Monday 29 December 2014

Derek Ide: Chomsky vs. Foucault.

Commenting on the 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Post-Modern philosopher Michel Foucault, Derek Ide notices that:
"() Foucault asks [Chomsky] poignantly: 'When, in the United States, you commit an illegal act [of political activism], do you justify it in terms of justice or of a superior legality, or do you justify it by the necessity of the class struggle, which is at the present time essential for the proletariat in their struggle against the ruling class?' After a brief period he quickly reiterates the question again: 'Are you committing this act in virtue of an ideal justice, or because the class struggle makes it useful and necessary?' " (See here)
Chomsky apparently tries to dodge Foucault's first question; finally, when he replies to the second, he does so rather weakly.

Smelling blood in the water, Foucault swiftly goes for the jugular:
"I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this … the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power … And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice."
To which Chomsky basically has no reply, other than to reiterate his belief on "some sort of an absolute basis -- if you press me too hard I'll be in trouble, because I can't sketch it out --ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a 'real' notion of justice is grounded."

A lefty observer, suggests Ide, would probably give a point to Foucault: his answer would seem to be in harmony with views widely held in the left, particularly the Marxist one. After all, "it is deeply rooted in the recognition of class-based power, hegemony, and contestation."

However, Ide writes:
"Yet, Foucault's position seems at odds with the stance that Patricia O'Brien attributes to him when she explains that, for Foucault, 'culture is studied through technologies of power -- not class, not progress, not the indomitability of the human spirit. Power cannot be apprehended through the study of conflict, struggle, and resistance … Power is not characteristic of a class (the bourgeoisie) or a ruling elite, nor is it attributable to one … Power does not originate in either the economy or politics, and it is not grounded there'."

I can offer a solution to Ide's puzzle: Foucault can assume contradictory stances on the same issue, because foundational questions are not important for Post-Modernists. A and Not(A) are only debating, rhetorical tools to be employed at the debater's discretion against different opponents, according to tactical considerations.

The point is not to argue a deeply felt position, but to win the debate, by hook or by crook.

Far from me to side with him on anything (God forbid!), but Richard Dawkins, the bête noire of some in the "academic" "left", alludes to something similar in the preface to "The Blind Watchmaker":
"I remember being shocked when visiting a university debating society to debate with creationists. At dinner after the debate, I was placed next to a young woman who had made a relatively powerful speech in favour of creationism. She clearly couldn't be a creationist, so I asked her to tell me honestly why she had done it. She freely admitted that she was simply practising her debating skills, and found it more challenging to advocate a position in which she did not believe. Apparently it is common practice in university debating societies for speakers simply to be told on which side they are to speak. Their own beliefs don't come into it. I had come a long way to perform the disagreeable task of public speaking, because I believed in the truth of the motion that I had been asked to propose. When I discovered that members of the society were using the motion as a vehicle for playing arguing games, I resolved to decline future invitations from debating societies that encourage insincere advocacy on issues where scientific truth is at stake." {op. cit. p. xv}
This is what the debate between petit bourgeois intellectuals has come to: word games. And why one sees really surprising bouts of admiration towards apparently mortal foes.

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