Truth, critique and writing: Foucault, every-day

The mysterious sequence of these seemingly unconnected words made up the title of my presentation for this year’s Critical Legal Conference. It took me a good few days after the conference, however, to fully grasp what I might have had in mind when I decided to assemble these random words into something. To understand what that something was, after all that time spent in a tedious process of making sense, or more precisely, after all that effort invested into concocting a certain logic that would connect these words so that they can re-emerge as something presentable, something else, something from the outside had to intervene. This was a very unusual spectacle, that of arms stretched and legs lifted in the middle of a street in Aberystwyth, a bunch of ‘gliders’ manoeuvring themselves into a special gliding formation. Our playful tribute to Oren Ben-Dor’s Heideggerian concept of ‘gliding’, a play of form and a play on content created a beautiful heterotopia: a mirror-image of ‘us’, scholars, scholars-to-be, students, students of words, things, life, students of something, as we are enacting the reality of an ‘unreal space’ of ease and fun within the ‘scientific’ world of ‘knowledge’, ‘objectivity’ and detachment. And “due to the mirror”, as Foucault writes, “I discover myself absent at the place where I am, since I see myself over there. From that gaze which settles on me, as it were, I come back to myself and I begin once more to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute there myself there where I am.”[1] As such, while extending my own arms and balancing my legs, I came to see myself absent as a ‘glider’ in my academic everyday life.

My project started as an attempt to rethink what we do when we act as scholars, the everyday, banal, usually unreflected practices of academic life such as thinking, writing, speaking, as well as the strange relationship of such a life to the life it writes, speaks and thinks. I was bothered by the queer disconnection between the sunny, sometimes gloomy days in the academic ivory tower and the so-called ‘out-there’ of ‘realities’ and ‘social phenomena’ that we ‘find’ in ‘society’. However, it was not only the impersonal distance separating the subject, object and observer that made me wonder about ‘the order of things and words’ in human sciences. It was also the distance from myself, the distance within re-enacting the distance without, in the person, in me, separating me in life from a scientific self in a passage from ‘I am’ to ‘I am something’, where ‘I’ also becomes ‘something’, something to be avoided and hidden, the inappropriate surplus of the self that gets in the way of scientific objectivity.

As Agamben reminds us, every apparatus captures “a more or less unconfessed desire for happiness” and in the case of scientific knowledge production, just like in other contemporary forms of government, the burden of the person as such, in its totality, has to be controlled for and mediated in the course of producing statements that are recognizably scientific.[2] The promise of scientific detachment, the momentary freedom from myself through becoming my own scientific other, however, made me feel unfree more than ever before. On the good days, the happiness of the otherwise unhappy apparatus provided me with a sense of security, that of the belonging to a particular epistemic community, the comfort of knowing how to know, how to fit the norms of a particular disciplinary regime and colonize the analytic functions of the brain to produce answers, certainties, explanations, familiar old worlds and messianic new ones. Still, the ‘am’ of the ‘I’ and its painful absence from the words spoken, texts written and thoughts thought constantly called for its de-objectification: ‘I’ is no-thing. After all, as many have observed before me, the ‘omniscient social scientific prose’[3] is built upon a ‘precarious fiction’, the “simultaneous absence and presence of the writer within the writing”, which cannot but reveal that “the scientist only pretends to be absent”.[4] In the language of Barthes, the zero degree writing of science is nothing more than a “style desirous of the absence of style” that inescapably exposes a “desire to suppress desire”, and in that, the life in the lifelessness produced by the ‘disciplinary life’ of science.[5] As Roxanne Lynn Doty writes, “our ideas, curiosities, intellectual wanderings, and ethical concerns are twisted and contorted to fit our professional voices and all the while the soul of our writing becomes eviscerated, our passions sucked into a sanitized vortex that squeezes the life out of the things we write about.”[6] And even more so, life is also squeezed out of what we write out of our texts: that is, ourselves.

However, the excess, surplus or beyond of the academic genres of writing, speaking and thinking is undeniably there, in the unhappiness of its denial and the insistent is-ness of the ‘am’ by the backgrounded ‘I’. What the undisciplinarity of gliding exposed and let free was the possibility of expression that is no longer founded in knowledge as knowledge offers itself to be known: neither as a form of truth-writing, nor the knowledge of writing-truth in a particular style that “becomes absorbed into the fabric of our beings” as we practice it so much, as we practice it every day.[7] Expression that affirms the weight of the person and the freedom of being ‘me’ and being other(s), without any imposed distance, hierarchy or economy between the two (three, or the multiple). The mirror image of us, gliders, enacts a space where truth-writing and critique, speaking and thinking, everyday acts of scientific life, can be different and in fact, they have already become different. Gliding opens a space of experience where the experience of space emerges as the juxtaposition of incompatible emplacements, that of scientific knowledge and the spontaneity of play that suspends and reverses the usual relations of authority between what there is and what can be known, both as “a mythical and real contestation of the space in which we live”.[8]

Foucault’s oeuvre can also be thought of as a sequence of gliding moves, a series of attempts to heterotopize the everyday through the eventualization of what is no longer questioned: the purpose of critique is “to make harder those acts which are now too easy” by uncovering that ‘little thought’ occurring “in even in the most stupid institutions” or “even in silent habits” and to try to change it.[9] Changing the patterns of thought that animate everyday practices entails changing our relationship to knowledge but also, our relationship to what it means to know and eventually, to thought itself. Critique is thought that turns back on itself and thinks its own space of emergence: detached from knowledge and the disciplinary regime of science it affirms itself as force and event, and with that, the beyond of such knowledge, the thought-space which embeds all emplacements within and without, and as such, it reveals itself as fundamentally heterotopic. Expression unfolding from heterotopic spaces contains an essential contestation of any form of government that establishes a relationship between the apparatus and the human being through the government of thought, including the production of subjectivities for the self-governing subject.

Foucault’s early and late scholarly expressions powerfully affirm the heterotopic character of the space of thought in which ‘self’ and ‘other’ take up reversible and interchangeable positions, simultaneously taking each other’s place, appearing and disappearing as one and multiple in a sequence of moves that let go of and resists familiar ways of knowing and thinking. The book History of Madness was written as an experience-book: as an experiment with what we know and how we know, with the aim of changing our relationship to knowledge through transforming reader and writer alike in the process of putting things into words and then, receiving words for things that are no longer the same. “I am an experimenter”, writes Foucault, “I write in order to change myself and in order not to think the same thing as before”.[10] The experience-book makes possible an experience of things being other and us being other through fictioning a mode of interiority that works within what is accepted as ‘truth’ while releasing ‘truth’ from the hold of knowledge, revealing it as ‘other’.[11] Foucault performs an archaeology of the silence of the mad in society, trying to recapture the point in history when madness was still ‘undifferentiated experience’, the “zero degree of the history of madness”, and the “still undivided experience of the division itself”, when logos and its other were still one.[12] Yet, writing about madness, which is already excluded from the logos of philosophical language, would defeat such a purpose: madness, the “lyrics glow of illness”, cannot be represented without further violence, moreover, it cannot speak and cannot be spoken for. However, as Derrida asserted, madness is still rendered present “metaphorically, through the very pathos of Foucault’s book”.[13]

The notion of ‘madness’, as Shoshana Felman shows, is “a notion which does not elucidate what it connotes, but rather, participates in it: the term madness is itself pathos, not logos; literature, not philosophy”.[14] Madness here does not function as a scientific or philosophical concept: rather, it constitutes a ‘literary overflow’, it appears as a metaphor for pathos whereas pathos is already metaphorical; it is the thing that remains after philosophy and reason have been subtracted from the text. Madness, writes Felman, may only speak at the “point of silence where it is no longer we who speak, but where, in our absence, we are spoken”.[15] And Foucault lets the ‘lyric glow’ of a certain madness shine through the pages of the text, and in this way, the book conveys an experience of the undivided existence of madness and reason, that of a life that embraces both logos and its excess. Finding madness in the fabric of the text but also, the possibility of such co-existence in ourselves, in the textures of our thought, both as readers and participants of a society which has already enacted the division between mad and sane, is what constitutes, in Foucault’s terms, a limit-experience. That is, an experience of the limits of society, the threshold between the silence and the voice of madness, and the limits of ourselves as subjects, that of being the life that is mad and sane at the same time within the constellations of an order that strives to keep it split. Through breaking the words open that silence madness, madness speaks and the being-otherwise of things opens up for experience. In this opening, writes Foucault, “the I who wrote the book and those who have read it would have a different relationship with madness, with its contemporary status, and its history in the modern world”, and even more so, the ‘I’ as other, the ‘I’ who speaks in the language of philosophy and fiction at the same time, would know that in a different way.[16]

This experience, that of ‘I’ being other, returns even more explicitly in Foucault’s last two Collège de France lecture series, where he engages with the genealogy of true discourse, the act of truth-telling or parr?sia, and the games of truth as particular forms of experience. While the experience of madness is expressed in a style of writing that lets madness speak, the speech that conveys the experience of truth-telling speaks about a certain relationship of self to self and at the same time, affirms a certain manifestation of a self-to-self relationship in the clarity of a nearly meditative tone and a certain economy of style. In The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of Truth the ‘I’ re-emerging as other is no longer the ‘I’ that encounters its being-other in the literary overflow of madness: ‘I’ exposes itself as other to itself, as a force of life that not only folds but also, it folds back on itself, on the fold that produces the subject and in this final gesture, unfolds the self. Foucault’s ‘dramatics of discourse’ no longer looks at how the status of the subject affects the meaning of the statement, but rather, how the speaking subject relates to themselves in the act-of truth telling and how the very event of such an enunciation, the practice of making a true statement affects the subject’s mode of being. In this sense truth-telling is a double affirmation of being and doing, as “the subject in parr?sia says: This is the truth. He says that he really thinks this truth, and in this he binds himself to the statement and to tits content. But he also makes a pact in saying: I am the person who has spoken this truth; I therefore bind myself to the act of stating it and take on the risk of all its consequences”.[17] Such assertion of oneness with ourselves and our acts brings a certain presence into the act of truth-telling and grounds it as a practice of (philosophical) life: from the affirmation of ‘I am’ and that of ‘I am speaking the truth’ a certain mode of being and doing unfolds that brings the long-forgotten ‘question of Being’ back to the every days of both philosophy and politics. Western metaphysics were made possible by the forgetting of the philosophical life, asserts Foucault and such neglect “has meant that it is now possible for the relation to truth to be validated and manifested in no other form than that of scientific knowledge”.[18]

Revisiting the practice of truth-telling from the point of view of experience brings our attention back to the subjective dimension of any articulation of power and knowledge and to forms of expression that bring them back to life as a relationship, as our relationships to what there is. Parr?sia is a form of expression that does not found itself in knowledge but emerges from a relationship to what it might mean to know and say, assuming the full burden of the person and at the same time, a certain freedom from any fixed categorization (or knowledge) of it. The double affirmation of the life in which truth-telling is embedded opens to a sequence of experiences of otherness: the affirmation of “I am telling truth” leads to contemplating “who is this self, this me who’s telling the truth”, to an ‘other world’. The self’s presence in “I am telling the truth” as a form of doing invokes the possibility of an ‘other life’ that constantly moves towards its true(r) manifestations. Truth, in this sense, is always other and so is the person speaking it, ungraspable for knowledge but accessible as an experience of being. As Foucault’s very last lines emphasize, “there is no establishment of the truth without an essential position of otherness; the truth is never the same; there can be truth only in the form of the other world and the other life.”[19]

Madness and truth-telling capture two distinct experiences of otherness within: the self’s mad other and the truth of the self as being always, already other. Madness has to be let speak and when it speaks, it speaks as literature; truth speaks in simple words and lets go of any attachment to any particular form or content, such as scientific knowledge or language, affirming the formlessness of a relationship of oneness, which at the same time, is never the same, it is a different experience in each and every act of truth-telling. As Agamben points out, the pure activity of governance realized by the apparatuses of our age, including “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions” are devoid of any foundation in being, in the logic of life and thus, must produce their own subjects.[20] The academic apparatus achieves this through harnessing the power of thought: thought entrapped within the grids of order objectifies the world, offering us a conceptual universe of categories, classifications and boundaries, enabling particular problems and providing solutions to them. Thought also makes us part of such a world of objects by creating different subject position for us and we occupy and enliven them through the power of our own thoughts, through the ways in which we establish relations to ourselves and the world so objectified.

Becoming subjects to the practices of government means that thought, that of others but also our own, positions us at different spaces and distances from each other and from ourselves in the contemporary ordering of the Western episteme. The logic through which we pass from the self to the subject and vice versa is the same logic that orders things and words, subjects and objects, and this is what makes Foucaultian governmentality such a compelling notion: the ‘conduct of conduct’ of a complex of men and things presupposes their self-government and as such, the proxy of thought that produces a governable mentality. The self-deconstructive ontology of the concept becomes apparent if we hold it right: the promise of engaging with the thoughts that render governmentality effective is a mentality without government, a fictioned mode of interiority for us, subjects that can no longer be governed in a certain way, responding to the “will not to be governed thusly, like that, by these people, at this price”.[21] Expressions that emerge from the experience of ‘I’ as other, such as the mad ‘I’, the other world and the other life unfolding within the truth-teller self or the mirror image of academics as gliders work against the objectifying force of government by affirming the heterotopic space of thought, the space that embeds me and my other(s), erasing the distance in-between. We glide on and the (some)ones detached in writing, speaking and thinking meet again.


[1] Michel Foucault, “Different Spaces”, In: Aesthetics: Essential Works Of Foucault, 1954-1984, Volume II., ed. James D. Faubion, (New York:The New Press, 1998) 179.
[2] Giorgio Agamben, “Identity without the Person”, In: Nudities (Stanford:Stanford University Press, 2011), 52.
[3] Oded Löwenheim, “The ‘I’ in IR: an autoethnographic account”, Review of International Studies, vol. 36(4), (2010):1024.
[4]Naeem Inayatullah, “Falling and Flying: an Introduction”, In: Naeem Inayatullah (ed.), Autobiographic International Relations: I, IR, (London:Routledge, 2011), 5.
[5] Roxanne Lynn Doty, “Maladies of Our Souls: Identity and Voice in the Writing of Academic International Relations”, Cambridge Review of International Studies, (2004):386; see also Raluca Soreanu “Feminist Creativities and the Disciplinary Imaginary of International Relations”, International Political Sociology, vol. 4(4), (2010):340-400.
[6] Doty, “Maladies of Our Souls”, 380.
[7] Ibid. 380.
[8] Foucault, “Different spaces”, 179.
[9] Michel Foucault, “So is it important to think?” In: Power: Essential Works Of Foucault, 1954-1984, Volume III., ed. James D. Faubion, (New York:The New Press, 1998) 456.
[10] Michel Foucault, “Interview with Michel Foucault” in J.D. Faubion (ed.) Power: Essential Works Of Foucault, 1954-1984 (2000), 240
[11] On experience, fiction and subjectivity in Foucault see e.g. Timothy Rayner, “Between Fiction and Reflection: Foucault and the Experience-book”, Continental Philosophy Review, 36:1, (2003):27-43.
[12] Michel Foucault, History of Madness (London:Routledge, 2010), xxvii.
[13] Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness (Literature/Philosophy/Psychoanalysis), (Palo Alto:Stanford University Press, 2003), 52.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid. 55.
[16] Foucault, “Interview with Michel Foucault”, 242.
[17] Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983. (Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 65.
[18] Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth, Lectures at the Collège de France 1983-1984. (Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 236-7.
[19] Ibid. 340.
[20] Giorgio Agamben, “What is an apparatus?”, In: “What is an apparatus?” And other essays (2009), 11

[21] Michel Foucault. “What is Critique?” In Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (eds.) The Politics of Truth: Michel Foucault (1997), 72 (emphasis added)

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