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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, October 07, 2005

On “The Kind of Critical, Obliquely Ontological Investigation of Some Sort of Self”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/07/05 at 05:50 PM

Two long posts, both concerning theory, both beginning with a quotation of a previous discussion.  Serendipity?  The constitutional inability to resist having the last word?  Doesn’t matter.  Also unimportant: the experiment I concocted whereby I would post this here and ask Mark to post it on Long Sunday to see whether the two crowds would treat the material differently in some meaningful way.  But I digress.  (Despite not even having started yet.) Ahem: I accused Mark Kaplan of reading Foucault’s account of historical interest naively.  I quoted this bit as proof:

So, for example, the sexual practices of ancient Greece – were these not, for Foucault, partly a way of thinking his way outside modern notions of ‘sexuality’ and the historically ingrained ‘regime’ supporting them.

And followed with this assessment:

I think Mark’s severely underestimating Foucault’s congenital pessimism, both about historical change and, more importantly, the idea that we can understand the discourses which saturate our lives in the moment that we live them.

He responded, quite rightly, that I glossed over Foucault’s notion of “the critical ontology of the self,” the practice he (Foucault) identifies with Kant’s Aufklärung, which my Oxford Duden German Dictionary tells me means something along the lines of “clearing up,” “solution,” “elucidation,” “explanation,” “a reconnaissance plane” or “the Enlightentment.” Some of these things are not like the others.  I’ve wondered why the English translation of the essay—"What is Enlightenment?"—failed to capture the reference there both in Kant’s German ("Was ist Aufklärung?“) and Foucault’s French ("Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?“).  Might this slight tic in the English be indicative of some abstractive impulse at the heart of Anglo-American Theory?  (Yes, I capitalized it, but for reasons which will eventually become apparent.) I’m not too inclined (yet) to attribute such a thing to American Theory because Kant’s work, as well as Foucault’s gloss of it, speaks directly to the problem of philosophical thought reflecting on the present moment:

I have been seeking, on the one hand, to emphasize the extent to which a type of philosophical interrogation—one that simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject—is rooted in the Enlightenment. On the other hand, I have been seeking to stress that the thread that may connect us with the Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather the permanent reactivation of an attitude—that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era.

This permanent critique of our historical era should entail “the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment” and “‘the contemporary limits of the necessary,’” i.e. “what is not or is no longer indispensible for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” All that emphasis are belong to us.  We, er, I’ve empahsized those passages not because I’m being excessively pedantic about hedging key philosophical claims: I’ve emphasized them because in the process of declaring the need for a new philosophical project Foucault qualifies away the most contested elements of his early thought: the extent to which any individual discourse factors into the formation of autonomous subjects.  I’ll return to this momentarily, but first let me touch on his distinction between “the Enlightenment” and “Humanism.”

The first is a complex historical event.  The second is the “theme or set of themes that have reappeared on several occasions over time in European societies; these themes, always tied to value judgments, have obviously varied greatly in their content as well as in the values they have preserved.” Again, Foucault qualifies at the very moment his argument demands clarification.  (Or a reconnaisance plane.) Humanism sounds like a Foucauldian discoure: it is both Christian and opposes Christianity; hostile and critical towards scientific inquiry and supportive and optimistic of it.  Humanism has been present, he argues by dint of list, in Marxism, existentialism, personalism, National Socialism and Stalinism.  And the Enlightenment, of course.  But even though he easily identifies all the places in which it has been present, he lists none of its definitive characteristics, none of the ways in which it informed any of these larger movements in which it was a “theme or set of themes.” Not even in the Enlightenment: “An analysis of their complex relations in the course of the last two centuries would be a worthwhile project an important one if we are to bring some measure of clarity to the consciousness that we have of ourselves and of our past.”

Foucault’s assertions here align perfectly with Mark’s claim about it: at this late stage of his career, Foucault’s invested in a “critical ontology of the self” which will “not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or of all possible moral action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events.” This project applies the “archeological” method Foucault earlier established to what I’ll call “the historical present.” Are there limits to our ability to assess the historical present the same way we assess the historical past?  Of course there are: “This philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-attitude.” The inability of an individual to identify precisely the discourses of which he or she is constituted would put a damper on this whole endeavour.  But Foucault anticipates this criticism (born, as it is, from his own thought):

To this, two responses. It is true that we have to give up hope of ever acceding to a point of view that could give us access to any complete and definitive knowledge of what may constitute our historical limits. And from this point of view the theoretical and practical experience that we have of our limits and of the possibility of moving beyond them is always limited and determined; thus we are always in the position of beginning again.

Here again Foucault the Elder tries to buck Foucault the Younger, claiming that the best we can muster is an infinite “beginning again.” We cannot transcend our limits, or even ever be fully cognizant of them.  Therefore, even if we try to transcend them, not only would we never be entirely sure what it is we’d be trying to transcend; we’d be damn sure (according to Foucault) that we wouldn’t be able to do anything even if we did.  Foucault the Younger understands the implications of his own thoughts.  Foucault the Elder plasters over these pessimisms by saying, “Well, we should have this limit-attitude, yes, and we should be aware of the futility of our project, alright, and if we do this we can overcome what it is I just now said we can never overcome, understand?” (In this vein I understand his attraction to Anti-Oedipus: Deleuze & Guattari explode the piñata and admire the falling confetti and, um, then they’re all liberated, see?) In other words, the way I read Foucault the Elder has been determined by my understanding of Foucault the Younger. 

But before I proceed—John’s an inspiration—I need you to know there are a few things I’m absolutely, positively not doing: first, I’m not denigrating Foucault’s life-long commitment to the ideals of leftist intellectual dissidents, nor am I suggesting that his public political commitments were in any way insincere; second, I’m not saying that Foucault didn’t believe there to be an integral relation between his scholarship and “the real world” or what-not, as anyone who has glanced as his bibliography—Madness and Civilization, Pierre Riviere, The Birth of the Clinic, and Discipline and Punish were nothing if not the work of a scholar with a social conscience and a deeply ingrained desire not to speak to it.  That said, the implications of his own work point to the futility of such interventions, especially political ones.  I’ll post “Part II” of this as soon as I write it.  It will outline why Foucault the Younger would’ve laughed at Foucault the Elder and discuss how one particular group of scholars, the self-proclaimed New Historicists, sought to overcome the deterministic bent of Foucauldian thought. 

Addendum #1

Lest the contradiction I address be buried beneath the endless torrent of prose I produced, I should add: I think Foucault knows that he can’t be correct on both fronts.  Either his work on discourse accurately accounts for the means by which autonomous individuals are created or his assertions here to the effect that approaching without transcending the limited knowledge about how the discourses active in the historical present have constituted us as autonomous individuals is correct.  Both can’t be.  Although I have problems with both, I think the former a much stronger case than the latter (in large part because it lacks the desperation of the wishful thinker permeating the other).

Infinitely Editable Coda

This may be a bat-shit account of Foucault.  If it is, call me out on it.  I’ve only ever read him for my own edification, so there’s a chance I might be coloring outside the lines.  Second: I reserve the right to edit this up the Great Chain if it is bat-shit.  Who knows which higher mammal it’ll be come morn.  Stay tuned!


Contra Harpham, it’s worth noting that Reflexive Water (?) has been in print since the beginning of time.

By Jonathan on 10/08/05 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Not “in print,” exactly, but printed, I mean.

By Jonathan on 10/08/05 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t invent the wheel, but I do use one on occasion.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/08/05 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read the Aufklaerung paragraph twice and still couldn’t figure out what your point was.

By Jonathan on 10/08/05 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought that second paragraph pretty straightforward: Kant and Foucault (in the French) were clearly talking about the historical entity called “The Enlightenment.” The English title, however, makes it sound like Foucault’s talking about an abstract quality called “Enlightenment.” A pot-shot at a tendency of Anglo-American theory, that was.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/08/05 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not bat-shit.  Dead-on.  It’s a last work and full of ambivalence.  But like almost all his work, it paints matters in such extreme terms (the implication that without complete and definitive knowledge of our historical limits, autonomy is fatally compromised) that it’s not clear that you can go anywhere with that ambivalence.

By on 10/10/05 at 07:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

the experiment I concocted whereby I would post this here and ask Mark to post it on Long Sunday to see whether the two crowds would treat the material differently in some meaningful way.

Interesting experiment.  So what do people think so far?

I count 19 comments over there, many of them substantive (and a few on pas au-del as well).


By on 10/11/05 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wallace, you’re certainly correct, though of those, I’d only count six (not including my own) as substantive.  Discard the casual one liners, the quotations sans explanations and you’re left with Matt, CR, and some anonymice (presumably the same person, but who knows).  That said, LS still wins hands down at this point?  I have theories as to why, and to be frank, I expected this outcome...and I’ll explain them all when I’ve had a little more sleep.  (All but four of the past seventy-two hours have been spent awake.  Why?  I don’t know.  If I did I’d be asleep.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/11/05 at 03:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s taken me a while to catch up, but I agree—LS comment threads beat Valve comment threads.

You get sleep, I meet my deadline, and maybe we can compare notes.

By Ray Davis on 10/20/05 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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