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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 The Trouble With Diversity

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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

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JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Political Spirituality

Posted by Sean McCann on 09/15/05 at 11:15 AM

I’ve been reading Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, and the picture it paints is not pretty.

As Afary and Anderson note, although Foucault’s particular fascination with the revolution is well known in France, the full range of his writing about it has never been translated into English.  In fact, since much of that writing was originally published by the Italian daily Corriere della sera, and until now was not republished, the full extent of his thoughts has rarely been taken into account even by Foucault’s French readers.  Foucault made two, week long trips to Iran in the fall of ’78.  He interviewed a number of prominent political actors, wrote nearly a dozen brief journalistic essays, and gave a long interview defending his distinctive views of the revolution.  His response, in short, was deeper and more enthusiastic than his more well known, contemporaneous support of Solidarity and of Vietnamese refugees.  Yet, the three volume, English language collection of Foucault’s “essential works” (in fact, otherwise uncollected brief essays and interviews) includes only one of the Iran pieces—and the last and most qualified.  As Afary and Anderson point out, since that essay came at the end of a prominent political dispute, in which Foucault’s critics on the Parisian left took him to task for his uncritical support of Khomeini and Islamic government, reading it in isolation has been a confusing experience. 

Fortunately, Afary and Anderson redress that problem.  Their volume reprints all Foucault’s Iran writings, as well as the criticisms leveled against them at the time by, among others, an anonymous Iranian feminist and the prestigious Marxist historian of the Middle East Maxime Rodinson.  Those reprints are prefaced by a long, patient depiction of Foucault’s context and by a sustained effort to reconsider the relation between Foucault’s brief enthusiasm for the revolution and his work more generally.

Given the fact that admirers of Foucault in English pay little attention to this aspect of his career and that, until quite recently, some defenders doubted that Foucault was actually enthusiastic about Islamic revolution, this is certainly welcome attention.  Unfortunately, so far, it doesn’t look like the book will become much of an event.  It’s still quite new, but as of yet, so far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much buzz.  In the course of a nearly hagiographic defense of Foucault (“the gentle apostle of radiant uncertainty”), Jonathan Rée gave it a long, eloquent, but I think glibly backhand dismissal in The Nation.  The key lines: “One could hardly have asked for more.  One might have asked for less, however.”

According to Rée, in other words, Afary and Anderson are carried away by prosecutorial zeal and make far too much of a minor episode.  Although they “have spent ten years working on their book,” he says, “it has not been a labor of love, and their summaries of Foucault’s achievements are consistently hostile and tendentious.”

I think that’s not right.  Most basically, Afary and Anderson’s tone is moderate to a fault.  They have nothing like the verve and style Rée shares with Foucault, but I suspect that’s deliberate.  Their book turns down the flame as low as possible.  Likewise, their judgments—though certainly arguable in some cases—are generally plausible and far from extreme.  No daring leaps of the sort that Foucault himself practiced. 

Their most contestable claim is simply that Foucault’s view of the revolution is integrally related to attitudes displayed consistently throughout his work—in particular to a one-sided hostility to the modernity of the west.  (At one early stage in the revolution, Foucault worried that visions of Islamic government too closely resembled “the catchphrases of democracy--of bourgeois or revolutionary democracy. . . .  We in the West have been repeating them to ourselves ever since the eighteenth century, and look where they have got us.") Afary and Anderson believe that attitude blinded Foucault not just to the likely outcomes of Islamic government, but more particularly to the repression it promised women and homosexuals.

More specifically, Afary and Anderson construct an unfamiliar picture of Foucault as not just an anti-modernist, but as a defender of traditional societies.  Rée leaps all over this, calling it “preposterous,” and I suspect he’s basically right.  But it’s worth noting that, as Afary and Anderson emphasize, in all his major works, Foucault describes the ostensible improvements of modernizing reform as less appealing than what they displaced.  That doesn’t seem controversial.

Likewise, Rée dismisses as misinterpretation A & A’s emphasis on the importance to Foucault of “limit experiences,” suggesting that such “notions . . .  have no place in his work except as butts of his teasing paradoxes.” This is, I think, simply untrue.  Not central perhaps, but there’s no doubt that Foucault spoke several times about limit experiences, and the case can be made, as for example in this essay by Gary Gutting (Project Muse) that they played a significant, though submerged role in his thinking over all.

It would be easy, in short, to overemphasize A & A’s minor stumbles or contestable claims (like their further argument that the last volumes of the History of Sexuality were significantly inflected by Foucault’s interest in the customs of homosexuality in Muslim societies) and to miss the central problem.  In my view, the most striking, indisputable, and disturbing claim is simply that Foucault was fascinated by “political spirituality,” and that when his critics and friends pointed out to him its dangers, he was initially indifferent (state repression in Iran after the revolution appears to have changed his mind somewhat) because he was far more concerned about the evils of modernity and the arrogance of the west.  At one point Foucault’s Gallimard editor Claude Mauriac worried about the dangers of combining “spirituality and politics”: “we have seen what that gave us.” Foucault’s response was simply to ask: “And politics without spirituality, my dear Claude?”

A & A have a plausible case that Foucault was fascinated by the revolution, not just because it was a challenge to repression or to American imperialism, but because, as he said, it was “an attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics.” They likewise have a colorable claim that this interest depended on a significant blind spot in Foucault’s thinking and further that this blindness was part and parcel of his larger concerns about governmentality, subjectification, etc.  Their book deserves to be taken seriously—though on the evidence of Rée alone I suspect strongly that they won’t be.

Update.  For a better review than Rée’s, see Wesley Yang’s excellent
piece in the Boston Globe.


Comments

What is even more interesting about A&A’s take, which I agree suffers from many problems, is that they demonstrate that Foucault’s attack on the arrogance of the West wound up being itself an example of the arrogance of the West. Foucault was so intent to see the West rebuked that he turned Islamism into a projection of his own fantasy of the East as an absolute other.

Foucault was right about the revolution in certain important ways that other Westerners were not—he quickly saw that the Islamists were more representative of the popular will than the more familiar and palatable students activists—but he was right, as it were, for the wrong reasons.

He would’ve thought that the Islamist wing of the revolution was an upsurge against the modernity anyway, because that’s what he really wanted. And this enthusiasm blinded him to the specific meaning of that revolution in a way that caused him to abandon many of his own insights. There are insupportable claims the book makes, and certain flaws.

But Ree’s haughty dismissal of the book raises the very questions it begs. How is it possible that this corpus of writings which caused such a stir in Europe has never been investigated at any length by American scholars who have zealously combed through all of his other writings? To the point where only two of them have ever even been translated?  For a different take, see my article from the Globe Ideas section:

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2005/06/12/the_philosopher_and_the_ayatollah/?page=full

By wesley yang on 09/15/05 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No Foucault expert, but to my mind, It’s always been just as interesting to think about why Foucault wrote such and such as what he actually wrote. What explains the sudden shift in tone and approach from vol 1 to vol 2 of the history of sexuality, for instance?

This episode likewise seems fascinating. “And politics without spirituality, my dear Claude?” Wow…

Anyway - this Foucault in Iran bit is constantly thrown back at theory-readers here and elsewhere. To me, it’s the beginning of the story, not the end. But perhaps my approach to such figures is a bit more “literary” than that of others.

By CR on 09/15/05 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree, Wesley, and meant, but neglected, to make one point you bring up--that, perhaps because of his predispositions, Foucault was both quite perceptive and willfully blind about the prospects for Islamic government.  Sorry to have missed your excellent review.

It isn’t really that surprising, though--is it?--that Foucault would have “abandon[ed] . . . his own insights.” The relevant insights were about the disciplinary power of modern states.  He hoped an Islamic government wouldn’t be one. So his usual concerns woudn’t apply in this case, and he was not moved by other kinds of political danger.  (Didn’t he briefly support Maoist popular justice tribunals?)

Always with the judicious response, CR. “this Foucault in Iran bit is constantly thrown back at theory-readers here and elsewhere?  I don’t recall seeing it mentioned at the Valve before. I’d be interested, too, to see how much evidence for constant throwing there is elsewhere.

By on 09/15/05 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even if the Foucault in Iran bit is constantly being thrown at theory readers—and I don’t think that it is—it is only being thrown in an unreflective way, by people who probably haven’t even read the work.

A&A go through the trouble to do a long and very serious examination of the source of the charge and to evaluate it with considerable nuance. Not everyone has to agree, but they’ve done the work that others have declined to do.

Thus, it becomes more, and not less important to deal with these questions forthrightly under the conditions CR posits. Ree exemplifies the very protective defensiveness that has kept people from writing about the subject. 

Wes

By wesley yang on 09/15/05 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The wariness that Foucault’s defenders bring to the case has to do with fending off anyone that would try to turn the Iranian episode into a “DeMan moment” for Foucault.

A&A are careful to avoid this kind of demagoguery.

By wesley yang on 09/15/05 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How about Bauerlein’s utterly incoherent post (http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/politics_again/)

The one that featured seven questions designed… designed to do what we’ll never know. But we can guess, I guess…

Numbah 6:

Q. What was Michel Foucault’s first reaction to the fundamentalist revolution in Iran?

A. Enthusiasm.

And it’s come up over on CT in parallel discussions…

Please for crissakes don’t come back with - “Mark (like me) simply stated a fact… No polemical intent involved at all.”

God you’re sensitive. Are you like this in the real world too?

By CR on 09/15/05 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One question (with, as it happens, no reference to readers of theory) from 4 months ago is “constantly”?

By on 09/15/05 at 03:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Wesley that someone like Ree, who has obviously not begun to read Foucault very well, does a fundamental disservice to his oeuvre with such...reactionary overreach to such an obviously interesting, if equally obviously flawed, work.

About those flaws, I’m wondering:

So anyone who views any particular revolution favorably then necessarily also supported the illiberal regime (and its leader?) that followed??

Sean, can you please point to somewhere where Foucault actually says he supported the regime that came into power? 

Meanwhile, the authors simplisticaly contend that Foucault favors pre-modern society to modern society.  Surely this is also a mistake, or at the very least a gross and rather useless overstatement.

Maybe they are being careful to avoid the appearance of a polemical “gotcha” or “DeMan moment” (sorry to sound like Ree but how ridiculous that would be!), but from what I’ve heard it seems like they’re far from immune to the kind of biographical and political reductivism that may indeed be the entirely predictable outcome of such a study.  That is, one might wonder if it is even possible or desirable to “deal with these questions forthrightly under the conditions CR [correctly] posits.”

By Matt on 09/23/05 at 07:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems unlikely from this comment that you’ve read Afary and Anderson, Matt.  The flaws in their work, such as they are, are not the product of reductivism or polemic.  They’re the ordinary kinds of mistakes of misinterpretation or missed subtlety that might trouble any kind of historical work.  The charge, for example, that Foucault was an anti-modernist is, yes, an overstatement, but it’s not gross, and there’s no reason to assume it’s useless.  In M&C, D&P, and elsewhere, Foucault makes much of the fact that ostensibly liberalizing or modernizing reforms are less than preferable to what they replace.  It doesn’t seem terribly wrong in that context to view Foucault as a strong critic of modernity and one who found in at least some pre-modern practices appealing counterexamples.

Nowhere do A&A suggest that anyone who supports a revolution necessarily also supported the regime that came into power--although they will certainly meet critics like you who wish that was what they said.  In fact, A&A note Foucault’s criticism of the Khomeini regime and reprint the open letter in which he made it.  What they do point out is that, in all liklihood because of his excitement at the particular “spiritual” form of this revolution (he had, it seems, no interest in the contemporaneous victory of the Sandinistas), Foucault gave no thought to the good chances that an illiberal regime would develop from it.  Before that regime was securely in place, Foucault was warned by an anonymous Iranian feminist and by Maxime Rodinson that an Islamist government would be repressive.  He brushed those warnings aside. 

Your request that I produce evidence that Foucault supported the regime that came to power is for that reason immaterial.  No one said that he did.  The question isn’t how he reacted after the hurricane made landfall, but of the attitude he held while it was still enroute, when others pointed out that it would be costly indeed, and when he almost idiosyncratically among western commentaters viewed it as nearly sublime.  The further question is whether that attitude has anything to do with Foucault’s theory of politics--his revulsion at partisanship and organization, for example, or his dislike of governmentality, or his arguable disdain for public deliberation.  That question isn’t black and white, but it’s a serious one.

But, then, stern critics of anti-intellectualism like yourself of course will wonder whether “it is even possible or desirable to ‘deal with these questions.’” Classic.

By on 09/24/05 at 07:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Right, because there’s nothing like a history or real danger of reducing an entire “philosopher’s politics” or “theory” to one historical incident.  And politics as we all know are as natural as Hurricanes?

Nowhere do A&A suggest that anyone who supports a revolution necessarily also supported the regime that came into power..

Well I’ve heard there are some healthy hints of it, but you’re absolutely right I haven’t read the book.  Funny that you should then hint at the same suggestions yourself(!) In short, when you make insinuations that look like factual claims, don’t be surprised when people refute them factually.

Thanks for the generous reply all the same.  I agree it is a serious question, and probably one for an arrogant executioner-as-reader like yourself to avoid.

By Matt on 09/24/05 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Funny that you should then hint at the same suggestions yourself(!)

Where? I see no evidence for that claim.  Foucault supported the revolution and Islamic goverment, along with Khomeini, clearly and with enthusiasm before Khomeini came to power, as you’ll see if you can actually bring yourself to read the book and the appendix of Foucault’s writings attached. In all liklihood, Foucault did not anticipate what the results of Islamic government would be (although other’s did), but no one has suggested that he approved of those results.

Right, because there’s nothing like a history or real danger of reducing an entire “philosopher’s politics” or “theory” to one historical incident.

Your always scrupulous way with quotation seems to be on display again here, Matt.  I don’t know who you’re quoting when you refer to a “philosopher’s politics.” My reference was to Foucault’s political theory. In any case, I’d agree with you that there is a danger of reducing the complexity of someone’s ideas by associating them with a scandalous history.  Certainly that shouldn’t be done in this case.  At the same time, Foucault’s comments about governmentality, partisanship, and polemic are not limited to this example alone.  There’s nothing outrageous about suggesting that they may have affected the way he viewed this event, and that the conjuction may actually reveal (heavens forfend!) a blind spot in his thinking. 

I’ve heard there are some healthy hints of it . . .

That would be false, but good to see that your intellectual standards remain so demanding.  Why let reading a book stand in your way when rumors are so much more fun?

By on 09/24/05 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, and why read the author himself when having others tantalizingly point out his “blind spots” for you–blind spots that may or may not inflect (or is that contaminate?) his entire thinking–is so much more fun? 

That’s the only point I’m making.  Honestly Sean your reviews do seem to have a consistent ear for this sort of approach.  It doesn’t impress.  I fail to understand your contempt, but I can bear it just fine.

By Matt on 09/28/05 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It would be refreshing if you did make a point and stick with it, Matt.  Your first comment in this thread suggested on the strength of rumor that A & A were guilty of “biographical and political reductivism” and implied that they had charged that “anyone who views any particular revolution favorably then necessarily also supported the illiberal regime (and its leader?) that followed.” When that complaint didn’t stick, you claimed that I had “hint[ed]” at the same thing and charged me with insinuation.  Now that I’ve challenged that claim, you switch tracks again and say you’re only concerned that people won’t read Foucault.  But where’s the evidence for that concern?  I’ve read Foucault.  A & A have read him and actually add to the canon of his writing available in English.  Their discussion of him is careful to avoid flaming or categorical denunciation.  No one dismisses him outright or suggests that he shouldn’t be taken seriously--except perhaps people like you who doubt that it’s “even possible or desirable” to consider the full range of his writing.

By on 09/29/05 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, whatever Sean.  You win!  I’m the pissant who doesn’t take Foucault seriously.  Color me profoundly reassured.  Though I seem to remember some discussion on this topic back in June:

http://www.long-sunday.net/long_sunday/2005/06/useless_to_revo.html

http://www.long-sunday.net/long_sunday/2005/06/foucault_and_ir.html

But where’s the evidence for that concern?  I’ve read Foucault.

You don’t say.

By Matt on 09/29/05 at 11:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

More nuanced response on my part here:

http://pasaudela.blogspot.com/2005/09/foucault-and-iran.html

Obviously I think that all of Foucault’s work is worthy of study, as is the larger European context out of which his (and others) thoughts on Iran emerged.  Only a fool would seek to exculpate every important thinker with a casusal jerk of the knee.

Once again, fundamental disagreements over the significance of context or “conditions” seem to be at least partly to blame for our obnoxious spitting at each other, and for my part in this I do apologize. 

As I’ve said before, harping on this terrain directly is probably the most bassackwards and difficult way to go about trying to bridge the divide.  But then again, I also take the position of (relative) power from which this blog speaks (as do I speak) seriously, and frankly I haven’t seen much more than incredibly shallow readings of various so-called “theorists” from Sean, and in the service of further sorting them into the dustbin of declared history, or indeed as Holbo is fond of saying, that “they can’t die fast enough,” (to use a point Foucault once made about the potential bodily aspect of metaphors) so....carry on, (but realize please that you haven’t begun to answer the real challenges we all face).

By Matt on 09/29/05 at 02:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, I’ve read Holbo for a while.  I do not recall ever seeing him write something like “they can’t die fast enough”.  Certainly the quoted phrase does not appear in search engines with his name.  Assuming therefore that you’re paraphrasing, exactly where is he supposed to have written this?  If he is indeed fond of saying it, it shouldn’t be difficult to find at least one example.

Now, to tell the truth, I think that you made this up.  This is based on the previous instances when I’ve seen you do this (make up statements that you think that someone you are arguing against must have made).  You generally agree that they aren’t real once this is pointed out.  Why do you do this?

By on 09/29/05 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, It was uncharitable of me to paraphrase that way, you’re absolutely right.  Probably a habit I should avoid in the future, even.  However I think it’s fairly obvious to what I refer, and furthermore that you’re no stranger to it.  “Fond” refers quite generally to the whole bandwagon of what passing for lumping on something called capital-t “Theory” in certain environs.  In any case, here is the quote I had in mind since you demand it:

“I want to be sitting just where Theory is, in short. But Theory is squatting on my spot. So I can’t really ignore it. Even if it’s dead, as some say, it’s taking a long time to decay. Still, since I don’t think my colleagues who like Heidegger are idiots, I don’t insist on exterminating the Theory beast, if there’s still life in it. I just want it to make some room. I want to get to the point where people don’t think of Theory as being anything like a default intellectual position. Theory is so odd that the default position should be that any given denizen of literary studies should have no presumptive need for it, or interest in it; either because a less philosophically heavy-duty approach is preferred, or a different sort of philosophy is preferred."(http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/is_there_a_fucking_knife_in_this_class/#2883")

but frankly I have no wish to repeat these debates right now and would suggest that any future discussion begin rather where the last one left off, namely here:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/you_must_try_again_till_you_get_it_right/#3400

and your very own here:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/you_must_try_again_till_you_get_it_right/

I’ve been a bit of an ass in this thread, so apologies to the whatever general audience for that.  Ta.

By Matt on 09/29/05 at 04:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

whoops, no permalink for some reason:

“I think that the important criticisms of your piece here, John, are those of Luther Blissett and to a lesser extent, of Kenneth Rufo.  To anyone who is willing to read charitably, the general outlines of your attack on Theory are well-established.  What you need at this point is specificity.

Since Theory is based around celebrity thinkers, what specificity means in this case is that you should start from the beginning of the tree, mention each major thinker in turn, and briefly say what you agree or disagree with in their work, in congruence with your general theory.  You could do this by linking to other people’s essays wihtout writing something of your own, if you agreed with someone else.  You start something like that when you seem to say that Derrida’s not part of your critique but his followers are.  “(Does Derrida write kitsch? No, actually. But I think he is the cause of it in others.)” I think that Luther’s right in that we generally get the outline of your critique, and that now we should know who really falls under it and who does not, and why.

This may sound like a very large task, but it need not be long for each thinker.  And if you really think that someone early in the tree indicates a break, such as “anyone who follows thinker X is covered by my critique”, then all you have to do for other thinkers is indicate that in your opinion they follow X.

One of the standard criticisms of Theory is that it is so vague that it gives critics nothing solid to disagree with.  I don’t think that anti-Theory should give people reason to make the same charge.”

Also, before anyone points out that asking an already dead and lengthily decaying beast to make some room is not the same thing as demanding it be killed faster, please bear in mind that I was indeed “making it up” as my polemic was meant to play off a certain point Foucault once made with respect to the word, “intellectuals.”

The distinction is important, in fact, and since Holbo is obviously only talking about something like the worst excesses of a very narrow (and increasingly marginalized) taste culture or philistin--ish celebrity cult contained within a dwindling number of academic posts, primarily in America...or is he?  How it is possible to lump these worst excesses in with every serious scholar of Heidegger or Levinas or whomever, much less with the very thinkers themselves...well it’s a gesture that remains beyond me.  But I suppose something must be done to make the analytic’s chairs more comfortable?

By Matt on 09/29/05 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well… there’s a lot of different things to say about that.

First, I should point out that your paraphrase actually goes quite a bit beyond being merely uncharitable.  You wrote, from the construction of your sentence and paragraph, that Holbo was fond of saying that *theorists* couldn’t die fast enough.  So admitting that “asking an already dead and lengthily decaying beast to make some room is not the same thing as demanding it be killed faster” is understating the problem.  You didn’t paraphrase as Holbo saying that the theory beast couldn’t die fast enough (which would have been incorrect in itself, as you say), you paraphrased as him saying that real people, many of whom are actually still alive, couldn’t die fast enough.  I really haven’t read much Foucault, so I don’t know how compelling the reference was, but still.

Since I’ve seen this before, it looks like a bad habit rather than a one-time slip.  I’m not trying to stomp you while you’re down, or anything; I have my own bad habits that I’ve learned to watch out for, and it is possible to improve.  But you have to recognize that somehow you’re substituting a heated mental image of the person you’re arguing against for the actual person, and that these mental images tend to say things that it is really quite improbable that real people would say.  (Sometimes someone does, sure.  In that case it’s best to make sure that you’re quoting and citing them accurately.  Basic academic stuff.)

Second, I don’t think that it is obvious that Holbo is “talking about something like the worst excesses of a very narrow (and increasingly marginalized) taste culture or philistin--ish celebrity cult” or that contrariwise he’s “lump[ing] these worst excesses in with every serious scholar of Heidegger or Levinas or whomever”.  The time to provide a false dilemma is not right at the end of a comment like this.  Much less statements like the one about making analytic’s chairs more comfortable.  In general, if you’re making an apology, make it, and then stop.

Last, I think it’s odd that this is the second time I’ve seen my comment from that thread linked to (the first time was from the Troll of Sorrow, which probably doesn’t count).  When I made that comment, I thought that it was going to draw scorn for its making-a-list-and-checking-it-twice, step-by-step, rather dull and conscientious quality.  It is a wholly non-theory comment: modernist, single-valued, valuing clarity over wit, given to careful classificational schemes.  If you really think that it’s a good idea, isn’t that implicitly a sort of criticism of Theory?

By on 09/29/05 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is a wholly non-theory comment:...

It is a wholly what?  To demand specificity??  To “mention each major thinker in turn, and briefly say what you agree or disagree with in their work, in congruence with your general theory” is merely dull and conscientious?

Why that sounds to me exactly like what a responsible theorist does, however often subtly or indirectly. 

(Of course once one is forced to be specific, it does tend to become less a question of merely “agreeing” or “disagreeing” and more one of ‘reading’ if only because what one encounters in close reading (though we could debate which kind of close reading I suppose) is often The Real Thing–that is, actual thinkers and not just cardboard cartoon cut-outs.)

The time to provide a false dilemma is not right at the end of a comment like this

I agree, which I why I reluctantly suggested we start at the end of the last round, if at all.  These conversations having a history, such as it is, and such.

The reference to Foucault behind my poor polemical sort-of-joke may be found here if you are curious.  Obviously, I was being somewhat overly crude and do apologize.

By Matt on 09/29/05 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps what Matt is saying, and what I’d also like to say, is this: if you’re going to get to the critique of theory, let’s get some on the table. We’ve gotten here a smattering of institutional critique, some (non)allegations about bad political complicity, overreadings of LRB articles, and readings of critics of theory rather than theorists themselves. Lots and lots and lots of procedural arguments… very little substance.

It becomes hard not to feel like you Valvistas are complaining for all the wrong reasons when you never quite get to naming what the problems are with actual, theoretically inflected literary criticism. Writing around the problem with theory rather than writing straight at it.

I’ve got a proposal. It’s kind of a counter-proposal to John’s quest for a proper journal to do. Why doesn’t the Valve read Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, brand spanking new this week and meant to be a big book, in the same “series” as the Postmodernism book.

Virtues of taking this one on:

1) Actual lit crit cum theory. True to the orientation of this blog.
2) Jameson’s reading lots of SF here, which seems to be a bit of a preoccupation of this site and CT as well.
3) Jameson’s a major figure, so we avoid the “yes, but these folks are mediocre - not avatars of theory at its best” that “my” side would likely launch as a defense if you read PMLA.

Don’t you think that an event of this sort would at least get us out of the rut we’re all in here? Sean can stop ventinng, we can all stop writing about things I’ve never read. We can move beyond all the Theory/theory/"theory" stuff and just talk Jameson.

(BTW - in case you haven’t noticed, I’m ignoring Sean until he learns to behave himself...)

By CR on 09/29/05 at 11:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mr. Revolution, 9/29/05:

in case you haven’t noticed, I’m ignoring Sean until he learns to behave himself...)

Mr. Revolution, 9/13/05, on why “ethico-political obligations" do not interfere with his use of a pseudonym:

I’d rather some bile soaked comment I post on here in response to McCann isn’t the FIRST bit of writing people see when they consult my real-time dossier.

By on 09/30/05 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps CR is an unusually Theory-capable 5th grader.  That’s usually the age where kids think it’s neat to tell everyone that they are ignoring someone else, while being obviously fascinated by them.

But let’s give him his due.  He’s not a 5th grader.  The faux helplessness that CR likes to exhibit makes him, I’d say, emotionally about 14 years old.  From one of the same comments that Sean linked to:

“No, it’s not my best work, what I churn out here… But that’s out of my hands on the internets.”

See, it’s out of his hands—he can’t help it.  What he churns out, he just bears no responsibility for.  No doubt when his Mom asks him to pick up his room, he says, petulantly, that he makes a mess and it’s just out of his hands now.  The same applies to his political involvements—can’t ask him to do anything, since he’s educated, middle-class, professorial, and helpless.

And he has reading comprehension problems as well.  Ah, the problems of troubled youth.

By on 09/30/05 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, I’m late to the party. Lessee here. Matt - who (for pot/kettle comparison purposes) has been stern against my tone - is ‘quoting’ me as saying theorists “can’t die fast enough;” then excusing himself on the grounds that he is ‘playing off a certain point Foucault once made with respect to the word, ‘intellectuals’.’ I wouldn’t know, and frankly don’t care enough to click the link. Then an apology, thank you for that. But, soul of innocence: “How it is possible to lump these worst excesses [of Theory] in with every serious scholar of Heidegger or Levinas or whomever, much less with the very thinkers themselves...well it’s a gesture that remains beyond me. But I suppose something must be done to make the analytic’s chairs more comfortable?” You got me, Matt. It’s my black heart and analytic hemorrhoids, is what it is. And CR is lecturing me about how discussing anti-theory writings means ‘very little substance’ and telling me he isn’t on speaking terms with Sean. (Why are you in Sean’s thread? Are you going to start posting comments to my threads, telling me to post something on Sean’s thread, because you’re not talking to him?) And somehow this will carry us to the happy point where “we can all stop writing about things I’ve never read.” (Those being the things you just alleged are not substantive?) For jeepers creeper’s sake, who died and made me king of ensuring CR doesn’t have to read stuff? It’s skin off your nose if I read what you do not? Who am I? Bart after the Menachem Begin glasses and scalp salve transform him into a nerd and he gets beaten up by Jimbo for ‘learnin on his own’ (wav)? Crikey, kids. What’s become of us? I’m still doing my PLMA thing. You don’t have to read it. What looks to me like a bad faith invitation to read Jameson just isn’t a sweet enough pot to tempt me. Sorry. I’ll work out my own thoughts in my own way on my own time. I know my theses have problems and need specifics and development. I will. Feedback and criticism I can use, but a certain level of hermeneutic suspicion is not helpful. If you suspect I do what I do out of malice and aversion to philosophical substance, fine. But I’m not really interested in debating that point.

By John Holbo on 09/30/05 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s Captain Revolution to you, Sean…

By CR on 09/30/05 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you going to start posting comments to my threads, telling me to post something on Sean’s thread, because you’re not talking to him?)

Well, would you mind if I did? I was kind of thinking that you could be my second when we meet in the clearing at sunrise tomorrow… I’ll pay airfare…

Fine, don’t read the Jameson… Just be forewarned that my first comment on yr PMLA piece will surely be “PMLA sux!” (Even though, full disclosure, I have a piece at some early stage of under considertation there currently...)

(Still not talking to Sean - save for the protocol point above - or Rich...)

By CR on 09/30/05 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Sorry for clogging the thread).

Crap. I meant “We can stop writing about things we’ve never read.”

perhaps the slip was a we bit, more than a we bit, Freudian… But whatever. So is everything…

No I don’t wait for assignments from the Valve to start reading. (But wouldn’t it be hilarious if I did… I have to teach Hard Times, but dammit, Holbo won’t discuss it on the blog… Guess the kids will have to do with Lit Witt or Penguin Island...)

By CR on 09/30/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo, just what is it you think I was saying in that comment of mine to which you link?  I’m curious.  My guess is you haven’t understood my point at all.  Also, I’m touched that you can’t be bothered.  (Is it interesting that in the thread to a post full of insinuations about Foucault nobody can be bothered to read a little Foucault?  I wouldn’t dare suggest.)

Do you deny ever conflating the followers of certain thinkers with the thinkers themselves in any of your numerous cutesy diatribes against “Theory”?  I must say, at the very least you have not been very careful to combat this impresssion.

In any case, we continue to look forward to the promised follow-ups, still.

All the best.

ps.  Obviously I speak for myself and nobody, including CR of course, speaks for me.  Feel free to carry on with your petty insults now.

By Matt on 09/30/05 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Holbo: “What looks to me like a bad faith invitation to read Jameson just isn’t a sweet enough pot to tempt me. Sorry. I’ll work out my own thoughts in my own way on my own time. I know my theses have problems and need specifics and development. I will. Feedback and criticism I can use, but a certain level of hermeneutic suspicion is not helpful.”

From the way in which my “tree” comment has had a citational afterlife, I strongly suspect that it is a focus for bad faith response, although I didn’t intend it as such.  To quote Matt:

“Of course once one is forced to be specific, it does tend to become less a question of merely “agreeing” or “disagreeing” and more one of ‘reading’ if only because what one encounters in close reading (though we could debate which kind of close reading I suppose) is often The Real Thing–that is, actual thinkers and not just cardboard cartoon cut-outs.)”

In other words, if you had actually done what I suggested that you do, and made a sort of historical tree of thinkers and briefly said what you agreed or disagreed with about each, this very organization and brevity would become the focus for the next attack.  You would be accused of dismissing cardboard cut-outs, of not fully encountering the thinkers through close or extensive enough reading, or dismissing people based on who they were influenced by, etc.

By on 09/30/05 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not only can I be bothered to read a little Foucault, I can be bothered to read quite a bit; process it; think about how his theories of discourse respond to statements by members of the Annales school, esp. Braudel’s, in the third section of The Mediterranean, in which he talks of events as “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.” Then I can consider his work in light of new historicism, both its successes and its (sadly frequent) excesses; think about how his politics inflect his historiography; ponder the fact that while his theory of discourses fascinates, his actual practice as a social historian is criminally selective; then mull over whether there’s a necessary connection between his theory and his sloppiness, come to the conclusion that there is no necessary one, but decide to “base” my own work on Foucault’s in such a way as to avoid his egregious mistakes while preserving his anti-psychoanalytic account of how historical forces subconsciously influence cultural production.  I can do all of that...and still be considered anti-theoretical by some because when I wrestled with Foucault, I didn’t let him win?

That, at least, seems analogous to the core of the complaint against Sean here.  I have the sense that Sean seriously engaged the material--all of it, i.e. A&A’s and Foucault’s own work contained in the appendices--and found Foucault’s thoughts on the Iranian revolution incommensurate both with what Foucauldians argue and with other strains of Foucault’s own thoughts.  I fail to see how that constitutes intellectual dishonesty or an unfair assessment of the impact this strain of his thought could/will/should have on his legacy.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/30/05 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

Yes sure but at least the actual words of actual “theorists” would be engaged with, and one might even be forced to defend one’s claims on the proper grounds--that is, the actual writings of actual “theorists” would become a relevant part of the discussion.  Since by and large this hasn’t been done yet, and would in all likelihood only lead to deeper, more nuanced understanding and even (heavens forfend!) some genuine hospitality, I see no reason to whine.

Gradspeakalicious, large-heartedly optimistic Scott,

The gist of your exaggerations is not wasted on me, I’ll trust you understand.  Though I’m still not exactly sure what kind of in-depth comment steeped in Foucauldian concepts could possibly be warranted here, or if the parameters provided are finally all that useful.  If, you know, the object is to define and to finalize and to fix once and forever the essence of Foucault’s political theory (in order to cast a judgement of criminal negligence or the like) then frankly I’d rather just go back to not reading the Troll of Sorrow on my site.

I think the core complaint against Sean has more to do with previous (and subsequent) evidence of his particular swagger, his obvious preferences and choices in this regard. 

Letting the sacred “theorist” “win” at all costs is of course not at all what this (or for that matter, theory) is about, though that’s hardly a fresh line of sarcasm now is it.

Sean seems to ask us to take his word about the review Rée gives (and how interesting that Yang tempers his likewise sensational one in comments here).  More precisely:  is it enough to cast Rée in this typified light, there where every “defender” of Foucault is largely and indeed directly responsible for a climate that has up til now prevented such topical study from even taking place?  Do you buy this drink straight up?  Are all serious readers of Foucault merely hysterical, and do they define the dominant climate in which this book (Sean wishes it were more of an event) –appears?  Of course not.  If I were Rich now I’d say something like, “But I thought context wasn’t such a big deal.  Now clearly you’re wanting to have it both ways.” Conversely, it was certainly rather predictable how such a topical study would be generally encouraged and received, as that postlink to Long Sunday above maintains.

Thankfully there will continue to be serious readers of Foucault concerned for the most hospitable ethics of reading possible, neither knee-jerk sycophants nor criminally evasive.  Some of them I suppose may even read this book, despite its various alleged flaws or questionable maneuvers, as Sean himself does not fail to point out.

By Matt on 10/01/05 at 03:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean seems to ask us to take his word about the review Rée gives

This is silly, but typical, Matt. It’s one undefended charge after another with you.  If I had wanted you to take my word about Rée, I wouldn’t have linked to his review, and I wouldn’t have tried to explain why I thought it was eloquent, partly right, but on the whole glibly dismissive.  If you had initially thought that characterization was wrong, you probably wouldn’t have remarked with your characteristic facility in moralizing overstatement that Rée “has obviously not begun to read Foucault very well, [and] does a fundamental disservice to his oeuvre with such...reactionary overreach.”

If I wished to say that “all serious readers of Foucault merely hysterical,” I likewise wouldn’t have given any credit to Rée’s complaints at all.  Nor would I have noted that “some defenders doubted that Foucault was actually enthusiastic about Islamic revolution.” (Please note, this is an actual historical claim with two elements: Foucault was enthusiastic; some defenders have doubted it.  Do you question either one?)

I do wish A & A’s book was more of an event because I think it raises in a sober way serious questions, and ones that have been ignored in the English speaking world.  I see nothing wrong with that.  I missed the discussion at Long Sunday, not having a taste for high minded circumlocution.  I’ve now read it and don’t feel I missed much.  The central question posed by Mark is this:

And what, after all, is the alternative to Foucault’s attempt - however flawed - to enter into the experience of revolt, to understand why people were ‘risking their lives’, demonstrating, and to understand it in something like its own terms, to grant validity and meaning to that experience? The alternative to this is, perhaps, once more the irrational, deluded Other, victim of ‘mass hysteria’, wholly governed and guided by an ideology presumed foreign to their nature.

That is a false alternative.  (Sadly, the suspicion of binary opposites does not appear to be always ready to hand.) It also does not suggest familiarity with the full range of Foucault’s writing about Iran or the responses of his critics.  It appears to me designed not to encourage consideration of the issues, but to stop it in its tracks.

By on 10/01/05 at 07:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt,

Was that “gradspeakalicious”?  Didn’t strike me as such when I wrote it.  (I associate the concept, though not the term--which I actually like--with first years who puff their chests to ruffle other first years’ feathers.) Anyhow, when you say:

The gist of your exaggerations is not wasted on me, I’ll trust you understand.

I can only respond with the statement that I wasn’t exaggerating the depth or length of my engagement with Foucauldian thought.  Of all the theorists out there, Foucault is the one whose work 1) initially inspired my turn from (bear with me) what at Irvine we call Theory-With-A-Capital-T to historicism and 2) continues to dog me as I try to find the contours of the claims I make.  That my current wrestling with his thought largely involves avoiding the evidentiary and procedural mistakes he made, I still find myself drawn to the French historiographical tradition of social history (in particular, the Anneles school with which Foucault had such a troubled relation).  Again, this isn’t to say I dismiss Foucault, only to say that when I read him, I do so critically.

In short, I think you’re misreading Sean here, since he’s not aiming to condemn Foucault but see how his work on the Iranian revolution results from (and yes, I’m being vague on purpose) the more theoretically mainstream Foucauldian concepts.  I think Foucault’s work on the Iranian revolution could be vital to understanding say, how he imagines historical change, or how he reconciles the apparent determinism of discourse with his enthusiastic support of the ‘68 revolution (or leftist causes in general).  In other words, it’s a part of his thought, and as such needs to be considered.  I found the discussion on Long Sunday lacking in this respect; furthermore, I found Mark’s account of Foucault’s interest in history a bit naive, to wit:

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.

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.  In other words, you could learn nothing about the present state of sexual politics even close to what you can learn about the state of Greek or Victorian sexual politics, because those discourses have been dessicated, and remain little more than ghostly presences in the contemporary world.  (The ephemeral turn my prose has taken is another reason I wrestle with Foucault: he has a tendency to consider established the very object whose existence he wants to establish, thus defining it (in practice) in terms of his limitations define it.  That sort of mild anti-intellectualism always chafed.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/01/05 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean,

If you had initially thought that characterization was wrong, you probably wouldn’t have remarked with your characteristic facility in moralizing overstatement...that Rée “has obviously not begun to read Foucault very well, [and] does a fundamental disservice to his oeuvre with such...reactionary overreach.”

Not at all; I still think they are both equally wrong.  The predominant bent of your gleeful characterizations and Rée’s poor reading are both wrong, though you were being more judicious than usual, yes.

(Please note, this is an actual historical claim with two elements: Foucault was enthusiastic; some defenders have doubted it.  Do you question either one?)

Only if that is supposed to prove anything.

Scott,

Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest you were exaggerating the depth or length or whatever.  I just meant I wasn’t about to respond with a heavy dose of Foucult-speak or anything somewhat beside the point.  And how could I disagree with any of that (aside from the part about reading Sean’s compass, which surely shines through clearly enough without my pointing it out).

Do they really call it “Theory-with-a-capital-T” at Irvine when it’s not “historicism?” How bizarre.

Again, I’m no uncritical fan of MF; I agree he’s far too symetrical, and in more places than one.  Your points about the dissication of language are certainly interesting.

But insofar as he was fascinated by revolution, and a strong critic of modernity, and more than this “fascinated by political spirituality,” I simply don’t see yet how such attitudinal charges justify the casusal use of words like “egregious mistakes,” “evidential and procedural mistakes,""criminally selective” and “sloppy.”

But then as Sean himself notes:

<style Rée shares with Foucault, but I suspect that’s deliberate.  Their book turns down the flame as low as possible.  Likewise, their judgments—though certainly arguable in some cases—are generally plausible and far from extreme.  No daring leaps of the sort that Foucault himself practiced.</i>

What’s being indicted here most of all seems to be <style</i> of thinking, and based primarily on attitudinal evidence!  To which any serious reader of Foucault rightly responds:  What?

By Matt on 10/01/05 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s odd that what’s being indicted here most of all seems to be *a style* of reading, and based primarily on attitudinal evidence (and again, very topical and of a familiar genre to be sure.  Does it matter that Foucault was hardly a comfortable journalist, or a journalist for very long, so long as we can comfortably relegate him to the town square as “an intellectual” or “public intellectual” and use this opportunity primarily to poke holes?  To poke holes with a relentlessly bland sobriety that nevertheless fails to conceal its true colors or the audience to which it panders?  (I realize now I’m trading in clichés that have already been well-ridiculed here, and in a preemptive fasion, but that hardly makes them less worthy of speculation.)

To which any serious reader of Foucault rightly responds:  What? and is then promptly accused of being an anti-intellectual sycophant.

By Matt on 10/01/05 at 05:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt writes, in response to me pointing out that he quoted my comment only in order to telegraph his punches:

“Yes sure but at least the actual words of actual “theorists” would be engaged with, and one might even be forced to defend one’s claims on the proper grounds--that is, the actual writings of actual “theorists” would become a relevant part of the discussion.  Since by and large this hasn’t been done yet, and would in all likelihood only lead to deeper, more nuanced understanding and even (heavens forfend!) some genuine hospitality, I see no reason to whine.”

Matt, really.  By writing “Yes sure” in response to my accusation of your bad faith, you are admitting that you have no real interest in seeing Holbo follow this kind of project, and only want him to do it in order to make your next predictable attack.  My comment wasn’t a whine, it was a warning, if you could read it, that openly professed bad faith is an acceptable reason to tune someone out.  As Holbo wrote, “If you suspect I do what I do out of malice and aversion to philosophical substance, fine. But I’m not really interested in debating that point.” And really no one should be.  It’s not just cast-iron gall to say that Holbo hasn’t engaged with the actual words of actual theorists, it’s stupid.

By on 10/01/05 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, obviously I wouldn’t suggest it if I wasn’t interested on some level.  If to request this is so very stupid (and recalling that is was your request)...you know what, Rich, I’m just flattered you read that far.

Off to polish my cast-iron gall for the next attack.

“If you suspect I do what I do out of malice and aversion to philosophical substance, fine.”

As if.

By Matt on 10/01/05 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott. Someone belatedly drew my attention to your remarks above:

I found Mark’s account of Foucault’s interest in history a bit naive

I’d prefer ‘incomplete’ rather than naïve, but you may yet prove me wrong.

Perhaps what you found problematic was the idea of Foucault wanting to ‘think his way outside the present’. I didn’t mean by this that Foucault aspired to a position wholly ‘outside’, as if he could somehow outfox the historical moment, and see it from a non-historical place. But surely Foucault does aspire to put a kind of line of
contingency around the present. I’m thinking of phrases like the following (not entirely helpful, I know, sundered from context):

‘We must make the intelligible against a background of emptiness and deny its necessity’

“We have to know the historical conditions which motivate our conceptualization. We need a historical awareness of our present circumstance.”

& you suggest I overlook Foucault’s skepticism toward the “the idea that we can understand the discourses which saturate our lives in the moment that we live them.” Presumably this isn’t meant in the sense simply that there’s inevitably a lag between theory and practice. Again, surely Foucault does want to, if you like, ‘hollow out’ the present, deny its self-evidence, see our experiences and thought-maneuvers as historically motivated and informed. But doing all this doesn’t then imply the possibility of a full and transparent understanding. And having an awareness of the historicity of our experiences and categories doesn’t, I think, imply an optimism about change. Nor, of course, does it assume that you can then just jump to some fully-fledged alternative.

Re -
you could learn nothing about the present state of sexual politics even close to what you can learn about the state of Greek or Victorian sexual politics, because those discourses have been dessicated, and remain little more than ghostly presences in the contemporary world

But isn’t learning about those other regimes inevitably also a meditation on the present, and/or a revelation of the historicity and contingency of the present? Isn’t it reciprocal if not symmetrical? Or, alternatively, if we remain so deeply entangled in our historical present how is it we can ‘learn something’ about the remote past at all? Won’t it just be the working out of present concerns in fancy dress?

By Mark Kaplan on 10/06/05 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops, and it should be ‘make the intelligible appear against a background of emptiness and deny its necessity’ – Foucault continues: “We must think what exists is far from filling all possible spaces.”

Actually, it would have been better just to ask you to clarify what you meant before attempting an answer. I’m curious as to what you understand by Foucault’s ‘critical ontology of ourselves’ if it’s not, partly, about unsettling the self-evidence of the present through some kind of awareness of the present’s historical contingency.

By Mark Kaplan on 10/06/05 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark, I’ve half-answered your question.  More tomorrow.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/07/05 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pankaj Mishra has written on the Anderson and Afery book in the latest New York Review of Books. Follow link (requires subscription.)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=18433

By on 10/28/05 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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