Re: Poststructuralism and Ethics

Message from Greg Coolidge, University of Calif, Riverside

This is a reply to Penelope Ironstone-Catterall's vexing problem of feeling
like a hypocrite when she criticizes humanism and liberalism in one breath,
and relies on humanist and liberal values in another breath. I am presently
working on a dissertation called "Humanism Without Humanity: The Paradox
of the Foucaultian Subject in the Humanist Projects of Michel Foucault and
Post-structuralist Feminism", where I am attempting to discuss this very
dillema among post-structuralists who base their theoretical and political
projects on the de-centered subject of Foucualt. Foucualt, and to a much
larger degree, post-structuralist feminists, argue quite vehemently that
the discourses of humanism, including liberalism, are to be rejected since
they misconstrue power and essentialize human beings as normal, reasonable, or
natural. On a purely theoretical level the Foucuatian subject is used since
such a subject is entirely a social construction devoid of any essential
humanness. In such a way, power, in all of its forms, is viewed to construct
subjects (power that is largely ignored if one imagines that human beings
are always in possession of autonomy and freedom via reason, human nature,
being, consciousness, etc.). Also, such a view of the subject removes from
human beings, and their desires, thoughts and actions, any hint of normality,
reasonableness, naturallness or inevitability. There are only the subjects
which have been constructed in all their uniqueness and diversity. This is
quite attractive to Foucualt and post-structuralist feminists on a theoretical level, who are attempting to fully examine the domination and oppression of
human beings in liberal socirities, as well as attempting to refute the notion
that women, people of color, homosexuals, the insane, etc, are somehow
naturally or inevitably inferior and subserviant, abnormal, pathological, or deviant. However, after refuting the values of humanism, especially
liberal humanism at the theoretical level, Foucualt and post-strucuturlist
feminists are left subscribing to political projects of emancipation that
are obviously grounded in such humanist and liberal values as autonomy, self-
determination, freedom, human dignity, individuality, equality and others.
Although such terms are often deliberately avoided in the discourses of post-
structrualt feminism, such expressions as "creating new subjectivities", and
"creating spaces for agency" are nothing more than calls for autonomy and self-
determination using other terms. Such subjects are expected to resist the powerthat attacks their individuality, to transgress power when possible, to
subjectivities and lives that are their own, all of which requires a subject
that is capable of truly autonomous action. Such an autonmouly acting
subject is denied by the subject of theory, since it is viewed as being
devoid of the essential, uncolonized subjectivity which secures, at least
potentially, the autonomy of the subject. All humanisms, be it that of Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx or Sartre are based on the premise that there is some essental aspect of humanity that potentially secures human autonomy
(that which makes us more than animals who are victims of internal and
external determination), be it reason, Dionysian/Apollonian human nature,
being, species essence or consciousness. Post-sructurlists deny that such an essential humanness exists, yet they clearly hold on to humanist inspired political projects designed t o secure individuality, autonomy and
self-determination in liberal societies that so effectively deny such
avenues of freedom. As such, Foucualt and post-structuralist feminists offer deeply paradoxical and flawed humanisms at the most basic level of theory
and practice, where the human being theorized to populate liberal societies
is incapable of becoming the autonomous individual that the polical project seeks. So you are right to acknowledge the humanist and liberal roots in your political project. I too am a recovering post-structurlait who is coming
to grips with the truth that we are deeply paradoxical and problematic
humanists, who believe that human beings are deserving of dignity and
freedom, yet who are unwilling, for theoretical reasons, to define the
humanness which demands such dignity and which secures such freedom.


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