Ontology and Politics Conference, QMUL

Ontology and Politics Conference, June 16th, 2008. Presented by the Politics Department and the Graduate School for Humanities and Social Sciences, Queen Mary, University of London.

The program includes a couple of papers on Foucault and also a Keynote by Simon Critchley.

Sample abstracts:

Johanna Oksala (University of Dundee): “Foucault’s Politicisation of Ontology.”

The paper makes two claims about political ontology. Firstly, I argue for the importance of ontological inquiry in political philosophy. For the theoretical rethinking of politics to amount to an effective response to practical political problems it cannot avoid ontological investigation. My second aim is to argue against any essential definition of ‘the political’. Political ontology should not denote an inquiry into the fixed essence of politics, but a politicised conception of reality. I will problematise the relationship between ontology and politics by putting forward such a conception with the help of Michel Foucault’s critical project. Foucault’s thought formed an important strand in the effort to theorise the social construction of reality that became prominent in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is my contention that his most original and important contribution to this project was his conception of productive power. The ontological idea behind Foucault’s hybrid notion of power/knowledge is that social practices always incorporate power relations, which become constitutive of forms of the subject as well as domains and objects of knowledge. They are not subjects and objects existing in the world as pregiven constants, but are rather constituted through practices of power. This is a radical, ontological claim about the nature of reality: reality as we know it is the result of social practices, but also of concrete struggles over truth in social space. My argument will proceed in three stages. First, I will defend the importance of ontological inquiry in political philosophy. I will then explicate the politicised conception of reality – the political ontology – that I find in Foucault’s thought. Finally, I will conclude by considering its consequences for our understanding of politics.

Giorgos Fourtounis (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki): “Immanence and Subjection: Foucault, Althusser and the aporia of the subject.”

In this paper I will try to draw some hints from Althusser’s late thinking on aleatory materialism as a means for tackling the alleged impasses of the (post)structuralist theorization of the subject (exemplified in the works of Foucault and Althusser himself) and their political consequences. The close correlation between Foucault’s anti-subjectivist and anti-teleological stances, where the subject is constituted by non-subjective “power/knowledge regimes”, which in their turn are contingent events, essentially unpredictable and non-explicable, entangles him in the aporia of a subject suspended between the constituted and the constituent subject, or between the subject as a result and the subject as a cause. The counterpart of this aporia, which is prolonged rather than attenuated in Foucault’s late work, is the aporia of the Enlightenment (and its advent), which is viewed both as a contingent event “that has made us what we are” and as an attitude or ethos, a task to be accomplished. A similar correlation between anti-subjectivism and anti-finalism is also omnipresent in Althusser’s thought, but here, as I will try to show, the relevant aporias can be tackled better by way of the evocation of Spinozist immanence as a theoretical means of thinking both the structural causality governing the constitution of social formations and the ideological interpellation governing the constitution of subjects. This theoretical strategy was proposed, precisely, as an attempt to resolve an analogous aporia concerning causality, that is, as an escape out of the traditional dilemma between atomist-transitive and holistic-transcendent causality: a structured individuality neither preexists (as a transcendent cause) nor follows (as a transitive result) the elements and procedures of its constitution, but it is their immanent cause, with no existence apart from them. According to Judith Butler, now, both Foucauldian subjection and Althusserian interpellation involve the ontological paradox of a constitutive retroaction and self-referentiality, where the subject necessarily appears as the precondition of its constitution. In the light of this, my suggestion will be that it is precisely such a figure of retroaction, essentially of a Spinozist inspiration, that is constitutively involved in Althusser’s late work, considered as a radical development of his earlier Spinozist structuralism, providing an additional philosophical perspective for the thematization of the aporia of the subject.

Paul Reynolds (Edge Hill): “Ontologies, Politics, Dialectics: The Ordering of Stable and Unstable Moments.”

Behind much political and social theory in the last 50 years has been the question of ontological stability. Post-structuralist influenced critiques have settled upon a critique of – if you like – ’solid state ontologies’, particularly those inherent within universalist, essentialist theories of politics and society such as Marxism or Feminism, and sought to explore the deconstructive, critical and unstable moments that seem to negate ’solid state ontologies’, at its best represented in Derrida and Foucault, and at its worst in the culturally reifications of post-modern discourse. This has produced a dichotomy of – if you like – ’solid state ontologies’ and fluid and ‘unstable ontologies’ in which the entrenchment on either side often depends on philosophical or political convictions, and guerilla war between the trenches atrophies critical debate. Some thinkers work – Laclau, Butler and to an extent Zizek, seem to reflect the agonies (and perhaps agonistic nature) of seeking to straddle these entrenchments and some, to an extent Badiou, and more Critical Realism, might suggest a synergistic alternative to such entrenchment. This paper seeks to build upon these to suggest that an understanding of ontological stability lies not in attachment to one or other moment, but the recognise them as moments in not a dichotomised but a dialectical process, where the ordering of moments produces the balance or scope and limits to particular thinkers accommodations between the two. What is at stake in doing so is not just an arguably more critical openness philosophically, but an approach to politics that recognises the need to effect such dialectical engagements in both strategising and in engaging mobilisation and action in the political frame, and particularly within the anti-capitalism movement at the present conjuncture.

More info here.

One Response

  1. Curious that the key note addresses are last. Is that normal? I wish I could go to this: I’ve been wondering a bit about Critchley’s ontology.

    The idea of posing Foucault’s politics as ontological investigation is an interesting recent development, I think (Goodchild has also argued that this is central to Foucault’s task in a contribution to Theology and the Political). But it’s fairly clearly stated in Foucault’s reading of Kant in Le Gouvernement de soi et des autres, where he identifies his work with this tradition from Kant to the Frankfurt School, and says that ‘here it’s not a matter of an analytics of truth, but of what could be called an ontology of the present, an ontology of the contemporary, an ontology of modernity, an ontology of ourselves.’

    I have to say that this turns a lot of my thought on Foucault on its head, and challenges me to start thinking anew about the Foucauldian task.

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