Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Crisis of Representation

"Then came the five brief, impassioned, jubilant, enigmatic years."

This sentence appears in Michel Focault's preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, first published in 1972. He is referring to the years 1966-1970. With the fourtieth anniversary of the events of May 1968 coming up, now is a good time to reflect (again) on what they meant.

According to Foucault, the period that came before was characterized by "a certain way of thinking correctly, a certain style of political discourse, a certain ethics of the intellectual," that was largely defined by Marxism, psychoanalysis and structuralism. French post-modernism came into its own when the events of 1968* violently overturned these "three requirements that made the strange occupation of writing and speaking a measure of truth about oneself and one's time acceptable."

Foucault and Deleuze would later agree about something they called "the indignity of speaking for others". That insight is at the core of the changes in French intellectual culture of the late 1960s. I would argue that we are still living, and especially writing, in this crisis of representation. Or rather, I would argue that the option of writing in this crisis remains open to us.

"Modern thought," said Deleuze (in his preface to Difference and Repetition), "is born of the failure of representation, the loss of identities, and the discovery of all the forces that act under the representation of the identical. The modern world is one of simulacra." This goes both for the representation of [both] political subjects and scientific objects. In his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Foucault would suggest understanding the formation of objects by bringing about their "depresentification". This is, roughly speaking, the opposite of representing them.

If French intellectual ethics before 1966 allowed writers to represent the world and our history straightforwardly, i.e., to speak on behalf of it on the basis of their research ('I've looked into it and it turns out that ...'), this was no longer possible in the aftermath of 1968. Any claim to be speaking "the truth" was now suspect. Who was an intellectual, anyway? What claim did the intellectual have on the truth?

Today, it is not even as simple as not having the right to represent. The revolution, after all, was not successful. As Foucault points out, the passion and the jubilation were brief. The enigma passed. Much of the intellectual world (especially outside France) went back to the old way of doing things, 'uncritically' representing things and people, i.e., proceeding as though there was no crisis, as though their theories and methods gave them all the authority they needed to speak for the world and for history.

Postmodern writing expresses a commitment to the spirit of 1968. It would be unfair to call it nostalgic. Rather, it proposes an intellectual style that remains in opposition to certain ways of "thinking correctly". But this style, which of course is also a style of writing, or a range of such styles, has its own standards of correctness—or incorrectness, if you prefer. The writer must continuously undermine the tendency to read a text as a representation, as something other than a simulacrum, as something that is speaking for something or someone else. The writer must refuse to represent its subject-matter, must not try speak on its behalf, but instead engage with "all the forces that act under the representation of the identical".

It isn't easy, of course. But it is, today, one approach to research in the social sciences, including management studies. Once you have made the commitment, you have defined your problem of writing in a particular way.

[More here.]

Update (19/05/09): I want to emphasize the words "came into its own". Postmodernism did not begin in 1968, but May 1968 marks the point at which postmodernist thinking went definitively "mainstream" as it were. For many, what would later be called the "postmodern condition" was now a reality.

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