Re: fish out of water

Jim, thanks for your response. I'll try to clarify my main points by
responding more explicitly to your text.

On Thu, 16 Nov 1995, James McFarland wrote:

> 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).

I think that the whole idea of the critique involves looking at the
assumptions that a project rests on. Since these assumptions are so
often unthought, a critique will almost always ignore their intention,
looking at the EFFECTS of the underlying assumptions (this after all, is,
broadly speaking, what Marx's critique of ideology is up to. If one
examines a project in its own terms, one is not operating a critique, but
questioning its logic, or whatever. Rorty employs an valuable
distinction between inferential connections and non-inferential
associations. As he puts it, "we speak of inference when logical space
remains fixed, when no new candidates for belief are introduced. . . . We
are being rational [in an inferential way], so the story goes, insofar as
we stick to the logical space given at the beginning of the inquiry and
so long as we can offer an argument for the beliefs held at the end of
the inquiry by referring back to the beliefs held at the beginning."
Marx thought he was being rational in this way, but it depended on a sort
of positivism, that disguises its great acts of speculation. Consider the
use of words like "real," "empirical,"
"without mystification,"--the whole anti-speculative rhetoric in the
following passage from THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY:

"Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out
empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the
connection of the social and political structure with production. The
social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life
process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may
appear in their own or other people's imagination, but as they REALLY are.
. . . We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from
men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at
men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of
their real life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological
reflexes and echoes of this life-processes. The phantoms formed in the
human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material
life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material

One can see that Marx thought he could, through emprical verification,
transcend mediation, and see things as they really are--in Rorty's terms,
staying within a pregiven logical space, appealing only to an
intrinsically appropriate context. But it is difficult, after
post-structuralism, to argue that there is such a thing as this
unmediated real, let alone easy to access it with some good solid
empirical research. Marx's entire schema, as Hayden White points out, is
strictly tied to the sort of narrative that he thinks he can do without.
He thinks his critique gets to things as "they really are," but I would
argue that he recontextualizes all sorts of things into a new set of
metaphors and tropes, organizing history and reality according to a fresh
narrative. He certainly does not remain within the object of
investigation's own terms, though his rhetoric strains to suggest that he
is only looking BENEATH it.

> 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."

I read Marx as believing that he had managed to transcend his age in some
very central ways--by getting to the emprical and material base of
reality. More about this below.

> 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 that's not all Foucault does: his second step is to show what these
congruent discourses rest on; his third step to show some of the problems
with these assumptions; his fourth step is to suggest possible ways to
think, even to change things, without relying (or relying with the same
faith) on these assumptions. What else but this is a critique?

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.
I think you are doing exactly what I am critiquing (with Foucault) Marx
for doing: namely singling out ONE fundamental feature (in this case
"bourgeois objectivism") that needs to be escaped. Foucault suggests
(though with much more irony) that there could be another fundamental
feature that is more important. I'm not saying that his fundamental
feature is more fundamental, but one cannot simply assert the opposite.
More about this below.

> > 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.
Okay, point taken: I should have re-read before I leaped.

> 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.

Yes, but as I mentioned above, Marx makes a mistake that Hegel had
extensively critiqued--namely transcending mediation. See p. 46-7 of the
Miller translation of Hegel's PHENOMENOLOGY

> 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.

This brings me back to one of my main points. I don't think you can
simply reject Foucault's fundamental, by saying that another fundamental
is really more fundamental. I think the rhetoric you employ here helps
me make my point, for you switch from logos to pathos at a crucial
juncture. Your argument implies this: "how can you look away from such
suffering at something cold and lifeless like discourse? Only
materialist approaches are courageous enough to take in all this." I agree
that in
many ways the Marxist terms of analysis may, in some cases, be more
USEFUL or BETTER than Foucault's. But only because I too do
not want to ignore this kind of suffering. But this is an ethical or
moral argument for one paradigm over another, rather than a philosophical
or theoretical. If we choose to look at these blatant results of
obviously harmful institutional practices, rather than their discursive
conditions, we do so because of our sense of justice or kindness, or
because of the moral imperative tugging at our sleave, and not because of
any grounding in the final and ultimate, unmediated, empricially
verifiable, speculation-free understanding of the way things really are.

The problem with the Marxian approach is that it hides its ethical sense
(as did Marx) behind a scientific vocabulary. The word radical has an
etymological connection with the word radish. Radical means getting to
the root, and Marx certainly believed that he had dug up the ultimate
root of social reality by examining production. Foucault helps show that
society, history, and culture does not have a single root, or a
transcendental signified, as Derrida would put it.

Which is to say that once people like Foucault do their number on the
history of
ideas (in a way that Marx may have helped start) we are not left with any
Truth. The road of the critique leads to pragmatism--something that
Foucault is much more comfortable with than Marx or a contemporary
Marxist like Jameson or Eagleton.

Now perhaps
> Foucault is simply no help in combatting real oppression: there is no
> rule that says a social theory has to be subversive.

Again, it is a question of "subversive of what." To say that Foucault is
not really subversive (despite all the traditional modes of thought that
he challenges) is to assert that there is one paradigm, one foundation, that is
the ultimate base and structure of our society. I am too much of an
anti-foundational to believe that.

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.
> 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.

Likewise :^)

Erik D. Lindberg
Dept. of English and Comparative Lit.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Milwaukee, WI 53211
email: edl@xxxxxxxxxxx


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