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Continental Philosophy - Postmodernism

foucault meaning subject human

Modernism is characterized by Enlightenment values; that is, trust in the autonomous human "subject," scientific reason, and universal principles of law, morality, politics, and economics. In different ways, postmodern philosophers oppose the main ideas of the Enlightenment. Instead, they focus on a "decentered" subject, human knowledge as conditioned by history, and the mistrust of the "grand narratives" of modernity (Kant, Hegel, Marx). The French philosopher and novelist Georges Bataille (1897–1962) initiated the poststructuralist notion regarding the death of the "subject" in order to overcome its isolation in experiences of "excess" (laughter, tears, eroticism, death, sacrifice, and poetry). Similar to Nietzsche's "perspectivism," postmodernism critiques "objective" truth and favors a theory of multiple "interpretations" of texts. Post-modernism was preceded by poststructuralism in literature, the humanities, social sciences, and even architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Poststructuralism partially opposed the linguistic structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). Similar to much of the analytical philosophy, Husserl, and also Derrida, Saussure saw language as a self-contained system of signs rather than as an ongoing, historical process of conversation and dialogue in the Socrates sense. In contrast to "subjective" existentialism, structuralism focused on super-individual structures such as language, kinship, and ritual in order to understand human existence. Saussure influenced the anthropological structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), the Marxist structuralism of Louis Althusser (1918–1990), the social critique of Foucault, the political and cultural critique of Roland Barthes (1915–1980), and the psychoanalytic structuralism of Lacan. Rejecting the scientific pretensions of structuralism, poststructuralism questioned the "objectivity" of knowledge and truth, of the "subject" as a unified self, the oppressive nature of modern institutions, authority, and power. Postmodernism was marked by the abandonment of dogmatic Marxism by French intellectuals, especially after the student-worker revolution of 1968, its critique of Western imperialism, racism, and antifeminism.

Lyotard (1924–1998), through his book La condition post-moderne (1979; The Postmodern Condition), represents the postmodern movement and its great influence on the literary, political, and cultural milieu beyond professional philosophy. Lyotard pointed out the demise of grand, foundational, totalizing "metanarratives"; that is, grand theories or systems of thought such as liberalism and Marxism, which are being replaced by local narrative or smaller stories of everyday life, which are expressed in limited but pluralistic "language games" (Wittgenstein). Lyotard uses the term "differend" (differend) for the incommensurability or heterogeneity of these different language games, literary genres, and idioms, which can never be reduced to logical or ontological "sameness," not even to a political "consensus" in the sense of Gadamer, Habermas, or Rorty. For Lyotard, the knowledge of irreducible differends, that is, disputes and dissensions in politics, is the most important form of resistance to capitalism and its uniformity and injustice. In Heidegger et "les juifs" (1988; Heidegger and "the Jews"), Lyotard criticized Heidgger's silence on the Shoah (Holocaust). He pointed out the philosopher's duty to stand for the "marginalized" and "the Forgotten."

The Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) has had almost as much impact on French continental philosophy as Foucault, but he is hardly criticized by analytic philosophers such as John Learle. Like Heidegger, Derrida attacks the traditional Western "metaphysics of presence" and its reduction of "being" to "substance" (entity). Like Wittgenstein, Derrida asserts that logical meaning is always embedded in the historical, social, and cultural matrix of language. He accuses Western metaphysical tradition of "logocentrism" and "phonocentrism," which favor the immediacy of the "meaning" of the spoken word rather than writing, which is characterized by distance, repeatability, and uncertainty of meaning. According to Derrida, logocentrism utilizes oversimplified, "binary opposites" such as reason-emotion, soul-body, male-female, and so on, which presuppose an unquestioned hierarchy of subordination in classical, philosophical texts and in political discourse.

Derrida's method of "deconstructing" the logocentrism demonstrates that a particular text usually does not have just one clear meaning, understood as what the author intended to convey. Rather, it may have alternative meanings ("alterity"), which do not fit into traditional notions of "binary opposites." The "double meaning" of texts reveals hidden ambiguities and "indeterminacies" of meaning underlying the text. In principle, it is impossible to show what a text "really means." In Derrida's writings, an important neologism is the term différance, which is a pun on a French verb meaning both "difference" of meaning and endless "deferral" of a fixed and privileged meaning. Meaning is only possible within a context and within a system where words have a "trace" of other, related words, just as speaking has a "trace" of writing.

Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and the psychotherapist Felix Guattari (1930–1992) also opposed the metaphysics of presence ("identity"), the representation of an "object" by a "subject." They favored a metaphysics of difference. In their controversial L'anti-Oedipe (1972; Anti-Oedipus), they synthesized their neo-Marxist rejection of capitalism with their rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis, which they criticized as a bourgeois repression of instinctual life ("desire") in the name of the bourgeois family (Oedipus complex). Although human nature is controlled socially, it is rooted in the chaotic presence of desire as expressed in its extreme form in schizophrenia. Deleuze also published works on theater, painting, and cinema.

Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), whose analysis of contemporary culture was influenced by Marx, by structuralism, and by the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan's analysis of electronic media, reversed the Marxian distinction between epiphenominal "superstructure" (culture, the "symbolic") and fundamental "infrastructure" (economy, material production). He pointed out that the "symbolic" is primary for the contemporary media and consumer society, in which the boundary between image and truth, as well as between the virtual and the real, has been transformed into a new symbolic "hyper-reality" in the age of electronic media.

In the tradition of Hegel, Marx, and especially Nietzsche, Michel Foucault (1926–1984) focused on the structures used to create meaning and order in human knowledge and experience. In his early studies in the "archaeology of knowledge," Foucault showed how our present thoughts and social-institutional practices, especially in psychology, psychiatry, and medicine, are the historically contingent outcomes of past, anonymous "epistemes" (paradigms and frameworks of discourse), which can be changed and replaced by new forms of "epistemes." On the "threshold of modernity" at the end of the eighteenth century, the modern episteme brought about the emergence of the modern "subject" and the corresponding "human sciences," which prescribed how the individual (psychology) and society (the state) should act. Foucault attacked modern, universalizing mega-narratives of history as well as the notion of a pre-given "human nature." He saw the self (that is, the "subject") as always historically conditioned within particular situations and contexts. Foucault's antihumanist and anti-Enlightenment critique of the modern notion of "reason" is based upon very detailed historical studies, for instance, his investigations of "mental illness" and "madness" in the age of Enlightenment (Histoire de la folie á l'âge classique: folie et déraison, 1961; Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason).

In his other works, Foucault discussed the theoretical, "discursive" practices within the larger context of "nondiscursive" practices as manifestations of social control and "power." According to Foucault, these "disciplinary power" systems and their power techniques (as exemplified by Jeremy Bentham's prison "panopticon") have paralleled the development of the human sciences, which have defined what is "natural" or "deviant," especially in sexual behavior. As the human sciences developed, the modern "subject" was defined both as a "self-responsible subject" and as an "object," controllable by disciplinary power. These definitions first appeared in modern psychology and medicine and were then applied in education, hospitals, asylums, factories, and military barracks. Like Nietzsche, Foucault called this later work a "genealogy," which explained the origin of the modern individual as a "subject" within institutional systems of nondiscursive power relations.

In his last work about sexuality, Foucault further developed his analysis of the subject in terms of "practices of the self." He was especially concerned with historical, aesthetic, and repressive practices regarding sexuality. According to Foucault, sexuality is not a category of an unchanging human nature, but is historically conditioned by social "power" practices.

Foucault summarized his work by maintaining that in spite of our involvement in power relations, we are free to struggle against and to resist systems of power by relating to ourselves in new alternative, creative ways, beyond society's system of order and discipline.

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