Chomsky-Foucault Debate



jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjon said...

going to have to watch it again (I'll admit it's a little over my head at first), but I think I agree with Chomsky towards the end there; I've always believed that the principles of our universal values of love and justice persist throughout these institutions that can end up being oppressive.
Our creation of any sort of organized society is a result of a sort of survival technique, altruistic though it may be.

Eli said...

The main philosophical disagreement between the two is about the supposed "nature" of human beings; Chomsky arguing the idealist view of a generic human existing outside of economic and social context with trans-historical "natural" values and desires, and Foucault arguing the materialist view of human desires and values as the product of historical economic and social forces. I definitely side with Foucault in this argument, and I like his use of the Mao quote to demonstrate the way in which values, morality, desires, etc, are in the main determined by the position one holds in class society, and all the economic and social forces that come along with that position. Chomsky's bio-determinism is not particularly helpful for the development of genuinely radical and transformative politics, in my opinion.

However, I disagree with them both when they take a seemingly totally negative view of "power" - implying that the use of power or coercion is always oppressive or restrictive of the "natural" human tendencies towards justice, freedom, etc. This leaves out of the equation the possibility, or even the necessity, of power being used to create and expand the conditions necessary for the development of human freedom, as well as for the suppression of the economic and social forces the by their nature lead to oppression and exploitation and human suffering. I believe humans are the product of economic and social relations, and unfortunately living in a neoliberal, neocolonial hyper-capitalist world has infused many of us (and certainly a huge majority in the West) with values, morals, and desires that are fundamentally at odds with the expansion of genuine human freedom (rugged individualism as an ideal, for example). And I don't really see a way in which the necessary transformation of human beings on a mass scale can be achieved without the destruction of the old oppressive and exploitive economic and social relations, a process that will obviously have to involve the use of power.

Thanks for posting this and opening it up for discussion! Can't wait for your new record!

Tad said...

I agree with your first paragraph, Eli, for Chomsky appears to trust that humans have innate positive qualities, which Foucault does not consider in any of his arguments. Foucault's deconstruction of the manners by which governments dominate power does not take presuppositions lightly as Chomsky does. Oddly enough their disparities appear similar to Plato and Aristotle, for just as Plato postulates an extrinsic world of forms Chomsky believes in intrinsic nature, and just like Aristotle places these forms in their observed context Foucault deconstructs people thorough their surroundings. This increased contextual evidence, to me and to philosophers for years has been necessary for a more sound dialectic of society.

I guess the issue that leads to the discrepancy between your views on "power" and both Chomsky and Foucault's statements in the video is that power is ill-defined in their debate. I believe that in Foucault's writings he does not think of power as something that can be used, only held. Hence the necessary transformation of people that you're talking about doesn't need a positive power to restore genuine human freedom. The ideal of an anarchist society that Chomsky so evidently believes in would be a society without power held by anyone, for it is so equally distributed throughout the masses that it is negligible. The fight to remove power, then, would be one that utilizes your "power" of expanding human freedom and suppressing existing social forces. And I fully agree with you that this fight has to happen but the question remains well open, how will it be won?

jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjon said...

okay, now I remember... The thing about humans is that one had to come before the other: biological altruism, or forming social classes. In whichever case, the earliest could truly show which one truly influences the other and dictates our means of interpreting it.

Also, has anyone ever thought that human kind is to never resolve on one specific kind of government or society, but to go through cycles that benefit us at that given time. With each form of government, there will be the people who survive longer if they can adapt to the social situation and heirarchy of the current government. You also have to understand the genetic aspect- each newer generation will think differently than the previous generation.

Screaming Females said...

I'm psyched that you all took the time to reply to this post! I'm no expert on this stuff but I'll put my opinion in for the laughs.

Personally I disagree with Foucault's apparent argument that there is no use in discussing inherent human qualities because our ontology and language can't be removed from the society that has formed us. I've been reading and intrigued by Murray Bookchin's book 'The Ecology of Freedom.' In it he points to an irreducible minimum (for all members of society regardless of input), usufruct, and what he calls the equality of unequals (recognizing that nature does not create all beings equal, especially through the entirety of their lifetimes. ie a sick person is not the same as a healthy person but still deserves food and shelter even if they are unable to perform the quantity of work that the healthy person can) as key features of freedom that also can be seen, largely across the board, in preliterate and indigenous societies. He relates these features back to the most fundamental human relationship of mother-to-child. The care, love, giving, etc that occurs in the mother-to-child relationship is an insight into the earliest formations of human society. He points to the fact that humans have such a lengthy amount of time in which the child is completely dependent upon the mother (and later the community as a whole) as another key insight into the importance of extensive interdependent consociation for the human species and society on a very natural level. This research and line of thought seems to do damage to Foucault's suggestion that it is ultimately futile to try to discuss any sort of inherent human qualities.

As for the comment on "power," that term is so vague it is hard to discuss. You seem to be equating "power" with some sort of armed resistance. Power is a very broad concept and while I haven't read enough Foucault to comment on his view, I am sure that Chomsky would agree that power needs to be utilized to take on systemic oppression. As an anarcho-syndicalist Chomsky obviously believes in the "power" of united workers in toppling hierarchical power relationships in production and government.

-Jarrett D

The Professor said...

Foucault believes it is not up to him to decide how we "should" live: to do so would simply re-institute the same kind of discourse which he is criticizing. Foucault believes that by resisting power, by not becoming enamored by it, by recognizing and bringing to light all the subtle ways in which oppression is expressed through discursive practices, and ultimately by refusing simply to conform to these forms of oppression, we will already be forming a more critical society, a society in which new voices can be heard, new forms of life (and not just one, or even a few) can be lived, new forms of pleasure or enjoyment can be produced.

Chomsky's approach, though it "sounds" admirable or just, invariably uses a discourse, a logic, that he fails to criticize, and that is still very much connected to the discourse of power that tries to regulate people's actions by inciting them to internalize certain particular moral values. Chomsky's idea is essentially to form a society on which people "should" live - even if this "should" allows for a wide range of choices- based on certain principles founded on universal "human qualities." What people ignore, however, is that Chomsky's idea is positioned as a resistance to a form of power which it is only trying to re-institute, except he uses a different name and different terms.

I'm not saying that Chomsky's vision is evil or unjust or that he is doing this on purpose. When Foucault talks about power, he is not talking about what we think of as "evil" power. The type of power that Foucault is criticizing has to do with how a people regulate their actions based on rules, codes, or procedures, external to the individual and transmitted through history, that impose a limitation on what a person can do or may be motivated in doing. This kind of power does this by employing a "logic" of justice or moral justification, what may be called the logic of "should."

Foucault, however, doesn't deny that power always exists. Nor is he attempting to destroy power. Power will always exist and is necessary for any society to exist. What Foucault is criticizing is a particular form of power, prevalent today in Western discourse, that operates subtly and appears to regulate us "internally" (by our own "nature"), but is actually informed by practices rooted in history and originating from historical circumstances.