Saturday, September 15, 2007

chomsky and foucault - power and justice

Below are two youtube clips of a discussion between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault aired on Dutch television in 1971.
I find this event amazing for three reasons:
1) I like a lot of what Chomsky and Foucault have to say for varying reasons and I don't see the two great thinkers (and doers) as diametrically opposed. But moreso, the fact that they tete-a-tete'd suggests that
presumably they held some level of respect or regard for each other. Who would've thunk it?;
2) It was 1971 and post-structuralism was fairly new on the political/philosophical scene so it must have been fairly well-respected to have warranted such a meeting of minds. I'm kind of surprised;
3) I don't believe that a debate of similar calibre would be aired on TV in Australia today (or ever). It was called Human Nature: Power and Justice! Not very Australian... Whatever that means. I'm thinking those Euros really like their philosophy. Kudos, Europe.
Anyway, I don't agree with Foucault's political cynicism. I'm something more of a Delueze and Guattari (D+G) fan and although they roughly accorded with Foucault's understanding of the historical contingency of ideas and actions (ie. non-essentialism) they were able to do so without Foucault's political pessimism. Perhaps the use of the word pessimism is a bit harsh here but D+G understood the importance of acting politically on all levels of existence (ref A Thousand Plateux), so they don't inherently see political action as being about reforming power relations (and discourse) alone. For them, the tendency for fascism to overwhelm political engagement is a consequence of existence itself, so it becomes important to beware the micro-fascist proclivities within oneself that threaten otherwise de/re-territorialising (revolutionary) praxis. Foucault was an activist, having said that.
Regardless, clearly Foucault thought that micro-fascisms inevitably undermine such praxis as they would serve to re-institute similar discourses (ways of thinking and doing) in the name of the new. I can understand this kind of thinking. Just look at Communist Russia et al or Howard's response to possible paedophilia in Indigenous communities. But that's not the point. The point for D+G is that difference ultimately disrupts everything and inevitably creates new forms out of existing forms, so that society, politics, everything, is constantly undergoing change. And radical political praxis is a possible and occasional part of this. The potential for it in Western societies may not be particularly strong right now, but it remains a possibility nonetheless. All that's required are the right prevailing conditions. I want to be a part of that tradition. And from an anarchist perspective in particular. With post-structural pretensions...
On the flipside, I can't agree with Chomsky's optimism about human nature and the pursuit of human excellence. I think this kind of Modernist thinking is a bit fanciful and potentially opens itself to fascism far too readily - with all the best intentions in Chomsky's instance, of course. And of course, it relies on the notion of some kind of essential human being, which doesn't seem to exist.
So, I sit somewhere between Foucault and Chomsky and I reckon D+G occupy that space quite comfortably.
For what it's worth.
And I haven't even mentioned power and justice at all...
Finally, I've included a clip of Ali G interviewing Chomsky about linguistics.
I wonder what kind of pain Ali G could have caused Foucault if he were still around and had
dropped enough pretentiousness in his old age to speak English.

nwplyng: ryuichi sakamoto - reversing

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