From: smh@xxxxxxxxxx (Sean Hill)
Date: Mon, 19 May 1997 14:46:52 -0700
I would like to respond to Colin's post from Friday 5/16, but first I wish
to add a relevant portion from one of Foucault's last interviews ("The
Concern for Truth" in _Politics, Philosophy, Culture_), in which Foucault
addresses the relation between intellectuals, truth-telling and the
formation of a political will.
He is asked by Francois Ewald:
...People are certainly now going to expect an answer from you to the
question: What must one do? What must one want?
Foucault: The role of an intellectual is not to tell others what they have
to do. By what right would he do so? And remember all the prophecies,
promises, injunctions, and programs that intellectuals have managed to
formulate over the last two centuries and whose effects we can know see.
The work of an intellectual is not to shape others' political will; it is
through the analyses that he carries out in his field, to question over and
over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people's mental
habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and
accepted, to reexamine rules and institutions and on the basis of this
reproblematization (in which he carries out his specific task as an
intllectual) to participate in the formation of a political will (in which
he has his role as citizen to play)."
[and then later on:]
F.E.: Does the role that you give yourself in politics correspond to that
principle of "free speech" which you have made the theme of your lectures
over the last two years?
F: Nothing is more inconsistent than a political regime that is indifferent
to truth; but nothing is more dangerous than a political system that claims
to lay down the truth. The function of "telling the truth" must not take
the form of law, just as it would be pointless to believe that it resides
by right in the spontaneous interplay of communication. The task of
telling the truth is an endless labor: to respect it in all its complexity
is an obligation which no power can do without -- except by imposing the
silence of slavery.
>Foucault's work may lend unintended support to neo-conservative
>views, through at least: the denial of the concept human nature (I actually
>prefer the old Marxist notion of "species being"); his attack on truth; his
>discursive idealism (which is linked to the former); and so on...
>This becomes clear on just this issue because some on this list have said
>they would censor the Nazi's, but have elaborated no reason why this group
>rather than any other. Why pick on the Nazi's? What criteria are being
>applied? What do they do that we don't like and why? Because they kill Jews?
>So what! Jew after all is only a nominal term that refers to no real
>referent but simply a disursive construct of various incommensuarble
>discourses. Hence their discursive construct Jew is not our discursive
>construct Jew, and moreover, since they created their own discursive
>construct I suppose they can do what they want with it.
>Yes I am being absurd, but I think the absurdity is not mine but Foucualt's.
This obviously is a misrepresentation of Foucault's account of discursive
pratices. First of all, he does not deny the concept of human nature;
rather, he wishes to examine the ways in which the concept FUNCTIONS in
different discourses. In the same way, he never attacks truth per se, but
examines how truth FUNCTIONS in different discourses. Finally, he does not
have a "discursive idealism" though he did attempt a theory of discourse in
the _Archaeology of Knowledge_ but subsequently admitted the failure of
that project. He does not consider discourse to be non-referential, nor
merely an arbitrary construction. As he says in countless places: it is
not his task to verify the truth validity of statements. Rather, his
concern is to examine the FUNCTION of what counts as true in relation to
the complexity of its socio-historical context. These are separate issues
with complex relations. The confusion lies not in Foucault, but in those
such as Habermas and Colin who refuse to set aside (provisionally, of
course) their moralities in order to examine the rationality of the
unintended effects of their moralities. For this Foucault gets called
neo-conservative, irrational, immoral, an epistemoligical relativist, a
nihilist, etc. These accusations are quite reactionary and tirelessly seem
to miss the point that Foucault's analyses are attempts to examine the ways
in which actions affect other actions, despite the conscious awareness of
the those who practice them, including, admittedly, Foucault's own
discourse. And it is precisely these unintended effects, in relation to
this discussion of censorship and the Nazi newsgroup, that should raise a
Now in the following, Colin fails to address the effects of his own
will-to-censorship and, furthermore, lapses into a "slippery slope"
>How do we sift out those groups that are not
>ethically acceptable, or do we not even bother to try. On a Foucaultian
>reading I think the latter answer is the only one you can extract. However,
>the story aboout the Nazi' coming for group A, and noone doing anything,
>then for group B and noone doing anything, and then them coming for you, and
>there was noone left to do anything seems pertinent here. After all, you are
>absolutely right, at the end of the day there will be noone left but the
>Nazis and people reading Foucault, and then who do you think they are going
>to come for?
Nothing left but Nazis and Foucauldians! (laughter) This is clearly
irrational fear at work. There is nothing about the failure to censor this
newsgroup that would necessarily lead to the rapid spread of Nazi idealogy.
However, there is a negative effect that follows necessarily from the
silencing of a group of people. For instance, what regulatory programs,
surveilance systems, or internet police control will be needed to ensure
that these groups remain silenced? Ironically, the effects of these very
tactics which obviously concern Foucault are ones which in large part were
practiced notoriously by, among others, the Nazis themselves. And it is
the rationality of practices such as censorship that Foucault questions
So although we can agree that the content of this newsgroup which
suppossedly would include among other things discussions of the censorship
of "inferior races", the attempt to silence this group is to instantiate a
similar type of undesireable practice.
>But since the Foucault
>industry has taken it upon itself to use Foucaultian categories to criticise
>all manner of positions, I think it only fair that it be held to account. I
>mean I don't know anywhere that Foucault wrote about International Relations
>(which hasn't stopped many importing his ideas and making grossly inflated
>claims on his behalf), but equally he did indeed write about ethics, so he
>is indeed liable to be held to account on tye implications of a Foucautian
>stand about the ethics of fascism. Anyway, what about the role of the author?
Once again, the so-called "Foucault industry" is in large part an
unintended effect of Foucault's own discourse. In the same way, you cannot
dismiss Nietzsche's writings as necessarily responsible for Nazi idealogy
merely because one interpretation of his writings shows influence on Nazi
idealogy; there are clearly places where Nietzsche would dismiss Nazism.
Furthermore Foucault encouraged those in other areas and disciplines to
utilize his work in their analyses, but it does not follow that his
influence necessarily can be held responsible for their conclusions. As
regards the "author" function I'll let Foucault respond:
"Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in
order. At least spare us their morality when we write."
To write about ethics does not necessarily make one ethically responsible
for the effects of what one writes.
Enough for now.