Thursday, March 27, 2008

Foucault Must Be Tamed

Teaching radical political theory this term has re-sensitized me to the flatness of most academic and pseudo-academic chatter. By "flat" I don't mean "square"--I'm a giant nerd, and get unreasonably excited about what I take to be serious work on boring, dusty, old things. But I just watched the excerpts from the Foucault/Chomsky debate that are appended to Manufacturing Consent, and was blown away--with an intensity that reading Foucault just doesn't deliver--by the radicality of Foucault's stance.

Chomsky wants to justify every political act by reference to the authorizations of international law, and Foucault basically says to him: Why in god's name would you want to turn yourself into the police like that? Foucault is unstinting in his assertion of a Spinozan-Marxist power politics. He has no use for discourses of legitimation or legality, or for any other effort to take refuge in a clean conscience.

At first I was struck by the otherworldly quality of this debate, conducted in these terms. That two of the most famous intellectuals of the day could have a televised debate about how to conduct the revolution seems almost unthinkable only 36 years later. But then this sense of wonder was overtaken by a profound disappointment at the way in which Foucault's name is bandied about today, at least in my experience.

First, almost no one acknowledges his deep and abiding Marxism. I would almost go so far as to say that Foucault exists in Marxism like a fish in water. The terms and debates of revolutionary thought are the signposts and landmarks of his thought.

Second--and this follows from this forgetting--he is treated either as a nonsensical post-modernist or as a precocious and wayward child who, in the end, returned to the fold of classical liberalism (he's talking about the Greeks and the Stoics at the end of his life, so he must have been domesticated).

Finally--and for this I wish The Passions of Michel Foucault had never been published--he's treated as a circus freak and cautionary tale. "Flirt with nihilism and totalitarianism, kiddies, and you'll die of AIDS!" I can't tell you how many times I have heard it asserted as a simple fact of the matter that Foucault ran around the bath-houses knowingly infecting people with HIV. This sort of trash is even in print.

Anyway, I am obviously just ranting now, but I do want to come back to my opening. By "flat" I didn't mean "square," said I. Rather, I mean "like three-day old Mountain Dew"--sweet, syrupy, and utterly lacking effervescence. Moralizing, hectoring, and sanctimonious, perhaps.


unemployed negativity said...

I like your "fish in water" comment. It subtly repeats, and undermines, Foucault's most infamous criticism of Marx. At the same time it offers a new way to think about Foucault's criticisms of Marxism, as internal points of conflict rather than an external critique.

It is interesting that the strategies to contain Foucault shift and contradict; on the one hand there is the Miller/Wolin strategy, "he is a drug crazed pervert", and then there is the more recent Davidson/Essential Foucault strategy, "he likes the Greeks and Kant." These strategies coexist when they should contradict each other, and most importantly they miss the mark with respect to everything that makes Foucault interesting

Will Roberts said...

I fear there's nothing subtle about it, UN: I actually pulled The Order of Things off my shelf so I'd be sure to get the wording just right.

If you want to see an object lesson in the second point you make, search Andrew Sullivan's blog for "Foucault." The various characterizations of Foucault are, quite literally, all over the place. I know Sullivan is not really an academic, but I think the level of his discourse is about on par with Mill/Wolin/Davidson/etc.

Will Roberts said...

er...that was supposed to be Miller, not Mill...

Raj Decency said...

I did like the question posed to Foucault by Bernard Henr-Levy, of all people, about whether he wanted anything bigger than to insist on
"the ethical duty to struggle here and now, at the side of one or another oppressed and miserable group, such as fools or prisoners?" And Foucault kind of, what we would say of a politician, equivocated.

A scholar's legacy is usually out of their hands and Foucault came about at a time when the prospects of revolutionary change were seemingly closing, and so there was and still is great comfort amongst bourgeois / liberal sociologists in micro-mapping patterns of often micro- resistance, whilst disavowing anything bigger. The point I try to make is, okay, if the resistance one is studying is merely symbolic, if those involved simple have too much libidinal investment in their acts of resistance and transgression, then stick with the liberal interpretation of Foucault. If you wanna look at how material change is gonna come about for the least, you need to look to Marxism.

Would the way to "tame" Foucault be to put the fish back in the water with reference to Marxist forbears like Althusser he supposedly grew out of? ... It's a bit of a moot point to me, as I've found Gramsci as useful as Foucault...

Raj Decency said...

Sorry, that BHL & Foucault interview is reprinted as "Power and sex" in L. Kritzman, ed. (1988) "Michel Foucault: Politics, philosophy, culture." London: Routledge, pages 110-124. I think it was originally in the journal 'Telos' before it went neo-con.

Will Roberts said...

"Foucault must be tamed" was not meant to be a command or a request or a hope, but a diagnosis, with a hint of lamentation.

I think contextualizing Foucault within Marxism does the opposite of taming him, and I think it does so, in part, by troubling the notion that practices of resistance are either "symbolic" or "smaller" than some alternative revolutionary project.

As Foucault said in the debate with Chomsky, the proletariat will not overthrow capitalism because it is right to do so, but because it can. The trial of the revolutionary project is not decided by whether or not it reaches some telos of total social transformation, eternal peace, and kool-aid seas. The only test is what we can do, here and now, to transform ourselves and our relations.

Pietro de Simone said...

i flatly disagree with situating foucault within marxism. not only did he explicitly say otherwise, (and suggested so in the chomsky debate,) but doing so whiffs of desperation.

point blank, foucault was too nietzschean to seriously consider marxism. so at the risk of fluffing some feathers can someone explain how he is marxist?