Foucault’s Critical Attitude As A Means of Reimagining The Digital Humanities

Posted by on May 6, 2014 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping

[Submitted by Adam Foster]

Setting out with the task of creating a model-less Digital Humanities – that is, one that evades strict restrictions on what actions the user is able to undertake in the vein of Jacques Ranciere’s politics of the police state – one should not begin with a set goal in mind, but rather by engaging in a particular attitude. In his lecture, “What is Critique,” Michel Foucault elucidates a critical attitude which is “a certain way of thinking, speaking and acting, a certain relationship to what exists, to what one knows, to what one does, a relationship to society, to culture and also a relationship to others.”[1] This critical attitude stems from a recognition of the ways in which we are governed, and a challenging desire to be governed in different ways.[2] Such a critical attitude, manifested in terms of scholarship, would mean to be attuned to the arguments that we are allowed to make, and resist the forces that restrict our argumentative opportunities.

To say that the project of critique is an attitude is to say that it is not a particular and specific action. By attitude, Foucault refers to “a mode of relating to contemporary reality.”[3] By referring to critique as an attitude, he refrains from prescribing particular actions that must be undertaken in order to evade the phenomena of being governed. Instead, he states that criticism is comprised of “analyzing and reflecting upon limits.”[4] It is also “the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractibility.”[5] In other words, to critique is to think about the ways in which current structures limit our possible modes of action. In his lecture, he notes several thoughts that emerge in reaction to the genealogy of governmentality; that is, the art of being governed.[6] These anchoring points form the historical foundation for critique. If applied to the Digital Humanities, they reveal a fundamental problem with the Digital Humanities that must be remedied.

The first is, given the religious foundations of governmentality, to find another function for the Scripture unrelated to the teaching of God. Foucault says of this that “not wanting to be governed was a certain way of refusing, challenging, limiting (say it as you like) ecclesiastical rule […] seeking out what was authentic in [the scriptures].”[7] This is to say that critique was not meant as a rejection of the Scripture and religion, but rather a challenging of the ecclesiastical authority as being religiously justified and prescribed.

This so-called anchoring point remains applicable to the case of the Digital Humanities. Just as Foucault argues the early critical theorists challenged the textual authority of governmentality, the policing of scholarship’s textual authority too can be challenged. What remains central to such a critique is the reaffirmation of textual foundation; it is true that the arguments a scholar makes must be in accordance to the text or subject in relation to which the argument is made – that is to say, one cannot make an argument that is factually inaccurate and expect it to be accepted – but the replications of traditional restrictions in Digital Humanities environments would be a mistake. For example, a re-appropriation of journals and monographs as the crux of Digital Humanities scholarship would be problematic, for these modes of scholarship are the hallmark of what Deleuze and Guattari call State philosophy: the rendering of all ideology and thinking into a singular mode of thinking under a singular State.[8] By moving away from these formats of scholarship, one has the opportunity to be critical and challenge the mode of State philosophy that journals and monographs are indicative of.

The second anchoring point for Foucault’s critical attitude is “not wanting to accept these laws because they are unjust because, by virtue of their antiquity or the more or less threatening ascendency given them by today’s sovereign, they hide a fundamental illegitimacy.”[9] This lay in staunch opposition to Conservative political thought and Edmund Burke’s notion that a law becomes legitimate because of its historical validity.[10] Instead, Foucault’s concept of critique posits that laws can lose their legitimacy as society changes with the passing of time. Therefore, we ought to not simply accept the status quo of scholarship because it is historically rooted; the fact it is not a product of our time challenges its validity and place in the mainstream instead of reinforcing it. Furthermore, we ought not to accept the status quo of scholarship simply because the university-journal assemblage[11] dictates it is what ought to be. While this is a power structure of the university and not publishing, it must be noted that both are part and parcel of the same phenomenon; State philosophy.

There exists a third and final anchoring point; one to which Foucault devotes little time, and that is because it proves to be straightforward. Foucault states that the final part of the critical attitude’s foundation is to not accept as true what authority tells you is truth.[12] In short, one can say a critical attitude towards the Digital Humanities urges us not to accept that certain ways of engaging in scholarship are the best, most efficient, or only ways of engaging in scholarship. This is a battle that scholars of the Digital Humanities are already familiar with, as many have had to confront resistance from those who engage in more traditional modes of humanities scholarship and reject Digital Humanities’ scholarly pursuits as inferior, or, perhaps, as possessing a flawed methodology. However, this point gains renewed vigour when one considers the notion that, despite its apparent resistance to scholarly tradition, the Digital Humanities largely reproduces the State philosophy of scholarship; if this is so, then critical Digital Humanists must argue for the mobilization of the Digital Humanities against strains of State philosophy, pitting Digital Humanities against Digital Humanities (an act that might be met with resistance for the sake of camaraderie).

While a clear picture of critique emerges, Thomas Lemke proposes three other aspects of critique that emerge from considering Foucault’s canon of work as a whole. The first of these is deficit, arguing that critique “focuses on epistemological problems conceived as cognitive errors, false consciousness, lack or distortion of knowledge […] critique aims at correcting or eradicating errors.”[13] This returns to the Kantian definition of critique as expanding the limits of knowledge. However, instead of this expansion being dependent upon the faculty of reason,[14] it instead is the result of the governmentality previously discussed. For our purposes, critique thus boasts the promise of expanding the peripheries of knowledge of a given subject in scholarship. By creating new models through the act of critique, we create venues that will open the boundaries of knowledge and allow them to expand beyond the current limits that are in place.

The second notion of Lemke’s hermeneutics of Foucaldian critique is dependency, arguing “critique is not only based on something other, on which it depends; [but] it is also an instrument or a means to achieve something that does not yet exist: the promise of a better future.”[15] This is to suggest that critique will improve the future of scholarship. The question that must be asked is how exactly this will be done. It can be assumed that scholarship will improve by creating a plane that will value a plurality of arguments instead of the restrictive politics of State philosophy. This adds a certain violence or power to the act of critique; it exists in part to attack the status quo create a more egalitarian politics.

The final of Lemke’s points is the notion of distance, writing that critique “is a reaction or response to governmental regimes, and it is this fundamental distance between the practice of critique and its object that allows for a critical stance.”[16] This is to say that the better future that critique strives towards is to bear no resemblance to the current state of affairs, for the current state of affairs is fundamentally inadequate for the reasons previously outlined in the emergence of critique. Applied to scholarship, this means – not that current scholarship will be replaced with new scholarship (for this would be to replace one form of politics with another) – but that one structure of scholarship will be replaced with another. This new form of scholarship will be one in which all arguments are held to be of equal value and be equally accessible and prominent, instead of the current system wherein current arguments are deemed to be valid and given more prominence – as are certain journals and disciplines.

Foucault argues in “What Is Enlightenment?” that critique is not “a gesture of rejection […] the critical question today has to be turned back into a Positive one […] the point, in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression.”[17] In other words, to engage with this critical attitude against the emerging State philosophy of the Digital Humanities calls upon the critic to do more than simply assess the inadequacy of current models; instead, they must also remedy the problems they identify and provide a positive alternative. It has been clear that to engage in a critical attitude is not simply to complain, but rather the critical act must have a positive aspect to it; it must produce something of value. There is indeed a certain utopian aspect of scholarship’s critical attitude; the claims for the future that accompany a critical attitude of scholarship and the Digital Humanities are grandiose and farfetched insofar that it is not conceivable that such a model will emerge that will remedy all these concerns. Furthermore, implementing it imposes a politics of democracy upon scholarship that did not emerge naturally and democratically itself. Lemke notes that Foucault believed

the foundations, instruments and aims of critique have been increasingly weakened. Classical Marxism and psychoanalysis, which had earlier served as the principal references and  theoretical resources for social critique, had been attacked for their universalizing and totalizing approaches, their authoritarian and normalizing effects, and their inability to address the diversity and heterogeneity of power relations. [18]

 To argue for these claims derived from Foucault and Lemke’s analysis of critique creates a form of critical theory equally as totalizing and universalizing as Marxism and psychoanalysis, and furthermore renders critique – not as an attitude – but a set of prescribed goals that are dictated to be worked towards. The essence of this blog is not to provide an ontology of critique – that is, a definition of what one who engages in the act of critique is doing – but rather a hermeneutics of critique – that is, a reading of what critique is. What this exploration of critique has done, rather than offering prescribed goals, is to problematize the status quo and demonstrate how Digital Humanities boasts the possibility of undermining the State philosophy of scholarship and offering something new. Therefore, we ought to use these goals and distant goals as idyllic standards to work towards; these utopian ideals will never be completely met, but in striving towards them, a more egalitarian plateau of scholarship will emerge.

 

Works Cited

Boucher, David, and Paul Kelly. Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Critique?” In The Politics of Truth, translated by Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) :, 2007.

———. “What Is Enlightenment?” In The Politics of Truth, translated by Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) :, 2007.

Lemke, Thomas. “Critique and Experience in Foucault.” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 4 (July 1, 2011): 26–48. doi:10.1177/0263276411404907.

Livesay, Graham. “Assemblage.” In The Deleuze Dictionary, edited by Adrian Parr. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.

Ross, Alison. “Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804).” In The Deleuze Dictionary, edited by Adrian Parr. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.Boucher, David, and Paul Kelly. Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Critique?” In The Politics of Truth, translated by Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) :, 2007.

———. “What Is Enlightenment?” In The Politics of Truth, translated by Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) :, 2007.

Lemke, Thomas. “Critique and Experience in Foucault.” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 4 (July 1, 2011): 26–48. doi:10.1177/0263276411404907.

Livesay, Graham. “Assemblage.” In The Deleuze Dictionary, edited by Adrian Parr. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.

Ross, Alison. “Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804).” In The Deleuze Dictionary, edited by Adrian Parr. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

 

Notes

[1]   Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” in The Politics of Truth, trans. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) :, 2007), 42.

[2]   Ibid., 45.

[3]   Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” in The Politics of Truth, trans. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) :, 2007), 105.

[4]   Ibid., 113.

[5]   Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” 47.

[6]   Ibid., 45.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 4.

[9]   Ibid., 46.

[10]David Boucher and Paul Kelly, Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2009), 284.

[11]A term from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari referring to “complex constellations of objects, bodies, expressions, qualities, and territories that come together for varying periods of time to ideally create new ways of functioning.” Graham Livesay, “Assemblage,” in The Deleuze Dictionary, ed. Adrian Parr (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 18. The university-journal assemblage refers to the unison of departmental ideologies of faculties and universities, the ideologies of particular journals in which scholars publish, and the pressures to publish in successful journals upon which tenure is contingent.

[12]Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” 46.

[13]Thomas Lemke, “Critique and Experience in Foucault,” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 4 (July 1, 2011): 29, doi:10.1177/0263276411404907.

[14]Alison Ross, “Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804),” in The Deleuze Dictionary, ed. Adrian Parr (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 140–141.

[15]Lemke, “Critique and Experience in Foucault,” 30.

[16]Ibid.

[17]Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” 113.

[18]Lemke, “Critique and Experience in Foucault,” 27.

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