ethics and poststructuralism

A response to the issue of poststructuralism's ethical "impotence.":

The negative critique (shall we call it?) and the prescriptive ethical
pronouncement are two different types of speech acts. The former shows
what is wrong with a certain kind of social relation of power knowledge
(among other things); the latter prescribes what people ought to do.

I see no evidence that a prescriptive utterance is any more likely to
change behavior and relations (or change anything at all) than a negative

In fact, though it is tied to a (perhaps passing) historical moment, the
reverse may be true.

At any rate, a lot of the criticisms of poststructuralism's "impotence"
emerge when one imagines that the important part of thought is the
thought itself--what it can figure out, discern, and so forth. My
position emerges when one focusses on the reception (or dialogic scene)
of ideas--when one says that there are "ideas-an-sich" and chooses to
look at them instead as speach acts.

Foucault's later work often was almost explicit about its self-conscious
status as a speech act (though Foucault sometimes suggests that it is a
speech act addressed to himself). In this light, his work has been
referred to as "an ethic [!] of permanent critique." Moreover, the
distinction potence/impotence (rather than true/false, for instance)
suggests we are already in the realm of what words or utterances DO--a
completely different question from that of whether the utterance itself
can tell us what we ought to do.

I think this is a really important and interesting issue, but I don't
think that it is a matter of ethics vs. no ethics. All utterances,
rhetoricians will tell us, after all, do have an "ethos."


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


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