Chomsky – Foucalt Debate, Justice vs Power

“But by the extension of physical science to incorporate hitherto unavailable concepts, entirely new ideas, it became possible to successively build more and more complicated structures that incorporated a larger range of phenomena.”

“The history of knowledge has tried for a long time to obey two claims. One is the claim of attribution: each discovery should not only be situated and dated, but should also be attributed to someone; it should have an inventor and someone responsible for it. General or collective phenomena on the other hand, those which by definition can’t be “attributed”, are normally devalued: they are still traditionally described through words like “tradition”, “mentality”, “modes”; and one lets them play the negative role of a brake in relation to the “originality” of the inventor. In brief, this has to do with the principle of the sovereignty of the subject applied to the history of knowledge. The other claim is that which no longer allows us to save the subject, but the truth: so that it won’t be compromised by history, but only that it reveals itself in it; hidden to men’s eyes, provisionally inaccessible, sitting in the shadows, it will wait to be unveiled. The history of truth would be essentially its delay, its fall or the disappearance of the obstacles which have impeded it until now from coming to light. The historical dimension of knowledge is always negative in relation to the truth. It isn’t the other: the phenomena of collective order, the “common thought”, the “prejudices” of the “myths” of a period, constituted the obstacles which the subject of knowledge had to surmount or to outlive in order to have access finally to the truth; he had to be in an “eccentric” position in order to “discover”. At one level this seems to be invoking a certain “romanticism” about the history of science: the solitude of the original through history and despite it. It think that, more fundamentally, its a matter of superimposing the theory of knowledge and the subject of knowledge on the history of knowledge.”

“Take for example medicine at the end of the 18th century: read twenty medical works, its doesn’t matter which, of the years 1770 to 1780, then twenty others from the years 1820 to 1830, and I would say, quite at random, that in forty or fifty years everything had changed; what one talked about, the way one talked about it, not just the remedies, or course, not just the maladies and their classifications, but the outlook itself. Who was responsible for that? Who was the author of it? It is artificial, I think, to say Bichat, or even to expand a little and to say the first anatomical clinicians. It’s a matter of a collective and complex transformation of medical understanding in its practice and its rules. And this transformation is far from a negative phenomenon: it is the suppression of a negativity, the effacement of an obstacle, the disappearance of prejudice, the abandonment of old myths, the retreat of irrational beliefs, and access finally freed to experience and to reason; it represents the application of an entirely new grille, with its choices and exclusions; a new play with its own rules, decisions and limitations, with its own inner logic, its parameters and its blind alleys, all of which lead to the modification of the point of origin. And it is in this functioning that the understanding itself exists. So if one studies the history of knowledge, one sees that there are two broad directions of analysis: according to one, one has to show how, under what conditions and for what reasons, the understanding modifies itself in its formative rules, without passing through an original “inventor” discovering the “truth”; and according to the other, one has to show how the working of the rules of an understanding can produce in an individual new and unpublished knowledge. Here my aim rejoins, with imperfect methods and in a quite inferior mode, Mr Chomsky’s project: accounting for the fact that with a few rules or definite elements, unknown totalities never even produced, can be brought to light by individuals.”

“So even though the process of, let’s say, deriving knowledge of physics from data is far more complex, far more difficult for an organism such as ours, far more drawn out in time, requiring intervention of genius and so on and so forth, nevertheless in a certain sense the achievement of discovering physical science or biology or whatever you like, is based on something rather similar to the achievement of the normal child in discovering the structure of his language: that is, it must be achieved on the basis of an initial limitation, an initial restriction on the class of possible theories. If you did not begin by knowing that only certain things are possible theories, then no induction would be possible at all. You could go from data to anywhere, in any direction. And the fact tat science converges and progresses itself show us that such initial limitations and structures exist.”

“That is true if you limit yourself to a fairly short period of time, whatever it may be. But if you consider a longer period, it seems to be that what is striking is the proliferation of possibilities by divergences.”

“I would like to know whether one cannot discover the system of regularity, of constraint, which makes science possible, somewhere else, even outside the human mind, in social forms, in the relations of production, in the class struggles, etc.”

“Why shouldn’t I be interested [in politics]? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.”

“There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will.”

“If one understands by democracy the effective exercise of power by a population which is neither divided nor hierarchically ordered in classes, it is quite clear that we are very far from democracy. It is only too clear that we are living under a regime of a dictatorship of class, or a power of class which imposes itself by violence, even when the instruments of this violence are institutional and constitutional; and to that degree, there isn’t any question of democracy for us… I admit to not being able to define, nor for even stronger reasons to propose, an ideal social model for the functioning of our scientific or technological society.

On the other hand, one of the tasks that seems immediate and urgent to me, over and above anything else, is this: that we should indicate and show up, even where they are hidden, all the relationships of political power which actually control the social body and oppress or repress it.

What I want to say is this: it is the custom, at least in European society, to consider that power is localized in the hands of government and that it is exercised through a certain number of particular institutions, such as the administration, the police, the army, and the apparatus of the state. One knows that all these institutions are made to elaborate and to transmit a certain number of decisions, in the name of the nation or of the state, to have them applied and to punish those who don’t obey. But I believe that political power also exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.

One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university, and in a general was, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. Institutions of knowledge, or foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.

It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

This critique and this fight seem essential to me for different reasons: firstly, because political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centres and invisible, little-known points of support; its true resistance, its try solidity is perhaps where one doesn’t expect it. Probably it’s sufficient to say that behind the governments, behind the apparatus of the State, there is the dominant class; one must locate the point of activity, the places and forms in which its domination is exercised. And because this domination is not simply the expression in political terms of economic exploitation, it is its instrument and to a large extent, the condition which makes it possible; the suppression of the one is achieved through the exhaustive discernment of the other. Well, if one fails to recognize these points of support of class power, one risks allowing them to continue to exist; and to see this class power reconstitute itself even after an apparent revolutionary process.”

“Yes I would certainly agree with that, not only in theory but also in action. That is, there are two intellectual tasks: one, and the one that I was discussing, is to try to crate the vision of a future just society; that is to create, if you like, a humanistic social theory that is based, if possible, on some firm and humane concept of the human essence or human nature. That’s one task.

Another task is to understand very clearly the nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our own society. And that certainly includes the institutions you mentioned, as well as the central institutions of any industrial society, name the economic, commercial and financial institutions and in particular, in the coming period, the great multi-national corporations”

“But if justice is at stake in a struggle, then it is as an instrument of power; it is not in the hope that finally one day, in this or another society, people will be rewarded according to their merits, or punished according to their faults. Rather than thinking of the social struggle in terms of justice, one has to emphasize justice in terms of the social struggle.”

“I would agree that we are certainly in no position to create a system of ideal justice, just as we are in no position to create an ideal society in our minds. We don’t know enough and we’re too limited and too biased and all sorts of other things. But we are in a position – and we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings in that position – to imagine and move towards the creation of a better society and also a better system of justice. Now this better system will certainly have its defects. But if one compares the better system with the existing system, without being confused into thinking that our better system is the ideal system, we can then argue…”

“I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class it considers such a war to be just.”

“… because I imagine that in general a system of centralized power will operate very efficiently in the interest of the most powerful elements within it.”


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