Foucault On ‘Blackmail Serving To Limit The Exercise Of Criticism’

In ‘Questions of Method: An Interview with Michel Foucault‘ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 114), Foucault responds to the question of whether his writings in Discipline and Punish had an ‘anaesthetizing effect’ on ‘social workers in prisons’:

Paralysis isn’t the same thing as anaesthesis…It’s insofar as there’s been an awakening to a whole  series of problems that the difficulty of doing anything comes to be felt….’what is to be done’ ought not to be determined from above by reformers, be they prophetic or legislative, but by a long work of comings and goings, of exchanges, reflections, trials, different analyses. If the social workers you are talking about don’t know which way to turn, this just goes to show they are looking, and hence not anaesthetized or sterilized at all….And it’s because of the need not to tie them down or immobilize them that there can be no question for me trying to tell them, “what is to be done.” If the questions posed by the social workers you spoke of are going to assume their full amplitude, the most important thing is not to bury them under the weight of prescriptive, prophetic discourse. The necessity of reform musn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce, or halt the exercise of criticism. Under no circumstances should one pay attention to those who tell you, “Don’t criticize, since you are not capable of carrying out reform.” That’s ministerial cabinet talk. Critique doesn’t have to the premises of a deduction that concludes: This then is what needs to be done. It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in the processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in programming. It is a challenge directed to what is.

In the long and dishonorable list of Cliched Reactions to Political Protest and Critique, the kneejerk “but where is your positive theory?” must rank as among the worst. This form of ‘keep talking while I stick my fingers in my ears’ political theater serves several vital functions: most importantly, it instantiates and facilitates political paralysis even as it renders that accusation at the critic. As a piece of political ju-jitsu, despite being so bald-faced about its deceptions and disingenuousness, it has proved remarkably effective over the years: very little radical political critique can escape the charge of being ‘destructive’ in its formulations. But as Foucault points out, the ‘awakening’ it brings in its wake has to have its future direction determined, not on the basis of self-serving assessments of the critique, but by the opportunities it presents for further ‘conflict and confrontation,’ a process that has to be pitched at that level for long enough before anything will give. To cease and desist the critique in the face of the imperative to offer ‘positive theory,’ to smoothen its harsh edges, is to play the game of reaction, to succumb to ‘blackmail serving to limit…the exercise of criticism.’


Foucault And Kripke On Names And Rigid Designators

In ‘What is An Author‘, Michel Foucault writes:

The author’s name is a proper name, and therefore it raises the problems common to all proper names. (Here I refer to Searle’s analyses, among others.’) Obviously, one cannot turn a proper name into a pure and simple reference. It has other than indicative functions: more than an indication, a gesture, a finger pointed at someone, it is the equivalent of a description. When one says “Aristotle,” one employs a word that is the equivalent of one, or a series, of definite descriptions, such as “the author of the Analytics,” “the founder of ontology,” and so forth. One cannot stop there, however, because a proper name does not have just one signification. When we discover that Arthur Rimbaud did not write La Chasse spirituelle, we cannot pretend that the meaning of this proper name, or that of the author, has been altered. The proper name and the author’s name are situated between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link. However – and it is here that the particular difficulties of the author’s name arise – the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author’s name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way. There are several differences.

If for example, Pierre Dupont does not have blue eyes, or was not born in Paris, or is not a doctor, the name Pierre Dupont will still always refer to the same person, such things do not modify the link of designation. The problems raised by the author’s name are much more complex, however. If I discover that Shakespeare was not born in the house we visit today, this is a modification that, obviously, will not alter the functioning of the author’s name. But if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions. If we proved that Shakespeare wrote Bacon’s Organon by showing that the same author wrote both the works of Bacon and those of Shakespeare, that would be a third type of change that would entirely modify the functioning of the author’s name. The author’s name is not, therefore, just a proper name like the rest.

‘Pierre Dupont,’ therefore, is a rigid designator while ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Bacon’ are not.

I do not know whether Foucault had read Kripke at the time of the writing of the above, nor whether the rigid designator theory of proper names was already in wide currency by then (though the Wittgenstein, Searle and Strawson critique of the descriptivist theory of names certainly were). In any case, the passages above seem to suggest an intriguing connection between two theorists not widely taken to have common interests or inclinations.

Note: Michel Foucault, “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie 63, No. 3 (1969) 73-104. Originally delivered as a lecture before the Society in February 1969. The Searle reference is to his 1969 Speech Acts: An Essay in The Philosophy of Language. Kripke’s Naming and Necessity lectures were delivered in January 1970. 

Reprinted in: Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-memory, Practice, Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Trans. D. F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977) 113-38. 

Philosophical Silencing: A Follow-Up

In response to my post on an act of philosophical silencing, Wesley Buckwalter wrote the following comment (over at the NewAPPS blog, where I cross-posted):

As you know, I was the gentleman that made that remark in a private facebook thread with a close friend. If I recall correctly, people in that thread were asking about whether certain kinds of thought experiments were typically referred to as “Gettier Cases”. I said that they were, despite how inaccurate or uninformative it might be to do so, in part because of the alternative traditions you cite. I’m sorry you interpreted my remark as silencing my friends on facebook. Personally I believe that philosophers should abandon the notion of “Gettier cases” and that the practice of labeling thought experiments in this way should be discouraged. If you are interested, I have recently argued for this in two articles here ( and here (

Many thanks to Wesley for his clarification. His initial comment, which I cited, did not acknowledge the content of the other comment I had quoted, and neither did it mention the presence of “alternative traditions” as a reason for the stance that he takes in the first of the two papers he refers me to. Those papers, if I remember correctly, were not cited in the thread. So, in the comment he had initially made, it had seemed to me that the amendment offered by the first commenter had not been taken on board.(In the Gettier case paper, Wesley refers to the following article–Turri, John. 2012. In Gettier’s Wake. In S. Hetherington (Ed.) Epistemology: The Key Thinkers. Continuum Press–as citing the Indian philosopher Sriharsa as someone who has offered similar examples. I am obviously very glad to see such an acknowledgment made in a published work.)

Let me go on to say that the attitude I was interested in highlighting, even if not instantiated in this particular token, is an existent type. (As you can tell, I was trained as an Anglo-American analytical philosopher.) Which is why I was not interested in naming individuals but in pointing to the existence of an intellectual stance. To the commenter Chris, who thinks he was ‘misled’, let me direct the following question:  What were you misled about? That an unnamed individual indulged in silencing or that the silencing of academic conversations about alternative philosophical traditions exists in academic philosophy? Perhaps my excessive familiarity with such acts of silencing, thanks to twenty-three years of utter failure in provoking a conversation about Indian philosophy, led me to the kind of conclusions I drew. I don’t think the conclusion to be drawn in response to my original post is that all is good, there is nothing to see here, and that we should just move on.

I started studying philosophy twenty-three years ago. In that time, I’ve only managed to provoke conversations about alternative philosophical traditions with the following demographics: one graduate school friend of mine who asked me a few questions about Indian philosophy while we were drinking beers, one senior professor who teaches Buddhism (among other things), my dissertation adviser (an Indian) who is a practicing Buddhist, and the attendees at a conference on Eastern philosophy a few years ago. In that same period, I’ve initiated several conversations about Indian philosophy, and have had them all shot down with varying degrees of skepticism and disdain. My worst mistake was to try to talk about Buddhist theories of relational consciousness with the members of a class on consciousness who were going down the usual Nagel-Block-Rosenthal-Ramachandran-Churchland et al route.

I realized over the years that most people I talked to in philosophical academia conflated ‘Eastern philosophy’ with ‘mysticism’. In response, I would sometimes point to the ‘harder’ schools: Samkhya and Lokyata (or Carvaka). The latter, in particular, was materialist in its orientation; perhaps that would appeal to the hard-edged analytical types I hung out with, the ones so enamored of science? Sometimes I would try to talk about Nyaya;  you know, logic and inference, and all that good stuff that analytical types like and love? No dice. It never worked. I was perceived as either indulging in a kind of facile ‘We’ve done it all before!’–perhaps like someone invoking the glories of the Nubian empire in a modern conversation about technological and cultural achievements–or dragging in wishy-washy pale imitations of the real thing.  (Logic only started with Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, dontcha know?)

But, of course, those traditions were not the only ones so dismissed. Within ‘Western philosophy’ I have heard graduate students who had never read Foucault dismiss him as ‘useless’, describe feminist theory as fundamentally misguided, and the less said about critical race theory, the better.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of an old family friend, a former professor of philosophy, with the following caption:

A photo of my brother and myself with Dr. Dhirendra Sharma, a man I deeply admire and respect. He is the author of _The Negative Dialectics: A Study of the Negative Dialecticism in Indian Philosophy_, _The Differentiation Theory of Meaning in Indian Logic_, a critic of India’s nuclear program back in the 1970s, (when he was writing about “appropriate technology”), an environmental activist working to preserve the Garhwal Himalayas, and going back further, an anti-Vietnam war activist when he had tenure at Michigan State. He is now in his 80s, fit as a fiddle, bright as ever. I aspire to his health and wisdom.

Posting that photograph reminded me of an incident that occurred during my thirtieth birthday. On that day, many of my graduate school friends showed up to help me celebrate. Some of us moved to my room to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I then owned one of Professor Sharma’s books and I took it down from the shelves and thrust it toward one of my friends. Because it featured ‘meaning’ in its title, and because all of us, as analytical types, seemed suitably obeisant toward philosophy of language, I thought it might get someone interested in opening it and taking a look. Instead, it was contemptuously waved off, even when I desperately said that it invoked distinctions that were reminiscent of the Fregean distinction between sense and reference. No one accepted the book held out, and it remained unopened.

Silencing exists.

Samuel Delany on Power

I have finally taken down, from my shelves, my long-ago-borrowed copy of Samuel Delany‘s Tales of Nevèrÿon (Bantam Books, New York, 1979) and started reading it. Almost immediately, in the first story of Gorgik, the mine slave taken “as a plaything to Nevèrÿon’s imperial court” (‘The Tale of Gorgik‘), I came up on the following Foucauldian ruminations on the nature of power – as evident in the imperial court:

The social hierarchy and patterns of deference to be learned here were as complex as those had to be mastered–even by a foreman–on moving into a new slave barracks in the mine….Indeed, among slaves Gorgik knew what generated such complexity: Servitude itself. The only question he could not answer here was: What were all these elegant lords and ladies slaves to?….The answer was simple: Power, pure, raw, and obsessive. But in his ignorance, young Gorgik was again closer to the lords and ladies around him than an equally young potters’ boy would have been. For it is precisely at its center that one loses the clear vision of what surrounds, what controls and contours every utterance, decides and develops every action, as the bird has no clear concept of air, though it supports her every turn, or the fish no true vision of water, though it blur all she sees. A goodly, if not frightening, number of these same lords and ladies dwelling at the court has as little idea of what shaped their every willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit, as did Gorgik. [pp. 24-25]

Gorgik….was, for all his unfocused thought, learning–still learning. He was learning that power–the great power that shattered lives and twisted the course of nations–was like a fog over a meadow at evening. From any distance, it seemed to have a shape, a substance, a color, an edge, yet as you approached it, it seemed to receded before you. Finally, when common sense said you were at its center, it still seemed just as far away, only by this time it was on all sides, obscuring any vision of the world beyond it. [pp. 37]

Here, especially in the analogies drawn with the fish, the bird and the fog, Delany captures some key aspects of Foucault’s theorizing about imposed power: its opacity, its ubiquity, its invisibility to those controlled by it. And it is precisely at its ‘center’ that this all-controlling power is the least visible.  And Delany is wise too, in his description of what is affected most by power: “willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit” – the building blocks of our selves. The first is a key component in our ascriptions of agency to ourselves, the second and third play key explanatory roles in our self-understanding, especially as most of us are too lazy to do the historical investigation required to discover the foundational underpinnings of our actions.

Note: These observations are also very good, literary descriptions of Bourdieu‘s fields of power: “[A] system of social positions…structured internally in terms of power relationships…a social arena of struggle”.

Wanted: Moar Philosophers in Bollywood

A few days ago, a delightful oddity began making the rounds: a clip of Bertrand Russell in a Bollywood movie.  The background for this clip is straightforward even if improbable:

The year was 1967. Russell was by then a very frail 95-year-old man. Besides finishing work on his three-volume autobiography, Russell was devoting much of his remaining time to the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. To that end, he sometimes made himself available to people he thought could help the cause….So when he was asked to appear in a movie called Aman, about a young Indian man who has just received his medical degree in London and wants to go to Japan to help victims of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russell said yes.

The actual conversation between Russell and Rajendra Kumar is quite stilted and staged but still worth a gander nevertheless. Having now witnessed such an encounter though, one’s mind turns quite naturally to the endless opportunities for philosophy-meets-Bollywood, not all of which require the philosophers concerned to just play themselves.

Here are a couple of tentative suggestions:

1. Foucault in Aakrosh: Here, Foucault plays the part of a French expat philosophy professor, now settled in India after originally travelling there as a hippie undergraduate. He has returned time and again to the strange land he has fallen in love with, and slowly come to empathize with the lot of the landless, brutalized, peasant oppressed by feudal landlords. He sees in that sphere of power politics, a visible demonstration of his writings. As Bhaskar Kulkarni the lawyer, struggles to understand why his client Lahanya Bhikhu is speechless, Foucault comes to his aid, helping Kulkarni to understand how the relentless application of power, exerted in multimodal forms upon the body and mind of Lahanya and his family have reached their logical summum bonum: the peasant, having reacted through and via the one visible outlet of power i.e., an act of ‘protective’ violence upon his wife, is now spent and unable to communicate meaningfully. Armed with this knowledge Kulkarni is able to modulate his relationship with Bhikhu, and more importantly, by distributing Foucauldian pamphlets among Bhikhu’s fellow peasants, spark an uprising. At the movie’s end, the peasants gather for a group shaving of their heads in honor of Foucault.

2. Martha Nussbaum in a yet to be made movie: Nussbaum is an American philosopher married to an Indian economist who has returned to his homeland to dabble in politics. Nussbaum plunges into Indian life, naturalizes, and joins in. Soon, this dabbling turns serious, and before she knows it, our heroine is running for parliament on a pro-woman, pro-flourishing platform. She comes under attack from Hindu nationalists, who dismiss her as a a rabble-rousing ignorant, Hinduism-hating foreigner. Nussbaum, however, meets them at their own game, learning Sanskrit, mastering Hindu scriptures and defusing her opponents via a series of brilliant written exegeses and public debates. Her marriage does not last, but Nussbaum does not return to the US, choosing instead to make India her new home, now a true daughter of the soil.