Oedipus and Anarchy. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 4

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

In the lecture of 30th January, Foucault continues to discuss Oedipus the King, but also gets into more general discussions.  He addresses the question of knowledge, and its connection wit questions of power.  He suggests that his position can be regarded as ‘anarcheology’, that is as a fusion of anarchy and archaeology.  Archaeology refers to his 1969 book, Archeology of Knowledge, which gives his view of discourse, knowledge, and history of ideas and evidently to the idea of anarchy, of a lack of government.  Foucault refers to the 2accusation’ that his theory of power is anarchic, and does not deny it, but does not exactly embrace the label of political anarchist either.  He more treats the idea of anarchy as part of a sceptical approach to power and government, so the anarchy is an intellectual instrument rather than a program for a stateless society.

On the issue of anarchy as method of knowledge, Foucault refers briefly to the work of Paul Feyerabend, the philosopher of science probably best known for his 1975 book, Against Method.  As it happens the Canadian philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, who has taken a  great deal of interest in Foucault, wrote the introduction to the most recent (2010) edition of Against Method.  I have the 1993 edition on my shelves, and have yet to read the Hacking introduction, which I must do soon to see if it does contain any discussion of a possible connection between the epistemologies of Foucault and Feyerabend.  In Against Method, Feyerabend suggests that anarchy is a bad political position but is a good position in knowledge.  There is no method of knowledge, no empirical or  theoretical basis for selecting scientific theories, because ‘anything goes’ and the best method is to try as many different methods as possible.  Foucault raises Feyerabend’s in contrast with brighter burning names he does not mention.  This could be a jibe at Derrida.  Derrida’s earlier texts contain some discussion of knowledge and social science, including a discussion of Foucault’s own book History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), ‘Madness and Cogito’ which appears in Derrida’s Writing and Difference.  Derrida had been a student of Foucault and Foucault seems to have been particularly touchy about what he perceived as a slight on his philosophical competence.  Apparently Foucault maintained a personally unfriendly attitude until the 1981 episode in which Derrida was arrested in Prague.  Foucault had always been a critic of soviet socialism and was apparently particularly sympathetic to Derrida’s contacts with Prague dissidents.  Of Grammatology, Margins of Philosophy, Voice and Phenomenon, and Introduction to Husserl’s Essay on the Origin of Geometry could all be considered as contributions to an epistemology which undermines all claims to a unified method of knowledge.

In his discussion of anarchy, Foucault refers to the desire to be sceptical of power and the claims of power, he is contesting any claim that power is inevitable, that there is no other way in which power could have been exercised.  He is firmly dismissive of any idea of a social contract, that is any idea that power is justified by an agreement of all members of society.  The social contract theory is itself a product of Medieval juridification, that is the growth of church and state law during the Middle Ages to some degree stimulated by the discovery of the Institutes of Justininian. So in that case, no concept of a super code of law adopted in the transition fr0m nature to culture can be adopted  underlying government and laws.  So for Foucault there is no theory of what is often known as political obligation, that is reasons for obeying government and following the law.

Getting back to Oedipus the King, Foucault refers to the lac of punishment of Oedipus when it is revealed that he polluted the city by unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. Oedipus punishes himself through self-inflicted blinding and exile from Thebes.  However, this is not a punishment imposed on Oedipus by the city of Thebes it is Oedipus fleeing from the horror of the situation.  The important thing from the political point of view, from the point of view of the city, is that truth appears.  There is a progression in the play from spectator of truth to witness to truth and finally to confession of truth.  Oedipus himself is aware of the truth when Tiresias explains it in a prophetic-divine mode, but can only accept truth through witnessing, through discussion with those who can report directly on what happened, and then Oedipus can confess.  The stage of the witnessing shows the process of ‘subjectivation’, of the formation of subjectivity through awareness that it is something that can witness truth.  The harmonisation of truth with power is shown to be necessary to the city state.  From Foucault’s point of view, power will always be denying truth in some way, which is where the anarchy becomes relevant.  .

The process of confession is reinforced in medieval Christianity, with increasing demands for thoroughness and complete truth, so that it is structured in such a way as to be legal in form, so connecting religious confession with juridification.  Foucault finishes with the comments of the late Antique Pagan philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who commented on the Hebrew Bible.  Foucault notes that he reads the text in a way that seems to force it into a pattern, but also reveals the way in which there is a commın understanding of the desire for power based on truth, which is experienced in the importance of the sun, of illumination and brightness.  Truth must be revealed as what overcomes  a fault and avoids the need for punishment.  Reformation Protestantism is mentioned by Foucault as what tries to harmonise inner confessional truth with eternal truths through reducing the sort institutional mediation of the church, which as at the basis of Catholicism.

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