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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Delacampagne But don’t the public expect the critic to provide them with precise assessments as to the value of a work?

Foucault I don’t know whether the public do or do not expect the critic to judge works or authors. Judges were there, I think, before they were able to say what they wanted. It seems that Courbet had a friend who used to wake up in the night yelling: “I want to judge, I want to judge.” It’s amazing how people like judging. Judgment is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you know very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible.

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would not try to judge, but bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be a sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault. (1997) [1980]. ‘The Masked Philosopher’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume One. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, Allen Lane, p. . [trans. mod]


Random thoughts in response
I am currently buried in an enormous pile of marking – the volume of which can be attributed to one of the increasingly regular endemic and pandemic financial crises to which universities are globally subject at present. There is no money to pay already exploited and poorly paid part-time teaching staff, so full-time staff have to pick up the short-fall while somehow miraculously maintaining their expected research output at the same time.

One of the consequences of an increased marking load is that the volume of complaints from aggrieved and pained students convinced they were worthy of much better grades also increases. Providing more detailed feedback in response simply aggravates the situation in a culture where self-esteem is promoted at the expense of a realistic assessment of capacity to perform in a given area.

Given current staff student ratios, neither can these students be given the instruction that they need to genuinely improve their work. Much as the warm and fuzzy rhetoric produced by educational researchers would like to argue otherwise, assessment is not a teaching tool in the context of enormous student to teacher ratios – it can only be the simple grading of lemons – the disciplinary mechanisms of examination Foucault speaks of in Discipline and Punish aimed at assigning and fixing individuals to their designated social niches. A further problem is galloping credentialism which forces people to rely on the imprimatur of educational institutions to clamber up the social and career ladders. This is a firm requirement in a society based on performance and the expectation that every individual should be the ‘entrepreneur’ of their own lives and subjectivities as they stare bleakly down the barrels of ‘life-long learning’ and mandatory annual ‘professional development’ requirements.

Under these difficult institutional conditions, I cannot help but think of this passage from Foucault – only in my own case I wake from a nightmare of undergraduate essays, postgraduate dissertations and requests to referee journal articles stretching into the mists of an infinite horizon, yelling ‘I don’t want to judge! I don’t want to judge!’ I can only consider wistfully the utopian alternative that Foucault proposes and wonder if there is some practical way in which one could bring just a tiny element of this into the forced march of the endless assessment of one’s students and peers.

The introduction of these kind of resistances or elements of hope and human feeling into the system are increasingly difficult to imagine, let alone implement, in an environment where holes in the chain mail of the meshes of power, as described by Foucault, have become smaller and smaller. Lyotard argues that cracks in the system are papered over by terminally overloading people with busy work, allowing them no time to repair those cracks or to even become aware of their existence in the first place. Even more difficult is the option of tearing down the entire building to replace it with something more in line with some of the more positive aspects of what it means to be human. But it is essential that one keep trying, somehow. This is one of the great forces of Foucault’s work – that constant hope that in spite of everything and under difficult circumstances we can always do better.

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A version of this piece was published in The Australian Higher Education Supplement on 4th April 2012 as ‘Credit where it’s due – but who deserves top billing?’ I posted this on my blog last year but have moved it up as I have made quite a few revisions.

We do not characterise a ‘philosophical author’ as we do a ‘poet’, just as in the eighteenth century, one did not construct a novelist as we do today. Still, we can find through the ages certain constants in the rules of author construction.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author? In The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, p. 110

Random thoughts in response

In the late 1960s, French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault famously pronounced the author to be, if not dead, then decidedly fragile. Foucault in his 1969 article ‘What is an author?’ drew attention to the considerable ambiguity surrounding contemporary and historical notions of the author, defining the author as the originator of certain socially agreed upon types of writing.

To explain what he means by the ‘certain constants’ referred to above, Foucault invokes the four criteria Saint Jerome used to determine whether a body of work had the same author, namely (1) consistent quality across works attributed to one author (2) conceptual and theoretical coherence (3) consistent style (4) references only to events which happened before the designated author’s death. (p. 113) While recognising that Saint Jerome’s criteria might appear very simplistic in the context of contemporary literary criticism, Foucault argues they are still descriptive of the basic processes used to attribute authorship.

What I want to do here is offer a few reflections on the idea of the author in the current university context. Authorship is perhaps one of the most highly prized commodities in the academic world. It is used as a measure of reputation and a measure by which individuals are judged worthy of promotion through the ranks of what remains an intricately feudal hierarchy. Being an author who has produced numerous works published by prestigious publishing houses and journals and which are cited and otherwise referred to by many others (‘impact’) is the nirvana of academic achievement. Other functions such as being a good teacher, a good administrator or engaging in community research and consultancy, still come in a remote second in this tacitly agreed upon academic pantheon, in spite of the best efforts of university administrations to valorise these latter roles.

But authorship does not function in the same way across all academic disciplines. The sciences, social sciences and the humanities all have different rules which govern what it means to be an author. In the sciences, the rules are complex. A paper often has numerous co-authors. This can reflect the notion that the paper or journal article tends to function more as a report or a write up of findings than a piece of argued writing and that everybody involved in conducting the experiments and theorising the empirical research should therefore be acknowledged as an author. Thus authorship becomes a category which is used to recognise the generation and ownership of certain research practices and theories rather than simply writing. The authors listed on a scientific paper might not always necessarily be the actual writers of that paper.

Further to this, sometimes attribution has more to do with the relative rank of the author in a hierarchy of power than the amount of actual work done by the named author(s). For example, a professor and supervisor may be given far more weight than a student – even if the student has done most of the work. This rather worrying practice is being imported into the social sciences and humanities and sees postgraduate students (a minority as yet) automatically listing their supervisor as co-author on papers for which the student has been solely responsible. Thus the Matthew principle begins to operate and the professor/supervisor accrues more power, adding items to their publication list at little cost. The student (perhaps) improves their chances of publication and the status of their work by the addition of a prestigious name to their work. One might also mention another practice, which is hopefully less prevalent than it once was, namely the publication by the god-professor of the work of anonymous research assistants and postgraduate students under his own name (and the gender attribution here is deliberate).

To deal with the problem of the order in which co-authors should be listed, there is now even a piece of software – Authorder – which is purportedly designed to simplify the process, using complex calculations of percentages in relation to work done. Theoretically at least, the order of authors listed should then reflect who has done the most work on the paper.

This situation in the sciences has long been recognised by those involved in the field as one fraught with dangers and wide open to corruption and abuses of power. Practices which have been observed to be highly problematic in their scientific disciplines of origin are now seeping through, without any apparent thought as to the consequences, into the humanities and social sciences. The adulation of science and scientific method as a benchmark of truth for all forms of knowledge, even after coming under heavy attack in the 1960s and beyond, is clearly reasserting its primacy in ever more sophisticated forms in the new millennium.

In the humanities however, the link between author and writing cannot be attenuated in this fashion. Humanities output is defined by the writing and argumentation itself: it is not simply a report on some other exterior ‘research’ activity. The problem of how others should be recognised in the production of this kind of writing, has usually been solved by the practice of acknowledgements, rather than by granting co-authorship. So, for example, research assistants, editors, typists, colleagues and friends who have read the writing and made suggestions, colleagues who have helped to write research grants and other institutional supports are thanked in footnotes or dedicated acknowledgements sections, they are not listed as co-authors.

But things are perhaps not so cut and dried in the social sciences where various types of empirical research such as statistical, interview and survey data are all reported on. Is the model of multiple authorship of papers, in the science style of recognising contributors to the research (or even supervisors), rather than solely those involved in the writing and conceptualisation of the paper valid here? This is an interesting question. Often a paper in the social sciences is more than a matter of mere reporting of findings: it includes an argument about the data. Given this is the case, should those merely collecting data be included as authors?

In some areas of social science there has been a trend towards granting co-authorship to the diverse categories of people involved in the infrastructure of producing a journal article. This is sometimes done in a democratic spirit of inclusivity, expressing a desire to help people accrue points in the struggle to achieve the holy grail of promotion. Laudable as this inclusive impulse may be, can this diversity of contributors be granted the title of ‘author’ without unduly attenuating what this is generally understood to mean?

Perhaps we could ask a further question from a slightly different angle. What is the general expectation of a reader when he or she sees an author’s name attached to a piece of published writing? I might specify that we are talking about the ‘author function’ here. As Foucault notes ‘A private letter may well have a signer – it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor – it does not have an author. An anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer but not an author’ (pp. 107-8). The reader of an article in the social sciences or humanities usually assumes that the author of a published piece of work has been involved in some way in the actual drafting of the text and the construction of its arguments.

Foucault adds that the historical invention of the notion of ‘authorship’ marked a ‘moment of individualisation in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences’ (p. 101). One might be tempted to argue that once the number of listed authors has expanded beyond a certain numerical threshold, then there is a move away from this moment of individualisation. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that each listed author accrues another point on their CV which individualises them further both within the power structures of the institutional field of the university and that of the larger global academic community.

If a new model of authorship is going to be instituted in the social sciences, then in the interests of truth and transparency, there needs to be a far clearer delineation of just what the attribution of ‘author’ means. Or, perhaps to make things simpler, there needs to be a return to earlier and still existing models of acknowledgements with author status only being granted to those who have actually done the writing and arguing.

What is not in doubt in any of this, however, is that the notion of the author is, and has always been, shot through and through with complex relations of power. These need to be the subject of constant vigilance and critical consideration within the academic economy if the integrity of the research process and the value of its contribution to the wider social body is going to be maintained.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Describing notions of ‘the general form of the Greek conception of language’ in the context of Socrates’ discussions of truth and philosophy, Foucault notes:

‘words and phrases in their very reality have an original relationship with truth …. Language which is without embellishment, apparatus, construction or reconstruction, language in the naked state, is the language closest to truth and the language in which truth is expressed. And I think this is one of the most fundamental features of philosophical language … as opposed to rhetorical [discourse]. Rhetorical language, is a language chosen, fashioned, and constructed in such a way as to produce its effect on the other person. The mode of being of philosophical language is to be etumos, that is to say, so bare and simple, so in keeping with the very movement of thought that, just as it is without embellishment, it will be appropriate to what it refers to.

Michel Foucault, (2010) [2008]. The Government of Self and Others. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982- 1983. Tr. Graham Burchell. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 374-5

Random thoughts in response
Foucault notes Socrates’ position that plain everyday speech which directly reflects one’s thoughts and that speaking from the heart or faith are manifestations of ‘true philosophy’. Thus plain language is closer to the truth of things than clever rhetoric: the more artifice that language involves, the more removed one is from the original purity of truth. One can see this long philosophical tradition emerging in analytic philosophy – which struggles to create a pure language to the point of attempting to distil it into mathematical formulae.

Foucault’s book The Order of Things is one long refutation of this philosophical position in relation to language. Foucault radically challenges the notion that language can be ever be a transparent tool for representing things. Language has its own materiality and solidity and its own patterns of order right from its original inception. If there appears to be a connection between words and things it is not one of a true and transparent representation but one of an analogous structure of order. Words can only resemble the order of things through a process of analogy. Neither is thought a pure entity which can be expressed, translated and mirrored by words. Thought cannot be divided from language and the other ways humans represent the world. We are always faced with degrees of fiction: human culture, language and thought are fabrications from the very outset. Culture, history and civilisation can never be stripped away to reveal the pure, naked and authentic truth. Instead it is these very things that help us access the truth about ourselves and our environment. They are the tools that we need to work with and constantly engage with for good or for ill.

To put all this another way: it is a question of the familiar idea that language is a transparent window onto ‘reality’ and that language can truly represent things. This belief has led to the idea that if you make language ‘pure’, then it will give you a clear window onto reality. A language that is full of artifice obscures what is real and fogs up the window. But Foucault argues that language – or discourse – is actually an object amongst other objects and should be treated accordingly. Hence a pure language is not going to get us closer to the truth. We can’t remove ourselves from language and culture – instead of removing ourselves a far more productive approach is to actively engage with them and use them to help us to determine how we can we can live in the present in relation to ourselves and others.

There is more I should add to this discussion. In Foucault’s description rhetorical language is characterised by Greek philosophers as an exercise of power (it is ‘constructed in such a way as to produce its effect on the other person’), whereas the language of ‘true philosophy’ that Socrates is advocating is not a deliberate exercise of power. It is not about manipulating people, it is about revealing the truth and allowing others to decide how to respond to what emerges.

Foucault has, of course, elsewhere in his work, extensively criticised the Platonic forumulation that power and knowledge (truth) are mutually exclusive. In short, the rest of Foucault’s work takes issue with some aspects at least of the way Plato and Socrates construct the parrhesiastic enterprise.

Reposted due to extensive additions and alterations. With thanks to Steve Shann for his comments on the original post.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the sign speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the sign, to define what constitutes them as signs and to know how and by what laws they are linked, semiology: the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude… ‘Nature’ is trapped in the thin layer that holds semiology and hermeneutics one above the other, it is neither mysterious nor veiled, it offers itself to our cognition, which it sometimes leads astray, only in so far as this superimposition necessarily includes a slight degree of non-coincidence between the resemblances.

The truth of all these marks – whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchments or in libraries – is everywhere the same: coeval with institution of God.

Michel Foucault, (1970) [1966]. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Tr. A. M. S. Smith. London: Tavistock, pp. 33, 38.

Random thoughts in response
In The Order of Things, Foucault describes a scientific view of the world far removed from our own. This view saw the world as a large book to be read, with signs placed there by God to help humans live and find their way in the world. The mysteries of the universe could be read by paying attention to, and interpreting these signs, reading the works of those who had already interpreted these signs and by knowing that the highest cosmic spheres could be seen in operations in the human body itself and the smallest object of nature. The microcosm mirrored the macrocosm.

This view of nature also placed humans in a very different power relation to ‘nature’ from the one which underlies current scientific knowledge. Humans relied on the beneficence of God to provide them with signs to guide them through the world. ‘Nature’ was not given to them, as in the modern view, as something over which they could exercise unlimited sovereign power without the attenuating responsibility which marks even the exercise of pastoral power. It must be said, however, that elements of pastoral power (questionable as they may be) entailing ideas of some kind of responsibility and duty of care have become stronger over the last fifty years with regards to ‘nature’.

The notion of climate change and the debate over to what extent human activity is contributing to this process is one that is at present the subject of acrimonious public debate, even entailing death threats against hapless climate scientists. For me, however, the immediate problem is the chemical poisoning and toxic modification of our environment – of our food, water and air supplies and general environment. This is already having demonstrable effects on people’s health and well-being and that of plants and animals, not to mention eliminating some species of plants and animals altogether. Human impact on climate change is but a subset of these wider problems and we should perhaps, not just publicly address the climate change factors but these others as all part of the same problem.

This problem is essentially one of how we philosophically position ourselves in relation to our environment. The current view which underpins scientific and technical knowledge and which dates back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is an instrumentalist – indeed a predatory one – if we take it to its logical conclusion. It is the view that we exist in a hierarchical power relation to the world – a world which has been given to humans as top of the evolutionary scale and the chosen of God, to use as they please with impunity. It is a view which closely aligns with ideas and practices of colonialism, social Darwinism and mercantilism which saw their apotheosis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and which continue to operate in a variety of forms.

If we can change this philosophical view to a more co-operative one which promotes a harmonious and respectful interaction with our social and physical environment, then perhaps the effects might not be so destructive. Relations of co-operation, accommodation and understanding, rather than relations of power, domination and exploitation.

One of the problems with the climate change debate is that it is highly politicised and also tends to focus people on the grand scale (‘this will happen in the future and over there’) allowing many people to simply switch off either in confusion or irritation in the face of a continual barrage of political and media posturing. If, however, direct and immediate and local threats to people’s health and lifestyles are demonstrated, they might be more willing to come to the party. There are, of course, enormous vested interests in the food, mineral resources and manufacturing industries that seek to prevent these threats from becoming a matter of public debate.

I am however an optimist and believe in people’s endless capacity to address problems and come up with creative solutions. It is not too late. The mere fact that we haven’t been globally nuked yet, given the arsenals out there is, I think, grounds for optimism. There is also wide evidence that a view and practice of scientific knowledge that is based more on cooperation than exploitation is starting to gain growing traction. (See the work of Bruno Latour, and recent work on the ethics of objects).

With thanks to Nicholas Cavanagh for providing the opportunity to think about these issues in response to a short piece he wrote on the political debate around climate change.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

I see nothing wrong in the practice of a person who, knowing more than others in a specific game of truth, tells those others what to do, teaches them and transmits knowledge and techniques to others. The problem in such practices where power – which is not in itself a bad thing – must inevitably come into play is knowing how to avoid the kind of domination effects where a kid is subjected to the arbitrary and unnecessary authority of a teacher, or a student is put under the thumb of a professor who abuses his authority. I believe this problem must be framed in terms of law, rational techniques of government and ethos, practices of the self and freedom.

Foucault, M. (1997). The ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom. In P. Rabinow (Ed.) Ethics: subjectivity and truth. New York: New Press, pp. 298-9.

Random thoughts in response
In an earlier blog post I noted:

If we regard all human culture – without exception – as a complex way of dealing with the environment and social interaction, then we all have an obligation not to dismiss certain intolerable practices as quaintly folkloric simply because they are not part of our own ‘culture’, but to work with other human communities to modify the way human beings treat each other everywhere. From the Western point of view, this does not mean engaging in the patronising paternalism of an allegedly more enlightened Western culture (along the lines that ‘Western democracy will save the world’ for example). Neither, on the other hand, does it mean the rejection of a corrupt and over-civilised Western culture which has lost touch with its primitive roots.

But if these are two positions that need to be avoided – what position can one usefully adopt? Here one needs to extend the frontiers beyond ‘the West’ and encompass all human experience. Perhaps what is involved is the non-hierarchical recognition of and respect for difference, a position which doesn’t privilege one period of history and its practices (either the ‘natural’ and ‘primitive’ or the current advanced technological present) or one geographical or ethnic location (wherever that might be on the planet). It is also a position that sees differences not as existing in unchanging and static isolation – hermetically sealed away to be revered in their unique and eternal form, but which welcomes a constant interplay between them, encouraging their constant modification in relation to each other.

At the same time, this does not mean that every human practice should be tolerated. Exercises of power that negatively impact on the well-being and freedoms of people (and other species I might add) should always be challenged. But again, this statement needs to be qualified in various ways. It is not a question of promoting unlimited individual freedoms (to take an extreme example, the freedom of a serial killer) – but of balancing the interplay of freedoms in the social body. This has always been the dilemma of human societies and remains all too clearly a work in progress with frequent and spectacular failures along the way. Foucault suggests that this situation needs to be managed through the dynamic and always open practice and examination of law, and the ethical government of self and others.

Further, as Foucault usefully argues, not all exercises of power are bad. It is possible to positively guide the conduct of another – for example in a teaching situation. To expand on this example further, the teacher student relation is necessarily a relationship of power. Just how this is managed has always been fraught with difficulties, and complex and ever changing systems of regulation continue to be formulated both at overt and more hidden levels to deal with the problem. Thus there is a difference between the kind of relationship of power between teacher and student which takes the opportunity to deploy effects of domination and authoritarianism, and the kind which uses mechanisms of power (such as those involved in the transmission of knowledge and assessment) to guide the students’ behaviour and knowledge in useful and helpful ways, while still retaining a respect for the students’ freedom.

There has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater in attempting to negotiate this dilemma in the contemporary era, an era marked by complex and conflicting forces of social and cultural globalisation. Thus, in the interests of fostering tolerance and social harmony, the claim is made that anything goes – everybody has a right to their opinion, no matter what that might be. But this position of absolute tolerance, paradoxically, can foster the tolerance of injustice and intolerance itself. It is very easy to nobly tolerate certain injustices when one is not at the receiving end, and when they don’t directly impinge on one’s own existence.

With thanks to Kelli McGraw for raising interesting questions which provoked this post.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

The dual Poland-Tunisia experience balanced my political experience, and also referred me on to things which basically I hadn’t sufficiently suspected in my pure speculations: the importance of the exercise of power, the lines of contact between the body, life, discourse and political power. In the silences and everyday gestures of a Pole who knew he was being watched, who waited to be out in the street before telling you something, because he knew quite well that there were microphones everywhere in a foreigner’s apartment. In the way voices were lowered when you were at a restaurant, in the way letters were burnt, finally in all these tiny suffocating gestures as well as in the savage and raw violence of the Tunisian police beating down on a university, I went through a kind of physical experience of power, of the relations between the body and power.

Michel Foucault, (2004). ‘Je suis un artificier’. In Roger-Pol Droit (ed.), Michel Foucault, entretiens. Paris: Odile Jacob, pp. 120-1. (Interview conducted in 1975. This passage trans. Clare O’Farrell).

Random thoughts in response
It is worth providing a few background details concerning these interesting remarks offered by Foucault in an interview with Roger-Pol Droit. The interview was not published at the time it was conducted in 1975, mainly due to Foucault’s well-known reticence in relation to making autobiographical statements in a public forum.

In 1958, Foucault was appointed head of a new Centre for French civilisation in Warsaw. He lasted only a year before being caught in a classic Cold War honey trap with a young man and was asked to leave the country. His connections with Poland did not end there however, and in the early 1980s after a State of Emergency was declared in Poland, he worked on a committee with exiled members of the Trade Union Solidarity, a committee which had been set up to provide assistance to those still in the country and to activate for international support.

Foucault spent a longer period of time in Tunisia than he did in Poland. In 1966, he was appointed to a chair of philosophy in Tunisia and remained there until the end of 1968, when it became clear that he was persona non grata with the existing regime. Towards the end of his tenure at considerable risk to himself, he helped students hide their printing presses during the Tunisian student protests of 1968, although he was of course protected to some degree by his professorial status. He saw his students being beaten violently and thrown into prison and some 14 years later he remarked that some of them still remained in prison. Foucault also used his own money to pay for legal defence for these students.

This experience was formative for Foucault. Like many other French intellectuals, he was politicised by the events of 1968. Foucault was no mere ‘armchair philosopher’, he was prepared to take his ideas beyond the library. After being subjected to the standard and usually accusatory question posed by the Left to all comers during the 1970s: ‘where were you in May ’68?’ – given his absence from the Parisian barricades – he pointed out that in Tunisia the situation had been one with far higher stakes, with people’s lives and freedom quite dramatically on the line.

What is also interesting about Foucault’s remarks is his emphasis on the miniscule actions and gestures of the everyday: mechanisms of power are not just grand external abstractions, they operate at the physical level of day-to-day existence at the most humdrum level. Also of note here in Foucault’s account is the capacity of any person, not just a few blessed with political will (Arendt), to resist mechanisms of power and change the balance. The costs can be terribly high of course, as many of those involved in the Arab spring and in Burma know, but they are costs that many are prepared to assume.

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Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An essay on the necessity of contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2008

After FinitudeAfter Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux

This book written by a young French philosopher has been taken up with great enthusiasm by a small group of English language philosophers -notably Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier members of the London-based “Speculative Realism” and Atlanta-based “Object-Oriented Ontology” movements. (See also Larval Subjects for an interesting discussion). Alain Badiou in his preface praises the book in glowing terms claiming that the author ‘has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy’. (p.vii) I wasn’t able to track down the French original on interlibrary loan, so I have read the book in English (a rather good translation by philosopher Ray Brassier I am happy to say).

I just wanted to make a few brief observations at this stage. Let’s begin by saying that the book is clearly written and well argued. Meillassoux appears to be arguing that there is indeed a universe out there which is independent of our existence and that science, or more precisely mathematics, is capable of having an absolute knowledge of that existence which is independent of our subjective perceptions. He then claims to solve the problem of the dogmatism that usually goes hand in hand with the claim that absolutes exist by arguing that it is not a question of a necessary absolute and that the absolute could just as easily not exist. Metaphysical arguments about the absolute usually assume that the absolutes they posit (God, truth, beauty) must necessarily exist and mould the universe in a certain direction.

I quite like some aspects of Meillassoux’s arguments – namely that things have an existence independent of our perception and that they can just as easily not exist as exist, that science is a useful form of knowledge and that the absolute cannot be identified with an entity, but I am not convinced that any of this is earth shatteringly transformative in terms of the history of thought. It is certainly an argument which removes humans from the centre of the universe and valorises other objects which again I quite like. Saying that things could just as well not exist as exist is also an interesting position which introduces a welcome element of freedom into proceedings.

But ultimately this does not prevent this line of argumentation from being a form of neo-empiricism – that is it posits a form of knowledge (mathematics) which claims to offer an absolute description of the material universe. Claiming the absolute is not essential and has an equal possibility of not existing and that scientific knowledge is always subject to Popperian falsification does not solve the problem. And the problem is – at the risk of sounding like a clicheed follower of Foucault – the problem of power relations and their role in the production of knowlege and truth. I am not arguing here for the relativity of truth or knowledge, but I am arguing that they are always the object of human struggle.

Meillassoux argues that mathematics can be used to measure things as they are in themselves. He also makes a lot of the fact that we can talk about a world that existed before humans. I suppose because I have never had any difficulty with the idea that we are simply one entity amongst other entities in the universe I find this all a bit of a non problem. The real problem, for me at least, is how we formulate our relation to other elements – through knowledge or other forms of activity – and the relations of power which inevitably accompany these interactions.

The absence of this consideration of power relations in the production of knowledge is also probably one of the reasons I find the book very male (to the exclusion of a female point of view) like much other speculative philosophy. Female readers of this style of thought cannot help but notice that such forms of knowledge operate unproblematically in a speculative void and claim a comfortable and unquestioned relation to the truth which in the process somehow reduces other practitioners and more ambiguous forms of knowledge – unintentionally or not – to complete silence and non-existence.

Although perhaps more generally sympathetic to Meillassoux’s approach than I am myself, Stuart Elden has written an interesting article which, amongst other things, draws attention to the problem of the status of mathematics in Meillassoux’s argument, noting: ‘The return of mathematical ordering – not merely in terms of a way of understanding the world, but as a suggestion that this is actually how the world is-is one that should be contested.’ (p. 2649). He also offers the useful reminder that ‘We should not take the limits of our grasp of the world as the limits of the world.’ (p.2649) [1]

[1] Stuart Elden, ‘Dialectics and the measure of the world’ Environment and Planning A volume 40, 2008, pp 2641-2651.

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