It is a bit fashionable in conservative circles these days to decry the dual influence of French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. They are blamed for laying the intellectual groundwork for the moral relativism, anti-rationalism, anti-Westernism, and narcissistic identity politics that blight today’s society. The grievance politics of Black Lives Matter and the strange, belligerent otherworldly character of the transgender movement are meant to be their legacy – the consequence of Foucault’s philosophy that truths are mere masks for pervasive power. , and Derrida’s idea that the meaning of words and texts is fundamentally unstable. . Both have told us that reality is plastic and that objectivity is an illusion, it is argued.
Jordan Peterson certainly believes that. Indeed, he is partly responsible for the dissemination of this idea. In an interview with the Telegraph Earlier this month, we were reminded that Peterson thinks Derrida is “a crook” whose “postmodern and neo-Marxist theories” now threaten not only free speech, but the very foundations of Western democracy. . Meanwhile, Peterson “reserves particular contempt” for Foucault, in the words of the Telegraph to interview.
But are it really the twin demons we should blame for our woes and awakening from the culture war?
It may be true that Foucault’s beliefs that power is invisible and omnipresent – and that knowledge is only the consequence of power (i.e. might equals right) – had a disastrous influence. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, “systemic” and “institutional” racism are arguably his legacy here – as is the idea that white people do bad things without you or them realizing it. But when it comes to identity politics, Foucault would be appalled by the certainties of today’s social justice warriors.
While racial essentialists and transgender activists today are intoxicated by the notion that their identities are fixed, immutable, and sacrosanct, Foucault believed that identities were malleable and essentially artificial.
Foucault saw the Western subject not as a timeless entity, but as a specific event. “My goal,” he said in 1982, “has been to create a history of the different ways in which, in our culture, human beings are subjugated.” Who we are is often determined by others. Throughout history, he argued, objectification has come in “divisive practices,” in which the state determines and classifies people as mad, criminal, sick, insane, or gay.
Thus, not only did Foucault reject the idea of concrete identities and categories as a chimera, but he also resisted them, often seeing them as a means of oppression. “Don’t ask me who I am and don’t ask me to stay the same,” Foucault said in 1969, “leave it to our bureaucrats and policemen to see that our papers are in order.”
Even the identities we ostensibly assume for ourselves are determined by externally created parameters. Foucault called this “subjectivation” – “the way a human being becomes a subject”. Foucault would recognize “LGBT+” here as a holdover from an earlier era when it was common to divide, rationalize, and classify people as normal or deviant based on their sexuality. Foucault wouldn’t have seen the need to divide people into ‘straight’ and ‘other’, or for ‘LGBT+’ people to have their own flag and month of celebration.
Foucault’s antipathy to “the self,” both politically and personally, explains why he was politically tolerant and, curiously, classically liberal. Foucault revered doubt, which opens the mind to new possibilities. Our culture reveres righteousness, which closes the mind. Our society is in the grip of ethnic boxes, bureaucratic managerialism and categorization. Foucault viewed categories as cages.
Michel Foucault questioned the accepted truths and the power exercised by the elites. In these times of stifling awakening from above, Foucault’s dissenting spirit is something we should embrace.
Jacques Derrida also had the virtue of teaching us to think differently, to question the texts and to take a scrupulous look at the words presented to us. When language is controlled and manipulated with vigilance and censorship, as it is now, Derrida’s skepticism should also be the order of the day.
It is useful as an aid in detecting how ideologically motivated deception is employed in everyday discourse. So learn the difference between ‘pregnant person’ and ‘pregnant woman’, ‘white privilege’ and ‘rich white privilege’, ‘anti-European’ and ‘anti-EU’, ‘institutional racism’ and ‘no empirical evidence. of racism”.
Derrida’s “deconstruction” project – to explore and dig into the meaning of words and the context in which they are presented – was not undertaken to dismantle or bring down the Western canon, as many of his devotees and critics believe. , but to understand it better. “I really like everything I deconstruct,” he said in 1979. “Plato’s signature isn’t finished yet…neither that of Nietzsche, nor that of Saint Augustine. It is worth re-reading these and other texts, he argued, because when you re-read a book, it reads differently each time.
Derrida is right here that the meanings of texts and words are unstable. Consider the greetings, with which he had a particular obsession. When you say ‘How are you?’ or “How are you?”, you don’t wonder about a friend’s health or well-being. You just say “Hello”, but with different words, without saying “Hello”.
Like Foucault, Derrida opposes certainties. Both rejected Marxism as a political enterprise. Neither to reason, nor to agency, nor to the individual. So such talk of “neo-Marxism” or “cultural Marxism” sucks. Foucault and Derrida were freethinkers beyond categorization.
Why it is better to be pessimistic
The brilliant and affable left-wing comedian Mark Steel tweeted last week: ‘Thank you to everyone sending lovely messages here… This puts angry screamers into perspective and confirms my view that 99% of people are lovely, and only 1% are smoking dingbats who might do with a slap.’
That sums up both why I think he’s great and why I think his politics are bad. He sees the best in people. But if you always see the best in people, you let your guard down. That’s why it’s better to be pessimistic. It is better to lock your door at night rather than leaving it wide open.
Will the month of Pride ever end?
Pride was supposed to be dedicated to June, but it continues this week. TV shows are still filled with Pride documentaries and rainbow flags are still displayed on corporate social media profiles.
It’s a bit like those Soviet party conferences where nobody wanted to be the first to stop applauding Stalin for fear of the dreaded consequences. Who will be the first heretic to stop this obligatory spurt and flattery?
Patrick West is a dope journalist. His latest book, Getting over yourself: Nietzsche for our timeis published by Societas.