Ethics and its Subjects:
Gayatri Spivak's "More on Power/Knowledge"
(Note: my little essay is written in a stupid and cheezy way, but if you can get past that, it's a pretty useful gloss on the Spivak article in question. The thinking is fine; the writing is dreadful. Be warned.)
"Who," asks postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak, "is the ethical subject of humanism?" Who, indeed. In queer communities, as thousands die while right-wingers continue to discuss the 'right to life' in other contexts, this question is especially pressing. Spivak asks: What is it to use critical philosophy critically? What is it to use it ethically? And perhaps most urgently: Who can do so?
To answer her own questions in her essay "More on Power/Knowledge" Spivak turns to Michel Foucault, arguably the twentieth century's most eloquent writer on the topic of: who speaks, and how? Moreover, not wishing to collapse her analysis of Foucault into mere theories of agency, Spivak invokes the name of Derrida, arguably the most tenacious "speaker of the unspeakable" currently writing philosophy. Against the better judgment of most US academics, Spivak makes the case that Foucault, who spent his entire life delimiting and unmasking the "normal" subject of humanism, and Derrida, who has spent most of his writing career inhabiting the "marginal", are not poles apart at all. Rather, she suggests reading them together, in order to more fully understand what has been meant by poststucturalism's use of the phrase power/knowledge. I would like to extend Spivak's project to suggest that reading Foucault through Derrida also enables us to more fully understand what both Foucault and queer theorists mean by the term "sexuality", and more specifically who constitutes a legitimate sexual subject.
Spivak asks the question: What is the relationship between critical and dogmatic philosophies of action? She distinguishes critical and dogmatic philosophies in this way: a critical philosophy is one that is aware of the limits of knowing. A dogmatic philosophy, on the other hand, is one that recommends paths of action, often without taking into consideration "empirical details". Spivak cites both Kant's critique of the Jacobeans, and deconstructionist's critique of international communist movements as examples of dogmatic philosophies--ones that failed to understand that they were applying critical paradigms without fully grasping the "facts" of their respective situations. For the purposes of this paper, I would like to suggest that the practice of "Outting" in the queer community is a dogmatic philosophy based on an unfortunate misreading of the more complex claims of critical queer theory.
Spivak begins her critical analysis of Foucault's book The History of Sexuality, by pointing out that when he uses words like "sexuality", "power" or "knowledge", Foucault is actively engaged in the dogmatic theoretical activity of naming, that is, the practice of collapsing large differences under simple labels. Like many other "isms" (capitalism, sexism, racism, etc.), nominalism (the process of naming) is how humans make sense of certain social relationships.
Unfortunately, nominalism, as Spivak points out "is a methodological necessity." The familiar cry, "why must we have labels? people are people!" misses the point that "people" is itself a label, and it assumes certain facts. The label of queer, or woman, or black, assumes other types of facts. This is the way language works.
Nominalism, because it invoves the activity of naimg, always misses as much as it marks, and it is under the sign of nominalism, with all its problems, that we must understand how Foucault uses the category "power," so as to later grasp what politics are at stake when Foucault later goes on to describe, "sexuality." As Spivak makes clear, when he writes about power, Foucault is trying to write about something involving force and human relations, and "It is called power because that is the closest one can get to it." The practice of proximate naming, for the sake of getting on with the conversation, is called "catechrestic" by Spivak, and each chatechrestic naming implies those who are left out of the name. A Queer, for example, may or may not be an individual of fixed gender (transgendered people use the name 'queer'), and it may or may not be someone who is even homosexual (and conversely, many homosexuals do not consider themselves, 'queer'.) This confusion, which circulates around all names, and results each time a social dynamic is assigned a name, is what Spivak terms paleonymy.
As Spivak puts it, "The consequences of paleonymy are neither true to Foucault's idea of power, nor untrue to them." Truth and exactitude for Foucault would be antithetical propositions. As Foucault says, "I am stating the problem, not solving or denying it. "(27) This becomes difficult for deconstructionists who must face pragmatists, however: the pressure to "do something"--to announce conclusively that "this is the correct or useful stategy, and that is not" becomes intense. To return to my earlier example: Outting is a complicated procedure, and the pressure for the queer community to make a blanket statement about Outting per se, regardless of individuals involved, is intense. But just because nominalism brings problems, Spivak argues, this does not mean the nominalist fails to have a politics. "Actually," she points out, "what this becomes is a new type of making visible of a success that neither conceals nor brackets problems. "(28) It is possible that the very discussion of the ethics of Outting is helping to point out that the words "queer" and "straight" have multiple meanings, and are hardly monolithic, self-regulatory categories.
Queer theorists argue that same-sex desire is embedded within all commonly understood heterosexual mating practices, and point to Gayle Rubin's influential essay "The Traffic in Women" as one of many examples of how heterosexual society feeds homosocial capital transactions. Nothing, a queer theorist might argue, is outside of the homosocial. In a similar vein Foucault argues that nothing is outside of the realm of power. For Foucault, power is always and everywhere. Without explicitly saying this, Spivak equates Foucault's use of the word "power" with Derrida's use of the word "text". For Derrida, nothing is outside the text.
The difference between the Derrida and Foucault, and it is a signficant difference, lies in their writing stategies. Foucault, in order to demonstrate that power is everywhere, provides example after example painful and pleasurable instances of "power" in daily life. Derrida, on the other hand, in his quest to expand the "text", substitutes words such as writing, trace, difference, origin, pararegon, gift, democracy, friendship, justice--in a sense, banking on the fact that his readers will (because they must) begin freezing the name and the concept , and through the act of paleonomy, they will render it more confined, each time they read it. Feminists and queer theorists are also in a writing dialectic of this type, as well. To be reductive, one might say that American feminist theorists work as Foucault did, re-substituting various cultural byproducts with the name "woman", where (psychoanalytically-inflected) queer theorists move from name to name--lesbian, transgendered person, butt-fucker-- in a series of endless sliding movements that underscore the different subject positions all herded under the name Queer.
"Foucault slashed with Derrida prevents him from being turned into a merely pragmatic nominalist, or a folk hero for American feminism", argues Spivak (29). In a similar way, many queer feminists readers are insisting that "the woman" be slashed with the name "lesbian", in order to rescue American feminism from the normalizing, heterosexist pragmatist impulses that threaten to squeeze the life out it. Moreover, slashing woman with lesbian makes an intervention into queer culture as well, by questioning the omnipresence of white male bodies in gay representation, and the invisiblity of females.
Spivak argues that in theory the critical is associated with the private, and the dogmatic is associated with the public. The debate on Outting uncomfortably critiques just what it is we mean when we speak of public and private space. The "epistemic inability" of American pragmatists like Richard Rorty (and I might argue Queer Nation) to understand that the critical and the dogmatic actually DEFINE one another is what allows these people to speak of deconstruction as "without politics". To re-cast Derrida and Foucault as thinkers intensely interested in action and the public sphere, Spivak returns to early and highly critical work of Heidegger (before Heidegger became dogmatic about poetry and art.) Spivak especially stresses that in order to understand the work of Foucault and Derrida, we must come to terms with the Heideggerian division between the ontological (public, god-driven) and the pre-ontic (radical, private, madness driven), and, perhaps more importantly the inevitable collapse of one system into the other (dasein), that for Heidegger, was the defining moment of human existence.
Criticizing American pragmatists who have appropriated Foucault's work for reductive and dogmatic ends, Spivak argues that in Heideggerian fashion, Foucault never writes about "power" without also describing "force." Spivak argues that to understand power without force is to misread Foucault, and more to the point, it is to miss his most trenchant insights. For Foucault, "force" (unintelligible, unmotivated, noticed only in the wake of its effects) comprises the pre-ontic dimension of the ontological-loaded, intelligible "power". In his earliest phase, Foucault made the ontico-ontological distinctions between "force" and "power", workable too quickly, too easily. Spivak points out that in Madness and Civilization, Foucault argues that "sanity" has at its core a definition of madness. Derrida fundamentally agrees with this, but he takes issue with the fact that Foucault then goes on to describe "those who are mad" in the language of sanity, without also describing "those who are sane" in the language of madness. This is one of the most lasting critiques of Foucault's early methodology, and ironically, it is the position now taken up by those who celebrate Foucault as a pragmatic thinker.
So as not to repeat the mistakes made by Foucault himself, Spivak suggests a new way of reading History of Sexuality. Rather than reading it as a book about sexuality (that which, like the word 'madness', fails to describe its object) Spivak suggests a different tactic. She makes it clear that she will uses Foucault's own grid, and think of sexuality as the French equivalents of the phrase power/knowledge. Pouvoir in French is "power", but it is also used regularly in French conjugations of the word "can", so Spivak argues that in addition to the word power, we should think of it as "can do" spirit of the everyday person. Savoir is knowledge, but knowledge of the everyday variety (knowledge as in intellectual, book-learned understanding is connassaince) Savoir describes the simple act of knowing something, as in "getting it". Thus power/knowledge in the French is more accurately: being able to do something, because (and only insofar as) you are able to make sense out of it. Power/knowledge describes the experience of "common sense" necessary for humans function in the world. And "common sense" , that which we experience bodily as "normal", has also been that which has been codified as "sexuality" through the disciplinary force of psychoanalysis and its attendants- the novel, medicine, the law and heterosexism.
For this reason, power/knowledge is both repressive (which was the main argument of the Freudian Repression Hypothesis), but more importantly, perhaps, it is also productive. Repression is a species of production--one represses things in order to produce other things. Repression is neither a positive nor a negative thing. It cannot be "gotten rid of", only moved around. For example, consider a gay man who is both "in the closet" at his job, and also has AIDS. His co-workers do not know he is gay, nor do they know the status of his illness. On one hand, the "repression" of the closet may allow this man to continue his work and have health benefits. Then consider another person, who is out of the closet, and also has AIDS, someone who was fired from his job due to his disclosure of his sexual orientation. This individual may have a community for support and feel more "honest", but may die without proper medical care, due to a lack of health insurance. Both of these positions involve pain, struggle, and positive reward to some degree. But neither position is "right", in and of itself.
The ethical discussions of abortion constitute another example of this conundrum. A woman, pressured by her state's outlawing of abortion, or by religious beliefs, may choose not to abort a fetus, and thereby have a relationship to mothering . Or she may choose to abort a fetus, and thereby grant herself "freedom" from child-rearing. These decisions are made in relation to various ideas linked to repression, and are also productive decisions, both.
Foucault wrote an Archeology of Knowledge (Savoir) but not one of Power (Pourvoir). Why? Spivak argues that it is because knowledge, as it is linked to the ontological, is comprised of discourse, but power (force)exists outside of discourse, it is pre-ontic. For Foucault to have written an Archeology of Power, he would have first had to define "power" under the terms of "knowledge", which would have defeated the whole project.
In describing Foucault's failure to write an Archeology of Power, Spivak draws this homology: on one hand--puissance (the State) pouvoir ("can do") , force (the felt impact of the irrational). On the other hand--connaissance (philosophical knowledge), savoir (everyday understanding), enoncŽ (that which is spoken about, everyday). The divisions between these two sides of the homology are how theory brings practice to crisis. It also demonstrates the ways in which practice norms theory. (37)
Here is an example of how practice norms theory, and how theory brings practice to crisis. Eve Segewick, following Foucault's lead, was the first to argue that for queers and straights alike, "the closet re-creates itself"--that is, the definition of "out" is always predicated on the idea that a subject is "free," and that he or she determines his or her own subjectivity, outside of cultural parameters. Anyone who considers Outting an ethical act believes that upon existing a "closet" , there is a "living room" (presumably, one void of heterosexism) into which a queer gains entry. What the definition "out" misses is that ALL human subjects function within the parameters of a homophobic world, whether they are queer or not. Thus paradoxically in the same moment it liberates those queers who come Out, the practice of Outting itself unwittingly participates in the language and rules of heterosexist culture. To put it bluntly: who ever heard of Outting straights?
This is what Spivak means when she says: "Deconstruction is not exposure of error. Logocentrism is not pathology." For deconstructionists, the question is not: which course of action is "ethical" (the prescription of ethics always leads into a code of morality) but rather, question--which course of action is "just" ? Because the 'ethical subject' of humanism is constructed (through the discourse of sexuality) as a white heterosexual Christian male, the entire project of ethics must be re-evaluated. Justice demands that ethics re-cast itself to understand that there are more human subjects than white heterosexual Christian men. Thus Foucault states, "it is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research."
In our previous example of the closetted gay man with AIDES, the question is often raised : is Outting (whether he outs himself, or is called out by other queers) an ethical path for this queer subject to take? The phrasing of this question, however, conventiently ignores the fact that in this case, the humanist subject of ethics( in this example, the queer man with AIDS) is already being made into an object by capitalist medical systems, and his subjectivity (complete with "available political options") has, in large measure, been decided for him.
In Heideggerian language, it is the ontico-ethical proximity of this case (the story of the queer man with AIDS who contemplates'Outting' himself, and a community who contemplates Outting him) that leads us then to understand in a new ways the material factsof ontico-ontological difference ("difference" in this example, is what I am calling the condition of being a 'queer subject of ethics', rather than the historically implied heterosexual subject.) For this reason, Spivak argues that deconstruction is a MORE practical politics than pragmatism, new modernism, or libertarianism policies that deliberately ignore that fact that all subject positions do not function in analogous ways.
Spivak suggests that perhaps Foucault died too soon to finish the third link between savoir (to think) and pouvoir (to do)--this link she terms devoir (to "ought to"). Devoir is the space of the ethical, and it cannot be arrived at outside of the savoir and pouvoir. For deconstruction, the ethical decision is not one which makes irrefutable exhortations toward certain actions. Rather, the ethical individual is skeptical of those who justify their deeds through theory (first wave Marxism comes to mind) and ALSO of those justify theorists who justify their deeds through practice (for instance, feminist who mistakenly look at political gains over the last twenty years and announce that the world is now "post feminist".)
Near the end of his life, Foucault suggested that sexuality has not been the only way of consolidating subjectivity through human history. He points to the Greek model of the "care of the soul" as another way in which subjectivity has been conceptualized. But this exchange in an interview is telling:
Q: Do you think that the Greeks off an attractive and plausible alternative? (to the ideas of subjectivity existing today...)
A: NO! I am not looking for an alternative...You see, what I want to do is not this history of solutions, and that is the reason I don't accept the word 'alternative"...
As Spivak puts it,"By reading Foucault in Derrida, I have tried to repeat the practical lesson of history, the perennial critique: who wins (also) loses. " Contrary to what pragmatism may argue, deconstruction does aspire to an ethics. But, much like queer theorists who point out the irony of speaking about Universal Healthcare Coverage while we live in a "don't ask, don't tell" political climate, andwhere thousands die from AIDS each day, the deconstructionist's articulation of ethics, in order to fully serve its constituency, must be one that is critical, and one which resists the tyranny of dogmatic philosophies of pragmatic Universal Citizenship.