Re:Foucault and Agency

On Thu, 16 Nov 1995, Alan Schrift wrote:

> A number of people have recently noted and then reiterated:
> > Foucault would not have asked a question such as
> >"Who acts ?" ...
> A question: how then do you deal with the textual appearances of:
> "For Nietzsche, it was not a matter of knowing what good and evil were in
> themselves, but of who was being designated, or rather _who was speaking_
> when one said _Agathos_ to designate oneself or _Deilos_ to designate
> others. For it is there, in the _holder_ of the discourse and, more
> profoundly still, in the _possessor_ of the word, that language is gathered
> together in its entirety."
> (_The Order of Things_, p. 305).
> And perhaps even more emphatically, in "Nietzsche, Freud, Marx", when
> Foucault closes by stating that it is interpretation's obligation to
> interpret itself to infinity, noting "interpretation will be henceforth
> always interpretation by the "who?": one does not interpret what there is
> in the signified, but one interprets, fundamentally, _who_ has posed the
> interpretation. The _principe_ of interpretation is nothing other than the
> interpreter, and this is perhaps the sense that Nietzsche gave to the word
> `psychology.'" (translation from Ormiston and Schrift, _Transforming the
> Hermeneutic Condition_, p. 66)
> Two citations to gently prod the discussion toward taking the question of
> the who, of agency, as seriously as Foucault did.
> Alan Schrift
> Grinnell College

I'd say that Foucault definitly takes the question of the who
seriously, it could even be said that this is _the_ question towards
which _The Order of Things_ is directed. Maybe one could even go further
and say that the question of the who is to Foucault what the question of
Being is to Heidegger. However, I'm a bit hesitant to say that
agency is synonymous with the question of the who. Or if these two
figures are synonymous then Foucault has reconfigured the very notion of
agency, setting it slightly off center from what it otherwise might say.

Its been awhile since I've looked at the question of agency directly so
my analysis here will probably be a little vague, but it seems safe to
say that within the confines of a traditional historiography the question
of agency always relates back to a substantial subject who would stand as
the causal locus from which history unfolds as a linear series. Or, to
put it another way, the agent is the _ursprung_ which both causes events
and represents within itself the totality of the events which it has
projected. It then becomes a process of grasping the subject so as to
reveal the truth of history. I don't know how broad of a generalization
I want to make with this but it at least seems to fit Schleiermacher's and
Dilthy's hermeneutics. It also seems to characterize phenomenology in the
broad sense that Foucault uses it as spanning the distance between Kant
and Husserl and possibly beyond.

Well hmm, I guess there's a problem even with that since Foucault groups
Schleiermacher with Nietzsche and Freud as founding modern interpretive
disciplines. (see OT p.74) Setting this little contradition aside for
the moment, it seems that the search for an agency that would itself
represent the totality of a series of events, up to and including a
representation of itself representing, would be a move that rightly
belongs to the classical episteme. Doesn't this, to a certain extent at
least, describe the triangle between the painters eye's, the mirror on the
wall and the position of the viewer in Valasquez's painting? But then I
get stuck here, for Valasquez's painting does project a closed
interpretive space where all the elements turn towards each other and
there's no way to get out representation, and yet the paintings space
seems to be more in line with the interpretive space of the 16th century
that Foucault describes in "Nietzsche, Marx, Freud", then it is with the
Cartesian semiology which at times comes across in _The Order of Things_
as the apogee of the classical episteme. If anyone can help me out on
how to get around that little problem it would be very cool.

Anyway, if modernity does begin in the middle of the nineteenth century
as Foucault would have it, if modernity begins with Nietzsche's opening
of an interpretive space which is no longer based on representation, then
the question of the who and the question of agency no longer refer to an
individual, because the who is no longer speaking, rather the who is
spoken. This at least is how I read Foucault's statement -- "To the
Niezschean question: 'Who is speaking?', Mallarme replies -- and
constantly refers to that reply -- by saying that what is speaking is, in
its solitude, in its fragile vibration, in its nothingness, the word
itself -- not the meaning of the word but its enigmatic and precarious
being." (OT p.305) This, then, _is_ the who, for the who is not an
individual, it is not something to which a proper name can be applied,
but rather, in its mode of being, it is the possibility of such an "event"
occuring in the first place. The who is that dangerous point which
Foucault describes in "Nietzsche, Freud, Marx" where 'the interpreter
disappears in the interpretation' due to the malevolent quality of the
sign. Or yet again, the who, and the space from which it speaks, compose
a perilous act in which the self will find its own dissolution.

"For modern thought, no morality is possible. Thought had already 'left'
itself in its own being as early as the nineteenth century; it is no
longer theoretical.As soon as it functions it offends or recoiles,
attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates, unites or reunites; it cannot
help but liberate and enslave. Even before prescribing, suggesting a
future, saying what must be done, even before exhorting or merely
sounding an alarm, thought, at the level of its existence, in its very
dawning, is in itself an action -- a perilous act. Sade, Nietzsche,
Artaud, and Bataille have understood this on behalf of all those who
tried to ignore it; but it is also certain that Hegel, Marx and
Freud knew it. Can we say that it is not known by those who, in their
profound stupidity, assert that there is no philosophy without political
choice, that all thought is either 'progressive' or 'reactionary'? Their
foolishness is to believe that all thought 'expresses' the ideology of a
class; their involuntary profundity is that they point directly at the
modern mode of being of thought. Superficially, one might say that
knowledge of man, unlike the sciences of nature, is always linked, even
in its vaguest form, to ethics or politics; more fundamentally, modern
thought is advancing towards the region where man's Other must become the
Same as himself." (OT p.328)

This play between the Same and the Other points back to the preface where
Foucault defines the Other as "...that which, for a given culture, is at
once interior and foreign, therefore to be excluded (in order to reduce
its otherness)...", and the Same is defined as "...that which, for a
given culture is both dispersed and related, therefore to be
distinguished by kinds and collected intoidentities." (OT. p. xxiv)
With the convergence of the Same and the Other the interpretive space in
which a culture produces meaning gets rearranged and the conclusions of
the previous definitions no longer follow. Here its not so much that
representation has disappeared completely, but now representation is
only partial and incomplete, incapable of exhausting that from which it
comes, or that to which it points, because the line between interiority
and exteriority has been blurred. This at least offers a way in which some
sense can be made of Foucault's statement that in Nietzsche depth must be
understood as exteriority. (Sorry I don't have the quote handy, but its
in the NFM essay)

If depth is exteriority, if man's Other becomes the Same at himself, then
it is no longer an issue of identities and exclussions; no longer an
issue of agency as a thinking subject, or a knowing subject, or a self
conscious subject. But this still leaves open the question of the
speaking subject, but it would seem that it is the nature of this question
to remain open and openning.



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