11 September 2012

Imaginary Dialogue with Michel Foucault

Does the Foucauldian theory of discourse presuppose something substantial?  Something essential?  What are possible candidates for this unacknowledged substrate?

  • the speaking subject
  • the word
  • the concept
  • the field
  • the discourse
  • difference
  • power
  • [others?]
Supposing we were to locate in any of these concepts some basis for "calling metaphysics" on Foucault, does his system have any built-in defenses?  It does.  The Foucauldian can easily respond that we, in reducing his discourse to a species of metaphysics, are merely effecting a strategic transformation, and that the metaphysical tendencies we discover in this discourse are in fact our own.

How do we respond to this gesture?  Dear Foucault, the reduction of metaphysics to a reifying tendency that obscures the underlying power strategies in language is itself a revelation. . .

Foucault: But no, the distillation of strategies within discourse, the death of the author, the primacy of discursive structures and "texts" is itself simply a function of this particular discourse.  My mode of speaking has the advantage that only a transparent sheet separates it from madness, the absence of language, the silence which terminates all discourse.  Probably there are other such discourses, certainly there might be more than mine, but mine is intelligible in our time, to our thought; mine reveals in the game of western philosophy and rationalizing discourse the nearness of that difference against which everything is defined.  My discourse of fracture and fraying shows how hopeless the quest to purge the irrational from our discourse really is.  Yes, you can continue with those discourses, but you may find it increasingly difficult: the injection of the perverse concepts knit together in my books will ultimately unravel your way of speaking, your way of thinking.  It will undo the being of things, until they are reconstituted under different forms.

Me: What, then, is one to do?  Life according to the capitalism of the day is base and slavish.  Life according to these common (sexual, violent, identity-oriented) strategies for subversion is likewise base and slavish.  Subversion through "limit experiences" is merely a rising norm.  In other words, it is yet another metaphysical self-deception, already on the verge of commodification, and long ago transformed into a settled discourse.  . . . The advantage, contra Levinas, of ontology is its ability to search for the transcendent in the intelligible. . . . We try again.  Pose to Foucault the question of desire.  What do you want?

Foucault:  We want what we can think of, what we can speak of.  Nothing else.

Me: This explains the set of desired objects, of desireable objects more precisely, but not why these objects among many are actually desired.

Foucault:  We desire them because of the way they are imagined, understood, because of the way they are spoken of, because of their function within the discursive fields in which I participate.  The working classes desire hygiene and "culture" because within that thought-world bourgeois lifestyle is the thing to be desired.  But the bourgeois want these things for totally different reasons.  The athlete desires health and strength within the context of his sport.  The member of a fitness club desires these things for different reasons.  Within different spheres of interest, objects of interest like cleanliness, manners, culture, health, etc., function altogether differently.

Me:  But I agree with you.  Instrumental goods can be desired for any number of reasons, can be seen as means to a variety of ends, etc.  But to me this seems to pose two problems for your system: first, must we not assume that there is some actual underlying nature which allows for a particular object like health or hygiene to come into being, to be an object of interest?  And secondly, transcendental ends often hover behind instrumental ends -- is there not some immobility  to these transcendentals?  It seems to me that they must always be reducible to one, or end up being a mere delusion.

Foucault:  Concerning transcendentals, it is remarkably easy to answer your question.  You suggest first of all the immobility of transcendental values, on the basis of their invisibility or unattainability.  What is never known or encountered cannot be transformed by use, but defines the use of others, and thus cannot change. But in fact the transcendental is quite mobile -- it moves with the structure of discourse as a whole.  Note for example the diversity of religions and the characters they attribute to the deity.  Was this not a consistent point of assualt among early pagan critics of Christianity -- namely, that the character of the deity had changed between Judaism and Christendom?  As for the first question, the proliferation of concepts is always taking place, and happens through the fraying of words, their free play with each other.  The problem you pose would only be a problem if I were a prescriptivist.  But obviously I am not.  Language has no essence.  Nor do words, concepts, acts of speaking, speaking agents, etc.  And note that what constitutes these things in their ephemerality is a difference which only exists on the basis of their interaction.  Note too that power is an epiphenomenon of discourse.

Me:  You have undone my list of substrates.  But I would like to question you further about the nature of the "field" in which discourse unfolds.  Is it also merely an epiphenomenon?  So you would seem to have to claim.  But once you say it, we are left wondering at the apparent impossibility, according to your way of speaking, of speech itself.  How could these performances arise in the first place?  How can we speak?  How can words be uttered together in difference or sameness, with all their fraying and ephemerality?  It seems to me that you have made it possible to deny the substantial unity of your object of study, merely by transferring that unity to the context or receptacle in which that object is found.  The receptacle is one, so that a new kind of unity -- namely, an accidental unity -- can replace that earlier substantial unity.  But here is the main problem: no accidental unity is sufficient to sustain an object.  This means that without some substance: whether we recognize it in the speaking subject, the continuity of time and space, the field of discourse, the act of speaking, the concept, or the word, must ground this play of language and make possible the conjunction of different performances.  If this too is denied, then we must recognize that discourse becomes an impossibility or an illusion.  Without some underlying unity, there can be no distinction among things, nor any sameness, since there could be no ground for their interaction or comparison.  But in a system based primarily on the shifting distinctions of things,  in a system according to which intelligible discourse constitutes reality, this is a fatal problem.  When discourse ceases to be possible, beings become unthinkable, and your discourse is revealed at bottom to be merely a series of (frequently brilliant) socio-historical deconstructions vainly masquerading as philosophy.