People Are the Source of All Power


Here is a thought whose recurrence in me today was prompted by Commonwealth.  Hardt & Negri insist on Foucault’s argument that power can only be exercised over free subjects.  That is, the nature of power (i.e. biopower, pouvoir, constituted power) is that it tries to act on the free activity of people, either to repress it or to cause it to flow in particular directions.   The free activity of people–their drive that continues to churn, to create, to assert itself–is primary.  (This is what D&G call desiring-production, and we could call it puissance, or constituent power, or, my favorite, kratos.)  We commonly think of domination as sequentially prior to resistance, that domination is imposed and then a resistance is born.  But that is wrong.  Domination must always impose itself on something, and that something is the ongoing free activity of people.  In that sense, resistance is just the temporary guise that already-existing free activity takes as it continues to churn, to escape whatever controls have been imposed so that it can continue its work, continue to pursue its insistent project of creation.

All this made me think of my post on Far From Heaven, in which we can see people heavily constrained by norms of race, class, gender, and sexuality, who nevertheless continue to churn, to desire, to create.

Nietzsche Now!


Here is a cluster of (not entirely organized) thoughts raised by my revisiting Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality this week.

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche says he wants more philosophers of the dangerous maybe, more thought that unsettles the ground, that undoes the established wisdom (e.g. conventional morals).  This project will make us freer to act according to our own drives, our own will to endure.  The problem is (BGE 27) that even though we often think of philosophical ideas as being autonomous, they always grow up in relation to a system of many other ideas.  Thinking is thus more of a recognition, a remembering certain strains of what has already been thought.  And so it can be very difficult to break out of the established habits/channels/assumptions.  One can of course see the deep resonance with Foucault’s project here.  His is a very deeply Nietzschean approach to thought.

Moreover, Nietzsche says we are constrained in our thought by our language, a fact my students and I realized viscerally when we tried to speak after accepting Nietzsche’s argument that

a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.”  It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty” (BGE 24).

Immediately we started saying thinks like “I think…” or “Nietzsche wants…”, and we were not sure how to even construct a sentence if the subject is no longer the initiator of action, but is rather just an illusion we invent to help us make sense of a world where a thought or a desire just arises, or emerges, somehow, in the vicinity of our body.  Here, of course, as in Nietzsche’s idea of the multiplicitous soul, one can see the strong influence on D&G and their obsession with the process of subjectification (in TP) and the tyranny of the ego (in AO).

Nietzsche reiterates this desire to open up new forms of thought and action when he complains that Kantian and Platonic philosophy suffers from a will to truth, which “prefers a handful of certainty to a ‘whole carload of beautiful possibilities’ ” (BGE 16).  Here it struck me that his thought is important for inspiring, perhaps though Foucault, much of the obsession in contemporary political theory with the idea of possibility, or potential, with keeping possibility open, instead of settling on a certainty, on a fixed identity/determination.  Here I am thinking of Agamben’s whatever, but also Ranciere’s political ruptures, or the potentia of (Hardt &) Negri, or even Lefebvre’s own search for a path to the possible.

And lastly, I was struck this time by the remarkable resonances between these texts and D&G’s discussion of a breakthrough over into a new land (in AO (and TP)).  Nietzsche says that the dangerous ideas he seeks urge us to go beyond morality, to voyage past it, to cross over into a realm beyond conventional ethics (BGE 31).  Here we can recall the ubermensch crossing over, on his line, on his his tightrope, headed toward “an unknown country” or “new land” as D&G call it, toward what Nietzsche says is “a new domain of dangerous insights (BGE 31).

Nietzsche says his project is to “traverse…with new eyes…the hidden land of morality,” and thus “to discover this land for the first time” (OGM 21) which clearly echoes D&G’s approving description of Proust:

But the narrator-spider never ceases undoing webs and planes, resuming the journey, watching for the signs or the indices that operate like machines and that will cause him to go on further….Oh, the narrator does not homestead in the familial and neurotic lands of Oedipus, there where the global and personal connections are established; he does not remain there, he crosses these lands, he desecrates them, he penetrates them, he liquidates even his grandmother with a machine for tying shoes (AO 318).

Nietzsche prompts us to recall D&G’s lines of flight when he calls together those who want “to get–away.  A little more strength, flight, courage, artistic power, and they would want to rise–not return…” (BGE 17).  And things get quite unmistakable when Nietzsche says: We need “a new psychologist,” who “exiles himself into a new desert,” and “condemns himself to invention–and–who knows?–perhaps to discovery” (BGE 21).

Of course it is well-known that Deleuze loved Nietzsche; but it is worth remembering sometimes just how deeply Nietzsche’s thought is shot through the former’s work, not to mention the work of so much radical theory today.

Foucault and Writing

A recent post at Progressive Geographies offers this quote from Foucault about writing:

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from… You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day?

You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.

Michel Foucault, (1969) ‘Interview with Claude Bonnefoy’, Unpublished typescript, IMEC B14, pp. 29-30; also available as Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard.

For me the quote started out quite hopeful, the part about there being a pleasure in writing.  I thought, “yeah, yeah, tell me about the pleasure in writing!”  But he quickly casts doubt on that, and moves into saying its an obligation, and we only know that because if we don’t write then we feel bad. And then we learn it is an obligation to do something vain, fictitious, narcissistic, and turned in on itself.  And then he takes a Nietzschean turn and says we write in order to be in control over (or even dominate) the world around us.  But of course that falls apart because the Apollonian attempt to make sense of the world can’t ever fully mask the Dionysian fact that it lacks meaning, that the world just is.  At the end, it seems to me, we are left with no good reason to write.  Foucault at his most brooding.  He gets accused of brooding all the time, and maybe he does, but there is so much hope in his work as well, even if there is only a glint of it here.

That first sentence proposes that there is pleasure in writing.  It seems there has to be if we are going to do it regularly.  Not a negative pleasure of not-feeling-bad.  But a positive pleasure, a joy, a delight, a voluptas.  The delight in language, in its rhythm and music.  The delight in thinking through an idea, spending time with it, turning it over and savoring it from all sides.  The delight in opening out to the world, in articulating oneself in order to connect up with others, to pass one’s excitement about an idea on to someone else.

I think if we want to write, to do it well and frequently, it is not so much about scheduling it properly (although that helps!).  It is more about becoming aware of the delight in writing, learning when it comes and what it feels like, and deciding that is the reason we do it.