miércoles, 16 de abril de 2008

Foucault vs. Chomsky or the Impasse of Ontological Indeterminism



The debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky from 1971 serves as a wonderful example which concentrates some of the crucial philosophical knots proper to post-structuralism and its critics. Foucault, well in accord to the post-modern, Heideggerean tendencies of historicism and 'hermeneutics of suspicion', follows to the gap of Gelassenheit, the point of an impasse at the moment of prescription. He remains at the neutral point of anti-essentialist recognition: all facts are culture-bred and thus intra-situational, and thus any positive programme based on borrowed concepts is but an indulgence on ideological supports for a present system of power.

The same struggle was already put before Heidegger in the famous section on authenticity in Sein und Zeit, and its prescriptive impasse: the clash between Dasein's solitude and its ontological being as Mitdasein (being-with), of authentic resoluteness existence against the inauthentic idle talk of Das Man, and ultimately the short-circuit for decision making in facing the gap between being and beings. Familiar story, told in an unfairly synthesized version, but you get the point. Foucault's suspicion is, in effect, the distribution of the ontological gap across the entirety of the state of the historical situation. The key is to 'unmask the reigning mechanisms of power' which articulate the structure of our contemporary class society.

Here we see the standard view which produces the standard criticisms against post-structuralism: the ontological neutrality entailed by the hermeneutic approach leads to an impasse at the level of action; bridging the gap between the subject and an ontology results in the twofold constriction: the identity of the subjects and objects becomes the partially determined concept of a particular structure of power, and this indeterminacy serves to guarantee immobility at the point of agency. The results of both the standard procedures of a hermeneutics of suspicion is decidedly post-Cartesian in that the category of the subject becomes part of the situation, rather than the separate point to which we can withdraw to gain an apodictic foundation for knowledge (the theme which runs from Descartes to Husserl, even Sartre). The question of an ontology takes the place of the question of an epistemology: there is no minimum definition of the subject as a substantial ground for thought; ontology itself precludes the substantializing of the subject.

In this way, the notion of a subject qua agent is put in unstable grounds. The introduction to Badiou's 'Infinite Thought' by Feltham and Justin Clemens provides a nice synthesis of the dilemma between poststructuralists and its critics, citing the impasse of historical determinacy against the possibility of independent agency in Foucault:

"For example in his middle period, Foucault argued that networks of disciplinary power not only reach into the most intimate spaces of the subject, but actually produce what we call subjects. However, Foucault also said that power produces resistance. His problem then became accounting for the source of such resistance. If the subject - right down to its most intimate desires, actions and thoughts - is constituted by power, then how can it be the source of independent resistance? For such a point of agency to exist, Foucault needs some space which has not been completely constituted by power, or a complex doctrine on the relationship between resistance and independence. However, he has neither."

Following the necessity to constrict the conception of the subject, post-structuralism (most notably post-Lacanian) reduces the subject to being the suture of its situation; it is precisely a-substantial; it lacks a proper place of inscription, decentered, or to use Derrida's catchy phrase, it remains 'outside the text'. This is also grounds for the Lacanian gap between the Real and language. But Foucault does not yet consider the identification of subject with the gap; if anything he remains within the negative procedure of denying foundation. This way, The 'anthropological' point of departure thus consists, paradoxically, in denying an identifiable set of traits of the anthropos to be distributed within the field of knowledge, as foundational for univocal interpretation; the subject belongs to the situation and cannot be displaced outside of it without reproducing the structures which constitute the situation as such. Thus, power becomes reiterated over and again through appeal to the substantiality of the subject, which must be escaped.

In this way, Foucault begins by calling into question Chomsky's proposal of a 'human nature' and a standard for common values departing from the very general platitudes (love, justice, freedom...) since these concepts must themselves be understood as the ideological situation in which the mechanisms of power operate. But since Foucault has neither a theory of how positive ethico/political action can occur on the part of agents, nor an ontology to give which could be used for such projections, he runs against the pragmatic accusation that post structuralism "leads down a slippery slope to apoliticism". (1)

Here Foucault assumes too much about Chomsky's understanding of the concept of 'class', and for that the latter was not capable of understanding the extent to which Foucault's argument may lead us to locate to locate the knot of the problem. The crucial misunderstanding occurs when Chomsky reduces Foucault’s notion of class as that of economic classes within capitalist societies. But one cannot understand class as that assigned to any particular historical social order, and certainly not any particular economic or political notion of class. To say the transmission of power occurs just or primordially at the level of economic classes is certainly an excess. Furthermore, Foucault is well aware that classes are always in operation in the form of concrete economical and political processes and mechanisms, within concrete situations. But what must be understood is precisely that there is no singular notion of a class which underlies uniformly human life throughout historically, ontologies are determined from within and not transcendentally. Certainly the notion of class which is structured by the operation of Marxism is different from the feudal state, just as the notion of a 'deity' is not homogenous for medieval Christian ontology as that of other cultures, and so on. Of course, we should also be prepared to go beyond Foucault and acknowledge that the process of hermeneutic interpretation does not pose an exception to the indeterminacy of this process, but that it itself becomes subject to the negative process which would expose it as operating on a certain exclusion, an absent center.

The result is clear: one cannot propose an ontology on these terms, but must operate as if the hermeneutic text was exhibiting the systematic conformity of the situation to the interpretative text. Put more simply, the hermeneutic interpretation Foucault proposes can only serve to exhibit intrinsically the structures of power if it becomes at the same time part of the interpretative text being proposed itself, the analysis of the situation is not just another edifice with its distinct classes, but an entirely independent, indeterminate system for the interpretation of situations intrinsically. Of course, one must question whether Foucault's interpretative framework, guided by the operation of power and manifested as classes does not consist itself in just another text itself including the possibility for a deconstructive reading. One may simply recall the Derrida /Gadamer fiasco on the hermeneutic ideal to get a grasp on how easily the problem of interpretation turns muddy on anti-essentialist grounds. We can thus say that, for Foucault, the category of class as circumscribed to economic class would constitute a paradigmatic example of what Kant would have called a private use of reason: recurrence to a concept which is contingent and contained within the situation where power is applied directly; class is never the class of individuals, but of the universal which allows a set of individuals to be included in the situation, i.e. to be a subset.

In any case, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that Foucault wishes to produce as a concept of class itself divorced from specific vocabularies or historical presentations. That the terms belonging to the interpretative text he proposes may itself be exhibited as groundless, contradictory or resting on its own system of classes must not deviate us from the essential direction of his thought. For what is precisely at stake is precisely how the reduction of one system to a more general one, while necessarily operating within a situation and from its own terms, may nonetheless result in a possibility for change, and thus a space for individual and collective agency to emerge.

Foucault thus uses 'class' as an absolutely general concept with respect to social, political and economic standards. Indeed, the very conceptual divisions we sketch out to begin our analysis become themselves to be questioned hermeneutically as integral parts of a particular discourse. We can say that Foucault's notion of class is effectively post-Marxist, in that the state becomes understood essentially as the establishment of a relationship to classes, or to use Badiou's helpful jargon, subsets or parts. Here we can follow Badiou's clear exposition of the Marxist concept of a class to elucidate Foucault's own usage of the term:

"Marxist thought related the State directly to sub-multiples [universal, ideological, prescriptive] rather than to terms of the situation [individual, empirical, passive]. It posits that the count-as-one ensured by the State is not originally that of individuals, but that of the multiple classes of individuals. Even if one abandons the terminology of classes, the formal idea that the State- which is the state of the historico-social situation- deals with collective subsets and not with individuals remains essential. This idea must be understood: the essence of the State is that of not being obliged to recognize individuals- when it is obliged to recognize them, in concrete cases, it is always according to a principle of counting which does not concern individuals as such... This is the underlying meaning that must be conferred upon the vulgar Marxist idea that 'the State is always the State of the ruling class'. The interpretation I propose of this idea is that the State solely exercises its domination according to a law destined to form-one out of the parts of the situation..." [B&E, Meditation 9, Pg. 105]

It is clear that Foucault is operating by the same logic here. The appeal to 'human nature', 'justice', 'freedom' and so on, cannot be understood as anything but as reintroducing oneself to the parts of the situation which the state (the representation of the historico-social situation) legitimates to be counted; there is no relation to individuals in the situation apart from what the State legitimates to be counted. Which is why Chomsky’s reply that power is not necessarily manifested in the form of classes fundamentally fails; all societies have a particular system of classes, and power is nothing but the effective human exchange which sustain the structure of these classes. So we are left, it seems, with a twofold result: a gap between the subject and justification, and the gap between negation (in the sense of unmasking/challenging the structures of power) and affirmation (in the sense of determining the space for an ontology which allows for decision without relapsing into the structures of domination).

A ‘new’ ontology should thus be both conscientious of the ontological indeterminacy of the situation while at the same time challenging the structures of power presented in the situation by unmasking their operation. At the same time, Foucault offers nothing which suggests the possibility of an ontology. We thus remain, with Foucault, entrapped in the all-too familiar anthropological, anti-essentialist theses which have become themselves another economy of power, the preservation of a certain status quo through the deployment of intra-situational platitudes. These are all well-known to most of us in their many versions: universal truths are impossible, there are only different perspectives, we are all human after all, one must be anthropologically aware and not impose our concepts onto other cultures, the attempts to elevate reason in order to justify everything misses on the dynamism of change, etc. But the equally familiar point follows that when we demand a homogeneous ethico-political project for mankind by evoking concepts such as 'freedom of choice, privacy...' and deploy a particular conceptual framework for the articulation and justification of these claims, we are relapsing into universalist metaphysics; a blindness which leads to thinking humans can be judged under one standard. As Paul would have put it, from the viewpoint of universal reason "...there are no Jews or Greeks". In order for recognition to avoid identification, one cannot operate axiomatically through the concepts which are proper to the situation as such. The question is thus the question of the gap between the different positions, or as Zizek puts it apropos of Paul: "The struggle which truly engages him is not simply "more universal" than that of one ethnic group against another; it is a struggle which obeys an entirely different logic; no longer the logic of one self-identical substantial group fighting another group, but an antagonism that, in a diagonal way, cuts across all particular groups."

This perpetual oscillation between conceptual indeterminacy and the urge for positive political action cannot be resolved within the dialectic that Foucault deploys; it is merely constrained to repeat the deconstructive process of identifying the points of suture within the present state of the situation to expose them as structures of power. The 'danger' Foucault speaks off is indeed certain, but one that ultimately must be confronted. It is the danger to be found, as recognized by Lacoue-Labarthe, of repetition as such; of the inherent mimesis intrinsic to the dialectical process which follows from the assertion universality. This immediate tension, or danger, has ran its familiar course through the post-modern tendencies of discourse, ever since Heidegger demarcated Das Man and idle talk (Garede) as the (inauthentic) danger of a withdrawal of being; a deferral of the gap between the ontic and the ontological. Similarly, Derrida's notion of differance concentrates this necessary moment of deference at the point of tension between the repetition of the concept and its inherent universality:

"To put old names to work, or even just to leave them in circulation, will always, of course, involve some risk: the risk of settling down or regressing into the system that has been, or is in the process of being deconstructed. To deny this risk would be to confirm it: it would be to see the signifier- in this case the name- as a merely circumstantial, conventional occurrence of the concept of as a concession without any specific effect. It would be an affirmation of the autonomy of meaning, of the ideal purity of the abstract, theoretical history of the concept. Inversely, to claim to do away immediately with previous marks and to cross over, by decree, by a simple leap, into the outside of classical oppositions is, apart from the risk of engaging in an interminable "negative theology", to forget that these oppositions have never constituted a given system, a sort of ahistorical, thoroughly homogenous table, but rather a dissymmetric, hierarchically ordered space whose closure is constantly being traversed by the forces and worked by the exteriority, that it represses: that is, expels and, which amounts to the same, internalizes as one of its moments. This is why deconstruction involves an indispensable phase of reversal. To remain content with reversal is of course to operate within the immanence of the system to de destroyed. But to sit back, in order to go further, in order to be more radical and daring, and take an attitude of neutralizing indifference with respect to the classical oppositions would be to give free reign to the existing forces that effectively and historically dominate the field. It would be, for not having seized the means to intervene, to confirm the established equilibrium." (Dissemination)

This passage condenses the very impasse which happens between Foucault and Chomsky: the double danger. Whereas Foucault is steadfast to point out that it is necessary to elucidate how the present class system is upheld by a certain economy of power, this remains an essentially negative task, it speaks as if the elucidation of the oppositions which structure the situation could be shown as having belonged to particular framework of interpretation, external to the situation itself. In the case of Foucault, this is where an ontology of power seems to transpire: since by the hermeneutic procedure of exposing the power structures of the situation one sublates them under the mark of the general system of 'power struggle' that constitutes and allows the interpretative text to operate. On the other hand, Chomsky's position succumbs to the second danger: by neutralizing the indifference given to the classical oppositions in order to go further (i.e to show how the concepts of justice and freedom have been assumed in a particular form by the organisms of power to seek a correction on the basis of these concepts) is to relapse into the situation's terms. Here I think we have a lot to learn from Badiou and his notion of subtraction, and how for an event to happen from the situation, there must be a point of absolute (axiomatic) decision. The radicality required exceeds by far that required by opposing the empirical, circumstantial shortcomings of the state of the situation, and thus much more than Chomsky's somewhat depressing conception of 'human nature' as the foundation for a new ethics or politics.

Which is why Chomsky appears (finally) as the obvious conservative: his recognition of the brooding conceptual indeterminateness is sufficient, and ultimately folds back to some very general platitudes which appear inoffensive and trivially true, but turn out to be 'Eurocentric' or worse. Of course, it seems quite cynical to deny that human beings want goodness, love, and so on; the intuitiveness of these seems immediate. But the meaning of these concepts, and how they operate inside a concrete order where power is enforced, is the impasse of such a dialectic course. What is needed is a radical reworking of our conceptual possibilities to arrive at novel possibilities for thought which exceed that allowed by the state of the situation. And this is something neither Chomsky nor Foucault have been ever prepared to give; even if the both have militantly reacted against the present organisms of-power.

Chomsky is thus finally trapped in a rather innocent ethical ontology using very broad concepts of- 'human nature', 'kindness', 'love', and reiterating the necessity of decision in light of the gap. The state of the situation is thus condensed in the following, apparently silly dilemma: if universality fails at the realm of justification (since justification itself fails to be universal), how do we resist a posture of Gelassenheit and propose an effective reworking of our social world. Of course, for Chomsky, this occurs within the organisms of society by denouncing acts of injustice and proposing improvement at the level of economical, political states by constantly referring to the abovementioned platitudes as the standards which must be preserved.

Foucault here is right in pointing out that Chomsky's optimism in founding society using as justification certain concepts runs the danger of preserving the status quo, or trivially modify it. But Chomsky is right in that the formal indeterminateness of concrete possibilities cannot perpetuate inertia with respect to our socio political acting. Then again, Foucault is also correct in that the conceptual work must be ready to denounce commitment to fundamental notions which support the order. Finally, the task seems to require to locate the possibility of a new conceptualization of the situation so we may produce, through a sufficient theory and the will to action, a new possibility to represent the situation or, to use Badiou's term, opening the possibility for an event, the possibility of producing a novelty by announcing that which has been thus far excluded by the organisms of power and affirming new ones through axiomatic decisions. This is where Badiou, Zizek, and the like, are cooperating towards a new possibility of understanding our present historical situation.

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