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Posts Tagged ‘genealogy’

Cornel West’s Genealogical Approach

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on February 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

“My genealogical approach subscribes to a conception of power that is neither simply based on individual subjects—e.g., heroes or great personages as in traditional historiography—nor on collective subjects—e.g., groups, elites, or classes as in revisionist and vulgar Marxist historiography.  Therefore, I do not believe that the emergence of the idea of white supremacy in the modern West can be fully accounted for in terms of the psychological needs of white individuals and groups or the political and economic interests of a ruling class.” 

                             —Cornel West, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism”

Cornel West expressly borrows from Nietzsche and Foucault when he employs the methodology of genealogy.  Genealogy documents or tracks the development of ideas and their relation to human organization.  Genealogy traces knowledge to its systemic formations across networks of discourse.  Genealogy does not recover origins because origins are not recoverable.  Instead of recovering origins, or attempting to recover origins, genealogy describes the emergence and development of social structures and attitudes based on certain conditions for knowledge construction.  Genealogy is not about using history to legislate to the present or to validate contemporary attitudes and viewpoints.  It is about analyzing ways that attitudes and viewpoints arise and function.  It is about how systems of belief inscribe and imprint themselves on the human body, and how discourse bears a direct relation to individuals and their regulation by society.  Genealogy is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.  Rejecting a telos, it seeks to understand the function and not the merits of discourse formation.

West’s genealogy focuses on the emergence of white supremacy in Western discourse.  Because genealogy is not teleological, West rejects Marxism and its variants as starting-points for explaining “the complex configuration of metaphors, notions, categories, and norms which produces and promotes [objects] of discourse.”  The tendency of Marxism toward essentialism, class dualism, human reductionism, and grand narratives simply will not do for West, who indicts “[t]raditional, revisionist, and vulgar Marxist types of historiography” for focusing “primarily on powers within nondiscursive structures” (such as powers of “kings, presidents, elites, or classes”) and for reducing the “powers within discursive structures to mere means for achieving the intentions, aims, needs, interests, and objectives of subjects in nondiscursive structures.”  In short, West indicts Marxism and its variants for simplifying social and cultural phenomena that are highly complex.

To some extent, moreover, Marxism diminishes the importance of language and rhetoric to the actions of individuals, whose motivations are contingent upon the time or circumstance in which they were produced.  Although humans are acting agents with the capacity to follow their will, they are also limited by the vocabularies and knowledge available to them.  This conception of limitation on human agency does not correspond with the Marxist conception of limitation on human agency.  The Marxist conception of limitation on human agency has to do with the reduction of individual action to some collectivist cause or linear narrative determined by class.  Rather than coming into being because groups of people desired power and suppressed or marginalized their class competition, the discourse of white supremacy emerged because of several historical and discursive accidents.  Even those eighteenth and nineteenth century writers who were antislavery unwittingly contributed to and perpetuated the discourse of white supremacy by classifying human bodies in keeping with scientific schema.  For these reasons, among others, West suggests that Marxism and its variants wrongly deny “the relative autonomy of the powers in discursive structures” and hence reduce “the complexity of cultural phenomena.”

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Foucault’s Nietzschean Genealogy

In Art, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Western Philosophy, Writing on September 17, 2011 at 10:02 am

Allen Mendenhall

“Genealogy […] requires patience and knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material.  Its ‘cyclopean monuments’ are constructed from ‘discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method’; they cannot be the product of ‘large and well-meaning errors.’  In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition.  Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies.  It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.’”

                                      —Michel Foucault, from “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

This brief passage by Foucault has three references to Nietzsche.  The essay from which the passage is drawn demonstrates Foucault’s immense debt to Nietzsche, citing as it does no other thinker but Nietzsche (save for a fleeting reference to Paul Ree, whose term “Ursprung,” or “origin,” Nietzsche adopts).  Of all Nietzsche’s ideas and practices, genealogy is the one that Foucault cultivates most impressively.  Genealogy is a methodology by and with which one documents or tracks the development of ideas and their relation to human organization.  In other words, genealogy traces knowledge to its systemic formations across various networks of discourse.  That is why genealogy “requires patience” and “depends on a vast accumulation of source material.”  It is a process, and processes take time to work out. 

Genealogy does not recover origins because origins are not recoverable.  Origins are fluid, not fixed; they are not, strictly speaking, origins at all—if, that is, “origins” is taken to mean single, absolute causes or definite, immutable sources.  Rather, for Foucault, “origins” is a term of convenience—perhaps strategically essentialized—referring to sets of beliefs and activities that constitute discursive structures mobilized by numerous truth claims.  That is why Foucault can employ the term “origins” in one sentence and then, in a subsequent sentence, seemingly reverse course by calling origins “chimeras.”  The point is not to define or explain origins; the point is to discredit the idea of origins as self-evident and immanently knowable. 

Origins themselves are inaccessible; the emergence and development of structures based on ideas, however, are not only accessible, but also edifying.  Foucault’s genealogy, therefore, seeks to collect data about numerous truth claims and then to explain how these data form and shape culture.  As Foucault says of genealogy, “It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.’”  Note the quotation marks around “origins.”  Those marks suggest an intent to divest that term of its expressive purchase.  Origins are knowable only as points of loss or complication, only as intricate and multifaceted constructs that, when examined closely, signify multiple and heterogeneous phenomena and that thus enable and sustain further inquiry.     Read the rest of this entry »

Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: A Critical Précis

In Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Ethics, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Western Civilization, Writing on September 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Allen Mendenhall

We remain unknown to ourselves, we seekers after knowledge, even to ourselves: and with good reason.  We have never sought after ourselves—so how should we one day find ourselves?  It has rightly been said that: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’; our treasure is to be found in the beehives of knowledge.  As spiritual bees from birth, this is our eternal destination, our hearts are set on one thing only—‘bringing something home.’

                                             —    Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche employs an aphorism to open the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morals (GM).  That approach seems fitting for this critical précis, the aphoristic epigram to which quotes none other than Nietzsche himself.

The opening declarative here—“We remain unknown to ourselves”—signals the ancient Greek imperative: “Know thyself.”  That Nietzsche converts the imperative to a declarative is suggestive.  The imperative expresses a command: the emphatic utterance of an authoritative demand (“do this”).  The declarative is a descriptive assertion: the positive utterance of fact or opinion.  The imperative, if issued by the right person and not meant as merely advisory, presupposes the power to enforce or induce the substance of the command.  A speaker that commands another to know himself assumes that the other will act, can act, or ought to act in accordance with what he, the speaker, orders.  The speaker of a declarative statement, on the other hand, conveys information; the transmission of data from the speaker to the listener does not necessarily signify a desire that the listener act, or refrain from acting, in accordance with the data or the speaker’s wishes. 

Nietzsche uses the declarative to describe our epistemic state or to posit an idea about our epistemic state.  His articulation necessarily undermines the idea that we already have answered the call to know ourselves.  Either we have ignored the command to know ourselves (“We have never sought after ourselves”), or we have failed to comply with it—or both.  To the extent that Western philosophy could, at Nietzsche’s moment, be reduced to these two words—“know thyself”—Western philosophy had, if we believe Nietzsche’s declaration, failed or decayed.  What Nietzsche seeks to posit, in more assertive or, one might say, more declarative terms, is a radical rewriting and reinterpretation of knowledge itself.  To know ourselves, we must know what we know and how we know it, or know what we think we know and how to overcome it.  We have blurred the distinction between knowledge and morals; we have internalized weak epistemic truth claims across time; a genealogy of morals is necessary to trace and thereby illuminate our understanding of ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »

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