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Foucoult's Hair

by Luigi Corvaglia

I- Two Frenchmen

If I said that the thing I most appreciate about Michel Foucault is his hairstyle, surely someone would point out that the philosopher was bald. If, however, I said that what I most appreciate about him is his anarchism, no one would object. Anarchism provides love for freedom as much as a hairstyle involves hair. However, while the baldness of the Frenchman is a clear and demonstrable fact, the man himself belonged to a line of thought – post-modernism – that denies attributing value to facts, by lowering them to the rank of opinions. Instead, the decanted liberating value of his thought is just an opinion raised to a fact. We can see a valid example of Foucault’s love for freedom by reading his enthusiastic reportage from Khomeini’s integralist Iran.

Indeed, sent to Teheran by the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera at the beginning of the 1979 revolution, Foucault was conquered by the “beauty” of the Ayatollah’s medieval regime. To those who asked him how he could find a totalitarian theocracy so beautiful, he answered:

They do not have a regime of truth equivalent to ours, which, on the other hand, is quite special even if it has become almost universal.

The way to avoid an uncomfortable question is always to say that the question is wrong. The French system is to say that the question is wrong because it presupposes the existence of reality. In fact, it is in reality that regime shootings, gender discrimination, executions for adultery and for homosexuality (so, even for Foucault, if he had been an Iranian) exist. But Khomeinians, Foucault tells us, have a different “regime of truth.” In fact, our truth, which we believe to be universal, is, instead, “completely special.”

Now, if reality is not objective and is only a perspective among the many possible ones, if there is no knowledge but only points of view, if justice and rights are not universal data but are rather local and historical concepts, then judgment on anything becomes impossible, because it is always arbitrary.

This is the message of helplessness that is announced by that vast stream of theories (deconstructionism, structuralism, post-structuralism, etc.) that shape “postmodern thinking.” Rooted in the skepticism of Nietzsche and Heidegger (two authors more connected to Nazism than to ideas of liberation), postmodernism passes for an anarchistic, egalitarian, and progressive philosophy. We will call this approach relativistic indifferentism, because its core is radical relativism.

Staying in France, consider two gentlemen discussing the ban on the veil for Muslim girls who attend public school. One of the men is a democrat and open-minded citizen; the other one is an exponent of a far-right movement. Which of the two is more likely to feel proper in safeguarding the Muslim girl’s right to wear a veil? Did you say the first one? Wrong – he is the second. In fact, the latter is Alain de Benoist, the main exponent of Nouvelle Droite, the name given to a conservative, reactionary, anti-modern, and anti-egalitarian movement.

Yet, in the face of the idea of ​​censoring the costumes of others in the name of civil rights, his response is indistinguishable from that of the radical leftist Foucault. In fact, he says:

It is that [modernity], finally, that we find in the advent of the new religion of human rights, which claims to subjugate the whole Earth to its juridical and moral dictates.

In other words, de Benoist tells us that every culture has its own scale of moral values, which means that the imposition of the values ​​of the West (“the new religion of human rights”) is a form of imposing a dominant idea – the liberal-democratic one – which is intended to be universal.

The declarations by de Benoist and Foucault seem like two apples falling from the same tree. The heretic and anarchistic (as well as bald) Marxist refuted universalist ideologies and sought shelter in the marginal spaces, celebrating whatever seemed to him unmatched, even un-assimilated, from Iranian theocracy to sadomasochistic fetishes. The crypto-fascist lover of northern paganism refuses modern universalism, and celebrates whatever appears to have not yet been assimilated, from the Islamic veil to female genital mutilation.

So, we have a paradox: an advocate of freedom who exalts Khomeinism, or totalitarian libertarianism, ends up pairing with the paradox of the fascist who respects non-European cultures and defends the customs of minorities in the name of the “right to difference”, or, libertarian totalitarianism.

The Nouvelle Droite opposes all those policies that aim to overcome natural forms of backwardness or barbarism, such as sexual discrimination or, even infibulation. That is because they believe that opposing such practices would destroy the cultural roots of an ethnicity – hence, its identity. At first glance, someone who defends the freedom of a student to wear hijab at school appears to be an open and democratic person, a guardian of personal freedom and individual rights.

This type of proposal by Nouvelle Droite, however, is only respectful of beliefs and customs – on the surface. In the name of the differences between cultures, considered irreconcilable, it proposes a form of “multiculturalism”, far from the idea of a ​​“melting pot,” where everyone mixes together in a large cauldron, and the various forms of hybridization and enriching cultural “crossbreeding” take place. Rather, this new proposal is but the creation of non-Western cultural islands in industrialized countries, whose purpose is just to avoid such confluence and communion. Pierre-André Taguieff notes that this logic, in the passage from race to culture, does not lose one gram of its prejudicial charge. This has been called differential racism, but the purposes of this discussion, which is centered on the neutrality of some currents of thinking about ideas and practices incompatible with human rights, we will call it differentialist indifferentism.

II- Cults and multiculturalism

The reduction in slavery, exploitation, abuse, humiliation, and physical and psychological violence are not solely the result of widespread non-Western cultures. Indeed, if a culture is a patrimony of ideas typical of vast human aggregates, the systems of beliefs and customs shared by restricted human groups are micro-cultures. These may be minority religious cults or congregations of followers of alternative medical practices or, moreover, extremist ideological groups. These aggregates often function as totalitarian groups. Just as for “meta-cultures,” there are two ways of dealing with coercive groups: censorship and indifference.

In a liberal and democratic society, the indifferentist choice is prevalent in the name of secularism and multiculturalism; but, as we have seen, it soon becomes a situation of confusing the “wheat” with the “chaff,” or the liberal with the totalist, or a Fascist with a minority advocate.

The problem arises when, in the face of a proclaimed detachment, the supposed indifferent ones put themselves in charge of defenders of cults against the claims of those who consider them places of abuse and harassment. The disinterest ends as soon as the interests of the coercive groups are affected. Therefore, the so-called “cult apologists” follow the logic already seen for broad cultures, namely relativist indifferentism and differentialist indifferentism.

Liberal apologists

The first typology refers to some defenders of cults who are considered bearers of the liberal culture. They are, of course, relativist in the sense that they believe that no one can impose a single vision of the world and, hence, they wish for what Max Weber called “polytheism of values.” This can only be an emancipating and progressive idea, because we are well aware that Western relativism has always been the enemy of religious and political absolutism, and thus the true basis of freedom. If I do not have unquestionable truths, I would never want to impose dogmatically, ex auctoritate, anything to anyone. The concept of secularity is all here, woven together with relativism, pluralism, freedom, and tolerance.

Presenting yourself as a relativist is, therefore, a great business practice for a progressive man. Too bad that this progressivism is often as concrete as Foucault’s hair. In fact, it is one thing to assert that one can never, say, possess the truth: that is the basic concept of liberalism. It is quite another thing to assert that truth does not exist, for that is a cultural construction.

Certain “advocates of freedom” sometimes sneak over this border. As Maurizio Ferraris writes:

Curiously, the “school of suspicion”, the idea that we have to doubt everything, is born like a critical exercise, but it can have results that are dogmatic, to say at least, because it teaches us to doubt not only lies, but also truths, making this an excellent service to falsehood, which is placed on the same level as the truth. This principle, which, if applied to science, makes a physician indistinguishable from a shaman and an astronomer from an astrologer, is particularly dramatic in the case of history because it lets a total amnesty drop as a graveyard on the worst tragedies of humanity.

This engenders a twofold assist to “alternative” groups. First of all, a thought that rejects the value of tests and makes “indistinguishable a physician from a shaman and an astronomer from an astrologer” facilitates the emergence of groups that are hostile to science and based on spiritualism and subjectivism. This comes about in a paradoxical way, because, in spite of the proclaimed relativist anti-authoritarianism, authority, which was driven out of the door, comes in from the window. As Giovanni Jervis writes:

In practice, it is not true that all opinions are equally authoritative. To some people more than to others – we all need fathers, Freud said – is attributed an unusual dose of wisdom. In this way, by refusing the authority of the experts, we find ourselves in the arms of the gurus.

Apart from contributing to its development, relativistic “anti-authoritarianism” is a valuable tool in defending totalitarian groups. Indeed, cult apologists defend, with liberal coherence, the existence of every creed and practice, but their approach often resembles that of Foucault with Khomeinist Iran.

In fact, taken with the freedom heat, they risk overlooking the bigotry that happens in cults. This is the greatest contradiction of radical cultural relativism. In other words, its proponents underline the superiority of the criteria of secularism and tolerance of liberal-democratic culture, precisely because other cultures are unable to offer anything like it. After that, they claim that groups or societies that do not accept such principles should not be judged, exactly in the name of the relativity of the historical interpretations of human coexistence.

In other words, after having judged the tolerant cultureas superior, they come to assert the equivalence, for the worthiness and for the right, of any cultural expression, including intolerant ones, by declaring any comparison unlawful. Nico Berti writes:

This conclusion is derived from the clamorously illogical use of the epistemological criteria proper to the relativistic paradigm, which is theoretically affirmed but virtually denied (they are, in fact, fake relativists but true anti-liberal).

That the defenders of cults are fake relativists and true anti-liberals is demonstrated whenever from the second and third rows of parties and movements of liberal inspiration emerge paeans in favor of the most questionable groups from an ethical point of view. And, paradoxically, they tend to “crucify” those who denounce those misdeeds, accusing them of being the new “inquisitors.”

The most naïve among the exponents of this relativistic culture, in short, misconstrue abuses, manipulations, threats, blackmails, and physical and psychological violence into acts that cannot be interpreted except by a local and special “regime of truth” – that of the group. In this way, the rights of worship and association devour the rights of individuals, producing an unforgivable paradox for the true liberals. In fact, the attitude of sincerely liberal parties has always been a censure against dictatorial regimes and to fight against practices that are offensive for human dignity – for example, female genital mutilation. On this aberrant practice, parties and liberal movements, such as the Transnational Radical Party, have conducted strong campaigns for its abolition. The paradox is that if these practices were accomplished in a minority religious group, the less awake exponents of these same parties would defend the practice on the basis of the relativistic criterion.

These paladins of the freedom of the bully are not aware of being the useful idiots of the promoters of cults. The latter refer to the principles of freedom working outside the confines of the cult in order to allow them to deny the same principles within the group. One of the greatest Italian liberals, Gaetano Salvemini, noted that:

The cleric demands liberty for himself in the name of the liberal principle, except to suppress it in others as soon as it is possible in the name of the clerical principle.

This is made even more evident by replacing “cleric” with “guru.” This observation illustrates the difference between a giant of liberal thought and action and the “nannies” that they are believed to be.

Differentialist apologists

The second type of apologist are basically members of cults. Therefore, they have stronger motivations. The defense that they make of the right to difference is absolutely similar to that of allogenic cultures in differentialist racism. They do not believe that all ideas, faiths, and cultures are equivalent, but instead they propose a “multiculturalism” that safeguards the identities of every single “culture,” as this general law implies the safeguarding of their own culture in particular.

This is an openness that is fake, like curls would be on Foucault’s head. It has nothing to do, then, with liberal thinking. However, even in this case, it ends with giving equal dignity to democratic ideas as to those that deny democracy in the name of the “respect” for all cultures – read “Foucault’s curls.”

This type of logic, when applied on a large scale, involves a coexistence with immigrants that is not based on assimilation, but on sufferance. In this case, the democratic state renounces part of its rights in favor of groups that do not believe in democracy, creating a democracy with holes, like a Swiss cheese. The same is true when multiculturalism applies to cults. Liberal-democratic societies are expected to foster within them islands in which liberal-democratic rules are suspended. It is here that the help and support of “liberal” apologists (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) becomes important and is sought after. What is serious is that this support is usually obtained.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

Although an alliance between differentialism and progressive liberalism may appear incredible and aberrant, the observations by Foucault and de Benoist on human rights prove that breaking into alcoves leads to discovering strange bedfellows. It’s a night in which all cows are black.

To add further elements of paradox, this inclination of the anti-relativists to seek support between relativists can be found in Italy, the privileged theater of the most bizarre of its manifestations. In fact, the cradle of Catholicism can unexpectedly boast a scant squad of Catholics among the ranks of the cult apologists. The clique is small but extremely noisy, like small dogs.

It is difficult for a non-religious person to understand how it is possible for the faithful of a religion that puts its foundation on “non-negotiable principles” and which is “universal” by definition to defend clearly anti-Christian cults, and go along with the proponents of anti-universalism. It is difficult, in short, to associate the idea of ​​relativism with Catholicism. Still, Giovanni Jervis, in a profusion of adjectives that accurately carve out the characteristics of the model he is speaking of, writes:

There is a sort of ambiguous Catholic relativism, rhetorically do-gooding, irenic, possibilist, hyper-tolerant, generic, vague, accepting, benevolent, little inclined to deepen, friend of vague and sometimes inane dialogues and enemy of serious discussions, in short, a bit apathetic.

So, the somewhat sickly and up-to-date ecumenism that distinguishes the “emancipated” Catholic is not a concrete and integral relativism, but has the appearance of it, and plays fully into its hands. As Jervis rightly points out:

The more open and democrat between Catholics, with their excess of relativistic possibilism, end up giving up criticism of the fanatics and dogmatics of all religion, including, note, their own.

In fact, though there is a significant difference between the mellifluous conditioned relativism of “democratic” Catholicism and the relativism run-off on a tangent of certain “liberals,” this “weak thought” of Catholicism can become easy prey for much more determined wills that ride those Catholics’ watchwords.

It is true, as Jervis points out, that “liberal Catholicism ends up playing the game of uncompromising Catholicism.” But it is also true that it plays into the hands of the intransigence of all other cultures. Therefore, it is no surprise that the watchwords of conciliatory ecumenism are often used by the members of a Catholicism that is far from being open and progressive, with the same logic as the more “liberal” proclamations which can be found in the mouths of the most dictatorial gurus. All bald people combing their hair.

In short, we are witnesses of a jumble that, like an improbable chimera, combines totalitarians, liberals, and clericals in a single line. People who should act according to the Weberian ethics of responsibility, such as liberals, are in cahoots with those in this ethics fight, such as clerics and gurus, who advocate the ethics of principle (and vice versa). Stuff to tear your hair out – if you have hair.


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