Foucault and Habermas [chapter]

David Ingram, Gary Gutting
The Cambridge Companion to Foucault  
Habermas must confront the messy fact that their own thinking about critical theory underwent fairly drastic changes over a period of twenty-odd years. Here I am again reminded of Foucault's own admonition to those who would aspire to be his critics: "Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. Leave it to our bureaucrats and police to see that our papers are in order" (AK, 17). While I'm afraid I cannot grant him this last request, I do so with the knowledge that none of us who
more » ... at none of us who thinks himself or herself a critical theorist -including Foucault -has ever succeeded in resisting the urge to police the limits of what can and cannot be said. Having conceded that, I will limit my policing by focusing mainly on his and Habermas's most mature writings, in which both reclaim the legacy of Kant and the Enlightenment against each other. iii After briefly discussing Foucault's initial reservations about Enlightenment humanism, I will turn to Habermas's defense of the same. Following this initial exchange, I propose to examine their respective "theories" of social and -above all -critical practice. The standard view held by most commentators is that Habermas situates critical practice in consensus-oriented communicative action unconstrained by power, while Foucault situates critical practice in strategic action that is importantly conditioned by power. I argue that this view is grossly misleading. What Habermas means by "communicative action" must incorporate something like "strategic action" in Foucault's sense of the term; conversely, what Foucault means by "strategic action" must incorporate something like what Habermas means by "communicative interaction." I conclude my commentary by arguing that the two sorts of critical theory/practice put forward by Habermas and Foucault are complementary rather than antagonistic. The Critique of Humanism in Marx and Nietzsche The proper place to begin our discussion is with humanism, since it is around this elusive concept that so much of the debate between Habermas and Foucault seems to revolve. To that end, a brief reprise of the quintessentially ambivalent reception of humanism among their philosophical progenitors -especially Marx and Nietzsche -seems appropriate. Humanism -or the notion that there exists a universal moral core common to humanity -is the very substance and soul of modern enlightenment. iv Against all parochial narrow-mindedness and tyranny, it celebrates the inherent freedom and equality of all persons, and charts an unwavering course toward 3 complete and total emancipation. Since Rousseau, critical theorists have continued to sing its praises. But not without reservation. Although Rousseau extolled the higher freedom that comes with obeying the universal law of reason, he rued the calculated egoism unleashed by the rational dissolution of social bonds. Hegel (like Burke) later pilloried Rousseau's own defense of sentimental individualism in his withering critique of the "Rights of Man and of Citizen," whose abstraction from social convention he thought paved the way for the terrorist excesses of the French Revolution. Then there is Marx. Even while opposing Feuerbachian humanism to capitalism, the young Marx rejected human rights (political emancipation) as symptomatic of this very same dehumanization. True emancipation, he reasoned, will only come with the revolutionary establishment of communism, which abolishes private property. This having been accomplished, conflicts between egoistic individuals will gradually disappear -along with rights that are needed to protect them from each other. Within barely a few years of penning his critique of human rights, Marx would come to rephrase the emancipatory aims of humanism in a way that would cast doubt on humanism itself. Leaving aside his premature speculations about the world-historical mission of the proletariat as a truly universal class encompassing the oppression of all other classes, what remains in his later thought is the utter rejection of idealism in any form and the complete embrace of historical relativism. For the mature Marx, humanity is an unreal abstraction that masks real conflicts between economic classes that have essentially antagonistic interests and share nothing of importance in common. That is why Marx eschews utopian socialist appeals to human decency in galvanizing revolutionary action. Sounding more and more like Bentham, he never ceases to remind us how useless such vapid notions as human rights are in adjudicating conflicts over property and other matters of distributive justice. And buying into moral abstractions can be risky for other reasons as well, not the least being that they can be interpreted in ways that are entirely compatible with the status quo. As Marx pointed out, because human rights are by nature abstract, the justice and equality they serve to protect is likewise abstract, permitting extreme inequalities in their actual exercise. Admittedly, my all-to-brief summary of Marx's anti-humanism fails to do justice to his irrepressible faith in the inevitability of progress, understood precisely in terms of universal human fulfillment. It is therefore hardly surprising that it is Nietzsche, not Marx, who is today regarded as the real founder of modern anti-humanism. Sounding like an apostate of Feuerbach and the young Marx, Nietzsche sees in humanism nothing more than a secular version of theism, with all its freedom-and life-denying implications. Even that great paean to freedom and life -4 human rights -is for him nothing but a sly invention on the part of the weak to constrain the vital, creative powers of the strong. As Nietzsche so eloquently put it in the Genealogy of Morals: "What an enormous price man had to pay for reason, seriousness, and control over his emotions -those grand human prerogatives and cultural showpieces! How much blood and horror lies behind all good things!" v Thanks to Freud and the Frankfurt School, subsequent generations of critical theorists would make Nietzsche's diagnosis of the modern soul -that "wild beast hurling itself against the bars of its cage" vi -the centerpiece of their own critique of "rationalized society," as Weber understood it. It is thus not without reason that Adorno and Horkheimer would later cite the recurring motifs of Nietzsche's genealogy -the relationship between exchange and justice as equivalence-retribution-revenge and the erection of rational autonomy on the ruins of a guilty and repressed "conscience" -in building their case against enlightenment. vii But we really owe it to Foucault -who admittedly took his lead from Nietzsche and not from the Frankfurt School viii -for having so adroitly exposed the ambivalent effects of this humanistic discourse. According to him, humanism promises emancipation at the cost of imposing uniformity and excluding those who don't fit the mold of a genuine human being. Its universal scope, which at first seems so progressive in marking for emancipation women, persons of non-European descent, and the working poor who formerly had been denied their humanity, actually works by subjecting all persons to the hegemonic regimen and discipline of a single, universal code of behavior. Here, reasonconceived as the faculty of universal moral commandments -supposedly dictates clear and precise norms that are susceptible of being administered to a subjugated population in a scientifically rigorous manner by an elite body of technocrats. Corresponding to this regime of kno wledge and power we find a parallel universe of self-discovery and self-control instituted within each individual, which insures that one's innermost identity as a desiring subject, truly revealed and confessed, will happily synchronize with the innermost identities of other similarly self-constituted subjects. In this way a generalized will to power, thoroughly decentralized, disseminated, internalized and individualized in countless contexts by means of diverse micro-technologies, succeeds in generating that anodyne feeling of freedom and solidarity that earlier social contractarians like Rousseau would have imagined possible only through more coercive, juridical means.
doi:10.1017/ccol0521840821.010 fatcat:yqlvaz2xojh4vbqtr4haoixxd4