Sunday, December 25, 2011

Faultering Faith in Foucault

The week before the most recent Thanksgiving holiday, I found myself confronting an existential ennui far more bitter than the cold night of Montreal--the location of the academic conference I was attending at the time. The American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) is one of (if not) the preeminent national conferences of North America dedicated to furthering research in theatre and performance studies. The being and nothingness I came face to face with--in what can only be described as a dark moment of despair--lies more embedded in what I felt about my relationship to my PhD program and the world of academia at large. While I think these topics will undoubtedly prove themselves sites of excellent source material for future posts, they are not the inciting incidents I wish to tease out here. No, I am more compelled to describe a process I have experienced this last semester which has disturbed my faith. Where once I stood a valiant priest of Saussure and the plethora of his continental philosophical progeny, I am now filled with such doubt. At the close of 2011, I am left wondering if the future years will unfold in such a way that I will find myself outside of the pomo church, abandoning what I have come to recognize as irrefutable truth.

For those unfamiliar with Saussure, Foucault, and the pomo church to which I refer, some context is probably appropriate. In fact, it's probably best if I illustrate it with the conference I started this post with. Near the end of the ASTR conference, there was an award luncheon that everyone attended. There, the executive board provided an award to an academic tag team, Tom Postelwait and Bruce McConachie. In Postelwait's absence, McConachie accepted the award for both of them. Among other things he said, McConachie argued that the field of theatre studies, which has changed much in the last 30 years, needs to address how it writes intro to theatre textbooks. In a matter of minutes, McConachie outlined the 30 year history of theatre studies: in the 1980s, the field adopted the techniques and significance of literary theory; in the 1990s, theatre studies had to respond to the expanding conversations and methods innovated in performance studies; and in the 2000s, the field witnessed what has been called the "cognitive turn" or the introduction of cognitive studies to many different areas of theatre research. McConachie gave the timeline to emphasize the vast changes which have occurred in theatre studies, suggesting it's a bit of an oversight that introductory books still approach the discussion of theatre in terms of "roles" based on professional and regional models of theatre. His conclusion is debatable--it's academia; that's what we do after all--but it was in the presentation of his timeline that I saw what I had struggled with so much this semester: a changing tide that favors cognitive studies, a field that (deep down) I think I embrace but which also threatens to undermine everything that I believe in.

What I'm about to say I recognize as terribly reductive. However, the intention is to set up a problematic binary between cognitive studies and continental philosophy in the end anyway, so just bear with me. The literary studies of the 1980s was comprised primarily of 20th century European continental philosophers. For the most part, they were French. This is where you get your Derrida, your Foucault, your de Certeau, Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous, Lyotard, and Baudrillard. Plenty of Jacques, Jeans, and Michels to keep you pompous and in a turtle-neck sweater for two lifetimes. It's not too much of a stretch to say that most of their work responded to the work of semiology explored by Ferdinand de Saussure.

For Saussure, language is highly psychological, like in a Freudian sort of way. It happens in the mind in a way that we do not see. Saussure argued that language is arbitrary, relational, and constitutive. In short, language does not work because it is connected to a higher system that informs how it works, language just is. Phonetic sounds and written symbols have no inherent connection to the concepts we assign them too--those connections are arbitrary. The concepts or signs that are formed by that process of linking tools of signification (like a word) to an object of signification (like anything you use a word to name) are relational to other arbitrary words. You do not have an idea for what a house is by just saying house. Rather house has meaning inasmuch as it is not a shed or a mansion. Language is relational.

Most importantly, though, language is constitutive. We don't have words like mansion and house because we have those objects, we have those objects because we have terms for them. In this example, I'm referring more to the relational meaning of "mansion" than the material object itself. The idea is that language actually creates how you see the world. Mansion does not simply have an arbitrary relationship to the building it indicates nor does it have meaning by not being a house or a shed. It also creates meaning of class and social prominence.

For the last 100 years, so many people have disagreed with Saussure, but in a way which has built on his groundbreaking theories, not refuted them. In this semester, having reread his work, I came to realize just how much of his work is based on Freud's theories of psychology. What I kept seeing in Freud, Saussure, and the philosophers who followed was the emphasis of the gap, the space of the irretrievable, the subconscious. Meaning was not in a thing or a term made to indicate that thing: instead it was in that nebulous space in-between. For Derrida, that space allows language the room to play. Language's constitutive power sets up dynamics where some people are able to exert control over others--this is Foucault's argument. For Derrida, this is true and language can be used in violent ways to value certain ways of thinking over others; however, because meaning in language is always deferred, subversion is possible. This is what Michel de Certeau terms tactics--when a powerless or subaltern individual or community resists not by overthrowing a larger dominant system, but by calculation manipulates the system to his, her, or their advantage. Because language is arbitrary, relational, and constitutive, it can facilitate in epistemic and physical violence. But because language is arbitrary, relational, and constitutive, it can be a means of resistance.

There are so many ideas and conversations generated by these French theorists, which only multiplied when they were appropriated from literary studies into theatre studies. The overriding language of that transfer was born out in expanding what was meant by "text" and what it meant to "read" something. Where most literary theorists focused their ideas on literal texts, cultural theorists argued that one could look at performative practices or material culture as types of texts. Trained academics could read them as texts much in the same way as people from English departments analyzed literature. Much could be said about how phenomenology has impacted anthropology and cultural studies, shall we say, over-reliance on the idea of texts in a way that has ignored how bodies experience and enact in ways that are not linguistic. Suffice it to say though, the perspective of analyzing cultural texts depended on an analysis which presumed that these texts had languages which were arbitrary, relational, and constitutive.

And so for the last 100 years, Freud and Saussure have pretty much set up how a lot of academics have created methodologies to analyze the world around them. Here's the thing though: Freud was not the only psychologist in the world. While psychoanalysis picked up quite the following in literary studies and linguistics, another field of cognitive psychology made its own advances. Part of this argument, especially in cognitive linguistics, entirely refutes Saussure's model of language. Again, this is highly reductive, but for cognitive linguistics, language is not arbitrary. Our minds are almost wired to form language the way that they do. Language is not arbitrary; it is determined. In cognitive studies, cultural studies can be informed not by theorizing about the gaps or the subconscious. Those gaps can be mapped through information we gain through neuroscience. Scientific tests can be set up. Empirical evidence can be gathered.

And it is in this element of cognitive studies that I feel so conflicted: it really always does come back to science. Here's the thing, I love Foucault. Part of what Foucault argues in books like The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge is that knowledge, because it is based on and conferred through language, is always operating on systems of power. Both what you know and how you know something is culturally, socially, and historically contingent. There is not a universal or ideal truth of something. Truth is always created.

Historicity is so important because nothing is transhistorical; the very words that are used to constitute the world of relations shift across time and cultures. Those disruptive moments where a term shifts shapes a society and the discourse that informs how and what people know. To do the work of an historian, one must always recognize how knowledge was organized for a particular time and location, otherwise one commits an epistemic violence against the past. This is complicated by the fact that one must recognize that he or she can never escape the historicity of his or her own discursive subjectivity. Discursive subjectivity is a topic all on it own but in short it means something more than everyone is subjective with their own biases--it's actually saying that "you" are literally a product of your own time and political circumstances. Your answers and conclusions are not only biased, but what makes questions thinkable or methodologies justifiable/doable are socially contingent.

To Foucault, science's rhetoric of its own objectivity is a quirky illusion of the modern era. There is so much that is already assumed when you say "the experiment proved..." Knowledge has been organized in such a way that validates some systems of truth-proving and not other systems. Laboratories become sites of discovery whereas churches, cathedrals, and synagogues become sites of primitive truth. That relation is not always the case for an "advanced" or "developed" society; I don't mean to pit science against religion here. But for Foucault, it means something for us to think and say that science proves a truth, or religious conviction proves a truth, or an argument of logic proves a truth. What truth is reached is interesting in and of itself, but ultimately it is contingent and based upon the very system that allowed that truth to be found, knowable, or articulated.

For Bruce McConachie, cognitive studies is nothing short of a Messiah to save theatre and cultural studies from the legacy of Saussure. Cause you know what: Foucault and the other pomo arguments have made people in the humanities almost incomprehensible to other disciplines and it has fostered an anti-science atmosphere. Cognitive studies embraces empiricism. It wants to take what people in humanities are doing and apply that to neuroscientific research as much as the other way around. Hooray for interdisciplinarity!!! And truth be told, there's something I like about that. Don't get me wrong, I love Foucault's argument about the necessity of historicity. That said, I think bodies are both socially contingent and transhistorical. I wonder what it is to rethink all of these theories that have thought a particular thing about how language works when there is a whole other system, a completely different way of thinking about how language operates. That is cool to me. It's exciting. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia. Valentine, a graduate student in biology, explains why he's so excited about what had been recent developments in science that basically tore the understood world apart:

"It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. People were talking about the end of physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics were going to clean out the whole problem between them. A theory of everything. But they only explained the very big and the very small. The universe, the elementary particles. The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about – clouds – daffodils – waterfalls – and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in – these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks. We’re better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it will rain on §auntie’s garden party three Sundays from now. Because the problem turns out to be different. We can’t even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it gets irregular. Each drip sets up the conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows prediciton apart, and the weather is unpredictable the same way it will always be unpredictable. When you push the numbers through the computer you can see it on the screen. The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong."

Exciting, no? Then why am I so terrified? Well, for starters, there's the part of me that doesn't like being wrong. That part of me is . . . well . . . you know . . . resistant, proud, stubborn. But there's a bigger part of me that is worried. And that's the part of me that describes my relationship to Foucault in terms of faith.

I recently listened to a Mormon Matters podcast on the concept of truth. One of the online comments stated,
"I think there are more than a few of us for whom Nietzsche or Foucault or Derrida gave us a way to continue to participate in Mormonism and/or the church."
Why? Usually when people here things like historicity and subjectivity, flags go up to warn against heresy. Universality tends to be the key to Mormon orthodoxy and relativism is a dirty word. So why are ideas like Foucault or Derrida a source of strength or faith to Mormons like me? Well as Joanna Brooks so eloquently stated on that very podcast:

"In religious terms, I've never been a propositional thinker. It's just not been my nature. I've been a very experiential and intuitive participant in the Mormon tradition. I had some strong experiences even when I was very young, which had kind of anchored me, in being able to say there's something bigger than me. I've experienced it within the framework of Mormonism [. . .] It's the sense that I have experienced things that are very meaningful to me; and I've experience them within--I hate to be all clinical and Foucauldian about it--but within the discourse tradition, within the discourse of Mormonism. That's been my grammar of my spiritual experiences. It's like a language I speak; it gives me pleasure to speak it. It adds warmth to my life to speak it. [. . .] I don't have a lot of great truth claims. It doesn't mean that I don't accept that others might, but that's what makes sense for me. I'm a part of this story, I'm pleased to be a part of this story. Mormonism has furnished one of the most significant narrative axis of my own life and I'm willing to work with that meaningfulness longer because it does furnish that joy. Even as it does give me work, and struggle, and heartbreak, it still gives me good fruits. So that's my story."

When one conceives of truth as something which is socially contingent rather than a propositional either/or matter, there is great room of negotiation. As someone who's belief in revelation outweighs a belief in a universal, unalterable god, I have no problem with the historicity of a very different LDS church. When I hear people say that practices in the church might change but the gospel or the principles or the doctrine doesn't, I know I can say in historical terms, that just isn't the case and yet that does not disrupt my faith. I believe in an alterable God because I don't believe in universality. The continental philosophers opened the realm of such varying historicity to mine eyes.

Cognitive studies threatens my relationship to universality. It posits a redefinition of how I think language works, how knowledge is formed and articulated, how science fits into what I know and how I know it. It challenges the faith I fostered in Christ and Mormonism via Foucault and Derrida. I do not simply doubt my academic methodology; I doubt what has become embedded in my own epistomology and cosmology. As I've said in times passed, I do believe in a principle of holy doubt--I feel that any invitation to exercise faith in an otherwise new idea or principle is by its nature an invitation to doubt that which was "known" or "believed" before. I just wonder how my relationship to my own religion, faith, and narrative will be impacted by these arguments. I suppose I always knew there must needs be opposition to the holy words found in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge--such is the case with any scripture. I just never anticipated how much scholarly treatise on cognitive studies that negate the legacy of semiology would feel like getting Anti-ed.