The Critique of Relevance and the Relevance of Critique

SPT 25th Anniversary Conference, York University, Toronto, Canada, September 11-13, 1998




[For more information, please email Brian Singer, Graduate Programme Director, or Judith Hawley, Graduate Programme Assistant. Individual names are clickable to obtain email addresses and homepages of universities are linked, all where available.]


Presentations presented in order by panel, as well as more information about a welcome wine and cheese and the Saturday evening dinner, are also available on this website. Or return to the main 25th Anniversary webpage.


Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought "Historical Panel"

This panel will be constructed with a number of faculty members and will discuss and review 25 years of the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought. It will include faculty from SPT who may provide insight regarding the directions SPT has taken in the past, and comment on changes within academic interests, philosophical directions and even programme changes.

Moderator: Brian Singer

Panelists: Mildren Bakan, David McNally, John O'Neill, Paul Antze, Steven Levine


Howard Adelman

Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, York University

"The Application and Limitations of Critical Theory: Evaluating the International Response to the Genocide in Rwanda"

After setting the stage by placing critical theory within the context of intellectual history, with specific attention to Kant, Hegel, Marx, Habermas and the neo-Marxists, the paper examines case study co-authored with Astri Surke on the Rwandan genocide in which we undertook a normative analysis - not as an ideal of reason as the foundation for analysis, nor as an expression of power relations, but as a demonstration of impotence. Rights are shown to be, not a unifying idea of reason in law. Nor are the norms simply an expression of power interests. What we found were imperfect or negative norms that were revealed to be contradictory. Thus, the explanatory methodology of the critical theory employed still focussed on contradictions, but among norms rather than between norms and empirical reality. Instead of power interests, historical handovers and reified self-identities were critical. These wee not just exclusionist ethnic identities characteristic of the perpetrators of the genocide, but the moral self-identities of those charged with preventing the genocide in the first place, self-identities which not only made them impotent, but obsessed with morally "scapegoating" others. Further, others were caught up in the inability to reconcile their moral versus amoral (realpolitik) identities. The emphasis of the critical theory depended on diachronic rather than the synchronic factors of both Habermas and neo-Marxists. And instead of the substantive agents being the civil society versus the state (Habermas, for example) or the classes of various species of Marxists, the key elements were located in the politics of identity, widely defined, which were responsible both for the heinous acts themselves as well as the impotence of those who held the power of prevention in their hands. This version of critical theory points to a different fracture in the connection of knowledge and will than has been historically prevalent. After documenting the revealing force of this use of critical theory and its premises, the paper then focuses on some of the serious limitations.


Ian Angus

Sociology and Humanities, Simon Fraser University

"The Misfortunes of Totality"

In recent years, there has been an embarrassed turn away from the concept of totality, often simply equating it with totalitarianism. Starting from the obvious point that the concept of totality cannot be merely rejected, since a part can only be a part insofar as it is distinguished from the whole, this paper will argue for a revised concept of totality compatible with new social movements. In particular, I will argue against the Hegelian legacy of the concept in favor of the concept of totality as a "world" thought through the metaphors of "horizon" and "border" within phenomenology.


Adriana Benzaquen

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

"Children's Progress: A Critical History of Theories of Childhood"

In Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Aries put forward the provocative claim that childhood did not exist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and was "discovered" in Western societies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whereas Aries' argument opened up a site for often heated scholarly debate, no one could dispute the progress of childhood from non-existence or relative obscurity to what might be construed as a veritable cultural obsession as effected through its discursive inscription and accompanied by an ongoing project of knowledge-production. This paper attempts to chart this progress, by addressing two questions: What are the main theories formulated since the end of the eighteenth century as means to understand and explain the child? And what is the contemporary status of the child in theory? The final section of the paper engages with a crucial element in the contemporary configuration of discourses on children: the lack of a sustained theoretical or philosophical reflection on childhood, on the state of being a child, on the difference between children and adults, on how the state of being a child affects the experience of being human. What is the standing of childhood and children in critical theory and in contemporary philosophy?


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Gerald Butts

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

 "A Day at the Arcades: Walter Benjamin and the Relevance of Historical Knowledge"

If there is a systematizing narrative available for the study of Walter Benjamin's oeuvre, it must revolve around his concept of the "dialectical image." This notion, which was once to be evidenced in the concrete historical artifacts that were initially to form the basis of Benjamin's Passagenwerk, or "Arcades Project," expanded after his five year hiatus from the project to include what can best be described as the concrescence of present and past moments into a Leibnizian monad. These monads explode the continuum of history as it is viewed by historicists, viz. the progress of humanity through homogenous, empty time and are thus, according to the "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the only materials appropriate for the study of the historical materialist (I 261).

The present study attempts an understanding of the manner in which these monads function as a basis for historical study in Benjamin, especially as their particular incarnate form as dialectical images formed through works of art or cultural artifacts. It begins by situating Benjamin, somewhat uncomfortably, as a contextual literary critic whose distaste for the l'art pour l'art movement is explicit and, it is argued, justified. It is then argued that the dialectical image has its basis in these, fundamentally aesthetic, explorations. This in turn poses problems for the dialectical image as a tool for historical interpretation. The question of critical subjectivity is chief among these and is posed as the following: does the critic simply "read" the monads as (s)he encounters them, or is her/his explication of them necessarily susceptible to ideological influence. After a direct discussion of the particular constitution of the dialectical image, its prefiguration and development is traced through Benjamin's work of Proust and Baudelaire. The question of subjectivity is constantly kept present throughout this discussion in order to trace its implications for Benjamin's methodology in general and its influence of such seemingly disparate aspects of his oeuvre as the flaneur and his tendency toward theological readings of history .

Finally, it is argued that Benjamin's fusion of history, aesthetics, philosophy and religion in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" represents a necessary turn in his work toward a more dominant display of the literary, imagistic understanding of truth that is laid out theoretically in his earlier writing. This final substantive section treats the "Theses" in some detail, arguing that they represent neither a theological transformation of history nor an historical determination of theology. Rather it is argued that the two come together in the "Theses" to form Benjamin's most poignant dialectical image.


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Gregory Cameron

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

"Comparative Mythologies"

In this paper, I would like to consider the relevance of de-mythologization rather than the relevance of critique. From Frazer to Freud, it has been argued that myths are primitive modes of explaining the world in which we live. An economic myth is an explanation which the de-mythologist is in a position to recognize as a myth--a false explanation based on false parameters of understanding. But are myths explanations? I will begin with the observation that the myth as explanation hypothesis is itself an explanation, a mode of rendering the myth powerless and without value. But if myth is merely bad science, why are science and reason so fascinated by myth, and why do myths seem to defy our attempts to comprehend them? And is it not possible, that if a myth is not an explanation, that the "real" myth, as it were, lies with the scientist or mythologist? My objective in pursuing these questions is not to engage in a de-mythologization of the notion of myth, rather what I would like to begin to attempt is a process of re-mythologization by way of rethinking the notions of myth and de-mythologization and their relation to the scientific or philosophical enterprise.


Nergis Canefe

Past and Present Historical Society Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Institute of Historical Research, University of London

"Area Studies, History and Politics: Dilemmas of Establishing Borderlines between Balkan and Ottoman/Middle Eastern Studies"

This paper is a critical analysis of the impact of polarised definitions of European versus Islamic cultural/civilisation identities along the margins of Europe. I argue that the prevalence of such binary formulations of historical legacy artificially renders comparative studies of Balkan and Ottoman/Turkish histories an improbable task. In both Greece and Turkey, the sovereign nation-state model, drawn the post-1848 tradition of European nationals, embraces a utopian desire for an altogether new beginning in order to undo the spell of Orientalism cast upon Ottoman history. As a result, neither Greek nor Turkish national historiography could afford to opt for narratives of a polyglot, multi-ethnic or multi-religious background. Instead, they each produce an Original Truth-based national history emphasising an isolated genealogy of an ethnos-based national identity. In this venue, historical accounts of Greek and Turkish nationhood constructed at the expense of each other provide an excellent example of the eventual transformation of utopian narratives of cultural redemption into sanctified national histories framed by the disciplinary guidelines of area studies.


William E. Conklin

Faculty of Law and Department of History, University of Windsor

"The Phenomenology of Language as the Engine of Social Critique"

The problematic of Derrida's work, I wish to suggest, is that he simplifies language in two respects. First, when Derrida examines Husserl's phenomenology, he focuses upon the constitution of meaning but ignores the phenomenon of the fulfilment of meaning: that is, Derrida seems to ignore the communicative or dialogic element when an addressee fulfils the intended meaning of a speaker. Secondly, the displacement of one discourse by another misses how the displaced discourse may remain alive and vibrant all the while that the displacing discourse dominates all comers. The problematic of displacing languages can be exemplified with reference to such scientized discourses as law and medicine. For if the body of the displaced discourse (that of the client/patient) is signified in a displacing discourse, it is signified only vis-a-vis the expert knowers in the supplementing displacing discourse. This is to conceal a remainder, which the displacing discourse never quite controls or expels: the phenomenal body of the non-knower to the displacing discourse. And this raises serious questions, relative to the professional language, for democracy and justice. 


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Ioan Davies


Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, York University

"Japan: Crisis and Critique"

This paper takes the present apparent crisis of the Japanese economy as a much wider crisis, one which clearly envelops all of us but one which has been thought through by critical theorists in Japan over the past 70 years. In my discussion of the nature of this crisis, I explore in particular the writings of the contemporary critical theorists Kojin Karatani, Masao Miyoshi, Naoki Sakai, H. D. Harootunian, Akira Asada in order to lay the grounds for understanding how both the ontological and epistemological approaches to critique have a practical bearing on understanding how Japan's crisis is the crisis of all of us, but also how those crises lay bare the endemic problems of both ontology and epistemology as providing ANY understanding of our route to being active agents of change.



Nadia Habib &

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University, and

Brenda Longfellow

Atkinson College, Film Program, York University

"The Specters of the Revolution: Rading Battle of Algiers and La legende du Septieme Dormant/Youcef"

Like Derrida's Spectres of Marx, Mohammed Chouik's La legende du septieme Dormant/Youcef (Algeria, 1993) narrates the return of a ghost--Youcef, an FLN patriot who has been jailed since the revolution in Algeria. This paper too begins with a return to film theory of the seventies and to the paradigms of Third Cinema with its romantic association of cinema and revolution. This is a return engineered in the heart of Youcef where sequences of the Battle of Algiers play like documentary evidence of the revolution--a collective memory of something long forgotten. Between Battle of Algiers (1962) and Youcef exists the vexed historical distance between revolutionary utopianism and the perversion of revolution in the name of various forms of ethnic and religious "returns".


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Asher Horowitz

Department of Political Science, York University

"Colonization with a Remainder: Reason, Reification and Critique in Habermas and the Frankfurt School"

Habermas' critique of reification rests upon a concept of reason that supports reification. The so-called aporiae of the Frankfurt School do not blur the contours of reason, but turn it towards its other.

By transposing the theory of reification into the key of linguistic intersubjectivity Habermas claims to have superceded all previous critiques of it and to have undone three aporiae which vitiate the Frankfurt School approach. The theory of communicative action breaks the equation of rationalization with reification that produces these aporiae, thus restoring reason to its unambiguous role as liberator. Yet decentered rationality can be demonstrated to be unable to meet its own criteria of coherence and objectivity, unity and separation, balance and interplay. More, and worse, its quite centred decentration underwrites the very reification it eschews and condemns. The aporiae of the Frankfurt School can then be understood not to blur the contours of reason, or sharpen them, but to turn it away from the fear of outsideness as such, and to its other.


Thomas M. Kemple

Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia

"The Experience of Reason: Critique as a Vocation in the Weberian Imagination"

This paper explores some of the implications of Weber's thoughts on the vocation of critique as the "translation" of the principle of value-freedom into the pragmatics of value relevance. As Simmel showed, this involves treating experience as a reflexive and critical resource for reason rather than simply as the inert and mute ground of empirical rationality. This line of thought intersects with some recent efforts to rethink the enlightenment problem of the limits of scientific knowledge in the aesthetic, moral and cognitive dimensions of modern experience (Habermas, Foucault). At the same time, it helps us to expand our conception of modernity as a kind of technoscientific experiment for producing new objects of experience (Marcuse, Latour). I'll conclude with a few reflections on the relevance of this approach for considering the conceptual field and the academic institution of Social & Political Thought itself as the experience of--and an experiment with reason.


Nikolas Kompridis

Philosophy, University of Dundee

"Reorienting Critique: From Irony to Transformation"

In this paper I examine the problems besetting forms of philosophical and cultural critique that are motivated by the "hermeneutics of suspicion" and normatively oriented to the goal of "unmasking." As an exclusively unmasking practice, critique has succumbed to a self-crippling skepticism that -- from Friedrich von Schlegel to Paul de Man and Richard Rorty -- goes by the name of irony. I argue that we urgently need to rethink the practice of critique, reclaiming it from ironist theory and reorienting it -- once again -- to the practice of social and political transformation. 


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Louis Kontos

Department of Sociology, Long Island University

"The Postpositivist Logic of Sociology--An Inquiry into the Field"

When sociologists engage in theorizing beyond what is necessary for explanations of 'data', they become vulnerable to the charge of partisanship. This charge is not only made by outsiders for whom sociological theorizing might be of questionable worth, but also by members who equate any theory that cannot be tested or verified by formal methods with speculation and ideology. The problem with this view is that it does not acknowledge the immanence of theory to both sociological phenomena and methods of sociological investigation from which data are procured. Consequently, the distinction between theory and fact is drawn rather arbitrarily. This paper examines the implication of this problem for sociology.


Janine Marchessault

Department of Film & Video, York University

"McLuhan's Cultural Criticism and the Tradition of Media Studies"

This engages recent work on McLuhan and the development of media studies in North America, focussing specifically on his first book The Mechanical Bride (1953). What would be of interest to a conference on 'critique' is the relation between criticism and critique in McLuhan's early Leavis-influenced writings. I will argue that in all of McLuhan's writings, this tension is operating to create a dynamic work, always engaged in rhetorical play aimed at the present situation. This paper considers why McLuhan has been important for thinking about new technologies but also why he might be of use to feminist media studies. 


David McNally

Department of Political Science, York University


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Geoffrey A. Miles

Candidate, Toronto Institute for Psychoanalysis

"The Institution of Perversion and the Perversion of the Institution"


Patricia Mills

Associate Professor, Political Theory/Political Science, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

"Reflections on Philosophy, Critical Theory, and Voice"

My reflections begin with a consideration of Adorno's defense of philosophy as critique, in an age that presumes that philosophy is obsolete and superfluous. Adorno begins his defense of philosophy by arguing that there is a necessary relation between philosophy and freedom. This "argument for philosophy" contains an important analysis of the relation between theory and practice that I will discuss with reference to Derrida's reinscription of Blanchot's statements about the three voices of Marx. This leads to a consideration of the role of "voice" in the development of a feminist critical theory, notably in the work of Michele Le Doeuff and Gillian Rose. Philosophical freedom or intellectual independence is shown in their attention to the playfulness of ideas, to the very joy of thinking, even when (or perhaps especially when) that thinking is about suffering and oppression.


Carol J. Moore

Toronto Institute for Psychoanalysis

"I hate you, now feed me… Femininity and Perversion Revisited"


Michael W. Morse

Faculty of Arts, York University 

"The Catastrophe of Critique from the Perspective of Music"

Academic inquiry in all its variants is notoriously reticent to declare its general goals. "Critique" counts among the few recent stated innovations. Grandparentally tied to Marx, parentally to the Frankfurt School, Critique aims at the partial or general assessment of real practices, social relations and, often, individuals. The Critical movements have produced a smorgasbord of negativity, ranging from Grand Refusals to savage ad hominem and principled, hyperbolic misanthropy, liberally covered in a gravy of conceptual self-congratulation.

Is all-purpose disparagement the best and wisest aim for inquiry? The evidence of musical experience suggests that it is not. From music, the present paper tries to mediate, with a relatively straight face, between the amoral brutality of the Right and the egregious, uncritical meanness of Critical Theory.


Cary J. Nederman

Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Political Science, University of Arizona

"The Mirror Crack'd: The Speculum Princiopum as Political and Social Critique in the Middle Ages"

Among the numerous literary genres pioneered during the Latin Middle Ages, perhaps none was as typical or as pervasive as the so-called "mirror" or speculum, one of whose most popular subsets was the political advice book or speculum princiopum. The paper proposes to examine three such texts, and argues that they single out for direct criticism some existing political and social practice or practices of their time.


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C.M. Olive

School of Medicine, University of Toronto; Department of Psychiatry, Toronto Hospital

"Latent Heterosexuality and Countertransference Surprise: The Unconscious as Critique" 




Pierre Ouellet

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

"The Master/Slave Dialectic and the Everyday"

The relationship between theory and practice, between thought and embodied agency, between the immanent and the transcendent can be proposed as the matrix within which all activity of critique and any conception of relevance might become ensnared in their never-ending self-referential struggle for recognition and dominance. The Everyday, as conceived by Lefebvre and de Certeau, amongst others, demands a form of material engagement which is, at once, at its limit, conscious of its own horizons while constantly respeaking itself, reinscribing its very nature and exigent character in theoretical articulation. Theory, as the ground for critique, must, on the other hand, resolutely stand by its axioms, principles, laws and fictions until these are inevitably altered by the constancy of repetition, the redundancy of difference and the sheer entropic weight of experiential sameness.


This paper will look at the master/slave dialectic in Hegel's Phenomenology in terms of its applicability and relevance to everyday circumstances and events. It will focus, particularly, on business and creative relationships as well as academic endeavours, activities which constitute a significant part of the presenter=s life and examine some of these moments in terms of several of the exegetic commentaries which the famous Hegelian passage has inspired. In this manner, the "critique of relevance and the relevance of critique@ will oppose each other through the middle term of personal everyday engagements in an attempt to uncover the elusive moment in the dialectic movement where thought and action collapse into each other, when relevance, as immanence, and critique, as transcendence, dissolve through the very negation of their essential opposition.


Jonathan Salem Wiseman

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University (graduated 1998)

"Standing in the Storm: Heidegger's Rektoradsrede"

In this paper, I will attempt to indicate how Heidegger's determination of authentic historicity in Being and Time was mobilized and radicalized in his philosophical writings during his official political engagement of the early 1930s. Specifically, I want to show that in his notorious and often-reviled 1933 address, "The Self-Assertion of the German University," Heidegger attempts to articulate philosophically what I am calling a "politics of mimesis" according to which a reactivation of the essence of philosophy was explicitly sought in the willful effort to transform National Socialism from within. In retrospect, the political reasons for the failure of Heidegger's brief campaign seem obvious, but I am more concerned with interrogating the philosophical thinking that Heidegger believed would make this internal revolution even possible, and thus with the reasons for the Rektoradtsrede's "failure" as a philosophical text.


Kim Sawchuk

Communication Studies, Concordia University

on C. Wright Mills


One, I have been researching Mills' fan mail, which he kept as part of his own research files, and used to incorporate suggestions and criticisms from his readership into his "popular" political writings. This has evolved into a book chapter called "epistolary epistemologies" which is a critical reflection on the uses of "the letter" as evidence in different research traditions and on the epistolary style in Mills' own political writings, and in his various media interventions.


The second possibility related to the thematic of the conference, which again I would want to "ground" in this research project given my own time constraints, is to ask the question of what we mean by relevance by examining two related but competing notions of how we define a "moment": as "context" or "conjuncture." Part of the Mills project has been to sort through what the call to place someone or something "in context" has come to mean (or not mean) . It is a largely unexamined notion that I find highly problematic. Instead i have been working with the idea of conjuncture. The paper would I guess be on "context and conjuncture" in order to respond to the questions you ask that are posed terms of "a relation" to something.(critique to a society, civilization etc.; critique to movements or institutions, etc.).


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M. Michael Schiff

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

"Revolution in Marxist Language: Culture, Commodity, Kristeva"

This paper examines a single moment in materialist cultural history, one that occurred between Julia Kristeva's participation in the May, 1968, student uprising in Paris, simultaneous with her license defense, and the public state defence of her dissertation, La Revolution du langage poetique: l'avant garde a la fin du 19e siecle, in 1974. In the interim, Kristeva embraced and defended and was lost to marxist struggle, sailed to China with Roland Barthes and Phillippe Sollers, among others, defended the "American David" and embraced pyschoanalsysis at its intersection with Marxism and linguistics. What is the nature of political and personal revolution? Does theory always have "one foot on the barricades," and an eye to what could be critically useful? Is "Society a crime in common?" With semiotic, feminist and psychosocial reflections from Marx's key texts, this paper orients a seminal moment in cultural history.


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Brian Singer

Department of Sociology, Glendon College, York University

"On Critical Autonomy: Reconsidering the 'Intellectual' in Relation to Knowledge/Power"

This paper opens the question of critical autonomy as it defines the "intellectual." It begins with a consideration of this work through selected works of Pierre Bourdieu: first, Distinction, which would seemingly deny the cultivated, intellectual classes any critical distance; then, The Rules of Art, which seeks to theorize that autonomy apparently denied by the previous work, and indeed concludes with a call to create an internationale of intellectuals to defend that autonomy. The paper argues that Bourdieu's understanding of this autonomy is vitiation by his conception of power, which he ultimately identifies, somewhat positivistically, with actual powerholders. What he misses is the imaginary dimension of power, particularly as constructed within democratic regimes, and consequently, the imaginary subject of democratic power, the people in its generality. The critical autonomy of "intellectuals," it is argued, must be understood in terms of their ultimately ambiguous relation to the democratic subject and the figures of knowledge with which it is associated--notably, the general will, public opinion and common sense.


David Westbrook

Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

"If I Only Had a Brain: Foucault's Straw Man or Theory Goes To Oz"

The main purpose of this paper is to raise the question of what constitutes a relevant critique by exploring two places where Foucault, once implicitly and once explicitly, posits a critical opposition to Hegel: 1) statements on the nature of genealogy" in Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, and 2) his remarks on Hegel from the end of the Discourse on Language. Taking Foucault's comments on method and anti-Hegelianism as my starting point, I want to explore the grounds and ramifications for critique of the strategic opposition he establishes. In particular, what are the distinctions to be made between "genealogy" and "dialectic" based on Foucault's characterization, and what is the particular "anti-Hegelianism" he espouses? By contrasting the genealogical search for differences and dispersion (as representative of "post"-modern strategies in general) with Hegel's account of "determinate negation" I will suggest that the dialectical elenchus alone affords a solution to a critical impasse, while theories that dogmatically hold to absolute difference implicitly deny the possibility of a communication capable of allowing disputes to progress beyond competing "bare assertions" that can only be accepted or rejected on the grounds of an even deeper dialectic.

Foucault's description of genealogy explicitly shows the principle of its operation to be the search for differences and the resistance of unities. In the disciplines of critical suspicion one is usually easily able to find whatever one is looking for, as witnessed by a proliferation of competing critical discourses each validating their own explanatory principles by their success in tracing lines of connection between these principles and the phenomena under consideration. Genealogy is here constituted explicitly in opposition to a process of highlighting the unity of phenomena in this way, yet in imposing a similarly uniform standard of "difference" on phenomena it succeeds only in shifting the debate to the higher level of logical abstraction where the implied target is Hegelian systematization. In characterizing genealogy as grey" Foucault, perhaps unintentionally, usurps for it the place claimed by Hegel for philosophy, a move which raises the very question of anti-Hegelianism posed by Foucault himself.

The presentation of Hegel as the grandest of all unifying master discourses is typical of post-Hegelian thought and particularly rampant in the postmodernist theories of whom Foucault is here merely taken as representative. Though this caricature is a straw man purveyed by those whose understanding seems to end with tables of contents, as a scarecrow it has worked well at sustaining the hegemony of post-relevant critique. A knowledge of the difficulty of this position is implied in Foucault's recognition that something remains owed to Hegel in the very attempt to renege on the debt. The possibility of moving beyond Hegel depends on that most Hegelian of criteria, the determinate negation, the absence of which relegates any critique to an externality whose legitimacy remains forever in question. Discussants who lack such a basic common ground could never progress beyond a state of talking past one another or the child's simple argument of "Is so!" "Is not!" dressed up in academic garb.


Ted Winslow

Division of Social Science, Faculty of Arts, York University

"Foundationalism, Essentialism and Marx's Critique of Political Economy"

By disconnecting experience from reality and values from facts, scientific materialism - the defining idea of modernity - eliminated any foundation in the subject for knowledge and critique. By reducing persons themselves to bits of matter in motion, it undermined the conception of persons as subjects with fixed identities; in fact, it eliminated any basis for a coherent idea of persons as subjects in any sense. It attributed fixed identities only to the atomically conceived bits composing persons and excluded self-determination from its conception of the determinants of their motion.

The paper aims to show that, in contrast to the materialism that defines modernity, Marx's materialism provides a defensible basis for foundationalism and essentialism. It also aims to show the relation of Marx's foundationalism and essentialism to his critique of political economy.

What I have in mind is illustrated by Marx's idea of the "universally developed individual" as the end point of human development. This is an appropriation of Hegel's identification of the "Idea of Humanity" - the human essence - with human "destiny" and of human destiny with "freedom." "That man is free by Nature is quite correct in one sense; viz., that he is so according to the Idea of Humanity; but we imply thereby that he is such only in virtue of his destiny - that he has an undeveloped power to become such; for the 'Nature' of an object is exactly synonymous with its 'Idea'."

For Hegel and, following him, for Marx, the Will Proper is the "pure indeterminateness of the Ego, which as such has no limitation or content which is immediately extant through nature but is indifferent towards any and every determinateness" but which "can, at the same time, pass over to a determinateness and make a choice of some one or other and then actualize it." The "truly and absolutely free" will is the Universal Will whose determinateness issues solely from reason. Marx's "universally developed individual" is the embodied universal will capable among other things of "fully free working" in the "realm of freedom." Fully free working is "art" in Kant's sense: "By right we ought only to describe as art, production through freedom, i.e., through a will that places reason at the basis of its actions."

Marx's critique of political economy makes use of these ideas to provide part of the grounding for the claim (analogous to Hegel's claim respecting the developmental impact of slave labour on the mind of the slave) that wage labour is a "steeling school of labour" which will develop both the theoretical and the practical consciousness of wage labourers. This development creates the "fully formed proletariat" able through its "revolutionary practice" to effect a transformation of capitalist relations of production that will remove all remaining barriers to the full development of the universal will and the full realization of the realm of freedom.


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You may also view the presentations in order by panel, as well as more information about a welcome wine and cheese and the Saturday evening dinner.

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last updated: February 16, 2001


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