Partisanship, polemics and politics

X-posted at Long Sunday

Is it possible to be honestly partisan?

We hear a lot of talk these days about the need for bipartisanship (I’m thinking of statements coming out of Capitol Hill), and in light of the poll findings I posted yesterday about American’s distrust of political bias in the university, you might be justified in concluding that the source of the problem is partisanship.

Foucault famously observed that he preferred “problematizations, not polemics” and defined the former:

Problematization doesn’t mean representation of a pre-existing object, nor the creation by discourse of an object that doesn’t exist. It is the totality of discursive or non-discursive practices that introduces something into the play of true and false and constitutes it as an object of thought (whether in the form of moral reflection, scientific knowledge, political analysis, etc.). Politics, Philosophy, Culture, p. 257.

So are problematizations and partisanship compatible? One might initially think not. Again from Foucault:

I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as an anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat … and I must admit that I rather like what they mean (Foucault 1997, 113). Foucault, Michel (1997) ‘Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations.’ In Paul Rabinow (Ed.) The Essential Works of Michel Foucault Vol. I. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. New York: The New Press. 111–19.

This is, you might say, the antithesis of partisanship as a political position: left, right, center–all as necessary, all desirable so that one remains mobile and tactical, not strategic.

The polls showing the distrust of political bias in the classroom were themselves strongly split along political lines. Fully 73.3% of Republicans thought there was a problem, but only 6.7% of Democrats. But overall 40% of respondents thought that political bias–partisanship–was a “very serious” problem. Again this implies that having a position that leads one to be biased is a problem.

I wonder why this is, and I wonder if it is possible as I said above to be “honestly” (for want of a better word) partisan? In Europe for example, it is well-known that certain newspapers hew to a political position (liberal, conservative), whereas in the US the news media is supposed to be “fair and balanced” (but is not). The US news media of course is frequently criticized for not actively doing journalistic investigation of the powerful, instead being rather smitten by them (criticism most vigorously from bloggers and authors such as Glenn Greenwald at Salon and Eric Boehlert in his book Lapdogs: How the Press rolled Over for Bush).

Contemplating this one could argue that partisanship has become polemic, and if so, this leaves little room for the honest partisan, the person who believes something and tries to vigorously pursue it. This does not mean however, that we should conclude that partisanship should be divorced from politics. Partisanship could be divorced from bias however.

I would like to operate under and suggest a more expansive notion of “politics” than “partisanship as bias” with which it is frequently conflated. We often hear it said that we don’t want politics to enter into a decision, meaning bias. But if problematizations are the putting into play of the true and false and of constituting things as objects of thought, what other word might we want than politics? Politics–polis–is the art of deciding about where you live.

In this way I think that problematizations can be re-identified with partisanship. Partisan politics is the recognition of genuinely held positionalities which are neither polemics nor bias. I think this recovery of the meaning of politics is quite in line with the “continental” tradition of thought and of Foucault’s “putting into play of true and false.”

One Response

  1. […] 25th, 2007 by Jeremy Recently I posted some remarks about whether it is possible to be partisan without being polemical, noting […]

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