October 27, 2009

War, Politics and Love

Some of you may know of the quasi-debate that happened over the years between Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. While I would have preferred to see Adorno resurrected so he could have argued with Deleuze in his prime, this is as close as we can get to an attempt to delineate the differences between post-structuralism and Critical Theory on the question of power and reason. Below is a short essay introduction to the debate which is more fully outlined in Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault / Habermas Debate by Michael Kelly, a text I, unfortunately, couldn't conjure up a pdf download for.

I'm posting this because the two positions outlined here in many ways lay out the stakes for the continual debate between the more modern/enlightenment approach that assumes a priori a universalist form of reason and the post-structuralist notions of language and power. I come down on the side of Foucault here, though I don't think the presentation in this essay is the best nor do I think Foucault's actual arguments are the best on the topic, mostly because he is always trying not to engage as a "theorist" in his writings. For Foucault, while it may be possible to conceive of consensus and shared reason as a universal, even if it is imprecise in certain social contexts and spaces, it always falls flat in the face of history. Thus certain, of what I'll call, social fields are invested in such a manner as to have no meaningful way of being captured in universal reason. War comes to mind, but there are more immediate examples we can use. It's easy to see the way, following Deleuze and Guattari, that desire will always creep in and contaminate the formalistic structures Habermas would have sanctioning certain social fields like that of the political. Though the "polis" or the "political" as well as the social field of war, for example, immediately present themselves as socio-historical and impossible to formalize into any type of universal reason, interpersonally there is the more immediate social field represented by the concept of love which resists this formalism as well. Habermas must account for all social fields that have this ambiguous and seemingly irrational streak in them, if he is to single out one, such as democracy or civil society, as being able to function as a field of consensual "communicative action" grounded in a universal form of reason. This proves to be exceedingly difficult. Love for example, in the contemporary bourgeois form, requires much to garner any stability between two or more partners. The concept of the political is similar and here Habermas would strip fields like the political of much of their risk by sanctioning the political with a universalist set of rules of discussion. But what is politics without risk? Without ambiguity? Without the ruptures of history as opposed to its smooth and continuous development?

Similarly, wither love? Love would be meaningless without even its sturdiest formations being drenched with a palpable and inescapable risk. Of course, like in politics sturdy foundations are rarely ever built and thus the surprise at their collapse is only the false startling shock of the wave of histories inevitability washing over the subjects living in it. Habermas would reduce us to units so sanctioned in our "democratic" deliberations that a computer could simulate the outcomes of our struggles. Love can never be captured, in the Deleuzian sense, and neither can politics, no matter how much "reasoned debate" legitimates itself in the face of the barbarism liberal democracy perpetuates. Even so, hope persists. War occasionally enlightens in it's brutality, like the European theater of World War 2. Politics occasionally gives us a fleeting look at emancipation, like Spain in 1936. And love breaks through the alienation of the ordinary and the everyday and like the force of desire and capital itself it finds expression only in an old Marxian formulation,

“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned...” A formulation that is proven by every passing moment of every single day.

A short html version of the pdf for an introduction to the Habermas/Foucault debate.

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