Friday, March 9, 2018

In Defense of Critical Thought by Elisabeth Roudinesco


[ In this narrative of the lives and works of these mid-late 20th century French intellectuals Roudinesco winds and unwinds the threads of experiential and conceptual knowledge as they perform together in a kind of dialectic or intrigue, one not existing without the other but in ‘mortal combat’, each seeking to defend its ground against the other  as if on a broad ocean when  the motions  of the tides and the winds run in opposite directions and no smooth sailing can be expected. Biological determination and psychology vs philosophy and science properly understood. One inevitably must begin with Marx, though not Marxism; his insight into the materiality of the concepts, representing the vital force of any mode of human production. She, all the thinkers in her narrative, begin with Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological and A Philosophy of Heroism which established a new paradigm in the French critical tradition. Beginning there, each of the other philosopher’s lives and works represent  different trajectories, different intrigues in the contest between experiential and conceptual knowledge.  Sartre on one end of ‘the spectrum” and I will venture to say Foucault on the other. Althusser the most tragic case, Derrida burdened by the necessity of eulogizing them all. Brothers resisting the ‘ the normal’ as if they were trying to compensate for their absence in the French military resistance to the barbaric beast of fascism. Their heroic struggle to expose the threads of that beast in the micro-politics of Capital as conceived and lived in the post-war world, and to overturn them, for the freedom of the subject. Here I present her Introduction.]

“We are certainly living in strange times. The commemoration of great events, great men, great intellectual achievements, and great victories never stops;  we’ve had the year of Rimbaud, the year of Victor Hugo, the year of Jules Verne. And yet, never have the revisionist attacks on the foundation of every discipline, every doctrine, every emancipatory adventure enjoyed such prestige. Feminism, socialism, and psychoanalysis are violently rejected, and Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are pronounced dead, along with every other critique of the norm. All we are entitled to do, it would seem, is to take stock and draw up assessments, as though the distance that every intellectual enterprise requires amounted to no more than a vast ledger full of entries for things and people - or rather people who have become things.

I am not thinking just of Holocaust denial, which has been outlawed among professional historians, although its influence persists in semi-secrecy. Instead what I have in mind are those ordinary revisionisms that tend, for example, to put Vichy and the Resistance on the same footing, because of the “necessity” to relativize heroism, and the drive to oppugn the idea of rebellion. Another example is the clever reinterpretation of textual evidence to make Salvador Allende into a racist, an anti-Semite, and a eugenicist, for the purpose of denigrating the putative founding myths of socialism around the world.

As for philosophy, while its place in the educational curriculum of the schools and universities is threatened by all those who judge its useless, outmoded, to Greek, too German, and impossible to put a price on or fit into a scientistic pigeonhole (in sum, too subversive), the drive to “philosophize” or “to learn to think for oneself” is expanding outside the institutions of state, embracing Plato, Socrates, the pre-Socratics materialists, the Latins, the moderns, the post-moderns, the old and new moderns, the new and old reactionaries. There is a gap between the academicism that is returning in force to official schooling and the massive demand for “living” teaching outside the universities, and this gap continues to grow wider in a world haunted by fear of the loss of identity, boundaries, and national particularisms.

Feature stories in our periodicals and newspapers almost all convey a catastrophic outlook: the end of history, the end of ideology, the end of towering individuals, the end of thought, the end of mankind, the end of everything. Jean-Paul Sartre? – for or against? Raymond Aron –for or against? Would it suit you better to be in the right with the former as against the later, or vice versa? Should we take a blowtorch to May 1968 and its ideas, its thinkers, and their writings, seen now as  incomprehensible, elitist, dangerous and antidemocratic? Have the protagonists of the revolution in behavior and mentality all become little bourgeois capitalist pleasure seekers without faith or principles, or haven't they ?

Everywhere the same questions, and everywhere the same answers, all claiming to bear witness to a new malaise of civilization. The father has vanished, but why not the mother? Isn’t the mother really just a father, in the end, and the father the mother? Why do young people not think anything? What are children so unbearable? Is it because of Francoise Dolto, or television, or pornography, or comic books? And leading thinkers, what has become of them? Are they dead, or gestating, or hibernating? Or are they on the road to extinction?

And women: are they capable of supervising male workers on the same basis as men are? Of thinking like men, of being philosophers? Do they have the same brain, the same neurons, the same emotions, the same criminal instincts? Was Christ the lover of Mary Magdalene, and if so, does that mean that the Christian religion is sexuality split between a hidden feminine pole and a dominant masculine one?

Has France become decadent? Are you for Spinoza, Darwin, Galileo, or against? Are you partial to the United States? Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi. Was Michael Foucault the precursor of Bin Laden, Gilles Deleuze a drug addict, Jacques Derrida a deconstructed guru? Was Napoleon really so different from Hitler? State the similarities, proffer your thoughts, assess your knowledge, speak for yourself.

Whom do you prefer; who are the puniest figures, the greatest ones, the most mediocre, the biggest charlatans, the most criminal? Classify, rank, calculate, measure, put a price on, normalize: this is the absolute nadir of contemporary interrogation, endlessly imposing itself in the name of a bogus modernity  that undermines every form of critical intelligence grounded in the analysis of the complexity of things and persons.

Never has sexuality been so untrammeled, and never has science progressed so far in the exploration of the body and the brain. Yet never has psychological suffering been more intense: solitude, use of mind-altering drugs, boredom, fatigue, dieting, obesity, the medicalization of every second of existence. The freedom of self, so necessary, and won at a cost of so much struggle during the twentieth century, seems to have turned back into a demand for puritanical restraint. As for social suffering, it is increasingly harder to bear because it seems to be constantly on the rise, against a background of youth unemployment and tragic factory closings.

Set free from the shackles of morality, sex is experienced not as the correlate of desire, but as a performance, as gymnastics, as hygiene for organs that can only lead to deathly lassitude. How does one climax, and bring one’s partner to climax. What is the ideal size of the vagina, the correct lengthy of the penis? How often? How many partners in a lifetime, in a week, in a single day, minute by minute? Never has the psychology of conditioning, of sexological or partner-swapping alienation been so overpowering as it is today. So much so that by now we are seeing a surge in complaints of every kind. The more individuals are promised happiness and the ideal of security, the more their unhappiness persists, the steeper the risk profile grows, and the more the victims of unkept promises revolt against those who have betrayed them.

 It would seem impossible not to detect, in this curious psychologization of existence that has gripped society and that is contributing to the rise of de-politicalization, the most insidious expression of what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze called “little everyday fascism,” intimate, desired, longed-for, admitted, and celebrated by the very individual who is both its protagonist and  its victim. A little fascism, which of course has nothing to do with the great fascist systems, since it slips inside each individual without his realizing it, without ever calling into question the sacrosanct principles of the rights of man , of humanism, of democracy. 

I have chosen to render homage to six French philosophers - Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, and Derrida – whose work is known and discussed throughout the world, and who, despite their divergences, their disputes, and the impulses they shared, had this in common: they all confronted, in a critical fashion, not just the question of political engagement (meaning a philosophy of freedom) but also the Freudian concept of the unconscious (meaning the philosophy of structure). They all commanded a literary style, and they were all passionate about art and literature.

This confrontation was inscribed in their works and their lives, and that is why it is fitting to bring them together here. The all refused, at the price of what I would call a passage through a tempest, to serve the project to normalize the human being – a project that, in its most experimental version, is no more than an ideology of submission in the service of barbarity. Each of them published his oeuvre in an age before television and other media had the importance they have now in the transmission of knowledge, and two of them, Deleuze and Derrida, laid the basis for new ways of thinking about the logic of the modern media.

Far from commemorating their former glory or devoting myself nostalgically to a simple recapitulation of their works, I have tried, by making the thought of some operate through the thought of others, and by highlighting some of the leading moments of French intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century, to show that only the critical acceptance of a heritage makes it possible to think for oneself and to invent the thought of the future, a thought for better times, a thought that refuses to submit, a thought unfaithful out of necessity.


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Georges Canguilhem, the man who challenged authority in the most radical fashion was the same man who, in his classroom require the greatest submission from his students, as he imparted knowledge to them in a manner seemingly remote from liberty. He never advocated the sort of pedagogy that puts student and teacher on the same level, and he never yielded to the temptations of false freedom of speech. His students at Toulouse were inculcated with a sense of order, logic and discipline: no notebooks, no pencils, a refusal even to allow certain expressions to be uttered. The normal method was for students to take lecture notes, thus fixing the knowledge to be transmitted in permanent form; Canguilhem preferred them to assemble flexible archives, grouped into thematic dossiers adaptable modules. In order to exercise the critical faculty of his pupils and train them to develop an intelligent memory, he forced them to write down and submit summaries of what they had heard in class after an hour of attentive listening during which they took no notes. The summaries were neither returned nor commented upon.

Canguilhem came to regard psychology, to the extent that it is the discipline of behavior, adaptation and conditioning, as a school of submission and of the suppression of liberty. For just as he had always rejected the thought of Taine and that of the adepts of theory about native soil, race and environment, he likewise abhorred any approach to mankind that aimed to reduce the spirit to a thing, the psyche to physiological determinism, thought to a reflex; in sum, the human being as an insect.. . A ‘thing’ without essence and without object, psychology thus came down in his eyes to nothing more than a technology at the service of a corporation, itself under the sway of judges, censors, and educators whose function was the instrumentalization of man by man . . .he perceived a danger taking place – that the subjection of the noble disciplines (medicine, biology, physiology, philosophy, literature etc.) to a model of instrumentalization of the spirit and the psyche, which might in the long term transform the teachers and professors of the French republic into psycho-pedagogues more concerned with aiding students in distress than forming elites in the service of an  ideal of liberty. In is view this model also threatened, given the formidable expansion of the study of psychology in the democratic countries, to contaminate the whole of the social edifice, to the point where the business of managing interpersonal relationships would supplant all forms of political and intellectual commitment.. . he jubilantly renounced all those who, from Piaget to Chomsky, had dreamed of making thought an empty space, to the point of imagining that a machine might be capable of writing A la recherche du temps perdu,  write its own autobiography or auto-critique.  He thus donned the mantle of the founder of a philosophy without the subject, sounding a summons to all men of good will, in the name of the unity of philosophy, in which Cartesians and Spinozist would be united – that is, partisans and adversaries of the philosophy of consciousness and the philosophy of commitment – against what might well be called the most liberticide branch of psychology- without uttering the word “cognitivism’- which did not come into widespread use in France until 1981- the ultimi barabarorum ( the most recent barbarity to appear).

Foucault  was even more violent, denouncing ‘the indignity of power, from infamous sovereignty down to ridiculous authority.” Like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who also posed questions regarding the limits of reason, but with different gestures, Foucault sought to trouble the order of the world, to force its obscure parts, its disorder, its heterogeneity to well up out of the apparent sovereignty of order. He took part resolutely in the conceptual adventure, making the conceptuality proper to the human sciences as an object of passion upon which an entire generation, formed in the secularized and republican university system, was invited to reflect in a critical fashion.

For Foucault, as for Derrida and Deleuze, it was imperative to continually question such ideals as the rights of man, humanism, and democracy, so as to uncover, at the very core of that which presents itself as the most refined expression of Western culture, the traces of a dark force – or sometimes just the traces of that little, everyday, nondescript fascism – that never ceases to threaten their fragile equilibrium.








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