Knowing the Self Through Direction of Others
Criticism from others is also a technique of knowing the self. In a sense, criticism from others can act as a guide or a route out of self-ignorance, rather than being merely the transmission of knowledge for the purpose of replacing the self’s ignorance. It is a sort of operation focused on the mode of being of the subject (Foucault 2005: 134). In many ways, the various components of the MLE programme are a process of collective un-learning of sedimented practices. In the words of an official from a finance department:
Through the learning of the eight-point code included in the Party’s Mass Line Education programme, you will learn that for so many years, some of the things you have got accustomed to might not quite add up to the rules. You need to change your past thinking, there are things you can no longer do now. You need to change your mind to understand some existing phenomenon that are unsuitable to the regulation and can’t be done any longer.
As already established, the major institutional form of self-criticism work is through the study sessions and meetings, in which officials are involved in an act of public confession. Rather than a verbalization of personal sins and shortcomings, it is a public manifestation of penitence (Chang 2011: 53). The practices of confession also disclose positive aspects and possibilities, manifesting themselves as a kind of hermeneutics and self-hermeneutics of the subject, as a mechanism for the constitution of the subject, as a practice of the self capable of penetrating deep into the subject (Horujy 2015: 64). A mid-level official from an education department elaborates on the process:
For example, I was doing my work with good intention, but I was unaware that when I was doing it, I hurt some people because of the way I was working or talking. Others present expressed their concerns during self-criticism and criticism sessions. This made me think differently. So I think the point is whether you are willing to work seriously with whatever you are confronted with in the sessions.
Thus, criticism from others acts as the Party’s decrees to remind the self of what they have done wrong in the past. In turn, self-criticism allows one to go from what one does not know to what one does know through a number of knowledge trajectories that stretch from the present to the past, the past to the present, from presence to absence or from absence to presence (Foucault 2014: 75). In this process, officials find themselves placed in between good and bad examples. The subject is made remnant in the way in which the subject is neither the self nor the non-self. The subject is devoid of any sense by the operation of the examination of conscience. This is the state of exception in which the subject can be anyone and no one at the same time. Thus, criticism and self-criticism are established for the purpose of grasping the truth of the self. Thus, the one accepting and learning from the criticism of others requires submitting to others, which is a question of letting the principle of obedience penetrate one’s entire behaviour (138). Obedience becomes another principle of ascetics. This type of obedience is in opposition with one’s obedience to a law, since the law is what obliges you to do or forbids you to do something and thus implies that you are free to do the rest (139). An official from a provincial department explains this dynamic of creating unity, trust and transparency through reciprocity in the criticism and self-criticism sessions:
It depends on how you approach criticism and self-criticism. If you face criticism and self-criticism honestly. In the sessions, we give advice to colleagues while listening to their own analysis of their issues and by so doing, we hope we can help them to make more progress. I think I am doing good things for them as they do to me.
In this relationship between the self and others, the role of agency and self are interchanging and thus hybridizing. The agency and actor are, as Keller finds, hybridized into the social actor, which can have two statuses: one holds the speaker’s position (statement producer) in the organization and the other is the addressee (targeted population) of the statement
(Keller 2011: 54). Officials in this context are at once elements and agents of a single process.
Thus, all officials who participate in the meetings are made an object (being criticized by others and the self) and subject (criticizing others and the self) at the same time. As a consequence, there is no pure agency or pure actor, but a mixture of both. This is also why the tension between agency and actor can produce the remnant who is devoid of any rights and acts only like a puppet. They become what Weller describes as mediators who occupy inherently ambiguous, irresolvable positions in the structure (1994: 17). This is resolved through them remembering their original and true purpose as officials: that they exist to serve the people.
This sense of purpose and the change in practices has, for many of the officials we have spoken to, led to the beginnings of a healing process between the Party and the people, for example:
Many normal people begin again to have faith in the Party leaders. Because ordinary people themselves are vulnerable groups in society, they have endured for many years of what the leaders have done to them. They suffered in silence. They turn to petition and there is no other way out. Therefore, if the Party members and cadres start to work for the people, even if the effects can’t be achieved right away, the people need to first feel and see your efforts. (Mid-level official from a propaganda department)
In a sense, it is against this potential that the subject comes into being, which is either remnant or hybrid. If you want to be pure, as Foucault argues, you have to maintain the permanent struggle for the opening of possibilities (2014: 267). In other words, you have to go through the permanent process of true purification. Thus, purity is not an originary and absolute essence, but the result of a process or operation of purification (Attell 2014: 161). In this sense, the only ethical experience of human beings is the experience of being one’s own potentiality, of being one’s own possibility—exposing, that is, in every form one’s own amorphousness and in every act one’s own in actuality (Agamben 1993: 43). In our case, the discourse of serving the masses is a valorization and abstraction of officials’ subjects for the balance between subjects’ practices of fulfilling China’s modernization project and the self’s ethical practices.