Sweet Foucault: nontrivial neotextuality as postmodern meta-mytheme

by Mary Jackson (January 2007)

At the age of thirty-seven, Lucy Jordan realised that she would never ride though Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair. Aged nought to thirty-six, she thought the ride was still on the cards. Then somebody put her off. “Oh, that Paris,” she said, and gave up on the idea.

As we get older we all hit moments in our lives when we realise that there is something we are never going to do. I realised at fourteen that I would never be a potter. My pottery skills were those of a six-year-old. At the age of twenty-one, I realised that I was never going to read anything by Michel Foucault. Since then, I have also crossed off my reading list Derrida, Althusser, Lacan, Baudrillard and Barthes. Life is short and there are so many books to read, not to mention freshly painted walls to observe drying, that Derrida et al are quite crowded out.

So why start with Foucault? Unlike the others, he at least has a name you can conjure with.

My sports car moment came when a sociology student drew my attention to an opinion Foucault expressed on his return to Paris after visiting Tehran soon after the fall of the Shah. I was grateful to be reminded of his words more recently by Francis Wheen, who says that Foucault came back to Paris enraptured by the "beauty" of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Neanderthal regime. Asked about the suppression of all dissent, he replied:

“They don't have the same regime of truth as ours, which, it has to be said, is very special, even if it has become almost universal.  The Greeks had their own.  The Arabs of the Maghreb have another.  And in Iran it is largely modeled on a religion that has an exoteric form and an esoteric content.  That is to say, everything that is said under the explicit form of the law also refers to another meaning.  So not only is saying one thing that means another not a condemnable ambiguity, it is, on the contrary, a necessary and highly prized additional level of meaning.  It's often the case that people say something that, at the factual level, isn't true, but which refers to another, deeper meaning, which cannot be assimilated in terms of precision and observation.”

There’s no fool like a French fool. Wheen comments:

“This is a magnificently Parisian method of avoiding a straight-forward question: with enough intellectual ingenuity, even the absence of free speech and promotion of mendacity can be admired as exercises in textual ambiguity.”

Why, if lapidation is no different from lapidary prose-style, did Foucault come back to Paris and not stay in Tehran? Nobody who could write about the Khomeini regime in the way Foucault does could possibly say anything sensible about anything. So I decided at twenty-one not to read him and have steadfastly not read him ever since.

Lucy Jordan, on the other hand, changes her mind later in her ballad, “finds forever” and hops into the sports car with the man of her dreams. What a shame it was the wrong Paris and she didn’t get to run Foucault over.

But if not Foucault, what about some of the other merchants of memes? Have they nothing to say to us? Let’s see, as clearly as we can:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.

What does this mean? It should be clear what it means - it says so in the first sentence. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, try this:

In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather 'metastable', endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed . . . In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.

And in the third place? Nothing. No third thing. How about this:

If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of context. It could be said that the subject is contextualised into a textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense, the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that reality comes from the collective unconscious.

Confession time – the third one doesn’t mean anything at all. It was generated by the Postmodernism Generator, a computer program that spontaneously generates postmodern “discourse”.

I loathe the word “discourse”, hence the inverted commas, themselves a feature of postmodernist “discourse”. But I am subverting the inverted. Postmodernists don’t usually put words like discourse, meme or hegemony in inverted commas; these they reserve for terms like “reality” or “common sense”.

Postmodernism, the bastard child of bastard parents, post-structuralism and deconstruction, has generated more twaddle than any other academic fad, including sociology. Postmodernism has been thoroughly skewered by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their book Intellectual Impostures, reviewed here by Richard Dawkins. The review tells of the well-known hoax perpetrated by Sokal, who, in 1996, submitted to the US journal Social Text a paper called "Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity": 

From start to finish the paper was nonsense. It was a carefully crafted parody of postmodern metatwaddle…. Sokal's paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking the 'post-Enlightenment hegemony' and such uncool notions as the existence of the real world. They didn't know that Sokal had also crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for literature.

No showcasing of postmodern metatwaddle would be complete without Lacan and his poppycock:

Using the above equation as a yardstick, the Frenchman deconstructs his own:

Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance [ecstasy], not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the square root of -1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).

Yes, Lacan thinks his penis is the square root of minus one. Does it stand up to close scrutiny? Perhaps he needs a little help from Luciana Parisi, a lecturer in cybernetic culture at the University of East London, and expert on bacterial sex:

[The] practice of intensifying bodily potentials to act and become is an affirmation of desire without lack which signals the nonclimactic, aimless circulation of bodies in a symbiotic assemblage.

 

Theoretically this is written in English. There are recognisable words, for example “to”, “is”, “the” and “of”. But for all the meaning it conveys, it might as well be written in Xhosa. The postmodernism generator, discussed above, is a computer programme, but the above sentence has been generated by a mind. Luciana Parisi must think it means something. Here she is again:

 

Scientific truths could not exist outside the text, the binarism of nature and culture, mind and body, power and resistance. Hence, to put it crudely, the object of science is always already inscribed upon, limited from and controlled by the discourse of science, the metaphysical legacy of patriarchy and colonialism - the presupposition of the self to the other, male to female, white to black, sex to gender and so on.

 

Why would someone with such a mellifluous name as Luciana Parisi wish to wreak destruction on the English language? What has English ever done to her that she feels the need to write such clotted prose? It isn’t as if she is called Anustup Basu, like the Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh who, in his article Bombs and Bytes: Deleuze, Fascism and the Informatic, wrote:

 

To be mediatised literally means to lose one’s rights. Hence, what happens to the idea of government by the people and for the people if the “false” is produced as a third relation which is not the synthetic union of two ideas in the conscious mind of the citizen or the general intellect of the organic community, but is a statistical coming together of variables?’

 

Anustup was, arguably, getting his own back on life for saddling him with such a silly name. (What is or are Cultural Studies anyway?) 

It always amuses me when postmodernists and other twaddle-mongers intersperse their impenetrable sentences with everyday assertions, such as “one thing is clear,” or “we can see from the outset.” Ms Parisi above promises “to put it crudely”, but she disappoints, for, welcome as a few vulgar words might be, there are none.

Let’s let Ms Parisi have the last word. Here she deconstructs sexual pleasure. This may come in useful if the aim is to slow down the over-eager and prolong the act:

The distinction between pleasure and affect concern the differentiation between a climactic organization of assemblages of desire aiming towards equilibrium versus a nonclimactic order tending towards becoming. Indeed pleasure is here understood as singular aggregation of desiring machines that under certain condition, according to certain tendencies and thresholds lend themselves to the production of quick satisfaction, which assumes the characteristics of transgression so as to return to balance. Here desire is not understood in terms of lack, as the Lacannians do, but in terms of full body of potentials tending towards their actualizations. Once captured in a homoestatic circle that repeats itself without differentiation by warding off its outside, then desire lends itself to the state of pleasure. This state more than being disturbed has to be destratified as it becomes the perfect shelter of the organism, the individual, the signifier for the spreading of sadness, paranoia, abolition, lack infecting all kinds of encounters.

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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