De-humanising the truth

Image: Dr Leigh Price and Dr Charles Chikunda

This week’s piece is an email conversation between myself and my supervisor, Dr Leigh Price.

I am working on the methodology for the historical review I am doing on trans-disciplinarity and emancipation in the earth sciences. I’ve been swinging backwards and forwards between a hardcore Fairclough discourse analysis of key trans-disciplinary papers to a more historically based genealogy as used by Foucault. Doing a geneology has always seemed more in line with what I’m trying to achieve and when I read Foucault’s geneological works I do find them inspiring. What I struggle with is that it is hard to move forward from a historical analysis of what makes the world the way it is when all the truths are seen as subjective fictions. It seems somehow, although I struggled to place how, that we loose our collective agency.

I had this same feeling when I was listening to a ZAR podcast with Scott Burnett. The podcast was on White privilege. I found the position Scott takes useful but I found that there was something about his argument that felt difficult if we are to move forward and heal the historical and current effects of White privilege on South African society. His argument was (and this is a very short and sweet summary of part of his argument. Please listen to the podcast) that only Black people really understand what racism feels like and therefore a White person can’t use the argument that they are not ‘racist’ as the subjective experience of racism can only be known by Black people. This argument makes sense but there was a point in the discussion between Scott Burnett and the host of ZAR where his argument weakened which was a pity. It all started to weaken around racism being judged according to subjective experience.  If all that exists is the subjective experience of racism how can we truly know what racism is and therefore remove it from our society. I wondered while I was listening whether Bhaskar’s thinking could help this argument. Instead of just focusing on subjective experience of racism as an indicator that racism exists we could also be focusing on what makes that subjective experience of racism possible. This may move us closer to the mechanisms of racism. In this way the individual subjective experience of racism is an indicator that there is racism in our society which is a sign that we need to look more deeply as to how this experience can exist at all. Finding the mechanism gives us the opportunity of absenting the cause of the experience and so slowly removing racism from our society. Instead of the discussion moving to this point it got a little stuck on how we can rely on a subjective experience as an indicator of racism. Isn’t it all just opinion. Scott referred to the discourse of racism in his talk but the point that the presence of the discourse means that there are mechanisms that keep racism in place was not reached. Rather the debate meandered around the ‘fictional’ quality of subjective experience.

It was with this ‘sadness’ (for want of a better word) when reading Foucault’s work and listening to Scott Burnett’s podcast that led me to send an email to Leigh with the following quote and question:

Dear Leigh

I’m busy working on my methodology for the historical review of emancipation and trans-disciplinarity. I’m still dabbling in geneology and came across this quote from Foucault. What do you think?

“I am fully aware that I have never written anything other than fictions. For all that I would not want to say that they were outside the truth. It seems plausible to me to make fictions work within truth, to introduce truth effects with a fictional discourse, and in some way to make discourse arouse, ‘fabricate’ something which does not yet exist, thus to fiction something. One ‘fictions’ history starting from a political reality that renders it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics that does not yet exist starting from a historical truth. (Foucault, cited in Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. 204).”


Leigh replied:

Dear Jane

Sorry to take a while to respond, but I have been a bit busy.

This is a great quote by Foucault. It reminds me of something that Roy (Bhaskar) said but I can’t find the actual quote, something about how the world is different after scientists have made their discoveries. Interesting how Foucault puts the word ‘fiction’ into scare quotes, which is sort of like a double negative (quotes imply that something is not really true, so is a ‘fiction’ a truth?). So he starts out sounding very irrealist, but then seems somehow realist. A much better example of a pure irrealist is Richard Rorty who is very clear that nothing that he writes should be taken seriously or has any truth to it. Actually, now I come to think of it, I did make some reference to this characteristic of Foucault’s writing in my thesis. Although I looked at its consequences – the effect on agency when you take this oscillation between fiction (reality is made up by our ideas – voluntarism) and some absolute reality and apply it to axiology (agency). I quoted McNay who draws attention to this tendency in the writing of Foucault when she explains that his thought vacillates “between the moments of determinism and voluntarism” (McNay, 2000:9). She says:

“The insights in the work on discipline are not fully integrated with the later work on the self and so Foucault can only offer the over-determinist view of the subject subsumed by the operations of power upon the body or the solipsistic outlook of an aesthetics of existence…While Foucault’s work does not foreclose an account of agency in so stark a manner as the Lacanian reification of the phallocentric order, it is seriously limited by its conceptual underdevelopment.”

So, Foucault is more in line with Anthony Giddens, in terms of the consequences of his philosophy for agency, oscillating between determinism and voluntarism. The stratified ontology of Bhaskar, and its implications for agency as expressed in the TMSA (transformational model of social activity), avoids these problems. Notice how Foucault assumes a strong dichotomy between fiction and reality (he also gives us an oxymoron – since his fictions are not outside truth, but the definition of a fiction is that it is not true?). For Roy, with his maximally inclusive ontology, fictions are also real (even though they are not true). Read generously, one might say that Foucault is intuiting the difference between the transitive and intransitive dimensions – epistemological relativism and ontological realism – but his presentation of it is problematic because of his foregrounding of fiction which is what Roy would call unserious. Also, for Foucault, reality renders the fiction true. However, it is not reality that ‘gives’ us truths, it is human beings (nevertheless human beings who try to be faithful to that reality – we have to do some work, be connected to that reality to be able to discover, express, ‘give’ the truths). In that moment Foucault ALSO suggests a de-humanised truth. So we have this oscillation between a completely subjective fiction and a completely objective (de-humanised) truth.
Just some thoughts. Hope they are useful.


I replied:


Your emails are works of art. Thanks for insights as usual they help a lot and I am left wondering whether it is worth underlabouring Foucault’s genealogy with Critical Realism or whether to just stick with Critical Realism’s analytical approaches. Am I attached to Foucault simply because I like the word Genealogy and I find his writing style so provocative? I found the quote I sent you a deep contradiction – almost as if Foucault could not let go of truth but he also could not let go of fiction. Both ideas of there being truth and that all is fiction seem like they are a comfort to him but having to hold both of them is discomfort. The way he placed ‘fiction’ in scare quotes seemed almost mocking – like he was mocking himself and so a kind of despair. Maybe it is this despair that leads him to be unserious. I like what you say about how Bhaskar’s stratified ontology and it’s implications for agency. I think I need to explore this more. I read Foucault’s biography many years ago and I often wonder whether his ‘de-humanising of the truth’ was partly because societies position, at the time, on homosexuality and his life choices de-humanised him. By de-humanising the truth was he able to do away with the harsh judgements of his society on his own life.

Can I put your email response to my quote in a blog? I found it really useful.

Leigh replied:

Hi Jane

Please feel free to use any of this conversation in your blog.

Just to add, there is no reason to give up on the excellent aspects of Foucault’s work. This is the beauty of Critical Realism. It is basically just an underlabourer for other methodologies. So, it is just a pity that we can’t go back and say “Hey Michel, you know how you really struggled at times to avoid contradicting yourself? Well, we have a way for you to keep you major insights and not sound like you have lost the plot!”


What I love about what Leigh reminds me of Bhaskar’s work is that even fictions are real which takes me back to Scott Burnett’s argument. The subjective experience of racism as experienced by a South African’s of colour is real even if some may look to argue it is not (objectively) true. And this ‘realness’ is that it is an experience that is present in the world. These real manifestations could be our salvation as it is through an acceptance of the real nature of such experiences and then an understanding of how these experiences have come to be that we can begin freeing ourselves from them. Foucault’s genealogical work asks two vital questions (Tamboukou, 1999, 202):

What is happening now?
What is this ‘now’ within which all of us find ourselves?

If these questions are engaged with seriously meaning that, as Leigh puts it, “it is not reality that ‘gives’ us truths, it is human beings“ (Human beings that are trying to be faithful to reality for it is our connection to reality that enables us to express truths) then we all find ourselves connected to the individual/subjective/collective and real experience of racism or sexism or environmental degradation and it is this connection that makes it possible for all of us to look at how to absent it.

“What is this ‘now’ within which all of us find ourselves?” is the question I will carry forward over the next couple of weeks as I carry on conversing with Roy, Michel, Leigh, Tamboukou and others about  human truths.

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