Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Power of Form

For a bit of irony I should start with a confession; as I have indicated in my discussion of Lazzarato below, I have little or no patience for knee-jerk criticisms of Marx, criticism based on some supposed identity of Marxism. I find this to be particularly the case with respect to Foucault, who quite famously criticizes Marxism, only to then cite Marx repeatedly “without quotation marks.” I could go on an on about this, pointing out that Foucault often picks the strangest things to retain from Marx, the grand battle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat that ends The History of Sexuality, or, stranger still, the concept of petty-bourgeoisie, for example. I could write a book about this, and would if it was still the nineteen-eighties.

Actually, I should start with two confessions, the idea for this post stems from a certain contingent encounter of two passages, to things that I happened to be reading at the same time that seemed similar. I confess, because I realize that such encounters are banal to say the least; everyone who teaches has had to endure the student who figures out that the thing that he or she is reading in class x is just like the thing he or she is reading in class y.

The first bit is from Foucault’s lecture titled “Truth and Juridical Forms” collected in the third of the “essential” works series. (Another day, when I am in an even more vitriolic mood I am going to write about how much I hate these collections, how much of the really interesting stuff from Dits et Écrits is left out, how they are basically just a repackaged collection of mostly already translated material, and, finally, how they are a horrible hatchet job, disconnecting Foucault’s thought from Deleuze, Marx, Blanchot, etc.) Where was I? Oh yeah the quote, here it is:

Those wishing to establish a relation between what is known and the political, social, or economic forms that serve as a context for that knowledge need to trace that relation by way of consciousness or the subject of knowledge. It seems to that the real junction between economico-politico processes and the conflicts of knowledge might be found in those forms which are, at the same time, modes of power exercise and modes of knowledge acquisition and transmission.

Throughout these lectures, as in many places, Foucault is distancing himself from the concept of ideology, a concept that he argues retains the “subject of knowledge”: ideology is inseparable from a distinction between truth and falsity. In the quote above, however, Foucault adds the concept of “form” to this distinction. To understand the connection between power and knowledge we should examine the forms of knowledge, the test, inquiry, and discipline, not the contents of knowledge. What is so striking to me, and he is where the other reading comes in, is how much Foucault’s emphasis on form rather than content echoes so much interesting Marxist writing on form, real abstraction, etc. This struck me because I happened to be reading Pashukanis’ The General Theory of Law and Marxism at about the same time. Pashukanis is at great pains to stress that a Marxist theory of law is not simple based on the idea of class struggle, on seeing bourgeois interests behind the supposedly neutral categories of law, but on examining the fundamental relation between the commodity form and the legal form. As Pashukanis writes:

Just as in the commodity, the multiplicity of use values natural to a product appears simply as the shell of value, and the concrete types of human labor are dissolved into abstract human labor as the creator of value, so also the concrete multiplicity of relations between man and object manifests itself as the abstract will of the owner. All concrete particularities which distinguish one representative of the genus homo sapiens from another dissolve into the abstraction of man in general, man as a legal subject.

Now one does not have to dredge up such a thinker as Pashukanis to make this point; all one has to do is read the opening of Capital, which focuses on the “commodity form.” Marx’s materialism is grounded on the paradoxical materiality of form, it is the form of the commodity that “matters,” that has effects. One could argue that Foucault knows this, after all his understanding of the norm, as an abstract ideal productive of multiple effects, is indebted to Marx’s concept of abstract labor. That is not the point I want to make here, rather, I want to turn to the odd point of overlap between these two unrelated texts—the distinction between ideology (as content) and commodity (as form).

In a great little book, that recently came back into print, Etienne Balibar examines the different problems underlying the concepts of “ideology” and “commodity fetishism.” These concepts refer not only to specific texts, The German Ideology and Capital, but also to specific problems. The first refers to the state, to power, while the second refers to the market, to subjection. Ideology emerges from the division of mental and manual labor, from the conflict of classes, while fetishism emerges from the quotidian practice of market exchange, from social relations. To this series of oppositions we could add the following: ideology concerns a content of thought while fetishism concerns the very form of thought.

The reason that this is important is not only that it reveals how mistaken Foucault is in his criticism, but it reveals something of a trend in contemporary thought: away from ideology and towards the fetish. Foucault’s remark about forms of knowledge, Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of the image of thought, Adorno’s critique of identity, and even Althusser’s concept of ideology all focus on the question of form, and its effects. Finally, if one remembers Balibar’s remark that fetishism concerns a particular mode of appearance, the way things in a commodity society must appear, then one could extend this list to include the revival of a certain idea of aesthetics in Ranciére; aesthetics understood not as a theory of the ideal forms of the beautiful, but as the distribution that determines what appears and how it is sensed.

I am not sure where all of this is going, except to perhaps point out that the question of how to change a form of thought, or perception, is a much more vexing question than simply substituting one ideological content for another. Marx could only begin to address this question by referring to the question of social practice.

1 comment:

Will Roberts said...

I don't have anything particularly intelligent to add, but I wanted to say how excited I was to read this post, for the narcissistic reason that I recognize in it several things that I myself have tried in various ways to articulate.

I recently taught the Eighteenth Brumaire, and was really blown away this time by the passage in which Marx says, in effect, that petty bourgeois (e.g.) ideology has its class character not because its bearers are all shop-keepers or shop-keepers' admirers, but because the ideological stand-ins for the petty bourgeoisie reproduce in thought the forms of petty bourgeois life. Ideology has a class character because it is isomorphic with class life. Its the form that matters.