Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Crisis of Representation 1

I've noticed that quite a few people come to this blog searching for information about "the crisis of representation". This morning I want to write the first of two posts on that subject, picking up on what I said in some posts from early 2008 (this one and this one).

In March 1972, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault recorded a conversation that was then published in a special Deleuze issue of L'Arc as "Intellectuals and Power". At one point in the conversation, Deleuze says the following:

In my opinion, you were the first—in your books and in the practical sphere—to teach us something absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others. We ridiculed representation and said it was finished, but we failed to draw the consequences of this "theoretical" conversion-to appreciate the theoretical fact that only those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on their own behalf.

There is much to think about in this description of the intellectual transformation that took place in the 1960s in France. First, Deleuze describes the problem of representation as "fundamental"; second, he suggests that representation (speaking on behalf of others) is ridiculous; third, he rightly describes this as a "theoretical conversion" that implies a "theoretical fact"; fourth, that this theoretical crisis, however, must ultimately be faced in practice. Finally, notice that this last point is a consequence that they had originally (before Foucault "taught" them otherwise) "failed to draw" from their critique.

Since 1972, of course, much has happened; almost forty years have passed. Indeed, I was one year old when this conversation took place and have therefore, let's say, lived my whole life in "the crisis of representation". Reflecting on it now, it seems very accurate to describe representation as "ridiculous" or at least "ridiculed". It lacks dignity. Intellectuals much more often balk at the idea of representing things and people in their writing than actually critiquing (in a Kantian sense) "the conditions the possibility" of speaking for them. It is as if they know, first and foremost, that representation is laughable or, more specifically, that the desire to represent and the presumption that we can do so is laughable. The crisis of representation is not so much a thought as a feeling. One feels ridiculous.

I feel ridiculous even now as I bring it up. Most of my adult life has been lived in awareness of the crisis of representation, i.e., against the background of "the indignity of speaking for others", and even of speaking for things. But I have always liked Bertrand Russell's description of Wittgenstein's central question in his introduction to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. "What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" He wrote that in May of 1922, almost exactly 50 years before Deleuze and Foucault sat down to talk. Russell called it a "logical" question (as opposed to the psychological, epistemological, and scientific questions that also pertain to language). We might say that the "crisis of representation" in its modern form, i.e., the form that is familiar to us, arose when this logical problem was converted into a practical one. I think we still too often fail to appreciate "the consequences of this conversion"; in a sense, it is what Richard Rorty very aptly called simply "the consequences of pragmatism".

Foucault later says to Deleuze: "The two themes frequently encountered in the recent past, that 'writing gives rise to repressed elements' and that 'writing is necessarily a subversive activity,' seem to betray a number of operations that deserve to be severely denounced." As someone who struggles with the problem of writing every day, I have come to appreciate not so much the moral indignity (ridiculousness) of representation, nor even its theoretical impossibility (crisis), but, again and again, its practical difficulty, which was precisely what Deleuze and Foucault were talking about. "What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" I don't think Wittgenstein's question is ridiculous. But it is certainly not an easy one to answer, just as the problem it marks is not easy to solve. I hope my operations are not going to be too often denounced.


Presskorn said...

I very much like the distinction between the moral indignity (ridiculousness) of representation, its theoretical impossibility (crisis) and its practical difficulty. And I agree that the main question of representation is its practical difficulty. Or, as I am fond of saying these days (in a Brandomian idiom), that representational content is to be seen in terms of representational purport. This is one of the ‘consequences of pragmatism’.

But was that practical difficulty what Deleuze and Foucault urged us to focus on? Perhaps in ‘Intellectuals and Power’, but that text is in many ways very peculiar. And in general, I don’t think so.

As far I can tell Deleuze’s “Difference and Repetition” does not contain one remark on the practical difficulty of representation. (The bit from ‘Intellectuals and Power’ can of course be seen as admitting this.). Instead ‘Difference and Repetition’ tells us over and over that representation is a flawed concept (a theoretical impossibility) and that ‘images of thought’ that adhere to representation are counter-productive (morally defect). This position has, I believe, been very influential in French philosophy, but it is nevertheless a rather strange position. Strange, since it is generally absurd to warn against a sin (representation is morally defect) that it is not possible to commit (representation is theoretically impossible). It makes a virtue out of necessity.

With Foucault everything is more complicated and nuanced, but in this context, it is worth remarking that in his debate with Habermas, it emerged very clearly that Foucault was committed to holding that agents “directly concerned” with a practice “in a practical way” has no epistemological privilege in articulating that practice. (The analytic of power hinges on overcoming such a na├»ve form of hermeneutics.)

Just some comments, great post….

Thomas said...

Well, DR does contain this remark on page 182:

"The essence is nothing, an empty generality, when separated from this measure, this manner, this study of cases. ... The variable multiplicity is the how many, the how and each of the cases." (My emphasis)

I completely agree with you about this: "it is generally absurd to warn against a sin (representation is morally defect) that it is not possible to commit (representation is theoretically impossible)."

However, it is no more absurd than Nietzsche's injunction to "become what you are" (Kierkegaard's too, perhaps). That, too, implies a "difficulty".

Presskorn said...

I wonder if "Become WHAT you are" is your pangrammatical twist to "Become who you are" or... But supposedly Greek scholars actually prefer that translation of Pindar's maxim...

Thomas said...

Interesting. Yes, I think the Pangrammaticon would say: who you are = what you become. Because being is to things what becoming is to people, "Who am I?" is a poorly phrased question. But so is "What am I becoming?" (Or, "What has become of you?") "Who am I becoming?" That is the question. (As Heidegger points out, it is not, "What is man?", but "Who is man?")

Thomas said...

And, we can then add, not "Who is man?" but "Who becomes man?" or "Who does man become?" Which I think evokes Agamben.