Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A note about Marx and Foucault

One of the reasons I like to emphasize Marx is that most Americans already know what a horrible person he was. So, as a point of interest, he benefits from the fact that people have heard of him, and furthermore enjoy terrific preconceptions as to what he was all about. As a close relation confessed to me recently: "If somebody gets an A on the test, and somebody else gets an F, you give everybody a C!"

The corollary to this is that Americans often find Marx fascinating when they contrast this vaguely awful person with some of his basic observations, which relate, for example, to the length and intensity of the working day, among other everyday "challenges" which most of us take for granted. Once we stop taking the details of our lives for granted, we can begin to ask ourselves who those details are likely to serve. Insofar as this is something Marx brings out of us, we can get very wrapped up in wanting to see more of the world through this lens.

The point I would like to make about Foucault is that he came out of a background that was overburdened with Marx. You see, in much of the world, there are significant parts of society that think Marx is fantastic, and these groups have had varying degrees of success in displacing their political rivals. For Foucault, the French Marxists were mostly morons who clung to Marx in the hope that they might assume a position of authority in a socialist-led France, in much the same way that the American economist can make a fine living spouting nonsense nobody understands.

For all its merits, Marxism lends itself to the kind of complicated interpretations that those fluent in a language can always lord over everyone else. In any event, Foucault had a mind of his own and wanted to look at things independently of what various French Marxists insisted was in style. Subsequently he got pegged as "post-structuralist" where the Marxists were "structuralist," and "post-modern" where Marx was "modern."

Personally, I've never felt that "post-modernism" announced anything more than a break with the assumptions of "modernism." This may be significant for people who were steeped in those assumptions, like professionals, many of whom only began to examine them critically once the "break" was ordained. But I'm skeptical that it has much significance for anyone else, since much of what post-modernism poses as unique to its contribution -- "deconstructing" our "social constructs," etc. -- is no different from what the critical mind has been doing for all of human history.


Jack Crow said...

slightly OT: I never found Marx difficult or burdensome. I do think that Engels-Lenin-Trostskyism is so much hogwash.

Marx provides useful and enduring analytical tools. Some understanding of his terms is in order, and I think that's where he gets lost - in the explanations of the explanations of Marx. And then the disputes about those explanations.

But, as a writer, Marx is simply superior to Foucault, who seemed to embody a gallic opacity rivaled only by Deleuze and Guattari.


Ethan said...

I actually know embarrassingly little about Marx and Foucault, although the stirrings of a thought of objecting to the popular response to the Catholic abuse scandals did just make me request a book of his from the library the other day. Um, coincidence, that's all I'm saying.

JRB said...

As the archbishop says: Have fun!