Who is Foucault’s Heidegger? An introduction to transformative philosophy

Foucault

A new species of philosopher is appearing: I venture to baptize these philosophers with a name not without danger in it. As I divine them, as they let themselves be divined – for it pertains to their nature to want to remain a riddle in some respects – these philosophers of the future might rightly, but perhaps also wrongly, be described as attempters. This name itself is in the end only an attempt and, if you will, a temptation.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger (1888-1976) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984) are two of the most important philosophers in the history of twentieth century European thought. There is clearly much that divides them. Heidegger devoted his life to a single question, the question of being. Foucault was mercurial in the transformability of his questions, which ranged from madness, literature, discourse and knowledge, to power, sexuality, ethics and truth (roughly in this order). Heidegger was a political conservative – notoriously, a member of the Nazi Party through the 1930s and until the end of the war. Insofar as Foucault can be positioned anywhere on the political spectrum, he is most accurately associated with the anarchist left. Heidegger was a thinker of primordial origins and world-historical recommencements, and saw the present as a unique moment in time in which history has come to an end and stands the chance of beginning anew. Foucault defended a Nietzschean genealogical approach to history that emphasizes radical historical breaks while refusing to assume that the present is any more significant than yesterday or tomorrow.

Given these and other differences, it is hard, on the face of it, to see how Foucault and Heidegger might be related in the manner suggested by the title of this post. It seems improbable that there would be any relationship between these philosophers at all. The fact remains, however, that in his final interview, in 1984, Foucault claimed that Heidegger was an ‘essential philosopher’ for his work. This statement took Foucault scholarship by surprise. Foucault is usually seen as France’s primary Nietzschean export. While Foucault concedes that Nietzsche was ultimately the most important philosopher for his work, he insists that his ‘whole philosophical development’ was determined by his reading of Heidegger. Foucault’s final remarks on Heidegger have provoked much disagreement among readers of Foucault. Many readers prefer to ignore these remarks entirely. Those relatively few attempts to productively engage the question of Foucault’s debt to Heidegger have produced little by way of conclusion and much in the manner of debate.

This post will not attempt to close these debates. Rather, it seeks to place them on a new footing. Foucault and Heidegger’s work, I argue, reflects a common vision of philosophy as a transformative exercise. To understand Foucault’s debt to Heidegger, we need to read these philosophers on the level of transformative practice. [Read more…]

Five books that shaped my thinking

My thoughts are shaped more by life than books. The world is a book that we read implicitly. If the problems of the world do not engage us and inspire a response, a book will do nothing for us.

The following books have played an important role in guiding my work in the past decade. I have read many good books in this time, but these five stand out. The common factor is that they inspired me to break with ideas that I had become comfortable with and seek out new lines of inquiry. As Thoreau said: ‘A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting’.

1. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2001)

I read Empire in 2001, in the final year of my doctoral research. I was writing on the relationship between Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, two of the most important European thinkers of the 20th century (some years later I published a book on this topic, Foucault’s Heidegger). Meanwhile, I was following the progress of the anti-globalization protests that erupted about the world after the Battle in Seattle in November 1999, participating where I could. Empire provided me with a theoretical perspective on these events that shaped my research output between 2002 and 2008 and fed directly into the script for Coalition of the Willing.

Hardt and Negri’s argument in Empire is that neo-liberal economic globalization should not be understood as a kind of imperialism (where a hegemonic power invades other countries to capture their resources), but a new form of empire that tolerates no external limit and seeks to incorporate all life within its order. This empire employs the internet to organize the global multitude into a productive force; yet as it does so, it enables the multitude to form swarm-like pockets of resistance that coalesce across borders to challenge the status quo. Hardt and Negri propose that the multitude will eventually realize its collective power and establish a new political order based in the productivity of the commons. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: the call of the crowd

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on social media and ‘subjectivation’ (Michel Foucault’s term for the self-construction of identity). Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue that the awareness of being watched and implicitly judged by the material we post online (including likes, shares, and comments) leads us to unconsciously aspire to please and/or impress a certain crowd, and to select content accordingly.

Part two deepens the analysis by reflecting on author Peggy Orenstein’s experience of Twitter. Orenstein’s awareness of the crowd spurred her to work even harder to craft a positive identity. This reflects a common response on the part of social media prosumers. Users who are able to channel and utilize the anxiety produced by the virtual Panopticon seize on the positive aspects of their identity and amplify them to the nth degree. This is what I call ‘creative self-affirmation’.

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Forget Farmville and World of Warcraft. Creative self-affirmation is the most popular game online. We play this game whenever we select material to share with friends or craft messages to frame our posts. The name of the game is to present oneself, via one’s tweets, posts, likes, comments, and shares, in the light in which one aspires to be viewed. This essentially amounts to affirming the things that one loves in such a way that the love one brings to the world is reflected in one’s online activity. The rules of the game are simple: [1] share only what you love or what resonates with you; [2] pay attention to the feedback you receive from the crowd and modify your posts accordingly; [3] don’t stray too far from the truth. Be creative but don’t be phoney.

This last point is crucial. It is easy to fabricate an identity online. We do this when we create avatars on SecondLife or player characters in World of Warcraft. We create fictional personas drawn from our dreams and imaginings – personas that may have little or no connection with our real world self. Creative self-affirmation is different. Instead of fabricating an identity, it involves creatively affirming key aspects of your person – those aspects that you consider valuable, virtuous and beautiful – while editing out your weaknesses and deficiencies.

Creative self-affirmation is an artistic activity, it is true. But like all great art, it has as much to do with truth as with fiction. It starts with your sense of who you really are. If your posts, tweets, comments, shares, and likes do not reflect who you really are (or who you believe yourself to be, at least), you are playing the game incorrectly. The point is to affirm your singular potential. You need to seize on your inner awesome and put it before the crowd. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: I tweet, therefore I become

This is the second instalment in a three-part series. Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue, building on Michel Foucault’s account of the Panopticon:

There is a self-reflexive structure to sharing content on Facebook or Twitter. Just as actors on stage know that they are being watched by the audience and tailor their behaviour to find the best effect, effective use of social media implies selecting and framing content with a view to pleasing and/or impressing a certain crowd. We may not intend to do this but it is essential to doing it well. Unless we are sharing anonymously (and the radical end of internet culture, Anonymous, favours anonymity), all the content we share is tagged with an existential marker:

‘I sent this – it is part of my work. You shall know me by my works’.

Part two continues the Foucaultian interrogation of social media looking at Foucault’s concept of subjectivation. I argue for a playful approach to life in the virtual Panopticon. Social media shapes us, so why shouldn’t we engage this process in a creative way? Indeed, we can and do use social media as a vehicle for creative self-development.

‘Never stop sculpting your own statue’, the ancient philosopher Plotinus said. Latter-day Foucaultians are recovering this teaching in an age of social media. We are crafting our selves online in the engagement with crowds.

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Peggy Orenstein came late to Twitter. Orenstein was sceptical at first when her publisher suggested she use Twitter to promote her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She wasn’t fond of the gossip and celebrity culture and the trivial nature of much of what passed as content in the Twittersphere. Orenstein knew, however, that a ready tribe of tweeps is an essential part of the contemporary writer’s guerilla marketing toolkit. She succumbed to pressure and signed up.

Orenstein approached her Twitter experiment with the studious detachment of the field anthropologist. I imagine this is why she noticed how Twitter was changing her.

Tweeting, it turned out, was more fun than she had expected. It was addictive. In an article on her experience published in the New York Times, ‘I Tweet, Therefore I Am’, Orenstein describes how using Twitter redefined her experience of life and self. There was nothing covert or oppressive about this transformation. Orenstein was a willing participant in her own subjectivation.

[Read more…]

Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd

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You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want to share widely. Two new contact requests on LinkedIn. Your profile needs updating. Should you include details about the design work you completed for the local event the week before? You are not sure. You are building your profile as a graphic artist and looking for quality clients. Perhaps this is a part of your person that you will let incubate for a while longer.

You jump on HootSuite and start sharing targeted content: Facebook for friends, tweets for professional contacts. The day has barely started and already you are split into half a dozen pieces.

How did we ever get by without social media? In under a decade, free online services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have utterly transformed how we work, play, and communicate. For hundreds of millions of people, sharing content across a range of social media services is a familiar part of life. Yet little is known about how social media is impacting us on a psychological level. A wealth of commentators are exploring how social media is refiguring forms of economic activity, reshaping our institutions, and transforming our social and organizational practices. We are still learning about how social media impacts on our sense of personal identity.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has a set of insights that can help clarify how social media affects us on a psychological level. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, yet his studies of social conditioning and identity formation in relation to power are applicable to life online. Seen from a Foucaultian perspective, social media is more than a vehicle for exchanging information. Social media is a vehicle for identity-formation. Social media involves ‘subjectivation’.

[Read more…]

Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd

——————————————-

You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want to share widely. Two new contact requests on LinkedIn. Your profile needs updating. Should you include details about the design work you completed for the local event the week before? You are not sure. You are building your profile as a graphic artist and looking for quality clients. Perhaps this is a part of your person that you will let incubate for a while longer.

You jump on HootSuite and start sharing targeted content: Facebook for friends, tweets for professional contacts. The day has barely started and already you are split into half a dozen pieces.

How did we ever get by without social media? In under a decade, free online services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have utterly transformed how we work, play, and communicate. For hundreds of millions of people, sharing content across a range of social media services is a familiar part of life. Yet little is known about how social media is impacting us on a psychological level. A wealth of commentators are exploring how social media is refiguring forms of economic activity, reshaping our institutions, and transforming our social and organizational practices. We are still learning about how social media impacts on our sense of personal identity.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has a set of insights that can help clarify how social media affects us on a psychological level. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, yet his studies of social conditioning and identity formation in relation to power are applicable to life online. Seen from a Foucaultian perspective, social media is more than a vehicle for exchanging information. Social media is a vehicle for identity-formation. Social media involves ‘subjectivation’. [Read more…]