Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Power for the People

Sinthome has posted a brief response and promissory note to my last round of comments. I’m conscious that Sinthome will take up the issue in greater detail at a later point, but am also conscious of the nightmare schedule I have looming just around the corner – I’ll hope Sinthome will excuse me for tossing a few more questions into the discussion at this point, while I know I still have a bit of clear time.

One of the recurring themes in our conversation to date has been whether critique – understood as the theorisation of the potential for political action oriented to social transformation – needs the concept of an “outside”. Sinthome’s most recent response clarifies the strategic significance of wanting to identify an “outside”:

when advancing the thesis that no form of domination ever completely subsumes the dominated, I am specifically thinking of historicism and Foucaultian power structures. With regard to historicism, I am objecting to the common thesis that everything is determined by its historical context, such that nothing new can appear that isn’t already saturated by this context. With regard to Foucault (perhaps one could add Butler), I have in mind the thesis that all social relations are determined by structures of power. Foucault, of course, complicates this with his thesis that all structures of power produce their own resistence; yet these structures of resistance are nonetheless part and parcel of the field of power. Consequently I suppose I am asking whether an outside is possible.

This is what I would have suspected: the conviction that critique must be founded on something “outside” social context generally does derive from the perceptions that:

(1) the social context is essentially “one dimensional” – that it generates solely those forms of practice and subjectivity reproduce the current form of social life in some kind of static loop or linear pattern; and

(2) socialisation should be conceptualised in terms of “power” – a concept which, in spite of Foucault’s best efforts – tends to be wielded as an essentially “negative” concept, flattening the notion of socialisation into the notion of constraint, prohibition or domination, and therefore orienting the concept of socialisation to the reproduction of the existing social order.

I think that Sinthome is correct both in pointing to Foucault’s efforts to turn the concept of “power” into something more potentially productive and creative, and in concluding that, even in Foucault’s own work, this concept in practice functions rather similarly to Weber’s notion of the “iron cage”. If Foucault had wanted to take seriously the notion of power as a productive, as well as a constraining, force in socialisation, you would have expected him to wed his analysis of qualitative transformations in kinds of power, with an analysis of how these qualitative shifts are also associated with the emergence of historically specific practices and subjectivities driving toward specific kinds of freedom. Such an analytical strategy could have made it possible for Foucault then to explain his own critical standpoint immanently, by indicating how it reflects the potentials of a given historical moment.

Instead, in practice, Foucault’s analyses of power often fall back into something like an unmasking and debunking form of critique. The standpoint from which Foucault makes these unmasking and debunking moves is generally not clarified. Instead, when Foucault does speak explicitly about his critical standpoint, he often does something rather similar to what Sinthome has also been doing in recent posts: he talks about how moving “outside” our current time, and examining the alternative potentials expressed in different historical moments, equips us to think differently about the present. Foucault’s own practice therefore reinforces the sense that he has not successfully conceptualised power as more than a negative constraint. (Note: I am far from an expert in Foucault’s work, so I am happy to be persuaded that he uses more sophisticated strategies in specific writings – from my point of view, this would simply mean that Foucault at some point more fully expresses the potentials I believe do lurk in some of his concepts, but which he often doesn’t seem to follow to their critical conclusions.)

I am sympathetic with Sinthome’s reaction to this closed, static, reproduction-oriented notion of socialisation: I think it is extremely difficult, within such a framework, to make sense of the possibility for political action aimed at transformation, and therefore to render “rational” the theorist’s critical voice. My question is more about whether Sinthome’s rejection of this notion is fundamental enough: to me, it seems as though searches for the “outside” essentially accept the underlying vision of socialisation promoted by historicist theories, and then go hunting about for some way to account for the fact that critical sentiments still do become manifest in social and intellectual movements – that, as Galileo is purported to have said, “still, it moves”… My sense is that a more fundamental critique is likely possible: that the problem may lie at a more basic level, in the essential poverty of thinking about our social context as a one-dimensional entity, and in restricting our notion of socialisation to a process mediated by “power”, which in turn is understood as an essentially negative, prohibitive force that drives solely toward social reproduction.

I suspect we can do more than this – that we can reconceptualise the nature of our social context – taking into account our empirical experience of the existence of specific kinds of critical sensibilities, and of the emergence of particular types of social movements – and ask ourselves what kind of understanding of socialisation would be required to make sense of what experientially appears to be a contradictory whole, a form of social life that does tend to reproduce certain patterns of social practice, but that also tends to generate recurrent political pressures for specific kinds of freedom.

I should note that this is separate from, as it were, the empirical question of whether there might be an “outside” – whether there might be aspects of human behaviour that can be understood to be untouched by socialisation. I don’t actually have a dog in this fight – it may in fact be the case that such a thing exists. My quarrel is only with the perception that this question is more than empirical – that it is freighted with some kind of deep political significance, such that if we can’t find the “outside”, we will be condemned to the deepest, dankest corner of Weber’s iron cage for the rest of eternity. I don’t think this is a necessary fear.

I feel very similarly about positions that try to locate political potentials in human nature. We may very well be able to explain very interesting things with reference to the concept of human nature, but I don’t think we need to do this, to explain the potential for critique and for political action in our present moment in time. I’d rather explore the question of what might be intrinsic to human nature without freighting the investigation with the belief that the possibility for political action hinges on the outcome. I think this makes for questionable science, and very vulnerable political theory, and that the causes of science and of politics are better served by recognising that these are not intrinsically and necessarily related issues…

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