mercoledì 25 settembre 2013

The poststructural anarchist. Todd May interviewed by Richard Marshall @ 3am Magazine - July 12th, 2013

The poststructural anarchist
Todd May interviewed by Richard Marshall @ 3:AM Magazine

Todd May is the poststructuralist anarchist who thinks anarchism is more than just a critique of the state, that there is more than one struggle, that Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard are important, that postructuralism is elusive, that anarchism is bottom-up and liberalism is top-down, that ‘how might one live?’ is the down and dirty question, that Foucault’s thought will remain standing when the dust is settled, that what it means to be human is a matter of practices, that Ranciere gets him emotionally, that friendship offers a different model from neo-liberalism and that his conception is about resistance not cohesion. High Five!

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always aware of a kind of crisis?

Todd May: Many philosophers I talk with seem to get their start in philosophy from a teacher, often a college professor, that turns them on to the subject. For me, it was different. I went to a high school in New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s, where ideas and crisis were in the air. It was the kind of place where Melville, Faulkner, and Dostoyevsky, along with the Vietnam War, were regular staples of conversation. So early on I became interested in both ideas and political resistance. In college I studied psychology, but was never far from philosophy: I read Being and Time with a philosophy grad student. Another friend of mine, also a grad student in philosophy, gave me Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception as a graduation present. In the few years I took off between college and grad school, I read most of Merleau-Ponty’s work. Eventually I decided I wanted to go to grad school in clinical psychology, but wanted a phenomenologically oriented one, and so chose Duquesne University. But, as it happens, at the end of my first year there I was introduced to the work of Foucault and Deleuze, who raised unsettling questions for me about the entire project of psychotherapy. I pressed these questions in my classes at Duquesne, admittedly with the passion of which a person committed to ideas is capable, and at the end of my second year was informed that my funding was going to be cut off. So I spent a few more years reading and thinking about what is often called “poststructuralism,” and finally applied to Penn State, where I had the chance to study these thinkers more rigorously. A friend of mine who is a radical lawyer once asked me why I wanted to study philosophy if I was so interested in politics. My response, to which he offered me a mocking stare, was that I felt somehow that in order to understand and solve political problems I needed to be able to grasp their ontological underpinnings.

3:AM: You’ve written about and are associated with ‘poststructuralist anarchism.’ I think you see it as coming out of an awareness that political philosophy was in crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union which kind of made it official that Marxism was dead. Can you say something about how you understand this crisis give that for many – and yourself – the Soviet block was hardly a viable model for political change?

TM: For most traditional anarchists like Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, the Soviet Union was a crisis almost from the beginning. They saw it as hierarchical in character, and in that way a continuation of the kinds of domination characteristic of capitalist society. In fact, earlier on, in his dispute with Marx, Mikhail Bakunin predicted that a Marxist takeover of the state would simply reproduce the hierarchical structure of social and political relations. AsThe Who said, “Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.” This is where anarchism becomes associated with a critique of the state. My own reading of anarchism is, however, that it is much more than a critique of the state. It is a critique of domination in all its forms–political, economic, gender, racial, etc. So while the anarchists were certainly right about theSoviet Union, we should read their work as a more general critique of domination. Granted, this general critique is at times in the background of their work, but it is nevertheless recognizable. In this way, they differ importantly from Marx. For Marx, there is an Archimedean point of social change since there is a central point of domination: the extraction of surplus value from the workers. Therefore, there is really only a single struggle: the struggle for the ownership of means of production.
By contrast, for the anarchists there is no single struggle. As the British anarchist Colin Ward once said, there are always a series of struggles along a variety of fronts. This is where the poststructuralists, and especially Foucault, intersect with anarchism. Foucault traces historically different ways in which people become dominated. He does not reduce them to a single site or single type, but seeks to understand them in their specificity. The disciplinary power he writes about in Discipline and Punish is different from the role of sexuality he describes in the first volume of his history of sexuality, which in turn is different from the neoliberal governmentality he addresses in his lectures  The Birth of Biopolitics.  So while the nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchists were able to resist the reductionism of a Marxist program, later thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, and Lyotard offer perspectives for theorizing the irreducibility of political relations and political struggle. That allows them to, among other things, take on board the feminist and anti-racist understandings that developed over the course of the twentieth century.
Where does that leave us in thinking about our politics? Broadly with a bottom-up view of political struggle and change. Rather than seeking the Archimedean point of struggle, we must analyze the different and intersecting facets of domination in their particularity, and struggle against them. This does not preclude top-down theorizing altogether, but it offers a framework for political reflection and action that has been neglected in much of political philosophy.

3:AM: So poststructuralist anarchism is to be understood as being framed by French poststructuralist and in particular the works of Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard. Before coming to this trio and how they seem to offer a viable political philosophy and an alternative to Marxism can you tell us what you understand by ‘post structuralism’ and by ‘anarchism’ in this context?

TM: Poststructuralism is an elusive term. It is a bit chronological, like post-impressionism, and a bit conceptual. As chronological, it refers to the theories that arose in the wake of the heyday of structuralism. We might think of recent French philosophical history in terms of three successive movements, at least up until around the mid-1980s. There is the existentialism of the forties and fifties, which is rejected by the structuralism of the late 1950s and 1960s. And then, later in the 1960s, poststructuralism arises in part as a response to structuralism but not as dismissive of it as structuralism is of existentialism. This chronological view is a bit oversimplified. For instance, the structuralist Lacan was writing well before the 1950s, and Deleuze’s influential book on Nietzsche was published in 1962. But if we think of the prominence of the movements, this chronology offers a rough idea. Conceptually, structuralism rejects the primacy of the subject in existentialism, seeing the subject as constituted more than constituting. But for the structuralists, what constitutes the subject is more or less monolithic. For Lacan, it is the unconscious, for Levi-Strauss the structures of kinship, and for Althusser, at least in the last instance, it is the economy. Poststructuralism rejects these monolithic accounts of the structuring of the subject. For Foucault, the subject is a product of the intersection of particular practices of knowledge and power. For Deleuze, whatever actuality the subject presents carries within it a virtual field of difference that can make it very much other than it is now. Lyotard, in his turn, takes up themes in both Foucault and Deleuze during different points in his career, but in his major work The Differend offers a view of the subject as both constituted and constituting through a variety of different discursive practices. I haven’t mentioned Derrida here, who is often thought of as the central poststructuralist. However, even though he does not figure in my poststructuralist anarchism, he can also be seen as a figure who sees the subject as partially constituted by something that lies outside of it and that cannot be brought into conceptual presence, like Deleuze. Although his view of what it is that does the constituting is diverges from Deleuze’s.
As for anarchism, it is the historical movement that, theoretically at least, is rooted in the work of William Godwin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, articulated most clearly in the work of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, and others. It is often, as I said, associated with an anti-statist position, but in my view is better defined as a commitment to two positions: a critique of domination in all its forms and an embrace of bottom-up organizing and resistance. Viewing things this way leaves aside another strain of anarchist thought–the individualist anarchism associated with Benjamin Tucker and Max Stirner, and whose modern proponents are libertarians like Robert Nozick. However, the term anarchism is commonly thought to apply to the former more than the latter.

3:AM: Lyotard writes about the postmodern’ rather than the poststructioralist condition. Is this a distinction that matters?

TM: I have never liked the term postmodernism. If poststructuralism is a difficult term to define, then trying to capture postmodernism is like trying to stabilize mercury with your thumb. My understanding is that it was coined around 1979 by Christopher Jencks in regard to architecture. In the arts, it is often seen as a view that there is nothing new to be done, so art must recycle old themes and styles, often although not always in an ironic style. And one can see this in certain artists, like David Salle and Julian Schnabel. People claim this label for David Foster Wallace as well, but if the ironic recycling of old themes and styles is characteristic of literature, then why isn’t Joyce a postmodernist? Moreover, I don’t see any domination of what is called postmodern literature in the 1980s similar to what happened in painting or perhaps in architecture at that time. In philosophy, outside of Lyotard’s work, it is practically nonexistent. For Lyotard, postmodernism was largely what he called the rejection of grand narratives, single overarching stories that explain, say, who we are and how we got here. As a definition of postmodernism, it has resonances with my definition of poststructuralism. However, even here there are complications. For Foucault, for instance, what might be called micropolitics is a way of analyzing our historical situation, whereas for Lyotard it sometimes seems like an alternative political position to be embraced. That is, while for Foucault the move to micropolitics is analytical, for Lyotard it sometimes comes off as normative.

3:AM: What are the advantages of this approach to say Rawlsian ‘difference principle’ approaches to political theory, or Nozick’s or, say, the Critical Theorists of Adorno, Lukacs, and Habermas?

TM: The anarchist angle of approach is quite different from that of liberal theory on the one hand and Critical Theory on the other. At a first go, we might say that if anarchism is a bottom-up approach, liberalism is top-down. That is to say, liberalism starts with a set of principles (different principles for different theorists) that focus on the state, where anarchism starts with the people in the polity and asks what kind of social relations ought to obtain between and among them. This distinction isn’t entirely clean, however. It seems to me that both Rawls and anarchists share some important moral principles about how people should be treated–or if sharing is too strong, then at least there is some important overlap. Rawls, like most liberals, then tries to conceive a state that can meet the demands of those principles. Anarchists are leery of the focus on the state. They are concerned that the state, being an important site of power relationships, is not the proper focus for enacting those principles. So they turn to the people themselves, asking how people can organize themselves into a just polity.
For my own part, I think that liberalism, especially in the hands of people like Rawls and Sen, is often correct at the level of moral principle but often naive about power. This naivete happens at two levels. First, they fail to recognize many of the power games that occur at the level of the state and that preclude meeting the moral principles that they set out. In fact, if you look at many movements for justice, it is often at the level of the people that they begin: the state often does not create justice but responds to demands for justice from its people. Second, they do not recognize what seems to me a central insight of Foucault’s work: that power often works not by restriction but by production. That is, power helps produce who we are. So, for instance, one of the reasons people conform to and even endorse unjust social arrangements is that they have been inculcated into practices of normality that make these social arrangements seem natural. (That is a one-sentence and entirely superficial summary of Discipline and Punish.) This is not to say that there’s a conspiracy involved. Rather, it is to say that power often operates at the level of our daily practices, making us who we are. If this is right, then political resistance also has to focus on those practices, that is, it has to be bottom-up.
That said, unlike many anarchists, I do not oppose the state in principle. I think it is less effective in creating change than liberal theory would allow, but there does seem to me an important place for thinking about the justice of the state. So while there are advantages to the anarchist–or poststructuralist anarchist–approach to political thought, I do not believe that it is a substitute for liberalism.
As far as Critical Theory goes (and let’s keep in mind that the recent work of Habermas is probably more liberal that Critical Theoretical), it has much insight to offer. However, that insight is embedded in a largely Marxist perspective that shares the difficulties of being a single explainer theory of the kind poststructuralism rejects. So the advantage of anarchism to Critical Theory lies in its ability to take on board the insights the latter offers while not reducing political thought to the Marxist framework.

Dr. May took his Ph.D. from Penn State University in 1989, and has been at Clemson (after a brief stint at Indiana University of Pennsylvania) since 1991. He specializes in Continental philosophy, especially recent French philosophy. He has authored ten philosophical books, focusing on the philosophical work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière. His book The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism has been influential in recent progressive political thought, and his work on Rancière is among the first in English. May’s writings also seek to bridge the gap between "Anglo-American" and "Continental" styles of philosophy that developed in the early twentieth century. His teaching interests are varied; he has found himself teaching classes as diverse as Anarchism, The Thought of Merleau-Ponty, Resistance and Alterity in Contemporary Culture, Secular Ethics in a Materialist Age, and Postmodernism and Art. 

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