Blesok no. 111, January, 2017

A Will to Questioning

Kalina Maleska

A Will to Questioning

Translated to English by the author
This text takes as its starting point certain views of Michel Foucault, Edward Said and Terry Eagleton, according to whom we often accept certain truths as finite because they come from authorities who, owing to their status in a given society, had the power to impose their claims or contribute to their acceptance. During the centuries, the questioning of such “truths” sometimes confirmed them, and sometimes revealed there are no arguments to support them. In order to give a small contribution to this practice of questioning, this essay will attempt to find certain unsupported claims in The Ecstasy of Communication by Jean Baudrillard, “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes, as well as in one Macedonian view of the development of literature.
    What Foucault, in his text “The Order of Discourse”, calls “a will to truth” refers to “truths” which, being established by authorities in a given society, as well as thanks to the fact that they have been constantly repeated throughout the years, have gained the status of truth, and are then used as a basis of a system of exclusion of those whose positions are inconsistent with the principles of the existing system. Foucault gives the interesting example of Gregor Mendel: the biologists of the nineteenth century did not realize that Mendel was right when he established several rules of heredity because Mendel’s rules were contrary to the existing “truths” (rules), according to which biology at that time formed its concepts. In other words, the methodology of Mendel was contrary to the will to truth that existed in this scientific discipline. Only later was his work recognized, so Mendel gained posthumous fame as founder of genetics.
    Similarly, in his work Orientalism, Said, speaking of the book Oriental Library, says that this work offers an idea of power and efficiency that constantly remind the reader that in order to reach the Orient, he must pass through the grids and codes of learning offered by the orientalist (71). Said therefore concludes that through such codifications, the reader is forced to accept this work as the true Orient. In such a way, the truth becomes a function of a schooled judgment, and not of the material itself (Саид 71). In other words, for a text or a speech to be accepted in society, it does not have to be truthful, but it simply has to conform to the existing codifications of the dominant discourse.
    Eagleton also considers that the use of language in a certain acceptable way is often more important than what we actually say. For example, according to him, what is required of a person who wants to get a diploma in literary studies is a matter of being able to talk and write in a certain say. “You can think or believe what you want, as long as you can speak this particular language. Nobody is especially concerned about what you say, with what extreme, moderate, radical or conservative positions you adopt, provided that you are compatible with, and can be articulated within, a specific form of discourse” (Eagleton, 1997: 175).
    Foucault, Said and Eagleton in the mentioned statements foreground the danger of what Foucault calls the “will to truth”, that is, the danger of certain arguments being accepted as truthful because they are stated by thinkers who have a status of authorities in their field, so their discourse becomes discourse of power in the sense that the authors have great influence on the philosophical, theoretical and critical thinking. Taking into consideration this danger, in this essay I shall attempt to advocate a will to questioning as opposed to the will to truth, through questioning some of the claims of Baudrillard, Barthes and a few Macedonian literary thinkers.

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    The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in his work The Ecstasy of Communication, uses an interdisciplinary approach, attempting, among other things, to use terms from medicine in order to make a parallel with social phenomena. His view on schizophrenia is typical in this regard – as he says, “the schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterized by his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things…” (Baudrillard 27). This statement is not based on knowledge from medicine or psychiatry, so its sense is lost when it is compared to the insight that medicine has come to about schizophrenia as a mental disorder. The experience of one discipline, medicine, points to complex physiological causes of the diagnosis “schizophrenia”, but Baudrillard here does not take into consideration the medical research of the disorder. It could be said that Baudrillard uses the notion of “schizophrenic” in a symbolical, rather than in a literal way, but even the symbolical meaning, in order to function logically, has to have certain traits in common with the literal meaning of the notion it originates from, which is not the case with the notion of “schizophrenic” in Baudrillard’s book, since his description is so far from the medical diagnosis that it is used completely arbitrarily in The Ecstasy of Communication.
    Employing medical notions in philosophy leads Baudrillard to get tangled into another unmotivated link between the real and the symbolical. He speaks of the so-called “bubble-child”, the boy who lived in a balloon made of the same material that space suits for NASA astronauts are made of, so that he is protected from all infections with artificially immunized space. For Baudrillard, this child is a symbol of the existence in vacuum. On the basis of this example, he predicts a future in which we will all think in a vacuum, where “the artificial purification of all milieus, atmospheres, and environments will supplant the failing internal immune systems. If these immune systems are breaking down it is because an irreversible tendency called progress pushes the human body and spirit into relinquishing its systems of defense and self-determination, only to replace them with technological artifacts” (Baudrillard 37). Baudrillard speaks, in fact, of the loss of our skills for survival, which is due to our overemphasized dependence on medicine.
    In doing so, Baudrillard is inconsistent: on the one hand, he is not in favor of our dependence on medicine and health services because they decrease our natural immunity. On the other hand, he does not seem to mind the discoveries that medicine has made until the time he was writing his work (in the 1980ies). It follows that, for Baudrillard, the treatment methods and remedies that exist in his time are acceptable, but if they develop further, they will contribute to worse, gentler and weaker – from aspect of health – humans. In order not to fall into this trap, he conveniently draws an arbitrary line – to a certain point we can depend on medicine (for particular illnesses), whereas from that point on we should not depend on it (for other types of illnesses). “It would not be too far-fetched to say that the extermination of mankind begins with the extermination of germs,” Baudrillard considers (38).
    Such views implicitly state the position that immunity and physical quality of the living beings, in this case humans, decreases with the enabling of the survival of the weaker species; as well as that even if full cleanliness could be achieved, it is not desirable, because that would be “deadly cleanliness”, that is, people would lose their ability for survival. However, even if medical progress truly led to decrease of the immunity, is that a reason to put an end to medical research and advances? The logical consequence of Baudrillard’s thinking is: in order for humankind not to lose the ability for survival, the ill, who could potentially be cured, should be left to die; Baudrillard, however, decides to ignore (perhaps hide?) this conclusion.
    Another problem, which, again, is due to lack of establishing a logical connection between the statements, is the fact that in The Ecstasy of Communication, Baudrillard puts himself in defense of the instincts and opposes science and progress. This choice, however, is actually absurd because progress is also one of the human instincts.
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    One of the most famous essays related to poststructuralism is “The Death of the Author” by the French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, but in the essay itself as well as in the later interpretations of this essay, certain inconsistences may be revealed. Quoting a sentence from this essay, which describes a castrato, Barthes wonders who gives the description: “Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology?” (Barthes 228). Barthes concludes that we will never find out what the answer is because writing is “the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” (Barthes 228), thus being a starting point of the death of the author. Postmodernism frequently refers to this position of Barthes in order to show that in interpreting literary works we do not need to know anything about the life or the beliefs of the author. That is indeed so, but the fact that we can read, interpret and discuss literature without mentioning biographical data does not mean that they are not present in it. This approach in interpreting a text as an isolated text without external influences is only one of the possible interpretation approaches, and not a truth discovered by Barthes after which all interpretations should ignore the life and beliefs of the writers.
    We do not know whether Balzac’s sentence is the attitude of only one of his characters or of Balzac the individual or of the traditional literary or social ideas of femininity. If it is the position of only one character, that would be visible in the work in which the attitudes of the other characters who do not think in the same way would be presented. The works tell us a lot about the author, even if we decide to focus on other points in our interpretation. If it is the understanding of Balzac the writer, then it may be something specific to Balzac as an individual or it may be a reflection of him as a representative of the culture he belongs to. The questions asked by Barthes serve to illustrate his position that once a certain fact is narrated, it is disconnected from the narrator because the text as a linguistic structure can means something different from what the author meant to say. That, however, is a matter of choice in the approach to a literary work, that is, it’s not a matter of disconnecting the link between the narrator and the text, but a matter of the opportunity of the interpreter to ignore that link. The link between the writer and the text is never disconnected, since Balzac, regardless of our free will to ignore and not to take into account his biography or beliefs, is always present; for, the written text does not exist as some kind of a mysterious autonomous organism that has its own life and can be changed or can adopt various meanings independently of its author, readers or critics, but they are the ones who give meanings to it, who can add or neglect (deliberately or accidently) certain meanings.
    Barthes is undoubtedly right in underlining how small the role of the author is in regard to the fact that neither his views nor the language he uses are his own invention or his original property independent of history and of the language he has inherited. This, however, still does not mean that “it is language that speaks, not the author” (229), as Barthes emphasizes in his discussion on Mallarmé; Barthes supports the position that the work is not a result of the author as an individual because the voices of the whole culture he belongs to merge together. Still, an argument against this claim can be found: the same culture produces authors with various, even opposing views, which suggests that the text, at least partially is the result of the author as an individual, and not just as a member of a certain culture. “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (Barthes 231). Barthes gives a major contribution to releasing the text from the chains of the author’s intentions and turning the attention towards the reader. It can be added, however, that go give a text an author does not entail to impose a limit to it. The meanings of the text can be various, and they depend on the writer and on the interpretation of the readers, who can chose to take into consideration the biography of the writer or to ignore it altogether.
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    In the Macedonian theoretical and critical thinking, there is a view of literature as a phenomenon that develops similarly to living organisms. According to Georgi Stardelov, “a literary gap would stand open” without Stale Popov in the evolution of the Macedonian history (13). Similarly, according to Dimitar Mitrev, the novel Крпен живот by Stale Popov, being a folkloristic novel, comes to fill a gap in our literature, so its publication “no matter how belated, is not anachronistic to us” (quot. In Drugovac 40). Miograg Drugovac has a similar view, pointing out that there was a vacuum in Macedonian artistic literature, which “sooner or later had to be filled with the works of the artistic-aesthetic orientation which, if not completely identical to such orientations in the Serbian, Croatian or, for example, Bulgarian literature of the last decade of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, then at least with assemblage of traits closes to them…” (40-1).
    Here we can clearly see the parallel drawn between the development of the living creatures (whether plants or animals) and the development of literature as a phenomenon. A tree, for instance, has to go through certain development phases, thus, for example, it has to be one meter high before it reaches two meters. It is similarly claimed that literature must first go through folkloristic period in order to reach a more aesthetic period.
    Identifying social phenomena with natural phenomena, however (that is, their comparison on the basis of closeness), carries the danger of being too arbitrary and naïve since it is often proven wrong. In this case, if literary history follows a certain regular development, then how can we explain the fact that Charles Dickens’s realistic novels appeared after the publication of the experimental Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern, or that there are realistic novels written and published in Macedonia after the appearance of some postmodernist literary works? The logic of the familiar, the life cycle (from birth to death), the chronological development of scientific discoveries (for example, steam engine was discovered first, then the internal combustion engine, then supersonic aircraft) is so powerful that it is automatically transferred to areas where such cause-and-consequence relationship does not necessarily exist.
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    Just a few brief examples were taken here from works by Baudrillard, Barthes and few Macedonian literary thinkers in order to illustrate the need for questioning the “will to truth”. While these authors have a great significance for advancing the understanding of literature, it is also important not to stop at their positions and take them as unalterable truths, but to continue on the basis of their theories, which themselves provoke further analyses. Since the objective was to show that the will to truth is present in various cultures and among authors with different literary approaches, there was no in-depth analysis of one theoretical or critical work; rather, several views by various authors were briefly discussed, in the hope that this will be a small contribution to cherishing the will to questioning which could oppose the will to truth.

    Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Literature in the Modern World. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. 228-232.
    Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Trans. Bernard and Caroline Schute. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Autonomendia, 1988.
    Друговац, Миодраг. Повоени македонски писатели I. Скопје: Наша книга, 1986.
    Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
    Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse.” Trans. Ian McLeod. Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Eds. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 2nd ed. London: Edward Arnold, 1992. 221-233.
    Саид, Едвард В. Ориентализам. Прев. Зоран Анчевски. Скопје: Магор, 2003.
    Старделов, Георги, прир. Повоени македонски прозаисти. Скопје: Кочо Рацин, 1960.

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