Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Metaphysics Of Revolution

Image result for michel foucault

- Good morning. Can I propose something on this beautiful new day, speaking in your style?
- What according to you is my style?
- A philosopher despite yourself. You don't philosophizing about philosophy, you don't care enough for that, you philosophize past philosophy.
- Whatever that means.
- The easiest way of telling you what I mean is to make my proposal.
- In my style. Go ahead.
- I will. What is metaphysics?
- You tell me.
- I'll tell you a story in your style. Once, long ago in a golden age, we were not alone. And that was good, for we thought for ourselves and acted for others. We put together our thinking, thought confronted with thought, seeking to discover how best to help each other.
- And it was good.
- And it was good. And then it was not. We stopped thinking for ourselves and acting for others, but did the reverse, acted for ourselves and thought with others. Afraid of each other and on the run, we began to take direction from each other's thoughts, conforming to each other's expectations, giving in to each other's demands. And do you know what happened then?
- What?
- We couldn't see ourselves anymore when we stopped for a moment thinking as others thought. We'd vanished.
- And then what happened?
- Metaphysics happened. We began talking of ourselves, and everything else in the world, as a thing with possibility, potential. A thing with potential has a past which gives an indication of what it will do in the future, how its place in the world will change.
- And the self which had vanished reappeared as potential?
- Yes. First we tried the idea out on the world alone. We said everything was water, with its shape constantly shifting. Or it was air, or it was one of these elements in the grips of love, or it was mind moving everything.
- Which reminded us we had a mind before we started copying what everyone else was thinking.
- Precisely.
- But you're on your way philosophizing past philosophy...
- So I don't approve. No, I don't. Should I tell you why?
- Why?
- You know, this is fun. Of course you know. Who is the most significant philosopher of our times? Has to be Michel Foucault. And do you know why I say that?
- Why?
- Because he continued for me my little story. In the beginning there were the rules everyone had to copy each other in obeying. And then science happened. People began to learn how to do things with the world, and to apply knowledge like this to what they did with each other.
- Which was copy each other's actions while scheming for their own advantage.
- Yes. The rulers sought out and identified those of the ruled who, born that way or through ignorance, failed to copy accurately enough. People who copied each other's actions were rational, obedient and healthy, they knew how to do these things, and the people who didn't know were mad, criminal and sick, and they were locked away so as not to disturb the public copying. Locked away they could be safely studied and in time science would learn how to get them to copy others like everyone else did.
- Ok. Before, according to Foucault, according to you, we human beings got together to imitate each other and get each other off our backs so we could go on doing whatever we did without interference. If we had to mutilate our bodies we mutilated our bodies. Taboos warned us off from doing what we shouldn't. Then came the change. Our taboos now were supposed to be knowledge about our nature, so those who failed to observe them were unnatural. Why does this make any difference?
- Because of the metaphysics. We'd lost ourselves in always having to find out what other people wanted us to do and then doing it. But metaphysics gave us a model that pictured for us a body that contained a history of actions with a disposition to repeat themselves in the future, and that disposition identified us to ourselves, gave us back to ourselves as power, potential, possibility, force.
- So now, our rationality, obedience, health being supposedly monitored by science, we can't do that any more?
- That's right. What's deep down in the well of potential is studied, manipulated, controlled. Pictures are made of what happens in that shadowy world: infighting entities of consciousness are there, physical drives are there, a whole world of things is there that respond to each other in accord with laws that are being discovered by science. And something worse.
- What's that?
- Philosophers who did what we just did, criticized these new sciences of human nature, were subject to those new sciences, examined for signs of madness, criminality, unhealthiness. The philosophers, educated in these time of human sciences used to control human society, wondered if their own actions were now independent and 'potential' at all.
- You mean metaphysics failed them, and they were left feeling alone again, invisible to themselves.
- Yes.
- So what did they do? What did Foucault do?
- He revolted against the new human sciences of control. He didn't bother to prove the sciences weren't sciences at all. He didn't have to, because it was obvious they were simply myths of the comings and goings of shadowy things in the dark realm of the vanished self. Instead he wrote books of history in which he showed how these self-declared sciences were used in exactly the same way self-mutilation was used in earlier unscientific times to set the terms of what must be done and what not.
- Metaphysics opened a space where we could park our souls for when we needed them. Then the tow trucks of social science arrived and impounded our souls.
- As it were.
- Which leaves metaphysics where?
- In revolt. Philosophy, as Foucault said, was itself possibility, not a truth about the world in which there are truths.
- We don't have souls but philosophy does.
- We have souls when and only when we take a philosophic position, put a distance between ourselves and the world. If we want our souls back we defy the social sciences of control by uncovering their history. Even then we can't be sure our defiance isn't a passive response, a mere turning upside down, a reversal of the terms of obedience. Foucault said that producing his speeches made him free of them, free to live in a world of silence that drugs, or violence, or sexuality might open up for him to find his lost soul in. I don't know about you but I find that pathetic.
- Sad, sad, who cares. You said that unlike mere mortals I don't wallow in failure, I do something called philosophizing past philosophy. How am I going to do that here where philosophy has philosophized itself into a corner?
- We're going to learn from Foucault's mistake, his not extending to his personal life of revolt what he did in his histories. Madness is not simply the negative of rationality. It involves other elements such as intoxication, fantasy, creativity. Likewise, revolt against the occupation of the metaphysical world by the social sciences of control involves other elements than an attempt to reverse positions, perform a scientific revolution, and take control of what was controlling. There are other possibilities to revolt other than securing the field of social control.
- Which are?
- Reasons for revolt that come from within.
- How if the space of what's within that metaphysics used to offer is gone?
- We then have to recover it or something like it, do research, not like Foucault in group history, but in personal history.
- Look for how revolt used to be done. Assuming you've looked, what did you find?
- Three basic kinds of personal revolt. One, the desperate revolutionary who doesn't see a life worth living for himself as things now stand, who breaks the rules in an attempt to force an opening to a life he can accept. Two, the revolutionary who had a life good enough but times changed and who now has to fight to get back what was lost. Three, the happy few who are satisfied with their lives, and in the overflow of their happiness give themselves over to the model making of art, willing to make the world better as long as that can be done without endangering their satisfying private lives.
- All three revolts are personal. None of them has any idea of the world being made to fulfill a preordained plan.
- Their concern is whether their own lives are being lived to their potential.
- That word again.
- That very dangerous word which forces us to ask if even our revolutionaries with their private motivations are not merely doing metaphysics, making a model in their lives, opening up a space that reminds of revolution instead of doing anything real.
- We ask whether they are constructing out of the diverse materials of the different kinds of revolt a model that reminds them of the idea of revolt. Give me an example.
- Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'*. You've read it?
- In school. Bartleby, this is the nineteenth century, goes to work every day copying documents for a lawyer. The time comes when he refuses to do more copying, he refuses to leave the office. He says he would prefer not to, not to copy, not to leave. He revolts in despair, saying nothing further why or for what he revolts. Yet he revolts only to remain, somehow at home again after his revolt. Yet he remains as if in doing that he is making a creative statement taking the place of his previous obedient act of copying other people's statements. He rebels in all three ways at once. What of it?
- He has filled philosophy's metaphysical space of possibility with a sort of dance of revolt, revolving his revolutionary intent through moments creative, at home, and despairing.
- Instead of making a revolution.

Further Reading:
Austerity Love
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street (1853)