January 10, 2012 / Theology
Author Katy Scrogin uses Václav Havel’s discussion of hope and fear to address the problem of individualism in US political life.
November 30, 2010
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us to be suspicious of proper names because they tempt us to ascribe agency to the person instead of to the overall flow of discourse, knowledge, and power out of which the person emerges as an agent. I seek to provide a starting point for a fuller archaeological description of the Beck phenomenon. We must see Beck for who he really is: one voice in the ongoing battle of American identity and political determination, one voice of a political insurrection. That people tend to focus—positively or negatively—on Beck’s voice is itself an interesting fact. Beck’s supporters apotheosize him as the man who is bringing the nation back to its roots and Christian identity. Conversely, Beck’s critics see him and his supporters as stumbling blindly behind some perverse, nonsensical notion of American and Christian identity; they hear him speak over the airwaves and at national rallies and wonder at his qualifications to command such attention. At the heart of both supporters and critics is an increasingly polemical attitude that eliminates the precious middle ground in which serious questions can be raised. To counter the polemical nature of conversations about Beck, I propose instead what Foucault would call a “multiplication of discourse,” an increase of voices, that would free Beck from his critics and might also free critics from Beck.
From Polemics to Problematization
When I mentioned to friends, family, and colleagues that I was writing an essay on Beck, I was mostly met with disdain. How could anyone intelligently listen to Beck, let alone write anything intelligent about him? I presented my outline for the essay, but many were already dissuaded. They had already made up their minds that anything related to Beck should be avoided at all costs.
It is easy to write against Beck; it is much harder to actually examine the potential intelligibility of his message. Foucault shows us how to do the harder task. Before I do this, however, a brief discussion of polemics is warranted.
A philosopher ought not respond to polemical issues polemically. Beck is a highly polemic figure, but in this regard he is no different than the rest of the television “news” personalities. Polemics makes for great television; it wins network ratings. However, polemics requires a level of sophistry that is repugnant to philosophers—sophistry is the dazzling use of arguments and counterarguments with the goal of persuasion. Philosophy, by contrast, is not directly interested in persuasion.
In a 1984 interview with Paul Rabinow, later published as “Polemics, Politics, and Problematization,” Foucault is very clear: polemics is “nothing more than theater.”1 Theater is a good word to describe television news as a genre. Few people watch television news, especially cable news, to get objective, raw facts about world affairs. These programs are forms of entertainment (whether we want to keep up the noble lie of journalistic objectivity or not) whose ultimate goal is to secure advertising revenue. If a show does not draw sufficient ratings to generate the network’s revenue goals, the show is cancelled, regardless of the accuracy of its reporting. In the end, television news is to today’s information consumers what sophist disputations were to the men of the ancient Greek agora.
The philosopher, on the other hand, is not interested in infotainment. From a philosophical point of view, polemicists are focused on the wrong goal. Foucault’s description of polemicists is interesting because he depicts them as wholly non-philosophical:
The polemicist [. . .] proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question [. . .] the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning.2
Immediately we see that this description applies to Beck. According to Beck, President Barack Obama is the head of an evil Marxist plot that seeks to destroy the nation’s character and bring the American way of life to a standstill by means of a totalitarian government. He must be stopped, and his cronies must be removed from office, or else we will lose everything that the Revolutionary War was fought for—faith, hope, and charity.3 Beck is weary of how churches have themselves fallen for this agenda, latching onto the political notion of “social justice” in the name of Christianity. This must stop, and we need to return to God, not the government, in order to restore honor to this country. Beck is a polemicist because he holds his “truths” to be self-evident, closing any possibility for true discourse.
Beck is not the only polemicist, however. Foucault’s description also describes many who are against Beck. According to these critics, Beck is simply an idiot, an enemy of progress, an insult to America’s intellectual capacity. He must be removed from the air before his minions (those brainwashed, narrow-minded, red-state white people—note that the polemics against Beck usually spills into an insult of Beck’s listeners and viewers) wreak havoc and elect Tea Party bigots who will turn back the hands of progress. Beck is deemed a threat to liberal democracy. Every error and blooper is recorded and mocked.
On both sides, it is clear that the goal is to win. Beck is a spin doctor, but so are all the more respected “news” personas out there. They all use rhetoric to persuade their demographic to support the things that they support, especially their advertisers. On the level of entertainment, this all comes across as good ratings-earning polemics. Unfortunately, academics writing about these polemics also fall into the polemics, forgetting that the academic task—the philosophical task—is to seek something other than entertainment.
The goal of philosophy is truth; it is not an exercise in entertainment. Foucault states at the beginning of “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” that his approach to philosophy “is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times.”4 Philosophy is not entertaining. Foucauldian methodology is descriptive; it consists in painstakingly explicating the layers of discourse that center on a particular theme. The task is to unfold and map the order of discourse as it erupts throughout history. Foucault does not consider discourse spontaneous and free but rather the actual way things are in the world; therefore, the analysis of discourse is itself a metaphysics of what is happening right now, or to use Foucauldian terms, “the history of the present.”
Instead of polemics, the Foucauldian philosopher must explore the conditions for the possibility of polemical positions:
To one single set of difficulties, several responses can be made. And most of the time different responses actually are proposed. But what must be understood is what makes them simultaneously possible: it is the point in which their simultaneity is rooted; it is the soil that can nourish them all in their diversity and sometimes in spite of their contradictions … [T]he work of a history of thought would be to rediscover at the root of these diverse solutions the general form of problematization that has made them possible—even in their very opposition … [I]t develops the conditions in which possible responses can be given; it defines the elements that will constitute what different solutions attempt to respond to.5
Philosophers must go beneath the surface of disagreements and ask what makes these disagreements possible. This requires archaeological description, not mere dismissals or taking of sides. One must find intelligibility in each side of a disagreement—what undergirds, for example, both Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart? Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow? Those of us who write on these people and the issues they address need to move from polemics to problematization. What is the current state of discourse that leads to these particular voices? As I will show later, one way to deal with problematization is to examine which statements of the discourse are currently privileged and which are subjugated. A Foucauldian philosopher always pays attention to what is not counted as knowledge at any given moment along with what does count as knowledge. The Foucauldian sees discourse as a site where opposing knowledges, opposing principles of intelligibility, do battle. What we need to do as philosophers is map the battlefield, not place bets on the winner.6
Glenn Beck and the Ubu-esque
The term Ubu-esque comes from Alfred Jarry’s 1893 play Ubu Roi, which tells the story of a king who is, for all his power, a humorously ugly imbecile. Everything connected to him is a farce, including allusions to Shakespearean tragic kings. Ubu is completely childish and acts without thought of consequence; his subjects mock him. In French, the term has become associated with the negative feeling one has about politics. Foucault rejects this strictly insulting connotation and focuses more on Jarry’s plotline. The difference, however, is that Foucault is not doing satire or theater of the absurd. Foucault defines the Ubu-esque in terms of the grotesque in his 1974-1975 lecture course Abnormal:
I am calling grotesque the fact that [. . .] a discourse or an individual can have effects of power that their intrinsic qualities should disqualify them from having. The grotesque, or, if you prefer, the Ubu-esque, is not just a term of abuse or an insulting epithet, and I would not like to use it that way.7
Foucault’s point is that we must take seriously any power that disguises itself as incompetence. Foucault uses the persona of Ubu to represent a particular movement of power, not a person:
Ubu-esque terror, grotesque sovereignty, or, in starker terms, the maximization of effects of power on the basis of the disqualification of the one who produces them. I do not think this is an accident or mechanical failure in the history of power. It seems to me that it is one of the cogs that are an inherent part of the mechanisms of power. Political power [. . .] can give itself [. . .] the possibility of conveying its effects and [. . .] of finding their source, in a place that is manifestly, explicitly, and readily discredited as odious, despicable, or ridiculous [. . .] a disqualification that ensured that the person who possessed maietas, that is to say, more power than any other person was, at the same time [. . .] a despicable, grotesque, and ridiculous individual.8
It is not Beck the person who is dangerous here; the monstrosity is the power that flows through him. Taylor Branch says it best when he states that Beck is “a damaged product of family tragedy, failed education, and past addiction—mercurial and unsure, like many of his hard-pressed audience.”9 Beck is an anti-hero for those who have not had it so easy in life. But what qualifies him to be such an icon?
Beck’s recent Restoring Honor rally in Washington, DC, on August 28, 2010 raised some eyebrows, but in a way different than many expected. Most people anticipated a Tea Party rally at which Beck would spew political venom against the Obama administration and call the country to get rid of progressives. Instead, Beck called the country back to God in what Ruth Marcus called a “creepy church picnic:” “It was all revival meeting, not political fireworks. The news reports accurately likened the atmosphere to that of a church picnic, and no reporter wants to write about a church picnic.” David Weigel concurs, stating that “Beck’s rally was about as angry as a Teletubbies episode” and that “Democrats who pre-butted Beck’s rally by predicting an overtly political hateananny were played for suckers.” Of note here is that Beck, for all of the hype and setup for this rally, failed to deliver a revolutionary event. Christopher Hitchens describes the rally as “large, vague, moist, and undirected [. . .] quite largely confined to expressions of pathos and insecurity, voiced in a sickly and pious tone.”10 Beck’s rally, which was both mocked and feared leading up to the event, turned out to be nothing more than a religious demonstration that took place without incident. This bait-and-switch shows that his power to draw between 87,000 and 300,000 people (the high and low estimates of the crowd at the rally) is in direct conflict with his planning for and message of the event. One could say, Foucauldianly, that the rally was a monstrosity, a strange mixture of political pathos and genuine religious conviction, mixing together in a very unnatural way.
Some evangelicals have pointed out that Beck is seen by many to be the new voice of the Religious Right, a fact that should be deemed strange given that Beck was raised Roman Catholic and is currently a member of the Church of Jesus Christ for Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism). Evangelicals usually consider Mormonism a heterodox cult due to its belief that human beings will someday become gods and that God use to be a human (among other beliefs that go against orthodox views of the trinity, salvation, biblical history, etc.). Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to the rally by directly indicting the crowd of falling for Mormonism disguised as Christian conservatism:
A Mormon television star stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial and calls American Christians to revival. He assembles some evangelical celebrities to give testimonies, and then preaches a God and country revivalism that leaves the evangelicals cheering that they’ve heard the gospel, right there in the nation’s capital. The news media pronounces him the new leader of America’s Christian conservative movement, and a flock of America’s Christian conservatives have no problem with that [. . .] Mormonism and Mammonism are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They offer another Lord Jesus than the One offered in the Scriptures and Christian tradition [. . .] Any “revival” that is possible without the Lord Jesus Christ is a “revival” of a different kind of spirit than the Spirit of Christ (1 Jn. 4:1-3).11
Beck’s Mormonism presents a monstrosity to Beck’s Ubu-esque persona. He is often lumped in with the Religious Right, but most members of that group would immediately reject Beck’s religious beliefs. So how is it that a Mormon has become the popular religious voice of American conservatism? There are those, including evangelical megachurch pastor Jim Garlow, who have argued that Beck is not really a Mormon in light of some statements Beck makes about atonement and salvation, but that just increases the level of monstrosity. Whether Beck is a Mormon or not is an interesting question to debate inside the question of whether Beck is the voice of the American religious conservative movement because it suggests that he might not be qualified for either politics or religious discussion, yet he is prevalent in both circles right now. The Religious Right has to follow him yet discredit him in the same way Democrats have to fight him while discrediting him.
The Ubuesque also appears as buffoonery. To his critics, Beck comes off as a conspiracy-crazy buffoon. This is the depiction of Beck given by Stewart, who often imitates and mocks Beck on The Daily Show.12 Beck’s buffoon persona, however, is actually very effective. Foucault points out that “[p]ower provided itself with an image in which power derived from someone who was theatrically got up and depicted as a clown or a buffoon.” This buffoonery takes the form of a pedagogical act. Beck presents information on a chalkboard with pictures of the people he is discussing. His bibliography is impressive. His plasma screen shows clips of events and quotations from speeches, letters, and historical texts. What is comical about all of this “academic” setup is that Beck is no professor. Beck is a pundit who presents himself as an educated, informed citizen. He plays the role of an expert. This is not a role invented by Beck; pundits are always faux experts. Foucault states that “[b]uffoonery and the function of the expert are one and the same: it is as a functionary that the expert is really a clown.”13 We must remember that all pundits are actually entertainers. Stewart often parodies Beck, for example, but Stewart does his punditry as a comedian, as a clown. Yet many treat The Daily Show as an actual news show instead of the comedy show that it is. The problem here equally applies to Stewart and Beck: what qualifies either of them to speak about our country’s problems?
For all of this, however, Foucault believes that we should take these clowns seriously. Foucault reasserts this over and over in his Abnormal lectures, especially after reading a somewhat humorous psychiatric evaluation submitted to courts in a series of famous murder trials: “As for myself, I would rather study the effects of power produced in reality by a discourse that is at the same time statutory and discredited.”14 For Foucault, calling Beck a clown and an unqualified commentator of American society does very little good. In fact, attacks on Beck actually increase his ratings and spread his influence. For all the repulsion one might feel, one must take Glenn Beck seriously insofar as there are many effects of power that are produced through him (not by him).
What is this power? Foucault always reminds us that people do not “have” power; rather, they are in positions of power that they themselves do not own. Beck is simply a placeholder (lieu-tenant) in the overall arrangement of power. Obama, for example, is another placeholder. Questions worth asking from a Foucauldian point of view include: “Why does Beck embody the resistance to the Obama administration?” and “What features of Beck’s personality, style, themes, et cetera help support Obama’s personality, style, themes, et cetera?” Is Beck to Obama what Newt Gingrich was to Bill Clinton? We must ask who benefits from the power that flows through Glenn Beck. It might be the Tea Party, but it could just as easily be the Democratic Party. There are many who benefit from Beck holding the place he does in the overall order of discourse and arrangement of power. To simply write off Beck’s alleged buffoonery would be to overlook the how of power.
Foucault believes that power is everywhere and that we should not be unnerved by that fact. Although the claim that power is everywhere feels binding, Foucault argues that it is quite liberating:
I do not think that explicitly showing power to be abject, despicable, Ubu-esque, or simply ridiculous is a way of limiting its effects and of magically dethroning the person to whom one gives the crown. Rather, it seems to me to be a way of giving a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.15
If we only think of power negatively, this would be a frightening claim. It would suggest that there is nothing anyone can do in response to the ubiquitous flow of power. This negative view fails to recognize that we too are part of the flow of power. Power is everywhere, including our own position in the overall arrangement of power. Resistance is made possible by power itself. Agreement and disagreement are likewise moments of power. Those who agree with Beck do so in order to increase their power; those who disagree with Beck are trying to preserve their power against his force.
We must be vigilant in our observations of power, not to overthrow it, but to see and map its flow, to keep it from surprising us, to plan the practices of freedom that correctly map onto the course of power. We must pay attention to Beck in order to respond to him (either positively or negatively). Failure to do so leads to a misunderstanding of the current arrangement of power, leaving one’s efforts of resistance futile. Beck does not generate his own power and influence; he is simply the mouthpiece for truly existing sentiments that have been bottled up for quite some time. There are people who think the nation is not going the way it ought, which is a permissible position to have in a democracy, and these people have empowered Beck to speak for them. If he were communicating foreign ideas, ideas that his audience did not already have, no one would resonate with him. If he were not hitting a nerve in American discourse, his critics would simply dismiss him instead of attempting to silence his voice. Attacks on Beck are not merely attacks on Beck; they are attacks on the people who empower Beck to be their representative in the field of public discourse.
Subjugated Conservative Knowledges
Beck’s message is perhaps one of the best contemporary examples of what Foucault would call “subjugated knowledge.” Foucault gives two descriptions of subjugated knowledge in the 1975-1976 lecture course Society Must Be Defended: (1) “historical contents that have been buried or masked in functional coherences or formal systematizations” and (2) “a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges [. . .] naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledge, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity.”16
The knowledge that Beck claims to impart to his audience falls into both of these descriptions. First, Beck loves to quote old documents, especially those that connect progressivism with Marxism, Nazism, and Stalinism. He points out quotations from people that, given his interpretation of them, should rightfully manufacture concern. He validates old American ideals that some would now consider obsolete or old-fashioned. He talks about George Washington with the same sense of hope that others use when describing Barack Obama (evidenced by the large Obama campaign-styled “Hope” poster Beck created with Washington’s face instead of Obama’s). But old American ideals and presidential heroic myths of a cherry tree and Washington’s honesty no longer fit into our current formal systematizations or Realpolitik. Many people are not interested in the original intentions of the framers of the Constitution, so Beck’s approach to the Constitution is seen as uninformed by the whole of history. It seems strange that Beck would want to return to the America of 1787.
Second, critics often classify Beck’s information as “conspiracy theory” which could be better classified as “naive knowledge,” that is, more than baseless opinion (he is, after all, citing real texts and quotations) but definitely “below the required level of erudition or scientificity.” Imagine Beck were a history professor at a major university whose specialty was the politics of the 1930s. Citing texts from that time, Beck would claim that progressivism in the 1930s sought to radically alter American republicanism. No one would call it conspiracy theory then because Professor Beck would have already been authorized to make such claims. In the actual world, however, Beck is disqualified from making these claims because he lacks the proper credentials to be taken seriously, regardless of the quantity of literature he cites. In parodies of Beck, the conspiracy theories presented are truly conspiracy theories; if one had never seen Beck’s show, the parodies make it seems as if he is talking about UFOs or the Matrix. That is not the case. What he is doing is better described in terms of subjugated knowledge. He makes claims that the dominant forces of discourse no longer deem to be valid. In this sense, Beck is untimely, not in the interesting futuristic way Nietzsche was untimely, but rather in the sense that Benjamin Franklin coming to the present time is untimely. One of the reasons Beck seems compelling is that his arguments were made in the past, therefore triggering old cultural sentiments that feel right because they once indeed were considered correct.
We should immediately notice that the Foucauldian question that follows should therefore be “Who is fighting so hard to eliminate this old cultural sentiment?” We should wonder what other force is at play that creates the friction between Beck’s claims and the other claims we hear in the media. At the moment, the dominant discourse in America is, for the most part, progressive (regardless of party). Both parties want to use the federal government to regulate things, be those things values (e.g., abstinence-only education) or social programs (e.g., healthcare). Beck challenges progressivism as un-American, or at least as radically different from the America that the original colonists intended. The battle between Beck and his opponents is whether or not America should keep its original definition. Because progressivism is the dominant discourse, claims that America should keep its original definition are disqualified as backward, a term that, of course, only has weight given the dominance of progressivism and its sense of moving forward. Beck correctly points out the massively increasing debt incurred as a result of progressives (both Democrats and Republicans), but given that such debt is required to bring about certain progressive social programs, his concern about debt is disregarded as merely a rhetorical distraction from having universal healthcare and pension benefits.
One must remember that there was a time in which progressivism was the disqualified discourse. It is now progressivism’s turn in the sun, and the tables have reversed. But Foucault is not interested in mere table turning. Philosophy looks at the overall battle and charts its unfolding. The scope of this essay does not afford the opportunity to chart the history of progressivism in the United States, but it suffices to say that one would find many Beck-like arguments in the dominant discourse fifty years ago. Progressives “won” out against more libertarian positions (this would also be what a polemicist would say, but in a different sense than Foucault means.). But how long will progressivism be “victorious”? Beck presents the losing side’s views at the moment, but so did Eugene Debs at the beginning of the twentieth Century. In the order of discourse, there are dominant discourses and subjugated knowledges, and the battle to determine whether a body of thought will achieve dominance or be subjugated is constantly being fought. Foucauldians are interested in the unfolding of this battle.
Against the desire of many, a Foucauldian must be intrigued with the fundamental problematization that makes Beck possible. Foucault says that his way of doing philosophy leads to “the insurrection of knowledges.”17 He always wants to look at the subjugated knowledges to see what moves of power and knowledge led to the current moment. When science legitimizes a given claim, what rival claims were excluded? What could be possible if we had chosen the other option? What would then be deemed legitimate and which knowledges would be subjugated? Foucault seeks to keep all knowledges on the map. He describes his method as
a sort of attempt to desubjugate historical knowledges, to set them free, or in other words to enable them to oppose and struggle against coercion of the unitary, formal, and scientific theoretical discourse. The project of these disorderly and tattled genealogies is to reactivate local knowledges [. . .] against the scientific hierarchicalization of knowledge and its intrinsic power-effects.18
Foucault attempts to reopen as many closed books as possible, searching for evidence of battles won and lost in the quest to determine how those who got the last word obtained it. Genealogy always leaves room for minority opinion to be the underdog in the constellation of knowledge, discourse, and power.
Foucauldians are always interested in claims that are disqualified as well as the people who get disqualified along with the disqualified claim. After all, not everyone in America is a progressive. By the rules of democracy, those voices were defeated by a series of elections over the twentieth century. But no self-appointed body gets to decide that progressivism gets the final say on what counts as progress. For a progressive, the progress is moving toward a progressive government. For the anti-progressive, however, this is not actually progress but decline. When Beck talks about “restoring” American values, the dominant progressive discourse responds “That’s not progressive!” This instantly turns Beck’s call for restoration into something backward, although for Beck it would actually result in moving forward. The only adjudication between these different senses of progress would be to acknowledge that progressivism is more discursively dominant right now, so the American Democracy Experiment counts the progressive understanding of progress as the true sense of the term. However, this discursive dominance is not guaranteed by anything. The American people can decide to be restorative and no longer progressive. The difference between the Foucauldian and the progressive polemicist is that the Foucauldian would not describe that decision to become more restorative as a backward movement, whereas the progressive polemicist would have no choice but to define the move as a lack of progress. It could be said that genealogy, in a nutshell, undoes disqualifications and restarts the original battle.
The existence of subjugated knowledges shows us that knowledge is never neutral; knowledge itself is a battle of forces. We should always inquire into this battle. As Foucault says, we need to “specify or identify what is at stake when knowledges begin to challenge, struggle against, and rise up against the institution and the power- and knowledge-effects of scientific discourse.”19 Although this statement is about science, it is equally true for other domains of knowledge. If progressivism is the current institutional form of American politics, then Beck is part of the struggle against this institution.
With this in mind, it is clear that the best way to understand Beck is to see him as part of the insurrection against progressivism, akin to the rabble rousers of the 1960s who convinced the younger American populous that the old-fashioned American value system was too racist, too sexist, too homophobic, too imperialist, et cetera and therefore needed to be changed in a fundamental way. That 1960s movement might be replaced by a new form of conservatism whose mouthpiece is Beck. If that conservatism comes, it will not be Beck’s fault; he is simply one voice of the greater insurrection. A Foucauldian writes it off as the ebb and flow of history. It is important to note that saying this does not take a side; the American voters will determine which path the country’s future will take. Polemicists sometimes claim that the American people have made mistakes in their voting, but as long as democracy allows people to vote their conscience, there are only winners and losers of the discursive battle—never mistakes.
I suggest that Beck be understood as the voice of a once-dominant form of knowledge (even power-knowledge) that is now either discredited as irrelevant or pleasantly deemed old-fashioned in a globalized world. Beck beckons those who still favor the old American system to come together and fight against the current dominant discourse. We do not have to take his side, but he is completely within his rights to do so. As the Tea Party movement shows, the old dominant discourse is still very much alive, and the liberal revolution is far from a total victory. Whether this is a good or bad thing will only reveal which side one is on. Imagine a Beck that was just like our world’s Beck but used all of his energy for progressive causes. That Beck would be heralded as an intelligent, passionate cheerleader for the cause. Given that Beck fights against the dominant view, however, he is polemically anathematized by the majority view. Unfortunately, instead of being a Foucauldian philosopher, Beck responds with pure polemics.
Multiplying Channels of Discourse
In the 1980 interview, “The Masked Philosopher,” Foucault recommends a proliferation of discourse. When asked about mass media, and how it has put too many voices into play and thereby created an intellectual void, Foucault responds from the completely opposite point of view: “What we are suffering from is not a void but inadequate means for thinking about everything that is happening. [. . .] The problem is to multiply the channels, the bridges, the means of information, the radio, and television networks, the newspapers.”20 Instead of getting certain voices off the air, Foucault proposes something else, namely a saturation of airwaves that fills the air with a whole variety of voices. A free-for-all exchange of ideas is what is needed. Media needs to provide vehicles for all knowledges, privileged and subjugated, to be expressed, leaving the listener and viewer free to pick and choose the information that will best guide their respective actions.
The current problem with cable news in America, Foucault would say, is that there are still not enough channels to correctly map the multitude of positions that are out there. Right now, Fox News is the only cable news network that offers a predominantly conservative viewpoint; so, why do we only have one of those? We always hear about the liberal bias of the media. So why not counterbalance it? There are many who actually do not agree with Beck but watch him anyway because Beck is the closest to their position. Therefore, Beck is carrying a lot of the conservative weight, not because he is right, but because there are so few other voices with his message out there. We need to multiply the voices.
Foucault is very aware that many would be worried about multiplying the number of voices and ideas, but we must get over our polemicist sense of “protectionist attitudes.”
So what is our problem? Too little: channels of communication that are too narrow, almost monopolistic, inadequate. We mustn’t adopt a protectionist attitude to stop “bad” information from invading and stifling the “good.” Rather, we must increase the possibility for movement backward and forward. This would not lead, as people often fear, to uniformity and leveling-down, but, on the contrary, to the simultaneous existence and differentiation of these various networks.21
By increasing the channels of communication, we force every voice to become one more voice, one more fact or set of facts to incorporate into one’s own view or throw away as irrelevant to our goals. Let Beck speak, but make his voice just one of many. After all, efforts to silence him only lend credence to his claims (why would people want him off the air otherwise?).
I believe that there are several types of voices that are not sufficiently present in our public discourse. We need more television networks, including non-“news” news channels. These channels would present a large variety of views from a large variety of people and personalities. It would feature voices that are like Beck but liberal. It would feature the conservative Rachel Maddows. It might have a show that parodies liberal news personalities in the way that The Colbert Report parodies conservatives. It could highlight evangelical liberals and atheist conservatives. We need gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and transsexual Rush Limbaughs who are critical of the Democrats. We need fiscally liberal voices that do not connect fiscal liberalism with social liberalism, and we need voices for fiscal conservatism that do not connect it with social conservatism. We need voices that approach all questions from a historical point of view, others that use a sociological point of view, and yet even others that simply do philosophy for the public (imagine that!).
These ideas would equally apply to the radio and newspapers. The Internet is still grossly underused. Everyone should be writing blogs and creating podcasts from a variety of positions and knowledges. These communications would not only express agreement and disagreement but also explore issues and offer recommendations on how this country can achieve its destiny. One could even question what we take that destiny to be. In an age where newspapers are going out of business, the multiplication of discourse could revive them. Everyone needs to write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor.
The problem is not that there is 24/7 news out there on television and on the Internet; the crisis is that there are not enough voices being expressed to make people feel it is worth their while to engage with the news. Multiplying the channels of communication would correct this, leaving no one able to talk about the “liberal media” or to describe Fox News as “evil.” This would be replaced with a free-for-all exchange of ideas and information. This would force people to think for themselves instead of believing that everything they see on TV or read in the paper is an unbiased truth. Beck would become just one of many voices and would therefore appear less dangerous to his critics. It would also free Beck from his critics, allowing his voice to have its rightful place in the battle for knowledge and truth.
1. Michel Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematization,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, vol. 1, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York, NY: The New Press, 1997), 112.
3. Beck uses the Obama campaign poster style to depict Samuel Adams (Faith), George Washington (Hope), and Benjamin Franklin (Charity).
4. Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Aestheics, Method, and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, vol. 2, ed. James D. Faubion (New York, NY: The New Press, 1998), 369.
5. Foucault, “Polemics,” 118.
6. I am aware that there are those who find this Foucauldian suggestion unsettling. As Mark David Wood writes, “The victims of racism, sexism, and exploitation would not get very far in their struggle to rid the world of these social ills on the basis of Foucault’s concept of power [. . .] Foucault’s theory of power loses its capacity to explain who uses power against whom and for what.” (Mark David Wood, Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism [Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000], 61). I would reply by pointing out that after this Foucauldian process happens, one can then fight on whichever side one wants. I would simply encourage thinkers to do the Foucauldian activity first instead of simply taking sides and then using intellectual arguments to support the side that they are on.
7. Michel Foucault, Abnormal. Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975, eds. Marchetti and Salomoni, trans. Graham Burchell (New York, NY: Picador, 2003), 11.
8. Ibid., 12.
9. Taylor Branch, “Dr. King’s Newest Marcher,” New York Times, September 4, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/opinion/05branch.html, accessed September 5, 2010.
10. Ruth Marcus, “Glenn Beck’s Creepy Church Picnic,” Seattle Times, September 1, 2010, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2012778419_marcus02.html, accessed September 1, 2010; David Weigel, “On the Mall with Brother Glenn,” Slate, August 28, 2010, http://www.slate.com/id/2265216, accessed September 4, 2010; and Christopher Hitchens, “White Fright,” Slate, August 30, 2010, http://www.slate.com/id/2265515, accessed September 1, 2010.
11. Russell D. Moore, “God, the Gospel, and Glenn Beck,” Christian Post, August 30, 2010, http://www.christianpost.com/article/20100830/god-the-gospel-and-glenn-beck/print.html, accessed September 4, 2010.
12. See http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-november-5-2009/the-11-3-project and http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-march-18-2010/conservative-libertarian for representative clips of Stewart parodying Beck.
13. Foucault, Abnormal, 13 and 36.
14. Ibid., 14.
15. Ibid., 13.
16. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976, eds. Bertani and Fontana, trans. David Macey (New York, NY: Picador, 2003), 7.
17. Ibid., 9.
18. Ibid., 10.
19. Ibid., 12.
20. Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” in Ethics, 325.
21. Ibid., 326.
Brad Elliott Stone
Brad Elliott Stone is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University. He specializes in twentieth-century continental philosophy (especially Heidegger and Foucault) and pragmatism.