On Not Despising Modernity: Baudelaire and Rabinow QOTD

I am reading (parts of) Rabinow’s fascinating, French Modern, a Foucauldian history of French “middle modernism” in the 19th to early 20th century. The introduction is chock full of delicious quotes; I present a couple here without much commentary:

In his famous essay “The Painter in Modern Life,”, Charles Baudelaire presented one possible attitude toward modernity: “you have no right to despise the present.”… Not despising the present by no means implies that the present is not, in many ways, despicable, but only that, as Baudelaire advised young writers, “Orgy is no longer the sister of inspiration.” … One hundred and twenty years later, our perspective on the modern world is no doubt more tempered than Baudelaire’s; in part for that reason our spleens are less full of bile and our prose is less poetic. Still, having no right to despise the present, we continue our work of writing its history. (7)

And…

The understanding of social reality which yielded the pathos – its rejection of metaphysical solutions and the sense that society had no outside, but only margins – also produced a sense that there was no choice but to reform it. One had no right to despise the present; one had no place from which to despise the present. (14)

I absolutely love the phrase “society had no outside, but only margins.” It nicely captures a set of problems about positions, normativity, critique, etc. What happens when you give up on the notion of a social Archimedean point, a place to stand that is far away and outside the system from which you can act on it? And so on.

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6 Comments

  1. JeffL

     /  April 13, 2011

    Ah, this is one of my favorite topics in sociology. Actually, I believe you have brought it up in precisely the way that most sociologists bring up this question: as a question.

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually answer this question. What DO you do when you give up on the notion of a social Archimedean point? Really, I mean, not rhetorically, what do you do?

    Do you continue to write stuff? If so, why? You don’t have any foundation on which to stand, right? No place from which to judge. So what’s the point? Because you like writing fiction? If so, we should probably abandon sociology and join the literature department, because sociologists are really terrible fiction writers.

    Do you just go around finding things that people believe in and try to make it clear to them that nothing is real, especially not their dearly held beliefs? There is no outside, after all, just contested margins that might whisk away a person’s reality tomorrow if the tides of *something* change (it’s impossible to say what *something* is of course, because even our studies of the tides are also part of the shifting tides of unexplainable metaphysical ether).

    Which brings up another point: how do we even know that this one conviction (that there is no hard place from which to stand), is true? By its own principle it would be just as unprovable as any other claim. Perhaps there is actually a hard place from which to stand, but we simply can never know it. Then we have to bear the terrible knowledge that somewhere there is a right answer, and we may even be holding it as a belief right now, but we would never know it. It’s like the terrible paradox of religion, in which there is a right god(s), but you simply have to pick one system and hope you got it right.

    Of course, what we could do, is look inside ourselves and ask what we find to be ineluctably true, despite all of our fundamental uncertainty. That belief which won’t go away, even though we have no proof to substantiate it. If after this process, we come to the conclusion that reality actually is real, then (under the spell of some metaphysical ether or not) we could then simply assume that there are hard points on which to stand, and then quod erat demonstrandum, nothing would actually change in sociology, except that we would stop reading Foucault. Just a thought.

    • Here’s some bits from Foucault on the subject, as just a random bit of response:

      “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger. (Foucault 1984: 343)”

      “[A] system of constraint becomes truly intolerable when the individuals who are affected by it don’t have the means of modifying it” (Foucault 1988: 294).

      Both quoted in Owen (1995) “Genealogy as exemplary critique: reflections on Foucault and the imagination of the political.”

      Owen writes, “…politics is the activity of struggle in which we produce and reproduce our freedom through its exercise. The distinctive understanding of the political which emerges from this account can be set in opposition to the reduction of the political to the technical which attends humanism.” (499)

  2. Jeff, your argument is one that I’ve heard more times than I care to remember. Without wanting to speak for Dan, Rabinow, Foucault, or anyone else far smarter than I, I’d like to respond to your comment.

    It’s quite a leap to assume that just because one rejects the idea of a ‘social Archimedean point’ or some other epistemological bedrock, that you’re then simply writing fiction. If there really is no point outside of society from which to view it, then it seems to me that that leaves EVERYTHING to do, rather than nothing. It leaves a world full of particulars which, I’ll agree, isn’t nearly as satisfying to study as something from which you can derive an all-encompassing account of the world. But that is, it seems to me, the epistemological situation we find ourselves in.

    Your solution, of searching for something ‘ineluctably true within ourselves’ is problematic because that’s what virtually every philosopher and academic, from the pre-Socratics onwards, have been doing and it seems that we’ve yet to come to any consensus as to what that ineluctably true point is. God? An atheistic ‘human nature’? Socialization? Genetics? Every society, every academic discipline, perhaps even every person, has their own answer to that question.

    Just my two cents.

  3. JeffL

     /  April 15, 2011

    For one, I must say that the two comments to my somewhat glib reply have been remarkably civil. It warms my heart to know that not every contrarian comment will attract a troll (unless I’m the troll, but I’ll have to think about that later).

    Two, for Dan:

    1) I know I’m being crotchety with Foucault. But, I can also say that all the 20th C. French theorists had the luxury of saying a lot of things, many of which seem contradictory when you put them all together. In fact, it appears that one of the best ways of becoming a successful theorist is simply to say every position, even though you will contradict yourself many times, and then to couch these contradictions in very complicated language, and to spread them out over many books.

    2) All this stuff about redefining (i.e. “The distinctive understanding of the political which emerges from this account”) is what gets me worried. I agree that it’s damn oppressive to lack the tools necessary to modify a system that is constraining. My beef with this is that redefining a system seems like a very weak way of modifying it (esp. if the redefinition is sitting in a book at a university library).

    Three, for socialscientistsinakitchen:

    1) I’m shocked you’ve heard this argument so much (no rhetoric here, I am actually surprised). We must run in different circles. I’ve never heard this position forcefully enunciated; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speak against Foucault.

    2)I think it’s problematic to just be looking at “particulars” without ever having a vision of the whole (personally, it seems like a recipe for a lot of pet projects that don’t add up to anything). But, that’s not my main concern with the “particulars” view. My main concern is how one can even claim to study particulars? Indeed, I encounter this vision a lot (I would say most of the theorists of the 20th C. settle on this kind of work as the right way to go). But, I still don’t see how you’re able to do this without having a broad overview. What approach will you apply to understand these particulars? What will give that approach any more solidness than if you were trying to explain a big system? I don’t see how setting your goals lower resolves the problem that you fundamentally can’t take anything to be real.

    3) I’m not saying that the ultimate truth of the world will be revealed through introspection (as is often the approach of philosophers). What I am saying is that there is no way around the fundamental uncertainty of any system of knowledge. There’s simply no way to use any system of thought to prove that this given system of thought is correct. It’s always circular. That being said — alright, I get it, we can’t ever prove anything to an absolute certainty. So how do we proceed? My answer to the problem is the exact same as Max Weber’s (as enunciated in “science as a vocation”): You ask yourself whether you believe in a logical, rational, empirically-accessible world. If you come back with “yes,” you study stuff, write about it, and never look back. If you say “no” then you become a Buddhist or a nihilist or a writer or something (I actually don’t really know what you do), but you certainly don’t go around half-believing you can describe the world and half-believing that no one can describe anything. Also, no matter which way you go, after the moment of decision you no longer dwell on the question anymore (or at least, you return to it very infrequently).

    • Two more quick thoughts, both related to the science studies version of this problem:

      1. We talked with science studies historian Paul Edwards yesterday about his newiwh book on the history of global climate data, “A Vast Machine”. Paul talked about the general move in science studies away from trying to dispel myths of science and undermine science, to trying to understand the work that goes into science to make it be so useful (while still recognizing how quickly scientists lose their ability to tell us how the world works when they move away from their specialties, even though we sometimes have the urge to treat them as general experts). I highly recommend the book, and also Naomi Oreskes’ work in a somewhat similar and more explicitly political tone.

      2. In the same vein, Latour published a fabulous essay in 2004 called “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” (pdf link). Latour’s always claimed he was a realist, and a defender and ally of science rather than its nemesis, and I think here he does that nicely. To call all knowledge partial is not to give up on science, but just to recognize its limits. On the other hand, as you say, most of the time, we can’t do much better, and “there is still some uncertainty” is not a reason for inaction.

      Edwards makes an analogy to economic data in the last section of his book, and argues (2010: 435):
      “Nobody thinks economic models are perfect. Yet despite the notorious imprecision of economic forecasts, firms, banks, and governments place considerable trust in them. They act on shimmering data, shimmering knowledge, because they must act – and models given them the best information they are likely to get.”

      The critical science studies Foudcauldian whatever move is *not* to “reject reality” or science, but rather to acknowledge that future is hard to know about, especially in advance, but we still have to act. Callon et al.’s “Acting in an Uncertain World” is another good source for this kind of thinking.

    • Two more quick thoughts, both related to the science studies version of this problem:

      1. We talked with science studies historian Paul Edwards yesterday about his newiwh book on the history of global climate data, “A Vast Machine”. Paul talked about the general move in science studies away from trying to dispel myths of science and undermine science, to trying to understand the work that goes into science to make it be so useful (while still recognizing how quickly scientists lose their ability to tell us how the world works when they move away from their specialties, even though we sometimes have the urge to treat them as general experts). I highly recommend the book, and also Naomi Oreskes’ work in a somewhat similar and more explicitly political tone.

      2. In the same vein, Latour published a fabulous essay in 2004 called “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” (pdf link). Latour’s always claimed he was a realist, and a defender and ally of science rather than its nemesis, and I think here he does that nicely. To call all knowledge partial is not to give up on science, but just to recognize its limits. On the other hand, as you say, most of the time, we can’t do much better, and “there is still some uncertainty” is not a reason for inaction.

      Edwards makes an analogy to economic data in the last section of his book, and argues (2010: 435):
      “Nobody thinks economic models are perfect. Yet despite the notorious imprecision of economic forecasts, firms, banks, and governments place considerable trust in them. They act on shimmering data, shimmering knowledge, because they must act – and models given them the best information they are likely to get.”

      The critical science studies Foucauldian whatever move is *not* to “reject reality” or science, but rather to acknowledge that future is hard to know about, especially in advance, but we still have to act. Callon et al.’s “Acting in an Uncertain World” is another good source for this kind of thinking.