Saturday, March 25, 2006

Freedom and Agency after Deleuze and Foucault

In a comment on Illusion and Critique, Orla Schantz raises a very serious problem for transcendental materialism

On an intellectual level I get this, as well as his idea of "immanence" as the pure flow of life and perception without any distinct perceiver.

But I find it hard on a personal level to accept this way of thinking. Wouldn't this mean the impossibility of the individual as an active agent?

The worry raised here is the big stumbling block for everyone who wants to do something with Deleuze and Guattari (and Foucault).

It is an ethical problem and also a political problem.

I don't think that Deleuze or Foucault can completely answer it. But I do think that we can move in a direction that is complemetary with their work.

Towards the end of his life, Maurice Merleau-Ponty was working up a notion of the subject as a "fold" in being. (This is in, I believe, his unfinished The Visible and the Invisible.) This is very different from the dominant tradition (Descartes, Kant, Husserl, Sartre) in which the subject is a hole or puncture in being.

The subject-as-fold means that the subject is a certain way in which being gets turned in on itself and twisted around -- in such a way as to be able to appropriate being as being.

If you like: the mind is the world's way of discovering itself.

Foucault and Deleuze are helpful here because they force us to think about the subject as a form -- I would want to say, as a form of folding.

So whereas Merleau-Ponty, like all the phenomenologists, only thinks about the actuality of the embodied (enfolded) subject as it is, and in this way posit a false foundation, Foucault and Deleuze recognize that there are many different ways in which bodies can be folded up into subjects. There are multiple forms of subjectivization.

This is: Merleau-Ponty + Nietzsche + Freud.

But to speak of bodies getting folded into subjects still seems to suggest a passivity. And this is what we want in a social theory, precisely because part of what we want to explain is why so many people are passive with respect to their social conditions.

On the other hand, there is still room for a Nietzschean notion of freedom even here, which I would construe as participation in one's own on-going subjectivization, and this includes the exploration and experimentation with various other ways of folding oneself into a subject.

In other to explore other forms of folding, one must know how to "unfold" oneself. This is what Deleuze and Guattari call "making yourself into a Body without Organs."

Still, at the end of the day, the question remains as to how one evaluates different forms of subjectivity.

At a minimum, I would endorse something like Nussbaum and Sen's capabilities approach: a form of subjectivity is 'better' if it leads to the expansion or intensification of human capabilities.

This won't solve all theoretical or practical problems, because

(a) the capabilities approach is itself tied into a specific form of subjectivity (liberal democratic, with a tinge of Aristotle);

(b) there's no standpoint outside of all forms of subjectivity from which one could evaluate them.

(a) and (b) are inter-related, but I'm not overly concerned about this. As we develop and evolve new forms of subjectivity -- and experiment with new ways of being-embodied-in-the-world -- our understanding of human capabilities will also increase.

Perhaps what looks like freedom to us now will look like intolerable oppression to our descendents -- and I say, let us hope so!

(And as Yusef Asabiyah said to me many years ago, people who believe in fixed forms aren't democrats. Deleuze and Foucault aren't liberal democrats, but they have an enormous gift to give to liberal democrats.)


Blogger Idealogen said...

Thanks a lot for your truly "enlightened" response. This is a great example of the aim of philosophy according to Deleuze: creating new concepts.

As you write: Maurice Merleau-Ponty was working up a notion of the subject as a "fold" in being. This is news to me, but a wonderful concept.

Also thanks for ending your comment on an upbeat note about "the subject".

I have been mulling over Deleuze's own concepts of "the machine" and "the event" to come to grips with the subject.

The way I read him he comes pretty close to a definition when he is explaining "the machine" or "life" as nothing more than its connections. And a "machine" (or a subject, maybe?) only works and is insofar as it connects with other "machines".

In other words, life is a proliferation of machine connections with the mind or brain as one (advanced) machine among others.

OR (or AND):

The subject is a Deleuzian "event".

"”We do not begin as subjects who then have to know a world. There is experience and from this experience we form an image of ourselves as distinct subjects. Before “the” subject there is what Deleuze refers to as "larval subjects": a multiplicity of perceptions and contemplations not yet organized into a self." (quoted from Claire Colebrook’s excellent introduction to Deleuze).

In other words, the subject is AN EVENT in the immanence of life.

What I appreciate so much about Deleuze and other modern French thinkers is their creative generosity: They inspire you to think further.

All the best,

Orla Schantz

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I think that some of the problems that are coming up here have to do with the decisive conceptual overthrow by Deleuze of representation and the complete revolution of thinking that this entails... that we can't think of what agency would be in Deleuze means, I think, that we fail to understand to just what extent our concepts of agency and subjectivity are still tied into the thinking and being of representation.

This has been bothering me, alot.

To put it a little too succinctly, for Deleuze, Kant's work really only amounts to a kind of last ditch, desperate effort to save the world of representation.

We here in the Enlightenment Underground are to some extent resurrecting Kant's critical project ( or trying to,); along with this, we are inadvertantly dragging into our thinking some elements that we have worked elsewhere to overcome... representation being one of those elements.

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

What I said above about Deleuze and representation, and what Orla said when he made this statement " The subject is a Deleuzian event," appears to me to be completely compatible...

7:27 AM  
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