Foucault, theocracy, fascism

by Chris Bertram on August 25, 2004

Surfing round the blogosphere, I find Oliver Kamm banging on about alliances between “the Left” and theocratic fascism. Kamm’s correspondent, the philosopher Jeff Ketland of the University of Edinburgh, offers the following as an example:

One can find examples in the postmodernist literature, and the most obvious example is Michel Foucault, once a member of the French communist party and main source of much recent postmodernist and social constructivist philosophy. Foucault visited Iran around the time of the revolution. He enthusiastically described the revolution as a new kind of “political spirituality”, and was very impressed with its characteristically anti-Enlightenment aspects.

This just doesn’t stack up, though as an instance of left-theocratic alliance. …

Presumably Ketland’s mention of Foucault’s PCF membership is supposed to support the identification of Foucault with “the Left”. But Foucault left the PCF in 1953 and wrote profoundly silly things about Iran over a quarter of a century later. By 1979 he was hardly a leftist on an sensible view of what that involves. Looking in David Macey’s The Lives of Michel Foucault to check the facts, I also found the following concerning Foucault’s departure from the PCF, suggesting that Foucault left the Party for reasons which Kamm would wholeheartedly endorse:

The “doctors’ plot” had revealed the existence of an ugly strand of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. The French Party press was not to be outdone in the matter of anti-Semitism. According to Annie Besse, writing in the Cahiers du communisme, “Hitler … refrained from harming the Jews of the big bourgeoise … Who will ever forget that Leon Blum, his wife at his side, contemplated from the windows of his villa, the smoke from the ovens of the crematoria!” Zionism was “a mask behind which to conceal espionage operations against the Soviet Union.” Whether Foucault ever read these statements is not known, but in 1953 he was already denouncing the “odious” attitude taken towards Israel by both the superpowers. His pro-Israeli sentiments were as unswerving as his dislike for the PCF and it is difficult to believe there was no connection between the two. (p. 40)

Foucault was a difficult, obscure, contradictory and often infuriating figure. At his worst he wrote nonsense. At his best he can be profoundly unsettling to the lazier assumptions of the “Enlightenment” (with a capital E) view of the world, in a similar way to the manner in which Rousseau and Nietzsche also can disturb them. What he won’t do is provide an easy example for blogospheric divisions of the world into sheep and goats.

{ 63 comments }

1

JRoth 08.25.04 at 3:17 pm

Actually, my impression has been that it’s the Left that is strongest against those ubiquitous Islamofascists. After all, the Trotskyites – Perle, Wolfowitz, et al – have really led the charge, haven’t they?

Has anyone developed an intellectual honesty filter for the Internet yet? Would save people an awful lot of debunking….

2

allthisisholy 08.25.04 at 3:18 pm

“What he [Foucault] won’t do is provide an easy example for blogospheric divisions of the world into sheep and goats.”

But we (the sheeple) need these simple divisions. We can digest them quickly, and can then once more turn our attention to the important things, like who just got voted off the island.

3

anthony 08.25.04 at 3:32 pm

tariq ali talks about michel and islamic theocratic fasicsm in his clash of fundementalisms saying:

Within three months the contours of the new regime(ie khomenis iran) had become visible:it was the stern and intrasigent face of Islamic Jacobinism. Nothing like this had been seen since the victory of Protestant fundamentalism in seventeenth century England. The difference in Time-span was important. This was a revolt against History, against the Enlightenment, Euromania, Westtoxicfacation-against Progress. It was a postmodern REvoultion before postmodernism had grown fashionalbe. Foucault, among the first to recognize this affinity, became the most bisible European defender of the Islamic Republic. How had it come to this ?
(131) (its too early in the morning, i’m sorry for the problems with transscribing.)

he made a mistake with the islamic republic in iran, but i dont know nearly enough to see why that mistake was made.

4

james 08.25.04 at 4:09 pm

Its not so much as the Western “Left” supporting theocratic fascism. Its more of the “Left” making a temporary alliance with Islam to combat the influences of the Western “Right” and Fundimental Christianity.

5

Chris in Boston 08.25.04 at 4:17 pm

But Foucault simply has to be a leftist, or the straw man argument won’t work! How else can you go about the important work of demonstrating that every critical theory citing academic secretly loves Iranian theocracy? Never mind that they probably find something else interesting or useful in Foucault. Never mind that “postmodernists” really aren’t a coherent school of thought. Never mind that Foucault’s favorable view of Iran’s revolution not only wasn’t Leftist in any identifiable way, but wasn’t picked up from Foucault by any organized political group. It’s argument by metastasis run amuck.

6

Ted Barlow 08.25.04 at 4:18 pm

Roy Edroso picked up on Andrew Stuttaford at the National Review attempting this tactic recently. Stuttaford just asserted that the Left “has aligned itself with defenders of hard-line Islam. The motives for this vary — from sheer political devilry, to reflexive hatred of the West, to blind faith in multiculturalism.” Evidence for this proposition was left to the reader.

7

Matt McGrattan 08.25.04 at 4:25 pm

Ricahrd Wolin’s book “The Seduction of Unreason…” [which I’ve just started reading so apologies for any mischaracterisation] seems to argue that many on the post-structuralist/post-modernist ‘left’ — such as Foucault — ought in fact to be though of as much more in an anti-Enlightenment tradition whch has much more in common ideologically and temperamentally with the political and philosophical ‘right’.

8

Matt McGrattan 08.25.04 at 4:27 pm

9

Lynne 08.25.04 at 4:35 pm

Another good book is “Idiot Proof.” I can’t remember who wrote it, but he is pretty good at nailing silliness on the LEFT and the RIGHT.

10

Des von Bladet 08.25.04 at 4:46 pm

Foucault is an important source for many things which describe themselves or are described by others as the “Left”. But so, for that matter, is Heidegger.

I offer you, accordingly, this choice:

* 1-bit political affiliation diagnostiques have a problematique relationship with intellectual genealogies; or
* All Leftistes are in fact covert Nazis.

In any case, when someone starts being shocked – shocked! – that Foucault wasn’t in fact a founder member of the Parisian Progressophile Picnique Club, the only sane reaction is to cross them off your list of persons whose opinions are worth your time; abuse is at your own discretion.

11

Robin 08.25.04 at 4:49 pm

Andrew Sullivan has been going on about this. As evidence, he finds little Maoist groups which raise money for the Iraqi insurrgency. Of course, when they come across people like Haley Barbour, former RNC chairman and Mississippi governor, cavorting with quasi-KKK groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has tracks like “In Defense of Racism”, it’s never an instance of the alliance between the mainstream Right and Fascism.

No one, of course, mentions why the Left, a secular, often atheist, feminist, Left would ally itself with fascism in the Muslim world. After all, the early and principal targets of Khomeini were the Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party), the Feyadin (a geuvarraist group) and other factions on the left.

It is however, interesting, how much of the Right in places in the Third World have adopted post-modernist, anti-foundational, and epistemically relativist justifications for their doctorines, for example, the Hindu Right in India.

12

Robin 08.25.04 at 4:50 pm

Andrew Sullivan has been going on about this. As evidence, he finds little Maoist groups which raise money for the Iraqi insurrgency. Of course, when he comes across people like Haley Barbour, former RNC chairman and Mississippi governor, cavorting with quasi-KKK groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has tracks like “In Defense of Racism”, it’s never an instance of the alliance between the mainstream Right and Fascism.

No one, of course, mentions why the Left, a secular, often atheist, feminist, Left would ally itself with fascism in the Muslim world. After all, the early and principal targets of Khomeini were the Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party), the Feyadin (a geuvarraist group) and other factions on the left.

It is however, interesting, how much of the Right in places in the Third World have adopted post-modernist, anti-foundational, and epistemically relativist justifications for their doctorines, for example, the Hindu Right in India.

13

Robin 08.25.04 at 4:50 pm

Andrew Sullivan has been going on about this. As evidence, he finds little Maoist groups which raise money for the Iraqi insurrgency. Of course, when he comes across people like Haley Barbour, former RNC chairman and Mississippi governor, cavorting with quasi-KKK groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has tracks like “In Defense of Racism”, it’s never an instance of the alliance between the mainstream Right and Fascism.

No one, of course, mentions why the Left, a secular, often atheist, feminist, Left would ally itself with fascism in the Muslim world. After all, the early and principal targets of Khomeini were the Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party), the Feyadin (a geuvarraist group) and other factions on the left.

It is however, interesting, how much of the Right in places in the Third World have adopted post-modernist, anti-foundational, and epistemically relativist justifications for their doctorines, for example, the Hindu Right in India.

14

Timothy Burke 08.25.04 at 5:01 pm

It’s a stupid argument about “the Left” on many fronts.

But it’s not necessarily foolish to focus on Foucault’s sympathy for the Iranian Revolution and ask whether that was a structurally significant moment rather than a one-off eccentricity the way that some people are reading it.

To me, that moment is pretty consistent with Foucault’s driving hostility to the Enlightenment, and the degree to which that posture led him to an interest in anything which seemed to be functionally anti-Enlightenment, regardless of its actual content.

There are real connections between that sentiment and some of the positioning of postcolonial theory or the romantic anti-foundationalism of some postmodernism, and also between Foucault’s position and that portion of the Western left which became infatuated with Third World nationalisms in general.

Kamm, like many, is being lazy in identifying those quite specific intellectual strains with “the Left”. Moreover, I’m really sick of people slamming postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, Foucault, and so on without having even the vaguest idea of what it is that they’re attacking. I think that this particular moment in Foucault’s intellectual career is not an isolated or idiosyncratic one, and that it does connect to a larger strand in his thought and the thought of other Western intellectuals that I find intensely problematic and foolish. In the end, I really recoil from the anti-Enlightenment strain that swallowed up a whole range of intellectual positions, and particularly led to the fatal romance of a lot of Western intellectuals with Third World authoritarianisms. But that philosophical movement has to be taken seriously, and met seriously, because it had a lot of things to say that can’t just be waved away, any more than Nietzsche, the clear progenitor of a lot of this, can just be waved away. In fact, there’s nothing that is more a betrayal of the Enlightenment than failing to meet the anti-Enlightenment square on.

The interesting other issue here is to look at what has happened in the last five years to the Left that walked away from the back-door romanticism of postmodernism, poststructuralism, situationism and so on. This is the Left that Judith Butler criticized as “left conservatism”, and there’s some interesting forking pathways in the choices people in this camp have made on Iraq, 9/11 and a lot of other issues. I’m still waiting for someone perceptive to really chart out those branching choices.

15

Kip Manley 08.25.04 at 5:10 pm

Though I might quibble a little with your wording, Mr. McGrattan (significantly further upthread than when I started this little note), the phrase “that many on the post-structuralist/post-modernist ‘left’—such as Foucault—ought in fact to be though of as much more in an anti-Enlightenment tradition…” seems sensible enough: it posits poststructuralism and postmodernism as critical tools used by thinkers on either side of a given political divide. (My quibble: “Many on the [blank]” is a neat little rhetorical dodge that, though technically correct, can all too easily be used to smear the entire [blank] by association. Which is not at all to say that’s what you’re intending here, but: how many, exactly, is “many”?)

And Wolin is hardly directly responsible for the copy that graces his book jackets, but nonetheless, the blurb for The Seduction of Unreason goes rather beyond your reasonable statement:

bq. Postmodernism’s origins among the profascist literati of the 1930s reveal a dark political patrimony. The unspoken affinities between Counter-Enlightenment and postmodernism constitute the guiding thread of Wolin’s suggestive narrative. In their mutual hostility toward reason and democracy, postmodernists and the advocates of Counter-Enlightenment betray a telltale strategic alliance—they cohabit the fraught terrain where far left and far right intersect.

On the one hand, so sweeping and gross a generalization about such a ridiculously disparate herd of cats as “postmodernism” immediately sets off my bullshit detector.

On the other, I’m immediately reminded of that SubGenius cartoon. —It’s an ill wind, etc.

16

Jack 08.25.04 at 5:19 pm

I thought Najaf would have laid “The neemy of my enemy is my friend” to rest once and for all.

Even if it did not, going from there to “My enemies are all friends” is normally called paranoia and leads to the not famously successful strategy of “Unite and conquer”.

17

djw 08.25.04 at 5:29 pm

I’ve always thought that some of the shorter interviews and essays in the last couple of years of Foucault’s life (“The Subject and Power,” that little essay on Kant’s What Is Enlightenment, a few others) were telegraphing a rather interesting direction for his work–a sort of quasi-reconciliation with some version of the enlightenment tradition. I’ve always found it to be a bit of a shame that with all the ink spilled on Foucault, this direction was never really pursued by the Foucault industry (to my knowledge, I don’t exactly keep up on that literature).

18

praktike 08.25.04 at 6:14 pm

I don’t know about Foucoult but it’s well-documented that Khomenei appropriated Marxist rhetoric in order to broaden his appeal. After making common cause with the Marxists, he tossed them over in the course of consolidating his power.

19

Timothy Burke 08.25.04 at 6:21 pm

A lot of Foucault’s closest readers–including Judith Butler–have long bristled at the charge that Foucault was a simple anti-Enlightenment nihilist, or that he had no positive political programme, and the argument often turns on Foucault’s late work, particularly The History of Sexuality. As I understand Butler’s reading, her claim is that Foucault’s political praxis was the dispersal of power into microinstitutions–not the liberation from power that one left tradition proposes, since Foucault didn’t believe that was possible–but the decomposition of major centralizations of power. Essentially I understand that as a sort of anarchism that’s fairly consonant with situationism and the postmodernist romance with decentralization, multiplicity, and so on. Foucault worked pretty hard to confound anyone trying to read him in this way, though–every positive assertion about his “real” praxis can generally be countered by a statement of his that actively denies any intent in that direction.

20

jp 08.25.04 at 6:24 pm

It is however, interesting, how much of the Right in places in the Third World have adopted post-modernist, anti-foundational, and epistemically relativist justifications for their doctorines…

I’ve noticed this, too, and it’s quite stunning – the postmodern appropriations range from critiques of media to Kuhnian assaults on ‘secular’ science to Althusserian attacks on the ISAs that are the nations ‘secularizing’ schools.

Weird, weird, weird.

21

Ophelia Benson 08.25.04 at 6:36 pm

“It is however, interesting, how much of the Right in places in the Third World have adopted post-modernist, anti-foundational, and epistemically relativist justifications for their doctorines…”

Yup. If you haven’t already, read Meera Nanda on this subject. Her new book Prophets Facing Backward is stunning.

22

minor pagan 08.25.04 at 6:45 pm

For a concrete example see the right’s claims that liberal, hedonistic Marin County “created” right-wing religious fanatic John Walker Lindh. According to this logic John Ashcroft must have been raised in a hippie commune.

23

ogged 08.25.04 at 7:27 pm

Tim,

You might be interested in Reiner Schurmann’s excellent article on Foucault’s political praxis.

“On Constituting Oneself an Anarchistic Subject” 1986 Praxis International 6(3): 294-310

24

Giles 08.25.04 at 7:33 pm

The main issue evidence that Kamm bangs on about is the Respect party – a marriage of the Muslim Brotherhood and SWP.

Now if this alliance has just stopped at protesting agains the war in Iraq then it might have been fair to say that the alliance was one of convinience not ideology.

However not that Respect is campeigning as a fully fledged party and the alliacne looks semi permant, Kamm entirely right to ask whether this reflects an ideological alliance and if so how and why?

To rebrand this sensible question as a general attack on all the left is however highly disengenious – Kamm is a soft lefty and the SWP lot are obviously hard authoritarian lefties. And its as well to remember that he last people the muslim brotherhood alligned themselves with in the West were the Nazi’s. This didnt turn out to be very wise so maybe they’re alling with the hard left this time to see if they can be more succcessful.

25

yabonn 08.25.04 at 8:21 pm

I’m a bit puzzled by the use of the “anti-enlightenment foucault” in this discussion, and the way it is supposed to explain the his position on the islamic revolution.

It seemed to me that if foucault was an enlightenment critic, it was more in a “we’re not there yet, no matter how enlightened we may think we are”, than in a “back to the trees” way. To be more precise, i think that it requires a certain amount of imagination to mistake his “not there yet” for a “back to the trees”.

As an example, i’m pretty sure he, as post-something as he may be, would oppose the stoning of women.

It seems to me that it’s that implicit confusion that is at work in mr kamm quote, equating the critic of enlightement with wanting to roll it back.

Of course i may have misread, and this comes from a rather uninformed reader of foucauld.

26

Sebastian Holsclaw 08.25.04 at 8:37 pm

“As an example, i’m pretty sure he, as post-something as he may be, would oppose the stoning of women.”

I’m not sure on what objective basis he would be able to do so.

27

Timothy Burke 08.25.04 at 9:01 pm

Yabonn:

Basically, I don’t know where you’re getting your view of Foucault. I can’t see any basis for interpreting him as arguing that we have yet to achieve the standards of the Enlightenment, but that we should continue to strive to do so. Nor do I really see anywhere in his work the kind of foundationalism necessary to say “Stoning women is a bad thing”. I don’t think he would be “for” it, either, but the statement is precisely the kind of ethical declaration that he viewed as simplistic and irrelevant.

On the other point, it seems to me that Foucault’s dallying with the Iranian Revolution is very, very distinct from the kind of nakedly instrumental behavior of the SWP–it’s the attempt to link these as an indictment of a common “Left” tendency that I think is flawed. They come from different places and operate within very different traditions.

28

dsquared 08.25.04 at 9:17 pm

You don’t need to find foundationalism in Foucault for him to have grounds on which to say “stoning women is bad”. He’d say that, if you’re considering it from the point of view of men stoning women for adultery, then that’s bad. But if you’re just using the phrase “stoning women is bad” as just a way of insulting Muslims, then you shouldn’t necessarily expect the wholehearted support that you think you deserve. In other words, you can’t get away with shrilly asserting that “stoning women is bad” is a simple sentence with only one possible meaning and demanding that everyone ignores the context in which you’re saying it when deciding how they’re going to react to you.

The failure to grasp something like this point, btw, is most of what’s wrong with Oliver Kamm’s writing.

29

Ophelia Benson 08.25.04 at 9:37 pm

“In other words, you can’t get away with shrilly asserting that “stoning women is bad” is a simple sentence with only one possible meaning and demanding that everyone ignores the context in which you’re saying it when deciding how they’re going to react to you.”

Can you get away with softly asserting it? Or barely audibly? Or in a deep but humble voice? Or in a slightly raspy voice? Or in a kind of bark? Or a whine? Or a shout? What exactly are the rules for what you can get away with?

30

Eve Garrard 08.25.04 at 10:00 pm

Dsquared: How could ‘stoning women is bad’ possibly function as an insult in the way you claim, unless it *also* has the literal meaning under which, you allow, it’s true? We can hardly insult people by pointing out that their practice of stoning women is bad unless stoning women is, er, bad.

31

Phedre 08.25.04 at 10:32 pm

I have never read any of Foucault as Anti-Enlightenment. A critic of Enlightenment most certainly.

I read Foucault’s biographies a good 10 years ago, so I am hazy about it. However, I do recall that he was gleeful about the Iranian revolution. I think he was jeering at the West’s disapproval of that revolution led by Khomeini.

America and France, two countries whose modern identities were forged on bloody revolutions and yet trying to assert that Iran remain a nation under Reza Shah Pahlavi or move to a parliament mode. Bani Sadr and company tried to hold on to the parliamentary mode but it failed. The intervening years between Mosadegh and Khomeini were brutal for Iran. It was perhaps those years which led to the disenchantment with the West. I think it was within that kind of political/social atmosphere that Foucault jeered. I disagree that Foucault’s writings on Iran were pro-Islamofascist because that dismisses the reality of how Iranians experienced those years between Mosadegh and Khomeini. Particularly rural Iran. And perhaps Foucault felt those years and jeered the West. It was the context.

Foucault was supposed to write many more essays on Iran and discontinued on his own. Could this be because he too was appalled by how bloody and oppressive the Iranian revolution had become? I think so. There is nothing in his biographies, which would lead one to suppose that Foucault approved of stoning women or making them housebound or sending children off to fight wars or public executions.

Also, I am not sure what people mean by “postmodernism”. Do they mean the end of the grand metanarrative? Or are we talking of that hokum fabricated idiocy about there not being any facts or truth?

32

Sebastian Holsclaw 08.25.04 at 10:40 pm

“He’d say that, if you’re considering it from the point of view of men stoning women for adultery, then that’s bad.”

Why would he say that? On an absolutist concept of ‘bad’? On a purely societal linking of ‘bad’ to ‘stoning women’? I don’t think so.

He might point out that from the point of view of the woman it is ‘bad’. He might also show that from the point of view of certain men in some power-confirming structures it is ‘good’. He might also note that judging the question from the outside point of view invokes a whole other set of presuppositions.

One of the whole problems with Foucault is that he offers very little hope when it comes to distinguishing between points of view. One of the horrifying ways that Foucault is used is modern academic thinking is to undercut a thinker’s ability to discriminate (in the sense of viewing one as bad or another as good) between points of view.

33

yabonn 08.25.04 at 11:04 pm

Basically, I don’t know where you’re getting your view of Foucault. I can’t see any basis for interpreting him as arguing that we have yet to achieve the standards of the Enlightenment

I had in mind, writing my comment, some of his writings about medical institution, the way mad people are treated, medical violence, the hospital as an institution etc. As for the precise source i’m pretty sure it wasn’t one of his big things, probably a thematic selection (medical? early works?).

I think i see what you find wrong with my sentence above : it was improperly phrased. Let me try again :
“it was less in a “back to the trees” way than in a “look, what we call enlightenment leaves room for misery, mistreatments, and all sorts of bad things. now move, you bourgeois pigs”.

The idea i tried to carry is that foucault was perhaps ready to critisize/scrap enlightenment, but certainly not for barbary.

precisely the kind of ethical declaration that he viewed as simplistic and irrelevant.

Well yes, i’m sure he’s question my meaning of “barbary” above, as this word was used too in the past in sentences as “let’s civilise these barbarians, bring the gatlings”.

And yet, i bet he’d look with a blank stare the suggestion that his works could make acceptable the stoning of women (or that nothing in there against etc). Here’s a man who chose to devote a big part of his work to these blind spots of society, prison or mad houses, and too in the way people are (mis)treated in there. And yet, his critic of the state of things would leave the door open to, well, stoning or a justification of it or the impossibility to criticise it?

I suppose you may say that, though, but that amounts to insulating his theory from what he meant by his theory, from his personnal history, and the time at which he wrote.

On a more personnal level (foucault’s), we agree that he would certainly not be “for” it. Neither for the homophobic policies of iran, that would have condemned him to death in an eyebat.

34

dsquared 08.25.04 at 11:23 pm

Dsquared: How could ‘stoning women is bad’ possibly function as an insult in the way you claim, unless it also has the literal meaning under which, you allow, it’s true?

Here’s a for-instance. You work in my department. We hire a new guy; he’s Pakistani. You spend all morning saying “Don’t you agree that stoning women is bad, Hussain? Stoning women is bad, isn’t it, Hussain? What do you think about stoning women, Hussain? It’s really bad that Muslims stone women, isn’t it, Hussain?”. In the afternoon, I sack you for racially harassing Hussain. My guess is that you’d get a much more sympathetic hearing from Oliver Kamm than from Michel Foucault. Or for that matter, an industrial tribunal.

35

dsquared 08.25.04 at 11:29 pm

Or to put it another way; a stone hitting a woman is a physical fact; there’s no arguing with it because in general, one can’t argue with stones.

The proposition “Stoning women is bad”, however, is something that only makes sense in a particular context. If it is true that physical events of that kind are morally bad, then there is some Platonic realm in which the sentence “Stoning women is bad” is true. If you like, it’s in the Big Book of True Statements.

However, as Foucault points out, that fact about imaginary Platonic context-free sentences, is a lot less interesting than you’d think. Any particular use of the sentence “Stoning women is bad” is going to be a single historic event, with its own context and its own meaning constituted by the circumstances, and by the relationships between the parties to that event.

Once you’re clear in your mind about the type-token distinction, and once you’ve realised that Foucault cares about tokens, not types, a whole lot of confusion slips away and you stop saying embarrassing things about Foucault.

36

Ophelia Benson 08.25.04 at 11:44 pm

Ah. And when do you stop saying embarrassing things about stoning women?

37

dsquared 08.25.04 at 11:49 pm

Not sure what your point is here, Ophelia?

38

roger 08.26.04 at 12:29 am

Sebastian, personally, I think Foucault’s views on stoning women are probably yours. More interesting would be his views on, say, the state taking children from lesbian couples, as they do in many American states.

Would you say this is objectively bad? I think Foucault would ask: what is the function of ‘objectively” in this sentence. Is it saying — this is universally considered to be bad? Is it saying: this is bad from a higher metaphysical viewpoint? Is it a move in a power game, in which objectively legitimates a certain sum of positions — by opposition to the establishment — claiming that this is objectively bad – by the establishment in these states — claiming that lesbian couples are objectively bad – etc.

Myself, I think that states shouldn’t kidnap the children of lesbian couples. Foucault, however, would have been more interested in the terms of the argument, and how it proceeded, then in making an argument for a certain value system. That simply wasn’t his expertise. There’s an excerpt from an interview with Foucault in 73, where he talks about the sexuality of children, and the way in which a regime of pudeur is succeeded by one that protects the vulnerable — bringing with it an idea of vulnerable populations that exploded, after Foucault’s interview, in the eighties and nineties — in this country, in terms of an odd alliance between feminists and fundamentalists about “repressed memories” and “surviving abuse.” The problem with “objectivity” is that it can’t predict changes in value systems and their expressions. It doesn’t, in other words, predict who will believe what.

The problem with objectively becomes much plainer when one uses Foucault’s pov on issues closer to home. Here are a few objective value statements: it is objectively bad that the state refuses to recognize gay marriages. It is objectively bad that the state forces gay couples to live promiscuously. It is objectively bad that the Republioans in the U.S. Congress contenance this kind of persecution. It is objectively bad that an economic system hurts the environment. It is objectively bad that an economic system exploits labor.

I can imagine a lot of people who would not find these objective at all.

39

roger 08.26.04 at 12:42 am

PS — oh, the interview is here:
http://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library/danger.htm

40

Geoff Robinson 08.26.04 at 12:47 am

Surely this has to be placed in the context of Foucault’s defence at the same time of Solidarity against the PCF. Lech Walesa was a great leader of the Polish people in their struggle for freedom. His subsequent alignment with the nationalist catholic right in Poland does not alter this. Foucault was interested in the Iranian revolution as a refutation of Marxist revolutionary models (of whose dire consequences he was well aware). He quickly condemned human violations by the Islamic republic. All of this is quite clear from an objective reading of the essays in his collected works, which I recently read for the first time.

41

MQ 08.26.04 at 1:40 am

From Tim Burke:

“But that philosophical movement has to be taken seriously, and met seriously, because it had a lot of things to say that can’t just be waved away, any more than Nietzsche, the clear progenitor of a lot of this, can just be waved away.”

Right that Nietzsche inspired a lot of these guys. But Nietzsche was not an enemy of the Enlightenment in the sense that anti-modernists are. He was post-Enlightenment. One could say he saw through the Enlightenment. But he recognized that both he and every other contemporary intellectual were creations of the Enlightenment, and there was no going back.

42

seth edenbaum 08.26.04 at 5:31 am

“I’m closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley’s uniform
Of imagery
I’m living in a silent film
Portraying
Himmler’s sacred realm
Of dream reality
I’m frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain’t got the power anymore
No I ain’t got the power anymore

I’m the twisted name
on Garbo’s eyes
Living proof of
Churchill’s lies
I’m destiny
I’m torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
Divine symmetry
Should I kiss the viper’s fang
Or herald loud
the death of Man
I’m sinking in the quicksand
of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore”
David Bowie: Quicksand
(From his national front days)

Foucault, like many European intellectuals, self created homosexual dreamers, and ‘life as art” types from any country, was an anti-bourgeois bourgeois.

Marcel Duchamp (Pere Ubu with a sense of humor) called himself a monarchist. It’s Americans in their moralism who pretend you have to make a choice between left and right, when really it’s the middle classes that destroy everything. The Cambridge spies voted for Stalin because only a king could protect the innocent peasantry and all they represented, simple nobility etc. etc. etc. from all this modern crap.

When you play with these people, you’ve got to be aware of where they stand, which is “in between”. You can’t clean up Nietzsche, but you can learn from him. There are nihilists who grow up around power and who search for ways to destroy it and build nothing; and there are those who grow up around little, with no power, who learn from nihilists that things can be destroyed, and things made to replace them. And again, there are those who can’t make up their mind.
People learn in strange ways, and it’s easy to be right about things of no consequence.

43

Jim Flannery 08.26.04 at 5:47 am

If Bernard-Henry Levi’s reading of Foucault’s writings on Iran (only one of which was produced after Khomeini’s return, and that by only 12 days) is accurate, that half of the equation may not be all that adhesive either: (from War, Evil, and the End of History)

… the texts, the same texts, do not hesitate to emphasize everything that, in this nascent movement, makes for anxiety, or terrifies, or perhaps announces the worst. On this Iranian stage, he will say in a text in Le Monde–the very last one, the one that will summarize the final lessons and will bring an end to the adventure, as far as he is concerned–on this Iranian stage “the most important and the most atrocious” are mixed. And, clarifying what he means by “the most atrocious” he will cite “xenophobia” on the one hand, the “subjection of women” on the other (in the dialogue with Claire Briere and Pierre Blanchet, he will again evoke–once again, he’s right on the mark–the demonstrations of “virulent anti-Semitism” that are the “counterpart” to the “uniqueness” of the uprising). But already, in the “open letter” addressed to Mehdi Bazargan a few days after the first executions of opponents by the Khomeini commandos, he worries about the “trials that are unfolding today in Iran,” emphasizing that “political trials are always touchstones” and insisting that if “nothing is more important in a history of a people than the rare moments when it rises up together to bring down te regime that it no longer supports,” nothing is more important, “in its daily life,” than the moments, “so frequent on the other hand,” when “public power is turned against an individual, proclaims him its enemy and decides to bring him down.” And before that, in October, he evoked “the risk of a bloodbath” as well as “the definitions” of a “scarcely reassuring” clarity of the Islamic government that was taking shape. And even before that, in the very beginning, in Qom, with the Ayatollah Chariat Madari, an opponent of Khomeini, who was, let it be said in passing, his true great man in this affair, he posed the question of the terrible fascination with death in a religion “more preoccupied” (this is Foucault speaking) “with martyrdom than with victory.” As examples of blind enthusiasm, unconditional belief, and happy complacency go, one could find better. Shouldn’t we be obliged to him, rather, for having pointed out the symptom? Shouldn’t we, instead of this interminable posthumous trial, credit him with the merit of having been one of the very first observers to see this morbid, martyrological, sacrificial dimension, which is the mark of radical Islam?

44

Jim Flannery 08.26.04 at 5:48 am

Ow! Mistyped Levy, dammit.

45

Eve Garrard 08.26.04 at 6:25 am

Dsquared: the contrast between physical-fact statements (I’m assuming that’s what you really meant, rather than physical facts themselves) and moral judgements doesn’t coincide with the contrast between context-insensitive and context-sensitive statements (think how context-sensitive the truth of ‘it’s raining here’ is, even though that’s a physical-fact statement). Neither of these distinctions coincides with the type/token distinction. Part of the point I was making is that whatever we do with token assertions in a particular context still relies on their having a literal meaning, and this is as true of physical-fact statements as it is of moral judgements. So attempts to ignore literal meaning in favour of an examination of contexts and relationships aren’t going to be successful.

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drapeto 08.26.04 at 9:11 am

It is however, interesting, how much of the Right in places in the Third World have adopted post-modernist, anti-foundational, and epistemically relativist justifications for their doctorines

pomo came out of the holocaust, fundamentalism came out of the wreck of colonialisms — why is it surprising that groups that want to respond to the assaults of the enlightenment should interest themselves in each other? (*interest, not approve tout court)

to take dsquared’s example, hussain might be an islamist himself, but an experience like that might make spivak rather more appealing — because it explains something about what he has undergone.

47

drapeto 08.26.04 at 9:13 am

And when do you stop saying embarrassing things about stoning women?

when it has outlived its usefulness as a premise for assault. bush told me so.

48

DC 08.26.04 at 11:23 am

“At his worst he wrote nonsense. At his best he can be profoundly unsettling to the lazier assumptions of the “Enlightenment” (with a capital E) view of the world…”

Care to indicate which works reveal F. at his best, Chris? (Or indeed anyone else). Haven’t read anyting of his (except, I think, “What is Enlightenment?”), though I do nonetheless feel myself capable of a substantial exposition and critique.

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Jimmy Doyle 08.26.04 at 11:36 am

D2: The trouble with Foucault is that deprived of context, it’s hard to convince oneself that he’s not trying to be ironic. (I’m reminded of Peter Cook’s crack that Hitler’s speeches take on a whole new light when you realise that he’s being sarcastic).

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dsquared 08.26.04 at 12:39 pm

Eve; what do you mean by a “literal meaning” and how does it differ from a “meaning”?

I suspect that “literal” here is doing the work of “unproblematic, exactly what I say, with all the dfficult issues raised by Foucault automagically resolved”.

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Brian Weatherson 08.26.04 at 1:16 pm

I haven’t read any Foucault, so I can’t weigh in on how relevant this is to anything he ever wrote, but I just wanted to make one small point on Dsquared’s side. It’s a commonplace these days that there is a big difference between the truth-conditions of the sentences we utter and what we manage to communicate by a particular token sentence. To take the cliched example, a reference letter that just says “X is always punctual and his handwriting is very neat” is pretty insulting if it’s a reference for an academic job. Of course it’s not part of the (literal) meaning of that sentence that X is a lousy academic, but that’s pretty clearly communicated.

If Foucault wants to stress the importance of considering both what is communicated (or speaker meaning) as well as truth conditions (or sentence meaning) then he’s making a correct and important point. On the other hand, I wouldn’t take the upshot of that distinction to be that sentence meanings are irrelevant. I think that sentence meanings are interesting as well as speaker meanings, but then I’m paid to think that so take what I say with a grain of salt.

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Eve Garrard 08.26.04 at 2:31 pm

Brian, Dsquared:

Brian points out that:’If Foucault wants to stress the importance of considering both what is communicated (or speaker meaning) as well as truth conditions (or sentence meaning) then he’s making a correct and important point.’ This is true, but hardly novel – we don’t need Foucault to tell us that (Brian certainly didn’t). The point I was trying to make is that speaker meaning is dependent on sentence meaning, and hence the latter can hardly be dismissed as less important. (However, Dsquared is quite right to note that the uttering of true statements can sometimes be discriminatory, depending on context – I’ve been arguing this point myself on normblog with respect to anti-Zionist discourse.)

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dsquared 08.26.04 at 2:58 pm

But you still seem to be operating on a view of the world which has things in it called “meanings”. Quine ended up concluding that there weren’t any such things, and some of the best bits in Foucault and Derrida involve trying to analyse the damage caused by the assumption that there are.

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CR 08.26.04 at 3:10 pm

Re the (lame) “stoning of women” line:

I suspect that the Foucault of Discipline and Punish would have something like this to say:

“The stoning of women was (is) one thing; but things really started to get going when women learned to stone themselves, automatically like, from inside.”

Short version of Discipline and Punish: old-fashioned (state) violence (punishment) against the body was replaced by more efficient, self-running systems of Discipline in modernity. I.e. catching people and putting them to death is a lot less efficient than creating systems that implant the prison, the jail, the gallows in the mind of the subject. Reprogramming is cheaper than enforcement, and more effective.

The notes on here seem stuck on the poststructuralist, antifoundationalist, Foucault. Epistemology and the like. But for most in the humanities today, it’s the later M.F. (say, Discipline and Punish, History of Sex) that holds more interest. I think this is for sure the case with Judith B., since I took a seminar with her in which we read History of Sexuality…

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yabonn 08.26.04 at 4:13 pm

Re the (lame) “stoning of women” line:

Actually, i’m not too proud of it neither. I found it unnecessarily snarky as i was writing it, but couldn’t find a convenient replacement at the time. A weakness the little bugger promptly took advantage of, morphing into something else and vaguely messy.

Note for later : harness the snark!

But for most in the humanities today, it’s the later M.F. (say, Discipline and Punish, History of Sex) that holds more interest.

Sometimes unfortunately even in the news. There is something of a panopticon in the open cages of gantanamo, isn’t it?

56

Sebastian Holsclaw 08.26.04 at 4:38 pm

I have to agree with Eve’s two comments. A type/token distinction doesn’t resolve the problems we are discussing because it doesn’t fix the frame of reference.

Or to put it another way; a stone hitting a woman is a physical fact; there’s no arguing with it because in general, one can’t argue with stones.

The proposition “Stoning women is bad”, however, is something that only makes sense in a particular context. If it is true that physical events of that kind are morally bad, then there is some Platonic realm in which the sentence “Stoning women is bad” is true.

This doesn’t really explain the problem at all. Is the proper physical reference stones touching a woman’s body, striking a woman’s body, striking a woman’s body with enough force to do damage, striking a woman’s body with enough force to kill, or some other physical event? Your appeal to ‘context’ only removes the judgment by one step. Instead of saying ‘stoning women is bad’ you would say that ‘stoning women in a particular context is bad’. But that doesn’t help you if you use Foucault’s style of analysis, because now you must judge the individual facts of the context. What is their context? Over many interations of analysis eventually you bootstrap up to the general societal context and then you are really fucked because his analysis never really allows you to say distinguish between a bad context and a good context.

And that is the whole problem. He appeals to context for every possible level of generality. He offers no way of discriminating between a good context and a bad one. He offers no way of determining a good point of view from a bad one. In fact the effect of his attempts is to undermine the idea that such a determination could possibly be made.

And that is bad.

But this is funny:

But you still seem to be operating on a view of the world which has things in it called “meanings”.
Quine ended up concluding that there weren’t any such things, and some of the best bits in Foucault and Derrida involve trying to analyse the damage caused by the assumption that there are.

57

Eve Garrard 08.26.04 at 7:14 pm

Dsquared: As I’m sure you know, there isn’t uniform acceptance of the Quinean strictures on meanings. But I wasn’t intending to raise deep issues of ontological commitment. *Whatever* meanings amount to, we’re going to need to deploy some notion of literal or sentence meaning, as opposed to speaker’s communicative intentions. After all, *in the situation as you describe it*, we can’t use the sentence ‘stoning women is good’ as an insult, but we can use the sentence ‘stoning women is bad’ as an insult. How can we explain this difference without adverting to the fact that the two sentences have different meanings?

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dsquared 08.26.04 at 7:21 pm

But now all your point appears to amount to is that one has to communicate using words and sentences. Which is not something Foucault would ever have denied; what he would have denied is that the limited sense and meaning which you’re referring to as the “literal meaning” is the smallest and least interesting part of the actual meaning of a particular sentence-token.

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Chris Bertram 08.26.04 at 8:13 pm

Not sure how helpful this excursus into phil lang has been, but a distinction between sentences and utterances might have come in handy. Anyway, Eve writes

After all, in the situation as you describe it, we can’t use the sentence ‘stoning women is good’ as an insult, but we can use the sentence ‘stoning women is bad’ as an insult.

Really?

Heavily sarcastic tone: “_Yeah Hussain_ , stoning women is _good_, really _good_ .”

Insulting? I’d have thought so.

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Eve Garrard 08.26.04 at 9:35 pm

Chris: Sure, you’re right, apply the sarcasm operator, so to speak, and the meaning gets reversed. But the operator wasn’t in the situation as Dsquared described it (which is why I emphasised that condition); and if it had been, then the original insult wouldn’t have been available. And furthermore, we’re not going to be able to describe what’s going on in sarcasm without appeal to literal meaning. But I think you’re right, the phil of lang excursion isn’t going to get us much further.

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mitch p. 08.26.04 at 10:09 pm

The Iranian-American futurist Sam Ghandchi thinks that the technocrats who keep the practical institutions of contemporary Iran running are “postmodernists”.

Here is an Iranian-American postmodernist, Hamid Dabashi, writing (in 2000) against the regime – although he seems to be investing his hopes in Khatami’s reformists, who have been rejected as just another face of the system, if the boycott of the elections earlier this year is anything to go by.

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seth edenbaum 08.27.04 at 5:23 am

All joking aside I find it odd that the choices offered here are between those who like Foucault and who therefore try to find ways to make him sound logically consistent, and those who do not like him, and feel the need to do the same.
I find that odd, and worse, I find it silly. The modern world brings with it a number of conflicts. Foucault responds to these and tries to face them.
By the logic put forth here, Shakespeare would be deemed a failure because he did not offer a logically consistent vision.
But oh yes, Foucault was an ‘intellectual’ and Shakespeare merely a playwright.

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Jimmy Doyle 08.27.04 at 5:25 pm

D2: There are such things as literal meanings. We all know this. Invoking Quine, Foucault and Derrida in support of the opposite view doesn’t change these facts.

As for your example: I could cast the sentence “The Nazis were evil” in bronze and hit a nice German over the head with it. This wouldn’t alter the fact that the sentence is true.

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