The Free World, Foucault, and the Problem of Power in the Absence of a Grand Narrative

I had someone send me this article recently- How We Forgot Foucault by Geoff Shullenberger for American Affair Journay, linked here:– And I can’t stop thinking about it.

Not only does it fit will with my previous post on Covid, published in this space, it has some major overlap with a book I’m reading right now called The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand, which, although I’ve only read a small portion of it thus far, has my full recommendation.

Menand argues in his book that while the tendency is often to try and understand American culture and philosophy by reading it from the inside out, that is, to understand America’s influence on the world through its influence on the world, we would do far better to see the current shape of America by looking at the influences that gave America its shape from abroad. For Menand, this comes from the crucial junction that frames the shift from the World War to the Cold War, subsequently conflating Nazism and Stalinism into a singlular definition of totatiltariansm while polarizing the two political sides.

As Menand points out, what holds this dicsussion together is the interest in liberty and free will. What we see though, as the article below also helps to bring to light, is an emerging ignorance of the subsequent conflation of both politics (or power) and philosophy (or Truth) in American culture. According to Menand’s book, elevating this notion of the free will justifiably leads to forms of individualism and an interest in relativism. These things are hard to reconcile when faced with social concern or social issues, and ultimately struggle to make sense of diversity and tend to get mired in the constant struggle to avoid decending into disorder. Thus we arrive at the neverending push and pull of the quesiton, what do we sacrifice in order to uphold the notions of liberty and free will, and subsequently what do we sacrifice to uphold the social or the collective good.

Both Menand and Shullenberger seem to recognize, more or less directly, that in absence of objective truth (the propping up of relativism) we simply arrive at the need for other forms of truth. Or as Shullenberger puts it in his dealing with Foucault, in the absence of a grand narrative here in the West, we quickly become driven simply to replace it with a different narrative. The problem is that these grand narratives that shape our drive to protect these polarized sides are at best inconsitent, often competing, and rarely articulated. In the modern West they are most often expressed through the language of individualism and relativism, the two essential components of the narratives grand ideal for liberty and free will, while the presence of diversity (and diversity of opinion) is a constant reminder liberty and free will are, as Foucault would recognize, mere allusions in a world built on socially constructed norms. And left to themselves they tend towards disorder.

These inconsisties in the grand narrative probably wouldn’t be as big of a problem if not for this subsequent marriage of philosophy and power in the Western myth. If philosophy allows us to think about the disorder of these grand narratives in terms of meaning and value and importance, the concern of politics is always uniformity and order. The problem then comes down to this tricky word “truth”. Or capital T truth. If politics equates to uniformity and order, then politics also equates to power, or the power stystems that can ensure uniformtity and order. It is when philosophy as “Truth” gets paired with politics as “power” (and power driven systems) that things get murky. This heightens the problem of this absence of a grand narrative that diversity imposes on notions of liberty and free will. What we end up with are two sides employing power in order to resist power, often in the aim of the kind of self interest liberty and free will allude to. Which is the necessary language of revolution on one hand, but also the language of so many destructive ideas (racism of course being one of them)

This marriage of politics (power) and philosophy (truth) needs a grand narraive (Truth) in order to work. The question then is what is Truth in the modern world. What is the Truth that guides and builds American culture and politics and how does it play into these allusions of liberty and free will that inform its interests. It is when we ask this question that we, in the West, tend to bring in that third entity, that ever so crafty god called “Knowledge”. This creates a trifecta from that disctint American muddledness which is the marriage of power and politics, with knowledge functioning as that secret and sought after tool through which to construct these positions of power, much in the same way that the mystery religions did. This gets even more complicated with science becomes knowledge, which becomes truth, which becomes power, all on the basis of ones (or one side’s) philosophical claim on capital T Truth.

The article from Shullenberger pushes this notion further.

“In Foucault’s words, “it was life more than the law that became the issue of political struggles, even if the latter were formulated through affirmations concerning rights.” Efforts to resist this power, he notes, have generally underlined the pervasiveness of biopolitical logic: “the forces that resisted relied for support on the very thing it invested, that is, on life and man as a living being.” To step outside of this framing, a political resistance must be willing to surrender life—yet amid the currently prevailing values, such a poli­tics would be seen as sheer madness… [p]ower is everywhere; not because it em­braces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.

In other words, that common interest in liberty and free will can be narrowed down to “life” itself. And if the interest of politics (power) is life, then what we have is the inconsistant nature of our power systems attempting to enforce laws that protect life in ways that tend to collapse into madness precisely because power is life and life is power. Speaking of the all consuming presence of power that persists across the political divide, Shullenberger goes on to write regarding the implementation of the god of “knowledge” as the necessary weapon of choice.

If knowledge is viewed as an instrument of political domination, the reasoning goes, the credibility of those who pursue it will become unsustainable…. An epistemology that links knowledge instrumentally to power is likely to be appealing amid the decline of what Foucault’s contemporary Jean-François Lyotard called “grand narratives”: the legitimating stories that ennoble the pursuit of knowledge as a means of civilizational progress towards truth or the preservation of a common culture. This outlook is consistent with a certain mood of resignation that shades into cynicism. And this cynicism is appropriate to an academic sphere that is at once rhetorically subversive and institutionally con­servative. If all subversive energies ultimately feed into domination, it is unsurprising that the humanities and social sciences have become a space where overt ideological fervor coexists comfortably with covert careerist hypercompetitiveness, bourgeois professionalism, and the reproduction of elites….

Foucault’s more original contributions lie in his anchoring of a philosophical account of the relationship between truth and power in a historical analysis of specific modern institutions. His wide-ranging impact, I have argued here, owes something to his insights into the ascendancy of the same professional class of credentialed experts amongst whom his theories have achieved the most traction. But the dimensions of his ideas that might offer a means of criticizing the guiding assumptions of that class have generally remained unexplored, lest they prove too potent.”

In other words, where the god of knoweldge is wielded as a weapon that we can use and that serves our purposes, elite knowledge based systems emerge as that which then holds power over the other, which is the allusion of liberty and free will. The thing that stands out for me in this equation is the notion that in the absence of a grand narrative we simply come up with new narratives to take the place of the old, or new gods to replace the old. And whatever god it is that we bring in to fill the gaps, when that god is paired with politics and philosophy, and likeise funneled into “science” by way of these knowledge based systems, we are dealing with the potential abuse of “power” as “Truth”. To play that backwards, Marry this power to politics on either side of the political spectrum, and then marry the politics to “Truth” and you have a very real and potentially dangerous conundrum that threatens to collapse all of our ideological infighting in on itself. This becomes particularly rife when allusions of liberty and free will confront the social reality of conformity and construct.

The article by Shullenberger on Foucault has a particular interest in how this applies to the ongoing battle against Covid, with a primary concern being the gridlock that emerges from this kind of ideological infighting. Yet one could easily parlay this outwards into any socio-political issue. As I wrote about in my previous post on Covid, the conundrum of inconsistencies when it comes to employing these grand narratives at will can be seen, for example, in discussions of climate change. The real question becomes less about what the problem is (climate crisis) but about why one should be concerned and how we address the concern. To connect that to the above article and the formulating argument of this post, if the ultimate concern for liberty and free will comes down to “life” itself, to what end does our battle to “save the planet” (which itself is an undefined notion) sacrfice life for the sake of climate concern? And in doing do, to what degree does this ideological concern begin to collapse back in on itself? This is why the far more important quesitons are the why and the what, and as the above discussion as pointed out, what frames our grand narrative becomes crucial to understanding what it is we are then elevating as capital “T” Truth through the employing of our power based systems. Is nature itself our god? In that case we must ask what life we are willing to sacrifice to allow nature to take itse due course. Is humanity our god? In that case human exceptionalism must ask what we are willing to sacrifice to allow humans to compete and survive within nature. Is progress our god? In that case we must ask what we are willing to sacrifice to allow progress to happen. That the “we” here remains undefined is precisely what awakens us to the existence of those necessary power systems. And here it would also be prudent to readdress a central problem I brought up in my previous post as well, which is this notion that in the push and pull of these modern, power based systems (all employed in a similar concern for life), we have not true and acting defintion of what life is. And the absence of this definition is only getting more and more blurry as technology progresses and space exploration pushes further. Ironically, life out there becomes more valuable while life here on earth becomes less and less definable.

In my mind, the problem is that the assumed age of the new gods that American culture continues to proclaim and project (with according to Menand is itself a bit of a conundrum full of allusions and inconsistancies, particularly when it gets detached from history) has simply traded in the old with a confusing new pantheon. Nature? Humanity? Progress? Technology? Depending on where your allegiance alligns withiin this pantheon- and chances are most of us appeal to all of these gods when we need them to prop up our power systems- you will come away with very different and largely inconsistent interests and perspectives. Which is why the notion of a grand narrative built around liberty and free will remains a convoluted and often allusionary exercise, one that most people simply don’t want to aknowledge or think about. Why? Not only because we need a narrative in order to live a meaningful existence, but because we need a narrative to hold the power over the other. To feed this back into the question of Covid then, its not so much a question of whether there is a problem, its rather a question of why (or what motivates us) and what (how we address the problem). Peel back the layers and we find this common interest of “life” being played through competing visions of liberty and free will. The irony being that both sides are employing power and power based systems to protect the interest of life. What this should reveal though is how much of this happens wihout much understanding of that grand narrative or its absence. We are unable to define what precisely life is, and thus unable to define what it is we are sacrificing on either side of the equation, and what precisely we are sacrificing for. That this would leave so many in a state of unease (again, on either side) should not be surprising. That underneath our power driven, socially constructed attempts to maintain control over that less than defined narrative (employing the god of knowledge and reason as fighting our battles and being on our side over and against the other) we can perceive inequality, corruption, the loss of life, and disorder should be even less suprising. This is after all the very bedrock of our allusions towards liberty and free will. When power comes from everywhere, when life is power and power is life, we are left enslaved to its will and driven by its pursuit. In the name of liberty and freedom of course, but with little ability to define precisely what this means, what this is and why it matters. The very idea that power requires the sacrifice of life in order to be upheld, and that it does so without a grand narrative on either side able to inform this sacrifice, should give us pause. In its place should come the kind of humility that Shullenberger suggests we can glean from Foucault. We all have our gods after all, despite our ability to convince ourselves that liberty and free will can operate without them, and those gods exist in service of (and in service to) the power based systems we are trying to protect.

For what its worth, even though I’m not a fan of either McDowell’s, the recent Unbelievable conference tackled precisely this question. How do we live in this world of contradictory narratives with a better story in mind. Wright and Holland and Murray are of particular interest there, all of which are represented at least partially in these two episodes:

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: