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Chomsky - Foucault debate

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Post Post subject: Chomsky - Foucault debate Reply with quote

Transcript of a 1974 debate. It's only partial, see if anyone knows where to find the rest online I'd love to see it. I'm a big Chomsky fan but it's nice to see him get a bit of a run for his money too...

...There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome, and we must overcome it, by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will....

Fons Elders (moderator)
Do you believe, Mr. Foucault, that we can call our societies in any way democratic, after listening to this statement from Mr. Chomsky?

Michel Foucault
No, I don't have the least belief that one could consider our society democratic. (laughs) If one understands by democracy the effective exercise of power by a population which is neither divided or hierarchically ordered in classes, it is quite clear that we are very far from democracy. It is only too clear that we are living under a regime of dictatorship of class, of a power of class which imposes itself by violence, even when the instruments of this violence are institutional and constitutional; and to that degree there isn't any question of democracy for us.... I admit to not being able to define, nor for even stronger reasons to propose, an ideal social model for the functioning of our scientific or technological society.... It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

This critique and this fight seem essential to me for different reasons: firstly, because political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centers and invisible little-known points of support; its true resistance, its true solidity is perhaps where one doesn't expect it. Probably it's insufficient to say that behind the governments, behind the apparatus of the State, there is a dominant class; one must locate the point of activity, the places and forms in which its domination is exercised. And because this domination is not simply the expression in political terms of economic exploitation, it is its instrument and, to a large extent, the condition which makes it possible; the suppression of the one is achieved through the exhaustive discernment of the other. Well, if one fails to recognize these points of support of class power, one risks allowing them to continue to exist and to see this class power reconstitute itself even after an apparent revolutionary process.

Yes, I would certainly agree with that, not only in theory but also in action. That is, there are two intellectual tasks: one, and the one that I was discussing, is to try to create the vision of a future just society; that is to create, if you like, a humanistic social theory that is based, if possible, on some firm and humane concept of the human essence or human nature. That's one task.

Another task is to understand very clearly the nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our own society. And that certainly includes the institutions you mentioned, as well as the central institutions of any industrial society, namely the economic, commercial and financial institutions and in particular, in the coming period, the great multi-national corporations, which are not very far from us physically tonight [i.e., the Phillips Corporation at Eindhoven, Holland].

Those are the basic institutions of oppression and coercion and autocratic rule that do not appear to be neutral despite everything they say: well, we're subject to the democracy of the market place, and that must be understood precisely in terms of their autocratic power, including the particular from of autocratic control that comes from the domination of market forces in an egalitarian society.

Surely we must understand these facts, and not only understand them but combat them. And in fact, as far as one's own political involvements are concerned, in which one spends the majority of one's energy and effort, it seems to me that this must certainly be in that area. I don't want to get personal about it, but my own certainly are in that area, and I assume everyone's are.

Still, I think it would be a great shame to put aside entirely the somewhat more abstract and philosophical task of trying to draw the connections between a concept of human nature that gives full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other fundamental human characteristics, and to relate that to some notion of social structure in which those properties could be realized and in which meaningful human life could take place.

And in fact, if we are thinking of a social transformation or social revolution, though it would be absurd, of course, to try to sketch out in detail the goal that we are hoping to reach, still we should know something about where we think we are going, and such a theory may tell it to us.

Yes, but then isn't there a danger here? If you say that a certain human nature exists, that this human nature has not been given in actual society the rights and the possibilities which allow it to realize itself...that's really what you have said, I believe.


And if one admits that, doesn't one risk defining this human nature -- which is at the same time ideal and real, and has been hidden and repressed until now -- in terms borrowed from our society from our civilization, from our culture?... [I]t is difficult to say what human nature is. Isn't there a risk that we will be led into error?...

...Our concept of human nature is certainly limited, it's partially socially conditioned, constrained by our own character defects and the limitations of the intellectual culture in which we exist. Yet at the same time it is of critical importance that we know what impossible goals we're trying to achieve, if we hope to achieve some of the possible goals. And that means that we have to be bold enough to speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial knowledge, while remaining very open to the strong possibility, and in fact overwhelming probability, that at least in some respects we're very far off the mark....

...I will be a little bit Nietzchean about this; in other words, it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power. But it seems to me that, in any case, the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as a justification for it.

I don't agree with that.

And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.

Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of absolute basis -- if you press me too hard I'll be in trouble, because I can't sketch it out -- ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a "real" notion of justice is grounded. I think it's too hasty to characterize our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don't think they are that. I think that they embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly, valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real....

Well, do I have time to answer?


How much? Because...

Two minutes. [Foucault laughs]

But I would say that is unjust. [everybody laughs]

Absolutely, yes.

No, but I don't want to answer in so little time. I would simply say this, that finally this problem of human nature, when put simply in theoretical terms, hasn't led to an argument between us; ultimately we understand each other very well on these theoretical problems.

On the other hand, when we discussed the problem of human nature and political problems, then differences arose between us. And contrary to what you think, you can't prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can't, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should -- and shall in principle -- overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can't find the historical justification. That's the point.

It's clear.

Reflexive Water: The Basic Concerns of Mankind, edited by Fons Elders (Souvenir Press, 1974), pages 170-187
Fri Jan 23, 2004 3:25 pm
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Full debate is here:

Full debate with images!
Fri Jan 23, 2004 5:52 pm
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Joined: 14 Jan 2004
Posts: 61

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Noam Chomsky was mentioned in University........ in Computer Science of all places...... He was at the forefront of Artificial Intelligence ...and NLP (Natural Language Processing)... back in the 70s.
Fri Jan 23, 2004 6:51 pm
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