Foucault’s Fantasies

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what does the truth of the facts bear out?
Bertrand Russell’s advice to the future.

While the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini was murdering those in whose name he had stolen the revolution, there were some Westerners who could think only of praise. The labour councils that had rallied against the Shah had been newly subsumed into the state machinery under the principle of velayat-e faqih – the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” – which in this case meant a capitalist system minded by religious medievalists; under a banner of “separate but equal” had been erected sexual apartheid; homosexuals were simply executed. Corpses hung from cranes.

To my knowledge, Michel Foucault never retracted a single word of the article with which he had heralded in the looming regime’s “political spirituality” in 1978, perhaps the most mundane covenant ever to have graced the halls of revolutionary history:

When Iranians speak of Islamic government; when, under the threat of bullets, they transform it into a slogan of the streets; when they reject in its name, perhaps at the risk of a bloodbath, deals arranged by parties and politicians, they have other things on their minds than these formulas from everywhere and nowhere. They also have other things in their hearts. I believe that they are thinking about a reality that is very near to them, since they themselves are its active agents.

It is first and foremost about a movement that aims to give a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society. An Islamic government is what will allow the continuing activity of the thousands of political centers that have been spawned in mosques and religious communities in order to resist the shah’s regime. I was given an example. Ten years ago, an earthquake hit Ferdows. The entire city had to be reconstructed, but since the plan that had been selected was not to the satisfaction of most of the peasants and the small artisans, they seceded. Under the guidance of a religious leader, they went on to found their city a little further away. They had collected funds in the entire region. They had collectively chosen places to settle, arranged a water supply, and organized cooperatives. They had called their city Islamiyeh. The earthquake had been an opportunity to use religious structures not only as centers of resistance, but also as sources for political creation. This is what one dreams about [songe] when one speaks of Islamic government.

In response, Claudie and Jacques Broyelle

called upon Foucault to admit that his thinking on Iran had been “in error.” Foucault’s response, published two days later, was in fact a non-response. He would not respond, he wrote, “because throughout ‘my life’ I have never taken part in polemics. I have no intention of beginning now.” He wrote further, “I am ‘summoned to acknowledge my errors’.” He hinted that it was the Broyelles who were engaging in thought control by the manner in which they had called him to account.

For some academics, it may indeed be a valorous pursuit to avoid the emotive charges of their opponents. Polemics can misrepresent hard-won and valuable intellectual approaches as sloppy scholarship, for some simply not worth the ephemeral visit into the public sphere. But this is not at all the case for Foucault; his post-structuralism, and its fantastical pretensions, lay behind both his political conclusions and the aloof posterity with which he met his rivals. A perfect method to explore this is through the state of intellectual decadence into which he sent the otherwise entirely innocuous discipline of “gender history”.

Gender history appeared to be a terribly useful innovation for feminism; its horizons were broadened and its subject was nuanced, favourable to the realisation that it was nonsensical and ahistorical to consider the oppression of women without their relationship to men, and to the societies in which they lived and died. Yet its prospects faced an early trauma: Joan Scott, enamoured by the size of Foucault’s vocabulary, delighted in the chaotic  wordplay she inaugurated into the discipline in 1986. For post-structuralists, cultural discourse takes priority in our understanding of gender, modelled on Foucault’s concept of “power” as dispersed and thereby subjective in every instance; and since every interpretation is inevitably different, the experiences of individual women are inherently unknowable. The central point, therefore, is that in order to emancipate women, society’s common language of oppression must be identified and transformed. There was even a hint at solidarity implicit in the curious suggestion that democratic and authoritarian regimes share “flawed master narratives”.

But Scott’s feminist objective to “emancipate” women had absolutely nothing grounded in the real world. Her reaction to “essentialised” women’s consciousness took the other extreme. Foucault’s denial of objective truth abandoned empiricism with a flick of the hand; and if no historical writing can support itself in material evidence, then everything may have an equally legitimate claim to pseudo-truth if the odd decontextualized line from a diary or speech can be thrown to its defence. This is why Foucault considered the murderous and misogynistic Iranian Counter-Revolution so laudable; the dilute methodology of post-structuralism is far more likely to degrade women than it is to uncover the roots of their oppression. Certainly, there is no way of knowing when they do.

This utter frivolity – being the randomness of thought that grips the intellect once material reality is said to be illusory to it – saturated many “histories” that proclaimed grand narratives of sexuality and the body. No text can fully subsume an experience. It ignores, after all, the individual’s social geographical variances and, of especial note here, their personal reactions to sexual biology, while condemning the illiterate to historical silence. Illustrations to comprehend the transformation of “the body” ameliorate only the last of these deficiencies. Fletcher’s Gender, Sex & Subordation in England, 1500-1800 (1990), unlike Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her (1996) of the same period, entirely dismisses any consideration of the empirical analysis of ordinary lives made of such fruitful use by Hufton in order to make sense of the accompanying religious discourse. Indeed, a source frequently cited by Fletcher is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, a tale of the gendered perception of sex which ends with a rather telling paradox: “But basically the content of talk about sexual difference is unfettered by fact, and is as free as mind’s play.”

In complete tune with this, Scott asserts that the welfare state reinforces “paternalistic” masculinity – in spite of such “facts” that both men and women have equal access and that women can be elected to exercise responsibility over it. For comparison’s sake, the second volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he analysed Greek practice, was an ambitious venture given the author did not speak even the ancient language on which he played so much stress in cultural formation; indeed, in the process of writing he elected to remedy his ignorance of Roman and Greek culture by travelling to California. Post-structural gender theory is the flipside of crude Marxism. “Symbols” alone, although indeed experienced in the eye of the subject can only, when studied independent of circumstance, reflect the eye of the historian. Such authorial pretensions to feminist politics were, in other words, the culmination of many years of wasted scholarship.

Michel Foucault and his post-structuralist chums were more than fantastical zombies, a little too allured by the intellectual decadence of Western academia. More, even, than futile were their approaches: they were and remain today actively regressive in the study both of truth and the material realities upon which it depends. Neither women, nor homosexuals, nor the labouring people of Iran will be free for so long as their chains are denied and their words are suffocated by those pretending to care for them. This is the approach, in other words, that allies the far left to the extreme, murderous right.

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Icons of Feminism

I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:

Syrian Woman Turned Revolutionary

Fadwa, 20 years old, widow with 3 children: “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.”

Amal, 30 years old, married, housewife with 3 children: “I’m sincere to God, that is all I need and want, the rest will come with time.”

White middle-class wankers of Marxist cliques have this tacit presumption – that they can be revolutionary at work and then go home to a Waitrose ready meal and Britain’s Got Talent. Hypocrisy is as old as it is everywhere pervasive.

This is, in fringe Western language, no less true of the orthodox communities in the Arab Spring. Aristotle saw the political community as the macrocosm of the household; he would have despaired to see far right Muslims protest for change on the street and then return to a family as stoic as footsteps on the surface of the moon. Or perhaps not. Anyway – what we can be certain of is that hunger for the vote is a far cry from cultural revolution. As we’re seeing in Egypt, and even more so in Iraq, those who were once oppressed are using their votes to settle sectarian scores and force others to live their nightmares. The activists – or whatever we wish to call them – are disproportionately male. They crave power in worlds public and private. For all the irritant definitions of any “patriarchy”, these political upheavals have left the fabric of masculinity unapologetically content.

In such a context I’m not entirely sure what the most enlightened response to these all-women fighting forces ought to be. No one is pleased with perpetual warfare, or for the disintegrated communities from which these women have formed new lives.

What these women represent is that no “patriarchy” is inevitable, I think. 20 year-old Fadwa tells us, “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.” Women are able to protect their families just as men can, and it emerges from the social wreckage that fascists have traditionally been best-equipped to exploit. We shouldn’t find this remarkable, but I suspect most would. The union of gun and child is so utterly disturbing that it smashes any conventions of effeminacy.

In one of Max Weber’s rare moments of concision he quipped that “the person who attempted to walk by constantly applying anatomical knowledge would be in danger of stumbling”. The nuance of ideology bows before the primacy of instinct. It’s why, whenever we race to term someone an “icon” to a movement, we should do only if they exemplify that to which his or her followers aspire. Veneration, after all, implies emulation; and to emulate an ideologue is to emulate their arguments. It’s ideological constipation. Not only does this abandon our critical reasoning of their deficiencies, leading to the most conformism of dogma, but it also assumes the perpetuity of resistance, and thereby a defeatism in which the individual strives for struggle rather than victory. An icon, in other words, should embody a movement’s dreams – not the movement itself.

Nelson Mandela is justly iconic for civil rights figures, black and white and every other gradient. Some Western liberals in the 20th century who considered themselves anti-racist did – much like those today who affirm that “Arab democrat” is a primitive paradox – argue that Mandela was a black man in a white man’s game. For them, anti-imperialism also meant anti-democracy in the most absurd phrases of cultural relativism. Obviously, that was a racist belief even if its conviction in opposition to colonial rule. The reason for Mandela’s iconic status, in other words, is that he represented democratic politics in promoting an equal share in this philosophy. If you think that’s self-evident then you’ve just proved my point – that an icon should be no more, and no less, than a tautology: a black man is born equal to a white person. The truest of truisms.

No less true of women, is it not? What the women in the women’s militia represent is that when the old rules fragment, socially as well as politically, sex is entirely irrelevant to a person’s potential. Inevitable biological differences aside, we’re left with that other obvious tautology that women are people like men and neither anything more nor less. Just as these women represent some of the most utterly desolate communities of Syria, so should an icon also be found from above. But who could possibly serve such a purpose?

I think it a lovely irony that in rejecting feminism Thatcher should have set in stone her legacy as a feminist icon – but before you send an armed guard to castrate this patronising male blogger, hear me out. Thatcher should have been thoroughly ashamed of her refusal to aid female Parliamentarians. Even today, only a quarter of our MPs are women. Now it’s in my humble opinion that you shouldn’t promote equality – and cut down sexism – by superficial politics like all-women short-lists. That will not solve gender gaps in salaries and leaves lad cultures unscathed, unabashed and altogether uncaring in their ignorant trance.

And yet – in many respects Maggie represented a lot to which the female feminist ought to aspire. By breaking their every convention she denied the existence of the ideal woman. She does not have to be liberal; she does not have to be working class; she does not have to be sympathetic to the vulnerable or pass maternalist charity to whomever beggar she greets. All of these are desirable, but they are just as desirable for a man as for a woman. Maggie neglected feminism because of her own success; with triumph ends ideology. Thatcher was a bitch – but so are an awful lot of men.

Mandela was not a black man in a white man’s game; Thatcher was no woman struggling through a man’s world; and the Syrian women do not believe in a conscious battle against any conceptual patriarchy. Take this final image:

On her head, in the place of the traditional woman’s headscarf, Em Joseph dons the keffiyeh of the Arab man. When Thatcher used her curious propensity to sexuality to navigate her way through her colleagues’ stubborn attitudes, she was accused of cheapening women’s activism and accepting male instincts. But was she? Or was she not, like Em, reminding people that conventions can be twisted by women just as much as they can be by men?

Whatever happens to these few Syrian women, I can only wish them the best of luck. Great icons – better than the self-indulgent paranoia of some radical feminists whose minds are like Shakespearean theatrics on steroids.

The Rise of Eastern Literature?

For all of Edward Said’s complacent dismissals of Eastern backwardness as imperialist-driven, novelist Ayfer Tunç argues that Turkish writers are perfectly capable of rising above the interminable clash of Occident with Orient:

… we’ve come to find it hard to believe in our own quality. This is because the history of our republic is the history of our complex about the West. We imported from the West, but we couldn’t believe we could send anything back in the other direction. This is the issue at the heart of our literature. But I’m keen to believe that young writers from this country can overcome this complex.

I don’t doubt it. Western values don’t need to be isolated to the West; literature can rise about the local and explore the universal.

If, of course, there’s the market to buy it.

Optimism and the Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula (click for larger image)

When I see a photo like this my impulse is a pessimistic one: to say that against a cloud bigger than our minds could ever comprehend we don’t matter. Not at all!

It’s our very perspective that brings us to that conclusion, one which invites us to subvert it. Take another look. We’ve seen those clouds before – the lines as malleable as they are intricate, the ghoulish blend of black into green through which modest lights pierce. And they’ve been found on earth in their own forms, be it the aurora borealis or that piece in the Tate or a field: it’s a description that after all fits into the English language. This thought that a gas cloud 26 light years wide can be captured and compared with what we see everyday is, I think, an optimistic one: although we shouldn’t forget how incredible the universe is, it should not be used to make us feel tiny and insignificant.  We define it!

How promising.

(About the Orion Nebula from Slate here.)

Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil

So my visit to a friend at Bangor University resulted in attending more lectures than I do during term time, and in this case it was a rather fascinating talk by Philip Zimbardo on “The Lucifer Effect” or the “Psychology of Evil”. I couldn’t find the exact lecture recording that I watched but this one probably covers the same material (being based on his book named to similar effect). I recommend you watch it if, as I could not, you are able keep your eyes away from his incredible beer belly.

It’s nothing short of fascinating. Psychologists are, we might say with dreary accuracy, renowned far and wide for their skills of eloquent bullshitting, tapping into fresh reservoirs of facts and figures to justify theories more ludicrous than the mental subjects they examine. But this particular talk seemed somewhat departed from that tradition; he humbly designates the first part of his lecture to explaining the importance of rehabilitating morality into science. If we want to override and prevent “evil” behaviour then we need to challenge its presuppositions, the conditions that produce it. The lecture gives some convincing material explaining the role psychologists might play here.

Zimbardo takes a tour around a few studies, some published and some not, but centre-stage is his own pride and joy – the well-known Stanford Prison experiment. Relevant, I suppose, that we’re currently reminiscing on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War are the comparisons that he draws between Stanford and the crimes of Abu Ghraib in 2003-4; Zimbardo noticed that the subjects in his study acted almost identically to those military personnel in Iraq. There were common factors: boredom, mental hierarchy between prisoner and imprisoned and all the rest and so if we want to counter evil then we have to change the system. Its vaguely put confidently asserted that psychology can provide a significant part of the answer – and I’m more than a little persuaded.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The “Stanford Prison” Experiment.

I did, though, have one lingering reservation: perhaps Zimbardo is too keen. When the crimes of Abu Ghraib hit the media Zimbardo was invited to defend one of the detainees, and he did so in order to argue that the criminals were not military “bad eggs” but part of wider institutional problems that provided the conditions to make the acts virtually unavoidable. But to follow this logic is to assume that to explain is to justify; that to find the cause is to morally exculpate the individual involved. If social institutions make certain outcomes more likely then we should change the conditions, not excuse the subjects; to do so is the destroy thousands of years of Western moral philosophy – to equate Saddam’s chief institutional devices of rape and murder and torture with American democracy – all for the chance to sound that little intellectually superior.

Conclusion on Zimbardo: really interesting ideas with a tendency to jump the wagon.

Orwell, and the Humanism of Making Tea

What Orwell probably didn’t realise when he sat down to write his rules for making tea was that he was contributing to the humanistic philosophy of the cuppa. Would it be Aristotelian tea? Platonic tea? Socratic tea? No, that’s quite silly. But still, it’s true that his article was somewhat essentially humanistic: in ways I love and would rather pretentiously advocate. What do I mean? Is Mark really comparing making tea to humanism? I believe he is.

The Good Book by Professor A.C. Grayling – whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet – lays down a huge volume of what the author calls “secular laws”. That is to say, humanist values that dispense of divine instruction, and as a corollary they dispense with the sense of predetermined “absolute” laws. Religious critics always claim that without supernatural justification for universal laws, they can’t hold as fact: objectivity, and therefore any moral purpose to law, falls apart to blurry subjectivity. Readers of this blog will know, full well, that I hate this process; there are objectively moral laws that ought to operate in this world, as the Good Book attempts to illustrate. As a basic starting point, these might include: no murder, no rape, no pedophilia, no racial/sexual discrimination. We don’t need God for this.

Now Orwell, in writing his rules for tea, is doing the same. Writing on the presupposition that there are no agreed laws for tea making – given the absence of an almighty, omnipotent, omniscient Tea Father – he tries to establish an empirical science behind how one should travel from leaf to drink (e.g. “the water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact”). As it happens, most of his rules do the trick.

I’m not so convinced about the Ceylonese vs Chinese debate, but it’s true the milk should be added to the tea, rather than the other way around; that there should be no sugar, ever; boiling water; made in small amounts; no strainers. In other words, appreciate your tea. And read Orwell’s rules.

Just don’t name a blog after it. (That’s my job.)