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Monday, September 30, 2013

Unraveling The Order of Things in Week 2 of wwp philosophy club take 3...Phew!

...And if you think the title of this week's post is a mouthful, try saying 'Michel Foucault' twenty times whilst contemplating the illustration (see left) which accompanies the online version of the Preface to his seminal work, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966). That's right...Not easy. And not so pretty either. But then, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) never aimed to please. Rather, he sought to perturb, disrupt, unsettle. And if he created a frisson or two along the way, well that's alright too. During the course of his mercurial and highly motile life, this Poitiers-born intellectual did his damnedest to brush himself free of the bourgeois dust bestowed upon him by his doctor father and a privileged provincial upbringing.

A champion of those relegated to the margins of mid-20th Century French society - prisoners, immigrants, gays, the mentally ill - and a man  of charisma who, whether worshiped or cursed, never failed to trigger a strong response, Foucault was at once the debauched bon vivant, at once the intensely serious thinker. As a writer he was as prolific as he was poetic, as provocative as he was protean - his interests ranging from madness to sexuality, from the medical world to the prison system. As for his methods, they were as patchwork and innovative as his passage through academia. Starting in psychology, he got 'bored' and moved into philosophy. But he was also an historian, as demonstrated by his election to the chair of the newly created department, 'history of systems of thought,' at the erudite College de France in 1970.

Here, though, Foucault broke rank with those practitioners of History with a capital "H": strongly rejecting anything that stung of a grand narrative approach to the past; evolving instead a hands-on approach he termed 'archaeology.' This latter involved digging down through the material strata attesting to social, economic, political and cultural conditions of successive historical epochs - not to ascertain what happened 'back then' or to build a progressive picture of a world taking shape, but rather, to pinpoint those moments of rupture and mutation which shattered the smooth trajectory of History as retroactively assembled and assessed by us here in the present, and affected a shift in the way we think and speak the world and ourselves.

In other words, what interested Foucault was knowledge production tout court. In his excavations, Foucault wasn't looking for this or that knowledge that was circulating out there during any given period. After all, what use that 'knowledge' when the only sense I can make of it today - the only way I can in turn re-produce that knowledge in oral or written form for a present-day audience if I am an historian - is through the lens of my own epoch. Rather, what Foucault was looking for is what makes knowledge possible in any given place or time. If, to do this work, he had to locate the point of disjuncture between thinking the world through an old lens and thinking the world through a new lens, it was in tracing out these major paradigmatic shifts that Foucault got to grips with the defining knowledge-enabling practices of each paradigm itself (Foucault called a paradigm an 'episteme,' but same diff...). So, for example, Foucault's digs in the Renaissance unearthed a reliance on finding resemblances and taking a stab at an educated guess to make knowledge possible ('Wow, the sky looks like my face, there's one eye - the moon - and another eye - the sun - and a whole lot of stars all in a line, just like my teeth...Hey man, me and the cosmos must be linked somehow!') whereas in the classical era that followed, representation and analysis became the enabling trope of knowledge production: endless tables into which things in the natural world, once measured and carefully categorized, were inserted so as to be finally pinned down FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL!

All to say that in the course of our second philosophy club session devoted to all things post-structural we spent a good deal of time getting our heads around the ins and the outs of the central question Foucault asked - what makes knowledge possible? - before grabbing picks and ropes and setting off on a communal  excavation of his preface to The Order of Things. It was hard and challenging work, but there was light at the end of the tunnel: the revelation that it is only in trying to think through the ordering structure of a culture that we perceive as strange to us, as 'other,' that we begin to grasp the often arbitrary nature of our own ordering structures, and more importantly, start questioning them.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Welcome, wwp members, to our third Philosophy Club six-week series!

Yesterday evening we kicked off our latest offering in our Philosophy Club series with a right whaaa-hoolie of a topic: Bodies without Organs…Everything you always wanted to know about post-structuralism (but were afraid to ask). Alright, so for some of you this kind of learning experience is becoming old hat. For others, you were dipping your toe in for the first time last night. For my own part, I was both excited and filled with trepidation as we set off on this latest philosophical journey together. Excited, because the material is tough and challenging and unsettling. Filled with trepidation, because the material is tough and challenging and unsettling. All par for the course, I might add...For this sense of being all things and none, caught between incertitude and a hard place, buffeted by a warm summer breeze whilst caressed by the winds of change, is part and parcel of the philosophical realm known as post-structuralism. For this is a terrain of thinking where contradictions are embraced and paradox is the norm; where life becomes topsy-turvy and all that keeps you grounded might well disappear with a flick of a deconstructionist finger. 

And it gets worse! For whereas in our first two series much time and attention was spent in cultivating a voice with which to speak our lives (The Invisible Matron) and a position from which to fight for those lives (Rebel with a Cause), this time round we were being asked to drop that carefully cultivated ‘self’ altogether. Roughly translated – which is, incidentally, the case with all translation for your average post-structuralist – this meant stepping out into the abyss with all the protective covering of a newborn babe. Swept along by a strategic move that post-structuralism calls ‘decentering the subject,’ we had to be prepared to throw our illusions of personal agency to the winds and watch from the sidelines as those strands of belief and connection and origin that we once grasped on to like lifelines - at once identifying us as unique, at once defining us as Same not Other – began to shred and splay, leaving us dangling precariously. Which was, perhaps, the perfect place to find our bodies – with or without organs – as we struck out on this latest experimental adventure in philosophy. Not a bad place to find ourselves, either, as back in the 'real' world we, along with the rest of Quebec (and a good many folks from outside of our borders too) grapple with our government’s recent proposal for a Charter of Values that, through erasing visible signs of 'difference,' seeks to render us all 'self-same'.

Okay, so we're throwing around a lot of post-structuralist jargon, here, and that in part was the point of our first session together: glancing backwards to the place from whence post-structuralism had sprung, in other words 'structuralism'; considering what it means to be post-anything in our post-modern, supposedly post-feminist (and here we hear a well-warranted growl from Gloria Steinem) world. This line of questioning inducted us into the hallowed hall of semiological signifiers and signifieds, syntagms and paradigms, as understood by the founder of structuralism, Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Grappling with de Saussure's  new and revolutionary (at the time) way of positing language as 'a structure containing no positive terms, only differential relations,' we pulled out the old chess board (as de Saussure once did) and drew on the rules governing game-play to better grasp how language, too, operates as a system of arbitrary rules that, because we are so caught up inside language, we end up seeing as a priori, as somehow 'natural'. 

If a plunge with Alice through the Looking Glass helped to illuminate how this inculcation into language and its taken-for-granteds work on us and through us, a brief survey of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss's (1908-2009) application of structuralism to tribal rituals (revealing a basic universality across all cultures, though not without its inherent hierarchies) helped us to see the inner workings of structuralism in our own everyday lives and practices. By this stage, some of our participants were clearly chomping at the bit: ready to challenge the extent to which structures like language imprison us within their ideological tentacles; questioning the idea, pace Louis Althusser (1918-1990) that we ourselves become the primary custodians of our own entrapment. 

All to say, roll on post-structuralism with its 'response' to these very issues. We've hitched up the desiring-machine, we've bought our one-way ticket, and we’re set for a life-altering ride. As for a sneak preview of our itinerary...

Week 1: Thursday, September 19, 2013
Post-what? : A look at Structuralism and what, why, where, when, how came next…

Week 2: Thursday, September 26, 2013
Michel Foucault: Preface from The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, Routledge: London, 1990

Week 3: Thursday, October 3. 2013
Roland Barthes: Excerpt from The Pleasure of the Text, Hill and Wang: New York, 1975

Week 4: Thursday, November 7, 2013
Jacques Derrida: Letter to a Japanese Friend (Prof Isutsu) from Derrida and Difference, ed. Wood & Bernasconi, Parousia Press: Warwick, 1985

Week 5: Thursday, November 14, 2013
Julia Kristeva: Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner from Strangers to Ourselves, Columbia University Press: New York, 1991

Week 6: Thursday, November 21, 2013
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: November 28, 1947: How do you make yourself a body without organs? from A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Continuum: London, 1987