Sunday, February 22, 2015

Michel Foucault and Postmodernism

“The 'Enlightenment', which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines.”

We can’t leave our journey through the Enlightenment without discussing Post Modernism, and, in particular, Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984). He was a French philosopher and historian who, along with Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and the Frankfurt School, called into question the fundamental assumption of the Enlightenment – that reason produces objective knowledge and benefits mankind.

Like Derrida, Foucault took the linguistic theories of Ferdinand Saussure as his starting point. Saussure thought of language as a network of sign/signified (word/object) pairs, and argued that the signs derive much of their meaning not from the things they are supposed to signify, but from their relationship to other signs. Following Derrida, Foucault argued that signs do not actually reference the things they are supposed to signify, but rather other signs. Language is a self-referential labyrinth which always distorts our ability to see the world as it really is, or to communicate what we have seen to others.

However, the sign/signified dichotomy does have its legitimate domain – that of power. Relationships between ideas reflect relationships between those who have power, those who want it, and those who are subject to it. From this it follows that the domain of thought available to us, (the Structure of Discourse), is defined by the distribution of power, and that every argument, no matter how abstract or benign, is in fact a conspiracy to seize, retain, or deploy power. The ideas you buy into determine who controls you, and who you try to control. Big narratives about morality and reaspm are invariably engines of repression for someone. Knowledge is indeed power, as Bacon said. But, Foucault insisted, power is also knowledge.

Extending this inversion of Bacon’s motto to the Enlightenment, other Postmodernists pointed out that the 18th century was not just the age of reason – it was also the age of empire. At the same time Voltaire and Gibbon were proclaiming the triumph of reason, Europeans were overrunning the planet. In the United States, Latin America, India, Australia, Indochina, the Middle East, and later in Africa, their armies mercilessly subdued every foreign people they encountered. The noblest motives were always proclaimed – distributing the benefits of science, literacy, and Christianity, ending horrific practices like Suttee, the exposure of the old, and infanticide, and in general civilizing barbarous peoples. But beneath these altruistic declarations lurked the sinister lust to dominate, control, and subdue everything foreign. The practical result of the Enlightenment was the dispossession, enslavement, and extermination of non-Europeans. Not coincidentally, postmodernism – the crisis of faith in the Enlightenment – roughly corresponds to Europe’s retreat from empire in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Foucault also criticized the effect of the Enlightenment in Europe. Punishments might have been harsh in premodern times, but laws were simple, and police were few and far between. Post-enlightenment societies, by contrast, deploy an army of police and spies in order to keep everyone constantly under surveillance. There are so many laws, and so complex, that no one can ever be quite certain they are obeying them. People can never know for certain but that they are being watched – they learn to watch themselves, and become, in effect, their own policemen. When people are caught, they are tried in public, but they are punished in secret. A prison is the ultimate symbol of the Enlightenment – a terrifying and unlimited despotism of the state over the individual. The Bourbon Monarchy, whatever its faults, would have never dreamed of such sustained, methodical brutality. For the Enlightenment, by contrast, nothing could be more natural. It can never leave people alone - it must control, dominate, and break them, all the while insisting that they are free. Other critics would later insist that the Holocaust was not an aberration from the Enlightenment, but instead the logical and necessary fulfillment.

Must we then reject the Enlightenment? No – we are its products, and we do not want to reject the real benefits it produced. But we do need to control modernity, instead of being controlled by it. The same reason that enslaves us can also liberate us, but only if we are willing to think. “The strategic adversary,” he said, “is fascism. The fascism in us all… that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Foucault was an outsider to the society he criticized – alienated, tortured, a homosexual, and sometimes a patient (or, as he thought, a victim) of the mental health system. He was determined to unmask the hidden hypocrisies which, as he saw it, facilitate the oppression of mankind. He was also one of the most brilliant and influential philosophers of the 20th century, and an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. Postmodernism remains controversial. For its critics, it is a retreat into intellectual barbarism which rots the foundations of civilization from within. For its defenders, it is both objectively descriptive and an engine of liberation.

Foucault’s Essay: “What is Enlightenment?”…/what-is-enlightenment.html
The Panopticon: Foucault’s metaphor for the Enlightenment.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Foucault

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (XVI of XVII)

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