Re: ethics and poststructuralism

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

I'm a rhetorician, so I'll take Erik's last line as a cue to jump in here,
especially since these issues are interesting to me. I found myself doing a lot
of nodding to you, Erik, as I read this post. Most of the criticism (and boy, do
I mean negative) I get about my work is tied to its non-prescriptiveness. The
argument is usually that I can't think materially, that my work is just about
theory and never offers concrete "solutions."

But I think what wants to be remembered here, with a grateful nod to Foucault and
others, is that abstract notions have already carved up the world for us; they
are already responsible for motivating and justifying some of the most
frightening atrocities imaginable. Apartheid. Slavery. Rape.
Genocide/Genus-cide/Gynocide. The category distinctions that enable such
persecutions have been abstractly determined...already. And in that light, it
seems "ethical" to shoot for re-valuation of those previously determined
distinctions, for an/other "reasoning" that might perturb and pervert the system
to such an extent that we find ourselves EX-scripted from its drama.

Not to find some kind of utopia, not to usher in some great good place, but at
least to perpetually point up the noise (the differend) that gets silenced by the
booooooming proclomations of the hegemony. Avital Ronell, whose essay, "The Worst
Neighborhoods of the Real," defends Foucault's work as both "ethical" and
radical, has this to say in an interview with Andrea Juno:

[to manage an EX-scription] one has to enter areas that are not covered
by the insurance of "political correctness." One has to posit theories
that appear unacceptable or problematic--it takes the courage of
indecency to figure out why things have been so massively defeated.

Diane Davis
Asst. Prof. of Rhetoric and Composition
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, VA


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