Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Foucault's "What is Critique?"

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Critique?” In What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Questions and Twentieth-Century Answers, edited by James Schmidt, 23–61. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.


Foucault begins the talk in his usual indirect manner:

For the issue about which I would like to speak today, I have no title. (24)

Right after which he says that the question he wants to discuss is "what is critique?” but it seems this title "would have been indecent" so he is resisting it (actually it turns out to be “What is Enlightenment” that would have been indecent). He gives a first description of critique, as something that is "on the outer limits of," close to, and up against philosophy and even "in lieu of all possible philosophy.” He establishes two boundaries: "the high Kantian enterprise and the little polemical professional activities that are called critique." This is what the two have in common:

it seems to me that there has been in the modern Western world (dating, more or less, empirically from the 15th to the 16th centuries) a certain way of thinking, speaking and acting, a certain relationship to what exists, to what one knows, to what one does, a relationship to society, to culture and also a relationship to others that we could call, let's say, the critical attitude.

[And this set of relations to self, others, and world is what makes critique an act or practice of articulation, and a technology of the self.] Critique is a practice of [deterritorialization], yet it remains subordinate to a different move, that of "constituting" stuff:

After all, critique only exists in relation to something other than itself: it is an instrument, a means for a future or a truth that it will not know nor happen to be, it oversees a domain it would want to police and is unable to regulate. All this means that it is a function which is subordinated in relation to what philosophy, science, politics, ethics, law, literature, etc., positively constitute.

He contrasts the pleasure of critique with its utility, and then says it is supported by a "general imperative" which ties it to virtue. Foucault elaborates his historical framing of critique as "one possible route" to discuss this history: presaging aspects of his later History of Sexuality series, he finds critique growing out of the Christian pastoral, which focused on this idea of allowing yourself to be governed, of submission to the church, authority, God, etc., for the purpose of being directed towards your salvation. This subjectifying relationship of obedience has a "triple relationship to the truth:"

1 "truth understood as dogma"

2. "a special and individualizing knowledge of individuals"

3. "this direction is deployed like a reflective technique comprising general rules, particular knowledge, precepts, methods of examination, confessions, interviews, etc.” (26)

 [In other words 1) an unquestionable and set Truth that can be known; 2) a secondary, perhaps variable truth about individuals (presumably, their extent of obedience  and their fitting into the system; where they stood, how "good" they were (and presumably they or their shepherds also "know" this or seek to); and finally 3) a collection of techniques for improving oneself in this system)].

This led to the explosion of the question from the 15th century on, how to govern? Which question "cannot apparently be dissociated from the question "how not to be governed?"" (28). This itself does not necessarily mean not being governed at all, but rather:

how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them. (28)

This is the critical attitude; this challenge, distrust, etc. seeking to limit, transform or displace government is both a response to, and a [product] of, the project of the arts of governing. He thus offers a first definition of critique: “the art of not being governed quite so much.” (29) [Here in the "not so much" is the phenomenon once again of critique or suspicion, etc. taken up to a point but not farther, a point that is itself up for debate or argumentation, and is ultimately pragmatic]. This "vague or fluid" definition allows him to elucidate three historical "anchoring points" for the critical attitude:

1. Ecclesiastical resistance; the Protestant Reformation, with a return to scriptures and textual critique. The idea of who can speak or know the truth, through the application of reason, spreads to the laity, who have the same authority as the church hierarchy of reading and interpreting the scriptures; this spreads as far as the ability to question the scriptures themselves, and their truth or authority.

2. The concept of natural law and rights are put forward as brakes on, and limits to, the ability of the powerful to govern, placing limits on existing law, which is now revealed to be [arbitrary] and historical in nature; a setting up of some concept of law which is distinct from that of authority, and problematizing existing laws in relation.

3. Finally, a confrontation with authority: nothing that an authority tells you is true is to be accepted simply for this fact, but only “if one considers valid the reasons for doing so.” Certainty, the ability to trust or believe, is here distinguished from authority.

[So essentially 1) a right to reason, spread to everyone; 2) a concept of reason or truth or “law,” separated from authority and might; and 3) a separation of “certainty” or the [compellingness] of truth and logic, from authority.] The triad of religion, law, and knowledge is derived from Kant in “Was Ist Aufklärung” where these are ways that subjects are kept in a minority condition.

[I have at hand James Miller’s summary of this article in his biography of Foucault; he finds it “remarkable” and “idiosyncratic” that Foucault derives the critical tradition from “the heretical practices of dissenting religious sects” rather than from German theorists (Miller, 302). To the contrary, I find it reminiscent of Bookchin’s description of the Enlightenment as a bottom-up affair, originating with widespread disaffection among the peasantry, and moving into the academy. Numerous parallels with Bookchin and other anarchist thinkers make this text a key one for the interpretation of Foucault as an anarchist or fellow traveller. Arguably Foucault’s openness to seeing other, non-philosophical, etc. movements and sources as revolutionary – including religious ones – was behind his controversial endorsement of the Iranian Revolution in the year following this lecture.]

The "core of critique" is a “bundle of relationships” set up between power, truth, and the subject. A relationship is set up between governmentalization and critique:

And if govemmentalization is indeed this movement through which individuals are subjugated in the reality of a social practice through mechanisms of power that adhere to a truth, well, then! I will say that critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth. Well, then!: critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability. Critique would essentially insure the desubjugation of the subject in the context of what we could call, in a word, the politics of truth. (32)

[But does the subject really "give themself" the "right" to question? Or is there some imperative, or even interpellation in the Enlightenment subject involved? Is not the imperative for critique, or the critical attitude, tied to the Blackmail of the Enlightenment, the call for continuous improvement and reform? It seems that critique, or the “critical attitude” is demanded of the Enlightenment subject, as part of the way the subject and truth are related, one should not be capable of taking truths on faith, or rather, it is the believer on the basis of faith who must defend their choice to do so, in the context of the Enlightenment.]

Reason and Critique, for Kant, require courage, but are also about knowing one’s own limits, and possibly even about knowing when to stop questioning: Kant asks:

do you know up to what point you can know? Reason as much as you want, but do you really know up to what point you can reason without it becoming dangerous? (34)

Foucault explains: "...once one has gotten an adequate idea of one's own knowledge and its limits, ... the principle of autonomy can be discovered." We then no longer obey because we are told to, but because we choose to: “the obey will be founded on autonomy itself.” But in turn, this rationalization of the relation of authority results, in turn, in such reason becoming the basis for authority: critique as a practice of autonomy is [recuperated]. Foucault details the emergence of the suspicion that "reason itself is responsible for excesses of power" (38), particularly in Germany.

He seems to suggest that the lack of a real [Protestant] Reformation in France, as opposed to Germany, as well as the close ties of the Revolution to the valuation of reason (and the Enlightenment), made France, or the French Left anyway, less open to the critique of reason, which was thus left to the French Right to voice. In Germany, in contrast, it was the Left which voiced this suspicion. This means the concept of critique or the link between "ratio and power" is not inevitable, but has to be established, [articulated], and this happened differently and earlier in Germany as opposed to in France. It is the growth of phenomenology, and the importation of the Frankfurt school, that lead to this critique in France, and the connections between reason and power start to be investigated and questioned. The 20th Century experiences of Fascism and Stalinism, and more generally of the overall rise of scientific authority and state power, also drive the growth of this questioning of reason’s role in upholding domination, and the question, “What is Aufklärung?” returns.

Foucault asserts that his goal in discussing this is not "to be critical or polemical", but rather "to point out differences and somehow see up to what point we can multiply them, disseminate them, and distinguish them in terms of each other, displacing, if you will, the forms of analyses of this Aufklärung problem, which is perhaps, after all, the problem of modern philosophy."  (44) He notes that he is trodding the boundaries between philosophy and history. He says you have to

fabricate history, as if through fiction, in terms of how it would be traversed by the ques­tion of the relationships between structures of rationality which articulate true discourse and the mechanisms of subjugation which are linked to it... (45)

 A long, dense, two-page paragraph begins with a subject asking, "What, therefore, am I?" (46): [so the critical subject is moved, from its questioning of power and reason, etc., to question itself as well, to interrogate what it is. This would be like Gramsci's call for an "inventory of traces"]. However, Foucault's “historical-philosophical” method will move away from this:

 The first characteristic of this historical-philosophical practice, if you will, is to desubjectify the philosophical question by way of historical contents, to liberate historical contents by examining the effects of power whose truth affects them and from which they supposedly derive.

[This sounds like his archaeological approach; actually I might be misreading a tension between the question "what therefore am I" and the "historical-philosophical practice" which "desubjectifies"; maybe this is just the way to go through answering or asking the question. By “liberate historical contents,” I think he means he is taking apart the elements (earlier he had described a power-truth-subject triad as the “core of critique”), taking them apart to disable their assumed relationships; this is the first characteristic of the historical-philosophical practice.

The 2nd characteristic is temporal specificity: 

In addition, this historical-philosophical practice is clearly found in the privileged relationship to a certain period which can be determined empirically. (46)

This is the Enlightenment period. There is a bit of a "Kafka and his Precursors" discussion of how we can see Aufklärung in the ancient Greeks, etc., because we are looking for it, rather than because it was already there somehow. The question itself is not necessarily stuck in particular historical periods; however there is the pragmatic issue of

under what conditions, at the cost of which modifications or generalizations we can apply this question of the Aufklärung to any moment in history, that is, the question of the relationships between power, truth and the subject. (47)

Foucault describes his motivation [and arguably, his practice of critique] in an “opening up” motto for his critique of critique/Aufklärung:

I was saying before that I wanted in any case to very vaguely trace possible tracks other than those which seemed to have been up till now most willingly cleared. This in no way accuses the latter of leading nowhere or of not providing any valid results. (48)

Foucault crucially argues that Kant introduced a separation between Aufklärung and critique, by means of which Kant achieves critical distance and is able to critique the Enlightenment (and the role of power in relation to knowledge and the subject). Foucault lists the steps of Kant's "procedure of analysis":

1) "starting with the historical destiny of knowledge at the time of the constitution of modern science";

2) looking for the "indefinite effects of power" in this "destiny," which will be linked to "objectivism, positivism, technicism," etc.;

3) "connecting this knowledge with the conditions of the constitution and legitimacy of all possible knowledge," and

4) "seeing how the exit from legitimacy (illusion, error, forgetting, recovery, etc.) occured in history."

This "procedure of analysis is "deeply mobilized by the gap between critique and Aufklárung engineered by Kant" (48-9). [i.e. it is not so much that critique and Enlightenment are distinct, but that there is a gap opened between them, so there can be a critique of the enlightenment, even as the enlightenment demands critique. Is Felski doing a similar move -- establishing a gap between “critique” and “post-critique?”]

I believe that from this point on, we see a procedure of analysis which is basically the one most often followed, an analytical procedure which could be called an investigation into the legitimacy of historical modes of knowing (connaitre). (49)

 So this is the sort of truth-preserving critique of reason created by Kant, and maintained up through today by Habermas, etc., which asks:

 what false idea has knowledge gotten of itself and what excessive use has it exposed itself to, to what domination is it therefore linked? (49)

 Foucault will of course do something different: he is interested, not in the "problem of knowledge" (and how to free it from the distortions of power) but of power itself. He outlines a set of three “levels” or dimensions of analysis (archaeology, genealogy, strategy) that will allow him to investigate what he calls “événementialisation,” here translated as “eventualization,” though more commonly as “eventalization” (because the latter better preserves the weirdness of the French neologism, instead of flattening into a regular English word which does not have the same meaning as Foucault is intending). Eventalization essentially means how “ensembles” (from such cultural formations as sexuality, to medical discourses and institutions like the prison, asylum, etc.) come about, as events basically, without thinking of them as manifestations of something eternal or inevitable.

The first level, archaeology, seeks links between power and knowledge, without making judgments as to legitimization or truth/falsity (like the Kantian approach would). With this less judgmental approach, “connections between mechanisms of coercion and contents of knowledge can be identified” (49-50).

What we are trying to find out is what are the links, what are the connections that can be identified between mechanisms of coercion and elements of knowledge, what is the interplay of relay and support developed between them, such that a given element of knowledge takes on the effects of power in a given system where it is allocated to a true, probable, uncertain or false element, such that a procedure of coercion acquires the very form and justifications of a rational, calculated, technically efficient element, etc. 

He describes the link between power/knowledge, also distinguishing “savoir” from “connaissance” in passing:

Hence, the use of the word knowledge (Savoir) that refers to all procedures and all effects of knowledge (connaissance) which are acceptable at a given point in time and in a specific domain; and secondly, the term power (pouvoir) which merely covers a whole series of particular mechanisms, definable and defined, which seem likely to induce behaviors or discourses.

 Power/Knowledge aren't fundamental realities, but are instead points chosen for the their analytical pertinence:

We see right away that these two terms only have a methodological function. It is not a matter of identifying general principles of reality through them, but of somehow pinpointing the analytical front, the type of element that must be pertinent for the analysis. It is furthermore a matter of preventing the perspective of legitimation from coming into play as it does when the terms knowledge (connaissance) or domination are used. (51)

Furthermore these should always be specified as to content, rather than speaking generally of "Power" or of "Knowledge" as if these were essences: they are an "analytical grid":

such and such an element of knowledge, such and such a mechanism of power. No one should ever think that there exists one knowledge or one power, or worse, knowledge or power which would operate in and of themselves. Knowledge and power are only an analytical grid. (52)

He provides an excellent and clear summation of the concept of power/knowledge, in the context of pointing out how they are not composed of distinct elements "external" to one another:

for nothing can exist as an element of knowledge if, on one hand, it is does not conform to a set of rules and constraints characteristic, for example, of a given type of scientific discourse in a given period, and if, on the other hand, it does not possess the effects of coercion or simply the incentives peculiar to what is scientifically validated or simply rational or simply generally accepted, etc. Conversely, nothing can function as a mechanism of power if it is not deployed according to procedures, instruments, means, and objectives which can be validated in more or less coherent systems of knowledge.

 Thus an "ensemble" such as the healthcare, or medical, or scientific system at a particular point in history, is supported by a "knowledge-power nexus" which the Foucauldian scholar studies (as opposed to evaluating its legitimacy, or seeing it as a manifestation of some natural or eternal truth). The point is rather to understand how these "positivities" became "acceptable.”  The fact that something now seems obvious in retrospect has to be gotten beyond, because it did not at the time seem obvious, and it is that lack of necessity or inevitability that has to be restored in the analysis. Two correlative operations to be performed: 1) "bring out the conditions of acceptability of a system" and 2) "follow the breaking points which indicate its emergence." (54) He refers to this level of power/knowledge excavation as "archaeological."

The identification of the acceptability of a system cannot be dissociated from identifying what made it difficult to accept: its arbitrary nature in terms of knowledge, its violence in terms of power, in short, its energy. (54)

Ensembles are not analyzed as instances of universals or "individualizations of a species" but as "pure singularities:" the singularity of madness [in its time as a construct of modern medicine], of sexuality, etc. (55). The approach "has to keep itself within the field of immanence of pure singularities.” 

Then what? Rupture, discontinuity, singularity, pure description, still tableau, no explanation, dead-end, you know all that. 

His "analysis of positivities" "does not partake" in three "so-called explicative procedures to which are attributed causal value according to three conditions" (55-6) (these are: final authority; unitary origin; and unavoidability/necessity: three causal frameworks which Foucault seeks to avoid by focusing on positivities/eventalisation). Instead he will see "singularities" [singular historical formations, such as sexuality, psychoanalysis, etc,]  as the effects of [power/knowledge] networks. There will be many kinds of relations and connections, and forms of necessity among these "heterogeneous processes" (57). The singularity itself is seen as singular [historically unique], rather than being reduced to some single cause (that would account for any number of such singularities, thus reducing them to the no longer singular).

 The second level of analysis is genealogy: a way of seeking to understand the "conditions for the appearance of a singularity born out of multiple determining elements" without appealing to a "principle of closure" (57). There is no closure for two reasons:

1) we are not looking outside of the network of relationships for a final cause in the nature of things, but in the network of power/knowledge relationships; we don't find causality in "the nature of things" but in the uncertain logic of interactions, decisions, actions, etc.; the contingent.

2)  with the second reason he jumps to the level of strategies: the analysis of the mobile, fragile, and complexly changing relationships and networks. There is a “perpetual slippage” between competing [articulations] and changing meanings, formations, etc. which could be called strategies (58).

 To rephrase this triad simplistically, archaeology opens up understanding of past moments independently, in a manner that does not subordinate them to the present or any other overarching unity; genealogy understands the process of change without imposing an origin or telos; and strategy seems to focus on the agonistic context of meaning etc. in the present. He insists that archaeology, strategy, and genealogy are simultaneous dimensions of analysis, not successive levels or steps. He discusses how power is to be seen "in relation to a field of interactions" and as possibly reversible: it is not merely a top-down phenomenon but a bottom-up one as well. In this much more complex view (than Kant’s etc.) there is an “indivisibility of knowledge and power in the context of interactions and multiple strategies;” so any power formation or form of domination becomes only a temporary, fragile “event;” there is no longer a question of legitimation, right vs. wrong forms of domination, but simply of power relations. [And here is where the importance of ritual comes in, as a necessary form of renewal, maintenance, and re-articulation]. [Contrary to a common misunderstanding, relations of domination and legitimation remain important within this Foucauldian world-view; they are simply understood as part of the field of power-relations, instead of being held apart as principles upon which to found a critique].

In what way can the effects of coercion characteristic of these positivities not be dissipated by a return to the legitimate destination of knowledge and by a reflection on the transcendental or semi-transcendental that fixes knowledge, but how can they instead be reversed or released from within a concrete strategic field, this concrete strategic field that induced them, starting with this decision not to be governed? (60)

[He's talking about how this will not to be governed has historically been recuperated by the return to authority, or greater authority, part of the movement of subjectification (induced, recuperated). In my earlier notes (from who knows when) I called this “very Master and Servant.” Is there not a further parallel with ressentiment? Isn't it funny though that he evokes a language of liberation here?]

Summarizing, he describes the history of Kantian, etc. critique as "this swinging movement, this slippage, this way of deporting the question of the Aufklärung into critique" (61), but Foucault wants to go the other way, back towards Aufklärung; or rather, he wants to close the gap between “critique” and “Aufklärung” [here standing in for the entire apparatus of modernity, reason, etc.] and understand them as one.

And if it is necessary to ask the question about knowledge in its relationship to domination, it would be, first and foremost, from a certain decision-making will not to be governed, the decision-making will, both an individual and collective attitude which meant, as Kant said, to get out of one's minority. (61)

[So the goal is still the same as Kant had indicated, but it will be without this gap between critique and Enlightenment/reason/apparatus (or between reason as pure practice of critique, and reason as complicated mangle).] In a concluding statement, the host Gouhier rightly chides Foucault for the pretense that he is "not a philosopher" and "barely a critic," lines which Foucault of course delivers in a way that is far more intolerable than if he had merely been bragging about what a great philosopher and critic he was.

The questions from the audience are not contained in this translation; fortunately Miller discusses some of them in the summary referenced above. Miller’s summary of the lecture is actually quite limited, focusing primarily on the definition of critique as the will not to be governed; he does not discuss the subjects of power/knowledge and eventalization at all, and seems in fact disinterested in these concepts, perhaps because they are difficult to subsume into the fascination with death, under which he attempts to subordinate all of Foucault’s thinking. Anyway: one questioner asks whether this whole agonistic field of power and knowledge could not in fact be called “the will to power;” Foucault concurs. Another questioner asks for an interrogation of the “will not to be governed,” to which Foucault responds with a discussion of the “practice of revolt” throughout history (Miller, 305). Here he again reiterates the need to look beyond philosophy for a broader spectrum of practices, and finds a commonality in the movements of the Protestant Reformation and 20th Century Marxism, as forms of struggle against domination, and creators of hope, for a future and better world.

What Foucault has not really discussed here, though some aspects of his talk hint at it, is the extent to which critique, as an ethical imperative after all, is in fact mandated of the Enlightenment subject, in order to be considered enlightened, “awake,” etc. The figure of the uncritical ideological dupe is in this context an Other against which you are interpellated: you accuse others of being such dupes, while you yourself want to avoid being one, or being seen as one. [This is linked to the whole fear of automata]. And Kant’s form of critique, making use of the gap between the reason of the particularly awake and insightful individual, and the compromised reason of the society which that individual critiques, is the exemplary model of such a recuperated will-not-to-be-governed, which in fact functions as a drive or engine propelling governmentality forward into new and more complex, more subtle and effective forms. Foucault is attempting to hold on to the compelling hope that this will-not-to-be-governed helps create, while resisting, or at least attempting to resist, the ultimate recuperation and restoration of the “blackmail of the enlightenment.”

Foucault’s attempt to get beyond Kantian critique means taking critique a step further (by questioning and going beyond the principle of legitimation); and his second questioner asks him to go a step further than that (by questioning this will-not-to-be-governed). Foucault clearly acknowledges the desire but seems unable to formulate exactly how to do so. But again, Foucault’s agenda is not an endless corrosive critique, but critique-up-to-a-certain-point, in the service of constitution: as he has stated, the field of power/knowledge relations is not some fundamental reality, but a pragmatically chosen level of analysis, useful because it throws open a way to understand history, power relations, etc. as agonistic, open-ended, and ultimately creative and even revolutionary in potential.

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