Michel Foucault, Consciousness, and the Being of Language.
It is a dilemma, interestingly enough, that was already identified more than a hundred years ago. The Irish physicist John Tyndall was able to observe already in 1874 that "we can trace the development of a nervous system, and correlate with it the parallel phenomena of sensation and thought. We see with undoubting certainty that they go hand in hand. But we try to soar in a vacuum the moment we seek to comprehend the connection between them. An Archimedean fulcrum is here required which the human mind cannot command" (Guzeldere 3). Thus, while scientific study keeps progressing in its investigations of the physical manifestations of mind or of consciousness, they are still pretty much in the position in which the British biologist T. H. Huxley found himself in 1866, when he was forced to concede: "But what consciousness is, we know not; and how it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp in the story, or as any other ultimate fact of nature" (Guzeldere 47).
Today, we can note that the project to define consciousness has become the other, related obsession of the Decade of the Brain and has produced a veritable explosion of scientific literature. Endel Tulving, a leading authority in cognitive psychology, notes that data bank entries responding to the keyword "consciousness" number in the tens of thousands today, and he suggests that "the richness of the literature is largely attributable to the fact that just about anything that has something to do with the behavior of organisms and cognitive phenomena of human beings has been seen to be related to consciousness" (64). Moreover, instead of pointing to the possibility of finding a solution, this profusion of publications has only produced a greater confusion. As a consequence, the obsessive concern with defining consciousness is drawing attention to the obsession itself, and Tulving proposes that the time will come when the question of knowing "what is the problem of consciousness?" will gradually give way to ano ther, namely, "what is the matter with the people that are interested in and committed to a scientific study of consciousness?" (56). It is at this point that the dilemma confronting the scientists acquires a markedly philosophical flavor and opens itself to a hermeneutical kind of questioning. Thus, another way of approaching the difficulty in question would be to consider--not the gap, but the very perception of this gap as the most interesting problem. It is again noteworthy that such an approach was already suggested one hundred years ago by the French psychologist Theodule Ribot, who proposed in 1885 that "the difference between the physical and the mental is subjective and not objective; it does not relate to each one's nature but to our way of knowing each one" (Missa 40-41). Ribot was not only one of the founders of experimental psychology in France, he was also a philosopher of some renown and it was the philosophical bent of his mind, we may suppose, that allowed him to appreciate the hermeneutical dimension of the problem.
And in this area at least, there has been considerable progress made, especially over the last several decades of this century. Indeed, this way of calling into question the very basis of our understanding has become a marking characteristic of critical theory today. It is thinking that allows us to consider consciousness, not so much as an object of investigation, but as a subject: that is, as something placed in the ambiguous position of a function that is both defining and defined, both productive and subjected. The concern with defining consciousness can thus be seen as an integral part of the framework determining the terms in which the problem is posed. And we may suppose that the reason why we are so concerned about understanding and defining consciousness is that a shift has occurred in the epistemological configuration overseeing our thinking about such matters, a slippage that has had the effect of making problematic something we had been taking for granted. Putting it in Foucaultian terms, we might say that the Cartesian/ Kantian paradigm that situated a subjective awareness at the origin of thinking is losing its grip at the level of the episteme marking our own time.
At the same time, the persistence of this paradigm is a noteworthy characteristic of the debates revolving around the whole issue consciousness. This approach was succinctly expressed, again, one hundred years ago, by the British biologist T. H. Huxley: "I hold, with the Materialist, declared Huxley, that the human body, like all living bodies, is a machine, all operations of which, sooner or later, [are to] be explained on physical principles. I believe that we shall, sooner or later, arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat" (Guzeldere 48). More recently, in an article entitled "Will the Mind Become the Brain in the 21st Century?" neuroscientist Richard Thompson confidently answered in the affirmative, arguing that, "as we learn more about brain processes, the links between patterns of brain activity and behavioral reports will grow even closer, to the point where there is no longer any need to postulate intervening variables such as 'mi nd' and 'awareness'" (48).
The Cartesian Legacy
This confident promise of a future when present-day dilemmas will be clarified, when such obscure notions as "awareness" and "mind" will disappear, when scientific knowledge will adhere exactly to the object of its inquiry, when "consciousness" will simply become a "brain" to be measured, observed, enhanced, duplicated, improved upon even, is a dream as old as our modern age. It is the hope of achieving the victory of reason over nature promised by Descartes; it is the desire to see technology triumphant that has guided the socio-economic development of the West since the onset of the industrial revolution. But it is also an aspiration that has been undermined from the first by a peculiar form of blindness. Specifically, while certain notions can indeed be considered "intervening variables" tending to complicate matters needlessly, there is one such "intervening variable" whose elision comes at a considerable cost. As Pierre Ouellet notes, "There is no worse blindness than the one manifested by those who see everything they are told in the supposedly transparent mirror of scientific discourse but who fail to see the dark tain of ordinary language that allows them to see at all" (410). Of course, it is a blindness that has been duly noted, and the evolution of the self-assertive and self-sufficient scientific reason has been shadowed by a parallel, critical discourse whose effect has been to bring out the constitutive role of language in human affairs.
The subterfuge that consists in ignoring the role of language in the constitution of what we know about ourselves is a tradition that is thoroughly ingrained in our culture and is traceable, as we well know, to the authority of the Cartesian Cogito. The Belgian philosopher Michel Meyer has been particularly adept at exposing the tautological pattern of Descartes's basic thesis. What Meyer demonstrates is that the Cartesian procedure consists first and foremost in denying the reality of language because it claims to avoid all rhetorical procedures: "The reason for such a rejection of rhetorics is easy to understand," explains Meyer: "it is due to the will to set up apodicticity as the norm for rational thought" (23). The problem, obviously, is that the move to propose the principle of self-evidence as the basis for cogitation is nothing more than that--it is a claim sustained only by the forcefulness of its self-promotion. As Meyer points out, "the problem is that this will is not itself apodictic: it incarnat es an ideal, a requirement which is made [into] the very essence of rationality, as embodied in the sciences in general, and in mathematics in particular" (23). The procedure implicit in the Cogito is fundamentally circular therefore, because what the argument sets out to prove is already posited at the outset. Thus, as Meyer shows, doubt "is not the real point of departure of the Cartesian enterprise, but rather its accessory, since this enterprise begins only with the necessity of the Cogito" (24). In other words, "the fundamental reason for doubting is Reason itself." Consequently, the demonstration attempted by Descartes is without foundation and must be seen in terms of a "rhetorical reality which closes the propositional order upon itself by ensuring that, no matter what question is asked (including about the Cogito itself), one will return to the Cogito, unshakable in its self-confirmation and its substantial self-sufficiency" (44). Descartes succeeds thus in putting in place the subject "as principle of anthropological nature" to which modern thought will forever be anchored. It is a principle, moreover, that will act as a device for establishing orthodoxy in matters of cogitation, and "the paradox of all subsequent philosophy inspired by Descartes," notes Meyer, "consists of making consciousness play the role of a rhetorical deadbolt meant to impede all rhetoric" (47). Since the time of Descartes then, concludes Meyer, consciousness has served as "the rhetorical agent through which all questioning is reduced in advance to answers which no longer raise problems" (48).
Nietzsche was first to effectively disclose the rhetorical expedient founding the truth of the Cogito. Specifically, as Nietzsche has shown, it was Descartes's blind faith in grammar that prevented him from paying sufficient attention to language and from seeing that reason itself was simply one of its categories. Accordingly, Descartes's famous assertion simply demonstrated a belief in logic--in the connecting power of the ergo--and revealed a lack of concern for the other two terms because, Nietzsche explained,
One would have to know what 'being' is in order to get the sum from the cogito; one would also have to know what 'knowing' is. . . . Is 'certainty' possible in knowledge? Isn't immediate certainty perhaps a contradictio in adjecto? What is knowing in relation to being? For whoever brings to all these points a ready-made belief, Cartesian prudence no longer has meaning; it comes too late (Kofman 178).
Wittgenstein was to take up this line of thought in the twentieth century and recommended that we "step back from our concern with the construction of theoretical accounts of the nature of consciousness, or of the relation between consciousness and the brain, and examine the steps by which we are led to approach the problem of understanding the nature of psychological processes in the way that we do" (McGinn 113).
Michel Foucault and the Deconstruction of the Subject
Michel Foucault's announcement of the death of man stands out as the most recent try in a distinguished tradition of attempts at demolishing the Cartesian edifice. It was in 1966 that Foucault gained overnight fame by proposing that we get rid of a certain notion of "man" altogether because, he asserted, "it is no longer possible to think in our day other than in the void left by man's disappearance" (Order of Things 353). It is important to note, however, that the notorious announcement of the death of "man" is not to be equated with the "death of the subject," as has occasionally been done. When Foucault calls for the disappearance of "man," it is in an attempt to be rid once and for all of a theme that has operated as an unquestioned organizing principle for thought and has served to predetermine the meaning of the world and of human existence in this world. "Man" stands for a tactic that has served to legitimize a certain notion of human consciousness in the West. Once this consciousness is made into the "originating subject of all becoming and all practice," Foucault argues, meaning is foreordained, continuity is assured, all explanations are validated in terms of an evidence that is forever self-referential.
In order to escape the tautological pattern of this kind of thought, it is essential to understand, Foucault tells us, that the subject is "not a substance; it is a form and this form is not above all or always identical to itself. You do not have towards yourself the same kind of relationship"--he goes on to explain--"when you constitute yourself as a political subject who goes and votes or speaks up in a meeting, and when you try to fulfill your desires in a sexual relationship" ("Ethic of Care for the Self" 121). This ability to think thought differently is also the signal characteristic of our age, proposes Foucault. Accordingly, thought is no longer perceived as originating in an individual consciousness but as possessing an autonomous mode of existence. Thought, explains Foucault, is "something that is often hidden, but which always animates everyday behavior" ("Practicing Criticism" 155). In a reversal that is a frequent characteristic of his thinking, Foucault presents thought not as something created or produced by individual subjects but as something that creates and constitutes the subjects themselves. As David Couzens Hoy points out, Foucault's approach is predicated on the belief "that subjective experience is socially and historically constituted by facotrs that individuals learn to internalize without being consciously forced to do so" (27). What becomes important, from such a perspective, is to understand how subjects constitute themselves, "through a certain number of practices which [are] games of truth, applications of power, etc." Similarly, the role of language is also to be rethought since, in terms of a Foucaultian approach, "a human being is configured as a subject, is given cultural significance, in the first instance through language" (Poster 79). Thus, rather than elide the question of language, such an approach will aim to disclose its constitutive powers. Foucault's theories, in this sense, obviously manifest a distinguished philosophical pedigree. As David Wood reminds us: "If there is one thing Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida have each taught us it is that the traditional epistemologically centred demarcation of the subject's relation to the world, in which knowledge (especially perceptual) provides the guiding thread, is fatally undercut by the linguistic character of our being" (xviii).
Once we accept to see the subject as something constituted by thought rather than an initiator of thinking and linguistic processes, it becomes evident that the subject cannot account for its own being because knowledge of the self is undermined by an incontrovertible paradox. The modern subject is, as Foucault points out, an "empirico-transcendental doublet" and "man," as the subject of modern humanistic discourse, is both the source of empirical data as well as the transcendental guarantee for the truth of the data. As a consequence, the subject is marked by a split that makes it impossible to determine the being and boundaries of consciousness--or at least, that makes it impossible to determine a consciousness that identifies with a "self," "since the self that we make appear to ourselves as an object of knowledge will never be identical to the self that is constructing that object" (Hoy 16). The task of understanding the self has to be modified accordingly and Foucault's critique, in this regard, can be construed as a project meant to valorize precisely what escapes conscious, rational, and self-legitimating thought. It is a project based on the understanding that "our most basic assumptions (for example, nature of knowledge, about the relation between language and the world, about the division between madness and reason) always constitute a layer which is, if you like, structurally invisible, and which we cannot make explicit at the time" (Wood 17).
The Unconscious Order of Thought
For Foucault, the clearest and most striking evocation of the Other of human consciousness is to be found in the creative work of certain writers. The fictional creations of certain authors, Foucault notes, possess a special privilege and demonstrate that "the fictitious is never in things or in people, but in the impossible verisimilitude of what lies between them: encounters, the proximity of what is most distant, the absolute dissimulation in our very midst" ("Thought from Outside" 23). The "impossible verisimilitude" that is the mark of a certain kind of literature is also what helps bring out the paradoxical capacity of language to represent the illusion of a presence: "Therefore fiction consists not in showing the invisible, but in showing the extent to which the invisibility of the visible is invisible" ("Thought from Outside" 24). Of course, such talk of "the invisibility of the visible" may appear somewhat disconcerting at first glance. Foucault's expression does more than indulge in a simple love o f paradox, however, and points to a theme that was a constant in his work. It is the awareness of the effect everything we don't see or perceive consciously has on our thought. Thus, in The Order of Things, Foucault identified the area determining our most basic assumptions as an intermediary zone--a middle region that he posited as
the most fundamental of all: anterior to words, perception, and gestures, which are then taken to be more or less exact, more or less happy expressions of it... more solid, more archaic, less dubious, always more 'true' than the theories that attempt to give those expressions explicit form, exhaustive application, or philosophical foundation. Thus, in every culture, between the use of what one might call the ordering codes and reflections upon order itself, there is the pure experience of order itself, there is the experience of order and its modes of being (xxi).
While the pure experience of order is not accessible in a direct manner, it does reveal itself in narrative as that which gives shape to thought. What orders thought, in a visual sense, is the lighting that illuminates the world in a particular way. Foucault's hypothesis, as Rajchman suggests, is that "there exists a sort of 'positive unconscious' that determines not what is seen, but what can be seen." It is, as Foucault explains in The Archaeology of Knowledge, something "invisible, but not hidden." As Rajchman shows, "[T]he visibility of a period may be invisible to it, but not as something hidden or kept from sight. What is invisible is just the light which illuminates things or makes them visible" (93).
It is a paradox Foucault finds illustrated by the work of one of his favorite authors--Maurice Blanchot. What allows Blanchot to evoke the overwhelming presence of an outside that determines what we think while remaining inaccessible to thought are three themes that are central to his work: they are the rule of law, the gaze of Orpheus, and the voice of the Sirens heard by Ulysses. Thus, "In fact, the presence of the law is its concealment," explains Foucault in an essay devoted to Blanchot and entitled "La pensee du dehors" or "The Thought from Outside": "Sovereignly, the law haunts cities, institutions, conduct, and gestures" (33). It is the outside of our existence, the void surrounding our every act, an unknown, unknowable yet ever-present law to which we are always/already subject: "The law averts its face and returns to the shadows the instant one looks at it; when one tries to hear its words, what one catches is a song that is no more than the fatal promise of a future song" (41). It is the law of exi stence made explicit by the experiences of Orpheus and Ulysses.
What informs the experience of the two mythical heroes is a desire that ignores the law overseeing its fulfillment, a desire that is blind to their condition as mortals. For Blanchot, the experience of the world we live in precedes the knowledge we elaborate on this world. Experience takes place in terms of a time and dimension that are not those of cognitive perception. It is this experience that writing seeks to capture. Narrative, in this sense, becomes an expression of a desire to bring the experience of life to the fore. The writer is like Orpheus, attempting to bring to the light of day--or of consciousness--the ever-present object of desire. But the attempt is doomed to fail because the primordial experience of the real will always vanish at the point where consciousness is about to grasp it. The uniqueness of an individual's experience cannot be captured in language, because language transposes it to the level of universals. It is not possible to put into words the singularity of experience because o f the law that oversees the relation of words and things: "It is only by suppressing the thing in its singularity that the word can reaffirm it at the universal level of concept," points out Schulte Nordholt, suggesting that Blanchot's aesthetics are thoroughly imbued with a Hegelian dialectic, in this regard (34). The thing that is the object of desire must be denied in its essence before it is brought to life on the level of narrative. The gaze of Orpheus is therefore murderous in its forgetfulness, the enraptured attention of Ulysses does not let him understand that the promise of the Sirens' song is empty since "what it promises the hero is nothing other than a duplicate of what he has lived through, known, and suffered, precisely what he himself is" (Foucault, "Maurice Blanchot" 42). But the experience is also and ultimately liberating since what it sets free is the voice of the heroes, the power of their narrative: "Ulysses' with his salvation and the possibility of telling the tale of his marvelous adv enture; Orpheus', with his absolute loss and never-ending lament," Foucault tells us (43). But narrative is liberated at a cost--it is freed when the ties linking speech to the subject are severed. Only then can the reality of language be revealed through the realization that "the being of language is the visible effacement of the one who speaks" (54). Thus it is free to unroll once it is rid of the object of its desire, once it passes beyond death itself. It is then that language makes appear what had been impossible to realize from the start--the face of Euridice, the yearning of Ulysses.
At the same time, Foucault tells us, language also finds itself freed from the illusions of a consciousness that thought itself supreme:
Language is then freed from all of the old myths by which our awareness of words, discourse, and literature has been shaped. For a long time it was thought that language had mastery over time, that it acted both as the future bond of the promise and as memory and narrative; it was thought to be prophecy and history; it was also thought that in its sovereignty it could bring to light the eternal and visible body of truth; it was thought that its essence resided in the form of words or in the breath that made them vibrate. In fact, it is only a formless rumbling [rustling], a streaming; its power resides in its dissimulation. That is why it is one with the erosion of time; it is depthless forgetting and the transparent emptiness of waiting (55).
Consequently, we are made to understand that "language is neither truth nor time, neither eternity nor man; it is the always undone form of the outside" (57). Seen as an outside, language has no meaning--it simply is.
The consciousness of being is therefore informed by a fundamental lack--a void due to the impossibility of putting being into words. It is in response to and around this void that narrative is deployed. Writing becomes an interminable, incessant obligation and the writer gives up using "I" because, as Blanchot explains, "the writer belongs to a language that no one speaks, that is addressed to no one, that has no center, that reveals nothing." This narrative, as it is exemplified by Blanchot's writing, is a hybrid genre in which "one finds the elements of literature, philosophy, historical engagement, testimony, and, it seems, autobiography" (De Vries 54). As Levinas points out, "Blanchot thus determines writing as a quasi-mad structure, in the general economy of being by which being is no longer an economy, as it no longer possesses when approached through writing any abode--no longer has any interiority. It is literary space, that is to say, absolute exteriority--exteriority of the absolute exile" (17). It is in this manner that Blanchot achieves the effect appreciated by Foucault, the reversal through which the being of language becomes "the visible effacement of the one who speaks." The effacement is not achieved literally, but through literature in Blanchot's writing since it constantly speaks of the writer's death. It is death that represents the Other at its most evident for the being of consciousness, but it is also that which gives it meaning, since "beings acquire significance at the cost of losing it" (Smock 110). As Klossowski also has noted, "[I]f death did not put an end to beings, if all things were to exist forever, there would no longer be language, thus no longer any kind of meaning" (162). Or, as Thomas l'Obscur, the central character of one of Blanchot's novels puts it, "I think, therefore I am not."
This reversal of the Cartesian truism is symptomatic of our age, it seems. It serves to indicate that the plenitude of a subjective consciousness authorized to impose meaning is being replaced by a consciousness in search of meaning--especially its own. It is a mode of thought that manifests itself in a new form of literature, in a decentered narrative that seeks to disclose the structure of an outside that both forms and informs consciousness. Foucault found this capacity for evoking the otherness of thought to be a signal characteristic of Blanchot's writing. Not surprisingly, Blanchot expressed his admiration for Foucault on similar grounds. "Foucault," he wrote not long after the philosopher had died,
is a man always on the move, alone, secretive, and who, because of that, distrusts the marvels of interiority, refuses the traps of subjectivity, asking where and how there emerges a discourse entirely surface and shimmering, but bereft of mirages--a discourse not alien to the search for truth, as was believed, but one that finally reveals the perils of that search and its ambiguous relations with the myriad configurations of power (68).
Consciousness and the Reign of Error
What a Foucaultian perspective reveals, in regard to consciousness, is indeed the perils of the quest for its truth. It is the search itself that becomes problematic, as we saw earlier, since it results in highlighting the contradictory nature of its premises. Thus, for Foucault, the paradoxical aspect of these premises has marked the history of psychology from its beginnings. It is a discipline, he argues, that was beset from the start by a nagging contradiction between two postulates it had inherited from the Enlightenment: it assumed that "the truth of man is exhausted by his natural being; and that scientific knowledge can only be achieved by way of a determination of quantitative relations, the construction of hypotheses, and experimental verification" ("La psychologie" 120). Inevitably, the discipline was faced with the necessity to recognize "in human reality, something other than a sector of natural objectivity." The story of psychology is thus a classical case of a scientific discipline that owes it s foundation to error. First, on a theoretical level, the postulates that presided over its creation turned out to be erroneous, in the sense that they were irreconcilable. Second, on the level of practice, psychology "is born at the point where practice meets its own contradiction; developmental psychology was born as a reflection on arrested development; adaptational psychology-as an analysis of phenomena of unadaptation; the psychology of memory, of consciousness, of emotion, first made its appearance as a psychology of memory-loss, of the unconscious, and of affective perturbations" ("La psychologie" 121-22).
In developing this line of thinking, Foucault is clearly following in the footsteps of his mentor, the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem. The originality of Canguilhem's thought, for Foucault, resides in the paradoxical evidence that "this historian of rationalities, himself so 'rational,' is a philosopher of error" ("La vie" 775). Underlying Canguilhem's philosophy is the recognition that "error is at the root of what constitutes human thought and its history." The life and history of humans revolve around and in response to a condition that is marked fundamentally by chance, unpredictability, and error. As a consequence, conceptual schemes and rationalizations can be seen as ways of coping with error, as strategies meant to compensate for the reality of chance at the heart of human affairs:
The opposition of true and false, the values we attribute to both, the effects of power that different societies and different institutions link to this division--all this is perhaps only the latest response to this possibility of error, which is intrinsic to life. If the history of science is discontinuous, that is, if it can be analyzed only as a series of "corrections," as a new distribution of true and false which never finally, once and for all liberates the final moment of truth, it is because there too, "error" constitutes not the forgetting or the delaying of the promised accomplishment, but the dimension proper to the life of humans and indispensable to the time of the species (775).
The awareness of this aspect of human existence brings about two important consequences. If we recognize, first, that knowledge is more likely to be "rooted in the 'errors' of life" than to provide an opening to "the truth of the world," then we become aware of the need to completely reformulate the whole theory of the subject (776). Second, this recognition also produces a different understanding of the relationship between error and truth: "Error is not eliminated by the muffled force of a truth that would emerge, bit by bit, from the shadows, but by the formation of a new way of 'speaking true' [dire vrai]" (770).
Admittedly, it could also be argued that Foucault credits his former teacher with having played a role that the latter would not perhaps recognize. After all, Canguilhem explicitly admits to being indifferent to "the development of a history that would substitute for the distinction between science and philosophy (or, in other words, between science and literature) a notion of their mutual interpenetration" (x). It is an indifference for which he has been criticized most notably by Bruno Latour, who places Canguilhem among those intellectuals who grant science a transcendental status by conflating it with Nature. As a result, these thinkers end up applying two different standards to the object of their investigations: "Epistemologists and sociologists of knowledge explained truth through its congruence with natural reality, and falsehood through the constraint of social categories, epistemes or interests'(94). This strategy makes them guilty of promoting a duplicitous strategy that is fundamental to the culture of modernity. According to Latour, what accounts for modernity's success is the tactic of "purification" that maintains Nature and Society as two separate and self-validating conceptual entities. At the same time, the process of purification is made possible by a mediating process that manifests itself through the proliferation of "quasi-objects" or hybrids belonging simultaneously to the realms of nature, society, and discourse. For mediation to work successfully, however, it has to remain hidden. This occlusion is a fundamental tenet of the unwritten modern Constitution, which requires that the mediating function of the hybrids remain "invisible, unthinkable, unrepresentable" (34). It is this duplicity that accounts for the durability of modernity's reign. "By separating the relations of political power from the relations of scientific reasoning while continuing to shore up power with reason and reason with power, the moderns have always had two irons in the fire. They have become invincible," Latour te lls us (38).
Actually, it turns out that they are not so invincible after all, since their scheme has never quite succeeded and has now become quite transparent. This, of course, is the very point Latour makes when he argues that, in reality, we have never been modern. In spite of the Constitution, it simply was not possible not to notice a work of mediation that was becoming ever more important. Thus finally, and inevitably, "the proliferation of quasi-objects has exploded modern temporality along with its Constitution" (73). Indeed, this area of mediation has become all important, thus bringing about a complete reversal in modernity's scheme of things. Nature and Society are no longer the starting point of all explanations but their goal. We start, notes Latour, from the middle, "from the vinculum itself, from passages and relations,...from this relation that is at once collective, real and discursive" (129). As a consequence, "The explanation we seek will indeed obtain Nature and Society, but only as a final outcome, not as a beginning. Nature does revolve, but not around the Subject/Society. It revolves around the collective that produces things and people. The Subject does revolve, but not around Nature. It revolves around the collective out of which people and things are generated" (79). What used to be essences are turned into events whose meaning is to be sought in a history of our present concerns. Along with this modification, comes the possibility for breaking out of the pattern modernity had imposed on our thought: "If there are more of us who regain the capacity to do our own sorting of the elements that belong to our time, we will rediscover the freedom of movement that modernism denied us--a freedom that, in fact, we have never really lost" (76).
Latour's purpose, in this regard, is not really much different from Foucault's. The point, after all, as Latour puts it, is to "understand why some win and others lose" and to avoid weighing "the winners with one scale and the losers with another" (93-94). For Foucault, it was essential to uncover the mechanisms of truth making that allowed to account for deviation from the norm and to discriminate between winners and losers. Implicit in Foucault's desire to investigate systems of discursive and non-discursive practices that support regimes of truth was the understanding that whatever passes for scientific truth at any given moment is but the mark of a provisional state of affairs.
The Legacy of the Enlightenment
Paradoxically, the notion of error is thus given a positive role to play: the recognition of the tenuous nature of truth is what opens up the possibility of thinking the subject's freedom. In other words, once we become aware that what we are and what we think are aspects of our thought and being that are not dependent on a pre-ordained order of things; that events, actions, and thoughts are subject to contingency and chance and not to law--either divine or man-made--we also become aware of the freedom and possibilities inherent in the present moment. Foucault credited Kant for being the first philosopher to recognize the importance of a critical mode of self-reflexivity necessary for bringing out the provisional status of conceptual systems. It is in this sense that Kant's famous "Sapere Aude!" (dare to think for yourself) becomes an ethical injunction to assert one's freedom through the exercise of one's critical faculties. It is also to this extent, Foucault thought, that we are indebted to the Enlightenment. Its legacy still serves to valorize "the principle of a critique and a permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy: that is, a principle that is at the heart of the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of itself" ("What Is Enlightenment?" 44). The application of this principle, Foucault tells us, is also what will also free us from what he calls "the blackmail of the Enlightenment," which he perceives as an unwritten moral obligation to be either for or against the Enlightenment. It is a compulsion that is created by a constant "historical and moral confusionism that mixes the theme of humanism with the question of the Enlightenment" (45). As it frees itself from this confusion, critique becomes archaeological in its method,
in the sense that it will not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or of all possible moral action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events. And this critique will be genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think (46).
The important lesson of the Enlightenment for Foucault is then an awareness that freedom is possible, that it is a potential always present in what we do and think, a chance to be sought out and taken whenever it presents itself. There is no causality inherent either in our existence or in history, no plan or foreordained truth to guide it. This does not mean that anything goes, however, or that humans can do or think anything they like. The elaboration of a critical perspective requires vigilance and discipline--if we are to effectively free ourselves from a number of illusions and delusions due, precisely, to the inability to see that a certain legacy of the Enlightenment has made us prone to error. Thus, for example, the two themes of progress and freedom have proven to be contradictory. The growth of technological capability has resulted in an increased capacity for control and domination in such areas as economic production, social regulation, and communication. The pressing question for our time has therefore become, "how can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations?" (48).
The investigation of the present-day constitution of power relations involves cognitive, ethical, and political considerations, because it aims to disclose the effect discourses and practices have on the formation of our consciousness of our selves. Consequently, the question to be raised is threefold, suggests Foucault: "How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?" ("What Is Enlightenment?" 49) Whatever it is that validates our knowledge, our politics, and our ethics is to be viewed in terms of limitations inherent in our ways of thinking. These are limits to be disclosed, defined, and eventually overcome and reconfigured.
At the same time, such striving is always to be seen as tentative, experimental, and itself prone to erring. As Kant himself was aware, any critical standpoint is to be taken as a position within a cultural, epistemological, and political context informing it. The critic's task will therefore consist "in showing how and in what way the one speaking as a thinker, as a scientist, as a philosopher is himself a part of this process and (even more) how he has a certain role to play in this process, in which he will therefore figure as both an element and an actor" ("Qu'est-ce que les Lumieres?" 680). What appears to Foucault as the most important part of the Enlightenment's legacy is thus an attitude that translates into a will to resist what makes us into who we are and to seek new forms of subjectivity. It means rejecting the comfort and security of self-promoting and self-legitimating stratagems, it means promoting a "morality of uncomfortableness," as the title of one of his book reviews suggests. It is a rev iew of L'ere des ruptures by Jean Daniel, the editor of Le Nouvel Observateur. What motivates Daniel, Foucault finds, is precisely the attitude Kant identifies in his essay on the Enlightenment: it is "the desire to find out what is hidden under this precise, floating, mysterious, absolutely simple word: 'Today'" ("Pour une morale de l'inconfort" 783). Indeed, the very foundation of the journal was already an expression of such an attitude, of a desire to clarify the prevalent consciousness of the day. As it "narrates how the work and the struggle to clarify an indistinct consciousness ended up by unraveling the evidence that had given it birth," Daniel's book succeeded in disclosing this very coming to awareness that marked its time. First to unravel were the grand historical referents--capitalism, the bourgeoisie, imperialissm, socialism, the proletaria--as well as any attempts at maintaining the "heroism of political identity." The evidence of what once was certain dissipated in the light of experience, th e arbitrariness of set convictions appearing only long after their certainty had evaporated. On the other hand, what had been invisible became suddenly visible, as all the truths that had been taken to be self-evident were shown to rely on supports belying their self-evidence. What became clear, as a result, was that "each certitude can only remain secure by virtue of a supporting ground that remains unexplored" (787). Accordingly, the present-day attempt to capture the meaning of consciousness can be seen as a function of the awareness the disciplines that carry out the attempt have developed of themselves: it is a campaign to dominate contradictions, to erase lacunae, to dispel error--to bring Euridice to light and to hear the voices of the Sirens. It is a quest for meaning that has to remain forever unfulfilled, if it wishes to remain faithful to its desire.
Karlis Racevskis is Professor of French at The Ohio State University. He is the author of Michel Foucault and the Subversion of Intellect (Cornell, 1983), Postmodernism and the Search for Enlightenment (Virginia, 1993), Modernity's Pretenses: Making Reality Fit Reason from Candide to the Gulag (SUNY Press, 1998), and has edited Critical Essays on Michel Foucault (G. K. Hall, 1999).
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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