nikki moore

tayloring a discussion…

In Subjection, what is philosophy? on June 25, 2009 at 5:20 pm

i am reading ‘overcoming epistemology’ by charles taylor

primarily, because it was suggested, but also because there is something in his work, in his talks, that makes me want to squint my eyes and back up.  it may be his radiant clarity, his way of slicing through and focusing beams that makes me sweat and search for shade and shadows…  

in this 17 page piece (it may be a chapter of a larger work?  i just have a photocopy of this section…) taylor walks us through recent moves away from epistemology, highlighting the way that representational thinking has played a role in this same demise.  representation, epistemology and foundationalism seem to be a stake for taylor, to varying degrees of interest and rejection.  

while the discussion on representation is an interesting one (one attentively addressed by Gilles Deleuze for the french school in Difference and Repetition) i would like to more carefully read the last 3 pages of Taylor’s article, taking up his call for discussion or, in his words a ‘dispute to be fought…’  

this ‘dispute’ turns on two taylor-made paradigms.  one, the heideggerian lineage taylor sees himself as inheriting or ascribing to, the other, the ways in which foucault, derrida and others have taken this lineage in directions taylor disagrees with. (already i can hear derrida’s discussions on brotherhood, paternity and inheritance, as they were taken up with Searle and Carl Schmitt’s work, separately). since taylor poses what could be a call for discussion between these two  heideggerian progeny as something that needs military terminology, we can assume the stakes are very very high in his mind.  i would like to suggest that this is due to a misreading of heidegger, derrida and foucault together.  let’s see if i can trace this out in what follows:

earlier in the article, taylor looks to heidegger as an alternative to epistemology, articulating Dasein as being-in-the-world, or in other words, always situated, he writes:

what reflection in this direction would entail is already fairly well known.  it involves, first, conceiving reason differently, as including – alongside the familiar forms of the enlightenment – a new department, whose excellence consists in our being able to articulate the background of our lives perspicuously.  Taylor, p. 15

it is at this proposed binary pairing and opposing of ‘background’ and ‘lives’ that i would like to begin to outline a different reading of heidegger, foucault and derrida… one which might ease taylor’s call to battle, one which calls him to read the above again with less of simplifying eye.  beginning with heidegger, as taylor did, and taking into account taylor’s professedly moral concern for ‘situated freedom and the roots of our identity in community’, i would like to call up heidegger’s discussion of authenticity and inauthenticity in Being and Time.  all too quickly, authenticity and inauthenticity are modes of being-in-the world, for heidegger.  in Dasein’s average everydayness, he or she is enmeshed in the ‘they’, the chatter of the masses, the gossip of life lived inauthentically and fully among others: this is, for heidegger, inauthenticity.  authenticity, in contrast, comes from ‘the call of conscience’ it induces a move out of the ‘they’ into authentic historical Being-in-the-World, into quietude, into the stillness of the ‘clearing’.  what calls, what Dasein is called to is the ability to choose, and more pointedly to choose one’s destiny as someone who chooses.  while heidegger endlessly protests that inauthenticity and the ‘they’ are not derogatory states, or terms if you aren’t hearing community versus the ‘free’ individual in this description, i am not writing loud enough.   Being and Time ends with a quite terrifying and dramatic call to answer the call of conscience, to embrace one’s destiny as an historic people… we’ve seen how heidegger answered the call, picked up the phone… (Avital Ronell brilliantly wonders, in her seminal work The Telephone Book, what is it to answer a call, how to know who is calling, and how many who’s are on any given line, and most specifically – what if heidegger answered the wrong call when he took up the phone with the SS on the line?) and there is much more to pursue here, at another time.  but right now, back to this tayloring process, the point to be made among many is that for heidegger, mit-dasein, being-with, or even by extension, being-together in community is not the affair of one in ‘situated freedom…’ with ‘…roots of identity in community’.  it is only in those who have come after heidegger – jean-luc nancy in particular – who have taken heidegger’s being-with out of heidegger’s framework and into something taylor might recognize as community.  what is required to do this work, to find community out of mit-sein is to look again, and closely, at inauthenticity.  at the ‘they’… at those who do not speak in their own voice…, who are engulfed in the production of chatter…

and yet…  this is precisely where foucault comes in.  seemingly a lone wolf, foucault, in a late interview, plainly stated that heidegger was his strongest influence.  given this, given his work, i would like to invite taylor not to a duel, to a dispute, but to a reading group ‘rooted’ in foucault’s work and writing.  as is so easy to do, taylor writes foucault as a theorist of umbrella terms – where gigantic words like power subsume any and all as it it were a miraculous tornado, or glacier, clearing land and people and histories of its own accord, making victims of all the helpless in its wake. beginning with his doctoral thesis, foucault writes very different works and tells a very different story: power, for foucault is the force and effect of discourses enacted.  as enacting more than implies actors, we can here take up foucault’s understanding of subjectivation, as well as the works he wrote on madness at least, to dispel the oversimplifications which occur when taylor and others (including, most recently, bruno latour) read foucault.

subjectivation, first, can be described as a larger movement of louis althusser’s concept of interpellation, famously illustrated as follows:  a man is walking down a sidewalk when a police whistles and calls ‘hey you!’ as the walking man turns to look at the police, he, in effect, answers the call, and responds as the ‘you!’ in question.  now we can imagine circumstances where one turns simply in curiosity, but the broader point of this silly narrative is to illustrate that it is not simply ‘power’ or ‘authority’ that creates the subject of foucault’s descriptions, when the actor in this scenario turns, when he answers the call, he takes in and onto himself the authoritarian paradigm, stepping into a discourse that is formed and formulated in both the call and his own turning.  and he could have done otherwise… he could have kept walking.  the point is that the call was made, the police are in power, the whistles has social parlance and all of this is continued and enacted as the walking man turns in acknowledgement.  

if this sounds unlike the foucault you know, let me take us back into his writings for just a moment to further illustrate the same points.  in foucault’s doctoral thesis, madness and civilization, foucault starts in the middle ages, describing madness as it was defined, looking to social and historical factors that helped make this definition possible and plausible… and yet not for a moment does this description and genealogy step outside its own anthropocentrism.  we don’t see mental institutions building themselves: there are humans collaborating with discourse, formed by and  refining this discourse in their actions… in a very careful reading of descartes, foucault illustrates the way that descartes’ separation of madness and reason trickled down into the formation of madhouses, packing together those who could not live by reason – even when reason was refined and redefined as that which is not sloth… it is always human sloth which is operated on, human productivists who are keeping the doors to these madhouses shut… there could be no actionable discourse without actors taking up their cross and doing their part.

parts, roles, discourses… and of course texts.  if anyone has read anything by jacques derrida it is the oft requoted and misunderstood phrase : ‘there is nothing outside the text’.  taylor goes past this, thankfully, to a critique of Derrida through Nietzsche (as he did with Foucault).  i will pick this up tomorrow…

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  1. this is great, nikki! you’re in the zone, girl.

  2. You play artfully with words. Your thoughtful discussion of Taylor as being one line in the Heideggerian lineage and then offering another via Foucault and Derrida provokes a reply.
    As best I can tell, you sketch a right vs. wrong reading of Heidegger in terms of authenticity/individual vs. inauthenticity/community, and then point out that Heidegger’s being-with is not about situated freedom. Then you invite Taylor to a Foucault reading group so he can be caricatured as one of those unenlightened, oversimplifying types who don’t read Foucault with the subtlety he deserves.
    I think you’re making too many assumptions here about how Taylor reads Heidegger & Foucault (though we can assume that he reads Heidegger in terms of Gadamer and the hermeneutic tradition). What you consider to be the right, if unconventional, reading of Foucault’s subjectivation actually seems a lot like Taylor’s understanding of Foucault to me. The way Taylor interprets Heidegger in ‘overcoming epistemology’—far from setting up an opposition between ‘background and lives’—enables him to understand agency in ways not unlike your take on Althusser and Foucault. There is a major difference, of course (and I’m thinking this is where your hackles rise): Foucault’s discursive communities become ‘moral imaginaries’ for Taylor.
    The difference has to do with the nature of agency in community, i.e., the degree to which our moral intuitions are derived from the inescapably strong horizons of meaning from within which we live. For Taylor, some goods/ends are incomparably greater than others. That is, the descriptive can’t be separated from the evaluative: my own perception of the good forms the backdrop for my own understanding—our evaluative language in everyday use can’t be bleached out by any presumed neutrality.
    For Taylor, the best account that makes the most sense of our lives can’t be abstracted from particulars on the basis of another framework (i.e., ‘hyper-good’) that assumes that all frameworks/ “higher-ordered” goods are relative. Thus, when the goods are segregated and evaluated in terms of a “higher” abstraction (e.g., Kant’s universal obligation), then all goods are trans-evaluated and come into conflict.

    Here Taylor risks caricaturing deconstruction, i.e., proceeding on the assumption that for the Heideggerian lineage via Foucault & Derrida there is nothing worth affirming, since the power of subjectivity undoes all potential allegiances which might bind it. Taylor knows Foucault espoused an ideal of aesthetic construction of self as a work of art, but he also insists that an overly strong attachment to the good of unconstrained freedom gives a higher estimate of the unrestricted powers of imagination than even the Romantics.
    Taylor fears a slide into degenerate subjectivism. He argues that what is most spiritually arresting or epiphanic in the whole movement of contemporary culture is popularly occluded. Simply put, he wants to uncover how we are inescapably powered by some vision of the good. (Is Taylor too disengaged or rational in this understanding?) What’s at stake? The conflict between rival hyper-goods can threaten or sacrifice those very goods that become super-ceded by other hyper-goods, i.e., friendship, traditional identity, etc. get by-passed by efficiency and production in a world where hyper-consumption, i.e., competition for limited objects of desire, is a good. It becomes a question of what models our desire? It pits the modern demands of reason, equality, universality, & disengaged, unencumbered freedom against demands of nature, fulfillment, intimacy, and particularity. For Taylor, mainstream moral philosophy can’t conceive of a diversity of goods, while neo-Nietzschean views dissolve such goods by discrediting them as “moral innovations” intended to preserve privilege over the will. In effect, these occlusions prevent us from acknowledging the force of goods: it leaves us unmoved by them, or—if moved—to misidentify them as “non-moral” emotions.

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