Is Foucault responsible for identity politics?
The pseudo-Foucault distorts Foucauldian doctrine not in pursuit of truth, but as a strategy of power
Before the invention of printing and the birth of modern philological techniques during the Renaissance, a plethora of strange and sometimes stupid manuscripts circulated Europe on the basis of erroneous assignment to the canonical figures of antiquity and the famous doctors of the Roman Church.
Among the most popular authors of so-called pseudepigrapha was the pseudo-Aristotle, author of letters on alchemical weapons and love magic, and an illuminated treatise on alchemy by the pseudo-Aquinas.
Today, no longer as manuscripts but now as weaponised jargon and fragments of concepts, global post-modernity is crowded with similar characters including a pseudo-Marx arguing for transgenderism, a pseudo-Hitler who supports free speech and individual rights, and perhaps above all, a pseudo-Foucault.
Michel Foucault today is the most cited scholar in the world, in large part because it is almost invariably Foucault to whom contemporary activist studies departments trace their intellectual foundations. At the most basic level, Foucault the famous French professor supplies a signature of seriousness for disciplines without clear academic standards or traditions.
But Foucault is also more than simply an authoritative name, or what he himself theorised as an “author-function.” By questioning “what governs statements, and the way in which they govern each other” and proposing the deceptively simplistic answer power, Foucault supplies a form of relativism helpful for subversion in which the marginalised “wrong” is as good as the normative “right”, if not better.
The pseudo-Foucault appears initially like a reasonable, if reductive reading of the real Foucault’s ideas
Foucault sometimes flirted with this rhetoric, particularly in the aftermath of the Paris student uprisings in May 1968, so it is not unwarranted that critics of the new academy, whether, , or often identify Foucault as the mastermind behind the intersectional ideology which forms its defining product. As Woman and Equalities minister Liz Truss recently , identity politics has “roots in post-modernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.”
Yet the tendency to designate postmodernist ideas as what the real Aristotle called the unmoved mover in the chronicle of contemporary cultural collapse is arguably a symptom of the same condition. In truth, the real Foucault’s position in the activity of his self-identified disciples tends to rehearse the role his own master Nietzsche compared to the behaviour of plundering troops: “they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.”
For one thing, Foucault recognized that the relation between societal power structures and labels and individual agency could never be a simple opposition, and the latter did not clearly follow from the denunciation of the former. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same,” Foucault declared, “leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.” This is about as far from the spirit of intersectional identity politics as one could get.
Foucault is best known today as the theorist of discourse: symbolic expressions of institutional power which are neither true nor false but serve as practical channels for organizing society. Multiculturalism, for example, is a discourse, as is Marxism, and race, but “science” also is a discourse, to the extent this term is used politically in order to assert authority, and issue certain claims.
Originally inspired by Trofim Lysenko’s now ridiculed theory of environmentally determined biological inheritance, which dominated mid-century Soviet science through its convergence with Politburo priorities, much like the work of Neil Ferguson today, Foucault’s early research investigated the formation of psychiatry in the late eighteenth century, as madness ceased to be regarded as a special spiritual condition and transformed into an object of scientific intervention.
For Foucault, this transformation was neither good nor bad, but only an impersonal twist in the historical spiral of power on the road to its intensifying rationalization. Pseudo-Foucault has dispensed with this detachment. In the intersectional discourse of gender and race, the problem is not to trace the genealogy of modern power, but to attack the avatars of Western culture, conceived as a suppressive force maliciously directed against the wretched of the earth.
What is required is the “decolonisation” of traditional paradigms of knowledge, institutions, individuals and practices in order to remove their normatively privileged elements, now theorised ironically as intellectual and spiritual contaminants that call their other achievements into question, if not undermine them altogether.
Social justice is to the twenty-first century what Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ was to the nineteenth
Representatives of racial and gender categories imagined as having suffered most from Western history and culture are thus elevated, and their counterparts downgraded, irrespective of their personal circumstances or individual merits. Why is David Starkey publicly humiliated for a slip of the tongue, but his former Cambridge colleague Priyamvada Gopal is promoted for proposing that “White lives don’t matter… as white lives”? Because Starkey, the son of a factory foreman, is the representative of a privileged group, whereas Gopal, the daughter of a diplomat, educated in an international school in Vienna, represents the marginalised subaltern.
Ironically, given his importance in the intellectual formation of the real Foucault, the doctrine of the pseudo-Foucault recalls Lysenko both theoretically and practically. Here again the power of the demiurge of history is theorised as the central, if not the sole materially important factor. And here too, political persecution of opponents substitutes for any shortfall in explanatory power. As Sakharov observed, Lysenko was responsible for “the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.” The same cruelty animates the pseudo-Foucault.
As with Gnosticism and Christianity, or sophistry and philosophy, the pseudo-Foucault appears initially like a reasonable, if reductive reading of the real Foucault’s ideas. In truth, he is closer to his evil twin.
Underpinning the pseudo-Foucault’s claim to the superiority of marginalised identities is the assertion of their victimhood – rhetoric which the real Foucault rejected. “Did the critical discourse that addresses itself to repression come to act as a roadblock to a power mechanism that had operated unchallenged up to that point,” Foucault asks at the beginning of The History of Sexuality, “or is it not in fact part of the same historical network as the thing it denounces (and doubtless misrepresents) by calling it a repression?”
Sexuality, Foucault maintained, in fact has never been repressed, but only ever generated as the symptom of “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure” fuelling what his hagiographer James Miller describes as “an uncontrollable growth of new polymorphous perversions, sometimes vitalising, sometimes virulent.”
Likewise with race, which Foucault theorises as transforming from an ethnic and linguistic concept grounded in the structures of the feudal system into a quasi-biological conception with the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state. In Society Must Be Defended, Foucault argues that modernity develops a new form of administrative racism “against the abnormal” in which race is no longer defined by naturalist communitarian divisions but now through deviant psychological and social profiles: the individual to be corrected, the onanist, the mad. This administrative racism today persists through terms like incel and deplorable and even racist, rather than archaic fourfold eighteenth-century colonial lexicons.
The pseudo-Foucault supplies an almost infinitely plastic theory available for instant application to any field of pseudo-study
In short, the development of modern power is neither a story of the oppression of one group over another, who then fabricate specious justifications in order to justify their domination, nor a story of formerly acceptable marginal identities suddenly subjected to repression by an intolerant normative majority, before just as suddenly becoming liberated. The story is, in fact, in some way worse: the post-Enlightenment expansion of bureaucratic structures coldly manufacturing entirely new categories of populations and behaviours purely to administratively use them.
“The bourgeoisie doesn’t give a damn about the mad,” Foucault remarks, “but it is interested in power over the mad… the procedures used to exclude the mad produced or generated a political profit, or even a certain economic utility.” Likewise, the system doesn’t give a damn about the identities or feelings of its human resources, except insofar they continue to be useful for pushing buttons towards administratively productive ends.
Not groups themselves, but the only the administrative logic of the classifying concepts counts. When the politically and economically efficient discourses of nineteenth century imperialism cease to be effective, these discourses are reformulated, even inverted, in order to better suit new enterprises.
The apparent irony that the academic scholarships for foreign students created by the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes now supports ultra-progressive scholars who campaign to damn his memory conceals a deeper continuity. Social justice is to the globalising twenty-first century what Kipling’s “white man’s burden” was to the imperialist nineteenth: an alibi of moral purpose misrepresenting a systematic agency that was never based on ideological criteria, whether good or bad, but only on productively exporting surplus men and surplus capital.
Beneath superficially contrasting rhetoric, this same spirit advances, but now through subtler means. What two hundred years ago was extracted from the muscles and embedded in the skin today is scraped and synthesised through algorithmic mass manipulation, and networked surveillance from the nerves, and soon beneath the skin, through the administration of vaccines.
The pseudo-cultural revolution which over the last decade has overwhelmed Western universities can be viewed in the same way. Here again the bourgeoisie, or what the populist Left calls the professional managerial class, don’t give a damn about Foucault, or Marx, or even Hitler, not to mention Aristotle or Aquinas, but only the systematic profit that can be extracted from cheaply processing the student body.
Towards this end, the pseudo-Foucault and his pseudo-colleagues supply an almost infinitely plastic theory available for instant application to any field of pseudo-study whatever. The matrix allows administrators to dispense with expensive scarce ability both from students and professors and recruit instead from the much larger and more profitable pool which clusters in the middle of the bell curve.
As in other neoliberal enterprises, the externalities are passed onto the general public, in this case in the form of half-literate lumpen intelligentsia, deranged by cognitive dissonance, drowning in debt, and understanding nothing except how to run a single screaming script of pseudo-virtuous persecution on social media. The outcome is the deepening deficit of expertise, integrity and judgement which has been brutally exposed this year across the West.
The pseudo-Foucault is not a falsification of Foucault’s theory, but another form of its expression
The pseudo-Foucault is not a falsification of Foucault’s theory, but another form of its expression, if not a purer form. Even as the pseudo-Foucault travesties in terms of doctrine what the actual Foucault says, he does this using discourse precisely as the real Foucault claimed that institutions use it: not in pursuit of truth, but as a strategy of power. But this is only a particular modality of discourse, a pseudo-discourse, one could say, originating at a certain time, and restricted to the context of what Foucault called a game of truth which for all its totalitarian pretensions never has, and in the end, can never be, the only game in town.
This pseudo-discourse is now everywhere apparent in the pseudo-reality of a viral cult of fear and death which for the last nine months has spread across the West like a patient intubated on a table. As pseudo-experts, in the pay of pseudo-philanthropists, issue pseudo-claims, to pseudo-statesman, based on pseudo-positives from pseudo-tests relayed by pseudo-journalists, to call for pseudo-rituals of real domination and humiliation, we are confronting now a pseudo-plague in more ways than one.
In the last phase of his career, as he came to recognize the implications of the system he had spent his life’s work mapping, Foucault seemed to become increasingly aware of the necessity for a deeper form of engagement beyond pure description. Not coincidentally, this took the form of a renewed attention to the classical foundations of philosophy, askesis, or care of the self, and parrhesia, or fearless speech: two key terms for the emerging anti-lockdown movement that surely will continue to grow.
His final seminar of lectures at the College de France was called The Courage of the Truth. “Only by deciphering the truth of self in this world, deciphering oneself with mistrust of oneself and the world, and in fear and trembling before God,” he wrote on the last page of the manuscript of his last lecture, “will enable us to have access to the true life.”
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