Monday, December 8, 2008

Foucault's "Love Truth"

My talk will be about the philosophy of Michel Foucault not because Foucault wrote about love - he did not - but because his writing represents much of the thought of our times. Because Foucault represents a framework for meaning where love seems very irrelevant. Because - please forgive me if this is clever - because Foucault's writings define, mark the space, the dimensions and the limits, of ways of thinking that tend to prevail in ourtimes, certainly in the social sciences, certainly in much of television programming, probably in much of average commonsense. Foucault is a relevant topic for All College Meeting because his worldview challenges all places, all meetings,where "love," this my favorite word, is so often and so dearly spoken. Foucault, in his vast writings, charted what he called a history of the present; it is a history of modern sciences, intertwined with a history of modern institutions, and it is therefore a history of modern minds, our minds, the very minds we use every day, and here, and now, to think. Foucault's is a tale of knowledge/power, of knowledge and of power, in which these two terms, knowledge and power, interconnect and interlock, and there is no third. If we leave aside his last works published shortly before his death, we travel in Foucault's space through a mental universe pervaded and defined by power, where I will seek, here and now, with you in this meeting, not to find but to construct a space for some relevance for this ancient and beautiful word "love," for this survivor of survivors, for this word "love" which has more than once been identified with the holy word "God," for thisword "love," this word so often spoken in this meeting house on Sunday mornings, this word that stubbornly refuses to become meaningless in this century of the abuse of meaning. I will seek a space for love, in Foucault's world of power, and I would, if I could, make "love" the principle of resistance to power, in dwelling in every human heart as agape, as the good parent, as loyalty. Please pray for me if you can, and for my part I will try to help us together to lift up and honor a space, a framework of meaning, where "love" lives, still and always, in its own rightful and valid place among the words. I will seek, with your help, to evoke, rather than to say, what most needs to be said, to offer a spoken invitation to a nunspoken message, to offer some footnotes for silent worship.

Roland Barthes has explained, better than I could, why what most needs to be said cannot be said. In our times, wrote Barthes, in his book Sade, Fourier, Loyola, no word escapes abuse, not one, because every word is part of a language, and every language is part of a corrupt social order.There is no privileged language outside society; there is no place, no framework for meaning, where we can stand, and speak from, in order to criticize society. Those of us who denounce the reigning violence which structures this world, often fail to ask ourselves from whence come the terms of our denunciation; out of where, and from where comes the judgmental framework which alone gives meaning to anger and to critique ? I shall call this question, "Barthes' question." Barthes' answer is that every single word we have in our language is a functioning part of a social order which is, among other things, patriarchal, capitalist, and violent; no word is pure, every word, every single one, is an integral part of human culture in our times; no word in our language comes from another planet; therefore no word is innocent enough to name the standard for judging the rest, no word is authorized to cast the first stone. We can only make a word an instrument for judging society if we borrow that word temporarily without becoming too attached to it; Barthes actually says "only by theft." I agree. And as much as I love the word "God"; as much as I love the word "love;" as much as I love our Symbol, the Cross, which unites us as Christians, I must still say, as Paul Tillich said, that salvation will not come from any human word or symbol, but only from a higher being who cuts vertically through all the conformities that humans create. What Foucault did in his book Discipline and Punish was to write the history of the origins of the prison, as earlier in Madness and Civilization he had written the history of the isolation of the insane in mental hospitals. His characteristic theses go beyond prisons and hospitals; he finds that power is everywhere; we modern individuals are ourselves products of, creatures of, power; there is no knowledge, no truth, independent of power. Beyond prisons and asylums Foucault writes of schools, factories, barracks ... He writes of the life of the individual in modern society. In some famous lines in Discipline and Punish Foucault wrote, "Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?" (Discipline and Punish, p. 228). It is here, in this Foucault's synoptic vision of our contemporary world that love becomes conspicuous by its absence.

On Foucault's account, power/knowledge dominates our daily lives. Power/knowledge defines, as knowledge, what counts as "normal," and what counts as "deviant;" and then, power/knowledge, as power, enforces its definitions, accepting the normal and punishing the deviant. It is here - where all knowledge and every possible meaning for any word is already assumed to be some variant of power - it is just here that love's absence can be discerned as the presence of a spirit. Love's absence in Foucault's writings is the presence of a spirit, of a ghost, of a specter which haunts the world of power/knowledge as the presence of another possibility. For two reasons: First, if we ask Barthes' question, then "love" in its very absence, can be seen to be present in Foucault, as an answer to Barthes' question. Barthes' question is, "from whence come the terms of Foucault's denunciation; out of where, and from where comes the judgmental framework which alone gives meaning to Foucault's anger and to Foucault's critique?" More than one critic, and Foucault himself in a 1976 interview, has answered Barthes question by saying that the subtext, the unspoken silent background, which gives moral force to Foucault's account of the gradual rise of contemporary systems for subjecting individuals to disciplinary power, is moral outrage. On Foucault's account of the history of prisons, and in his account of the history of the treatment of the insane, and in his general remarks on life in contemporary society, there lives the presence of an absent critique: it is not right, it is humiliating, for humans to be treated in these ways, and although Foucault does not allow himself to say it, the reader knows he means it. Just here, in this unspoken but very sincere identification with victims, we find the presence of a spirit, a will, in a space presided by an authority which could be named. The name of that indicting authority could be - would be, for a person of the Christian persuasion - "love," or "God."

Second, in his meticulous accounts of what actually happened in the history of modern social discipline, Foucault frequently mentions - as he must, to be true to the facts - the frequent cries from the heart not only of the victims, but of those who in every age have identified with victims and helped them. Foucault mentions, for example, Samuel Tukes, the English Quaker who, moved by charity in his heart, founded the first mental hospital; he mentions, for example, the good Quakers of Philadelphia, who, from concern and loving kindness, at least so they thought and so they felt, constructed the first modern prison, on Walnut Street in that city. These and many other cries from the heart, these and many other benevolent actions, are faithfully recorded by Foucault, but he does not draw them together and bring them into focus; their divinity is not named as response to the voice of a growing inner discipline of the human soul; much less are love's works named as Martin Luther King's great teacher George Washington Davis would have named them as "the action of God in history." For Foucault the words of loving sympathy for fellow human beings in distress, which as an historian he faithfully transcribes, are, in the words of one critic, "so much incidental music."

Of Foucault we can say what Peter Gay said of Edward Gibbon, that he wrote in split-level style, such that on a first level, a superficial one, the historian - Foucault or Gibbon - records expressions of what people actually say, but the author means the reader to decode the actual words of, for example, Samuel Tukes, as expressions of unreal sentiments; while on a second level, treated as the real level, history is a story of power, in which love and all virtue is at best irrelevant, at worst deceit in power's service. But Foucault's focus on power as the underlying reality, which makes of love just what Saint Paul said it wasn't, "sounding brass, tinkling cymbal," is an arbitrary focus. Foucault tells us himself, on page 24 of Discipline and Punish, that understanding the history of punishment in terms of the technology of power will be a principle of his methodology; therefore power's ubiquity cannot be a finding; it is a conclusion made inevitable by a method. And Foucault himself, in an interview shortly before he died, said his focus on power/knowledge was arbitrary. Asked by the interviewer why he had surprised his readers, in the third volume of his never-completed History of Sexuality, by not treating power as the all-pervasive reality of social life, Foucault replied that he had chosen not to, just as, for most of his career, he had chosen to.

Let us take Foucault at his word, and conclude that when he wrote the history of prisons, and of modern institutions generally, using power/knowledge as his unifying theme, it was an arbitrary choice. And, since God is a Spirit, and since we are here to worship God in Spirit and in truth, and since God is love, let us ask why Foucault did not choose instead, as at least one of his unifying themes, the action of love in history. A first answer to this question, the question why the intellectual space in which Foucault's concepts emerge and take on their meaning is not a love-centered worldview, is that Foucault did not choose love because it did not suit his temperament. Foucault once said this about himself: "I think the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn't survive it. I would die ... There is also the fact that some drugs are really important to me because they are the mediation to those incredibly intense joys that I am looking for and that I am not able to experience, to afford, by myself. It's true that a glass of wine, of good wine, old and so on, may be enjoyable but it's not for me. A pleasure must be something incredibly intense ... I'm not able to give myself and others those middle range pleasures that make up everyday life. Such pleasures are nothing for me and I am not able to organize my life in order to make place for them. That's the reason why I'm not a social being, why I'm not really a cultural being, why I'm so boring in my everyday life. It's a bore to live with me." (Politics, Philosophy, Culture, pp. 12-13). It is usual, I believe, for people to enjoy love in the middle range pleasures, the ones which are nothing for a person of Foucault's temperament; for example, in father-daughter bicycle rides, in mother-son bedtime stories, holding hands at midnight beneath a starry sky, watching movies while sharing a box of popcorn with your best friend, quietly meditating on God when walking back home while the snow is falling, listening to whatever kind of music moves our souls. For people of a training and temperament different from Foucault's, the word "love" is a valid name for a quality of relationships nurtured and sustained in the enjoyment of middle range pleasures. Foucault's exclusive interest in such intense pleasures as those of sado-masochistic sex, drugs, and dangerous brushes with death, partly explains the absence of "love" from his vocabulary. Second, for Foucault "love" is a reactionary concept. Foucault remarked that hewas disappointed when a socialist leader spoke of "solidarity," a word I take to be similar to love, because the word "solidarity" reminded Foucault of listening in his childhood to the radio broadcast speeches of Marshall Petain, the fascist puppet of Adolf Hitler, who governed France when Foucault was a little boy, after France's defeat in World War II. In regarding love-talk as a throw-back to times less enlightened than ours, and as the perpetual pretext of those who destroy even now the liberties some of humanity has gained in recent centuries, Foucault is unfortunately quite correct. Those of us who keep the word must do so penitently, cum onere, assuming its burdens; we can only love "love" in spite of and with a commitment to avoid repeating the crimes committed in its name; there is no other honest way.

Third, last, and most important, in this space where love might be, in this space where anger and critique require a moral framework to be meaningful, there Foucault sees no need for love, because he saw power itself as productive. Those of us for whom love is central see a need for it because however wonderful a liberal ethic, centered on freedom, rights, self-determination and human dignity, may be, we humans still need the indwelling spirit of love to move us to care and to act, to move us off the dime. Love activates us to serve our sisters and brothers, and to serve the dream of a future of peace and justice. Love-driven people have more energy than those who force themselves to get up in the morning to spend another day chasing the dollar, more energy than guilt-driven people, more energy than anger-driven people, and, I would insist, more than those who are driven by commitment to secular liberal ethics. John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice is an elaborate liberal ethical philosophy in which the word "love" is scarcely mentioned, admitted when questioned that although his philosophy might correctly define what a person should do, without love a person would be unlikely actually to do it. But this is a problem Foucault does not have; at least he does not think he has it; it is for him a non-problem, or a problem invisible from his point of view. For Foucault power is not only and not mainly, repressive.

Power organizes life. It gets things done. Power is not what just what stops us, it also starts us; in its modern disciplinary forms in prisons, in schools, in hospitals, in factories, in the civil service, power sets us our tasks, and then it moves us to accomplish them. Truth, for Foucault, is an issue; love is irrelevant. Truth is the subject of a running debate between Foucault and Jurgen Habermas, a debate which still continues between their respective allies even today more than a decade after Foucault's death. For Habermas and others, truth emerges where power is suspended. For Foucault truth, like everything else, is formed by power; Habermas says truth requires dialogue without coercion; truth can only advance where power retreats...

... Howard Richards

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