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Deconstructing the Election | The Nation

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Deconstructing the Election

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The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning.
         --Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge

About the Author

Win McCormack
Win McCormack, former publisher of Oregon Magazine, is publisher and editor in chief of the literary quarterly Tin...

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De-Foucaulding the GOP

New York City

Win McCormack's sophisticated examination of conservative tactics in the last election was fascinating ["Deconstructing the Election," March 26]. Such sophistication is not necessary to an understanding of conservative intellectual resilience in defending the interests of the dominant economic powers. 'Twas ever thus. There is only one consistency in conservative analysis of the role of government: It is to follow its historical role of protecting the dominant interests and transferring wealth from those who have little to those who have much.

FRED GREENBAUM


St. Louis

I'm glad the web-based version of your magazine is free. Otherwise I'd be forced to ask for a refund, not to mention punitive damages for the waste of my time (and, undoubtedly, a number of brain cells) caused by reading this article. I'll spare you my opinions and critique. Let's just paraphrase Foucault and say that this is the kind of writing that gives bullshit a bad name.

STEVE HINCHCLIFF


Gunnison, Colo.

I am sympathetic with Win McCormack's applying poststructural analysis to the presidential election, but he makes a glaring mistake. The quote he attributes to Michel Foucault, that Derrida is "the kind of philosopher who gives bullshit a bad name," was in fact uttered by UC Berkeley professor John Searle, who made the statement in a 1983 article in the New York Times Book Review.

DANIEL HARRISON


New Haven, Conn.

I hope I may be pardoned if I quibble, in prepostmodern fashion, over a minor point. I have it on good authority that the wonderful remark on Derrida being the sort of philosopher "who gives bullshit a bad name" comes not from Foucault but from Richard Rorty. But, of course, if the interpretation and recounting of all "texts" really is indeterminate, it perhaps doesn't matter all that much anyway.

JOSHUA L. CHERNISS

The "bullshit" quote is postmodernly elusive. Richard Rorty is fairly certain he never said it. John Searle admits to using it but not to originating it. In his article, McCormack relied on the rarely correct Dinesh D'Souza, who attributed it to Foucault. Scholars pronounce it "un-Foucauldian."
      --The Editors


St. Peter, Minn.

I enjoyed Win McCormack's review of the Florida debacle and appreciate seeing the crisscrossing issues brought together in one place. But I was annoyed by his harping on "irony" and hints that Baker & Co. were secret advocates of the "postmodernism" Lynne Cheney castigates. Two errors: 1. Foucault's rejection of objective neutrality is premised on the principle that there's no such thing as objectivity independent of somebody's constructive work--nothing counts as "neutrality" in that sense; rising above subjectivity is an essential impossibility, not one based on human fallibility. This isn't at all the same as James Baker's claim that people are fallible and cannot arrive at objective truth, which nevertheless exists and is better approximated by nonpartisan machines than biased people.

2. There's nothing ironic about Republicans behaving the way they say they don't. It's a nifty example of Foucault's power theory, but you'd hardly expect Lynne Cheney to embrace Foucault. Not unless you find it "ironic" that capitalists are still behaving the way Marx said they do even as they pronounce Marxism dead and discredited. That's what Marx said they'd do. Lynne Cheney writes in a way Foucault anticipates even as she attempts to discredit him. Nothing ironic there.

RICHARD A. HILBERT


Austin, Tex.

Win McCormack's article reminded me of Nixon winning elections by calling his opponents communists and later saying he knew they weren't communists but he had to win. As someone who was at the Inauguration protests in Washington and in several other protests, I was especially interested in the parts about the paid Republican protesters in Florida. I encountered Republican protesters here at the governor's mansion during the election fiasco--nasty, horrible, meanspirited people. When we protested the presence of the Fortune 500 group and Vicente Fox at U Texas, we were held back by a horrifying force of police in riot gear. Our protest community is notoriously peaceful, but no one was protecting us. The police got to try out their new toys--like rubber bullets--against some college students at Mardi Gras, causing several injuries and terrifying us all. Despite strong objections at a city council meeting, the police got a large raise, a toothless oversight committee, no civilian review and were sent on a junket to Seattle to learn crowd control! If we protesters had tried anything nearly as threatening as what Republicans staged in Florida, the police would have caused a bloodbath, and the media would have blamed us.

CINDY BERINGER


Chicago

Win McCormack effectively conveys the tendentiousness, hypocrisy and even demagogy that characterized the Republicans' strategy in Florida. But I take exception to his claim that we require Foucault's concept of "a battle among discourses" to properly understand this historical event. Tendentiousness, hypocrisy and demagogy have characterized political rhetoric since well before the birth of poststructuralist philosophy. They have been analyzed with great acuity by, among others, Machiavelli, who advocated deploying them prudently, and Jürgen Habermas, whose ethics of discourse repudiates them.

McCormack wrongly invokes the term "discourse" to describe the position of one party in a two-party or multiparty controversy. Discourses for Foucault are analogous to what we might call the "paradigm" (Foucault would say "discipline") within which a controversy occurs. A Foucauldian approach to the Florida deadlock, therefore, would involve studying the underlying social, political, economic and cultural relations of power that determined which truth claims were accepted as valid.

It is true, as McCormack notes, that a subjectivist or relativist epistemology underlies this approach to the study of the relationship between power and ideas. But the fact that James Baker raised the problem of "individual subjectivity" on the canvassing boards in no way confirms Foucault's theory of power, as McCormack claims. To assert that election officials may be subjective is a far cry from demonstrating the validity of the proposition that everything is subjective. At most, McCormack may be able to claim that widespread acceptance of Baker's argument would demonstrate that some number of people have embraced a Foucauldian theory of power. This, of course, would no more confirm the theory than does Baker's charge of bias on Florida's canvassing boards.

Ultimately, we do not require Foucauldian concepts to understand what happened in Florida. George Bush personified hypocrisy by contesting the constitutionality of a voting procedure he signed into law in Texas; the US Supreme Court's justification for stopping the manual recount was manifestly tendentious; and Baker's claim that a prolonged electoral struggle would undermine US international standing was demagogic. Foucault can help us understand how networks of power determine whether these discursive acts come to be accepted or rejected. But to understand the corruption that pervaded GOP strategy in Florida, we need only to have been paying attention.

JASON NEIDLEMAN


Oxford, Ohio

McCormack turns out to be prophetic of future postmodernisms by the more right-wing elements of the Establishment. Writing for an undivided Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas informs us, "It is clear from the text of the [Controlled Substances] act that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception"--a nice reminder that "power is knowledge."

The idea of different lenses through which history can be viewed and refracted (and twisted) was satirized by E.M. Forster in his seminal (hell, downright ovular) 1909 dystopian satire "The Machine Stops"; and the malleability of the past and the social construction of knowledge and the universe would be no news to George Orwell's O'Brien in 1984 or to the Stalinists, Nazis and other totalitarians he represents. No one knew that power is knowledge better than the authoritarians and totalitarians of the first half of the twentieth century, and later.

What's postmodern now is the degree to which "the best lack all conviction": the degree to which twenty-first-century intellectuals lack the ontological and epistemological foundations from which to argue that Congress might just, concerning medical marijuana at least, be in error, cruel and--in a nontheoretical formulation--full of shit.

RICHARD D. ERLICH


D'outre-Tombe [Beyond the Grave], France

Imagine my post-mortem shock at seeing my name on the cover of The Nation, somehow linked with the slogan "History Is Entirely Subjective." Am I not among those who pointed out in the 1960s that "Man" is a recent invention, and one fast approaching its end? If you want a slogan from my work, how about this one, spoken by an anonymous voice at the end of The Archaeology of Knowledge: "Discourse is not life; its time is not your time. In it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said. But don't imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he." "Entirely subjective" indeed!

MICHEL FOUCAULT,
Author-Function


McCORMACK REPLIES

Portland, Ore.

I am gratified by the voluminous amount of mail that arrived in reaction to my article. I will respond to only one point, as I think that will enable me to expand and clarify my central thesis.

It may be true, as Jason Neidleman contends, that ultimately we do not need to deploy a Foucauldian intellectual apparatus to grasp the basic structure of what happened in Florida. However, I was more concerned with Republican or conservative intellectual superstructure. Conservatives have for some time now been claiming that their movement possesses a moral and intellectual integrity superior to that of their political and ideological adversaries and have repeatedly cited the widespread embrace of "decadent" postmodern (by which they mean poststructuralist) theories in liberal academia as partial evidence of that. Convincing the public of this putative superiority is much of what they have in mind when they speak of fighting, and winning, the "cultural wars" and is the very goal of tracts like Lynne Cheney's Speaking the Truth and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. In that context, the fact that their behavior in Florida, from the rough-and-tumble street level all the way up to the hushed, august chambers of the Supreme Court, reveals them, on their own chosen terms of discourse, to be intellectually and morally inconsistent and bankrupt seems more than noteworthy and was, ultimately, my real point.

WIN McCORMACK

Michel Foucault would have been fascinated by late-twentieth-century presidential campaigns.
         --Lynne Cheney, Telling the Truth

Since the late 1980s, when they discovered with horror certain French-derived theories of social science and literary analysis that long before then had taken root among left-leaning academics in the United States--essentially replacing Marxist dialectics as weapons of intellectual struggle, in reaction against the failure of radical politics in the 1960s--American conservative intellectuals have held these particular theories under siege. In such books as Tenured Radicals (1990) by New Criterion managing editor Roger Kimball, Illiberal Education (1991) by ex-Reagan White House domestic policy adviser (and former Dartmouth Review editor) Dinesh D'Souza and Telling the Truth (1995) by ex-National Endowment for the Humanities chairwoman and future Vice Presidential spouse Lynne Cheney, and in innumerable interviews, stump speeches and talk-radio tirades, representatives of the American conservative movement have denounced the exponents of these theories for attempting to lure students away from traditional cherished academic ideals like objectivity and truth toward a cynical, despairing view of history, politics, literature and law.

So we can assume that participants in this decade-long conservative jeremiad did not foresee that at the end of that decade their colleagues in the Republican Party would wage a campaign to win a close presidential election in ways that would seem to confirm, in virtually every respect, the validity of the theories they had been railing against--and moreover, that as part of that campaign, their allies would espouse and promote to the public the very essence of these same reviled theories. However, if we look closely at the theories in question and at the facts of Republican behavior in Florida, we will see that this is exactly what happened.

The theories in question are those derived from the works of French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Their conservative critics tend to conflate the ideas of the two men, and then to muddle things further by presenting both as synonymous with postmodernism; in fact, though they worked in distinct fields and did not even like each other (Foucault once called Derrida "the kind of philosopher who gives bullshit a bad name"), their theories do have analogous aspects that make it not difficult to confuse them.

Foucault was a philosopher of history who posited, basically, the impossibility of achieving an objective and neutral interpretation of a historical event or phenomenon. Derrida is a philosopher of literature, founder of the notorious school of deconstruction, who suggested the impossibility of achieving a stable and coherent interpretation of a literary text, or any text. In both cases, the (putative) fact of the indeterminacy of the interpretive act leads to the conclusion (or has the assumption) that whatever interpretation comes to be accepted--the official interpretation--must have been imposed by the exercise of political power (though in deconstructionism this latter point has been elaborated and emphasized much more by Derrida's American disciple Stanley Fish than by Derrida himself). It is this shared assumption that any official interpretation, whether of human behavior or the written word, has been arrived at through a process of power competition and not through the application of objective, neutral and independent analysis (because there is no such thing) that has so agitated conservative intellectuals.

In her book Telling the Truth, the wife of the man who was to become Vice President of the United States following Republican Party political and legal maneuvers in Florida uses a book that Foucault edited called I, Pierre Rivière as the starting point for a critical examination of the philosopher's ideas. Pierre Rivière was a Norman peasant boy who in 1835 brutally murdered his mother, a sister and one of his brothers with a pruning hook. Foucault and a group of his students at the Collège de France compiled a collection of documents relating to the case. What the documents revealed to Foucault was not an overarching thesis that illuminated the cause and meaning of Rivière's shocking act--not, in other words, the unifying concept or constellation of concepts that academic analysts typically grope for in their research and thinking--but, on the contrary, a welter of conflicting and irreconcilable interpretations put forth by competing, equally self-interested parties, including doctors, lawyers, judges, Rivière's remaining family members and fellow villagers, and Rivière (who wrote a memoir) himself.

In other words, as Cheney puts it, the documents were important to Foucault "not for what they tell of the murders, but for what they show about the struggle to control the interpretation of the event." Or, as she quotes Foucault as saying, the documents form "a strange contest, a confrontation, a power relation, a battle among discourses and through discourses." The reason he decided to publish the documents, Foucault said, was "to rediscover the interaction of those discourses as weapons of attack and defense in the relations of power and knowledge."

"Thus," Cheney concludes, "I, Pierre Rivière is a case study showing how different groups construct different realities, different 'regimes of truth,' in order to legitimize and protect their interests."

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