April 05, 2006

Discovery (The Social II)

(Second in a series of short thoughts.)

The discovery of society introduces a radical break into history.  It is co-extensive with the destruction of what Michel Foucault calls the 'classic episteme' and the birth of the 'modern episteme'; "it is a radical event that is distributed across the entire visible surface of knowledge."  Foucault's periodization of the break suggests certain problems -- problems that are common to his entire school limiting 'the social' primarily to statistical regularities and, in the case of Donzelot, 'the policing of families' through 'social work'.  On the one hand, 'society' had been mobilized as a term designating what we might want to call a club or association; that is, a group formed between the 'public' and the 'private' for specific purposes.  In this way, The Royal Society, founded in 1660 stands out as a marker of a new use of the word.  Yet, for these natural scientists, 'society' had as of yet to be discovered.  What remains certain, however, is that by 1748, when Charles Louis de Secondat (the Baron de Montesquieu) published The Spirit of the Laws that 'society' had been discovered in the epynomous concept.  And, certainly, by 1789 it was taken for granted that society was an object of action; that is, it could both act -- society could make demands -- and, on the other hand, it could be acted upon -- society could have demands made against it.

The positing of this theoretical object with, nonetheless, a 'real' existence, that is, as something that can both cause effects and be effected upon by causes introduces a radical break into politics, as well as knowledge.  For, on the one hand, it became possible to distinguish 'social science' in contradistinction to both 'natural science' (especially physics) and 'moral science' (especially philosophy).  Social science, of course, remains torn between these poles to this very day.  On the other hand, a new political project is born: socialism.

The rupture between the classic and the modern episteme is a shift in the representation of knowlege and its relation to the world.  The modern episteme introduces, according to Foucault, drawing primarily upon Kant at this point, a 'transcendental-empirical doublet'; thus, "man appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as a subject that knows".  The place of 'man' is parallel to the place of 'society', but on a different ontological level.  The discovery of society, therefore, is the discovery of a certain representation.

The point of this is that the discovery of society introduces a rupture into knowledge and politics.  Let me make myself more clear for I have been dancing around the issue.  What is the rupture?  Why is this so important?  Why does society matter? 

The essential point -- not unique to our 'modernity', but also, at least, found in certatin respects in the modernity of Athens and Rome -- is that as an object, society becomes disconnected from transcendent determinations.  Chararcteristic of all 'non-modern societies' (in this nomenclature) is that society finds its source in a radical Other; something that created society and continues to ground society as source and origin: God, Nature, Ancestors -- and, indeed, even Reason.  The discovery of society is the discovery of the radical idea that society is immanent to itself; that it is 'free' from external determinations.  Politics, then, becomes a battle between 'heteronomy' and 'autonomy' -- the attempt to resist the imposition of external determinants as source and origin; God and Market included. 

The 'project of autonomy' is democracy.  Democracy presupposes the belief that everything is open to questioning.  For democrat, the division between sacred and profane is one to be challenged and questioned.  When anything is open to question, anything can be challenged -- and questioning introduces a break in the 'naturalness' of the object; if questioned, why not changed?

(Cross-posted to Theoria.)

'Useless to Revolt?'

Foucault, 'Useless to Revolt?' in Essential Works, vol. 3
In part, Foucault’s argument is that what is involved in revolt – the break with history, the blind trust, the abandonment of calculated returns – cannot be experienced or expressed in a wholly secular, enlightenment language. Or rather, it is religious language that meets and makes sense of the experience, the phenomenology of revolt*. Revolts do not put on the costume of religion, it is that religious categories spontaneously interpret what is happening, and are the natural forms in which revolt finds expression.

The term ‘political spirituality’ seems to us, at the other side of a seemingly irrevocable historical break, like a contradiction, a superimposition of oil on water, but for Foucault,

This startling superimposition produced, in the middle of the twentieth century, a movement strong enough to overthrow an apparently well armed regime while being close to old dreams that the West had known in times past, when people attempted to inscribe the figures of spirituality on political ground.

And what, after all, is the alternative to Foucault’s attempt - however flawed - to enter into the experience of revolt, to understand why people were ‘risking their lives’, demonstrating, and to understand it in something like its own terms, to grant validity and meaning to that experience? The alternative to this is, perhaps, once more the irrational, deluded Other, victim of 'mass hysteria', wholly governed and guided by an ideology presumed foreign to their nature. 

*What might be the precedents here? Rather than seeing religious forms of thought and experience as so many misconceptions and errors that have been simply 'superseded', thinkers from Bloch and Benjamin to Kristeva discover much that is worth rescuing – or, to use Marx’s word ‘completing’. Not rescuing qua religious belief, but as figures, ciphers, of experiences & conceptions (of Time, for example) that might point beyond and make us question the current horizons within which our thinking operates. See, most famously, Walter Benjamin’s reclamation of religious time-understanding, or even Jameson’s reclamation of religious hermeneutics in the Political Unconscious. Benjamin finds that the concept of Progress and of empty homogeneous time, which is a cultural construction masquerading as disenchanted reality, can be blown apart and recast by the theological hunchback under the table. The reserves of energy padlocked in religious forms have not simply been drained away by the triumph of secular enlightenment thought. Indeed, liberated from institutional religion, the utopian kernel of such forms can be all the more easily extracted. Moreover, the very idea of 'completing' religious thinking at a higher level, of  redeeming it, doesn't this itself repose on a 'religious' conception of time?

June 17, 2005

Foucault and Iran

My attention has been drawn to a new book about Foucault in Iran. I would like to say a couple of things about this topic, partly because I suspect that this episode in Foucault’s career will be pressed into the service of certain current arguments. In fact, I suspect the existence of those arguments ‘authorised’ the commissioning of the book – ‘topicality’ is a familiar imprimatur. The ‘topicality’ in question would be something like ‘Western left intellectuals being naïve about Islam and, motivated by opposition to the West, seduced by an Other they almost totally misunderstand.’ I’m guessing, of course. (see this article, btw)

So, just two small points. It would certainly be foolish to try and represent Foucault as some sort of typical ‘left intellectual’, as occupying that polemically convenient place. To assign him to this place runs directly against the unpredictable, contradictory lines of his thinking and action. Pro-Iranian revolution, yes; reportedly also pro-Israeli, scornfully dismissive of Marxism; who, if he found the ‘political spirituality’ of the Iranian revolt intuitively fascinating also loved and perhaps found neon fragments of utopia in the vast highways and the bars of California.

Secondly, to find the future in the past. Not the immediate past, which typically appears only as the pre-history of the present, but a past so different, so unfamiliar, that it confronts and questions the assumptions of the present and so clears a space for a possible future. Or, indeed, a past which offers us figures, sketches of such a future. So, for example, the sexual practices of ancient Greece – were these not, for Foucault, partly a way of thinking his way outside modern notions of ‘sexuality’ and the historically ingrained ‘regime’ supporting them. And didn’t Foucault discover also in the Greeks an idea of ‘self-fashioning’, of life as art, which dissolved some of the Present’s cherished categories and, at the same time, pointed towards or opened a space for the New.

There is a phrase of Kristeva’s that comes to mind here – ‘an archaeology in search of a utopia’. A curious phrase: a digging into the past which both unsettles the foundation of a seemingly natural Present but which also unearths forms, practices, concepts which suggest other possibilities of being in the world. Sometimes a site of ruins and a construction site can be remarkably similar. Now this motif, wherein the search for the New, the genuinely New (a search partly prompted by the ‘false’ novelty of the commodity-world) co-exists with the leap into the ancient/ archaic past, seems to me an eminently Modernist theme, and we might place the likes of Foucault in such a category. I assume that this take on Modernism is not unfamiliar to you, this antiquarian/ avant-garde simultaneity. I take it we recognise those moments when the present seizes on something from the remote past as it flashes up like a cryptogram or photographic negative of the Future.

But what has this to do with the Iranian revolution, which is not an event in the remote past but in the present. Yes and No. The present is not homogeneous after all. Interestingly enough, that phrase from Kristeva I quoted to you, ‘an archaeology in search of a utopia’ was one she used about her trip to China. Not a tiger’s leap into the past but a geographical leap into a space where forms from the past (as it were) were still current. What Kristeva, it seems, half expected to find in China was the ancient and the New joining hands over the Present. The archaic and the avant-garde, with the latter taking some of its poetry from the former, could here side-step, avoid the traps set by the present, the trap of being just the ‘latest thing’, the latest instalment of Progress.

To which there are a number of responses. First, and most quotidian, she misunderstood the nature of what was happening in China. So, all there is to say is that her representation of what was happening didn’t correspond to the reality. You’ve then got things nicely set up for an easy polemical point. Well done. Secondly, bracket off, for the time being, the ‘reality of what is going on in China’ and look at the thinking to which ‘China’ gives shape. Look at it in its own terms. Look at the concepts that China generates, see if they are interesting, productive concepts.

Now needless to say, in talking about Kristeva and China I am also necessarily talking about Foucault and Iran. Believe me, I’d intended to look in detail at one of his writings on the subject, to examine the thinking of those writings, but not just in terms of the impoverished categories of representation/ misrepresentation, but no, this post has already  wandered far beyond the bye line of the Kotsko readability rule, and those of you who have reached this far, you surprise me. But perhaps I will post something else, after all, on one of Foucault's Iranian essays. Foucault_photo

June 10, 2006


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Much thanks for this, Carlos. An entertaining, rather suggestive read, and, will have to see the film.

As regards law-founding violence and various critiques thereof, I do wonder what you, or anyone, may make of Gillian Rose's pointed and brutal polemic (located, among other places, in Mourning Becomes the Law, pp.68-75), against all things Martin/Walter/messianic (she doesn't mention 'messianicity', but naturally lumps Derrida in there as well).

Generally, she accuses them all of "baroque melancholia" in "avoiding the work of mourning," and Derrida specifically of "combusting" Benjamin's terms "to an eschatological originary," the result of which is the mere glorification of a sort of "aberrated mourning."

In the same chapter, and at the risk of carrying on with other people's words...as blogs encourage one to do (for both better and worse), tangentially (and naturally, there's no necessary burden to respond), she also ties the question of law into those of alterity and relation, like so:

...the presentation of otherness has a motility which the post-modern gesture towards otherness is unable to conceive. For the separation out of otherness as such is derived from the failure of mutual recognition on the part of two self-consciousnesses who encounter each other and refuse to recognise the other as itself a self-relation: the other is never simply other, but an implicated self-relation. This applies to oneself as other and, equally, to any opposing self-consciousness: my relation to myself is mediated by what I recognise or refuse to recognise in your relation to yourself; while your self-relation depends on what you recognise of my relation to myself. We are both equally enraged and invested, and to fix our relation in domination or dependence is unstable and reversible, to fix it as 'the world' are attempts to quieten and deny the broken middle, the third term which arises out of misrecognition of desire, of work, of my and of your self-relation mediated by the self-relation of the other.

Secondly, this dialectic of misrecognition between two self-consciousnesses yields the meaning of the law that is inseperable from the meaning of Bildung (education, formation, cultivation), inseperable from the process by which self-consciousness comes to learn its investment in denying the actuality of itself and other as always already engaged in some structure of recognition or misrecognition, in some triune (triple) relation to its own otherness and to the self-relating of the other. This is the meaning of spirit in Hegel, that short-hand term for the threefold state of teh misrecognising parties. The law, therefore, is not the superior term which suppresses the local and contingent, not is it the symbolic which catches every child in the closed circuit of its patriarchal embrace. The law is the falling towards or away from mutual recognition, the triune relationship, the middle, formed or deformed by reciprocal self-relations...(Gillian Rose, 74-75)

- - - - - - -

Not necessarily strictly related, this paragraph (of yours) also stood out:

I must admit I do not quite grasp the distinction which Schmitt is drawing here, and cannot help but wonder whether Schmitt’s abrupt critique of the “illegality” of Schroers’ anti-Nazi resistance fighter (after all, isn’t the concept of the partisan itself explicitly grounded on a blurring or suspension of operative legal frameworks), and his resulting reluctance to grant them the status of true “partisans,” is not perhaps a symptom of Schmitt’s own residual Nazi sympathies?

So just to agree (and with John Ransom as well) that yes, it's an anteresting question...and how these definitions of "irregularity" and "illegality" are made to function. And on something of a rhetorical level too (?)

Anyway, sorry to burden the readability of your post with this, but especially in light of previous (ongoing) discussion I thought I'd jump at the empty comments box (sign of dignity as Ray Davis may insist they are).



"I mourn, therefore I am.”

Gillian Rose cites Derrida’s (anti-)Cartesian aphorism in her introduction to Mourning Becomes the Law , and suggests that it emblematizes her contention that what Derrida (and “post-modernists” in general) mistakes for mourning actually “cannot work; it remains melancholia; it remains aberrated not inaugurated ” (64).

To illustrate her contention, Rose then develops an extended discussion of Derrida’s “Specters of Marx,” suggesting that Derrida argues that

the ghost of Communism will finally be laid to rest if this spirit—dare one say this essence ?—of Marxism is retrieved from the rubble of old Europe, before the fresh rubble, accruing daily in a new Europe that is dying not to be born, submerges us all.

It appears to me that Rose’s insinuation here represents a significant misreading of Derrida’s argument (Rose was apparently relying only on Derrida’s original 1993 lecture and not the final version published as Specters of Marx, and consequently includes no direct quotes from this particular text to substantiate her claims). In fact, Derrida’s entire argument is explicitly premised on using this concept of spirit as a way of avoiding the need to attribute any concrete and unitary “essence” to Marxism (and, if anything, it is Rose herself who implies that Marxism should remain inextricably linked to such essential components as “[c]lass structure, class consciousness and class struggle, the party, the laws of capitalist accumulation, the theory of value, human practical activity”).

In the passage cited by Matt, furthermore, Rose criticizes “post-modernists” for failing to recognize that

the other is never simply other, but an implicated self-relation. This applies to oneself as other and, equally, to any opposing self-consciousness: my relation to myself is mediated by what I recognize or refuse to recognize in your relation to yourself; while your self-relation depends on what you recognize of my relation to myself (74; emphases added).

It seems to me, however, that what Rose is arguing for here is actually quite similar to the point which Derrida makes in the second part of the very same passage on mourning which Rose emblematically quotes in the introduction:
I mourn, therefore I am, I am—dead with the death of the other, my relation to myself is first of all plunged into mourning, a mourning that is moreover impossible (Points 321; emphases added).

Like Rose, Derrida explicitly states here that the constitution of “my relationship to myself….” is predicated on a necessary engagement with alterity and absence.

What I find more interesting than Rose’s critique of Derrida’s failure to mourn, however, is the suggestion which immediately follows her citation with which we began:

“I mourn, therefore I am.” By contrast Mourning Becomes the Law affirms that the reassessment of reason, gradually rediscovering its own moveable boundaries as it explores the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred, can complete its mourning (11-12).

The syntax here is rather convoluted, but basically Rose is reason (or the “reassessment of reason”?) can “complete its mourning” by “explor[ing] the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred.”

What does it mean to “explore the boundaries…of the city”? Rose develops this connection between mourning and (city) boundaries most evocatively in the chapter entitled, “Potter’s Field: death worked and unworked.” She opens this essay by directing our attention to “Potter’s Field” on Hart Island, off the coast of New York, which she notes has long been a burial site for “unidentified murder bodies, for paupers, and now, for the new category of destitution: those who die of AIDS in the triage wards of the city hospitals.” Rose argues that this act of extra-mural burial essentially forecloses the possibility of mourning which is essential for a new beginning:

If all meaning is mourning, and mourning (or absence) must become our norm (or presences) for there to be morning (dawning or future) and not interminable dying, then all meaning and all mourning belong to the city, to the polis (103).

The inverse of Rose’s attention to the “political consequences” of this act of extraterritorial burial is paralleled, meanwhile, by Bonnie Honig’s exploration of the political implications of the simultaneously transgressive and transformative potential of the foreigner, in her Democracy and the Foreigner (many thanks, Eileen, for the tip).

In her study, Honig poits that

In the classic texts of Western political culture (both high and low), the curious figure of the foreign-founder recurs with some frequency: established regimes, peoples, or towns that fall prey to corruption are restored or refounded (not corrupted or transcended) by the agency of a foreigner or a stranger.

Drawing on a range of examples, ranging from the Biblical opposition between Ruth and Orpah (as “ideal immigrant” and “bad foreigner,” respectively) to current debates over immigration in the US (model minority vs. illegal immigrant), Honig argues that this idealization of the “foreign-founder” actually goes hand-in-hand with a parallel apprehensiveness about the destabilizing potential of the foreigner:
The foreigner who shores up and reinvigorates the regime also unsettles it at the same time. Since the presumed test of both a good and a bad foreigner is the measure of her contribution to the restoration of the nation rather than, say, to the nation’s transformation or attenuation, nationalist xenophilia tends to fee and (re)produce nationalist xenophobia as its partner (76).

In one interesting discussion of the Book of Ruth, furthermore, Honig draws on D.W. Winnicott’s and Eric Santner’s theories of processes of mourning, Honig argues that one of the factors responsible for this bifurcation or “good” and “bad” foreigner comes down to a question of an inability or failure to mourn effectively. In the context of the Book of Ruth , Honig argues in terms very similar to Rose’s that,
….These two moments in Santner’s theory and in Ruth’s story mark two familiar moments of immigration dynamics. One, a furious assimilationism in which all connections to the motherland are disavowed. And two, a refusal of transition and a retreat into an enclave that leaves the immigrant stranded in relation to the receiving country and relation to the lost homeland. The two moments are figured developmentally by Santner and Winnicott, but immigrants and their receiving regimes may experience them simultaneously[…]

Like Antigone’s mourning of Polynices, Ruth’s mourning of Orphah is forbidden for the sake of a regime’s stability and identity. Thus, Ruth’s mourning—like Antigone’s—is endless, melancholic. Her losses get in the way of the closure this community seeks to attain through her and in spite of her (69, 71).

These questions, raised by Rose and Honig, of the location of death and of the transformative founder in relationship to the acknowledged boundaries of the city or community, and of the role of the mourning process in mediating or exacerbating these existing boundaries, returns us to the question of the essentially “tellurian” (territory-based) quality of Schmitt’s “partisan.”

I will conclude by picking up on the theme of AIDS as developed by both Rose (above) and Derrida (in the passage cited at the end of my initial tangential response to Matt’s comment, and linking it back to Derrida’s twist on the famous Cartesian formula. In Notes of a Desolate Man (荒 人手记 )—novel almost precisely contemporary (1994) with both Derrida’s “”The Rhetoric of Drugs” interview (1993) as well as Rose’s essay on Potter’s Field (undated, but written between 1992 and 1995)—Taiwan author Zhu Tianwen’s (朱天文 ) narrates her protagonist’s struggle to recover from the death from AIDS of his close friend. At the center of this mourning process, meanwhile, is her/his existentialist formulation: “I write, therefore I am. “我写故我在