nikki moore

Posts Tagged ‘Michel Foucault’

the delightful disorder of things

In what is philosophy? on July 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

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in two very interesting posts, (here and here) levi bryant at larval subjects is exploring something he is calling separately, the ‘factory of truth’ and aesthetics.  given my time in the MIT architecture theory department and the love for arranged objects that lead me into that program, i am always interested in thinking these connections.  further… as mentioned in a previous post, i saw Food, Inc. this week and was struck by the parallels between philosophy and docudrama.  pairing these and whatever lurks below the surface in this interest of mine, my suspicion, if not my claim (which is a phrase altogether too neil armstrong to be taken seriously…) is that  what philosophy, docudrama and aesthetics are up to is something we could tentatively call plain, old-fashioned collage.

i.e.:

as a painter, writer, scientist, housewife are about the businesses of juxtaposition – arranging paint and paper, arranging diapers and play-dates, arranging data and documentation – the accumulations of all of these people, places, things and thoughts (latour’s ‘actors’) create living arrangements.  on one level, the actors themselves are self-displaying, self-arranging, making themselves and their regions of concern into collages of all sorts filled with unexpected and unnoticed actors, as well as predetermined plot points or points of interest they hope will be noticed.

it is in the noticing, the arranging, in setting up an ‘order of things’ that philosophy enters and, as levi pointed out in one of the abovementioned posts, lags behind like the owl of minerva, tracing and retracing, translating all the while, layering collage upon collage into a gallery of philosophical ideas and concepts.  in this, i might maintain that philosophy is not unlike art, is not unlike science – as each mode of production lags behind and lurches beside, all the while producing all the more, what it thinks it is merely picturing or describing… thinking philosophy as docudrama this production, (latour via levi’s ‘no transportation without translation’,) is a discipline in its most aesthetic mode.

while there is more to be thought here, i will now happily defer to someone who said this years ago and much better…

excerpted  from Michel Foucault’s preface to

The Order of Things

Preface

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1 et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.


But what is it impossible to think, and what kind of impossibility are we faced with here? Each of these strange categories can be assigned a precise meaning and a demonstrable content; some of them do certainly involve fantastic entities – fabulous animals or sirens – but, precisely because it puts them into categories of their own, the Chinese encyclopaedia localizes their powers of contagion; it distinguishes carefully between the very real animals (those that are frenzied or have just broken the water pitcher) and those that reside solely in the realm of imagination. The possibility of dangerous mixtures has been exorcized, heraldry and fable have been relegated to their own exalted peaks: no inconceivable amphibious maidens, no clawed wings, no disgusting, squamous epidermis, none of those polymorphous and demoniacal. faces, no creatures breathing fire. The quality of monstrosity here does not affect any real body, nor does it produce modifications of any kind in the bestiary of the imagination; it does not lurk in the depths of any strange power. It would not even be present at all in this classification had it not insinuated itself into the empty space, ’the interstitial blanks separating all these entities from one another. It is not the ‘fabulous’ animals that are impossible, since they are designated as such, but the narrowness of the distance separating them from (and juxtaposing them to) the stray dogs, or the animals that from a long way off look like flies. What transgresses the boundaries of all imagination, of all possible thought, is simply that alphabetical series (a, b, c, d) which links each of those categories to all the others.



Moreover, it is not simply the oddity of unusual juxtapositions that we are faced with here. We are all familiar with the disconcerting effect of the proximity of extremes, or, quite simply, with the sudden vicinity of things that have no relation to each other; the mere act of enumeration that heaps them all together has a power of enchantment all its own: ‘I am no longer hungry,’ Eusthenes said. ‘Until the morrow, safe from my saliva all the following shall be: Aspics, Acalephs, Acan thocephalates, Amoebocytes, Ammonites, Axolotls, Amblystomas, Aphislions, Anacondas, Ascarids, Amphisbaenas, Angleworms, Amphipods, Anaerobes, Annelids, Anthozoans. . . .’ But all these worms and snakes, all these creatures redolent of decay and slime are slithering, like the syllables which designate them, in Eusthenes’ saliva: that is where they all have their common locus, like the umbrella and the sewing-machine on the operating table; startling though their propinquity may be, it is nevertheless warranted by that and by that in, by that on whose solidity provides proof of the possibility of juxtaposition. It was certainly improbable that arachnids, ammonites, and annelids should one day mingle on Eusthenes’ tongue, but, after all, that welcoming and voracious mouth certainly provided them with a feasible lodging, a roof under which to coexist.



The monstrous quality that runs through Borges’ enumeration consists, on the contrary, in the fact that the common ground on which such meetings are possible has itself been destroyed. What is impossible is not the propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity would be possible. The animals ‘(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ – where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space. The central category of animals ‘included in the present classification’, with its explicit reference to paradoxes we are familiar with, is indication enough that we shall never succeed in defining a stable relation of contained to container between each of these categories and that which includes them all: if all the animals divided up here can be placed without exception in one of the divisions of this list, then aren’t all the other divisions to be found in that one division too? And then again, in what space would that single, inclusive division have its existence? Absurdity destroys the and of the enumeration by making impossible the in where the things enumerated would be divided up. Borges adds no figure to the atlas of the impossible; nowhere does he strike the spark of poetic confrontation; he simply dispenses with the least obvious, but most compelling, of necessities; he does away with the site, the mute ground upon which it is possible for entities to be juxtaposed. A vanishing trick that is masked or, rather, laughably indicated by our alphabetical order, which is to be taken as the clue (the only visible one) to the enumerations of a Chinese encyclopaedia. . . . What has been removed, in short, is the famous ‘operating table’; and rendering to Roussel1 a small part of what is still his due, I use that word ‘table’ in two superimposed senses: the nickel plated, rubbery table swathed in white, glittering beneath a glass sun devouring all shadow – the table where, for an instant, perhaps forever, the umbrella encounters the sewing machine; and also a table, a tabula, that enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world, to put them in order, to divide them into classes, to group them according to names that designate their similarities and their differences – the table upon which, since the beginning of time, language has intersected space.



That passage from Borges kept me laughing a long time, though not without a certain uneasiness that I found hard to shake off…

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moving from is/ought to is/want

In difference on July 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm

in a meeting of the curious yesterday morning, i ran up against an old… should we say… friend?

here is how we met, again:

in a lengthy and lovely discussion on gadamer, derrida, foucault and others, parsing and pausing to see where we all stood, i predictably took the the side of endless play.  of differance, of difference.  my two wise and generous interlocutors then whittled our discussion right down to that ever present stopgap, the relativity question.  you’ve heard it before, but once again: if there is no ground, no foundation… how can one act and essentially, from what point can we issue care?

it’s an old question.  or a newly old question, issuing from the enlightenment which ushered in the era of reason.  either way, the lines have been drawn so many times I won’t repeat them here.  what i would like to repeat is something like jean jacques rousseau’s question, tortured as he was in asking it…  yet before we get there

let’s slow things down a bit:

first, the relativity question is most usually a problem for ethicists, for political theorists, for those who are asking hard questions about what it is to be a we.  understandably the absence of ground often elicits anxiety in those who want to formulate an ethics.  many want things to be true in order to build out an ethics from that solid truth.  but is that the only option?  if derrida, foucault, deleuze and others propose what deleuze calls a groundless ground, is there no way to separate out what is (groundlessness) from what we’d like to have instead (modes of learning to live peacefully and healthily together)?  is there no way to move from the is/ought to the is/want?

or are we already about the business of this shift daily?

take 18th, 19th and 20th century democracy, marxism or socialism for example.  there was a time when the divine right of kings grounded present politics in an eternal truth claim.  enter the enlightenment, the french revolution, the american revolution, etc… somewhere down the line a group of (yes, mainly) men said we’re done with this.  we’d like to change the terms.  entering into a social contract, new lines were drawn, new truth claims laid down and voila… ground out of groundlessness, something from nothing.

of course i know the critiques to be made, the banners to be raised: what gave these men the right to lay things out as they did?  who is to say that what they found representative or socially responsible, or equitable is equitable for you, and representative of us…  essentially, who decides what is to be decided?

and of course, without a universal truth for ground, this questions evokes unanswerable torrents in its wake.  this very line of questioning can, and probably has been, applied to every divine right claim through the ages.  and yet, there is the constitution.  a document which might better serve us were it considered a living document, up for revision, as one jefferson proposed, but which stands, nonetheless, on ground no more firm than the water in your sink.  we’ve simply agreed and continue to agree that there is something like an unalienable right, amongst other agreements.  and while we would do well even to call rights into question, to say that because we are groundless means we cannot decide to pour a foundation seems not only false, but blind to life as we live it.

as quickly as i write this, with rousseau’s social contract shadowing my every key stroke, i am aware of the decisionism also looming in my above argument.  the echos of liberalism, the horrible lurkings of adam smith.  so let me be as clear as i can in saying that the proposed move from is/ought to is/want does not have to take the current shapes we know, love, hate or ignore. the actor networks in play during the formation of the united states of america did not have to produce american hegemony, capitalist globalization, etc… given a groundless ground things can and still could be otherwise.  this is where relativity and its persisting question is at its most productively freeing: perhaps ethics no longer needs a universal truth to build from and what ethicists choose to build are structures as free as the birds.  perhaps this is the beauty of this possibility.  while the is/ought is pre-stocked (the ramifications of a given ‘is’ (although ‘given’ is quite the oxymoron here) necessitate a set of particular oughts) the outcome of the is/want is wide open to the free play of hope.  echoing judith butler’s work on performativity, my (albeit tentatively) proposed is/want means that the new social contracts – be they between two, between ten or between ten million, are actors on an infinite stage of possibility.  or they could be.  this is of course, more in theory than in practice, but it is theory we are dealing with in the relativity question.  daily life sorts this out without flinching as we think and act toward how best to show love to those we care for, as we think and act toward both the upholding and the questioning of laws, of social justice.

moving from is/ought (from formulating ontologies) to is/want – (formulating modes of praxis)… sidelining the relativity question and enabling community formation.  it seems all to easy.

surely i am missing something…

more than a play on words…

In what is philosophy? on July 8, 2009 at 11:41 pm

after a break, moving boxes, moving books…

books and boxes.

returning to charles taylor, where i left off more than a week ago.  taylor, in overcoming epistemology, issues a challenge, a call to arms… tracing epistemology through the sciences to post-modernism (which i propose is more accurately structuralism and it’s posts-) where it gets lost in solipsism, only to be found again in and by the hermeneutic tradition.  what is at stake for taylor is a knowing that allows us to engage the world and others in it.  he is looking a ‘serious argument’ from the other side (foucault, derrida and nietzsche).  from ronell (see stupidity), derrida (limited. inc) and even rousseau (the confessions) i am learning to be leery of the serious.  and yet,

or perhaps because…

i would like to respond.  before this can happen, if it can happen at all, a critical clarification seems to be in order.  i am not the first to make it: as levi bryant at larval subjects writes it, there is epistemology and there is ontology.  this seemingly straightforward discussion gets repeatedly muddied by conversants who pit themselves against derrida, foucault and nietzsche, as well as by those who rise to the latter’s defense.  the confusion is, ironically, understandable.  in nietzsche’s work, epistemology and ontology are notable bedfellows.  if, reductively, might makes right… then the way we know and see and read the world is what that world becomes.  in foucault, discursive modes carve out and create the world we see, live in and reciprocally determine even while being determined in the exchange.  and in derrida, language strong-arms ways of knowing to such a degree that nature/culture, method/truth (and we could add here epistemology/ontology) cannot be distinguished.  clearly the move to muddy epistemology and ontology in these thinkers has it’s ground.

yet as ground is precisely in question…

i’d like to spend some time with one of derrida’s better known texts: “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966).  working through levi strauss’ research into the incest prohibition, derrida finds, with strauss, that the distinction between nature and culture is suspended in this universal no-no:

This scandal is the incest prohibition.  The incest prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural.  But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural…  Derrida, Structure Sign and Play.

and yet how did we get to incest from epistemology and ontology?  allow me a long quote from levi strauss to help make the connection:

let us suppose then that everything universal in man relates to the natural order, and is characterized by spontaneity, and that everything subject to a norm is cultural and is both relative and particular.  we are then confronted with a fact, or rather, a group of facts, which, in the light of previous definitions, are not far removed from a scandal; we refer to that complex group of beliefs, customs, conditions and institutions described succinctly as the prohibition of incest, which presents, without the slightest ambiguity, and inseparably combines, the two characteristics in which we recognize the conflicting features of two mutually exclusive orders.  it constitutes a rule, but a rule which, alone among all social rules, possesses at the same time a universal character.      from the elementary structures of kinship, strauss.

in the slippage, what derrida will call the play of nature and culture, the red thread is revealed in its unraveling: what we had posited as natural, as out there, as ontological is at one with what we had posited as cultural, as historically situated, as epistemological.  the impact of this find is dramatic: revealing for both strauss and derrida that the ways we know, our abilities to think a thing, an institution, a prohibition shape what we see and encounter in the world.  this is not too far afield from heidegger, either.  and on first read, perhaps this is the derrida everyone seems to know..? the derrida taylor all too quickly (and bizarrely) associates with ‘the spiritual stance of self-making… (p. 16)’ the derrida who claims the center is de-centered, oddly unaware that he is re-positing a center in the statement of decentering.  ahhh… if all our theoretical enemies were only so easy…

permit me another long quote, this time from derrida, to re-complicate this story:

This example [incest prohibition], too cursorily examined, is only one among many others, but nevertheless it already shows that language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique.  Now this critique may be undertaken along two paths, in two “manners.” Once the limit of the nature/culture opposition makes itself felt, one might want to question systematically and rigorously the history of these concepts.  This is a first action.  Such a systematic and historic questioning would be neither a philological nor a philosophical action in the classic sense of these words.  To concern oneself with the founding concepts of the entire history of philosophy, to deconstitute them, is not to undertake the work of the philologist or of the classic historian of philosophy.  Despite appearances, it is probably the most daring way of making the beginnings of a step outside of philosophy.         Structure, Sign and Play (p. 285 in Writing and Difference), [brackets] mine.

so here, finally and surely, this is the derrida we all know..?  moving through the history of philosophy, systematically pulling up concepts that complicate binaries and deconstitute foundations?  surely this is the derrida who initiates the return to solipsism, to what did taylor call it… “self-making” as he peels back all other founding possibilities to reveal the worms below.

still again, this derrida, this antagonist is yet all too simple:

the other choice (which I believe corresponds more closely to Levi-Strauss’s manner), in order to avoid the possibly sterilizing effects of the first one, consists in conserving all these old concepts within th domain of empirical discovery while here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools which can still be used.  no longer is any truth value attributed to them; there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful.  in the meantime, their relative efficacy is expolited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces.  this is how the language of the social sciences criticizes itself.  levi-strauss thinks that in this way he can separate method from truth, the instruments of the method and the objective significations envisaged by it.  one could almost say that this is the primary affirmation of levi-strauss; in any event, the first words of the Elementary Structures are: “Above all, it is beginning to emerge that this distinction between nature and society (‘nature’ and ‘culture’ seem preferable to us today) while of no acceptable historical significance, does contain a logic, fully justifying its use by modern sociology as a methodological tool.”

given his way of surprise, and the very move to rethink essence and appearance, it would be premature to say this is in fact Derrida as he’d prefer to be read.  but in the three derrida’s we’ve now seen and read, the pop image (if there is anything popular about these sorts of people, discussions, etc..) begins to shift and dissolve.  stepping just back or aside from a rigorous upheaval of history,  in this derrida, in this paragraph, we read derrida reading strauss and there is a (shocking?) pragmatism in the idea that even broken tools (metaphysics) must/can/will still be used, must still be taken up, until something better comes along.  does this give pause to the idea that derrida was unaware of the metaphysical loop that his digs at metaphysics inevitably succumb to..?  to say that derrida, even heidegger were aware that there is no escape – there is no outside of the text – is not to say there is nothing beyond what we make up, what we construct.  it is to say, amongst other things, that in our very attempts to get ‘beyond’ epistemology, metaphysics, etc… we are repeatedly and undeniably caught in the webs we are examining and that derrida was clearly aware of this.

yet moving back into this last quoted paragraph, derrida writes: “the other choice… in order to avoid the sterilizing effects of the first one…” after positing two paths derrida recommends not the one less traveled by, but the one less sterile.  less sterilizing.  in the last two years, derrida has either come under harsh attack or dismissed with the argument that you can’t do anything with deconstruction except deconstruct.  perhaps this call for something other than sterility, (would its opposite be passion? (re)production? even a little dirt?) could also give pause to this critique.

and where does this leave us in regard to the epistemology/ontology distinction we began with?  while i am accusing taylor of such a mix-up, am i not inevitably engaged in the same cycle?

my response to taylor’s call is to offer something other than what he has been served thus far and to ask of him and his readers what precisely they are after in calling nietzsche, derrida and foucault to account.  in the process i hope i have debunked a few of the most sterilizing myths surrounding what derrida was writing, where deconstruction found its own fathers (heidegger, strauss) and clarified the stakes for what could eventually begin to formulate a response to Taylor.  to read derrida as thinker of nihilism, via nietzsche, is not to read him close enough.  concluding with derrida, this point is made with voice and vigor:

turned towards the lost or impossible presence of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediacy is therefore the saddened, negative, nostaligic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play whose other side would be nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which his offered to an active interpretation.  This affirmation then determines the noncenter otherwise than as loss of center…

there are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play.  the one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile.  the other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology – in other words, throughout his entire history – has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play…

for my part, although these two interpretations must acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, i do not believe that today there is any question of choosing – in the first place because here we are in a region (let us say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly triviall; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the differance of this irreducible difference…                  derrida, structure sign and play [extractions from the concluding paragraphs].

if taylor was asking for a way to engage the world and others, the move to ‘conceive of the common ground…’

perhaps..?

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…

the subject and power

In Subjection on March 2, 2009 at 9:23 pm

from critical inquiry, 1982… Foucault’s essay ‘The Subject and Power’ is a very interesting answer to Foucault’s own critics.  He pinpoints his own project not as an investigation of power, but as an investigation into the way ‘human beings become subjects/take on subjectivities…’ For Foucault, investigating this process requires a careful look at the institutions that create nodes of both power and subjectivities.  One such node that stands out for me from the essay is the node of Pastoral Care, which originated with the Church and unlike monarchies, which require subjection and sacrifice from their subjects as well as the individual’s subsumption into the larger whole of the realm, Pastoral care requires sacrifice from the figure of the Pastor who tends to the very individuality of the subject within the global church.  In other words, a much more intimate ‘knowing’ of the subject on the part of the pastor is required than in any earlier system of subjectivation.  

Yet, something in this overview seems to rub, if only lightly, against his own lectures at the College de France on the Hermenuetics of the Subject, where Foucault, in typical genealogical style, shows the ways in which the early greek practices of the self were a pendulum’s swing between ‘self care’ and care for the republic.  while certainly the confessional mode of self care was an amplification of these greek practices, i would need to read it all again and more carefully to see if and where there is an historical divergence.

But this point is literally neither here nor there as it is always already part of being in the world: i.e. what Foucault’s work continually draws out, like the work of Siegfried Zielinski, are the things ready-to-hand (yes, read: Heidegger) that operate not only under, but also and precisely on the hands which pick them up.  In that sense, perhaps Foucault’s work is a phenomenology of subjectivities, in worlds worlding within their own time of being.

perhaps.  i’d have to read more to say for sure…

something old something new…

In Subjection on January 20, 2009 at 1:09 am

written fall, 2008.

There are rare times when a thinker can both explicate and perform the subject of her own critique in writing.  The Psychic Life of Power is one such work, wherein Judith Butler both explores and performs the iterability of the subject by explicitly working in and through concepts from Althusser, Hegel, Nietzsche, Foucault, Freud & Lacan and implicitly through Derrida.  Namely, Butler is working through the trope of the ‘turn’ as it is rooted in Louis Althusser’s exploration of the concept of interpellation, tracing and transforming it through the forenamed philosophers’ theories of subject formation into a bodied agent of political consequence[1].

To follow the strength of Butler’s argument, I would like to follow her performance of the iterable subject through the text (Psychic Life of Power) highlighting a few key concepts and moves therein.  But first, a few words on iterability.

While Butler is notably and professedly a Hegelian and Foucauldian, when interviewed at Berkeley in the 1990’s, Butler named Jacques Derrida as the greatest influence on her own body of work.  This influence, though unspoken in the Psychic Life of Power, is performed in Butler’s workings of what Derrida calls iterability.  Briefly and admittedly reductively, iterability can be thought as the ability of signs to be grafted into new and different contexts while both retaining a trace of their earlier meaning and taking on and forming new meanings in each new context, all the while displacing notions of origin or essence[2]. 

Moving back to the explicit terms of Psychic Life of Power, Butler deploys and employs the workings of Derridian iterability through multiple readings of a body/soul/subject trio, beginning with this trio’s appearance in Hegel’s work on the Unhappy Consciousness.  Here, in Hegel, Butler highlights the bodily subjection of the bondsman to the master where the body of the bondsman ‘performs’ as the extended body of the master in work and productivity.  As the bondsman realizes his own distinct presence in the work of his hands, i.e. in what he produces, he is confronted with the fleeting nature of both what is produced and himself as the producer. He is also faced with his own ongoing erasure as the Master takes credit for the work of his extended contractual body, i.e. the bondsman. In a move to repress this knowledge of death’s inevitability, as Butler writes it, the bondsman splits himself psychically into bondsman and master, performing a denial that echoes Freud’s death drive and Nietzsche’s aesthetic class whose subjectivity is formulated out of ressentiment.[3]

Moving from Hegel to Nietzsche, in chapter 2, via Freud, Butler draws on the violent foundations of morality in On the Genealogy of Morals and points to the inherent ressentiment in all artistic production. We all know the story here, how Nietzsche’s understanding of subject formation is rooted in the bad consciousness of the internalizing slaves, etc.  For Butler this story is important as it pinpoints the creativity implicit in the interiorization of the subject: “As a peculiar deformation of artistry (which is, of course, indistinguishable from its primary formation), self-consciousness is the form the will takes when it is prevented from simple expression as a deed.” [4]  While we might see Nietzsche’s Nobles as those able to express in deed rather than representation, Butler problematizes Nietzsche’s own work (and her own as well) as the results of aesthetic activity.[5]  Without resolving this suggestion that ressentiment is at the heart of all production, the body/soul/subject trio is reframed and recontextualizing in the shift from Hegel’s bondsman, to still a slave morality, but one which is founded in artistic performance and production.

Moving this iterable body/soul/subject trio through the work of Foucault, Butler locates a transmigration of the soul from interiority (as in Hegel & Nietzsche) to the subjectivated body of Foucault’s finding[6].  This necessary step, shifting the meaning of soul from an interior to an exterior formulation, gives Butler the now newly iterated context of performativity (specifically gender performance) that she will deploy in the final chapters of The Psychic Life of Power.  With one final recontextualization of the body/soul/subject trio through Althusser’s concept of interpellation, Butler has brilliantly managed to carve out space for a politically charged subject whose body performs both its own subjection and its most heightened possibility for freedom from that same subjection.  If you will follow Butler with me to p.99 in the text, she writes: “What is brought into being through the performative effect of the interpellating demand is much more than a ‘subject,’ for the ‘subject’ created is not for that reason fixed in place: it becomes the occasion for a further making.  Indeed, I would add, a subject only remains a subject through a reiteration or re-articulation of itself as a subject, and this dependency of the subject on repetition for coherence may constitute that subject’s incoherence, its incomplete character.  This repetition, or better, iterability thus becomes the non-place of subversion, the possibility of a re-embodying of the subjectivating norm that can redirect its normativity”[7]

Here, in Butler’s own words and rhetorical performance, iterable subjectivation finds its destination in the “incomplete redirecting of normativity”.  This redirecting was made possible by her own performative dislocations of the body/soul/subject trio as it is found in variation, through Hegel’s Unhappy Consciousness, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, Foucault’s theorization’s on the subjectivation of the body and Althusser’s working of the ‘turn’ or interpellation.  While the performative subject of Butler’s own critical iterabilities is not without flaws, equipped with the trope of the ‘turn’ and this iterable subject formation, Butler and others following her work, can and have formulated not only the politicized arm of Derridian deconstruction, but equally viable political subjectivities whose agency is both bound and formulated by the structures they are working to reconfigure.   What this does from, for, with and to Nietzschean ressentiment is now up for discussion.


[1] On the turn, Butler writes: “Considered grammatically, it will seem that there must first be a subject who turns back on itself, yet I will argue that there is no subject except as a consequences of this very reflexivity.” Butler, Judith.  The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press, 1997. P. 68

[2] For Jacques Derrida’s full working and unworking of iterability, see “Signature, Event, Context” in Limited Inc, which is a compilation of writings between Derrida and John Searle on and around the concepts of speech act theory, first outlined by J.L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words.

[3] What is at stake here for Butler is both self-renunciation and performativity.  “The renunciation of the self as the origin of its own actions must be performed repeatedly and can never finally be achieved, if only because the demonstration of renunciation, whereby the performance, as an action, contradicts the postulation of inaction, that it is meant to signify.  Paradoxically, performance becomes the occasion for a grand and endless action that effectively augments and individuates the self it seeks to deny.”  Butler, Judith.  The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press, 1997.  p.49

[4] Ibid, p.76

[5] Not that Nietzsche did not, indeed, recognize his own complicity in slave morality as well.  Numerous passages in the Genealogy of Morals find Nietzsche almost joyous over the results of artist production, including his own.  Butler not only recognizes this duplicity and complicity, she uses it to raise the stakes for the performative subject she seeks to iterate.

[6] For more on this transition from interiority to exteriority, see Butler, on the chapter “Between Freud and Foucault”.  The following quote, for the sake of brevity, may help illustrate the points she is working therein: 

       p.89 “In the final chapter of the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault calls for a “history of bodies” which would inquire into “the manner in which what is most material and vital in them has been invested.”  In this formulation, he suggests that power not only produces the boundaries of a subject but pervades the interiority of that subject.  In the last formulation, it appears that there is an “inside” to the body which exits before power’s invasion.  But given the radical exteriority of the soul, how are we to understand “interiority” in Foucault?  That interiority will not be a soul, and it will not be a psyche, but what will it be?  Is this a space of pure malleability, one which is as it were, ready to conform to the demands of socialization?  Or is this interiority to be called, simply, the body?  Has it come to the paradoxical point where Foucault wants to claim that the soul is the exterior form, and the body the interior space?” [Italics, mine].

[7] Ibid, p.99.

cavorting with johns

In Subjection on January 11, 2009 at 10:48 pm

i didn’t read him for years, mainly because, ostensibly and albeit contestedly, foucault couldn’t stand him.

you could say i am a devoted friends.  or… here, at the end of nausea, you  might instead call me a betrayer.  but i’m not the point.
“in the first place, starting from 1801, I understand nothing more about his conduct.  it is not the lack of documents: letters, fragments of memoirs, secret reports, police records.  on the contrary i have almost too many of them.  what is lacking in all this testimony is firmness and consistency.  they do not contradict each other, neither do they agree with each other; they do not seem to be about the same person.  and yet other historians work from the same sources of information.  how do they do it?  am i more scrupulous or less intelligent?  in any case, the question leaves me completely cold.  in truth, what am i looking for?  i don’t know…”

“…I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved.  these are honest hypotheses which take the facts into account: but i sense so definitely that they come from me, and that they are simply a way of unifying my own knowledge.  not a glimmer comes from Rollebon’s side.  slow, lazy, sulky, the facts adapt themselves to the rigour of the order i wish to give them; but it remains outside of them.  i have the feeling of doing a work of pure imagination.”          Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre.  p 13

*i think the idea is that there are no ideas.  there is stuff.  there can be emotions.  is that what Jean-Luc is saying (and what is with the hyphenated johns)…

“singular essences are mobile, volatile, and always different than themselves and defer their essential nature – however they never cease to promise sameness.  it is the latter property which is endowed with the spark of an idea: this stone, that fern and this woman.”     “Strange Foreign Bodies”, for Lacanian Ink #32, p 129

but this brings me back to foucault.  does it bring sartre as well? if the body is the cage/seat/site of the soul (foucault) and the body is strangeness, with the promise of sameness… it is just body but body not flesh and blood and guts but body as body, full body.

“my hands touch each other, and my body recognizes itself as coming toward itself from an outside that the body is itself.  the body takes in the outside world.  this chiasm of the flesh is very well described by the most perceptive phenomenologist of the body – and this chiasm which makes us sensitive to how we are women to the world… “inside” is to be und between outside and outside, and this in-between – the in-between of its hide-out, of its cave and its myths and ghosts – is in the end nothing but another out.”

“the body does not contain anything… the body exposes itself to the depths of its guts, between the fibers of its muscles and along its vessels.  it exposes the inside to the outside and always escapes further, deeper into the abyss that it is.  however this is the truth of the world: it comes out of nothing, it is created, which means that is is unproduced, unformed, and not constructed.  it is an alteration and a spasm of nihil.  the world is an explosion and an expansion of an exposure (which can be called ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’).  the chiasm of the body and of the world exposes exposure to itself – and with it, the impossibility to finally bring the world to the spirit, and bring meaning to significance.”

“the body is strangeness which is not preceded by familiarity.”     again, Nancy, “Strange Foreign Bodies” pp 125-126

and so there are just objects.  extremely complex, but then again that complexity belies connectivity, which insinuates meaning and means all the wrong thing…

there is more to think about. here.