The dichotomy of thinking versus doing seems to arise out of our own sense of the difference between our minds and our bodies. On the one hand, the gap between mind and body is the basis of the perspective with which the mind can step back, criticize, and improve the world. Without this gap, we would be trapped in an eternal present, unable to imagine anything but what currently exists. On the other hand, the dichotomy can lead to a sense of detachment from the world. Such detachment can be negative if it leads to an isolation from the world, or to a sense of alienation if the world is such that its influence on the body becomes oppressive for the mind. The opposition between thinking and doing directs our attention toward this fundamental gap between the mind and the body within the human condition that is the source of both all human achievement as well as human debasement. As we focus on thinking, our detachment from our actions can allow us to make judgments about the wisdom of our actions, but such detachment can also lead us to bury ourselves in contemplation and ignore our responsibilities for acting, or even allow us to act with a kind of cruel coldness in trying to realize an abstract idea. This issue of Telos considers such different possibilities for the way in which we relate our thinking to our actions.
Our series of three essays on Michel Foucault approaches the problem of thinking and doing by analyzing the structures of subjectivity that lead to different stances regarding our actions in the world. Linus Recht describes how Foucault assumes the historical contingency of all conceptions of the self. The lack of an underlying objective truth of the subject leads Foucault to develop an ethics based on a subject who is constantly becoming rather than a subject who is and would have a stable set of desires. Because there is no underlying ultimate truth of the subject, Foucault focuses on the constantly transforming play of pleasure and the body. His promotion of a dissolution of the unity of the subject allows him to advocate for a continual freedom of invention and creativity in the subject’s relation to its own happiness. In the end, Recht argues that Foucault’s ideal of constant becoming has been realized in the structure of continually mutating gratification that has been enabled by smartphone technology and social media, suggesting that what seems like invention might in fact be the subordination to market forces. The resulting new forms of subjectivity in social media may have realized Foucault’s ideal of the dynamics of pleasure in a way that does not seem to result in happiness. Against the Foucauldian ethics of becoming, Recht suggests that the unity and harmony of the subject may in fact be psychologically more important for happiness and individual fulfillment than continual invention and creativity.
Kyle Baasch also addresses the way in which Foucault’s insight into the historical contingency of the structure of subjectivity leads to his embrace of an ever-changing self. Foucault criticizes the Marxist reduction of human activity to labor power because it leads to a single normative conception of human happiness that becomes oppressive. In this conception, the real culprit is not the capitalist economic system, which enables the continuing self-invention of the subject, but state structures of control that enforce upon the subject a single notion of what it should be. If Recht describes the ways in which smartphones manifest this Foucauldian dissolution of subjectivity, Baasch’s discussion focuses on a longer history of how the culture industry dissolves subjectivity into a set of commodifiable desires, revealing the apparent action of the subject to be in fact a product of its subjugation. Baasch sets Foucault’s notion of pleasure in opposition to Adorno’s critique of the way in which individual happiness has been undermined by the economic context of consumer culture. Where Foucault sees the freedom of the subject, Adorno descries a commodification of the subject’s impulses that turns pleasure into a function of the economic system. Adorno describes a notion of happiness that takes its measure from his own personal experience as a heartbroken lover, who can only discern happiness as the negative image of his own suffering. Adorno’s notion of harmony is not the positive conception that Foucault criticizes. Instead, it can only be discerned negatively, through a contemplation of the factors that prevent such harmony from realizing itself in the world.
Hammam Aldouri discusses Gabriel Rockhill’s recent critique of the political import of Foucault’s thinking. Aldouri identifies three fallacies in Rockhill’s argument. First, Rockhill equates Foucault’s personal politics with the political meaning of his theories. Second, while Rockhill dismisses Foucault’s idea of the episteme for simply giving a new name to ideology, Aldouri points out that the two can be clearly distinguished based on Foucault’s claim that the episteme is not a kind of false idea (and thus ideology in a Marxist sense) but rather forms the underlying conceptual framework that makes possible a specific scientific discourse. Third, while Rockhill contests Foucault’s radicalism by arguing that Foucault is not Marxist, Aldouri responds that Rockhill does not provide a definition of Marxism or a clear sense of what radicalism would mean. Nevertheless, Rockhill’s work is productive to the extent that it points to the way in which academia has created a Foucault “brand.” Aldouri argues that a focus on the institutional pressures that have made this branding possible would be more productive than an analysis of Foucault’s work itself as the source of this phenomenon.
After Desire: Foucault’s Ethical Critique of Psychological Man and the Foucauldian Ethos of the Internet Age
Critical Theory in the Flesh: Adorno and Foucault in San Francisco
A Genuine Refutation? A Response to Gabriel Rockhill’s “Foucault: The Faux Radical”