Foucault


I’m feeling pretty wretched this evening, whether from a cold or allergies. To amuse myself in my sinus fog, I’ll post this clip and then proceed to the issue of this post.

Returning to Ian’s keynote address where tacos are mentioned, I just cannot resist posting this clip as a nice cinematic representation of non-human objects as actors. Silliness and sinus headaches aside, I have some rather vague and unformed thoughts rolling about in my cobweb filled mind regarding the nature of theories. One of the measures of any ontology, I think, is the issue of self-reflexivity. Does the ontology take account of its own ontological status within its own theoretical framework, or does it implicitly exempt itself from the claims it makes about the nature of the world? Foucault, for example, got himself in trouble with Habermas. As Habermas argued in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Foucault seems to exempt his own archaeological and genealogical analyses from the very dynamics of power he discerns everywhere else. If truth is a product of power, the argument runs, what is it that authorizes Foucault’s own discourse? Wouldn’t it too be a product of power-relations? I am not here endorsing Habermas’ criticism, but simply giving an example of the problem of self-reflexivity to draw attention to what the issue is. How is it that a theory takes account of itself within the framework of its own ontological commitments?

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Herding CatsThere have been a number of interesting posts surrounding Speculative Realism lately. Over at Immanence Adrian reflects on the significance of speculative realist thought for ecology. As Adrian writes,

I’ve been intrigued by the SR crowd for a while now because they seem to speak a language that resonates with the kinds of complex-network/biocultural-systems/discursive-materialist thinkers I’ve drawn on in my theorizing of socio-natural relations — folks like Bruno Latour, John Law, and the actor-network theorists, technoscience feminists (Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, et al), Spinozian-Deleuzian political theorists (William Connolly and post-Marxists like J.K. Gibson-Graham), ‘social nature’ and post-representationalist geographers (Bruce Braun, Noel Castree, Sarah Whatmore, Nigel Thrift, Steve Hinchliffe, and their ‘social spatialization’ and eco-Marxist and Lefebvrian relatives), Batesonians and biosemioticists, socio-nature and post-Gibsonian anthropologists (Ingold, Descola, Palsson), embodied/enactive cognitivists (Varela, Thompson) and developmental psychologists (Oyama), eco-world-system theorists (Alf Hornborg, Jason Moore, Sing Chew, Yrjo Haila), political ecologists and postcolonial materialists (like Arturo Escobar, who fits into several of the above categories), et al. It seems that in SR we may be finding a current within mainstream philosophy — as opposed to its fringes and sub-sub-niches (see my post on the interaction between continental and environmental philosophies) — with which to closely ally. That alone is a cause for celebration.

This post is rich in connections so read the rest here.

Paul Ennis of anotherheideggerblog speculates that SR may very well be the first web based or truly digital philosophical movement. As Paul writes,

I’ve been taking something of an interest in the so-called Speculative Realist school associated with thinkers such as Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman , and Quentin Meillassoux. At least part of my interest lies in the fact that the SR may represent the first truly digital or technological philosophical movement. It is transmitted by a central blog, personal blogs such as those of Harman and Levi (Harman’s in particular is a good introduction to SR).

The Latourian in me is fascinated with this issue. Latour is all about tracing networks. In his more empirically oriented studies he’s always focused on questions of how certain relations among actors were formed, how the gained strength, how they shifted from being loose assemblages to black boxes, what tools were used, etc. Latour wants us to open black boxes and see how they’re put together. In this respect, it is interesting to observe interactions among actors as they attempt to form a ramshackle assemblage or network amongst one another.

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Back in January, Nick wrote a post arguing that questions of ontology and questions of politics should be sharply delimited. Nick’s controversial thesis– which looks obvious to me –is that ontological and metaphysical questions should not be decided by political considerations, nor do ontologies entail any particular politics. In my book, Difference and Givenness, I groped towards something similar without quite being able to put my finger on the problem. One of my great discontents with so much of the secondary literature on Deleuze was that it seemed to decide ontological and epistemic questions on normative grounds, rather than grounds internal to their theoretical coherence and adequacy. Thus you’ll come across books and articles that denounce Kant or Hegel because they are “State Thinkers”, but what does being a State Thinker have to do with the adequacy of Kant or Hegel’s metaphysics or epistemology?

In the spirit of Hume’s famous Is-Ought Fallacy where ethical reasoning encounters a logical leap when it attempts to derive an “ought” from an “is”, it seems worthwhile to coin a converse fallacy called the “Normative Fallacy”. The Normative Fallacy would occur wherever one seeks to either discount or infer an “is” from an “ought”. To be clear, one is not committing the Normative Fallacy when they judge some state of affairs as being unjust or unethical. If this is not an instance of the Normative Fallacy, then this is because the person is not denying the existence of what is, but rather arguing that things should be otherwise. This is perfectly legitimate and is operative in nearly all our reasoning about the world insofar as we must perpetually think in terms of potentialities in order to reason about anything at all.

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The Object of the Question and the Objection to the Object

A few days ago, Joseph Kugelmass of The Kugelmass Episode tagged me to write a post on why I teach literature. Admittedly I’ve been behind the curve on this one. The discussion has now proliferated throughout the intellectual blogosphere (for a set of links to how this discussion has proliferated and her own interesting response, see Rough Theory here and here), and I am only now catching up on the posts. As for my delay in responding, I have no good excuses. On the one hand, I’ve been extremely busy, trying to balance teaching with the completion of two articles and two conference papers (shoot me now). On the other hand, it has been very difficult for me to think clearly of late as someone very close to me is very sick and I’m facing the question of an absence in my life, a total void, with respect to someone who has been there my entire life. I think of Sartre’s description of the cafe where he walks in, looking for his friend Pierre, only to find that he is absent. This is a minor missed meeting between friends. But what of someone who is so much more than that? How do you grasp or get your mind around the irreversible absence of someone else, the fact that they will never be there again? How do you endure the reality, the facticity, of their absent laughter, that you’ll never hear their voice again, that you’ll never again hear their jokes or what they have to say or even their pointed anger?

Finally, I have, no doubt, been reluctant to respond to this challenge as, in many respects, the question of why I teach is a fundamental existential question, a question pertaining to my being-towards-death, a question that produces anxiety. In short, just as I do not have a clear answer as to why I practice philosophy, I do not have a clear answer as to why I teach. I do not, of course, teach literature, but philosophy. In asking “why do you teach philosophy?” I suppose the first question to ask is what, precisely, is this question asking? In his famous phenomenology of the question, Heidegger writes:

Every inquiry is a seeking [Suchen]. Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. This cognizant seeking can take the form of ‘investigating’ [“Untersuchen”], in which one lays bare that which the question is about and ascertains its character. Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something is somehow a asked about [Sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a question of something [Anfragen bei…]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions– that is, in questions which are specifically theoretical –what is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Furthermore, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erfragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry researches its goal. Inquiry itself is the behavior of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such it has its own character of Being. (Being and Time, 24)

I have quoted this passage to draw attention to the Befragtes or that which is asked about in Kugelmass’s question. When one asks, “why do you teach?” What is the Befragtes? What is it that is asked about? In evoking the indexical, the “you”, it would seem that the question is about one’s desire. The question here would be “what desire animates your teaching? Or rather, it would be a question of how teaching is one’s own symptom. Here reference would have to be made to the unconscious of the particular person answering the question, to their particular mode of jouissance, and how teaching is a way of satisfying the drive for a singular subject. In this case, my own choice of teaching and of philosophy in particular refers not to any particular aims I might have in the classroom, but to the way the signifier functions in my unconscious. I have spoken of this elsewhere in the past. The reason I chose philosophy rather than literature, and teaching rather than being a comedian (besides lacking a sense of humor), a journalist, a politician, etc., has to do with a particular trauma that structures my life.

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Lars has written a fantastic analysis of Deleuze’s analysis of Foucault. This sheds a good deal of light on Deleuze’s understanding of language and his engagement with Hjelmslev.

Deleuze is insistent in his book on Foucault: despite appearances, despite the fact his recently deceased friend placed emphasis on discourse, he was a thinker of what Deleuze calls visibilities (and we should not be too quick to look for a definition of this word).

The elegant, but complex argument of Deleuze’s Foucault shows us how saying and seeing, ‘discursive practices and forms of self’evidence’ are divided – how the articulable and the visible, the forms of expression and the forms of content never quite coincide even as they combine to make possible particular behaviours, mentalities or sets of ideas that belong to particular historical formations (strata).

And not only that. Deleuze wants, too, to show how Foucault thinks their interrelationship as it draws upon a ‘non-relating relation’ such as Blanchot formulated it (albeit in a different context), which will require a unique ontology made up of folds and foldings, of the single plane of the outside that lends itself to particular interiorisations, but periodically shakes them out like a tablecloth, only to allow new crumplings, mutations by way of which new behaviours, mentalities and sets of ideas are distributed.

You can read the rest here.

Of late I’ve occasionally grumbled about education reform here in the United States. Given the sort of readership I have, I suspect that some look at me sidelong when I go on these rants wondering why I get so worked up. After all, there are much sexier issues to discuss like global capitalism and empire. Nonetheless, I think the No Child Left Behind act has been an unmitigated disaster and I am filled with cold chills whenever I think about it. I wish some talented Foucaultian would come along– you know the type, those that don’t simply talk about what Foucault himself wrote, but continue the project of rigorously studying forms and organizations of institutional power such as, perhaps, the way the DSM-IV functions and so on –and analyze the sorts of subjectivizations produced as a result of these agendas. These are the contemporary forms of micropower. Are they being studied and strategized?

What will the minds of Americans be like ten or fifteen years from now, after these children have grown up and entered the work world? Apparently this movement isn’t restricted to the secondary schools, but now there are entire groups of university administrators who believe this would be a good idea at the college level as well. In my cynicism I might not be surprised to hear of community or junior college administors pursuing such reform… But administrators at four year institutions with graduate programs? Now whenever I hear some well meaning person speak of “rubrics” and “performance outcomes” I shiver and dig my heels in, terrified that this is what is lurking right around the corner. I have a dirty confession to make: I passionately believe in traditional liberal arts education and the formation of critical thinkers that do not simply repeat but that are capable of posing problems and creatively generating solutions. The aim of pedagogy should be the formation of free men and women or self-directing agents. This is not accomplished by producing good test-takers. Indeed, listening to the horror stories of the pressures that are placed on students to perform well on these tests, it’s difficult to escape the impression that the very aim of this program is to thoroughly destroy any love of learning so that we might have a perfectly docile populace. The minute I hear words like “rubrics” and “performance outcomes” I suspect that the person using them has little or no understanding of what pedagogy is. At any rate, if you’re in the mood to be outraged, read this and this.

These are prime examples of what I have in mind when I speak of forms of action and policy arising out of stupidity, where the dimension of mediation has been ignored. In the development of this legislation teachers have systematically been cut out of the process as there’s been a working assumption that teachers are the problem and that the businessmen and lawyers that make up Congress know better what is required of education than those who teach. The first stupidity then lies in reducing education to a simple exchange of information, memorization, or “facts”. The second lies in the belief that the source of our education problems are the result of poor teachers. In both cases these are the results of “thingly thought” that pitches problems in terms of abstract immediacy, failing to appreciate the broader network of relations embodied in its object. I’m thoroughly baffled that parents and teachers everywhere aren’t filling the streets and marching with torches as a result of these disgusting policies. I get so angry thinking about this and what I’m seeing in my classroom from students freshly out of highschool that I can hardly even pull together words to say anything of value on the issue.

Recently I mentioned that I have been reading Rabinow and Dreyfus’ excellent Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, and that it had been filling me with a tremendous depression and despondancy. I think that there are forms of theory that can make one ill by divesting one of their power to act, and for me Foucault’s thought– especially during his middle archaeological period –is an example of such toxic theory (Althusser’s account of ideology would be another example of toxic theory for me). My paralysis emerges in response to claims such as the following:

Far from accepting a descriptive theory [of epistemes or historical forms of knowledge], he [Foucault] seems to want a prescriptive one: “The analysis of statements and discursive formations… wishes to determine the principle according to which only the ‘signifying’ groups that were enunciated could appear. It sets out to establish a law of rarity” (Archaeology of Knowledge, 118). At times he seems to go so far as to demand not merely conditions of possibility but total determination: “One must show why [a specific statement] could not have been other than it was” (“Reponse au cercle d’epistemologie”, 17). The archeologist should discover “the play of rules which determine the appearance and disappearance of statements in a culture” (CE, 19). Again and again, Foucault seems compelled to abandon the phenomenological, neutral post hoc description for some sort of explanatory a priori. (84)

What is crushing in Foucault during this period is the manner in which every statement that can be made seems to always already be determined by the anonymous historical a priori in which it occurs. While I am perhaps able to make statements that don’t obey the “established laws of rarity”, these established laws nonetheless determine what is and is not taken as a serious statement. In the worst case scenerio, I’m not even capable of making non-serious statements, but instead can only articulate what follows these laws of rarity as my very subjectivity is a product of this historical a priori.

Although Foucault marks a substantial advance in seeing these constellations as historical, there are certain respects in which he nonetheless seems to remain tied to a substance metaphysics. As Kant articulates it in the first analogy of The Critique of Pure Reason or “The Principle of Persistence of Substance”, “All appearances contain that which persists (substance) as the object itself, and that which can change as its mere determination, i.e., a way in which the object exists” (A182, B224). What Kant is getting at can be illuminated by reference to Descartes’ discussion of the wax in the Meditations. There raising the question of how it is possible for us to know the persistence of an object in time (an epistemological variation of the problem of individuation), Descartes writes:

Let us now consider the commonest things, which are commonly believed to be the most distinctly known and the easiest of all to know, namely, the bodies which we touch and see. I do not intend to speak of bodies in general, for general notions are usually somewhat more confused; let us rather consider one body in particular. Let us take, for example, this bit of wax which has just been taken from the hive. It has not yet completely lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains something of the odor of the flowers from which it was collected; its color, shape, and size are apparent; it is hard and cold; it can easily be touched; and, if you knock on it, it will give out some sound. Thus everything which can make a body distinctly known are found in this example. (Lafleur translation, 30)

This might be referred to as the “bundle theory” of individuation, where I arrive at a knowledge of what individuates an object through the qualities of which it is composed (the epistemological problem of individuation should not be confused with the ontological problem of individuation). However, as we quickly see, this account of how we know the individuality of an object quickly fails:

But now while I’m talking I bring it close to the fire. What remains of the taste evaporates; the odor vanishes; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid; it gorws hot; one can hardly touch it; and although it is knocked upon, it will give out no sound. Does the same wax remain after the change? We must admit that it does; no one denies it, no one judges otherwise. What is it then in this bit of wax that we recognize with so much distinctness? Certainly it cannot be anything that I observed by means of the senses, since everything in the field of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and since the same wax nevertheless remains. (30, my italics)

Descartes concludes that we cannot know the individuality of an object through the five senses because the qualities of which the object is composed are perpetually changing, while the object nonetheless remains that object there. Something about the object remains the same. Descartes therefore concludes that,

A person who attempts to improve his understanding beyond the ordinary ought to be ashamed to go out of his way to criticize the forms of speech used by ordinary men. I prefer to pass over this matter and to consider whether I understand what wax was more evidently and more perfectly when I first noticed it and when I thought I knew it by means of the external sense, or at the very least by common sense, as it is called, or the imaginative faculty; or whether I conceive it better at present, after having more carefully examined what it is and how it can be known. Certainly it would be ridiculous to doubt the superiority of the latter method of knowing. For what was there in that first perception which was distinct and evident? What was there which might not occur similarly to the senses of the lowest of the animals? But when I distinguished the real wax from its superficial appearances, and when, just as though I had removed its garments, I consider it all naked, it is certain that although there might still be some error in my judgment, I could not conceive it in this fashion without a human mind. (32)

When Kant references “determinations”, he is referring to what Descartes calls “superficial appearances” or sense-qualities composing our perception of an object. An object, at any given point in time, comprises a number of different determinations. For instance, I have short brown hair and brown eyes, a goatee, am about 175 pounds and six feet tall, have skin that is a particular shade of olive, wear glasses, etc. These determinations comprise my qualitative appearance, yet could easily change. I could gain or lose weight. I could become pale or darker. My hair is slowly turning gray and I will get shorter as I age, and so on. Yet I am somehow the same. In order for me to be thinkable as enduring in time, I must be thought as a substance (hypokeimenon, a support the lies beneath) that remains the same throughout change.

Foucault, of course, is neither a Kantian or a Cartesian, yet when he describes the episteme governing what is seriously sayable in a particular historical moment, he seems to be referring to a sort of substance that supports variations in speech and discourse and persists throughout these variations. As I discussed yesterday with regard to Badiou’s ontology of multiplicity and the count-as-one, however, it becomes possible, after Badiou and Deleuze, to think the identity of something as the result of a series of operations, rather than as a substance lying beneath consistent multiplicities. That is, we must think the individuation of consistent multiplicities as an ongoing process without an underlying substance that remains the same. Perhaps these social organizations are far less rigid, deterministic, and unified than Foucault supposes. As John Law puts it in a nice little article on Actor-Network-Theory or ANT (with which I’m now just playing, and have not yet committed to),

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organisations or systems which we had always taken for granted — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois — are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay.

How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organisational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? These are some of the key questions of social science. And they are the questions that lie at the heart of “actor-network theory”– the approach to sociology that is the topic of this note. This theory — also known as the sociology of translation — is concerned with the mechanics of power. It suggests, in effect, that we should analyse the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth.

The ANT theorist begins from the premise that social organizations are improbable in that they come into being and pass away, and that we must look for the sufficient reason for the existence of an enduring organization in the micro-processes and activities through which an organization perpetually reproduces itself in maintaining its networks of existence. Or, put differently, how does a group come to “count itself as one”? That is, rather than looking at a mysterious entity called “statements” that determines social organizations at a particular point in history, why not look at networks of relationships among actors, such as a group of professors that form together at a particular university, determining who gets hired, selected for graduate school, what gets published, what conferences are organized, and so on. Moreover, we might look at the effect of material conditions and technology that impact the ability of various social organizations to maintain themselves. Organizations are possible today that were not possible fifteen years ago due to the internet. Certain formations would become impossible were the internet to somehow collapse due to some natural event like a shift in the planet’s gravitational fields. It is these activities that maintain the existence of a particular social configuration (for instance the primacy of analytic philosophy in the United States), and which are themselves liable to change. That is, the formation of a social system and organization– and here I am questioning Luhmann’s thesis that systems constitute their own elements, and instead hypothesizing a reciprocal determination where elements constitute systems and systems constitute element –is maintained and produced through the interactions of the elements of that system. This is something that can readily be discerned here in the blogosphere, where very diverse persons are brought together in an aleatory fashion and where networks and organizations emerge through the interactions of those participants.

For instance, I would have never thought to take the work of Philip Goodchild seriously– my copy of Deleuze and Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire is heavily marked up with angry comments pointing out various places where he severely distorts Deleuze and Guattari –and wouldn’t have even paid attention to his subsequent developments, had I not encountered Anthony Paul Smith for whom I have both a certain fondness and who irritates the hell out of me. Yet as a result of that encounter, I begin to take Goodchild seriously (while nonetheless disagreeing with him) as this is a precondition for for discussing Deleuze with Anthony (who is always going on about “liking how ecological Deleuze’s thought is). Indeed, Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith appear to be engaged in a sort of missionary work, spreading the signifiers Goodchild and “ecology” wherever they go, trying to push the reading of Deleuze in a certain direction. What results from the formation of these sorts of networks and interactions, is the production of a particular “standard reading” of Deleuze for a community of individuals that discuss Deleuze. This doesn’t entail that this reading is agreed with by all. What it does entail is that others have to take that reading seriously in order to engage in discussion. Yet the production of such communities– communities that share a sort of das Man or “everyone knows” or doxa or set of background assumptions and protocols –is the result of aleatory encounters between individuals that take on a life of their own and which, through relations of feedback, come to become self-reinforcing. The crucial point is that other networks can be formed. This, for instance, is readily discernible in the history of the psychoanalytic movement, where new organizations and “laws of rarity” emerge around certain figures such as Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, Lacan, and so on.

A speciation takes place, that transforms the entire field. The logic here is not the logic of deterministic epistemes, but rather a logic of the slime mold, where indeterminate elements that existed independently of one another can come to form bonds and self-organize into collectives, that then constitute the valence of their own elements. As Latour points out early in Reassembling the Social, identity is far more conflict ridden and indeterminate than social theorists often suppose.

Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties. Is this not odd? If we simply follow the newspapers’ cues, the central intuition of sociology should be that at any given moment actors are made to fit in a group– often in more than one. And yet, when you read social theorists, it seems that the main, the crucial, the most urgent question should be which group is preferable to start a social enquiry. Should we take social aggregates to be made of ‘individuals’, ‘of organizations’, of ‘classes’, of ‘roles’, of ‘life trajectories’, of ‘discursive fields’, of ‘selfish genes’, of ‘forms of life’, of ‘social networks’? They never seem to tire in designating one entity as real, solid, proven, or entrenched while others are criticized as being artificial, imaginary, transitional, illusory, abstract, impersonal, or meaningless…

While the most common experience we have of the social world is of being simultaneously seized by several possible and contradictory calls for regroupings, it seems the most important decision to make before becoming a social scientist is to decide first which ingredients are already there in society. While it is fairly obvious that we are enrolled in a group by a series of interventions that renders visible those who argue for the relevance of one grouping and the irrelevance of others, everything happens as if social scientists had to claim that there exists ‘out there’ one type that is real, whereas the other sets are really inauthentic, obsolete, irrelevant, or artificial. While we are well aware that the first feature of the social world is this constant tracing of boundaries by people over some other people, sociologists of the social consider that the main feature of the world is to recognize, independently of who is tracing them and with what sorts of tools, the unquestionable existence of boundaries. (28, my bold)

Groupings are always performatively enacted or the result of processes, whereby actors strive to form networks. They can be done and undone. They are the result of interactions among participants, and it is always possible for excluded participants to become missionaries after the fashion of Paul, seeking to produce a new furrow, that itself reorganizes the social. Yet none of these networks are ever formed without the activity of participants and acts of seduction.