Archiv für den Monat: Mai 2016

Story telling as political theory

Political theory comes in many forms and variations. Currently it follows academic modes of speech, which focus on the analytical distinctions and a language which connects to academic discourses. But we don’t have to go far to see how it could be different. The writings of Foucault would hardly pass the hard muster of academic peer review as they often lack the clarity and structure expected of academic papers. So would Hannah Arendt’s and those of many others, who reference discourses with great knowledge yet not necessarily systematically. Political theory comes in many shapes and forms and always has.

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Story telling has been one of the more prominent modes in which political theory was presented. It is easy to think of obvious examples such as Thomas More’s Utopia – which lead to the naming of a whole genre of political theory. At the juncture of theory and literature a number of author’s have used stories to reflect upon societal and political conditions. Remember Lilliput? Gulliver’s Travels may well be read as critique his contemporary society.

But fictional accounts are not the only way in which story telling matters in political theory. Drawing historical analogies may also be understood as a form of story telling. Machiavelli uses history in his arguments on good governing quite excessively. He tells stories of failed wars and titles won, of great strategies and bad luck. I believe, anyone who argues from historical experience in political theory, in a way, chooses to tell a certain story.

A third way of using stories turns out to be common: that of allegory or parable. This is a technique that tells neither a fictional story nor refers to historical arguments in a strict sense. Instead it constructs an artificial setting in order to make a certain point. Plato’s Cave Allegory is an example. But one could think of the use of parables in the bible in a similar manner. By telling a story such as that of the Good Samaritan certain moral and ethical values are illustrated and put in an easy to understand context (admittedly, doesn’t seem to have worked too well, but that’s true for Machiavelli too…).

In so far as political theory analyses and criticizes existing conditions and suggests how thinks might be differently, story telling can be a central tool. And there is some very obvious reasons why:

  • stories are easy to understand and to remember
  • good stories are interesting – people want to hear them
  • complex problems, when explained in form of a story, may be more easily seen in their complexity, because the also communicate an affective, emotional dimension that academic papers do not/ should not

Of course, there are also limitations – stories lack conceptual clarity and leave much to interpretation. But when it comes to political theory problems which touch upon people’s identities, fears, hopes or values, a good story may well help to navigate the complexities of the issue. That is one of the reasons why story telling of sorts has some repute even in contemporary academia. In particular sociology has recovered the art of story telling to play out the future effects of contemporary trends. Anthropology uses it to describe complex social interactions for example when retelling the way rituals are lived. In political science scenario development is used to explain how various changes today may impact the future.  All these attempts may be pursued as a subversive activity of developing a new narrative, a new way to see that which is there. When Foucault talks about the ways in which discourse may be subverted, he remains vague. I believe, that story telling – which allows the breaking of certain rules of truth and adequacy – may work as one way of subverting dominant discourse. This happens – for example  in this video:

Clearly, story telling is no cure all. But if it helped Thomas More condemn land crabbing and displacement of the poor as thievery, maybe it is a good tool today, too.

The proliferation of discourse

Clearly Foucault’s later writings, such as “The subject and power” and the “Technologies of the self” lend themselves more easily to an interpretation of Foucault as by no means opposed to the idea of an acting subject.* His earlier writings, which focused more on language and discourse, at first glance seem to negate such acting capacity for subjects. This aspect of Foucault’s thought may well be the most contested and has been the origin of such vibrant debate**, that it cannot be repeated here. I would like, however, to point out some of the elements of Foucault’s understanding of discourse which fuel, I believe, his later focus on the technologies of the subjects.

"Blühende Landschaften" by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“Blühende Landschaften” by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“The Order of Discourse” is the title of his inaugural lecture at the College de France held in December 1970.  In it he lays out concisely (for a postmodernist, that is) the concept of discourse, which is derived from his works on the order of things and the archeaology of knowledge.  Discourse therein is language, struggle and sometimes even equated to power itself. I find it easiest to imagine this discourse as a fragile network of related (speech) acts which follow and transgress rules and restrictions, somethings which changes slowly, sometimes catastrophically but never entirely. Subjects participate in discourse, reproduce it and are produced by it.

You are wondering how a discourse can even do that? Create a real living breathing thing? Aren’t we there, even if we have no name, no colour, no shape? Maybe. But we can only be who we are – living, breathing, things – in relation and through discourse. There is an episode of Star Trek, in which the Picard’s Enterprise encounters an strange alien species (ok, that’s all of them but wait for it!). This species apparently has no concept of “living” and “breathing” so that the universal translator translates their understanding of human beings as “bulky bags mostly filled with water”. While this description is technically correct, it defies the way we see ourselves. It references an entirely different discourse, hence causing irritation.

Discourse (or power) can only be noticed as the restraining, limiting and enabling phenomenon as which Foucault describes it when such irritation occurs. As discourse works through the creation of truth, which relies on differentiations, exclusions and the permanent reproduction of its own rules. Discourse hence implies an outside, a wild external to the truth discourse. This external wild side is at the same time the greatest danger to discourse. Its mere existence is proof, that the truth of the discourse is fragile. Exclusion and differentiation are the origin of dissonances. Or, as I think of it, reality is always messier than any of the ways in which we make sense of it. At the same time, if we do not make sense of it, reality has no inherent structure of its own, it cannot be perceived as reality.

What we have here, is a circular argument: Discourse produces reality (and in it subjects) and those are the source of discourse itself. None exist without the other. Many people struggle with the idea, that everything should be so fragile, preliminary and most importantly without inherent meaning or value. It is, for example, diametrically opposed to a simplified reading of Marx’s concept of history where material (!) changes and conditions drive historical change.

Even more pertinent to the question of the subject is the resulting question of how – if discourse really simply reproduces its distinctions and rules, which produce subjects which are conditioned by these restrictions and rules – discourse could ever change. Wouldn’t everything converge and remain bound by its discourse for all time, only reproducing the ever same patterns? Clearly, even this ‘early’ Foucault does not believe so. In fact, he describes the “proliferation of discourse” (in German usually translated as the ‘mushrooming’ of discourse) as a wild and chaotic process (p. 66). Yes, discourse seeks to eliminate that which does not fit, to bring order and clarity, but it fails to ever achieve this. There is an undeniable wildness about discourse over time which continuously threatens its stable continuation. And then, there is the outside, which stabilizes and threatens truth claimed by discourse.

It amazes me time and time again, how similar Arendt and Foucault argue, albeit coming from such very different places. But that is another story and must remain for another time.

*Mark Bevir has written a very thoughtful essay on the subject of agency and autonomy in Foucault’s thought.

** For first insights into the Foucault Habermas debate consider Nancy Love (1989)