Berman vs. Foucault: in defence of the modern subject

by burtenshaw

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The late Marshall Berman, who passed away yesterday, with a heroic defence of the modern subject against postmodern disempowerment in ‘All That is Solid Melts into Air’:

“Just about the only writer of the recent past who has had anything substantial to say about modernity is Michel Foucault. And what he has to say is an endless, excruciating series of variations on the Weberian themes of the iron cage and the human nullities whose souls are shaped to fit the bars. Foucault is obsessed with prisons, hospitals, asylums, with what Erving Goffman has called “total institutions”. Unlike Goffman, however, Foucault denies the possibility of any sort of freedom, either outside these institutions or within their interstices. Foucault’s totalities swallow up every facet of modern life. He develops these themes with obsessive relentlessness and, indeed, with sadistic flourishes, clamping his ideas down on his readers like iron bars, twisting each dialectic into our flesh like a new turn of the screw.

Foucault reserves his most savage contempt for people who imagine that it is possible for modern mankind to be free. Do we think we feel a spontaneous rush of sexual desire? We are merely being moved by “the modern technologies of power that take life as their object”, driven by “the deployment of sexuality by power in its grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, their energies, sensations and pleasures.” Do we act politically, overthrow tyrannies, make revolutions, create constitutions to establish and protect human rights? Mere “juridicial regression” from the feudal ages, because constitutions and bills of rights are merely “the forms that make an essentially normalizing power acceptable.” Do we use our minds to unmask oppression – as Foucault appears to be trying to do? Forget it, because all forms of inquiry into the human condition “merely refer individuals from one disciplinary authority to another,” and hence only add to the triumphant “discourse of power”. Any criticism rings hollow, because the critic himself or herself is “in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves, since we are part of its mechanism.”

After being subjected to this for a while we realise that there is no freedom in Foucault’s world, because his language forms a seamless web, a cage far more air tight than anything Weber ever dreamed of, into which no life can break. The mystery is why so many of today’s intellectuals seem to want to choke in there with him.”

A PDF version of Berman’s superb account of “the experience of modernity” can be found here.

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