Tag: history

Foucault and the event

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

I shall sum up […] the critical operations which I have undertaken [To question] these three themes of the origin, the subject and the implicit meaning, is to undertake – a difficult task, very strong resistance indeed proves it – to liberate the discursive field from the historico-transcendental structure which the philosophy of the 19th century has imposed on it […]

There where one used to tell the history of tradition and of invention, of the old and the new, of the dead and the living, of the closed and the open, of the static and the dynamic, I have undertaken to tell the history of perpetual difference; more precisely to recount the history of ideas as the sum of the specified and descriptive forms of non-identity.

Michel Foucault, (1996) [1968]. “History, discourse and discontinuity” S. Lotringer, ed., Foucault live (interviews, 1961-1984) (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), Translated by Anthony Nazarro, pp. 41-2. Translation modified.

Random thoughts in response
Foucault defines the event as something that has a beginning and an end. Every human experience, activity, idea and cultural form can be analysed as an event or as a series of events. Foucault uses this concept as a way of arguing against metaphysical essences in history. It is important to emphasise that his notion of the ‘event’ shares little in common with the event as it has been defined by other forms of philosophy which define it as the rare and earth shattering eruption of transcendence (or the eternal) into history.

If each event has a discrete beginning and end, it does not exist on its own, it can only exist in relation to other events and to other levels of events. An event when it begins, is already part of a history and a social and cultural structure. It both perpetuates and marks a break or difference – no matter how small – from those structures. It is both the Same and the Other.

Foucault also applies notions of the event, of difference, to his discussion of the formation of the self. The self is likewise an ‘event’. We are born into a language, culture and historical situation and we are trained by, and train ourselves, with the tools produced by our history and culture. At the same time, however, we have the capacity to modify how we belong, to make a unique contribution.

People are continually trying to tie things down and render them the Same so as to maintain social and other forms of order, but the Other, that which is different, keeps on dissolving these orders. One could argue, using worn out and questionable philosophical terms, that in Foucault’s work, this Other is ‘immanent’ rather than ‘transcendent’. Hence the Other is something that is constantly present and in dialogue with what is going on here and now and in ordinary lives. Continual difference pervades our existence, opening up the possibility for transgression at every moment, not just exceptionally. Of course, whether or not people take up the opportunities offered is another matter.

Thus one can oppose the terms ‘difference’ and ‘transcendence’. There is a vast tangle of moral judgment and elitism attached to the notion of ‘transcendence’, given only some people and some situations have access to it or are effected by it. Transcendence also reductively subsumes everything into itself and removes it from history. The term difference never operates this reduction and has far fewer grand pretensions. It doesn’t merely emerge in chosen moments but remains stubbornly historical and of this world. Transcendence has reductive and elitist overtones and is rare, whereas difference is multiple, common and accessible to everybody. Transcendence tends towards a gnostic rejection of the world, a removal to an eternal outside place (or non-place), difference tends towards an active engagement in history and the recognition of injustice.

For thinkers such as Arendt, Agamben and Badiou if the event is indeed singular, only certain events count and those events are rare. These events take on the status of crisis, revolution, exception, the extra-ordinary, the definitive break, wholesale political transformation, the departure from biological or animal necessity. Other occurences simply exist in the shadow of these rare or formative events.

Hannah Arendt, while eliminating the notion of causality and championing the cause of history, posits the idea of the division of action into two forms – one that is characterised as everyday and concerned with the mere maintenance of biological life and the social and cultural status quo and the other as ‘extraordinary action’, which has political and innovative effects. The second form of action is clearly more highly valued than the first.

The risks of elitism in proposing such a divide are high – as has of course been pointed out in various ways by Arendt’s critics. Some people become capable of producing worthy social and historical action, whereas others are condemned to spend their lives as anonymous drones. And disappointingly, especially given Arendt is a woman, those concerned with the biological continuation of the species rather than grand politics, often happen to be women.

Foucault, on the other hand, argues that all actions, thoughts, experiences and physical happenings are historical events which at one and the same time both maintain the status quo and depart from it to varying degrees. Every event by sheer virtue of the fact that it appears in time (history) both belongs to what has gone before and marks a departure from it. This departure or difference can be either virtually non-existent or large – but there is no division in what qualifies as an event and what doesn’t. There are no fundamental ontological differences between types of events, just differences in levels and strategic placement and degrees to which actions or events are transgressive (or not). And further, one has to think very carefully about how one valorises the transgressive.

So rather than a metaphysical reading of the event – where the transcendent comes down and erupts into history or negates history altogether in the maintenance of transhistorical essences, Foucault offers a historical reading where difference permeates everyday existence from moment to moment. This is not to say that the notion of difference is at a fundamental ontological level any more explicable than transcendence or less intriguing, but it is certainly far less pretentious in its ambit and a far more operable and empirically observable notion in terms of the analysis of micro-events and practices.

With thanks to Eduardo Duarte for starting the discussion which prompted these ideas.

Foucault and the archive

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

The idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.

Michel Foucault [1967] “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), 22-27.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault originally wrote this in 1967 arguing that the idea of the archive initially came to the fore in the nineteenth century. It is clear that we continue to live within these historical parameters. The desire for preservation extends far beyond the documentary archive with, for example, various heritage laws enacted to preserve housing (some of it not worth preserving in terms of its actual habitability). This operates in opposition to an ever increasing consumer disposibility. Objects such as cars, computers, home appliances are constantly and often needlessly updated and consumers are incited to buy the latest and greatest in an exhausting and overstimulating cycle that never ends. Redundancy is deliberately built into a number of these objects to perpetuate this process.

Both processes – the will to preserve every historical artefact and document from the ravages of time and decay and the ever more rapid cycles of the aquisition and disposal of consumer goods are no doubt opposite sides of the same coin – a desperate attempt perhaps to maintain some kind of cosmic equilibrium. The ever increasing and expanding dead weight of the archival past must be counterbalanced by a frenzy of consumer disposibility and the rapid and often counterproductive reconfiguration of consumer goods.

But if these goods are disposed of, examples of superseded items still persist in design museums and in the obsessive archives of private collectors. These collectors preserve in memory the most ephemeral and unaesthetic of objects – old packaging, broken down pieces of machinery, old advertising material.

Contemporary developed society and culture enact major anxieties around the passage of time and also the human relation to objects. In the contemporary era humans exist in highly uncomfortable and conflictual relation with objects. As in dystopian science fiction, they are increasingly expected to adapt to the machines they have created, rather than the machines being designed harmoniously with human comfort and the requirements of the body in mind.

Foucault and the disciplinary society 2

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

What is to be understood by the disciplining of societies in Europe since the eighteenth century is not, of course, that the individuals who are part of them become more and more obedient, nor that all societies become like barracks, schools or prisons; rather, it is that an increasingly controlled, more rational and economic process of adjustment has been sought between productive activities, communications networks, and the play of power relations.

Michel Foucault, (2000) [1981] ‘The Subject and Power’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, p. 339.
Random thoughts in response
I have posted a slightly different version of this comment before, but seem to want to keep returning to it!

Critics have often read Foucault’s notion of a disciplinary society as meaning that people subject to its effects behave like automatons. That is certainly the aim of the disciplinary regime, but not necessarily the result in practice. In fact, people continually resist attempts to rationalise and organise their behaviour whether with a deliberate program of resistance in mind, or piecemeal in specific situations just because they don’t like it. Unfortunately as disciplinary regimes become more refined, people have to become more and more creative – or just simply destructive – in their attempts to get around these regulatory systems.

Foucault’s ideas have often been blamed – particularly by conservative commentators – for the perceived contemporary breakdown in social order and for fostering the resistance to traditional seats of authority which has marked ethical systems in the post World War II period. I would argue, rather, that Foucault’s work – as was the work of other thinkers who emerged in the 1960s – was in fact a warning about certain directions in social organisation which have now become all too apparent. The disciplinary society is not something that had its heydey in the nineteenth and up to the mid twentieth centuries and now only exists in Charles Dickens novels or the histories of totalitarian regimes. It has evolved using sophisticated techniques of governmentality to become a system of extraordinary complexity and regulatory effectiveness.

What is perhaps most disturbing at present (but then perhaps nothing has changed!) is the high degree of volontary and unquestioning compliance by individuals with mechanisms which seek to restrict their freedom. Mechanisms of social order are, of course, essential to the survival of human beings at all levels, but the question becomes, and indeed has always been, where to draw the line between rules essential for harmonious social function, and regulation that simply enslaves people, locking them into inequitable relations of power.

Much of Foucault’s work focuses on this dangerous narrow and wavering line and seeks to warn people that they must be constantly alert to the dangers this line entails. Foucault and other thinkers of his generation who lived through the modernist debacle which was World War II and totalitarianism were determined to see that this never happened again, but the lessons of history are soon forgotten (particularly when the study of history has been wiped off both school and university curricula) and the re-emergence of old problems in new guises is frequently not recognised for what it is.

Foucault and phenomenology

In relation to phenomenology, rather than making a somewhat internal description of lived experience, shouldn’t one, couldn’t one instead analyze a number of collective and social experiences?

Michel Foucault. (1996) [1988]. ‘What our present is’. In Sylvère Lotringer (ed.) Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984). Tr. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston. 2nd edition. New York: Semiotext(e), p.408.

I particularly like this comment. Often philosophy is characterised as being about the description and analysis of purely interior experience or abstract forms of knowledge which are somehow removed from external locations in history and in a society. In other words, philosophy is a form of knowledge which is about the interior and the eternal or about finding the essences of those things underneath the banalities of lived experience. Why shouldn’t philosophy be about our engagement with history, the present with each other and our limitations in very specific -rather than abstract – instances?

Foucault on historical causality

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

We have to rid ourselves of the prejudice that a history without causality is no longer history.

[Michel Foucault. (1994) [1967]. Qui êtes-vous Professeur Foucault? In Dits et écrits: 1954-1988. Vol I. D. Defert, F. Ewald & J. Lagrange (Eds.). Paris: Gallimard, p. 607. This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell

Michel Foucault. (1999) [1967]. Who are you, Professor Foucault? In Religion and Culture. J. R. Carrette (Ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 92.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault also remarks that if the linear succession of events is usually considered to be the matter of history, the analysis of how it is possible that two events can be contemporary with each other is less frequently regarded as history proper.

He made these comments in 1967 a year after the publication of The Order of Things. In this book Foucault looks at a number of simultaneous events or structures of knowledge and describes the similarity in structure between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge. The Order of Things was widely attacked by both Marxists and conservative critics for its unconventional views of history. Marxists saw Foucault’s non-linear approach to history as a conservative rejection of the inevitable historical process leading to revolution and the overthrow of capitalism.

Sartre who had become an enthusiastic Marxist fellow traveller after World War II claimed that in The Order of Things Foucault had replaced ‘cinema by the magic lantern, movement by a succession of immobilities’ adding that this rejection of history was ‘of course’ an attack on Marxism. What Foucault was really trying to do according to Sartre was erect a ‘new ideology, the last rampart that the bourgeoisie can still erect against Marx.’ [1]

In relation to causality, Foucault notes that in the natural sciences it has long been perceived that true causality is impossible to establish and that ‘basically causality doesn’t exist in logic’ (p. 607)

1. Jean-Paul Sartre. (1966, 15 October). Sartre répond, La Quinzaine Littéraire, p. 4.