Re: fish out of water

On Wed, 15 Nov 1995, Erik D Lindberg wrote:

> On Tue, 14 Nov 1995, James McFarland wrote:
> >
> > This is not, I think, Foucault's last word on the subject of Marxism,
> > but it is without question one of his stupidest.
> Well, it is stupid only if the battle of paradigms or the act of
> redescribing someone's work in term other than their own is stupid.

No, in this context, a statement is stupid if it either a) gains the
appearance of critical force at the expense of violating the main point
of the work in which it appears (ie that contemporary understanding of
the world is a function of an epistemological rupture at the end of the
18th Century), or b) if it quite simply misattributes an intention to a
thinker or misinterprets his or her project in order to critique it more
easily (ie seeing Marx's concept of revolution as aimed at the way we
organize scientific discourse, rather than at the institutional
structures of our economy, in order to then show that, lo, he fails to
reorganize scientific discourse). Foucault here does both these things, in
order to distance himself from the French Communist Party, no doubt, but
at the price of sounding stupid. Just for the record (though this should
be obvious), Foucault's luminous intelligence fills me with admiration
and humility, and I have learned more from him than from most books I've
ever read, which is why this statement distresses me. Any effort
undertaken to convince me that Foucault the philosopher was not stupid,
but rather very smart, is wasted, since I hold the opinion myself.
Effort to convince me that this statement is not as stupid as it sounds,
on the other hand, is greatly appreciated.

> The rather polemic statement about Marx is in fact central to Foucault's
> argument that the manner in which Marx discussed the problem of
> exploitation and proposed a solution is at one with lots of other 19th
> century discourse. This is a significant connection, according to
> Foucault, because the anthropomorphism that it participates in is doomed
> to failure because of its epistemological structure. Foucault does not
> fail to understand Marx or his project, but is providing a critique of
> the assumptions that underwrite Marx's project--its "positive unconscious
> of knowledge." Foucault is not dumb to the fact that he is interested in
> discourse instead of labor; he is presenting an argument, long and
> subtle, that it is "the way we talk" that is in some cases of the utmost
> importance.

This rests on a distinction between 19th and 20th century thought that I
do not find in the Order of Things, except precisely here (viz. point "a"
above). Since we still exist in the "humanist" (shorthand) discoursive
system that was initiated in the 1780's and 90's, there is no way of
claiming that Marx's thought is "dated" or inappropriate to contemporary
circumstances (a criticism that is often made, and that Foucault's
"fishy" remark echoes, I agree). So it must be that Marx is misled into
thinking that his description of capitalism is accurate science, while we
now can see that it is no more intrinsically objective than any other
human science, but has its possibility inscribed in that systematic lurch
that inaugurates our world. To which Marx would respond "so what." The
point of Marxism is to provide an analysis of actual institutions that is
validated by its effectiveness in orienting action directed at the
overthrow of those institutions. There may well be, speaking with Lukacs,
aporias of bourgeois thought built into the system of German idealism
of which Marx is the heir, but this has little relevance to Marx (who
probably, as a sophisticated Hegelian, was better aware of them than
Foucault imagines here), since his claims are not epistemological but practical.
Now, of course, Foucault is welcome to point out the historical
congruencies between Marx's project and other Enlightenment
interpretations of the world, but that does not yet count as critique. At
most, it could be seen as yet another debunking of "vulgar" Marxism's
historical determinism or naive materialism, but not of Marx's
revolutionary escape precisely from bourgeois objectivism (Until now the
philosophers have only described the world, the point is to change it...).
Why its epistemological structure should doom this thought, if that
epistemological structure is the basis of the institutions it is
attacking, as well, is unclear to me. This congruence would rather give
me hope that the theory is well-suited to its task.

> More generally, Foucault is playing (though perhaps with irony) what I
> would call the "complicity game," which I sometimes think is the only
> game in town, and is certainly one that Marx helped established. This is
> the complicity game: take an intellectual (or political) gesture that
> claims to be radical, subversive, revolutionary, different, transcendent,
> or just plain humane, and show how it _really_ reconfirms that which it
> apparently rejects. Thus what Foucault is saying about Marx's
> complicity, Marx also said about Smith's and Ricardo's complicity, how they
> simply reconfirmed a system of value that they thought to be analyzing in
> a fresh way. In doing this, Marx made a point of rejecting their
> criteria and terms, criticizing them for not breaking out of certain
> bourgeois assumptions (I guess this makes Marx pretty stupid too).

This is quite wrong. The identification of surplus value as the mode of
exploitation does not reject bourgeois thought and terms: surplus value
is exploitation *in* bourgeois terms, because it is unrecompensed labor,
ie unequal or unjust exchange. Marx saw in Smith and Ricardo
(particularly), not complicity, but great advances over the Physiocrats,
in the development and refinement of the concept of natural price
(Smith) and labor value (Ricardo). Since they were theorizing at the
outset of capitalism, on behalf of the rising capitalist class, they were
not in a position to understand the truth of capitalism's fundamentally
unstable structure, because it didn't exist yet. But they were not simply
deluded; they are absolutely essential analysts for anyone who wants to
understand capitalism. You are confusing Marx's relation to his
predecessors with the developed theory of ideology that he applied to
his apologist contemporaries, to theorists of general "philosophical"
malaise, nationalist ideologues, religious movements, etc. If Marx *had*
criticized Smith and Ricardo in the way you describe, dismissively, then
yes, that would have been stupid.

> short, by criticizing Smith and Ricardo for not undermining the system of
> exploitation, he is criticizing them for not being Marx. As you point
> out, Jim, Marx also does this to German philosophers in THE GERMAN
> IDEOLOGY. To align Hegel, for instance, with other metaphysicians is quite
> clever, but there are contexts in which the break between Kant and Hegel
> is quite significant (again, Marx is pretty much an idiot here, right?).
> Unless it is totally clear who the "police" are, and what is being left
> intact, Foucault's point is worth hearing.

Marx was quite well versed in German idealism, in Kant and Hegel, their
similarities and differences. His main criticism of other socialist and
anarchist theoreticians of his day, Lasalle, for instance, or Kropotkin
was that they didn't understand Hegel, not that they were still Hegelian.
But your second point, about who the "police" are, is more interesting.
In the end, Foucault's relation to Marxism is periferal; but whether a
theory of social control that can't identify the police, or makes their
presence so constituative of collective life at any level that it makes
no sense to talk of freeing oneself from them, abdicates its subversive
role. Let me put this somewhat crudely: epistemology is well and good,
and perhaps a concept of power can be developed outside the bounds of our
intuitions about agency and ethics, etc. But meanwhile, children sew
athletic shoes together or shimmy naked beside brass poles or lie in ditches
with bloated bellies as the jets scream overhead because of power and
institutional practices that are not subtle or difficult to understand
at all, simply difficult to combat, given their resources. Now perhaps
Foucault is simply no help in combatting real oppression: there is no
rule that says a social theory has to be subversive. But then we should
be clear on that, and not pretend that we are doing anything more than
routine academic work when we analyse disciplinary practices, or
technologies of selfhood, or whatever. And we should be leery of
academic theories that pretend to discredit a system of thought not
designed for the academy, that manifestly does aim at stopping
concrete, unmysterious, but powerful structures of oppression, and
discredit it in the name of a radicalism that as of now has failed
miserably to resist with any effectiveness at all the wholesale
reactionary dismantling of whatever small progress toward
justice had been achieved in the wake of the Second World War.

> Since Marx, the complicity game has been played with increasing vigor.
> Adorno, for instance, is driven to a frenzy by it in JARGON OF
> "game" all over the place. "Radical" men are complicitous with
> patriarchy. Feminists are at times complicitous with heterosexism, and
> so forth. Again, this is a symptom of the proliferation of competing
> paradigms, a non-ending (and important, I would argue) contest over what
> terms we should view history and thought in: class, race, gender,
> epistemological, economic, poltical, and so on and so on. It is an
> ongoing debate concerning what categories need to be subverted in order
> to be "truly radical."
> I myself am ambivalent to this game. I think it does an important work,
> but it is also monotonous and epistemologically suspect (complicitous, in
> a backdoor way, with a long tradition of metaphysical thinking that it
> hoped to have left behind!). I am tempted to say that this game is
> stupid. But since so many obviously intelligent thinkers have played it,
> often with high political stakes, I will say instead that while the
> complicity game is a dead-end, there are still reasons to drive down it
> from time to time.

I want to thank you for taking the time to answer so extensively, and
invite you to continue the debate if it seems worthwhile to you. Again, I
emphasize that I am being as critical of Foucault as I can here, but this
does not mean that I don't have the highest respect for him as a thinker.
I am, however, suspicious about the claim (certainly not Foucault's
alone) that metaphysics needs to be eliminated as a preliminary to
effective political commitment. I really don't see that metaphysics as
such is all that harmful to politics, though certain metaphysical claims
are no doubt politically dangerous. For the most part, though, politics
can get by with naive realism, despite its notorious contradictions and
inadequacies for more detailed or involved analyses. Certainly Marx's
epistemology is sophisticated enough for any political aim it has, nor
did the socialist distortions grow out of rarified conceptual
inadequacies in the founder's holy word. Treating it as holy writ, as
philosophical in any sense beyond what is needed for practical purposes
was the real mistake.



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