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.’


A Memorable Brawl, A Template For Fantasies Of Resistance

Despite a personal history that showcases an active interest–participatory, not just spectatorial–in the pugilistic arts of boxing, I’ve not been able to bring myself to become a fan of ‘mixed martial arts’ or ‘UFC’ or what have you. But that does not mean I cannot appreciate the skills of the martial arts. I did, after all, like many other schoolboys of my time, grow up adoring Bruce Lee, wishing I could attain even an infinitesimal fraction of his estimable coolness. And to this day, the most exhilarating brawl I’ve witnessed–pardon that celebratory adjective, but that’s how it felt at the time–featured a brilliant demonstration of precisely the kind of moves Lee specialized in. By a fellow schoolboy. And like any memorable event, it remains so because it quickly became assimilated into subconscious yearnings and aspirations.

Shortly after joining the ranks of fellow sufferers at my boarding school, I learned of my school’s enduring and bitter football (soccer) rivalry with a local school. Indeed, so pointed and edgy had this relationship become that by way of a prelude to a scheduled encounter at home, the student body was treated to a sonorous lecture by the headboy on the need for all spectators i.e., us, to be on their best behavior during the game. No abusive language; no yelling at the referee; and so on. I also learned, soon enough, that our last game with them had featured a brawl. Provocations were sure to ensue during this game; we were to take the high ground.

These warnings came to naught. The first twenty minutes of the game featured some hard, physical soccer with plenty of rough tackles and pushing and shoving, even as the referee–our physical education teacher–sought to maintain some control over the proceedings. From the sidelines we roared on these bruising encounters, thereby raising the temperature of all concerned.  It couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

Halfway through the first half, as our team launched a counterattack, only to see it foiled on the left flank. As our forward sought to regain control of the ball, he was pushed, hard, once again, by the opposing team’s full-back. He shoved back, and then astonishingly, we saw the full-back take a swing at him. What followed next remains unforgettable after all these years. Incredibly enough, our forward dropped into a crouching stance, his knees flexed, his arms raised: a fight was on. And then, with a quick spin, delivered a lighting roundhouse kick straight to the full-back’s face. As that worthy went down for the count, his team-mates rushed over to help. So did our team. In the next few seconds I saw the forward’s cousin–by a coincidence, playing on the team with him–come to his rescue by launching a flying kick at a miscreant approaching him from behind. And then, utter mayhem broke out, as a rolling melee developed, made only worse, by a full-fledged spectator invasion (which I did not join, realizing that was beyond the pale, and that brutal disciplinary action would follow.)

I was young and impressionable, a notoriously poor brawler, often incapable of resisting the depredations of schoolboys bigger and stronger than me. That demonstration of skill and strength was instantly memorable, and remains so after all these years. For one brief moment, suddenly, I, the perennial ninety-seven pound weakling, saw a fantasy made manifest: I would be pushed around, and I would fight back. In style. Years on, that fantasy hasn’t gone away; the tools of resistance have changed.

It’s Never The Right Time To Protest

Tragedies should not be politicized; politics should be done at the right time, in the right way, conducted through the right channels. These nostrums and bromides are familiar; they are trotted out as reminders of the Right Way, the Virtuous Way, for those who protest, who engage in political struggle, who notice the events taking place around them are not bizarre outliers caused by mysterious forces beyond our control, but are instead manifestations of deeper and systemic social, economic, and ideological problems requiring sustained political engagement for their resolution. These invocations of a supposed normative order attached to the means and methods of politics–as I noted in posts responding to claims that those protesting police brutality understand and perhaps even internalize the perspective of the police, or that Palestinian activists express themselves in very particular ways, using approved and banal forms of political speech–serve to constrain and oppress and unproductively channel activist forces and energies towards political cul-de-sacs where they will fizzle out safely. They are the noises the signals of activism contend with in order to make themselves heard and understood.

These calls are not new; it has always been thus. As the Algerian feminist Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas noted in the context of feminist struggles in ‘Third-World’ and post-colonial contexts:

It is never, has never been the right moment to protest … in the name of women’s interests and rights: not during the liberation struggle against colonialism, because all forces should be mobilized against the principal enemy: French colonialism; not after Independence, because all forces should be mobilized to build up the devastated country; not now that racist imperialistic Western governments are attacking Islam and the Third World, etc.) Defending women’s rights “now” (this “now” being ANY historical moment) is always a betrayal-of the people, of the nation, of the revolution, of Islam, of national identity, of cultural roots, of the Third World. [quoted by Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak in “French Feminism Revisited”, Feminists Theorize the Political, Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 71.]

The mechanisms of reaction to resistance are rich and varied; they take many forms; they take on many virtuous guises. They bid activists look hither and thither for guidance from ideals and objectives that are mere distractions. They claim occult compulsions should stay activists’ hand and feet and quieten and attenuate their voices; they suggest activist commitments are betrayals of other causes, ones whose claims should be recognized as more pressing, more demanding of their passions and energies.

But reaction is reaction. Its aims are always the same . It seeks only one outcome and it directs itself towards it with unflagging energy and passion and creativity: the preservation of existing orders of power. When the smoke clears, and when all the homages have been paid to the various idols it bids the activist worship and be in thrall to, the reactionary wishes to see the world as it was: configured and arranged to sustain its position at the top of the Great Political Chain of Being.

Steven Salaita And The Anger Of the Subjugated

In response to my post yesterday, which I crossposted over at the NewAPPS blog, a couple of readers there wondered about the analogy I had drawn between Professor F and Steven Salaita‘s cases. Reader Meir Alon suggested my comparison was ‘very wrong’, Darius Jedburgh said my comparison of Salaita was, indeed, ‘slanderous’, and yet another worthy wondered what the point of it all was.

In constructing the analogy I noted Professor F, like Salaita, had a distinguished academic record, that she worked in a field which often featured polemically charged debates, many of which for her, because of her personal standing and situation–Professor F  has very likely experienced considerable sexism in her time–were likely to be charged emotionally, and that a few hyperbolic, intemperate responses, made in a medium not eminently suited to reasonable discourse, and featuring many crucial limitations in its affordance of sustained intellectual engagement, should not disqualify her from an academic appointment made on the basis of her well-established scholarship and pedagogy.

I could very easily have constructed another analogy, using an accomplished professor of African American studies, Professor B, who stepping into the Ferguson debate, after engaging, dispiritingly, time and again, in his personal and academic life, with not just the bare facts of racism in American life and the depressing facts pertaining to informal, day-to-day segregation but also with a daily dose of bad news pertaining to the fate of young black men in America, might finally experience the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and respond with a few tweets as follows:

Plantation rules still apply apparently; talk back and massa will let you know who’s boss. And keep those hands up, boy, while you talk to him.

The Black Panthers had it right; arm yourself and fight back. Dr. King might have gotten us some legislation, but cordite and gunpowder is needed now.

Malcolm X or King? Well, that debate now seems settled. By any means necessary for me.

Using these sorts of remarks–even if, or especially if, made on social media networks–as  ammunition against academics, is eminently bad policy. They can all too easily be read out of context–like the ones I have tried to provide above. (Salaita is Palestinian-American and likely knows many personally affected by the continuing tragedy of Palestine. Incidentally, as has been noted, he has tweeted widely and often on the Israel-Palestine debate, and while his pugnacious style is unmistakable in many of his productions, so is a far more temperate and conciliatory tone.)

There is a subtext to this whole business. The firestorm of reactions to Salaita, and which would be set off by Professor F and Professor B–Fox News would certainly have a field day with them, calling for their heads on a pike–is indicative of a continuing determination to police and regulate the nature of the resistance offered by those who speak up on behalf of the traditionally subjugated. Salaita, Professor F, and Professor B, are all expected to conform to certain norms of civil discourse, to channel their resistance–perhaps diffusing their passion and their energy–into channels defined and established by a system that has not worked for them.  (Yes, they are all faculty members with tenure, but that still does not make them ‘insiders.’) These transgressions on their part are just the moment those opposed to their resistance are waiting for; gone, in a flash, is their established record elsewhere; all that matters, now, is this indiscretion.

My point was not so much to construct an exact or precise analogy between the cases of Professor F and Salaita; rather, it was to provide some context, and to point to, perhaps only implicitly, a continuing pattern of willful ignorance when it came to understanding, accepting, and making room for those who, because of their backgrounds and histories, might often speak up and act in ways that those more comfortably ensconced do not have to.

Courage in the Face of Terror, Elsewhere

After 9/11, we were told how brave New Yorkers were, how resilient this city was, how its people would come together in the face of adversity, how it had seen worse and endured and would do the same again. After 7/7 we were told that Londoners, who lived in a city that had survived the Blitz and fought off Nazi attacks, would live to fight another day, that the day after the attack, stoic Londoners who could take a punch and roll with it were already back at work determined to move on, keeping upper lips stiff, and their chins up. Now, after 4/15 we are told Boston was the wrong city to mess with, that it and its residents will take this and move on, that the terrorists will find no victory here, that the city is strong and will endure.

I trust I sound repetitive above. For there is a pattern in there. (One whose details could be unpacked in even greater detail had I been more diligent in tracking down the original sources of commentary that I refer to.) Its outlines are clear: some places, some locales, which bear the brunt of acts of ‘terror’ and ‘dastardly attacks’ committed by ‘terrorists’ and ‘cowards’ are sites for the display of resilience and courage and fortitude. They serve as showcases for local character on occasions on which the accumulated history of resistance that they have built up can be unfurled in the face of the offender.

These tributes, well-meant and sincere and full of compassion for those whose lives have been afflicted by the scourge of the anonymously violent, give me occasion for pause. I wonder if other sites, other venues for the display of terror, are inhabited by people who show similar fortitude and courage. I wonder whether Baghdad–where improvised explosive devices like those used in London and Boston are exceedingly common, as are the tangled masses of flesh and blood and torn limb that are their inevitable result–is populated by the brave or by the cowardly, by the determined or by the milquetoast.  I wonder whether its citizens get up in the morning and go to work the day after a bombing; I wonder whether the parents who live there dare to send their kids to school the day after a massacre in their neighborhoods, and if they do, whether they are congratulated for their non-quivering upper lips and their chins held upright. I’m curious about whether the citizens of Gaza recover quickly after an aerial assault causes the loss of life of their loved ones. Do they just flop around, wailing and mourning, unhinged and disconsolate, plotting their next dastardly revenge? I wonder about those who live in Afghan villages, subjected sometimes to the invasive patrol, the droning drone, the unexploded ordnance or mine, or a local warlord’s imprecations. Do they display ‘stubborn resilience’ as well? Or are all these folks–the ones in Baghdad, Gaza, or Afghanistan–just fatalistically resigned to their fates?

Depending on how we view their actions, we might find the  people who live in places like these deserve our admiration too.