Cang Intro (fwd)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 19 Sep 1995 23:52:49 -0400 (EDT)
From: John Ransom <ransom@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
To: michel foucault <foucault@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Cc: John Ransom <ransom@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: Cang Intro

Foucault, I've been trying to argue, is not a vitalist; he does not=20
sub**ribe to "vitalism." On p. 18 of the Introduction to Canguilhem's=20
_Normal and Pathological_, F directly addresses the issue of vitalism.=20
And though I've mentioned this before I'll say it again: It is strange=20
Deleuze, when claiming that Foucault is a "vitalist" of some kind (see=20
_Foucault_, pp. 92-93 of the English translation; pp. 98-99 of the=20
French) makes no reference to this essay. (Foucault's Introduction=20
appeared in the early 70s, if I'm not mistaken. _Normal and Pathological_=
first appeared in 1966. I believe F's Intro was added in 1978. Deleuze's=20
book was published in 1986; English trans. 1988.)=20

No matter how precise the life sciences became through the use of=20
mathematical models and an ever-more precise understanding of cell=20
chemistry, etc., it still found itself unable to account in a definitive=20
way for the phenomenon of life (18). But, F cautions,

=09"This does not mean that 'vitalism,' which has circulated
=09so many images and perpetuated so many myths, is true.
=09It does not mean that this idea, which has been so often
=09rooted in less rigorous philosophies, must constitute
=09the invincible philosophy of biologists. It simply means
=09that it has had and undoubtedly still has an essential role
=09as an 'indicator' in the history of biology. And this in two
=09respects: as a theoretical indicator of problems to be
=09solved . . . [and] as a critical indicator of reductions to be
=09avoided . . . (18)

Instead of contrasting those particular forms of life currently=20
available to an overflowing richness of suppressed or unrealized=20
possibilities, Foucault suggests we keep the focus on the origins,=20
characteristics, assumptions and weak points of existing life-forms. This=
is precisely what F likes about Canguilhem: "What Canguilhem studies in a=
privileged way in the history of biology is the 'formation of concepts'"=20
(19). In other words, Canguilhem does not want to set a vitalistic notion=
of "life" against the world as it is; rather, he wants to understand how=20
this or that particular concept, with its particular fecundity and=20
real-world consequences, came into being and what its functional=20
relations with other concepts are.

Foucault's sharpest rejection of vitalism appears on p. 21, as follows:

=09That man lives in a conceptually architectured environment
=09does not prove that he has been diverted from life by some
=09oversight or that a historical drama has separated him from
=09it . . .=20

" . . . diverted from life by some oversight . . . " What kind of=20
oversight could F have in mind? I have a clearer idea--which does not=20
mean it is accurate--of the second half: " . . . or that a historical=20
drama has separated him from [life] . . . " Here I think F is distancing=20
himself from the kind of critical tradition associated with the Frankfurt=
School, which argues that the so-called "progress" of humanity has=20
actually led to its barbarization, the fault for which can be laid at the=
doorstep of reason.

In any event: the mere fact that we confront a conceptually architectured=
environment does not mean we have been diverted from the more primal,=20
purer, richer, and vital stuff of "life."

=09That man lives in a conceptually architectured environment
=09does not prove that he has been diverted from life by some
=09oversight or that a historical drama has separated him from
=09it; but only that he lives in a certain way, that he has a=20
=09relationship with his environment such that he does not have
=09a fixed view of it, that he can move on an undefined territory,
=09that he must move about to receive information, that he
=09must move things in relation to one another in order to make
=09them useful.

Compare this almost passionate defense of concepts to the kind of=20
quasi-vitalistic arguments made by George Simmel in his "Sociability"=20
essay (1911, I think):

=09On the basis of practical conditions and necessities, our
=09intelligence, will, creativity, and feeling work on the
=09materials that we wish to wrest from life. In accord with our
=09purposes we give these materials certain forms and only
=09in these forms operate and use them as elements of our
=09lives. But it happens that these materials, these forces
=09and interests, in a peculiar manner remove themselves
=09from the service of life that originally produced and=20
=09employed them. They become autonomous in the sense
=09that they are no longer inseparable from the objects
=09which they formed and thereby made available to our
=09purposes. They come to play freely in themselves
=09and for their own sake; they produce or make use of
=09materials that exclusively serve their own operation
=09or realization. (_The Sociology of Georg Simmel_,
=09trans. Kurt H. Wolff, New York: Free Press, 1950),
=09p. 41)

Change a few rhetorical cues and vocabulary choices, and you get the same=
argument from the Frankfurt School or Max Weber. Of course, no one could=20
do it like Simmel! Until Foucault, anyway.

The kind of vitalism mixed with that nostalgic *fin de si=E8cle*
ennui characteristic of Simmel and other "life" philosophers is what F=20
wants to avoid. To bring this series of posts to the list to a close, let=
me finish by quoting the rest of the paragraph on p. 21 of the=20
Introduction, which can be thought of as a direct if unintentional=20
rejection of the kind of argument Simmel makes above:

=09Forming concepts is one way of living, not of killing life;
=09it is one way of living in complete mobility and not
=09immobilizing life; it is showing, among these millions
=09of living beings who inform their environment and are
=09informed from it outwards, an innovation which will
=09be judged trifling or substantial as you will: a very
=09particular type of information. (21)

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