I spent most of my afternoon yesterday reading a book that calls into question how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is framed (Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM, and the New Psychiatry by Bradley Lewis). The book does not argue that psychiatrists should not consider mental disorders to be akin to diseases, but it does stress that the choice to frame mental disorder in this mainstream medical language is something to study. That is, how did the DSM come to be a set of inclusive and excluding criteria for diagnosing mental disorders? The answer lies in a very human story, wherein a few key players, deeply invested in bringing psychiatry in line with other medical specialities and thereby expunging any remnants of its Freudian heritage, reconceive mental disorders as clusters of signs and symptoms. What was taken out of the DSM was any 'theoretical account' of how on might have become depressed, for example and what was left were 'atheoretical descriptions' in the form of checklists. I am leaving a lot out of the story, but this is not the story I am interested in.
Rather, what captivated me about Lewis' book was how skillfully he made use of Michel Foucault's notion of the episteme. One way to clarify what Foucault means by an episteme is to think of it as a frame of reference (hence why I kept using the word 'frame' above). The opening paragraph to Foucault's The Order of Things, does a fantastic job demonstrating what he means by an episteme, and more importantly that how we make sense of the world is bound up with prior concepts and perhaps intutions about our landscapes--what some philosophers call conceptual schemes--that help us make sense of information.
Foucault's last lines "the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that," poetically captures the sense that we make sense of the world through conceptual schemes, through lenses, if you will, that bring into focus certain objects and concepts, while blurring others. Foucault makes clear that these lenses through which we peer into the world are not something hard-wired, or even universal to all onlookers, but they are conditioned through specific historical events, wherein competing "theories" of what is lead to one view eclipsing all others.
Now, many readers out there might want to argue that this epistemological view is deeply flawed, making all knowledge seem radically contingent to historical and political circumstance, thereby making all we know a mere product of 'might makes right.' So be it. I will entertain these arguments. I am not interested in defending Foucault's theory of knowledge here. What I am really interested in is extending Foucault's insight of the episteme to yesterday's news--you know, the story about Rep. William Jefferson from LA and the videotape of him taking bribe money.
I had read about this story first over at Shakespeare's Sister. Then, as I was packing up for the day, I heard the NPR coverage, which committed the same sin that annoyed Paul the Spud, namely that Jefferson's corruption would weaken the Democratic strategy to defeat Republicans in the mid-term elections by calling them the party of corruption. I became interested in the pervasiveness of this particular way of presenting the Jefferson scandal. So, I did some digging this morning to look at how various new sources first ran this story. Nearly every story included a paragraph such as the Yahoo story does, that Paul the Spud takes apart:
Now, let's consider a few other news sources, in no particular order.
1. From the NYTimes:
2. Fox News
5. The Guardian Unlimited: (Same AP story as Yahoo).
Many of the newspapers ran AP writer, Matthew Barakat's piece, which included what I am calling the 'frame' of the newsarticle. The fact that the story is reported in relation to the upcoming midterm elections and Republican scandals is not in any way material to the 'facts' of the story. And yet, most major news outlets included this commentary as a means of informing the public of Jefferson's graft.
This is political story was immediately incorporated into a larger narrative that has been running in the newspapers since the Abramoff scandal: namely, both parties are corrupt and therefore there is nothing distinctive or important about the K Street Project.
While we can debate the usefulness of Foucault for larger epistemological debates, his insight that some interpretive frameworks are selected at the exclusion of others, and to further the political interests of those promoting such a framework is invaluable for decoding the Jefferson scandal.
UPDATE: Via Majikthise, I discovered this little nugget. A blogger telling you exactly how the think tanks pull this sort of crap off.
Cross-posted at The Reaction.