From: "N.P.BARON [CREES]" <BARONNP@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 2 May 1996 12:41:47 GMT
Dear Quetzil and Malcolm
Please excuse my lack of understanding, and my persistence, but could
I ask you to clarify one point from your postings on the 'actual
past'. I am a historian, this particularly intrigues me, and,
believe it, for my discipline this is *the* central question - and
problem - about Foucault (who was, after all, first and foremost, a
I originally wrote of a difference between the past, and the meaning
of the past. Then I said that Foucault did believe in the reality of
the past, and implicit in many of his writings was a fairly
traditional Marxist assumption of historical change, but that he was
simply not concerned with investigating the causal relation between
the extra-discursive and discourse. To note its tactical effects but
not its causes. Fine. Nevertheless, to understand the contextual
situation of discourse, and the strategies it deploys, surely you
have to posit a 'reality' - i.e. real political actors - in whose
interest discourse operates. I think Foucault does, and he does not
merely assume a 'reality' (ontology) but also quite often makes do
with some pretty casual epistemology (i.e. he takes for granted the
nature of the 'interests' for whose benefit discourses of 'health'
etc. were established [see Politics of Health etc. in
And though I have a strong feeling you both disagree vehemently, I can
only see corroboration in the citations and arguments that Malcolm
employs, and a failure to respond to my points on the part of Quetzil:
Judith Butler: "Surely there must be some kind of necessity that
accompanies these primary and irrefutable experiences. And surely
there is. But their irrefutability in no way implies what it might
mean [please note] to affirm them and through what discursive means.
Moreover, why is it that what is constructed is understood as an
artificial and dispensible character?"
Does this not distinguish between 'fact' of reality and its 'meaning'?
Secondly, I get the following:
"Thus, to postulate an actual past is a discursive act articulated
towards and within the present set of discursive regularities - and
thus acquires whatever meaning it acquires not from its nominal
object (the past) but from its function within a discursive regime.
When one wants to understand the function and tactical efficacy of a
given history, the reality or unreality of its object is totally
Again, you seem to be distinguishing between 'meaning' and 'fact' of
the object past - I understand that our 'fact' is created within
"present set of .....", but that is an epistemological, not
ontological point (conflating the two is what Roy Bhaskar calls the
'epistemic fallacy'). And surely the "reality .... of its object" is
the most vitally relevant issue in understanding its contemporary
"tactical efficacy" - for example, there are continuities between the
'actual past' and present, such as borders or population movements,
or mass murder and memorial stones, which as contemporary
legacies of an 'irrefutible past' mobilize political energies far more
urgently (efficiently) than do arguments over 'meaning'. If my
parents had been killed, I would not be here to debate Foucault's
the political meaning of Foucault's conception of history.
"Now this is not to deny the reality of an actual past."
"It is only to state that, within a Foucauldian project (analysing
the function and tactical efficacy of discourses), such an object is
beside the point. Under what conditions, and in whose interests, can
a specific history be produced? How does it circulate? What criteria
of evidence and truth does it rely on and construct anew?"
and in an earlier posting,
"Thus, from a Foucauldian perspective, the correspondence of a
history to the "actual past" is, even if possible, entirely
secondary to *how the narrative rhetorically functions within a
field of power-relations*."
Right, firstly I agree, that Foucault was not concerned with the
historical causality of how discourse arose, but, secondly, how on
earth can one elucidate "conditions", "interests", mechanisms of
"circulation" , "field of power relations" without assuming a real
context - not only existing but KNOWABLE - with real actors pursuing
real interests by tangible means. If THAT knowledge is relative to the
discursive position of the observer, then any analysis will be
politically futile because its alternatives will have just as much
claim to validity. Then we might as well simply resort to killing our
enemies, which is possibly the most 'tactically efficacious' way of
pursuing political ends, as I think you've already indicated.
"I don't think that your "evidence" to brought to support the
case of there being real real outside of "text" or discourse is very
relevant. the issue you raise -- royalties and "psycho" disabilities
-- are LEGAL issues. and quite clearly there is a DEFINED (however
contested) system of rules that regulate EXACTLY what counts as truth
and what does not, what counts as evidence and what does not. it is a
system supported by a cultural belief system that argues the
existence of "actual" actualities, such as "the past", "the
naturalness of sex", "delusion", "the true person who is owed the
royalities and who thus must claim these on their tax forms" etc.
the argument about the socio fabrication of "actual pasts" positions
such systems (legal and its cultural foundation) precisely in
question as not the answer nor means to JUDGE the true of history."
Okay, so 'the past', as much as 'delusion' and the 'self' are socio
fabrications - is this not solipsism, which by definition negates ALL
purposeful political action?
"you clearly believe that there is a difference between "what
is" and the necessarily contested "meanings" of that which "is".
otherwise you would not suggest that the legal proceedings can
determine what an actual past was (or those that are coded as
criminal past activities) as distinct from its meaning. in fact the
process of law must indeed deal with meaning and judge upon and
fabricate meanings -"
Surely there IS a difference between the 'fact' (which is an
ontological matter) and 'meaning' or 'knowledge' of that
reality (which is epistemological). For example, it is a 'fact' that
someone has been murdered if there is evidence to prove this - say
the body in the mortuary with repeated stab wounds which could
not have been self-inflicted etc. etc.. If this
assertion rests on nothing more than the 'socio fabricated' system
that vindicates such a form of evidence as, for example, *sight*
(and therefore denies the validity of even non-logical foundational
justification of belief in a coherentist system without
substituting alternative truth-criteria), then are we not back at
solipsism, ontological nihilism, and political purposelessness?
Thanks very much for your time and attention to this. It's a
privilege to be able to discuss this with people who have such a
sophisticated understanding of theory. I'm just a little worried that
coherent philosophical systems can become detached from reality - and
I am concerned - in the face of pretty ubiquitous attack from my
historian colleagues here - to rescue Foucault from the charge of
ahistorical relativism, as I think that he has an enormous amount to