Tag Archives: foucault

Difficult Poetry and Philosophy

This may take some time, I’ve been writing about ‘The Maximus Poems’ the arduity project and I really wanted to talk about the influence of Alfred North Whitehead on the work but didn’t because I feel that this may deter first-time readers. Since then I’ve been giving more than a little thought to the complex relationship that poets have with philosophy. It seems to me that writers of difficult poetry are, in part, difficult because they are dealing with fundamental issues and in this there is a big similarity with philosophy.

The issue becomes more problematic when we consider the exact relationship between the two. Olson is relatively straightforward in that ‘Maximus’ can be read as a reworking of ‘Process and Reality’. We know that this was one of the most thumbed and annotated books on Olson’s shelf and that Olson referred to it as his guiding light. So, it would appear that Olson’s view of our perception of time and space was informed by Whitehead and this conceptual framework was used to shape ‘Maximus’. The next question to be asked is was this a conscious thing – did Olson deliberately set out to write a poem about the world according to Whitehead or was the work so ingrained under his skin that this had become his reading of the world?

The situation gets more complex with other difficult poets, a straight line can be drawn between Henri Bergson (via T E Hulme) and the early work of Pound and Eliot. On closer inspection however this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. In terms of form Bergson may have been influential but Bradley is certainly more influential on Eliot in terms of content. It would also be impossible in my view to point to any straight lines influencing Pound.

Then we come to the Heidegger problem. I’ll leave aside my previously stated view that Heidegger was wrong about poetry and consider instead his  well-documented influence on the work of Paul Celan.  The relationship was never an easy one as Celan could never forgive Heidegger’s studied silence about his Nazi past but it is clear that Celan read Heidegger from the early fifties on over. As a lifelong reader of Celan, I’ve looked for traces of the existential Heidegger in Celan’s work and they aren’t apparent.  I’ve also read long and learned essays that purport to show me that they are apparent yet I’ve never been convinced. What can be said is that there is a lot of mysticism in Celan’s work, as there is in Heidegger’s later output but we also know that Celan was an enthusiastic reader of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Unpacking these various threads in Celan’s notoriously resistant verse is almost impossible.

J H Prynne’s debt to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Marx and others is fairly well-documented but again we have the problem of many ‘influences’ coming together in different ways. I’m currently giving priority to Merleau-Ponty but this is only because I’m reading him and his thoughts on perception seem to tie in with the way that I read Prynne. The socialist perspective clearly comes from ‘Capital’ and the notion of poetry as truth stems from Heidegger (amongst many others).

As a (weak) practitioner, I try and write poetry that makes sense of the world but I don’t do this with any particular philosophy or ideology in mind. I do however acknowledge that the way that I live my life is formed by a cognitive map that has many influences. My understanding of the way power works is informed by Foucault, my reluctant comprehension of how culture functions is informed by Bourdieu, my personal relativism is influenced by Richard Rorty, my sense of place I get from Henri Lefebvre and I wish I could write like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida. I’m currently writing a long poem about the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday and no doubt all of the above will ‘inform’ what I write but even I couldn’t begin to sort out the strands.

So, poets write about fundamental stuff and sometimes take from philosophy a framework for thinking about their subject. Undertaking an objective analysis of that ‘influence’ is however immensely difficult and often a waste of time

Foucault’s guide to everyday life

I thought I was aware of most of Foucault’s important work and then I downloaded Anti-Oedipus from the aaaarg site (the how to do your own  revolution site) and realised that Foucault had written the introduction. This contains two lists and I love Foucault’s lists because they are a model of clarity and because they point to a different way of doing politics when under the shadow of late capitalism. The first significant list that I came across is contained in part 1 of ‘A History of Sexuality’, this provides an analysis of power and points at the ways in which power maybe resisted.

The list in Anti-Oedipus is a summary of the book which makes it into “a manual or guide to everyday life”.  There are seven points and I will deal with each in turn-

“Free political action from all unitary and  totalizing paranoia”.  This presents mainstream political action with a problem as it is too often bogged down in this kind of thinking which goes “if only we could overthrow militant Islam / capitalism / discrimination / pollution / racism / global debt / crime /  sexism then everything would be okay”. Both left and right are guilty of this kind of thinking, the left in seeking to demonstrate how the current economic hegemony is responsible for all our ills and the right for looking to minority groups to blame. The other kind of political paranoia is embedded in the Protestant parties in Ulster who are driven by the fear that they will be ‘abandoned’ by Westminster.

The second point is ” Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization”. I read this as a kind of follow-on from Foucault’s analysis of power where he emphasises that the exercise of power is not just a top-down thing and what we need to do is try and identify those multiple sites where various forms of resistance may be productive. It also ties in with the notion that power is everywhere and not just in its more blatant forms. From my personal experience this is much easier to write than it is to do as the complexity of power relationships can sometimes be overwhelming.

The third point reads “Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic”. This is the essence of Foucault’s challenge to traditional monolithic modes of thought and action, encouraging us to explore and celebrate the fluid and varied nature of existence rather than getting stuck in ossified and monolithic ways of being.

“Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force”. I really like this, too often we get bogged down and disheartened  by the size of the task but I can see that if we do connect our desire to reality then radical action (of whatever kind) can be seen to be more productive. It is very easy to become saddened by the increasingly oppressive actions of the state but staying focused on what should be and fighting for that makes small ‘victories’ that much more worthwhile.

“Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action”.  I think this is crucial, in order to be effective we do need to be more confident in our ability to improvise our tactics by means of learning from what we’ve already tried. I know that this ‘works’ on a small scale but it would be good if we could build on many different ways to multiply many different modes of intervention.

“Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization”. The cult of the individual has been around for a long time and panders to the ‘logic’ of capitalism. What I think Foucault is saying is that we need to oppose this by constantly finding new alliances that are themselves ready to change both membership and tactics as situations change. It is this collective fluidity that stands the best chance of being effective.

“Do not be enamoured of power”. When I was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain we were overly obsessed with power and influence, we would take great delight in infiltrating single issue groups with a view to exerting influence and subtle control. It could be argued that the collapse of state socialism was due to an unhealthy concern for retaining and exercising the instruments of power. Anarchists have always had a healthy mistrust of power and Foucault’s description of the way power works shows that it can never be something to aspire to.

Also in this preface Foucault how do we rid ourselves of the fascist within. This has redolence for me, because I’m bipolar I have a constant struggle with containing and ‘controlling’ my mood and I now realise that perhaps I should learn to be more accepting of my condition rather than to try all the time to ward off its effects. This isn’t to say that I should be passive about it but perhaps experiment a bit more with the ways I can respond.

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Zizek on Foucault

I don’t have many firm views but Foucault’s description of power  relations in Volume 1 of ‘A History of Sexuality’ certainly informs most of them.  It emphasises the two-way nature of these relations and points to the ways in which power may be resisted. I was so impressed by this that I wrote it down in its entirety (this is very unusual for me, the only other instance being a section of Derrida’s ‘Difference’ essay.

Foucault’s analysis has stood me in good stead both during my career as a secondary instrument of class oppression and in my personal dealings with mental health services. I’ve also used it to intervene in the world of commerce. What was particularly useful for me was the ability to identify those points, Foucault calls them ‘knots’,  where resistance and change are possible.

Imagine my consternation then to discover that in 1999 Zizek pronounced on this analysis and found it wanting. I downloaded said tome from aaaarg.org .  Zizek has made a name for himself in recent years as the ‘bad boy’ of political thought and is very popular with young people. He’s a Hegelian and a committed advocate of Lacan and I’m trying not to hold either of these against him.

Zizek attempts to show how a dialectical analysis of power is more accurate and effective. To do this he uses the example of the struggle for independence on the Indian sub-continent, pointing outthat it was organise by “English liberals and Indian intellectuals who were studying at Oxford”. This is simplistic to say the least and belies a limited knowledge of Indian society under British rule. For me the best book on India is C A Bayly’s ‘Empire nd Information’ which, although it relates to an earlier period does support the Foucault thesis.

Zizek also contrasts Foucault with Hegel and points out that Foucault does not take into account the fact that oppessors can become eroticised by the things that they are repressing. I don’t see how this is relevant to the central thrust of Fouault’s analysis- it certainly isn’t a serious engagement with the idea of power relations as being dynamic rather than ‘top-down.

So, I’m greatly relieved that Zizek hasn’t dented my faith but I’m also disappointed that his citique consists of pithy one- liners rather than a considered argument. I’m also saddened by the sneering tone, what is it about these Hegelians that convinces them that they are the only ones on the planet with a right to a view?