This is a guest post and a response to one of my previous posts.
By Paul Dawson, Imperial College, London
As this is an invitation to respond to (not) a sociology blog I will start from your end. Foucault was, indeed, well aware that everything was dangerous; in particular his insistence on the Iranian Revolution and concomitant Nietzschean fascination with death, limiting experience and the merging of spirituality and politics. However I’ve always read him as knowing that words, images and representations really do not matter, and they are, indeed, constructs.
It is pertinent that your piece relies heavily on two French philosophers; both are, perhaps, bookends of the Enlightenment: Voltaire a populariser of the Enlightenment and Foucault a strong believer in the disasters inherent within modernity. It is a historical irony that Voltaire’s popularising of the Enlightenment, spreading from the salons of France to the blood and gore of the ‘reign of terror’ is now being used reactively to purport free speech following another example of the current reign of terror, imposed upon us all by so-called Islamic militant fundamentalists.
Taken as such Voltaire’s words (accredited to him), that to die for one’s belief and to defend to the death those rights are a source of violence and a call to arms. Implicit in them is the ideological pressure that if you disregard my right to say what I want to then I have the right to kill you. One of the most serious of the French Revolutionaries, Robespierre, who coined “Liberte, Egaliate, Fraternetie, and in its name inaugurated the reign of terror wherein 16594 enemies of the Revolution were guillotined and 2500 others in summary executions. Ideas – any ideas – when taken with the seriousness of absolute certainty can and, as we have seen, kill.
It’s worthwhile pointing to another advocate and classifier of Liberalism besides Voltaire and an admirer of Foucault’s work, Richard Rorty. His definition of Liberalism borrowed from Judith Shklar states that a liberal believes that the worst thing you can do to another human being is to cause them pain. Rorty’s vision of a liberal is termed a Liberal Ironist and has been defined as someone who has come to terms with the uncertainty of postmodernism, gaining the insight from the knowing uncertainty inherent within that philosophical movement. This is where relativism is important; not fascizoid nihilistic cultural relativism where ‘anything goes’ but rather a relativism based on the insight gained from knowing that words, images and other symbols are constructs and representations that don’t matter.
They are in Van Velde’s terms attempts to finalise and possess meaning. Indeed, Rorty’s fascination with constantly trying to change our normative vocabularies (read, discourse) is essential to the Liberal Ironist who always has the sneaky suspicions that what they know and value will always change, and is never the final word. The failure and tragedy of post-structural and postmodern politics has been to not shove this argument down the throats of people who believe in words and ideas to the extent that they are willing to defend them to the death if needs be.
For the Liberal Ironist the sanest way to tackle and treat the insanity of the kinds of people who believe in things to the extent that they will kill them is to see them in a similar manner to what Kundera in his essay on European tolerance referred to as the as the agélastes. Agélastes is a neologism coined by Rabelais which means those that do not laugh. Kundera writes, “Rabelais detested the agélastes. He feared them. He complained that the agélastes treated him so atrociously that he nearly stopped writing forever.” Having said that Voltaire could be pretty funny and he knew, as did the Charlie Hebdo massacre victims, that words and solidified meaning expressed by the avowed reality of the agélastes should be framed only in the irony of their ridiculous beliefs.
Paul Dawson is a sociologist with interests in health, epistemology, terrorism and sexuality. He has taught at Nottingham Trent University, the University of Sheffield and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Imperial College London. All thoughts here are his own.