Toward the Abolition of a Liberal Foucault

Question: Is Foucault a liberal, albeit an extreme or idiosyncratic one? (No.)

Let’s begin with a dominant American reading of Foucault that paints him as a liberal humanist.  Todd May calls this the ‘prodigal son’ view.[1] As the story goes, Foucault’s  ‘middle period’ (Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, Volume 1) was characterized by strong anti-humanism that made his concepts of power subjectless and totalizing.  Recognizing the error of his ways, Foucault then makes a break from these theories with his later work (History of Sexuality, volumes 2 and 3) and softens his anti-humanist stance to include ‘ethico-aesthetic subjectivity’ as form of ethical self-creation that resists the normalizing impulse of subjectivization.  For liberals, Foucault’s ‘ethical turn’ acts as a bridge between all of his other work – brokering the seemingly incongruous relationship between archaeology and genealogy, providing a thread to trace through a discontinuous chain of problematizations, and suggesting a mechanism that serves as a foundation for critical scholarship.

On its face, accepting Foucault as a liberal feels like a recuperative move meant to reassure those who don’t want to take seriously the implications of his work.  If Foucault couldn’t work through his theories of power and in the last analysis had to recant in favor of the more familiar ground of agency and the liberal subject, it soothes the nerves of liberals who anxiously felt that they were the ones under attack in Foucault’s work on power.  On the other hand, however, this shouldn’t be assuring to them at all – Foucault provided little ground to extrapolate a theory of ‘ethico-aesthetic subjectivity’ from.  The self-creation in History of Sexuality volumes 2 and 3 are dealing with problematizations unique to context of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity.

If the three volumes of the History of Sexuality are placed beside The Order of Things, carrying the aesthetic self-creation of Greek and Roman antiquity through to other historical and spatial contexts becomes tenuous.  The Order of Things is a profoundly disorienting book, its presentation is meant to defamiliarize knowledge and trace the radical discontinuities between eras of scientific thought.  Biology, for instance, is not a slight refinement and clarification of Classical Linnaean natural history, but is a specifically Modern invention whose epistemological structure owes much more to the other Modern sciences than previous forms of knowledge (220).  The ‘weirdness of the Modern’ that emerges from the Order of Things can be found in Foucault’s other work:  the grostesqueness of the spectacle of sovereign torture than opens Discipline and Punish, as well as the alien rules for conduct that organized the sexuality of Greek citizens.

To take the practice of ethical self-creation, which existed as a response to specific problematizations in antiquity – like the proper way for a man to engage in relations with a boy – and project it into the current moment is nothing short of transmutation.  It is not simply a question of asking how the practice would change as if it was possible to pluck it from its ancient context and placed within a new set of relations – a strategy Foucault explicitly disavows in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” when he cites the imperative to “shatter the unity of man’s being through which it was thought that he could extend his sovereignty to the events of his past” (151).  But rather, like Foucault does with confession, a genealogy traces the “interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function” of an element (in this case, a practice), as it is captured by or escapes from heterogeneous formations of power (cite confessions of the flesh interview).  Foucault suggests that genealogy is the process of dredging up elements, forgotten in the archive or part of foreign formation, to be re-mobilized and introduce change (NGH 154).

We should therefore be wary of naïve attempts to re-introduce ethico-aesthetic subjectivity as if it was a forgotten silver-bullet solution to normalization – such a move isn’t adequately genealogical.  For instance, Foucault compares each era of ‘ethical’ practices in terms of the subjectivities produced within interactions between four aspects of ethical conduct: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, ethical work, and telos (HOSv2 2-68, “Genealogy of Ethics” 241-2).  For the Greeks, an ascetic mastery of the self in relation to the pleasure gleaned from one’s body, wife, or boys was at first unrelated to religion, law, or science, but later signaled specific relations like the ability to rule over others. Christianity intensified limitations placed on the already present ethics of self-care while transforming it into a hermeneutics of desire where divine law mediated for the purpose of saving the soul. It is important to emphasize that these ethical systems weren’t directed by improvements in knowledge, but rather the ethical dimension was a gateway and precondition to truth – “what is the work which I must effect upon myself so as to be capable and worth of acceding to the truth?” (GE 251-2)  It takes modernity to shed ascetics, the self no longer needs to be ethical in order to gain access to knowledge and it is then that modern science proliferates.  Ethics is left serving a completely different function that it did in antiquity.

Through the careful empirical work Foucault uses to describe these shifts, it becomes apparent that the use of ethics doesn’t serve a universal role regardless of era.  Rather, subjectivity is a historically contingent category whose relationship to knowledges and practices that addresses the specific problems of the day.  The contemporary relationship of bodies and pleasures don’t provide a window into a hidden trans-historical set of relations that are the basis for practices that resist subjectivation.  Instead, ethics is a heterogeneous formation of power that has no essential purpose, captured or set free by a variety of assemblages in order to serve new, intensified, or even opposite roles.  For instance, the techniques of self-mastery that provided resistance subjectivation in antiquity “lost some of their importance and autonomy in early Christianity, and later, into educative, medical, and psychological types of practices” (HS2 11).  Maybe it’s already painfully obvious, but one of the strongest moments of Nealon’s book is to remind us that ethico-aesthetic subjectivities not only exist today, but have intensified and disseminated the idea of the ‘authentic individual’ everywhere:

“Saab: choose your own Road,” “Outback Steakhouse: No Rules, Just Right.” Or the ad agency’s constant helpful reminders concerning the links between authentic cultural rebels and the products by which we know them: Jack Kerouac wore khakis; Gandhi would have used a Macintosh computer; Cadillacs are all about Rock n Roll, etc. (Nealon conf paper 142)

When placed in the contemporary context, it’s hard not to draw a line of consistency between the liberal reading of Foucault and neo-liberalism – the liberal exploration of the self that negotiates the dangers of modern life might simply be the concrete articulation of subjectivities that inform the theoretical underbelly of neo-liberalism.  For me, the recently translated The Birth of Biopolitics lectures ruin any hope to retain a liberal reading of Foucault. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault develops a careful account of the emergence of the neo-liberal subject, homo oeconomicus, in the 20th century. The key shift from liberalism to neo-liberalism is the recognition that the rationality assumed by liberal theorists was bankrupt, an ideal formation that did not exist within the concrete conditions and was too costly to maintain through disciplinary techniques of normalization.  Foucault’s lectures trace how neo-liberalism was able to produce a self-entrepreneurial subject that works to maximize human capital – the contemporary equivalent of aesthetic self-creation – not as part of a grand ideological strategy, however, but through strategic interventions that intensified power is a series of urgent needs specific to the historical moment.[2] The neo-liberal subject’s economic nature is not Adam Smith’s “propensity to barter, truck, exchange,” but a drive to economize and compete in all aspects of life; maximizing return on investment in life – in the family with children and reproduction, at work as a manager or a wage-slave, or even in leisure time – the neo-liberal ideal is to extend a rationality of economic calculation completely.

After considering the trajectory of ethics discussed above, ethics and subjectivity must be placed within Foucault’s rich theory of power, not as a corrective to it.  The turn to ethics does not introduce agency into a model of power that was otherwise totalizing and all encompassing.  The opposite is true, ethics and subjectivity is just as implicated in the play of power as any other form of knowledge and practice.  Neo-liberalism in particular demonstrates that the production of the self is not absent from power but is the new horizon for the valorization of capital.  This is not to say that subjectivity is a bankrupt when considering resistance, but it provides just as many traps, false leads, and dead ends as any other form of struggle.

[1] This is an argument developed along different lines, but quite thoroughly by Jeffrey T. Nealon in Foucault Beyond Foucault.  May’s remarks are in a book review of Nealon.  I like Nealon’s rejoinder to the ‘prodigal son’ label, in which he says the liberal narrative fits better an old Borscht Belt Jewish joke.  Unfortunately I don’t have the space to reproduce the joke here.

[2] Those two needs considered are 1) an anti-statist consensus brokered as response to Nazism, and 2) the need to create rearticulate labor, which becomes the theory human capital. Ref goes here####bk

9 thoughts on “Toward the Abolition of a Liberal Foucault

  1. Excellent post. I have some rather mild disagreements/needs for clarifications.

    I certainly agree that Foucault is no liberal. I can’t even imagine how someone could think that Foucault is a liberal. That might be the first problem, I don’t really know who you are arguing against, so you may be engaging in some specific rhetorical moves that are lost to me.

    But I am curious, do you not see the subjective turn in Foucault’s work as some sort of corrective/rejection from some of his earlier work on power? This is not to say that Foucault’s subjective turn is at all a liberal one (clearly not, and I think you are correct to point out The Birth of Bio-politics as a good instance of how Foucault is completely allergic and opposed to any sort of liberalism), and it is not to say that Foucault has abandoned his earlier work on power. However, I don’t think that his subjective turn is merely dealing “with problematizations unique to context of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity.”.
    I think that Foucault’s subjective turn obviously grows out of his work on power, and at the same turn emerges because he clearly feels his work on power had begun to have some weird or incorrect trajectories. While this is a little murky if we only look toward his published books, if we combine those books with his lecture series the connections become far more explicit. Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Bio-Politics clearly show the transition from “Society Must Be Defended” and the first volume of the HoS to the work of the Hermeneutics of the Subject, the two volumes of the Government of Self and Others, and the last two volumes of the HoS. I’m sure when the On the Government of the Living and Subjectivity and Truth are finally published, we will have two things available to us: (1) A far more nuanced and articulated theory of subjectivity from Foucault, and (2) the ability to more clearly link together Foucault’s earlier discourses on power to this subjective turn. Without them, though, I think we can make some general arguments.
    In the subjective turn Foucault displaces his earlier discourse about power/knowledge with one about power/truth (for more on this see Landry Telos 146 (Spring 2009): 111-123, which is on Foucault’s unpublished lectures On the Government of the Living). In the earlier power part of Foucault, we see ourselves as merely constructions of external power, that clearly changes in the subjective turn. Now, this does not mean that Foucault comes to understand the subject as an individual rational agent able to engage in free choice, but there is also a sense of self that emerges, that is able to engage in the techne tou bios, and also that is able to engage is parrhesia. And despite the obvious greekness of such terms, I don’t think they are merely historical artifacts for Foucault, and they represent genuine changes to his earlier theory of power.

    Now, I’m not sure you disagree with anything I’ve said. I think the subjective turn is both (a) real and (b) not a break from his earlier work. I guess I am unclear from your post if you feel there is a real turn at the end, a real subjective turn that challenges certain earlier arguments that Foucault made.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    I think the subjective turn is a hard one to work through. There are lot of different directions people have taken it:
    1) advocating desubjectification
    2) advocating “radical” subjectivities
    3) advocating “reflexive” subjectivities
    4) positing a gap between subjectivities and the acceptance of them
    5) abandoning the use of the term altogether.
    If you want specific examples (namely citations) for added clarity, I could hunt them down.

    I think Foucault’s position is pretty clear. As you mentioned, he did abandon some projects. There is an interesting development you didn’t note that I think is an important contribution to this question: Foucault did work on identity-formations and even listed them in HOSv1, which were slated to be the subsequent volumes of the HOS, but were abandoned — the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the pervert, and the Malthusian couple. This in part is the ‘dry spell’ (what was it, seven years?) when Foucault redirects his research to SMBD, STP, BOB, and then the Greek/Roman questions.

    While I don’t find the Greek/Roman questions unhelpful, I think he is very specific about their historical specificity. Just as he makes the argument in HOSv1 that homosexuality-as-such didn’t exist before the 19th century.

    I think his words on this deserve to be quoted in length:

    “Homosexuality appears as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”

    “The appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and “psychic hermaphroditism” made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of “perversity”; but it also made possible the formation of a “reverse” discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or “naturality” be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified.”

    End of quotes.

    So to extend my argument about the specificity of subjectivity, I want to consider first Foucault’s use of Kant and second his Berkeley lectures on Truth.

    I think the longer version of Foucault’s argument from the end of Order of Things where he proposes that man is now in a position to change his own status follows from his work on Kant. Like many of the other philosophers circulating in his milieu (right now I’m thinking about D&G’s “What is Philosophy?”, but that’s just because I’m reading it right now), Foucault attributes a very specific form of ‘reflexivity’ to Modern and post-Modern (if we dare use that word) inquiry – partially due to the influence of the Enlightenment.

    This may be part of why the whole Habermas/Foucault interaction is such a non-debate. Foucault was never reactively anti-Enlightenment, there are advancements made by Kant that are integral to Foucault’s though. And what it sheds light on is Foucault’s distance from the Greeks. Even as the Greeks were able to engage in all sorts of philosophical questions about the ‘government of self’ – I would contend that they still didn’t include key Modernist insights. If you want another version of the argument, Deleuze and Guattari in the second example of What Is Philosophy, do an excellent job explaining this while going through Plato, Decartes, and Kant (29-32).

    To add even more metaphysical insight, this time explicitly through Deleuze&Guattari rather than Foucault, I would contend that philosophy changes because the world changes. And while this insight is the important “starting point” to philosophy for Deleuze, it echoes what makes Foucault’s ‘governmentality’ more than just idiosyncratic “political thought” — philosophy (and governmenality, or even subjectivity if you please) is an immediate distribution of solutions to the world not its resolution for all time.

    “All concepts are connected to problems without which they would have no meaning and which can themselves only be isolated or understand as their solution emerges.” (16)

    So, “What is the best way to follow the greater philosophers? Is it to repeat what they said or _to do what they did_, that is, create concepts for problems that necessarily change?” (28)

    Secondly, Foucault’s work on the Greeks is quite fascinating. As as components of the Greek world find their way into the present day, they do genealogically serve as a “history of the present.” But the crucial part of archaeology/genealogy (or assemblage thinking if we to continue with the D&G), is that elements of an episteme/dispositif are hetereogeneous and mobile. And when they are recombined into new epistemes/dispositifs, they can serve complete different purposes. This is also why Foucault insists in The Order of Things that dispersed discourses of an episteme have more in common with one another than a single element of discourse has in two successive discursive formations (the “species” of Linnaeus vs. Simpson, for instance).

    If we study ‘subjectivity’ in a similar way, then was can only assume that subjectivity is both (a) embedded and enmeshed within the dispositifs of a given episteme (or whatever) and (b) the role subjectivity plays between historical epistemes (or archaeological blocks of any kind) varies enough to make correspondence impossible. Rather, elements of subjectivity in each dispositif (or even episteme) has mobility outside of it (it forms exo-consistencies), but its effects are indeterminate outside of its concrete deployment in a new dispositif.

    This is why Foucault suggested thinking of knowledge as a strategic truth-game. According to truth-games, it is not about discovering a secret reality that will settle all disputes but deploying truth in a strategic manner (Politics of Truth, old version, 195-6). The genealogical move is therefore to study elements of “subjectivity” of the past, with an eye to how they might be placed into the politics of the present. Yet the subjectivity of the past really provides little insight in relation to corresponding models because our problems are so different. For example, “modern homosexuality” might find a few things to play around with from the Greeks or Romans (borrowing some elements from HoSv2,3) but it doesn’t create a model. Similarly, while parrhesiac speech played an important role in the governance of the day, it is only useful to us insofar as it can be concretely deployed and produce effects to our liking. And in that sense, Foucault’s ‘lost works’ are no more essential or useless than other histories and therefore don’t reveal silent latent forces that unlock the key to transforming power, but merely one more tool in the box.

    [i’m still not sure we disagree ; ) ]

  3. “post-Modern (if we dare use that word)”

    We daren’t. ;-).

    I got to go, I have a debate tournament this weekend, so I don’t think I will have the time to respond. But I wanted to let you know I read what you said, I think it is interesting, I wish I had the time to continue this conversation.

    And, are there really people out there who argue that Foucault is a liberal? Because, I have no clue what they could stand on for that argument…

  4. One example of the liberal Foucault would be Paras’ “Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge”. (here’s an interesting description of it: )

    This one also looks like it (though I admit I haven’t read it):
    “Foucault’s Askesis: An Introduction to the Philosophical Life”

    In his renowned courses at the College de France from 1982 to 1984, Michel Foucault devoted his lectures to meticulous readings and interpretations of the works of Plato, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, among others. In this his aim was not, Edward F. McGushin contends, to develop a new knowledge of the history of philosophy; rather, it was to let himself be transformed by the very activity of thinking. Thus, this work shows us Foucault in the last phase of his life in the act of becoming a philosopher. Here we see how his encounter with ancient philosophy allowed him to experience the practice of philosophy as, to paraphrase Nietzsche, a way of becoming who one is: the work of self-formation that the Greeks called askesis. Through a detailed study of Foucault’s last courses, McGushin demonstrates that this new way of practicing philosophical askesis evokes Foucault’s ethical resistance to modern relations of power and knowledge. In order to understand Foucault’s later project, then, it is necessary to see it within the context of his earlier work. If his earlier projects represented an attempt to bring to light the relations of power and knowledge that narrowed and limited freedom, then this last project represents his effort to take back that freedom by redefining it in terms of care of the self. Foucault always stressed that modern power functions by producing individual subjects. This book shows how his excavation of ancient philosophical practices gave him the tools to counter this function – with a practice of self-formation, an askesis

    And I risk being deeply criticized for this one, but even Butler at times in Psychic Life of Power and Giving an Account.

    I’m sure I could find others if I took the time…

  5. You wrote in an above comment that:

    “I think the subjective turn is a hard one to work through. There are lot of different directions people have taken it:
    1) advocating desubjectification
    2) advocating “radical” subjectivities
    3) advocating “reflexive” subjectivities
    4) positing a gap between subjectivities and the acceptance of them
    5) abandoning the use of the term altogether.
    If you want specific examples (namely citations) for added clarity, I could hunt them down.”

    I am just getting into all of this stuff, and I would definitely be interested in the citations! Do you know of any work that follows these directions in one text?


    1. Matt, no prob!

      1) advocating desubjectification
      –Originally this comes through some of Foucault’s work on sex. The classic essay on this is, of course, Foucault’s “Subjects and Power” which was published as an addendum to the 1983 Dreyfus/Rabinow book ‘Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics” but has been republished in a lot of different place. David Halperin’s “Saint Foucault” would be a good introduction to the issues the surround de-subjectification without taking a hard-line stand. Ranciere uses this version, see his text “Disagreement”.

      –Agamben’s work is probably the most notable for advocating de-subjectification. The landmark text, but also the most difficult because of its esoteric exegesis, is “The Coming Community.” His collections of essays are usually a good place to jump off before trying to tackle book-length articles. Important recent collections include: “Means Without End” “Profanations” “What Is An Apparatus?” and “Nudities”. In addition, there is a lot of Agamben-inspired work that takes this position. Some more responsibly than others.

      –For other work on this topic, look for ideas that seems to be critiques of identity politics. Similar approaches include things like “post-identity” or even some of the post-humanism stuff.

      2) advocating “radical” subjectivities
      –“Radical subjectivity” approaches often split in one of two directions. The first – subjectivity always good. The second – some subjectivities good.

      –The first is the most boring and liberal. It’s the happy go-lucky
      “everyone can grow up and be what they want.” Or even at its most skeptical “well, we’ve all got subjectivities, so we might as well do what we want with them.” I find these approaches to be un-philosophical or un-critical.

      –The second plays a hard game. What subjectivities could be good? There’s the “strategic essentialism” game that I’m never willing to play – which always assumes some foundational messianism (for Said, the terms’s inventor, it’s humanism). You’ll find a few strands of thought here:

      1) phenomenological
      -Phenomenologists take up the question of knowledge from Kant, arguing for transcendental consciousness. That consciousness is a form of subjectivism and is usually treated as such. I’m not terribly familiar with contemporary accounts of phenomenology – though the first think to connect to would be Husserl and the more provactive work would use Merleau-Ponty as a touchstone. The problem with these accounts is that they put ‘human experience’ first and politics is usually an afterthought. Existentialism, of course, was a detour through phenomenology.

      -a fun perspective i like is that given by the Situationist International. Orthodox Marxists like to claim they are the “science of society”, and have an iron-trap explanation for the laws of nature (especially capitalism). So they split accounts into “objectivism and subjectivism” and subjectivist accounts are completely discounted. SI comes from the opposite end, claiming that subjectivism is what invigorates life and the soul. So most of their texts, Vaneigem’s “Revolutions of Everyday Life” in particular, propose subjectivism-as-freedom. Others made this argument before (anarchist Max Stirner, Sartre to a degree) but I like the SI version the best.

      2) lacanian
      -in many ways, lacan is a combination of hegel and heidegger. he uses a lot of the other theories of the day: structuralist linguistics, anthropology, etc, but puts his hegelian/heideggerian signature on it. it is highly systematized but idiosyncratic, leaving room for multiple different models. One might put Butler on one end as the most flexible and Zizek on the other as least. In between would be more-or-less orthodox accounts like Laplanche, JA Miller, and Althusser. Guattari (of Deleuze and Guattari) was a student of Lacan, but made a substantial enough break, he would fit under post-structuralism. they all have their own value-based criterion to evaluate why a subjectivity would be “good” or not.

      3) post-structuralist
      post-structuralist accounts usually include three dimensions: genesis, structure, and transformation. “post-modernism” is usually a sloppy imitation,
      generalizing transformation and specific contingencies into relativism. there are a lot of different post-structuralist accounts, but i like splitting them in terms of interiority and exteriority. deconstructionists endlessly dissect the internal relations of a system (“there is nothing outside the text”). exterior accounts usually assume a basis of contingency, but that things can ‘become-necessary’ (Foucault on ‘regimes’ or D&G on ‘strata’). Once again, it’s hard to evaluate the normative basis, but their philosophical systems usually dictate what might be a “good” or “bad” subjectivity.

      –To give a specific example, ‘radical subjectivites’ are an integral part of Foucault’s later project. After writing History of Sexuality Volume 1 (“introduction”), he had six long years where he didn’t publish any manuscripts. He wrote in HOSv1 and described in interviews that his followup histories of sexualities would go through the ‘four subjects of Victorian sexuality’, which are his material counters to the repressive hypothesis (hysteric woman, masturbating child, malthusian couple, and the pervert/homosexual). He does the archival work for many of these categories/identities, and presents his findings as part of his post at the College de France. These are the substance of the early lectures that have been translated (Psychiatric Power, Abnormal). But after shifting gears and doing the governance thing (SMBD, STP, BOB, etc) he eventually settles on a longer historical trajectory — where he had originally seen a shift with middle Christianity, he now things there are important parts to be found all the way to the Greeks/Romans. He therefore publishes HOSv2, and then hurriedly finishes HOSv3 right before his death. In the lectures he was giving at the time of HOSv2/3 he was working through details that he was never able to synthesize into a finished work. The Hermeneutics of the Subject is the most in depth account (though you’ll find snippets in lots of different places, The Politics of Truth, for instance) – where he’s working through between the forces of subjection and a subject’s response (he makes distinctions that seem either too specific, or unclear as to how they could be generalize: (subjection vs subjectivation). I’m sure people have made sense of it, but I don’t put a lot of stock in it.

      –Guattari is more emphatic w/ subjectivity than Deleuze. There are funny gestures toward this in a lot of his work, for example Molecular Revolution in Brazil and New Lines of Alliance (AKA: Communists like Us). The Italians were deeply influenced by Guattari, he traveled there and even housed activist-philosopher Toni Negri (who went by Toni Guattari!). So in the Italian work, you see a lot of “new subjectivity”, “multiplication of subjectivites” etc etc. I think Hardt tempers Negri a little on this, but as D&G noted when cowriting, (paraphrasing) “each of us is already many people, so combined (Hardt + Negri) we make a crowd”.

      3) advocating “reflexive” subjectivities

      Anthropology went through a crisis of faith. I’ve heard it placed in the 80s-90s. The crisis was a coming to grips with i) the colonial heritage of the discipline, ii) the lack of ‘new peoples’ to study, and iii) the increasing divide between cultural and physical anthro. Cultural anthropologists decided that they had to reflect (‘reflexively’) about their possible projections (biases?) that influence their interpretation/writing of the people they study. Theory’s reception in America was heavily textual, it caught on first w/ comp lit scholars, so anthropologists were able to import methods already developed by their colleagues by focusing on the interpretive dimensions of writing fieldwork.

      Feminist and activist scholarship also focused on the possible risks/limitations of ‘projection’ or interpretation. It was then emphasized strongly by post-colonialism’s question “Can the sub-altern speak”, or more properly, “if the subaltern speaks authentically, can they be understood authentically?” To me this feels like a Hegelian problem and non-hegelian philosophies seem capable of avoiding its totalizing consequences.

      IMHO, a lot of the reflexive responses ended up becoming the worst form of pomo relativism/navel-gazing. Instead of writing about fieldwork or establishing what IS verifiable despite layers of interpretation, anthropologists would write about themselves. Such ‘confessional’ based fieldwork didn’t tell us about their research sites or the topic, and usually read like either guilt-ridden apologies or excuses not to work through the problem.

      Fortunately, this style of analysis has mostly ended. And that which remains is usually a lot more responsible, i.e. a few comments about potential biases in interpretation and then getting down to business.

      4) positing a gap between subjectivities and the acceptance of them
      –There’s the Lacanian form (thru hegel/heidegger) – where he argues that subjects are made up of multiple mediations (language, recognition, etc), and each mediation is a bit ‘off’. e.g. if language is “other” to onesself – as in it preexists us and is therefore not of our choosing – then communication is the “other of the Other” and subsequently all communication is mis-communication (and all recognition is mis-recognition, etc etc). There are a variety of ways people have put this to use: the two I’m most familiar are Butler’s theory of drag-as-performativity (borrowing from Austin/Derrida on signification) and Althusser’s theory of ideology (later picked up by Zizek).

      –Both Agamben and D&G use a different style of argumentation. I’m sure if one were to look around, it would show up in many places. The general form of the argument is that subjectivity is a mis-recognition (different than the Lacanian mis-recognition, however). Subjectivity is a form of domination – though D&G use it more technically than Agamben. Subjectivity is first put forth in Anti-Oedipus as an error (one looks at a complex phenomena in the world with multiple causes, dimensions, layers, etc, and one says “that’s me!”) and in ATP they later contrast subjection and subjectivity. Subjection as slavery, subjectivity as the liberal form of ‘freedom’ that still binds you to a lot of conditions. Deleuze and Guattari will vary their opinions on how much emphasis should put on subjectivity (as listed above) – but in their co-authored works it is very apparent that they think it has important, but limited usability.

      Agamben internalizes this logic but combines it with his more deconstructionist/post-phenomenological system. If you want to read something about it that’s fun, look at the Tiqqun Apocrypha post I have on the blog.

      5) abandoning the use of the term altogether.

      This is the million dollar question, I guess. Provocative attempts sometimes use the language of “post-identity”, but I don’t think anyone’s come up with anything terribly convincing.

      When taken strongly, D&G’s argument is echoed by others. I tend to avoid subjectivity because I think enough people are deploying the concept.

      In his most apocalyptic, Agamben might advocate this. He argues that subjectivity is a mechanism of the state (“police” in Ranciere’s sense). It is only after subjectivity is done away with will the ‘coming community’ be possible. This is possibly the most convincing but also the least ‘helpful.’ Mostly because the community would have to be an ontological fact, not something willed – as captured in Tiqqun’s detournement of Lenin’s “What is To be Done?”, rendering it “How Is It To Be Done?”

      hope this is helpful. the references are obviously more abstract than a biblio, but i think it gives you a better lay of the land. if you have followup questions, just let me know!

  6. Many, many thanks for this above information! I feel like I have a better understanding of the ‘lay of the land’ so to speak. Plus a good deal of reading material to look into!

  7. I don’t know if McGushin’s Foucault necessarily is a “liberal” one. Becoming a philosopher may not necessarily imply becoming a liberal humanist intellectual. I could be wrong though.

    1. True. But it was my impression that his book understands the power of askesis as being the path toward the modern’s empowerment as a subject. Which, in a neutral reading, would assert that one should follow the imperative “know thyself” in order to gain traction in the contemporary world (“it’s me against the world!”).

      A stronger, reading, however, would follow the more Nietzschean horror of being human, requiring the torturous journey of asking: “how did i become what i am, and why do i suffer from being what i am?” In that case, it’s not through ‘self-fashioning’ that individual islands of the self emerge as spaces of refuge, while still holding onto the metaphysical principle of immanence, which would require deployments of power to be reworked from the inside rather than hoping for messianic change to come from the Outside.

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