Visibility & Power

“The reality principle must be read as it is in fact designated: as the strain of experience sanctioned by the subject of science.”

“One is always responsible for one’s position as subject. Those who would like to may call that terrorism.”

– Jacques Lacan



Why do the work of conceptualizing délation, malice and a counter-practice of frank speech? A practice of second-order conceptualization has diagnostic and preparatory functions: on the one hand a clearer view of the present university milieu; on the other hand as a warning mechanism, such a practice indicates that as with délation and méchanceté, frank speech also risks the deficiency (or else the excess) of self-justification. Furthermore, the diagnostic function itself is a response to a diagnosis, “we knowers” are not only unknown to ourselves, but are becoming indifferent to our ignorance; indifference is pegged to negligence. Or, in an even more insidious manifestation, the subject of science and this subject’s virtues have become an ironic figure; “if only we could be virtuous men of science.” Hence a fixed distance between the subject and truth is introduced and policed. The strain of experience sanctioned by the subject of science has been experimentally mutated; our experimental conditions are pathological.

With the distinction of délation and méchanceté, we can see a certain motion, which both clarifies the concepts and the situation of nihilism in the academy. An email was sent to a department of anthropology about a professionalization event. A member of the department replied (to all, i.e. publicly) to the email with a sarcastic comment about the infinite regress of professionalization, with the supposition of its inverse relation to thinking (e.g. kindergartens as feeder schools for Harvard etc.) The second email produced disparaging comments in private among students in the department: the author of the second email was a) condescending b) exemplary of the research group of which the author is a part. Another student makes visible these private disparaging remarks on the blog of the research group. The student acquiesced to a request from the research group for the source of the remarks. The instance provided an occasion to reflect on malice and denunciation and the occasion itself turned on the instance itself being one of a number of such instances. The source was given a pseudonym and a comment was made about this series on the blog.

The student who was named (very shortly after finding out that their identity had been revealed to the research group) requested a meeting with those in the research group, or to be more precise with the head of the research group, a senior professor. The consequence was a set piece scene of denunciation, by the second student to a perceived source of power, the professor, of the student who made visible the malicious speech in the first place.

What is significant first of all, is the manner in which one form was transformed into the other. Look around you today in the academy and you will, I think, be able to see examples of your own in the university setting. Secondly, there is the timing of the transformation of a situation of méchanceté into one of délation. Only once the source of the malice was made visible, as a speaker, was a request made to encounter what, from the point of view of the student, was a particular form of authority. Or more accurately, a form of authority supposed and a mode of action ensued. The student arranged a situation, so as to denounce the one who had made it visible, to the perceived sovereign, thus producing an act of counter-visibility.

This timing indicates a further characteristic of the move from méchanceté to délation, which is the most significant. The “dangerous words” of méchanceté are supposed to regulate a field of action, but are not “supposed” to be about specific subjects. Hence the telling symptom, that one cannot talk specifically about individuals, who like Favret-Saada’s witches do not exist, or rather exist only in the form of under-specified accusation. Denigration, within a field of malice, is not to an authority considered capable of taking action. Rather it is instead a regulative mechanism; “so and so is condescending,” hence a norm is enacted and imposed - that ethical differentiation is not be thought or practiced. If such differentiation is “felt” the source must be disparaged.

Naming destroyed the regime of malice and action was taken by the named. The danger is not only that power relations are reversible but are transformable as well: the act of naming the source of the speech changed the form and stakes of the speech. The act of naming destroyed the regulative form of malice. A scene of denunciation followed. Alternative transformations or governmentalities were not pursued. This post is a step in that direction.