Monday, September 13, 2010

Foucault engages in an immanent “critique of critique”

I recently came across Amy Allen’s excellent book, The Politics of Our Selves: Power, Autonomy, and Gender in Contemporary Critical Theory, and have found her discussion of Foucault in chapters two and three particularly helpful and insightful.  In chapter two, Allen offers a careful reading of Foucault’s relationship to Kant and concludes that Foucault does not reject, cancel, or write off the subject per se but rather a particular historical understanding of the (transcendental) subject as the source of all meaning. […]
In short, Foucault’s comments advocating the subject’s demise must be taken not as a complete rejection of subjectivity or the subject itself; rather, Foucault’s criticism are aimed specifically at the notion of a subject shielded from all socio-historical and cultural influences—the ahistorical subject as sovereign originator of all meaning.  For Foucault, it is undeniable that the subject is socially constituted; however, the subject as a free being is also capable of (re)constituting him/herself because all the converging, intersecting, socio-historical lines which shaped the subject in the first place are contingent, not necessary.  In addition, Allen adds that Foucault himself “argues that Kant’s own writings on anthropology point beyond this transcendental conception and pave the way for the fully historicized conception of the subject that Foucault later develops. On this interpretation, Foucault’s call for the end of man is perfectly consistent with the project of reconceptualizing subjectivity carried out in Foucault’s later work.”[3]
Pointing toward an argument that she develops in chapter three, Allen ends chapter two with a foreshadowing of her conclusion.  “[A]lthough Foucault does rely in his late work on notions of subjectivity and autonomy, he radically reformulates these concepts; thus, they are not the same as the strictly Kantian and phenomenological notions that are taken up and transformed in his early work.”[4] Like myself, Allen does not see Foucault’s ethico-aesthetic turn as a significant rupture with or cancellation of his early work, nor (as we’ve seen) does she hold that Foucault has done away with the concept of the subject per se. Rather than, as Habermas would have it, a “total critique of modernity,” Foucault engages in an immanent “critique of critique”; he does not give us “an abstract negation of the self-referential subject,” but instead “interrogates its conditions of possibility. That interrogation is designed to show the historical and cultural specificity and, thus contingency of this conception of subjectivity, which in turn makes possible new modes of subjectification.”[5] In essence, Foucault performs an act of philosophical resistance via reverse discourse by simultaneously taking up and transforming Kantian categories and structures.  Or applying a jazz analogy, Foucault improvises on a Kantian lead sheet quoting Kantian melodies reharmonized in a postmodern key.

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