Deleuze, Foucault, King Charles

I revisited some work this weekend on two areas of interest – Deleuze and Foucault. More specifically, an analysis of Deleuze and Guarrati’s interpretation of Freud, and by extension that of Lacan), and Foucault’s commentary on power. Each is separate and distinct, but they both lead back to an understanding of time and contingency, and the Spinozan notion of substance, as distinct from subject. I’m beginning to suspect that the entire project of late twentieth century French philosophy was a kind of new-Romantic desertion of the focal subject, in the light of its failure to yield better things.

In Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guatari’s extraordinary two-volume opus, they reject the conventional Freudian version of the Oedipus story where (in Lacanian terms) the relationship between the caregiver (usually the mother) and the child is interrupted by an authoritative interloper, usually the father. In the Freudian version, and its Lacanian interpretation, this is to do with sexuality and family. In the hands of Deleuze and Guattari, however, channelling Bergson on time and Spinoza on substance, it is to do with history. The story of Oedipus can only be understood when placed in its social, political and historical context. Colonialism, authoritarianism and oppression, combined with violence and hunger and other forms of deprivation over time have constructed an environment within which a new deprivation – separating the child from its caregiver – must be contextualised. Suddenly, the world of the family is set sail upon an ocean of history, rather than contained within a self-referential bubble.

Separately, turning to Foucault, he has often been criticised for making it seem as though power is a bad thing. A philosopher of revolution, perhaps, Foucault was always sceptical of political power. I see what he means. I remember being in a meeting with a very senior IBM executive some years back where he was reviewing a decision he had made a few months previously, where he had decided to hire a team of ten people to perform a task. He was aghast when told that nothing had been done. ‘What do you mean nothing? I’m a senior vice president, when I say something should be done, it should be done! Have I no power?’ His direct reports were surprisingly bullish as they explained how – in the short version – they had done all they could but had been thwarted by bureaucracy. In a similar way I suspect that political leaders are communicators first, and actors with true agency a distant second. They take the credit when good things happen, and they explain why they’re not to blame when bad things happen, but they don’t actually do anything. This isn’t because of a lack of desire, necessarily, but because of a simple misunderstanding of power.

Back to Foucault, and his projects that dealt with power – in particular The History of Sexuality, and Discipline and Punish – tried to understand power, and allow people to see how power was constructed, which might perhaps allow them to influence events. Foucault saw power less in an aggressive sense, less as something that is wielded; and more as a force in the sense of physics, as something that exists in the social world, distributed, impersonal, unaligned, a kind of temporal momentum that guided the direction of events. Power in this sense wasn’t something that people, either groups or individuals, could take. Rather it was something that people could perhaps influence, if they understood its origins and genealogy well enough.

Both Deleuze and Guattari’s historicization of familial authority, and Foucault’s consideration of power, both point to a simple dichotomy: the individual versus the ecological. This was on a par with Spinoza’s notion of substance – that we (and everything else in this reality) are part of one single substance moving as it is under its own order. This is the opposite of a separation of man from nature (as we looked at recently and Nietzsche’s lament for the pre-Socratics and his critique of Socrates) which has been a feature of long-Modernism (that which began around what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age). Confucian cultures certainly appear to have evolved differently, though I am far less familiar with them. This all came to a head with the French Revolution, which appeared to birth our short-Modernism, or enlightenment, celebrating the individual with its human (individual) rights, and all the rest of it. France rejected the Church, guillotined (literally) the monarchy, and (ultimately) embraced the proletarian, socialist revolution that goverened the late twentieth century. Britain in turn applauded, but it kept the Monarchy and maintained the established church until late in the Twentieth century. It still hasn’t gone away.

Perhaps the new Romantic turn in twentieth century France with Deleuze and Foucault was more influenced by German phenomenology than we’ve heard before; we know Sartre and de Beauvoir were each influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, who in turn persisted a counter-enlightenment position that went back to Goethe. Perhaps that alignment helped to solidify the European Union, and its growth as a cohesive, intellectually sound project. Meanwhile the UK, while strongly intellectually behind the individual-turn of late eighteenth century France – notwithstanding the political and unsurprising royal scepticism – persisted its contradiction under Queen Elizabeth II. Hayek, the Thatcherite neoliberal project, and the withering acceleration of inequality (and attendant rejection of Euro-socialism / communism) was maintained while clinging to Monarchy – warmly, it has to be said – in a quasi-theological reverence for a stability that dated back to the war, given that it was just about the only stable thing on island of Britain in the half-century that followed.

And so here we are. Brexit, the EU, solidarity, and all of that. Monarchy remains anachronistic, and the death of the queen last year certainly represents a threat both to the integrity of the United Kingdom. King Charles has begun gently to assert himself, and his coronation may be a defining moment for Britain. His instincts are with Europe, his lifelong environmentalism intellectually leaving little room for human exceptionalism. Perhaps he might be persuaded to just let it go, for the good of his subjects (and indeed his family!).

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