On Wed, 5 Mar 1997, Doug Henwood wrote:
> At 5:03 PM +1300 3/5/97, Campbell Jones wrote:
> >Megill recognises that Foucault
> >breeches the laws of acceptability of traditional historiography. FOr
> >Megill, FOucault is something of a 'transgressor'.
> This "transgression" thing is, appropriately enough, a bit out of control.
> Laura Kipnis, the Larry Flynt apologist, told me recently that she doesn't
> really porn - she just likes its "transgressivenss." Can you have a
> standard for judging transgressions, in which case they become
> revolutionary acts (to use an old, unfashionable political vocabulary), or
> is it just the violation that's a thrill?
No, I don't think we can have or should try to establish a "standard."
Don't look for philosophy to do this kind of thing for you. Philosophy
can, I think, be a resource, like lots of other resources. We decide what
to oppose. Or: parts of us decide, often against the interests and desires
of other parts of us, to oppose something.
I don't think philosophy can give you abstract standards. I don't think
you can have a set of standards that tells you ahead of time and out of
context whether something is transgressive or not. You mention
pornography. In an oppressive Catholic school, just to imagine an example,
it might very well be transgressive in the sense of experimental and even
a little liberating to wave a Playboy Centerfold in the face of mean nuns.
But in another context waving around a Playboy Centerfold is not
transgressive, but obnoxious, or inappropriate, or rude, or merely a means
to bring attention to oneself, etc. But there is no abstract standard that
will tell you all these things ahead of time.
> The ritual sacrifice of newborns
> would be "transgressive," but presumably not approved of by most people on
> this list.
I agree. But our resistance to the ritual sacrifice of newborns doesn't
reside in some standard somewhere. And a good thing too: "standards" are
notoriously unreliable. Actual judging human beings are much better at
this. Also, isn't the ritual sacrifice of newborns transparently
objectionable partly because it is not part of our cultural horizon? In
the United States we have this debate over partial-birth abortions where
the fetuses head is extracted from the womb and the brain is sucked out to
kill it. We are opposed to the ritual sacrifice of newborns, but not,
presumably, opposed to partial birth abortions. (Or at least, we may very
well be able to imagine an acceptable argument for such a procedure even
if we ended up disagreeing with it and even denouncing it.)
> Less melodramatically, is it acceptable for someone writing what looks to
> be like history - especially history of a sort that is making fairly
> sweeping claims - to "breech the laws" of "traditional historiography"?
> Which means, as far as I can tell, a sloppiness about evidence in the
> service of a "higher" truth. So what's your standard for judging that
> higher truth then?
I bet I can imagine a situation in which producing a sloppy piece of
nontraditional historiography might be transgressive in a way that we
might want to endorse. We must be contextual and decisionist.
I don't think transgression looks to the establishment of higher truths.
Waving Playboy Centerfolds in the face of censorious nuns doesn't
establish some higher truth. Neither does burning bras outside of Miss
America Pageants. These acts just get in the way of the dominance of the
particular form of truth that has become genuinely oppressive. Critique is
a task--Foucault says somewhere that critique is a *virtue*. All by
You may decide to dismiss Foucault's approach, but here, at least, is what
he says, with reference to the Soviet gulag:
[We should refuse] to adopt for the critique of the Gulag a law or
principle of selection internal to our own discourse or dream.
By this I mean giving up the politics of inverted commas, not
attempting to evade the problem by putting inverted commas,
whether damning or ironic, round Soviet socialism in order to
protect the good, true socialism -- with no inverted commas --
which alone can provide a legitimate standpoint for a politically
valid critique of the Gulag. Actually the only socialism which
deserves these scornful scare-quotes is the one which leads the
dreamy life of ideality in our heads. We must open our eyes on
the contrary to what enables people there, on the spot, to resist
the Gulag, what makes it intolerable for them, and what can give
the people of the anti-Gulag the courage to stand up and die in
order to be able to utter a word or a poem . . . . We should
listen to these people, and not to our century-old little love
song for 'socialism.' What is it that sustains them, what gives
them their energy, what is the force at work in their resistance,
what makes them stand and fight? . . . . **The leverage against
the Gulag is not in our heads, but in their bodies, their
energy, what they say, think, and do.**
"Power and Strategies" in _Power/Knowledge_, p. 136.
emphasis in last sentence added
> Doug Henwood
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