The following is my presentation at the 2009 Green Fest.
We are gathered together, both here and within the Green Party overall, because we want to engage in the great political work of the day. It is a day that is truly benighted where peace, civil liberties, communities, and our own environment is threatened by a comprehensive system of power. If we are to fight this power then there is the necessity to understand its operation, how it functions and consolidates its influence to such a degree that at first blush it seems impossible to oppose it. This is where theory comes in as a supplement to political action. I will give some examples of what theory can do to enrich our work, and illustrate that theory is not only an embellishment or flavoring to action, but a vital binding agent that makes our actions sensible.
Theory can basically be defined as the way to explain how something works. In science we have various theories on how the universe operates, not only explaining how it works but why it works as opposed to another possible method. And in the larger debate concerning evolution versus creationism, we can see that the use of the word theory should not discourage one from believing that a well-formed theory that can be proven through perception can be an accurate description of reality. The same can be said of theories that apply to the social, political, cultural, and economic as well. Theory does not have to be relegated to the ethereal domain of highly abstract metaphysics that have no relationship to everyday experiences for human beings. Georg Lukacs proposed that as practice can be the objective expression of theory, theory can be the subjective understanding and consciousness of practice. In fact, since a theory can be considered an explanation, it has a structural aspect that directly impacts reality in much the same way as other structures. The system of a language as an example of a structure shows that there is a general background and particular actions. For language, humans find themselves always already within a system that has a vocabulary and grammar, but it is human speech that makes various combinations of words and sentences that is not specifically predetermined. In comparison, those who engage in progressive activism and electoral politics can take up what others have already studied in order to find new applications of theory. This theoretical background and application can work in tandem in order to promote an understanding of power, meaning, and production as well as a self-awareness of the human role in these systems. In other words, the immediate goal of theory is to advance knowledge, and that is a very important factor in political action.
It goes without saying that the old adage “knowledge is power” is as true today as it ever was. Incorporating theory into action is something that is more of a necessity for our goals than just a slight supplement to the Green Party. If we are willing to see political action as a material manifestation of what we want to achieve, then we must also conclude that political theory is the immaterial manifestation, the other side of the proverbial coin. And like a coin, it can be very difficult to observe both sides at the same time. But they are most definitely connected, with theory and practice supporting each other. The inability to readily perceive both at the same time can be problematic. The appearance of theory in itself can be too abstract for everyday comprehension, while the appearance of action in itself can be easily assimilated into the two-party system. In other words, theory can look as if it is unrelated to human needs and action can be defined as a side project within the dominant two major parties that will weaken such action and take away its significance for real change. Therefore, the relationship between theory and action must be understood as reciprocal despite the hardship of viewing them together. Theory is the general background for particular political actions. Theory is also the ability to communicate a general viewpoint that is also a worldview, and for us would be a Green perspective on reality. Political action is the ability to practice a transformation of the social, political, cultural, and economic fields of reality. A successful transformation requires the interaction of theory and practice. The vital aspect to point out is that action without a theoretical foundation can be disbursed into isolated things by the structure of power, and theory without its expression into concrete action can be seen simply as academic conversation. In either case, the transformation that we would seek would be harder to accomplish if not outright impossible. Frankly, we had elements of this phenomenon already occurring during the 1990’s. The various cases of activism, and even the significant work of Ralph Nader, were ignored by both the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress as they moved forward with the neoliberal capitalist agenda. Theory was exiled to the universities under the overarching term of “Cultural Studies” where some valid critiques of the relationship between power and meaning were conducted, but in most cases it became an easy target for the conservative offensive in the culture wars. It was assumed that activists would automatically vote Democrat regardless of the collaboration on policy between the White House and Congress. The theorists were relegated to a straw man misinterpretation in order to illustrate the failings of being a “liberal” regardless of what Democrats actually did in government. In fact, these superficial accusations maintained the appearance that there was a divergence between Democrats and Republicans that obscured the reality of a convergence in terms of policy and perpetuating the status quo. Those in power were able to diminish both theory and practice by keeping them separate. And this was the political reality that the 21st century inherited. There was the possibility of a realization of theory and practice joined together in the emerging anti-globalization movement at that time. Unfortunately, September 11th of 2001 was used to weaken that movement and recalibrate the political landscape in favor of the existing structures of power. But the fact that the anti-globalization movement grew outside of the two-party system is significant. It demonstrated that theory and practice can find fertile ground, and this is a characteristic which the Green Party can handily emulate. Outside of the Democrats and Republicans, there is the presentation of the Green Party as not only new but more than what has been assumed in political parties. This presentation is the strongest way to influence modern politics at a time where business as usual has seemed to run into its inevitable dead end. And we must use theory and action together to insure our status as an alternative that, to paraphrase our 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Rosa Clemente, is also an imperative.
For the sake of clarification on what theory would look like, I will summarize the ideas of three philosophers. Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou, and Gilles Deleuze all arise from poststructuralism. As structuralism was a school of philosophy that proposed that reality was determined by various structures, poststructuralism holds that these structures have limitations and therefore they can be taken apart and analyzed. The work of poststructuralism can be a rich resource for our political work since we as the Green Party obviously struggle against various forms of power on a daily basis. I would argue that our activities, through poststructuralism, can also look at the influence of structures of meaning and production on the lives of citizens alongside structures of power. Our struggle can make these structures apparent and immanent, rather than having them remain in an appearance of naturalness and timelessness as transcendent figures. By looking at the three examples of Foucault, Badiou, and Deleuze we will not only have a sense of how to begin theory. We will also begin to see a new definition of progressive politics as the work of immanence against transcendence in public life.
Michel Foucault’s work can be seen as a development through the three stages or ideas of knowledge, power, and the self. Early in his career he looked at how knowledge was organized through various academic discourses in his book “The Order Of Things” and later “The Archeology Of Knowledge”. He then transitioned into how discourses worked in conjunction with systems of power by looking at the various social institutions of the hospital, the insane asylum, and the prison in the books “The Birth Of The Clinic”, “Madness And Civilization”, and “Discipline and Punish” respectively. Along with numerous essays and transcribed lectures, Foucault’s philosophical work came to the apex with his three volumes of “The History Of Sexuality” where he explored the possibility of an ethics to deal with knowledge and power. In this work he proposed that ethics must begin as an acknowledgement and attitude toward the self before it can be an attitude toward others. Unfortunately, his untimely death in 1984 prevented this trilogy from being completed. The flow of his work is comprehensive in nature, each stage incorporating the previous stage while also illustrating how each stage is interconnected. As his work progressed, Foucault emerged from being a mere sociologist to being someone directly engaged in the political sphere and what it entails. I contend that his work can be seen as a model of how theory can be applied to practice, and will also put forth the idea that the stages of his work can be used to organize the relevant relationship between himself and Badiou and Deleuze. In other words, the three stages of knowledge, power, and the self can be used as examples of describing how things were, how things change, and how they could be.
Since Foucault was never able to finish the articulation of his final stage, I will present his work as the description of how things were. Human knowledge is shaped by sets of discourse, and these discourses act as the determination of truth and facts. A discourse is a system of meaning used to explain reality. However, the appearance of truth as reality obscures the visibility of the system of meaning. The structure of the discourse recedes into the background as reality is explained to humans. Therefore, it seems that finding truth is just a matter of a direct perception of reality, but what actually occurs is an active exclusion of the false from the true as facts are organized within discourses. Discourses are the invisible mediation of reality that contain and limit the expression of reality. As one moves from one discourse to another, the change in emphasis can hint at how reality is actively sorted and classified by structures of meaning that build human knowledge. We might have hints as to a reality external to any human discourse, but it is never complete and we are unable to understand it. In order to understand reality, a discourse must always be there and these discourses are never completely neutral or objective. In the examination of power, one finds structures of meaning forming and operating in a simultaneous way with structures of power. Power in reality is a potential expressed by all individuals through choices and actions. But this form of power as simple force can be consolidated through institutions. Inequalities of power can develop and manifest themselves as what we usually recognize as the power of government or military might. However, the institutions that collect power do not necessarily need brute force. These institutions initiate the same process of containment and limitation that one would see in discourses. What emerges from the structures of power is discipline and regulation. The discipline of individuals creates the identity of the subject, and the regulation of groups creates the identity of the population. In this new attitude of power, the role of government becomes that of a control that is not motivated by a self interest of a ruler, but a system that preserves life to such a degree that it intercedes on the ability of individuals to make their own choices. In other words, this continuous control seeks to increase a bodily and biological productivity while decreasing any transgression or resistance from this system. With a system of control that becomes more impersonal, and some would argue scientific, the issue of ethics becomes more important as a response. Ethics is the care of the self which can be a resistance to both discourse and discipline. Tracing the history of ethics, one finds that in the ancient world there was the question of how one should live. In the early modern era the question was how one should act. There can thus follow the potential for the question of how one might live. This final question requires the need for individuals to make choices in order to shape their future and be an active participant in their own being. Here is where Foucault saw the chance to escape the expansion of power that occurred through a system of control, spreading out from the prisons, hospitals, schools, and barracks of a society. The exact details of this ethics is still open to interpretation.
Alain Badiou, in contrast, has devoted most of his career to the examination of the event. He uses this term, the event, specifically as the point of change from a structured reality to a new opportunity for truth that is free of any bindings. The event can be a revolution, and Badiou has used the French Revolution as an example of a past event, but it is not restricted solely to revolutions. Another characteristic of his work is his use of set theory from mathematics to explain being, even going so far as to say that “mathematics is ontology”. In the 1980’s he wrote his master work “Being And Event” which is the starting point of his philosophy, and most recently completed his sequel “Logique Des Mondes” which has just been translated into English as “Logics Of Worlds”. Badiou begins with things as they are and he uses set theory to show how various structures organize reality. The advantage to set theory is that it is a branch of mathematics that does not require complex equations and can be visualized as things contained within boxes. How they are contained in these proverbial boxes is based on some arbitrary grouping rather than a common trait they all share. And there can be boxes within boxes as the things are subdivided into smaller groups. It should be noted that the things in these boxes can be members of different subsets simultaneously according to the multiple ways they can be organized. There are various permutations of how these things can be grouped together. Using this basic understanding of set theory can illustrate how Badiou explains reality and its structuration, as well as prepare the stage for how the event can disrupt this situation.
Reality in itself is a multiplicity of differences, where each part that exists is absolutely different from all other parts. Each attempt to fathom reality is an arbitrary grouping together within one set. This set, where reality is contained in one general term in order to understand it, is called the counting as one. Even though this set tries to unify reality, reality will always exceed the counting as one. The counting as one is a finite snapshot of an infinite reality as a starting point for an understanding of that reality. There is always a surplus or excess that will be a factor during the event later on. The structuring of reality therefore appears to be universal but is only one particular attempt among many structures. In this process, a structure can be complete and inconsistent or incomplete and consistent, but it can never be both. Each structure, as it takes on the appearance of a universal knowledge of reality, will develop internal contradictions. These internal contradictions reflect the surplus of reality that is still not contained by these various structures. This instability of structural formations allows for reality to impose itself into what is structured through the event. The relationship of structures to the event is that of an established knowledge of reality as it is ruptured by the reality that can not be included by this knowledge. For humans, this knowledge is always preexisting and ubiquitous. The mediation of structures is the inclusion and exclusion of specific parts of reality. However, the event is a sudden occurrence that can not be predicted, is unique each time it occurs, and has a universal affect. The change it enacts is total and sudden. The event, as a disruption of existing structures, is also the introduction of an infinite reality into these structures. We get a glimpse into reality as an absolute multiplicity. The event changes what is considered natural and eternal. After the event, everything is at stake and everything becomes apparent to humans. Its consequences is referred to as the fidelity to the event, which is the exploration of the truth by individuals without recourse to the structures that were taken apart by the event. Badiou would theorize that truth could be discovered through the four procedures of politics, science, art, and love. The event is the space of opportunity for this fidelity where decisions can be made that would have been limited within structures. In other words, the event allows for the full participation of freedom and its responsibilities. The event is revolutionary without being defined solely as a physical or political revolution. Since there are no longer predeterminations in the aftermath of the event, the practice of freedom directed toward truth is a decision on whether new methods for truth are created or whether new restricting structures develop. Structures that are formed after the event can either be instruments for truth and freedom or a return to the seemingly universal containment of reality where individuals are denied direct participation. How this truth is found is up to individuals as free individuals who are committed to the discovery.
Gilles Deleuze, a contemporary of both Foucault and Badiou, developed a theory of being that would later be elaborated into a precise political theory. His career began with works on various thinkers such as Hume, Nietzsche, and Bergson that would interpret their theories in a direction that could produce new ideas. His own ontology began with his works “Difference And Repetition” and “Logic Of Sense” that attempted to explain how the new was produced in reality in terms of subjects, objects, and systems. He described a process where the virtual, defined as infinite possibilities within reality, was actualized into specific combinations that would produce both living and nonliving things. This perpetual construction of reality that could be experienced was the foundation for an interaction between the virtual and the actual that defined being as a process of becoming. Becoming would occur as a process starting from the virtual as the general state of existence to the actual as the particular case of being. This analysis of being and how it operates was given a new application when he collaborated with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari on the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, known respectively as “Anti-Oedipus” and “A Thousand Plateaus”. For Deleuze, political activity and theory must be based on a sense of being and existence, and his political work with Guattari expresses this sentiment clearly. In other words, how political systems are formed is similar to how any system is formed in reality, whether it is biological, economic, cultural, or mechanical.
Deleuze shares with Badiou a conceptualization of reality in itself as a multiplicity of absolute difference. For Deleuze, this is an adaptation from Spinoza, who posited reality as one single substance from which characteristics divide up reality. Deleuze’s sense of being is a transition from the difference of quality in itself to a difference of quantity within distinct elements such as subjects, objects, and systems. Humans experience this difference within the repetition of time, where each repetition within a different moment in time produces something different regardless of other similar traits. For example, one chair can be built at one time period, and one hour later another chair that is a perfect copy can be built. Despite the same physical properties, the change in time determines that there can never be an exact repetition of the same chair. For Deleuze, this change in time is expressed through three dimensional space. The movement, from reality in itself with its one substance and differences in quality to various things with differences in quantity that make up experienced reality, is referred to as the movement from the virtual to the actual. Both the virtual and the actual are real and exist simultaneously to each other. The virtual as possibility becomes the actual as material and ideal reality. The virtual is all nascent combinations of parts of reality that are manifested into particular things through the formation of structures. Structures are constructed through innate difference, and difference can be seen as the engine for this construction. Structures themselves are also the products of actualization. This actualization process occurs within a human context, making it easier to be perceived by humans, but it also occurs in the world among matter independent of human intervention. For our discussion, we will concentrate on the human sphere of actualization. The question that now emerges is whether these structural formations out of the virtual are eternal or constantly changing. Because the virtual is never exhausted by the actualization process, the actual can always dissipate back into the virtual in order to be actualized again in a different way. Deleuze uses the three terms territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization when describing this process. A territorialization is a formation of a structure, deterritorialization is the breaking up of a structure into its parts, and reterritorialization is the formation of a new structure from these parts. What appears, disappears, and reappears in this transition is the relationships among parts rather than the parts themselves. The parts are reality in itself that exist in the virtual and are shaped in the actual. The political ramification is whether the movement through these three terms result in transcendence or immanence. Transcendence is the formation of absolute structures from particular formations and can be seen in a territorialization that never deterritorializes. The actualization in this case becomes static and the structure in question appears to be a universal and top-down kind of truth. On the other hand, immanence is the recognition that parts in a structure exist on the same level to each other, and the structure itself is on the same level as the reality it organizes. After a deterritorialization, the new emerging structures can either be transcendent or immanent depending on how dynamic is the actualization. In the context of the Green Party, and independent progressive politics, it is clear that immanence is the side that we are on as it resembles grassroots democracy and decentralization. In his political analysis, immanence is also the position supported by Deleuze.
As can be seen, a productive process occurs in reality. Humans participate in this process by actively creating structures alongside structures forming in nature. The slight distinction is that humans create structures for specific purposes, and the starting point is human desire. Deleuze, in his work with Guattari, rejects the common held opinion that desire is based on a lack within individual humans that motivates them to need something external to them to fulfill their need. Passive consumerism is an example of desire as lack, and this can be part of the restrictive characteristic of capitalism overall. Human desire is described as desiring-production that engages with a process of absolute deterritorialization and relative reterritorialization. Instead of having monolithic structures where humans are embedded within them and controlled by them, desiring-production is the creation of small structures that can be practical tools. Overall there is a breaking apart of large universal structures which in turn is the space for particular structures to emerge and fade away when no longer needed. These small structures are called molecular while top-down impositions of structures are referred to as molar. The importance of this large open space for small and local creativity, what Deleuze has called a body without organs, is the ability for a becoming on a molecular scale and a micropolitics within transcendent and molar reality. The small immanent structures are the organs that form for molecular uses, that serve a purpose without expanding beyond the power and control of human desire. The real stage for political action is not universal and centralized methods, that can inadvertently recreate domination, but the particular and decentralized structures which are expressions of desire. The desiring-production within a body without organs is this very expression of freedom through desire, and for Deleuze it is the epicenter of revolutionary political potential. It should be noted that the idea of desiring-production, as the creation of immanent structures, is not entirely an abstract endeavor relegated to the production of consumer goods or art. In light of what has been described as immanent structures, it is important to point out that these immanent structures can be directly applied to what Greens do on an almost daily basis. In other words, examples of immanent structures can be solar panels for home-use, a food coop in the local community, or a series of specific laws that would repeal the entire War On Drugs in favor of realistic classifications of chemical effects and consequences.
Michel Foucault delved deep into how structures shape the human experience of reality as a way to control humans. Alain Badiou explored the possibilities that would emerge from the sudden disruption of these kind of structures. Gilles Deleuze proposed the needed attitude toward recreating the world after this disruption. They are all relevant to each other as well as to the greater political implications and applications that we are interested in. The ability to be used in conjunction has demonstrated that these three philosophers are useful for an overall project of theory. We can see the close relationship between control, change, and desire through Foucault, Badiou, and Deleuze and how one moves into the other. The transition from control to change to desire is inherently a political issue, and can be one of the many ways theory illuminates as it is seriously engaged.
These three examples are not completely exclusive. There is great potential in other examples such as Giorgio Agamben, Cornelius Castoriadis, Guy Debord, and Slavoj Zizek among others. I recommended all of them as a wonderful source of thought for further personal exploration. The important point to address is that theses theorists create a foundation for a cohesive political action. Because these theorists deal specifically with issues of power, meaning, and production, they are just as important in our work as running candidates in elections, staging protests, and addressing our grievances to democratically elected governments that is supposedly insured by our Constitution. It can be said that our melding of theory and action is an implementation of populism in a more progressive and radical fashion. Reform populism can be defined as people coming together to form collectives of opposition because they feel that there are elements or persons in the government and society that is going against the original purpose of a democracy. They are limited in that they feel that the system overall naturally works and can be fixed by removing specific parts. There is only so much they can do to enact change. On the other hand, our form of radical populism seeks to use these collectives of opposition to begin an analysis and transformation of not only the government, not only the society, but perhaps all of reality.
In conclusion, and in summation, the words of Foucault and Deleuze can best describe the importance of theory. In his essay “What Is Enlightenment?”, Foucault states that “The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”. This quote fits in well with the following quote by Deleuze, that states “A theory is exactly like a tool-box. It must be useful, it must work. And not for itself. If there are no people to use it, including the theoretician himself who thereby ceases to be a theoretician, then either the theory is worthless or else the time is not ripe.”. Our use of theory can fulfill this function of transformation as Foucault poses it, and be a tool for political action as described by Deleuze. This transformation must begin with personal empowerment and the actions of people through real democracy, but it will always require a language. Theory can be that language in which we as the Green Party can write a new narrative for this nation and this world.