Re: fish out of water

On Wed, 15 Nov 1995, flannon wrote:

> On Tue, 14 Nov 1995, James McFarland wrote:
> >
> > I think we determined that the quote comes from Order of Things (p. 262 of
> > the English). What we didn't determine was why Foucault would have said
> > such a pointless thing, unless he was under the misconception that Marx
> > aimed to overthrough bourgeois epistemology instead of bourgeois
> > relations of production, or unless he thought that bourgeois epistemology
> > was peculiarly 19th century, and so was irrelevant to us now
> But isn't the point here not that the episteme is bound to any one
> ideological form that occures within it, that is, its not a question of a
> bourgeois epistemology or of a revolutionary epistemology, rather it is a
> question of the relation between a given form of knowledge and the
> condition of possibility out of which it arises. At the level of their
> condition of possibility both bourgeois economics and revolutionary
> econimics aim towards the end of history, though they approach this
> point from different directions.

As I said in another response, if Foucault's target is "vulgar" Marxism
of the naive materialist and historically determinist kind, than he has
been preempted by Marxists themselves by eighty years or so. But it
seems to me that Foucault wants to say more than that: he wants to say
that "at the deepest level of Western knowledge, Marxism introduced no
real discontinuity; it found its place without difficulty, as a full,
quiet, comfortable and, goodness knows, satisfying form for a time (its
own), within an epistemological arrangement that it welcomed gladly
(since it was this arrangement that was in fact making room for it) and
that it, in return, had no intention of disturbing and, above all, no
power to modify, even one jot, since it rested entirely upon it. Marxism
exists in nineteenth century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is
unable to breathe anywhere else." (OT 261-2). And this clearly rests on a
distinction between 19th and 20th century thought that is alien to the
entire rest of the Order of Things. I am aware that this is really an
attack on Althusser and his notion of Marxist science as an
"epistemological break" (For Marx p39), but even so, it is quite
disingenuous to avail oneself of a rhetoric of complicity in something
Marxism never claimed itself to be subverting, and so invoke a wildly
inaccurate image of conformity and complacency and cowardice that has
nothing to do with Rosa Luxembourg, say, her head "comfortably" smashed
by agents of that same class that was, goodness knows, "making room" for
her in a Berlin canal, or the Spanish Republican defenders of Barcelona,
"welcomed so gladly" by Franco's troops, or any of a large number of
American communist labor organizors and agitators deported or killed
because of their pathetic addiction to such a "satisfying" epistemology,
etc. (Quiet they certainly were, once the graves were shovelled full.) This
passage is quite atypical of the dignity and intellectual honesty
that characterize almost all of Foucault's work, and I think, without
suggesting that he was a Marxist, that this passage is one reason he was
consistantly so hard on the book later. At least, I would like to think so.

> > case it isn't clear why 12 pages earlier, at the start of Chapter 8,
> > he's calling precisely the episteme in which Marx swims "a certain
> > *modern* manner of knowing empiricities...the thought that is
> > contemporaneous with us, and with which, willy-nilly, we think...")
> > What Foucault shows (convincingly, of course), is that Marx isn't
> > Foucault, that he is not interested in *why* people talk the way they do as
> > much as *how* one class exploits another class, and what we can do
> > practically to keep them from continuing in this way.
> Its true that Foucault is not seeking beneath the discourse of the
> nineteenth-century an exploitative function which, if brought to the
> light of day, would overcome with a flash the injustices of an industrial
> economy. But then this probably isn't what Marx is up to either, since
> such a move would be the highth of idealism. Regardless, its seems a bit
> of a stretch to claim that Foucault is merely interested in 'why people
> talk the way they talk'. Language is most certainly somewhere near the
> heart of Foucault's program, but to suggest that the focus is on idle
> chatter, mere gruntings and groanings which themselves stand above and
> in some way shroud that which is real and concrete, is to miss the point.
> The point here is not 'why do people talk the way they do', but 'what is
> it possible to say within the confines of a given set of discursive
> relations'. Initially these two propositions don't seem very distinct
> from one another in that they both seem to delimit a space in which the
> word indicates an idea, which itself must then be examined as to its
> truth or falsity in relation to the real. But what is the relation
> between discourse and the real? Isn't Foucault's point that the mode of
> discourse and the mode of being of man are inexstricably tied to one
> another? And couldn't it then be said that discourse is not a relation
> between words and ideas, but the material condition of the knowable, or,
> if you will, isn't it the material condition by which being is given
> expression in the world?

Yes, it could be said, but it would be, itself, missing the point.
Discourse is not the material condition that being is given in the world
in any sense relevant to politics. The children's rhyme about sticks and
stones has an immediate plausibility here. Foucault's point may be that
the mode of discourse and the mode of being of man are inextricably tied
up together, but Marx's point is that the social relations of production
are prior to any analysis of man-in-the-abstract, which is undertaken by
people after they're fed and clothed and housed. If Foucault wants to
call discourse "material," he has not thereby evaded the Marxist charge
of idealism (ideology), because what "material" means in that context is
something different from the material conditions of human social
production; it is the material medium of signification, the material
dimension of the sign that makes such conceptual constructs in language
as "man" possible. But if Foucault wants the fact that the sign has a
material component to bear the weight of human material dependency, of
the essential *vulnerability* that power (in an old-fashioned sense)
makes use of, the body's susceptibility to pain, its need for
nourishment, etc., then he is deluding himself. This confusion is what
makes so much contemporary, Foucault inspired analysis so
surreal-sounding, as if matter and the body were strange, mysterious
things, instead of the most obvious things, as if pain and fear were ways
of discussing things, and as if power were sly and
subtle instead of callous and brutal. But a body made out of words that
is supposed to do what our bodies made out of cells do is certainly
mysterious, and a power that manifests itself as much in
prescriptive handwriting patterns as in SWAT teams deployed is not a
helpful kind of concept.

> It seems fairly clear that when Foucault refers to Marx and Ricardo he is
> not talking about Marx and Ricardo. That is, Marx and Ricardo are not
> taken as the symbol of an intentional project, and Marxism is not offered
> as the synechdoche of Marx's aims. Rather, Marx and Ricardo are offered
> as straw men, and as a critique of resemblance. On the one hand these
> two stand there simply to open a space into which Nietzsche can step,
> though the Nietzsche who arrives should not himself be thought of as an
> intentional project. On the other hand, Marx and Ricardo compose
> replacable elements in a variegated structure of signs. Either of them
> can be replaced by the dialectic, and the linear continuity that the
> dialectic enforces, or by anthopological finitude, and the necessity of
> lack in the economic field which it entails. When Nietzsche steps in at
> the end of the chapter to "burn for us...the intermingled promises of the
> dialectic and of anthopology" he does so not to correct the manner in
> which Marx and Ricardo might have been wrong, but to open a space of
> interpretation in which the questions to which Marx and Ricardo responded
> are no longer in force.
It's getting late. I'll think about the Nietzsche connection. Anyway,
thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm sure we're all very busy!



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