Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Chomsky / Foucault Debate

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- The Chomsky / Foucault debate, you've seen it?
- Years ago.
- I watched it again this afternoon. I want you to help me with it.
- Sure. With the understanding that if Foucault is right, I can't really help you.
- Why not?
- In the Politics Aristotle makes a distinction between doing things outside the home, which might be for the sake of gain, or profit, and doing things within the home, which were for the sake of good life together. Doing things for gain was bad in itself, because it had no end outside itself, and was limitless. But if done for the end of improving the other kind of living, life within the home, was an acceptable compromise.
- Foucault would say that things done within the home were no different than those done outside, done for the sake of power.
- Yes. Power is another word for gain. Things done for power are done for their own sake and are without limit.
- So who is right?
- Both Chomsky and Foucault argued that we need limits, in the form of organization, in order to think at all. Both agreed that the form the organization takes shows the influence of power relations in the world. Chomsky believes though that some reserve in our organization is kept free of power relations, and in that reserve is to be found the origins of our ideas of justice, freedom, truth, love.
- Chomsky agrees with Aristotle. And you?
- I think our experience supports the argument that we can identify the different kinds of experience, living for infinite gain, and living with other people to make life better.
- What experience supports the argument?
- The most convincing is the well known opposition between having a sense of one's own power, usually known as vanity, and the seeing the beauty of the world, or love of another person.
- If one disappears when the other arises, they seem to be two distinct different things.
- Yes.
- Foucault could still argue that we are deceived. What we call love is only another kind of power.
- He could, but such a statement would go against experience.


- One guy says love is only another name for power. The other guy says power is a failure to love. One guy says we use the words love and power to refer to different experiences, the other guy says we are mistaken when we do. How do we decide? How did you decide?
- Whether I am right in my own use of words? By giving the words clear definitions, and paying attention.
- Your attention could be faulty.
- I might not be able to see that the idea "limit" applies to one experience and not another?
- You might not see it at all, but practice a ritual of saying you do.
- And I'm not supposed to be aware when I am practicing a ritual and when I am not?
- No.
- Then we have to give up the argument, any argument. We need not respond to opposition except with the words, you can't help saying what you do, and I can't help saying what I do.
- So we get nowhere.
- Foucault speaks of power of others over us as something to be destroyed. At the end of the debate Chomsky says that avoiding being subject to power requires a conception of better and worse that is outside rituals of power.
- And Foucault's answer?
- There was no such thing as better and worse.
- Only power that wants to overcome power.
- But why should personal power be better? Personal power too is an idea that could be subject to social power. It seems to me Foucault lost the debate.


- Foucault and Chomsky agree we have to fight social oppression by understanding how it influences our own thinking. Foucault fought for the sake of fighting, Chomsky's fight is for fundamental principles, for justice. Both fight the same battle, so how much does it really matter? 
- Whether we fight for justice or for power? Are you serious?
- Why not?
- Who gets bought off first? The one who has to live with himself, or the one who doesn't believe he has a self he has to live with?
- You win.