Panel (c) of Richard Hamilton, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts, also known by the artist as Untitled and Balzac (a) + (b) + (c), 2011. Epson inkjet on Hewlett-Packard RHesolution canvas, 3 panel triptych, 112 x 176 cm each. The image makes use of an 1855 photograph by Louis-Camille d’Olivier of a female nude with a model’s foot added from a separate photo. The Richard Hamilton Estate.
In March 2016 I published an article on the website Culture Matters in which I argued against Michel Foucault’s assertion from his 1966 book The Order of Things, that the humanist conception of man would soon be understood to be nothing more than an effect of discourse and would disappear from human knowledge like a face at the edge of the sea. (See http://culturematters.org.uk/culture-hub/item/2270-ecce-homo-occupy-god.html.) With reference to Lacanian psychoanalysis and the excellent book by Heiko Feldner and Fabio Vighi, Žižek Beyond Foucault (2007), I wrote: “My take on individualism is that we should be collective while also being human. This to me is definitional of leftist class struggle. It means ridding ourselves of the idea of creating a positive unconscious of knowledge that could be located either in social structures or in the persons of individual subjects.” The implications of Foucault’s work seem to me to underscore the totalizing aspects of social constructionism. Even if Foucauldian discourse theory resembles Marxism in its effort to show how “socially constructed” phenomena become naturalized (i.e. as ideology), social constructionism is inherently a method of deconstruction and has by and large abandoned the terrain of revolutionary consciousness.
I wrote the article because I believe that contemporary leftist social movements – such as the alterglobal “movement of the squares,” the students strikes against tuition hikes, the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, the climate justice movement or the Nuit Debout movement against the new French labour law – are attempting to move beyond the pessimism of postmodern theory but lack the resources to rethink dialectical materialism in this post-postmodern epoch of neoliberalism. There are many intellectuals whose ideas could be helpful in this context but it is my view that foremost among these are Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. It is very difficult to displace an intellectual framework like Foucault’s because of its exceptional sophistication. To my mind the only people working today who have achieved this level of complexity are Badiou and Žižek. I am aware that although the names of Badiou and Žižek are well-known, their ideas are not very well understood, let alone accepted, as was demonstrated recently at the May 2016 Left Forum, at which Taryn Fivek and a group of Žižek critics interrupted his presentation and gave members of the participating audience handouts that denounce Žižek on the basis of his critique of liberal political correctness.
As it happens, I was invited in early April to collaborate with the Montreal-based arts and humanities magazine Spirale on a planned 2017 special issue whose theme would be Foucault’s opening discussion in The Order of Things of Diego Velásquez’s Las Meninas (1656). With this example Foucault introduces his notion of episteme, the more or less unconscious patterns of thought according to which different disciplines and fields of knowledge operate. For Foucault, there is an important epistemological shift between the classical period and the modern period that begins in the early the nineteenth century. Foucault himself hesitated to say that his work was contributing to a new postmodern episteme. The editors of the magazine are interested in knowing if we today are on the cusp of just such a new episteme and so proposed that contributors to the special issue select an artwork that like Las Meninas might help us to reflect on the current state of knowledge. Such images, they argue, could help us to fathom the current condition of the post-human, the emergence of the biopolitical subject, the representation of the undecidable, or the end of meta-narratives. I agreed to participate but I did so with the awareness that I have no special investment in these themes from 1980s postmodern academia. After I sent my text to the guest editor to see if it was acceptable for translation, he asked me to remove all of the references to what happens to be leftist thinkers. After I refused to do so, the article was turned down because it was assumed that the magazine editors would find it too long or too complicated for non-academic readers. It does seem odd that a theme issue that invites articles from “erudite and vivacious spirits” and that wishes to think about how Marxism is dead and we’re all neoliberal cyborgs now, should be frightened by a little bit of intellectual discussion. So much for a culture magazine being able to reflect critically on the conditions of possibility of a sector now known as the knowledge industry. My choice of artist was the late Richard Hamilton, a self-defined communist and one of the last great postmodern artists. My short text is available here (http://culturematters.org.uk/arts-hub/visual-art/item/2317-unknown-knowledge-what-the-hell-is-going-on-here.html). Thanks to Mike Quille and Culture Matters for publishing the article.