The ‘Death of Objectivity’ and modernity in tatters:
Foucault on modern power/knowledge
Before looking at the conversation between Foucault and Habermas’s thoughts about ‘the modern knowledge project’, perhaps we can pause a little and reflect on the stark shift in the humanities away from notions of knowledge produced in the academe as ‘objectively’ and ‘rationally’ true. Since the ground-breaking work of thinkers like Foucault and Derrida there has been a systematic attempt by many thinkers in the West to rethink the hierarchies, claims and understanding of academic writing itself in the Western intellectual tradition. Norvick when speaking about this big transition in History as a discipline and its claims in the last thirty years has characterised it as a case of ‘objectivity in crisis (1988:415); As Norvick has said.
"From the 1960s onwards…In one field after another distinctions between fact and value and between theory and observation were called into question. For many, postures of distinterestedness and neutrality increasingly appeared as outmoded and illusory. It ceased to be axiomatic that the scholar’s or scientists’ task was to represent accurately what was "out there". Most crucially and across the board, the notion of a determinate and unitary truth about the physical or social world…came to be seen by a growing number of scholars as illusory" (Norvick, 1988:523).
Pull [the] veil of reason from the sheer will to power [postmodernism] At the same time is supposed to shake the iron cage in which the Spirit of modernity has been objectified in the current form (Habermas, 1987:4).
Foucault on Civil Society and the Art of
"delicate, economic and modest" Governmentality
However, if modern power was an iron cage, the question I then had to ask as a historian was how does one account for the strength of civil society resistance to this containing, discriminatory discourse around AIDS within a Foucauldian framework of understanding power. Foucault seems to talk about subjects of modern power more than citizens exercising their rights in the Habermasian sense. As Patten has said "Foucault’s conception of the subject does not provide a basis on which to understand the inevitability of resistance to domination" (Patten, 1994 cited in Ashenden and Owen, 1999: 14).
In South Africa and internationally I discovered strong and vocal resistance in the civil society and public health discourse, by the 1990s, to this stigmatising and discriminatory discourse around AIDS ‘victims’, which I found to be so accurately described by Foucault’s theories. Medical researchers, statisticians and the Durban municipal health machinery began realising the seriousness of the epidemic: that it was no longer just black prostitutes and white ‘homosexuals’ at risk but also the general heterosexual population (Mbali, 2001:50-51). Hospitals such as Baragwanath hospital began organising training programmes for their staff on how not to stigmatise and isolate patients (Mbali, 2001: 54). More in depth social studies around AIDS began appearing including ones showing the gendered aspects of AIDS (Mbali, 2001:58-59).
Even as early as the 1980s left-wing and feminist anti-apartheid academics and activists were arguing that the socio-economic inequalities of apartheid was the true engine for ill health in South Africa (Mbali, 2001: 42-47). Jonathan Mann’s assertion of the need for AIDS policy-making to be right-based and non-discriminatory lead both in South Africa and globally to an international shift towards rights-based approaches in AIDS policy-making (Mbali, 2001:78).
To shift from back to the broader theoretical arguments about civil society, what about the concept of the citizen and civil society itself as associated with individualism, the rule of the law and markets? What of Marxist critiques of civil society as the realm of individual egoism and self- interest, of civil society as ‘bourgeois society’ (Ashenden, 1999: 143, 146)? The idea of limiting the power of the state and protecting the rights of the individual can also be traced back to the ideas around the right to own private property (Dembour, 1996:24-25). Does civil society really have the capacity to develop a "critical public sphere capable of generating resistance to unaccountable expert authority and administrative power" as Habermas understands it? (Ashenden, 1999:146; Habermas, 1996: 358-369).
Ashenden’s account of Foucault’s understanding of civil society and the culture of governance links it to his concept of ‘governmentality’, which is used to explain the rise of liberal political rationalities (Ashenden, 1999:151). Foucault shows in his article "Governmentality" that the ‘governmentalisation’ state is a key process: he notes changes in the exercise of modern power such as the invention of statistics and the notion of population management, which go along with the creation of institutions, procedures, analyses, tactics, which allow a specifically new exercise of modern disciplinary power (Foucault, 1991: 102). The modern subject as a member of a population is a subject of normalisation and rationality (Ashenden 1999:152; Foucault 1991:95,103). The only political issues after the rise of governmentality are, for Foucault, the problems of governmentality and the techniques of the state, in a modern state where sovereignty, discipline and government are simultaneously enforced over the population through the apparatus of security (1991:102-103).
The political tradition of liberalism, out of which rights-based discourse stems, with its notions of individual liberty the art of self-limiting government becomes a technique of governmentality in Foucault’s account, according to Burchell (1991:141, 143). Foucault’s basic scepticism about rights based discourse and an independent, oppositional civil society (concepts dear to Habermas) stems from his notion of capilliary power: as Burchell has said for Foucault "models of social and political identity…must at the same time address the question not only of how we are governed by others, but also of how we ourselves are to be involved in the practices of governing others" (Burchell, 1991: 145).
Barry, Osbourne and Rose characterise Foucault as arguing in "Governmentality’ that liberalism and the creation of civil society arising from Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ should be understood not as less government, or necessarily always in opposition, or limiting the powers of government, but as "the continual injunction that rulers should govern cautiously, delicately, economically, modestly" (Butler, Osbourne and Rose, 1996:8). The separation of state and civil society and a new concern with society in the nineteenth century is then seen by Barry, Osborne and Rose’s account of Foucault’s work as not a withdrawal of government but a new kind of problematisation of government (1996:9).
Habermas’s Defence: Or is Human Rights Another (Useful and Important) Myth of Modernity?
But the question then becomes whether Foucault’s account of the evolution of civil society and rights-based discourse in a liberal rubric really speaks to South African civil society either historically or today, especially in its attempts to realise rights enshrined in the South African constitution? The Treatment Action Campaign, an organisation to which I belong, frequently speaks about access to treatment in terms of "the right to access to healthcare", the "right to life" and so on.
Habermas’s understanding of civil society as constituting and protecting the public sphere and rights –based discourse in Between Facts and Norms is a highly useful way of framing the character of progressive civil society in South Africa. To speak specifically to his linkages between civil society, the public sphere, and human rights, Habermas draws out the idea that communication in civil society sustains the public sphere itself and, simultaneously, the maintenance of this public sphere entails the ongoing defence by civil society of the right to freedoms of speech, expression and opinion (1996: 367, 369). Civil society both extends and radicalises existing rights through the public sphere and has the potential to transform itself (Habermas, 1996: 370, 372). Habermas’s basic problems with Foucault’s critique of liberalism and governmentality comes from his understanding of the liberal public sphere as inherently universal and heavily influenced by civil society: as he has said:
The rights to unrestricted inclusion and equality built into the liberal public spheres prevent exclusion mechanisms of the Foucauldian type and ground a potential for self-transformation. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the universalist discourses of the bourgeois public sphere could not longer immunise themselves from critique from within. The labour movement and feminism, for example were able to join these discourses in order to shatter the structures that had constituted them as ‘the other’ of a bourgeois public sphere (Habermas, 1996: 374).
Civil Society Studies and Researcher/Activists and Activist/Researchers
Civil Society Studies and Researcher/Activists and Activist/Researchers
Perhaps then the death of objectivity is less to be mourned than celebrated. If activists using rights-based discourse understand it as a philosophically flawed and historically contingent strategy, perhaps it will allow for more strategic flexibility in present and future activism. Freed from the shackles of ‘objective truth and reality’ we can write in our offices and shout in the streets about the constructedness and contingency of the positivist notions of neoliberal economic ‘realists’. On the other hand, if academics using rights based discourse can understand the political power of presenting rights-based discourse as if it is irrefutably true, maybe researcher/activists will feel in less of a theoretical and normative dilemma. In the final analysis, as we use the language of liberalism and human rights, let us hear Foucault’s warning of us that the invention of civil society and liberalism came about as a technique of government, and an instrument of power. On the other hand, we should hear Habermas on the need for civil society to defend an independent public sphere and normative value-based visions of society based on rights. In the wake of demonstrations at the WSSD by social movements for the right to peaceful protest and in favour of fulfilment of rights such as the ‘right to water’ and the ‘right of access to healthcare’, perhaps we can see through the teargas and media coverage that we are simultaneously citizens with rights and subjects of normalisation.
i. I am yet again referring to media reports, but more commonly this arbitrary measure which bears no relation to the actual amount of money it takes to survive in poor countries heavily under-estimates the global extent of poverty. For an instance of a media report utilising this measure mindlessly see: Basildon Peta. "Taking aim at poverty from the glitz of Sandton". The Sunday Independent. (Johannesburg: www.iol.co.za, August 24 2002).
ii.I am referring here to media reports that as part of a Public, Private Partnership, McDonald’s will donate money to UNICEF for every burger eaten, what I consider an example of over-consumption and inequality deluxe. See: Paul Brown. "Summit row over big business plans". The Guardian. (London: www.guardian.co.uk, August 27th 2002).
iii. For instance the trial of holocaust denier David Irving was followed closely by many historians, who generally agreed that the outcome of the trial showed that it is unethical and unprofessional to fabricate or grossly misinterpret archives to fit one’s political perspective as Irving did. This shows that at least methodological rigorousness is still widely respected as important in the discipline of history.
iv. By a ‘Whiggish’ history I am referring to a teleological understanding of history which looks at historical actors in terms of whether they advanced of retarded the ‘progress’ of society towards liberalism and democracy. See Norvick (1988: 465) for more on this.
v. In my thesis I also cite Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic and Jana Sawacki’s work on "Foucault and Feminism".
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