Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Foucault, a Pimple on Nietzsche's Ass:

Here's an old but good article on Michel Foucault by Roger Kimball. Kimball is the anti-Foucault intellectual -- that is, a total prude. And the article is written from that perspective (its title is The perversions of Michel Foucault). Kimball seems positively fascinated by Foucault's "perversions"; the article is written in titillating detail. (On sexual matters, I'd like to think that I'm somewhere in between both of these thinkers.)

Foucault's work and his life illustrate the dangers of the abyss. The most valuable part of Kimball's article is its comparison between Foucault and Nietzsche. It mirrors what Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind. That is, Nietzsche's work was quite profound, as was, to a lesser extent, Heidegger's. But it all started going downhill with his (post-Heideggerian) successors, especially the French ones. Here is Kimball:

But Foucault differed from Nietzsche in more than such outward trappings. The fundamental world outlooks of the two men were radically different. Basically, Foucault was Nietzsche’s ape. He adopted some of Nietzsche’s rhetoric about power and imitated some of his verbal histrionics. But he never achieved anything like Nietzsche’s insight or originality. Nietzsche may have been seriously wrong in his understanding of modernity: he may have mistaken one part of the story—the rise of secularism—for the whole tale; but few men have struggled as honestly with the problem of nihilism as he. Foucault simply flirted with nihilism as one more “experience.” Mr. Miller is right to emphasize the importance of “experience,” especially extreme or “limit” experience, in Foucault’s life and work; he is wrong to think that this was a virtue. Foucault was addicted to extremity. He epitomized to perfection a certain type of decadent Romantic, a type that Nietzsche warned against when he spoke of “those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness.” Foucault’s insatiable craving for new, ever more thrilling “experiences” was a sign of weakness, not daring. Here, too, Nietzsche is a far better guide than Foucault. “All men now live through too much and think through too little,” Nietzsche wrote in 1880. “They suffer at the same time from extreme hunger and from colic, and therefore become thinner and thinner, no matter how much they eat.—Whoever says now, ‘I have not lived through anything’— is an ass.”

Kimball also references a debate between Foucault and Noam Chomsky, where Foucault's extremism makes Chomsky look like a voice of sane moderation!

One thing that is refreshing about Foucault’s political follies, however, is that they tend to make otherwise outlandish figures appear comparatively tame. In a debate that aired on Dutch television in the early Seventies, for example, the famous American radical and linguist Noam Chomsky appears as a voice of sanity and moderation in comparison to Foucault. As Mr. Miller reports it, while Chomsky insisted “we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings,” Foucault replied that such ideas as responsibility, sensitivity, justice, and law were merely “tokens of ideology” that completely lacked legitimacy. “The proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just,” he argued. “The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because … it wants to take power.” Of course, this has been the standard sophistical line since Socrates encountered Thrasymachus, but these days one rarely hears it so bluntly articulated. Nor were such performances rare. In another debate, Foucault championed the September Massacres of 1792, in which over a thousand people suspected of harboring royalist sympathies were ruthlessly butchered, as a sterling example of “popular justice” at work. As Mr. Miller puts it, Foucault believed that justice would be best served “by throwing open every prison and shutting down every court.”

And you can watch parts of that debate courtesy of YouTube.


Anonymous said...

Kimball is clearly one of the Right's better writers. He often commits the ad hominem fallacy, and here he does it again. He confuses Foucault's personal life for his intellectual life. Clearly, overlaps occur, but notice Kimball's targets are on the personal, not intellectual, aspects of Foucault.

Nietzsche, the progenitor of "post-modernism," is frequently misrepresented, much from a misunderstanding of his heuristics. Nietzsche's chief objective was to overturn the Western Philosophical Tradition following Plato and Jesus. He desired to recapture pre-Socratic ideals of genuine virtues, of "becoming who one is," autonomy with responsibility, honesty (which Heidegger would morph into authenticity), the freedom of self-actualization, the creativity of the person in "making himself," and other values lost during the hegemony of Platonism and Christianity. His heuristic is more critical than prescriptive, more suggestive than argumentative, more dialectical than dogmatic. This has resulted in confusion, compounded by his aphoristic style of writing.

Foucault (the intellectual), on the other hand, had a much narrow controlling idea, that of "power relations," an idea germinated in Nietzsche. He applied it broadly in the hope of overturning the hegemony of the dogmatists, and left few unscathed. Leaving his personal life aside, he's remarkably consistent, prodigious, and incisive. But any insight can catapult beyond reasonableness and usefulness. That said, though, I'd be hard pressed to state where his idea went "over the top." His application of the principle is wide and deep. But the idea itself is far from sufficient, merely necessary. But few have digged so much archeology from it as he did.

Anonymous said...

One is reminded of Cicero's polemic on Clodia.

Good reading nonetheless.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The problem with Nietzsche is that he's always right.

And that leaves us...nowhere.

Spirit of Vatican II said...

Good old (young) Chomsky spoke up for Justice and Decency, Kindness and Sympathy -- but he probably misses Foucault's academic point, that all discourses of justice, human nature, etc. are socially inserted and historically shaped. He is not a nihilist, but criticizes the naivety of Chomsky here. Putting down Foucault by comparison with Nietzsche is silly -- Nietzsche never did anything like Foucault's serious historical research, and Foucault had not pretention of offering a new gospel to humanity. The critical refinement of Foucault's thought, which is of enduring value, is of course impossible to appreciate if you have a tabloidish approach to his sexual life (which was rather banal in fact; Foucault's lover assured me that the American sensationalist biographer Miller was talking about a completely fictional being and that "Michel was not like that at all"!)

Roesch said...

While Foucault’s insights into the ways institutions and discourse control and shape our notions of human nature are valid, they are also circular to the point of exasperation as from what vantage point or insight is it possible to escape the modes of ‘oppression?’ Of course mystics, romantics and the polymorphous would claim their ecstatic insights represent a break from constructed and ordinary reality, and while I think they are right, I wonder if this dissolved self is just another part of our coding. In any case the results are telling; for one the sovereignty of God is worth dieing for, while for the other it is sex. Given that choice I prefer the notion of Justice, Decency and Kindness as best that can be achieved with an open heart and skepticism ignoring the academic points that too often lead to a deadend.

Anonymous said...

Let us be, at least, intellectually honest. Nietzsche can be, and often is, exaperating, but he's not wrong. If he was, why did Pope Pius XIII do a frontal assault?

Nietzsche dared us to leave "slave" mentality behind, and many institutions did not like his way of thinking. What if "pride" is a true virtue, as the early Greeks maintained, against the "humility" preached by Plato and Jesus? Why, then, we might be self-creative, become daring, experiment, and be free.

Anathema, proclaimed Pius. Submission to God's revelation in Jesus necessitates abandoning those "modernist" ideas. The problem is that Nietzsche's virtues, which were the early Greek's virtues, predated Jesus. If anything, Nietzsche was appealing to historical virtues before Plato and Christianity, not making them anew! The "modernist" heresy was actually a call to the restoration of "historical" values. If fundamentalists want us to return to traditional values, Nietzsche might have argued, let's use tradition, not Jesus and Plato. Pride is a virtue, not the "cause of all error."

Christianity, via Saint Paul, has always understood its "enemies." While Nietzsche had a limited admiration of Jesus, he held Saint Paul in contempt. The "problem" with Western Civilization, according to Nietzsche, is that Plato and Saint Paul (a devotee of Plato more than Jesus) corrupted it. Jesus proclaimed freedom and integrity, while Plato and Paul demanded obedience to abstractions. The Church has always preferred the latter. It loses control with Jesus's virtues. Pope Pius saw the handwritting on the wall, and sought to bring down the wall.

Foucault is a bird of another stripe. No question he obtained inspiration from Nietzsche (as did almost everyone else), but his focus was on imprisonment, a concept similar to Nietzsche's "slave" mentality. According to Foucault, man is impossibly entangled in his own web of imprisonment. Even his "ideas" are weighted and opposed by his other "ideas." Nietzsche's appeal to freedom is much harder to achieve than the imagination can conceive. Limits come on man from every side, even sides man cannot comprehend, and even the most liberated person is still confined by his and society's boundaries. Thus, one man's freedom imposes on another, is circumscribed by another, limited by another, so that ultimately, it devolves to one person's "power" over another, in order to achieve freedom itself. The Other must be dominated (limited, curtailed) to allow any room for freedom. In a man's yearn for freedom, he encounters opposition at every turn. Ultimately, it becomes one power against another, each and collectively acting against the Other, to keep power of the person's freedom "confined" so not to oppose the power of the Other. All efforts to be free are opposed by other's efforts to be free. Thus, power is used to overcome the other's reach.

Despite it's vigor and apparent extremism, does anyone dispute this? Despite (or in spite) of Foucault's personal prediliction for S&M, an exaggerated expression of his views, perhaps, does anyone deny the force of his insight (which was originally Nietzsche's)? No matter where and in which way one turns, someone or something will, and does, oppose us. We've even institutionalized this opposition (the penal system).

One only need look at the "ex-gay" ministries to observe the superficial aspects of "power relations." Who cares if someone prefers the same sex? Most of Christendom most of the time, that's who. Being "homosexual" was another Greek virtue that Christianity upended. But who cares about another's private sexual expression? Again, Christianity cares, and worse, it has been known to kill those who engage in it. Why? Because it prevails only if it has culprits to blame, to limit, to exclude, to rehabilitate, to save -- in other words, to make into an Other against which it can impose limits. Islamic fundamentalism is no different. Both are defined by OPPOSITION to the Other. If the merits of its positions could be evaluated, discussed, and debated, reason would be the criterion; but allowing that, makes the OPPONENT equal to the putative "truth." No dogmatism can abide "tolerance," for tolerance leaves nothing to OPPOSE. All fundamentalisms, religious and political, must have OPPONENTS to give themselves power. This is Foucault's insight, applied more broadly than even Nietzsche envisioned. Incredulously, even Foucault's broad stroke does not cover all power relations, which only reinforces just how powerful "power" is. I'll be the first to agree that S&M is not the best way "out" of that power dichotomy, but it is one option.

Here is the dichotomy. Western Civilization was on its way to make an incredible, even insurmountable, difference. Grecian democracy, for all its defects, remained heads above all subsequent institutions, until almost two millennia later. What happened? Simply Plato, who was reincarnated in Saint Paul, overcoming Jesus himself. Despite "modernism" with science and Descartes trumping "received" institutions, conservatism prevailed. Not until Nietzsche's repudiation of the inheritance did anyone notice. He insisted we "re-examine" the inheritance, reinstate "traditional" values, and start afresh. The rest, as they say, is history.