Value of Knowledge Reference


One of the principal ingredients of today's ideological soup is "post-structuralism", so-called because it had its origins in the structuralism of Althusser's days, and continues into a new stage the essential project of structuralism, but breaks with structuralism in certain key features and bases itself upon a certain, characteristic critique of structuralism.

To make a specific and not a vague characterisation of post-structuralism, I shall confine myself to comments on certain key passages of Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge. While Foucault himself moved on from this position, this work remains a landmark for the emergence of post-structuralism. A critique of Foucault is particularly important, because he expresses in clear, well-argued form - and has been very influential in this - the rejection of "grand narratives", the rejection of the possibility of grasping from the universe of appearances, periods, tendencies, sequences and so on; in short, the possibility of finding within history that which is Essential. Essence is important, because Essence exists not just behind Appearance, in some beyond, but exists materially in its own right, side-by-side with the inessential. Unless we can see what is essential in the system of oppression we confront, then it is impossible to fight against it.

The Analysis of Traces

In the late nineteenth century, Western science expended considerable energy on the problem of perception of the physical world, in particular the surprising results of the Michelson-Morley experiment. One of the most influential figures of this time was Ernst Mach. I would like to quote a few words from his most famous work, The Analysis of Sensations:

"The vague image which we have of a given permanent complex [of sensations], being an image which does not perceptibly change when one or another of the component parts is taken away, seems to be something which exists in itself. ... it is imagined that it is possible to subtract all the parts and to have something still remaining. Thus naturally arises the philosophical notion, at first impressive, but subsequently recognised as monstrous, of a 'thing-in-itself', different from its 'appearance', and unknowable. ... we ultimately accustom ourselves to regard all properties of bodies as 'effects' proceeding from permanent nuclei and conveyed to the ego through the medium of the body; which effects we call sensations. By this operation, however, these nuclei are deprived of their entire sensory content, and converted into mere mental symbols. The assertion, then, is correct that the world consists only of our sensations. In which case we have knowledge only of sensations, and the assumption of the nuclei referred to, or of a reciprocal action between them, from which sensations proceed, turns out to be quite idle and superfluous. Such a view can only suit with a half-hearted realism or a half-hearted philosophical criticism."

In the naturalistic theory of reflection, the word "trace" is often used for sensations, and Foucault also uses the same word to indicate the documents of interest to the historian, the markings that are left behind after events and people have passed, which allow us to surmise what may have caused them. 120 years later, the focus of attention has moved from perception and comprehension of space, time, colour, etc., to perception and comprehension of history and social phenomena, and the word "trace" accurately indicates the commonality between the concerns of the two authors. I will therefore continue to use the word "trace", in lieu of the more commonly used "text".

In his time, Mach played an important and positive, if confusing, role, because, by waging war on naïve realism he drew attention to the unspoken presumptions, the "sleight of hand" involved in the physical theory of his time, and obliged natural scientists to view much more critically the concepts with which they analysed the data of perception, in particular to question the presumption of something which lay beyond the traces. It is now history that Mach turned out to be wrong, in that his approach did not lead to a valid interpretation of the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, but Einstein always acknowledged his debt to Mach's inspiration.

Foucault introduces The Archaeology of Knowledge with:

"the questioning of the document. Of course, it is obvious enough that ever since a discipline such as history has existed, documents have been used, questioned, and have given rise to questions; scholars have asked not only what these documents meant, but also whether they were telling the truth, and by what right they could claim to be doing so, whether they were sincere or deliberately misleading, well informed or ignorant, authentic or tampered with. But each of these questions, and all this critical concern, pointed to one and the same end: the reconstitution, on the basis of what the documents say, and sometimes merely hint at, of the past from which they emanate and which has now disappeared far behind them; the document was always treated as the language of a voice since reduced to silence, its fragile, but possibly decipherable trace. Now .. history ... has taken as its primary task, not the interpretation of the document, nor the attempt to decide whether it is telling the truth or what is its expressive value, but to work on it from within and to develop it."

Thus Foucault makes exactly the same point as Mach in the new context, and requires that historians give up the, supposedly naive realist, presumption that the primary task is surmising what lies behind the trace, but must instead simply describe the traces themselves. "I have undertaken, then, to describe the relations between statements." - the opening words of Chapter Two. He continues by noting three consequences of this turn:

"[1] The problem now is to constitute series"; and "[2] discontinuity assumes a major role in the historical disciplines" and "[3] the theme and the possibility of a total history begin to disappear, and we see the emergence of something very different that might be called a general history. The project of a total history is one that seeks to reconstitute the overall form of a civilisation, the principle material or spiritual - of a society, the significance common to all the phenomena of a period, the law that accounts for their cohesion - what is called metaphorically the 'face' of a period. Such a project is linked to two or three hypotheses; - it is supposed that between all the events of a well-defined spatio-temporal area, between all the phenomena of which traces have been found, it must be possible to establish a system of homogeneous relations: a network of causality that makes it possible to derive each of them, relations of analogy that show how they symbolise one another, or how they all express one and the same central core; it is also supposed that one and the same form of historicity operates upon economic structures, social institutions and customs, the inertia of mental attitudes, technological practice, political behaviour, and subjects them all to the same type of transformation; lastly, it is supposed that history itself may be articulated into great units - stages or phases - which contain within themselves their own principle of cohesion. These are the postulates that are challenged by the new history when it speaks of series, divisions, limits, differences of level, shifts, chronological specificities, particular forms of rehandling, possible types of relation."

Three things to note about this paragraph:

  1. The deletion of the materiality of the traces renders them into total discontinuity and this total discontinuity is characteristic of Foucault's method; it also expresses the spirit of his times, with the rise of finite mathematics over analysis, the rise of digital technology over analogue electronics, the abandonment of macro-economics and the turn to micro-economics, and the universal egoism flowing from the "beginning of history" in the mid-1960s;
  2. The critique of continuity is exclusively based on the structuralist conception of "system".
  3. Although the focus on "general history", i.e. the entire culture, rejecting presupposed divisions, continues the project of the Frankfurt School which had its roots in Lukacs's and Korsch's attempts to reconstitute Marxism with its genuine Hegelian conceptions of totality, as a "post-structuralist", Foucault has completely missed this conception.

The danger here then is that the structuralism 's constitution of meaning by a system, albeit a closed and static system, will be taken to the point of extremity by the shattering of the totality into generalised egoism.

The concluding words of Chapter 3 make, I think, a fair summary of Foucault's project:

"To write a history of discursive objects that does not plunge them into the common depth of a primal soil, but deploys the nexus of regularities that govern their dispersion". ... "We shall not return to the state anterior to discourse - in which nothing has yet been said, and in which things are only just beginning to emerge out of the grey light; and we shall not pass beyond discourse in order to rediscover the forms that it has created and left behind it; we shall remain, or try to remain, at the level of discourse itself. ... I would like to show with precise examples that in analysing discourses themselves, one sees the loosening of the embrace, apparently so tight, of words and things, and the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice. These rules define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects. 'Words and things' is the entirely serious title of a problem; it is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task. A task that consists of not - of no longer treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Of course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders them irreducible to the language (langue) and to speech. It is this more that we must reveal and describe."

Much of the philosophy and cultural criticism of our times is an exaggeration and a degeneration from this project, and some do better here and there, but I think a critique of what Foucault here expresses can suffice to deal with the Essence of what I understand by "post-modern theory". I would like to tackle this program at three levels:

The Epistemology of Post-structuralism

The statement of Foucault that the historian ought only concern herself with the analysis of traces only repeats in a new context what Ernst Mach said in the 1890s. The truth of this advice is that the "object is formed" by the subject, and consequently, in order not to be trapped within an unrecognised system of objects formed by practices (or language) inhering in a given system of concepts, it is necessary to be able, so far as possible, to continuously withdraw to the immediately given and re-form the object knowingly, critically, as if á là Carnap (the "third positivism") one were simply adopting a kind of shorthand for the entire mass of traces.

Let us look at this business of the subject forming the object. Structuralism understood that the world was formed in the system of objects known to a culture, and that this world of objects corresponded to the social relations with which a people made their living in the world. Thus, structuralism introduced a kind of valid relativism - the world is formed by a culture, and the truth of the subject-object relation is given in the practical life of that culture.

The sacrifice structuralism made was adherence to the "law of identity", that is, in order to do theoretical work on the conception of a system, the system was abstracted from its materiality and reified into a self-identical object of mathematics. On this basis of identity, structuralism was able to perceive regularity in history, to talk of periods, influence, the impact of events on whole social structures, and so on and so forth.

The "First Positivism" of Comte, Mill & Co. wanted to build a scientific view of the world based on analysis of the data of perception, and with sociology at its centre. One of the unfortunate results of their efforts was a tendency to sweeping generalisations, but it nevertheless created a basis for the positive investigation of perception, which in turn engendered the critique of these sweeping generalisations. Did not structuralism play a similar role to that of the first positivism, but on the basis of much more sophisticated mathematics, more freedom from self-confident Euro-centrism and "naturalism", and a vastly expanded knowledge of anthropology and sociology made possible by the world market? And does not post-structuralism play a similar role in breaking down the sweeping generalisations of structuralism, as did the second positivism? I do not rely on the parallel I am drawing attention to here, but in dealing with a tendency that makes such claims to break down the unities of its predecessors, it is worthy of attention.

Firstly, how does the subject form the object? Who is this subject? Of course, the subject cannot exist outside of individual human beings, but that means nothing - one also needs hydrocarbons, but so what? The subject which forms concepts is the social and historical practice of human beings. Concepts are social products. They are passed on to generations through social vehicles and products such as languages, media, institutions, wars and industries, etc. They are not primarily the creation of individuals, who 99% inherit concepts and work with them together with others within definite social relations, and to the extent of no more than 1% do individuals create concepts.

So when, for example, my male chauvinism confronts your feminism, it is not true that both are equally true, nor that the truth of each are incommensurable, or that the truth of each is in my life and your life, or yours is true for middle-class Western women and mine for backward males, nor surely that "truth" is meaningless, or something trivial that interests only dogmatists!? Nor that I make a better, more convincing, politically-correct defence of my position which is published in a reputable journal, or vice versa, or that I get more votes than you. But nor can I make the claim that my idea reflects what objectively exists, independently of human experience and yours not - what an absurdity! Perhaps we can say that yours is liberatory and mine repressive, and although neither is true, one is good and the other is bad, and that is all that matters? Perhaps we could settle the matter by arm-wrestling?

We must not get this question confused with the right of an individual to hold a view. This is of course a basic bourgeois right. But that is not the point; I do not thank you for allowing me the right to walk across a mine-field. I am interested in whether my idea of the best way home is objectively correct or not.

The Politics of Identity

The structuralists were right when they identified the location of truth in the social practice of a culture, but limited by the conception of culture in anthropological static isolation (dynamic, static or partial "equilibrium"). The truth and error of my view and your view (continuing the metaphor from above) is a really-existing patriarchal society of which we are both a living part and which is undergoing transformation under the impact of the socialisation of women's labour and your struggle for the value of your labour. That is the source of the concepts (of "feminism", "male-chauvinism", "sexist language", etc.), that is the criterion of truth and that is what is changed by the material struggle of our ideas, that is the meaning.

If we were try to interpret the clash of ideas in individual terms - your idea versus my idea - we cannot but rely upon and reinforce the Utilitarian ethic of Universal Egoism (formulated in theoretical terms by John Stuart Mill in 1861). The road to liberation which is founded on you versus me, is the fundamental and dominant modus vivendi of bourgeois society. The displacement of this ethic to that of, for example, collectivism - our idea versus your idea - hardly cures the problem. It goes perhaps, halfway back to structuralism that is all. The politics of identity.

Now, just as Mach played a "confusing but necessary" role in the 1890s, preparatory to the natural scientific revolutions of the turn-of-the-century, Foucault's war on "naïve structuralism", his insistence on halting at the presumption of what lies behind the trace, of all those categories like "influence", "author" and geographical, temporal or social continuity, is a "necessary but confusing" obstacle.

What lies behind the trace is materiality. One cannot go beyond that without slipping into dogmatism. One cannot deny that and avoid scepticism.

For example, the victim of a murder-rape is silent, their violator is articulate. Maybe we never hear the words of the victim, hear her testimony or even see her body. But what kind of science is it that asks use to confine ourselves to the traces, if (in this example) they be only the testimony of the rapist? Perhaps we are forced to return an open verdict in this case. Who knows - but something happened! I cannot presume to speak for the silent, but I must hear the silence.

This example is extreme, and perhaps for that reason unfortunate. It is well-known that the dominant ruling classes of any society write the history, they leave their traces on every monument, every document and their names live forever. Must we not surmise what lay behind? whose hands built the monument to Kubla Khan?

Post-structuralist Times

In the mid-1960s, not only was there a loss of faith in the possibility of overthrowing the system of capitalist oppression by global transformation, by overthrowing the State, defeating imperialism and making national liberation gun in hand. The bourgeoisie also lost faith in resolving its crisis by means of macro-economics, state intervention, the Gold-Dollar standard and orchestration of the world economy by the World Bank.

The maintenance of the Gold-dollar standard and the use of the dollar as the medium of international exchange, in other words, the maintenance of the paper dollar as the substance of value had become untenable. Only by a drastic collapse of the level of world trade and a head-on confrontation with the working class could that position be maintained. Value had to be "floated", and be substantiated in the market for each and every commodity, extracted at the point of production. This situation had been brought about by the very magnitude of the mass of value circulating independently of any production. The war of all against all had returned, but now under the weight of a huge mass of value which appeared to have no centre.

It would be hardly original to note that post-modern theory is as much a part and expression of the problem as it is a critique and opponent of it. Could it be otherwise? Well, with difficulty of course, but if we can see what is essential in the contemporary situation, if we are not blinded and swept along with the tide, then we have a chance.

Essence and Abstraction

The essential methodological error which is common to positivism, structuralism and post-structuralism is the inability to perceive the essence of processes and to understand and distinguish between Essence and the abstract quantitative reflection of the data of perception; the inability to work with true Notions rather than abstract universals. The struggle to identify Essence within Appearance is an interminable one and the tendency of any of us to operate uncritically with the static categories of yesterday inescapable. It is but the problem of living in a world which one must also reject. One must reject, but one must live.