This post continues a discussion begun elsewhere and in that way starts in media res. Neither the medium of the original discussion, Facebook, nor the demands on my time encouraged, or even allowed, me to pursue that discussion then. But it delighted me to see one of Qlipoth's constant topics taken up vigorously on both sides. I ask Qlipoth's regular readers to bear in mind that these comments, while they address a familar topic, were really motivated for a rather different audience, so the first step may seem like treading water.
The discussion began with the brief comment, "I hate the postmodern condition." It evolved into a debate on the proprieties of the polemic between Marxists and post-structuralists. It consisted largely of a committed defense of the utility of Foucault for leftist critical theory. The original poster urged the necessity for Marxists to recognize and address post-modernism as a detriment of today's liberation struggles.
Naturally, Qlipoth takes up that task and defends that necessity. The argument has four steps. First, a little reflection on what it means for a statement on post-modernism to steer into a discussion of Foucault. Following that a defense of why Marxists are justified in criticizing Foucault and why they may do so sharply at times. Then a critique of the narrower topic of Foucault's theory of discourse. Finally, some suggestions about what directions a materialist theory of discourse might take, although this last point is basically technical and likely to prove less interesting for most readers.
Foucault has probably exercized the widest and most sustained post-modern influence on the left in the imperialist centers. Understandably so, since he addresses recognizable issues and offers discussions more cogent than those found in other varieties of post-modern theory. But if a discussion of the post-modern narrows to a discussion of the post-structural, a term that effectively codes 'Foucault,' it obscures the concern common to all those varieties, the common character of their formulations of that concern, the political potential of their theoretical formulations, and the profound difference between their theoretical constructs and Marxist ways of critically tackling social relations.
All the varieties of post-modernism revolve around the "subject." In other words, they discuss how and why people feel what they feel, know what they know, think what they think and do what they do. They draw on late-19th-century innovations in the description of human psychology and human language, psychoanalysis and structural linguistics, to argue for the limits of reason and consciousness in the functioning of the subject and for the fundamental role of discourse in shaping and expressing the relations that comprise the "subject." As the basic terms of these theories imply, the theories must define "discourse" and establish a dynamic for the relationship of "discourse" and "subject."
The theories treat discourse as a system of signs that are able to convey denotative, referential meanings because they are organized into a system of formal contrasts. They characterize the relation between "subjects" and "discourse" in several ways. This relation can be purely psychological, resulting from inherent properities of human feeling and mind and inherent properties of structurally organized referential symbols, the model proposed by Lacan. This relation can be a formally cognitive as the structure of discourses provides a set of meanings, organized on different levels of generality, which determine the options for the "subject" to know and express itself, the model proposed by Foucault. This relation can escape any proper formulation, but can be explored by philosophical speculation on the properties of the categories in the underlying theoretical models and their assimilation to ethical discussion drawn from theology and literature, the model proposed by Derrida. These models all assume that "discourses" exist abstractly and autonomously and that they exercise a direct, determinative influence on an equally abstract and autonomous individual or "subject."
These post-modern theories originated in the first half of the 1960s, but the Left in the imperialist centers of Europe and the United States did not become interested in them until the late 1970s. Until that point, much of that Left had oriented itself to Marx and to socialist organizations. As the mass movements against military intervention, in support of national liberation, and in quest of civil and social rights, for liberation waned, the Left needed explanations for the failure of these movements to develop sustained revolutionary momentum. Academic leftists looked for that answer in post-modern theory. The abstract, abstruse language of those theories simultaneously satisfied the terms of legitimate political questions and of intellectual, institutional career building. The substitution of one abstract system for another also belonged to the academic protocols of theoretical. These models also provided their answers in the prevalent common-sense terms of "individualism" implicit in highly capitalized societies. Through the steps of partial assimilation between Marxist and post-modern theory and the increasing abandonment of the Marxist elements as their conceptual incompatibility became evident, the academic Left became an increasingly post-modern Left.
The reduction of political consciousness and political movements to a relationship between "subjects" and "discourses" turned out to furnish a resource for very problematical political theorizing. In this model, the failure of revolutionary consciousness results from inherent characteristics of the "subjects." The theoretical posture of the post-modern Leftist demonstrates their own adequacy as a "subject." The failure of movements lies in the defective "subjects" who fail to attain the same understanding. The "discourse" model lends itself to the scape-goating of the working class that has failed the political desires of the post-modern Leftist. The post-modern Leftist is also absolved of examining conjunctural relationships of power on the social scale or of engaging in the social movements that do exist, because these processes are determinede by "discourses" independent of our intervention and by the mechanics of their reception by "subjects."
So much for step one, the general characteristics of post-modern theory that we will need in order to appreciate the conceptual pitfalls behind the surface plausibility and appeal of Foucault's particular model of discourse.
Let me say, I publish tonight with some reluctance, since I can only hope that I will be able to post second step tomorrow.