Foucault’s aestheticism and anti-foundationalism are targets of scorn among critical theorists like Jürgen Habermas. How can a perspectivism that acknowledges no privileged viewpoints – only contests of power – provide substantial critical foundations? To the contrary, Foucauldian critical viewpoint both supplants the rationalist criticism of Enlightenment-tradition thinkers and allows for a critique of the alienation, othering, and domination built into those very traditions.
In “Foucault’s Challenge to Critical Theory,” Stephen White resumes the Foucault-Habermas debate, arguing that Habermas’ theory of ethics is preferable to Foucault’s as “Habermas’s work provides a frame-work that can incorporate many of Foucault’s key ideas without at the same time leading us into a conceptual cul de sac involving subjectivity.” He claims that Foucault’s refusal to elaborate a universalist conception of ethics – one subject to adjudication against a rationally discoverable ethical background – makes coherent ethical behavior impossible. According to White, Habermas offers a perspective that we can endorse more easily: “In short, [Habermas] argues that ‘cultural modernity’ establishes a ‘potential for reason’ that has not been given full play, but rather has been utilized in a one-sided way in the process of Western modernization.”
White offers two categories of subjectivity: the juridical and the aesthetic. The supposed difference between “aesthetic” and “juridical” visions of subjectivity, stripped of philosophical jargon, is quite simple. ‘Juridical subjectivity’ requires that judgments be made against objectively true standards, either universally affirmed or reached through consensus. ‘Aesthetic subjectivity’ holds that judgments are questions of subjective tastes, customs, and power relations. The first is foundational, claiming that beliefs can be shown to adhere to or contradict a universal series of truths, the second, anti-foundational. Anyone who understands this paragraph already grasps quite nearly the entirety of the debate between modernists and postmodernists.
Modernity, Rationality, Consensus
Habermas’ critical theory emerged from the work of the Frankfurt School, though it took a decidedly rationalist turn against the aestheticism of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Habermas aimed to salvage from his mentors what he saw as the legacy of modernity and the Enlightenment – the progressive struggle toward universal justice and understanding. He nominally abandoned the Enlightenment’s conceptual basis in a “first philosophy” or transcendent ontology that could ground universally true claims a priori subjective perception. But he aimed to rebuild this foundation in a “communicative consensus” made possible by reason. Universal truth is still possible, Habermas argued, but it comes into being through speech. “Truth is a universal validity claim: its universality is reflected in the double structure of speech.” The act of communication, in Habermas’ revived teleology, has consensus as its rational objective. Consensus can be made possible by engaging in “domination free” communication.
The communicative rationality that makes consensus, or truth, possible is gained by acquiring mastery over language. As Habermas argues, “only the adolescent who is capable of stepping outside of the contexts of communicative action from time to time and who can negate not only propositions and speech acts but also validity claims as such, (i.e. think hypothetically) learns to master the modalities of being: i.e. He learns to distinguish being from appearance, is from ought, essence (Wesen) from existence (Erscheinung), and sign from meaning.” The modern discourse of ‘rationality,’ which is repurposed as Habermas’s “juridical subject,” is monolithic. One may attune to the communicative consensus, or one may fail to enter discourse as a “competent actor.” Habermas’s vision of liberation reproduces the very authoritarian structures of knowledge, and thus relations of power, that it claims to escape. The Habermasian subject is juridical – it produces categories for objective classification: “true or not, justified or not, veracious or not, comprehensible or not.” Thus he takes the very subjectivity produced by modern mechanisms of power at face-value – one of a rational ego dominating the pre-rational wills, objects, and others. As Adorno and Horkheimer aver: “Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them.” Are we to entrust this storied subjectivity of domination with liberation?
The supposed focus on rationality has, since classical antiquity, been used to exclude various groups from the “public sphere” and place them under the control of others. And can I not say that these elites, whether Greek nobles or English aristocrats, represent Habermas’s “expert cultures?” One might, with equal ease, highlight how this conception of rationality has been turned inward against the self as a means to repress various drives, desires, or beliefs seen as irrational or undesirable by the dominant power structure. Reason is the discourse of power by which rationalist language is inscribed as universal truth. For Foucault, this drive to normalize incurs resistance which may be endorsed by an aesthetic ethics. As Peter Digeser explains, “Resistance is evidenced by the marginalization of individuals who do not fit the norm of the modern rational, responsible, well-ordered subject.” Foucault’s work describes the history of this marginalization as a means to combat it.
Why abandon the narrative of the Enlightenment? Because it has come to enclose that which it promised to open up. Rationalist progressivism may be a useful bludgeon to bash neoconservatives and fundamentalists with, but it is a conceptual outlook, like Enlightenment itself, that cannot stand up to its own standards of scrutiny. The basis of a universal “truth,” which is the intrinsic requirement of Habermas’ project, is impossible to articulate without resorting to tautology. Rationalism must have an irrational foundation. Pushed to its limits through its own discourse, modernism eats itself alive.
Power, Distinction, Knowledge
Strong distinctions, including the proposed divide between “juridical” and “aesthetic” subjectivity, are the ontological ground upon which modernist claims stand. I’ll ignore the argument, which I am usually fond of making, that they are entirely constructed products of modernist language. The argument that separates these two subjectivities relies on the rationalist truth-claim. For the aestheticist, “juridical” subjectivity is simply another ethical orientation that make be interrogated according to one’s subjective preference. An “aesthetic” orientation, however, to the modernist is irrational, untenable, and/or indecisive. How is judgment possible without a transcendent standard? The radical aestheticism of the postmodern turn must be worked back into language that the modernist can understand. As Thomas Dumm argues, “The pathos of Habermas’s position [modernism] may result from the suspicion that he has been outflanked on the left by those whom he calls post-modern.” Foucault’s aestheticism is reduced by White and Habermas to a simple restatement of modern romantic notions.
White, Habermas, and other modernists typically accuse postmodernists of offering a “totalistic critique of modernity.” They treat attempts to rework conceptions of power, of subjectivity, or to collapse paradoxical distinctions as unserious and ill-suited to the enduring project of the Enlightenment. As Habermas rather stiltedly offers: “But all those attempts to level art and life, fiction and praxis, appearance and reality to one plane; the attempts to remove the distinction between artifact and the object of use, between conscious staging and spontaneous excitement; the attempts to declare everything to be art and everyone to be artist, to retract all criteria and to equate aesthetic judgment with the expression of subjective experiences – all these undertakings have proven themselves to be sort of nonsense experiments.” But postmodern theory, quite correctly, cannot ignore modernity or offer a criticism from some exterior instrumental perspective. It simply chooses to go beyond it.
The modernist conception of consensus and rationality ignores the effects of power which must be subject to sustained critique – the entire concept of juridical subjectivity as separate from aesthetics represents the divisions and hierarchies encoded by the modernist worldview. Foucault attempted to explore the relationship of power-knowledge, by which discourse is constructed as an expression of power relations. As Tom Keenan explains, “Power and knowledge are tangled up in the knot of a ‘not-without.’ Each presupposes the other: no knowledge without power, no power without knowledge. No outside, no priority.” This makes the Habermasian project of domination-free communication virtually impossible. There is no final language that can stand outside the possible realm of discourses created by power. No rational vocabulary can avoid encoding violence into a system that delimits certain possibilities of knowledge about the self, the other, and the world.
The Habermasian project may be couched in the terms of liberation, but it carries the intellectual signs of domination and exclusion that have been so prevalent in the modern era. Habermas is not a totalitarian. But as Romand Coles argues, what is at stake is the attitude one takes in approaching critical ethics. What can a postmodern ethics, an aesthetic subjectivity, offer critical theory?
Foucault draws a radical conclusion from the notion that no identity is intrinsically given: “I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” One creates oneself, or rather one’s Self, through examination, reflection, and practice. Foucault evokes the classical concept of the “care of the self” – the deliberate cultivation of an ethos as a practice of freedom. This commitment to the self is not a selfish project, it culminates in a “disposition to steadiness” in ethics and solidarity with others. To this I might add a Nietzschean ethic of overflowing. We cannot hope to give to others without first working on the self, without creating beauty that we might share. Foucault endorses political struggles both as a means – in the case of the gay rights movement, feminism, the environmentalist movement, and so on – to establish claims for politically respected identities, and as a means to create revolutionary social spaces that allow for the cultivation of individuality, difference, and beauty.
Aestheticism embraces the plurality of possible subjectivities, judgment based on personal needs, and an orientation toward a subjective conception of beauty. This is the perspective employed by critics in the postmodern tradition like Foucault and Adorno, not one of total detachment. Aestheticism can embrace difference in manner quite opposed to the normalizing tendencies of modernity. As White explains: “What appealed to Adorno about aesthetic consciousness was the nongrasping, non-dominating way it related to its object. Thus he found in the aesthetic dimension a model of intersubjective reconciliation of a community that allows intersubjective otherness to flourish.”
That judgment is now historically contingent, personal and subjective, and aesthetic does nothing to rob it of critical power. Personal aesthetics, or rather, the individualization of ethics, offers a strength that can hardly be ignored. Accepting an anti-foundational account of ethical behavior requires a constant re-evaluation of one’s behaviors, one’s beliefs, and one’s attitudes, for they cannot possibly be justified by anything other than a historically conditioned series of intellectual developments. As Rorty argues, we cannot hope to make ourselves aware of different, as yet unrecognized forms of suffering without continuously expanding our horizons. But aestheticism might also make us more sensitive to the identity claims of others, and perhaps more likely to accept difference with an attitude of wonder and curiosity rather than repulsion.
Political liberation, including the necessary elements of personal freedom and personal power, cannot be won by assent to some general, transcendent language. Freedom – not the mythological kind located in an abstract collective – requires the creation of new and personal aesthetics. Language becomes an artwork which revolts against normalization, against repression, and yes, perhaps against comprehensibility. This is the Foucauldian ethos – one of ever increasing pluralism and expansion against the contraction and consolidation of languages. Aestheticism exalts seizing the capacity to turn oneself into both artwork and artist at the same time. This is the basis of a politics that may look beyond the prisons of process, of normality, and mediocrity.
The Foucauldian ethics of self-creation, one that emphasizes beauty in action and focuses on the care of the self, is far removed from the Habermasian subject. It offers an individualistic orientation to life, and an ethic of resistance based on the overflowing of one’s own being. To the contrary, the echoes of Kantian duty resound in Habermas’ work. The compulsion of universal ethics, or a rationalist theory that valorizes it, must rely on an authoritarian tendency to normalization to a ‘true’ self, culture, or value set. I cannot offer a transcendent argument for embracing an aesthetic outlook – nor should I. But I feel that an ethic that promotes self-creation is boundlessly more beautiful, more creative, more flexible, and more free than an ethic of universally required behaviors.
The question is whether, after we recognize the domination inherent in the modern project, we continue to couch the terms of our resistance in discourses of power that have made this very domination possible, or whether we try to build our language anew. The goal is not an impossible attempt to “escape power,” but to reclaim the power of language creation, of subjective judgment, and of diverse modes of existence. Foucault understood that the aesthetic orientation was a means to escape the “mind forg’d manacles” of modernity. The debate between Habermas and Foucault was not merely an academic struggle. It was a very real battle over the zeitgeist of our era – whether we will explore new forms of freedom or ossify the enclosures of the past. I hope my sympathies at this point are clear.
Or, this essay in fewer words: “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, performed by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks