It was my pleasure recently to be invited by the ‘Always Already Podcast’ team to put in a guest appearance on their show, and respond to their recent episode on Martijn Konings’s fascinating book, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism. They offered me a 10-minute slot, and ran it in Episode 19 of their Epistemic Unruliness series. Below, you can find a slightly edited and extended version of my remarks, which were provoked by their own engagement with Konings’s book, but also by my own, continuing work on austerity and recession in Ireland. For ease of reading’s sake, I have added in some material from remarks I made at another talk I gave on February 17, this year, at Ohio State’s ‘Research in International Politics’ (RIP) group, entitled Austerity as Tragedy? From Neoliberal Governmentality to the Critique of Late Capitalist Control:
Foucault often spoke of critique in vague terms. A truth that “functions as a weapon,” on the one hand, but which can “light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it,” on the other. Statements like these appear to us as riddles. But what is critique for Foucault, really? One fascinating answer to this question can be found in his short piece, “What is Enlightenment?”
Now, I confess, when I was in graduate school I used to think this was one of the toughest bits of Foucault reading out there. I suppose I still do. Where I really struggle is later in the piece, when he gets into the opposition between two ideal types, the man of the modern world and the flâneur. Here, he paraphrases Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as one who adopts “the spectator’s posture.” It seems to me that the flâneur is kind of a drop out, or somehow self-involved – a cynical figure who refuses to engage with the world around him. Either way, against this passive figure (which Foucault does not praise), the modern man has an active stance in the world. His being in the world somehow changes it, but not fundamentally. Foucault observes that the modern man’s attitude towards the world, and himself, involves both ambition and acceptance of certain limits to that ambition. That is, it “does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom.” In this sense, modern man is he who strives to take what is natural in the world, including his own self, and make it somehow more than it was. And the emblematic figure of the modern subject here is the dandy, the ultimate entrepreneur of himself, who is compelled constantly to “invent himself” in relation to those limits. Perfect, or at least moving towards some sort of optimal state.