Friday, November 26, 2010

The Crisis of Representation 2

The other day, while casually reading The Foucault Effect, I paused when I got to this sentence by Daniel Defert: "Wage-earners liked having the right to find employment where they pleased" (FE, p. 227). It is an odd sentence because the reader suddenly thinks, "How does he know?" Or, to put it in the terms of my last post, "Who is he to speak for the wage-earners?" Consider Deleuze's remark in "Intellectuals and Power":

A theorising intellectual, for us, is no longer a subject, a representing or representative consciousness. Those who act and struggle are no longer represented, either by a group or a union that appropriates the right to stand as their conscience. Who speaks and acts? It is always a multiplicity, even within the person who speaks and acts.

And Foucault's:

[U]nder the ancient theme of meaning, of the signifier and the signified, etc., you have developed the question of power, of the inequality of powers and their struggles. Each struggle develops around a particular source of power (any of the countless, tiny sources- a small-time boss, the manager of "H.L.M.,"' a prison warden, a judge, a union representative, the editor-in-chief of a newspaper).

And here is Deleuze again:

A theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate.

What puzzles me, then, is how a historian who has been "affected" by Foucault can unproblematically say, first, that wage-earners worked "where they pleased" and, second, that they "liked" having the right to do so.

Defert, it seems to me, does not feel "the indignity of speaking for others" when he writes that sentence, which does not make him feel sufficiently ridiculous. Indeed, there is nothing in the text to suggest that he even appreciates the difficulty. It is entirely unclear where he gained access to the likes and dislikes of nineteenth-century workers. It's probably not really a problem in the text we're talking about, of course, but, like I say, something about exactly that sentence made me stop up and question Defert's authority (after having taken it for granted up until then). That's probably very much a consequence of the "crisis of representation". After all, before 1968, "under the ancient theme of meaning", historians simply had the right to say this sort of thing. Today, we expect them to struggle a bit more for the right to speak.

What I wrote a couple of years ago still applies:

"Modern thought," said Deleuze in 1968 (in his preface to Difference and Repetition), "is born of the failure of representation, of the loss of identities, and of the discovery of all the forces that act under the representation of the identical." Today, we normally call this "postmodern" thought. Deleuze probably meant "contemporary" or "our thinking today"; he was drawing attention to something that was only just becoming clear to philosophers at the time.

What we call "modern" (sometimes "classical", here "ancient") thought is born of a faith in representation, of the maintainance of identities, and of the repression of all the forces that act under the representation of the identical. "Repression" is a strong word. "Discipline" might be better. Modern thought takes representation for granted as an orderly process. It assumes that the forces at work under a representation are well-organized, that they can be trusted to dependably make one thing (the sign) take the place of (signify) another thing (the signified).


Presskorn said...

And now the tough question: What would it mean for Daniel Defert "to struggle a bit more for the right to" say that 'Wage-earners liked...'? How would he go about that?

Thomas said...

That first Deleuze quote continues: "All of us are 'groupuscules.'(2) Representation no longer exists; there's only action-theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks."

So Defert would have had to construct his groupuscular subjectivity much more explicitly, in a sense telling us how his "enunciative modality" was/is shaped in solidarity with nineteenth-century wage earners.

Even if he has "evidence" in the traditional (ordinary?) sense, drawn from newspapers, letters, case files, etc., he would have to do this work of establishing his position of subjectivity in relation to a field of practice (the labour movement).

This was how Foucault, for example, (as is also made clear in "I&P") established his authority to talk about prison conditions.

Jonathan said...

It reminds me of a paper I once read analyzing anorexia from an ostensibly Foucauldian perspective--but then taking the rise of anorexia as reported by some health organization as a simple fact rather than as a social construct. Confusing the diagnosis of anorexia with its frequency. It shows that the epistemological understanding of Foucault was only skin-deep.

The idea that wage-workers liked their freedom seems like common-sense. Who wouldn't? It might very well be backed up by something more than that, that the writer didn't feel the need to cite.

Thomas said...

Yes, a great deal of "critical" writing (I'm trying not to say "postmodern"), i.e., writing "out from under" the ancient theme of meaning, writing against "the tyranny of the signifier", etc., totaly forgets the crisis of representation when it hits a convenient fact. This fact is then presented to the reader as unproblemtically "the case", i.e., represented in prose.

I think the problem lies in the way the critics of representation present their positive and negative theses. A theory is "a box of tools" (positive and right), but it also has "has nothing to do with the signifier" (negative and an exageration). A theory is a box of tools for building representations. It has a great deal to do with the signifier. Heidegger, for example, approached the "equipmental context" throught the referentiality of the "what for?".

Thomas said...

It suddenly occurs to me that you were perhaps being sarcastic in your first paragraph, Jonathan. Were you?

Jonathan said...

No, I was being straight. I remember another case where a student was defending her dissertation on mental illness, using a quasi-Foucauldian perspective, but also citing some mental health advocacy group or NGO or WHO stats on mental illness--as though there were some objective way of determining how many people were afflicted with mental illness. You don't get to use Foucault if you simply regard the incidence of mental illness as a straightforward fact. The very notion of mental illness is a construct in constant flux.

I still let her pass her defense, though.

Thomas said...

That's what I though you meant. But your reference to "common sense" reminded me that it's also true that some Foucauldians are unwilling to let simple facts go un-"problematized".

The real issue for me is that sometimes this problematization is just too local a crisis. It's invoked for effect and convenience. And then, like you say, when you need something (like how wage-earners felt) to be simple "the case", you say it without blushing.