Friday, July 26, 2013

Foucault's Rhetoric and Posthumanism

1. Can't we say “we”? — Philosophical presuppositions; 2. Foucault’s rhetorical questioning — We are only a recent invention; 3. Philosophical presumption — Attitudes, Words, Theses

“I am afraid that we have not got rid of God because we still have faith in grammar . . .”
          —Nietzsche [1]

1.      At the beginning of his introduction to the anthology Posthumanism, Neil Badmington makes a rhetorical maneuver that is more common than it should be. While saying “‘We’ cannot live with [-isms] (why else would ‘we’ need to keep inventing new ones?), but neither can ‘we’ live without them (why else would ‘we’ need to keep inventing new ones?),” [2] he adds a footnote to the first “we” that reads, “I place this term in quotation marks because, as William V. Spanos has pointed out, the ‘naturalised “we”’ is one of the hallmarks of humanism.” The implication of this footnote, I want to suggest, is that our language comes not only with philosophical presuppositions, but distasteful ones. For we (“we”?) should distinguish this case from the case of the philosopher of language who wishes to offer an account of how particular linguistic phenomena work. For example, Robert Brandom, in his large treatise Making It Explicit, attempts to give a reasonably comprehensive account of how language has to function for it to function the way it does. Given the problem of rhetorical presentation, Brandom’s book is filled with IOUs for lumber he hasn’t paid for yet, but will in some other section. This kind of theorist’s project is to only build out of conceptual resources one has justified warrant for. Badmington, however, appears to think there is not ever warrant for this kind of “we,” yet feels helpless to use it. So what is going on here?

Structurally, there is a similarity between the conceptual demands implied by Badmington’s footnote and Brandom’s IOUs which goes something like this: “my use of X presupposes Y.” In Badmington’s case, it is that “we” presupposes humanism. If Brandom had written that footnote, on the other hand, it would have been, “my use of ‘we’ requires an account of how the first-person plural works.” What is strange about Badmington’s footnote is that it suggests that humanism is the only account that validates that use of “we,” but that account is bunk. Someone like Brandom would be moved to offer an account that works, but Badmington isn’t so moved. Why not?

The short answer is that he feels licensed for the idea that some philosophical presuppositions are both inescapable and bad, in this case humanism (and thus the bad “we” he must use). [3] However, one of the specifically philosophical theses Brandom would wish to advance is that not all linguistic phenomena have philosophical presuppositions. [4] To display more easily the dialectical ground, we might take an extreme rendering of what Badmington might mean: he is suggesting that the first-person plural becomes suspicious once one finds humanism suspicious. For many, this is just plain absurd. Why on earth should “We are driving down the street towards the mall” become suspicious once I’ve begun thinking that the seemingly natural ethical priority of humans to non-human phenomena (animals, plants, ecosystems, etc.) should perhaps be rethought? This rebuke by a commonsensical attitude, however, is sometimes just taken to be evidence of the depth at which the presupposed phenomena in question is embedded. And so it is, but any careful interlocutor will be quick to point out that while incredulity tells you about depth, it still doesn’t tell you what kind of deeply embedded phenomena you’re facing—in this case, grammatical or philosophical.

2.      Since, as Thomas Kuhn taught us, part of what it is to work in a discipline is to use precursors as models of how to do your work, [5] I think Foucault licenses, in a manner, this rhetorical pattern in post-Foucauldian theorists. Foucault, of course, is far more circumspect than his less careful followers. His forward to the English language edition is a model of rhetorical deflation and intellectual modesty. A good example for my purposes is:
Can a valid history of science be attempted that would retrace from beginning to end the whole spontaneous movement of an anonymous body of knowledge? Is it legitimate, is it even useful, to replace the traditional ‘X thought that . . .’ by a ‘it was known that . . .’? But this is not exactly what I set out to do. I do not wish to deny the validity of intellectual biographies, or the possibility of a history of theories, concepts, or themes. It is simply that I wonder whether such descriptions are themselves enough, whether they do justice to the immense density of scientific discourse, whether there do not exist, outside their customary boundaries, systems of regularities that have a decisive role in the history of the sciences. (The Order of Things xiii-xiv)
For my purposes, it does not matter whether Foucault had something very precise and exact in mind by “systems of regularities” and how that role hooks into all the other roles (played by people, theories, concepts, and themes). His rhetorical presentation is one of open-minded questioning—he is simply wondering whether there might not be another character being played in the background that our current researches are leaving untouched in their account of the drama of life (or perhaps more specifically, the history of the sciences). This gesture, made by the rhetorical questions, the wondering, the not-exactly, and the not-wishing-to-deny, creates the appearance of simply opening up a grayspace in which many may come and experiment in. And in this, I think Foucault was very sincere and very successful. Foucault’s boldness of imagination combined with his hope for, if not a joint inquiry, then a space in which many can all inquire and help each other with their varied inquiries—this made Foucault the towering intellectual father he has become for many. And one thing intellectual fathers do, as we all are quite aware after Derrida, is disseminate their intellectual DNA via their progeny. To make this quasi-metaphor more concrete, we might think of the kind of intellectual dissemination that figures like Foucault perform as casting off dimly understood hypotheses that require more work with to process and confirm. That Foucault must be a godfather for whatever is meant by “posthumanism” must be obvious for the person whose book became synonymous with “man is only a recent invention” (xxiii), “and perhaps nearing its end” (387).

The question must be for us progeny: how are we to understand that? The drive of this reflection is that Foucault’s work opens up a number of possibilities, and I do believe it is pointless to look back to Foucault for definitive guidance (that would be a form of intellectual biography). One of these possibilities is that Foucault is describing the birth and (hopeful) death of a certain self-image that humanity has of itself, a self-image that expresses itself in many different activities, only one of which is the activity of articulating a self-image (call that activity “philosophy”). One activity just might be the use of the first-person plural, for it is difficult for fans of Foucault to forget Nietzsche’s remark that we’ll believe in God as long as we believe in grammar. One can find nourishment from Foucault for this experiment by triangulating the spaciously ambiguous “man is a recent invention” with “an anonymous body of knowledge” and his transition from the first-person variable “X” to the pronominal third-person in “it was known that.”

3.      Would Foucault have thought that “we” should get rid of the first-person plural, “we”? I doubt it, but he was, on the other hand, the philosopher “who writes in order to have no face.” [6] More especially, however, I’m not sure Badmington even thinks we should get rid of the “we.” I suspect that the problem with “the naturalized we” is the presumptive homogenization that occurs by saying that such-and-such is our problem, when the drift of leftist theorizing in the last 50 years has been to try to not be so presumptive about what community, what “we,” people come from and therefore would have the same problems. But is this presumption really tied to the self-image of humanism, which is at the very least a cultural complex that includes philosophical theses? [7] But more importantly, is every use of “we” presumptive? For if this were true, that would make the very idea of community presumptive, or at least the attempt to communicate what you think “we” in your community think. It is the slide between an attitude (“presumption”), a linguistic usage (“we”), and a set of quasi-philosophical theses (“humanism”) that, I think, produces loose talk about a humanism that “forever rewrites itself as posthumanism,” [8] which suggests that the ostensible problem doesn’t in fact have a solution. And this should just suggest we rethink what the problem is.


[1] Twilight of the Idols, “‘Reason’ in Philosophy,” sec. 5

[2] Posthumanism, ed. Badmington, 1

[3] I suspect this idea has been disseminated most by Derrida in our literary theorists, but cannot develop the point here. Badmington evinces this idea when, after introducing Derrida, posthumanism ceases to be a historical phenomenon and instead becomes the necessary conceptual counterpart of humanism, which is forever rewriting itself.

[4] This is not the space to provide evidence for this claim about what Brandom thinks, for it only needs to be the case for my purposes that this is a coherent thing to think.

[5] This is part of what Kuhn meant by “paradigm” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. See Ian Hacking’s introduction to the 4th edition for an excellent historical review of the reception of that very important book, including the incredibly misunderstood notion of a “paradigm.”

[6] The Archaeology of Knowledge, 17

[7] Richard Rorty has developed this point about philosophical presuppositions in regards to political liberalism in “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” (in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth), which I’m coasting behind in all of this. The harder problem for Rorty was, after disentangling the philosophical presuppositions of “we,” if you will, dealing with other attendant problems in using “we,” especially the presumption. See my “Two Uses of ‘We.’”

[8] Posthumanism, ed. Badmington, 9

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