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Foucault’s pendulum 

From party-Marxism to movement ideology

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Robert Kurz

   After the 1960s, the dissolution of the left wing critique of capitalism, in both the form of the philosophy of praxis and of Althusserian “structuralist” Marxism, was furthered by the “ideological praxis” of postmodern theoretical elaboration, also known as “post-structuralism”. As an exemplary representative of this current we shall take Michel Foucault, whose reflections enjoyed a great deal of popularity on the left. In Foucault, as well, we find the postulate of an “inseparable unity” between theory and praxis. Thus, he colorfully proposes, against the Frankfurt School, “another way … which is more empirical … and which implies more relations between theory and practice. ” (Foucault 2005a, 1st English Ed. 1982, p. 243).

   Nonetheless, the old postulate is here merely reformulated in a different way, the ontology of praxis arising in the form of the famous “discursive practices”. The characteristic concept of “practices” used by Foucault, which underwent diverse formulations in the various periods of its development (in the definitions of “episteme” or “strategem”, for example), could very well, in combination with his copious material analyses on the history of the constitution, of the discipline and of the internalization of Modernity, be integrated in a critical theory of value-dissociation; in this sense, making use of another one of Foucault’s metaphors, one could speak of a “microphysics” of fetishist relations. Yet it was precisely a reference of this kind that Foucault was unable to produce with his approach; to the contrary, he developed a theoretical schema that led to a different critical theory of the constitution of the historical form.

   Foucault also took up the critique of “economism”; he called for “liberation from the economic schemas by undertaking an analysis of power” (Foucault 1978, Lecture from 1976, p. 72). However, he, too, although in a different way than the representatives of Western Marxism, refused to define the “economy”, whatever that was, as a “profound and sole last instance” (Foucault, Lecture delivered in 1978, p. 36). By rejecting these rhetorical devices of the Western Marxists in difficulty, still used only as diplomacy in the field of theory with a basis in the evasive formulation of Engels, Foucault also cut the last tenuous link with the problem of the a priori fetishistic matrix. In the end, he did not critically address the reduced definition of the “economic instance”, choosing instead to simply eliminate it; in fact, he was no longer interested in either capitalism or its critique. With the appearance in his book, Words and Things (Foucault, 1976, 1st French Ed. 1966), of questions about the critique of political economy, Foucault, like Althusser, did not examine them from the point of view of their content, but only with regard to their purely epistemological form; and henceforth in a manner that was entirely disconnected from Marx’s theory.

 With this stance, Foucault is already a left wing “post-Marxist”, who leads the movement for disengagement from party-Marxism, but in precisely the wrong direction. His critique of the ideology of the subject, which he at first shared with structuralism (along with all its ontologizations), and the critique of Enlightenment ideology with which he was associated, only had the goal of rejecting, in general, every comprehensive theory of social-historical contexts; he turned against “global, totalitarian theories” (Foucault 1978, ibid., p. 58), especially Marxism, claiming: “[All such theories] that refer to the categories of the totality have, in reality, an inhibiting effect” (ibid., p. 59). If Althusser had already renounced the concept of the totality as “Hegelian”, instead of subjecting it to a critical transformation, Foucault, for his part, no longer even bothered to distinguish “relatively autonomous” social spheres or subsystems. He, too, withdraws from the empty shell of the “whole” and instead seeks “… to keep … within the field of immanence of pure singularities. (!) Then what? Rupture, discontinuity, singularity, pure description….” (Foucault 1992, ibid., p. 36).

   “Institutions, practices, discourses” (Foucault 1978, ibid., p. 58) as such are no longer understood “within” an overarching social context, or even within partial zones, but as singularities, and therefore, more than ever before, in a positivist manner: “The analysis of the positivities, to the degree that these are pure singularities which are assigned not to a species or an essence, but to simple conditions of acceptability (!) … requires the deployment of a complex and tight causal network…. Hence there is a need for a multiplicity of relationships, a differentiation between different types of relationships, between different forms of necessity among connections, a deciphering of circular interactions and actions taking into account the intersection of heterogeneous processes” (Foucault 1992, ibid., p. 36). “Not to … an essence”, but “ to simple conditions of acceptability”: here is a reductionist program. Each and every concept is broken down and, consequently, so are each and every critique of a definition of the essence of the social. In fact, there is no longer even any society (much less any history), but only an impenetrable tangle formed of “singularities” or so-called ensembles, in the “logic inherent to the context of interactions with its always variable margins of non-certainty” (ibid., p. 38). The concept of capitalism becomes meaningless and, consequently, so, too, does the critique of capitalism.

   What remains, as a general ahistorical and vacuous definition of content, is, in compensation, the concept of “power”. In a way, all relations are always “power relations”, which are now developing in the form of these ensembles of singularities, and no longer in that of the opposition of “classes” (sociologically reduced, separated from their constitutive context) as is the case with the philosophers of praxis. From the perspective of the critique of fetishism, the flow of power does not have an anthropological (or even a biological) basis, nor can it be understood as a relation of will without any presuppositions between classes or groups and based only on external means of power (weapons, for example). Instead, power that can be expressed in domination develops on the basis of a history of fetishist relations, in which the respective a priori matrix that embraces all individuals establishes, on the basis of itself, a functional hierarchy of relations of domination, whose “agents” (in Marx: “character masks”) execute the imperatives of presupposed forms of action, without being their “conceptual” bearers. Since, however, in Foucault, each and every vestige of a concept of essence beyond Marxism is liquidated, the flow of “power” is revealed to be a sui generis ontology, which no longer has a basis but is postivistically presupposed.

Thus, everything is always “power” without any basis; the “logic inherent to the context of interactions” arises as an eternal “game of power” in the space of “singularities”, in which the politics and the economy of Modernity are also dissolved. This is why the theoretical referential framework of the abstract ontology of power of Foucault is no longer derived from Marx, but explicitly from Nietzsche and implicitly from Heidegger. The more susceptible the analytic concepts of the “practices” and the material analyses related to them are to being critically integrated into the theory of value-dissociation, the more intransigently must the theoretical schema of that subsidiary referential framework of The German Ideology (which is, in general, constitutive of the postmodern “ideological praxis”) be combated. In the final analysis, Foucault, with his consistent atomization of society and history, takes the obscuration of the context of the categorical form to its most extreme point, a process that had already been prepared within Western Marxism, thus abandoning the field of radical critique in general; his concept ends up in a position and praxis of the “left”, with an ontology of the “right”.

   Thus, for Foucault, the concept of ideology, too, and consequently, also the positive theory of ideology as the critique of ideology, are meaningless and superfluous. Whereas the sociology of knowledge had only conveyed a positivist concept of ideology, as it was understood by the philosophers of praxis and by Althusser’s “structuralist Marxism”, in order to thus affirm it for the supposedly “correct” (proletarian) side, in Foucault, along with the ultimate reference that empties the social form of any content, so, too, does the problem of ideology disappear, dissolving into alternating “productions of truth”, whose paradoxically absolute relativity is not subject to any constituted objectivity, not even a negative one. Instead, they only involve “discursive practices” in the flow of “power”, in which, in a way, only that is “true” which is imposed in complex processes as “acceptance”, until this is once again questioned and “another production of truth” is set in motion. Thus, the “games of power” are always also “games of truth” (Foucault 2005b, 1st French Ed. 1984, p. 274). In the critical theory of value-dissociation, the concept of the “production of truth” also can be taken in this critical sense and made fertile, by showing, in the detailed analyses of Foucault, the mechanisms of ideologization at all social levels. In Foucault, however, these mechanisms exist explicitly on their own, in a positivist perception; they are not mechanisms “of something” and “within” a reference to the constitution of the social form that ends up being dissolved in the “singularities” of power relations and games of truth.

   Thus, in the context of discontinuous “singularities”, for Foucault only “discontinuous, particular and local criticism” can exist (Foucault 1978, ibid., p. 58). This “local character of criticism” (ibid., p. 59) now means, more than ever before, a politicism of “praxis”—yet it is a kind of politicism that is even more reduced than that of Western Marxism, and with the same mantra of a “transformation of the relations of forces” (ibid., p. 72), which now can no longer be relations between social classes or other social meta-entities. In this process, what is taking place is a “creation of a permanent relation of forces” (ibid., p. 73) in the arena of “conditions of acceptability” (Foucault 1992, ibid., p. 40) which constitute that “field of immanence” of the singularities and “… a field of possibles, of openings, indecisions, reversals and possible dislocations which make them fragile, temporary….” (ibid., p. 40).

   This concept of “dislocation” would enjoy a long career in the postmodern left. A-conceptual politicism then became the “switchyard of dislocation” of infinite particular struggles and “peripheries that rise instead of falling towards the center” (Dosse 1999, 1st French Ed. 1992, p. 306). This is no longer a definition of essence, however, nor can there be a “center”; instead of the reduced Marxist definition of social essence, it is not an expanded reflection of the latter that arises but rather the henceforth absolute negation of the context of the social form in general, whose thematization is denounced as “essentialist”. “These are ‘immediate’ struggles”, according to Foucault, “for two reasons. In such struggles people criticize instances of power which are the closest to them, those which exercise their action on individuals. They do not look for the ‘chief enemy’ but for the immediate enemy. Nor do they expect to find a solution to their problem at a future date (that is, liberations, revolutions, end of class struggle)….” (Foucault 2005a, 1st English Ed. 1982, p. 244). It is easy to see that this is a reductionism of critique within the metaphysics of intentionality of the theory of action, in which Foucault’s structuralism suddenly is transformed; instead of the “chief” (class) enemy, now there are “immediate” enemies, in the particular diversity of singular instances of power, instead of attaining, by way of the critique of sociologism (both of the theory of action as well as the theory of structure) of intentional social relations, the critique of the socially overarching a priori matrix.

The Western surrender of the radical critique of capitalism was thus brought to a conclusion by postmodern “anti-essentialism”, which now no longer needs any kind of argument for the systematic obscuration of the negative social totality. After the problem of the social whole—which in general justifies the concept of the formation of “capitalism”—was dispatched in an ahistorical ontology of power, the particularization of critique could be overwhelmingly associated with a “prohibition” of any and all critique of the “whole”, which is no longer comprehensible even in the conceptually vacuous formula of Althusser or of the philosophy of praxis: “But Foucault’s notions of power diluted the political dimension by dispersing it in all directions…. it circulated through a network among individuals, operating in chains, transiting through each one before reassembling into a whole. Without any nodal point there could be no resistance to this omnipresent power that was in everyone and was therefore nowhere. It was irresistible since there was nothing to resist” (Dosse 1999, 1st French Ed. 1992, p. 307).

   The disappearance of the determinations of the concrete historical form of capitalism, as well as of the “economy”, “politics” and “institutions” in general, in the ontology of power, renders worthless the strikingly blatant knowledge that social opposition and social conflict are not at all sociologically external in their origins; instead, they are reproduced, in an all-embracing way, “in each individual” (competition, for example, and the ideologizations associated with it). Once “power”, which takes the place of the concept of capitalism and the concept of social formations in general, is considered, utilizing Nietzsche and Heidegger, to be permanent and intangible, it also cannot be criticized as such. It could only be subject to criticism if it is not taken on its own, but is recognized as a factor of a historically specific social constitution. But once all cats are grey in the night of the all-embracing “field of power”, the “dislocation” of power can only take place in the space of the “singularities”, that is, of particular social phenomena. Thus, the inflation of the concept of politics (of its “immutable reproduction” without the context of the form) also continues to be upheld beyond the confines of Western Marxism.

   It is not possible at this time for us to engage in an extensive debate with Foucault (which still remains one of the unfinished tasks of the theoretical elaboration of the critique of value-dissociation); we can only situate his reflections in the context of the ontology of praxis. In this regard it can be affirmed that, with Foucault, the movement of the pendulum of the Western left is forced in the direction of the paradigm of the theory of action; and it is henceforth considerably and consistently disconnected from the Marxian critique of capitalism. At the same time, the “congealment” of social actions is transformed beyond institutionalism, and is reduced to fluid “singularities”. The objectivist moment of the approach of the theory of structure, which in postwar structuralism was already disconnected from the last vestiges of the philosophy of history and also from the reduced understanding of an “economic center”, divided, on the one hand, into the “superfluous” meta-objectivity of the ontology of power, which is no longer susceptible to concrete reflection, and, on the other hand, into the discontinuous objectivization of micrological “interactive relations”, which, in the light of the theory of action, are now only accessible to permanent “dislocations”.

   The eternal struggle for “conditions of acceptability” in eternal “productions of the truth” of a relativist-particular kind remains socially and historically without an objective. Foucault was forced to bind theory to the immanent treatment of the contradiction, once the question of the social essence was itself replaced and totally liquidated by the reduced institutional and political-economic schemas of Western Marxism. Thus, the task of an “ontological break” receded even further into the distance. This in itself means that gender dissociation, as a determination of the essence, must remain unthinkable, because it exists on the level of the obscured constitution of the fetishist form. Modern gender relations can arise, in the best cases, merely in the form of “singularities” in the “field of power”, and Foucault was interested in this, unlike Western Marxism.

    His reductive transformation of the modus of negative socialization in disconnected “discursive practices” marks a break with the paradigm of “class struggle”, but in the wrong direction, in the turn (parallel with structuralism) towards the theory of action; the problem of the immanent treatment of the contradiction, including the a priori “unity between theory and praxis” was not examined critically, but was instead atomized. For the atomized treatment of the contradiction, as well, now neither a party nor any kind of factional solidarity was needed; but only because the question of the social totality and, therefore, of a social transformation beyond capitalism, had been buried. What was merely implicit in the Western Marxists became explicit in Foucault. With a swing that was even of greater amplitude than the reformulation of postwar structuralism in the theory of action (which is why it was also known as “post-structuralism”), “Foucault’s pendulum” heralded the transition from party-Marxism towards the movement ideology of the left. The price paid for this “supersession”, however, was the “localization” of critique in decontextualized, isolated phenomena.

Robert Kurz in Grey Is the Golden Tree of Life and Green is Theory. The Problem of Praxis as a Recurring Theme of a Truncated Critique of Capitalism and the History of the Left

Originally published under the title : “Grau ist des Lebens goldner Baum und grün die Theorie. Das Praxis-Problem als Evergreen verkürzter Gesellschaftskritik und die Geschichte der Linken”, in EXIT! Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No. 4, 2007 (ISBN: 978-3-89502-230-2, Horlemann Verlag, Postfach 1307, 53583 Bad Honnef, http://www.horlemann-verlag.de/).

- Dosse, François (1999, 1st French Ed. 1992): Geschichte des Strukturalismus [History of Structuralism], Vol. 2, Frankfurt am Main.

- Foucault, Michel (1976, 1st French Ed. 1966): Die Ordnung der Dinge, Frankfurt am Main. [Words and Things]

- Foucault, Michel (1978, Lecture delivered in 1976): Dispositive der Macht, Berlin. [The Apparatus of Power]

- Foucault, Michel (1992, Lecture delivered in 1978): Was ist Kritik?, Berlin. [What Is Criticism?]

- Foucault, Michel (2004, Lectures delivered in 1981/82): Hermeneutik des Subjekts, Frankfurt am Main. [Hermeneutics of the Subject]

- Foucault, Michel (2005a, 1st English language Ed. 1982): “Subjekt und Macht” [Subject and Power], in Analytik der Macht [Analytics of Power], Frankfurt am Main.

- Foucault, Michel (2005b, 1st French Ed. 1984): “Die Ethik der Sorge um sich als Praxis der Freiheit” [The Ethics of Self-Concern as Praxis of Freedom], in Analytik der Macht, Frankfurt am Main.

Other texts :

- We are everything. The misery of (post-)operaism (Robert Kurz)

- "Structuralist Marxism" and the politicism of the theory of action (Robert Kurz)

A new direction for the direction of action.Western Marxism and the « philosophy of praxis » (Perry Anderson, Ernst Bloch, Antonio Gramsci, & cie), by Robrt Kurz.

 

Tag(s) : #Sur Robert Kurz