Tag Archive | Foucault

Becoming self-consciousness

Only out of distress or disharmony can the soul create. Indeed, this is in strong resonance with a previous post, Thinking the uncommon, in which I signalled, invoking Erdem’s treatment of Melanie Klein, that uncommon, novel creative thought emerges out of disorienting positions. This necessary condition for the possibility of new thought is delineated by Deleuze in his account of “Foucault’s eight-year break in book production after the first volume of The History of Sexuality—a period Deleuze describes as one of ‘general crisis’” (Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 42). According to Deleuze, the mark of disorientation for Foucault was a mode of inquiry, invention, crisis and probing concerning the reliance on ‘power’ and ‘resistance’ in his earlier years. We are told by Deleuze in Negotiations that Foucault had a sense of becoming “trapped in something he hated” and was in need of some opening (p. 109). In grappling with his sense of being in a cramped position, Deleuze sees Foucault overcome his stagnation in conceiving politics primarily in terms of resistance or mere reaction to power, offering instead, after the creative crisis, an as yet unseen argument centered around the problem of ‘subjectification’ and ‘techniques of the self’ in volumes II and III.

It is precisely at this time of ‘crisis’ that Foucault probelmatized his antecedent categories and founded new ones, albeit a very difficult, eight-year process. This disruption in the trajectory of Foucault’s thought was a violence whose victim was himself. However, his desire to break free from himself, though a perilous act, lead him to “invent new concepts for unknown lands” (Negotiations, p. 103). The point is that cultural invention is induced by cramped, complex and intense positions “that offer no easy or inevitable way out, and are packed full of disagreements, tensions, and impossibilities” (Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 145).

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Derrida’s passion for the impossible

Derrida was an atheist with Jewish roots who spoke about God in his own way. In Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida John Caputo makes a controversial encounter with Derrida’s relationship to religion, arguing that deconstruction is a passion for the transcendent. Moreover, Caputo claims that we have not understood deconstruction properly, that is, we have read it less and less well, if we fail to see it as an aspiration for the religious or prophetic. More specifically, deconstruction is interested in making room for the tout autre, the “wholly other”. In other words, it is a “passion for the impossible”, the excess or plenitude of existence, an act that surely sets in motion a transgressive vector: it is “a passion for trespassing the horizons of possibility”.

Deconstruction is primarily a strategy of calling forth, provoking or uncovering the unrepresentable. As such, it is impregnated with the impossible or the transcendent. It is prompted or haunted by the “spirit/specter of something unimaginable and unforeseeable” (p. xix). Caputo notes that religion is precisely a covenant with the impossible, unrepresentable or unforeseeable. It is a pack or promise made between the wholly other and its people. But for Derrida, deconstruction is religiousness without concrete, historical religion. That is, Derrida is beholden by the dogmatics of no particular faith. For him, it is more a certain experience of or tormented relationship with the impossible as such. Stated otherwise, Derrida prays and weeps to God but does not know to whom he is praying and weeping.

Although this all may seem rather uninteresting, it is significant that Caputo applies this profound specter of religion to all states of affairs; for instance, anthropology, justice and politics. The bent of deconstruction, its posture of expectancy, runs deep. It can never be satisfied because the impossible can never be present, it is always that which is coming. As such, we must open ourselves and our present to something new, that which is uncommon, strange, impossible. Or, as Caputo puts it, “Were the horizon of possibility to close over, it would erase the trace of justice, for justice is the trace of what is to come beyond the possible” (p. xxiv). In this case, Derrida’s religion or notion of transcendence is not otherworldly, even if it is “spiritual” or “out-of-this-world” in some respects. Moreover, rather than a list of dogmatic propositions or historical/narrative accounts of God’s dealings with humankind, what we are usually familiar with in religions, Derrida’s religion is prophetic, messianic and eschatological, an opening towards the future of what is to come.

The scandal that Caputo is proposing is to say that deconstruction is circumcision: a cutting into the Same to open up the possibility or the event of the Other, the tout autre. Anticipating the discussion to follow, Caputo is worth quoting at length here:

The circumcision of deconstruction cuts it off from the absolute, cuts off its word form the final word, from the totalizing truth or logos that engulfs the other. Deconstruction proceeds not by knowledge but by faith and by passion, by the passion of faith, impassioned by the unbelievable, by the secret that there is no secret. It is called forth by a promise, by an aboriginal being-promised over to language and the future, to wander destiner-rant, like Abraham, underway to who knows where. Deconstruction proceeds in the dark, like a blind man feeling his way with a stick, devoid of sight and savvy, of vision and verity,…where it is necessary to believe, where the passion of faith,…is all you have to go on (p. xxvi)

The messianic logic of Derrida can and has been applied to all aspects of existence. For instance, democracy is a democracy to come, a democracy otherwise than its current state, a democracy beyond its current limitations and deadlocks. This is not a democracy that can be totalized, classified or closed any more than we can define God. More profoundly still, as Bernauer acknowledges in Foucault’s Force of Flight, “Foucault says of human begins what Eckhart says of the divine being: whatever you say God is, that is what God is not; you cannot say what human begins are but only what they are not” (p. 56). The point is as follows: we cannot say a thing concerning humanity or the God or politics to come. We are blind to the future and no positive ideal holds. Indeed, the remark Bernauer makes of Foucault is the same one made by posthumanist studies: once we have defined humanity within strict boundaries of demarcation and mastery, we have already failed to grasp the human as such.

Negations or Networks?

To make a sweeping-statement, but one that is not invalid or unsupported, modern criticism has a very strong negative and caustic character, which is deprived of regenerating ambivalence. According to Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World we discover that this sort of strict seriousness of highbrow modern intellectuals could be otherwise; specifically, it could be more like medieval parody, which was a popular corrective laughter. Moreover, modern abuses are significantly different from the medieval period in that they are destructive and purely negative whereas it was previously ambivalent in meaning and held the potential for regeneration. “Only the bare cynicism and insult has survive[d]” and “at present conveys nothing but senseless abuse” (p. 28). In modernist form, criticism generally becomes gloomy and solemn. Even in parody it tends to be narrowly focused on cold, melancholic, destructive humor. Bakhtin presents an alternative in a more carnivalesque frame:

The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason great changes, even in the field of science, are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way (p. 49)

The analysis of modern abuses is a topic that Latour is also insightful enough to make. For Latour, the sacred task of modernity was to unmask and unveil. If modernity was about anything, it was foremost about revealing the underlying workings of reality and strip away all the false facades. In this sense, modernity is highly critical and negative; putting all things under suspicion and suspending any positive appraisal after all angles have been thoroughly scrutinized.

We find this same sort of investigation in Graham Harman’s book, Guerrilla Metaphysics; although not until the closing pages does he explicate the title of his work. What he means by “guerrilla metaphysics” is the modern attitude and awareness that metaphysics lies in ruins. And if, for any reason, metaphysical problems are resuscitated–such as the existence of God, the fate of the soul, the struggle between good and evil–the first impulse of learned professionals should be a critical and defensive attitude. To renew metaphysics is to lack a rigorous technical philosophy. For moderns, these problems should remain lying beyond the pale, exiled to the no man’s land of faith.

I do not think this is any less true for Nietzsche or Foucault. Nietzsche, for one, was very polemic towards Christianity and rhetorically exaggerated his position on many occasions. On a more abstract level as well, Nietzsche’s project was a space clearing gesture. As I have highlighted before under a reference to Žižek, Nietzsche was like a lion who cleared the table of false illusions and made room for the child who would come after him and posit something original. The point is that Nietzsche did not have the vocabulary to articulate something beyond his own social situation but could at least expose the absurdities of the traditions and conventions he inherited. Likewise, Foucault in many ways seems only to offer a genealogy of madness and the clinic, among other things, in order to unravel the vain ideas we have about them. As wrote Foucault,

The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence…it seeks to make visible all of those discontinutites that cross us (p. 366)

Although these projects are certainly not insignificant they do fall within the modern stigma of acerbic critique mentioned above.

This makes the modern method of going about accusing one another in a critical and even indignant spirit subject to a sociology of criticism. This was clearly done in such works as Blotanski’s and Thevenot’s On Justification and Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. Instead of a resource or practice of criticism, these authors open up a systematic study to the spirit of modern critique itself, thus making us uncomfortable with the obviousness of our own scapegoating mechanisms. On the wake of these authors, according to Latour, “denunciation and revolution have both gone stale” (p. 45).

But having lost our foundation for moral judgment by denunciation are we without tools for analyzing everything that is important to us? Latour thinks not, for we have always functioned by other methods. “It is called arrangement, combination, combinazione, combine, but also negotiation or compromise… It is scorned because it does not allow indignation, but it is active and generous because it follows the countless meanderings of situations and networks” (p. 45). This supple rather than rigid form of examining, assessing, and describing reality has always been present with us; we have just opted for smugness and indignation in favor.

This means for Latour that neither anti-moderns nor post-moderns offer fresh solutions to the problem. While both sense “that something has gone awry in the modern critique” they nevertheless “prolong that critique” (p. 46). One of the characteristics they share is a proclivity for thinking about revolutions that will come along and solve all their problems in one swift swoop. But these revolutions that moderns and their epigones fantasize over are

scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs. When we see them as networks, Western innovations remain recognizable and important, but they no longer suffice as the stuff of saga, a vast saga of radical rupture, fatal destiny, irreversible good or bad fortune (p. 48)

So, as Latour would have it, we’ve never been modern. We have only ever rearranged and translated preexisting elements and their relations. In a positive retrospective attitude we can affirmatively say that we have always been non-modern.

The Style of Discourse

In the same way that we considered the style of things in the previous post, discourse also assumes a particular style of looking at or arranging things. Just as objects have different ways of appearing to subjects, discourses are likely to exhibit a similar pattern. An important distinction to make in regards to discourses is that they are not atemporal, final or terminal. In a similar manner, it is vain to nostalgically search for pure origins or essences to discourses. That is, because discourses are a historical product of choices, decisions, regulations, modes and descriptions that constitute any given perceptual field.

For instance, clinical discourse was gradually altered throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by usage of rules, perceptual descriptions, procedures, institutional regulations and practices. That is not to say that the content and usage of the medical field at that time was established once and for all. Rather, it points to the fact that it, like other discourses, have always been under constant adaptations and discontinuities. At different times in history it was concerned with different domains of objects, even though they all fell under the same subject of inquiry. It is only ever in appearance that a discourse of established statements, analyses, descriptions, principles and consequences manifests a coherent figure. In reality, it is what lies beneath that gives it its true character: procedures of intervening, translating, transferring, systematizing, and rewriting previous objects in accord with the current configuration of things. Or, more simply, using new modes of organization to rearrange and reconstruct previously formulated elements.

This is no less true for other discursive registers such as disorders, aberrations, disturbances, criminality, grammar, economics, etc. In all these processes, “a variety of objects were named, circumscribed, analysed, then rectified, re-defined, challenged, erased” (Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, pp. 40-41). They were, in short, constituted and delimited by a system of formation that connected, linked, and networked a multiplicity of previously desperate objects into a unified collective. Criminal behavior, delinquency or madness are not self-given, pre-established or necessary categories. They emerge over time and their designation and explanation vary from one social setting to the next. A brief quote by Foucault sums this notion of hybrid constellations that I am attempting to describe in discourse.

What one must characterize and individualize is the coexistence of these dispersed and heterogeneous statements; the system that governs their division, the degree to which they depend upon one another, the way in which they interlock or exclude one another, the transformation that they undergo, and the play of their location, arrangement, and replacement (p. 34)

I think there is an easy parallel here with object-oriented ontologists such as Bruno Latour. What Foucault is saying about discourses here is that they have always been a product of hybridization, whether we have recognized them as such or not. The idea of health, for example, is generated by a complex web of relations between the authority of the medical community, the judiciary system, police information, private clinic practice, social behavior norms, and so on. Foucault, in short, is articulating the need to dispense with and de-specify things by recourse to conjuring up the “rich, heavy, immediate plentitude” that gave rise to their historical emergence. The genealogical task at hand by using this broad scale of study is to “describe the organization of the field of statements where they appeared and circulated” (p. 56). By doing so we will be able to see how groups of statements were combined, classified, and arranged into a particular whole.