.