Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Ethics always comes too late for power

If there is one lesson I have learned from Foucault, it is this: Ethics always comes too late for power. What I mean by this is that human beings – even philosophers – have a tendency to rationalise, in ethical or moral terms, about the actual decisions and choices one makes in the world, and postulate these as counterfactual guardrails to guide one in such decisions and actions. But this is always too late, in the sense that people generally act on the basis of their needs and desires, including their desire to wield power over others, and then (try to) justify these actions in the light of the ethical rules they (are supposed to) observe.

It should come as no surprise that this is the case, however. In the 19th century Arthur Schopenhauer showed acute insight into this state of affairs when, in contrast with the entire philosophical tradition preceding him, he insisted that human beings are not the “rational animals” they have always taken themselves to be. Instead of being guided by reason, they are driven by the irrational will, which, for Schopenhauer, governs the whole of reality, including plants and animals. It is the blind will to survive, he pointed out, which is at the basis of all life.

Human beings do have the capacity for reason, according to him, but the relationship between reason and the will is like that of a deep dark pool (the will) and its surface (reason), or like a strong blind man (the will) carrying a paralyzed, but clear-sighted man (reason) on his shoulders. The blind man goes wherever he wants to, bumping himself against things and blundering into all kinds of blind alleys, hurting himself in the process, and when the clairvoyant man on his shoulders says to the blind man that he should have listened to his instructions about where to go, the blind man tells him to shut up and stumbles further.

As is well-known, Freud theorised this state of affairs further by distinguishing between the unconscious and consciousness, where the repressed material constituting the former, more often than not, functions as the source of human actions, and not the sphere of consciousness, or reason. In Foucault’s work the workings of power are expressed in various ways, which crucially involve the relationship between power, knowledge and language in the shape of discourse.

Although it may not seem to be the case at first blush – especially given the way he distanced himself from psychoanalysis in texts like the first volume of The History of Sexuality – there is an undeniable element of unconscious functioning in discourse as Foucault conceives of it.
This manifests itself in the fact that people appear to “use” discourse – or to be more explicit, language, imbricated with power; meaning in the service of promoting power – but, truth be told, more often than not, discourse “uses” them, or “speaks through their actions”.

In a treatise on Othello a friend of mine (Margot Brooks) argued, years ago, that one could read Othello’s murder of the woman he loved, Desdemona, in these terms: he was in the grip of patriarchal discourse, acting as its instrument, when he throttled Desdemona, revealing the truth afterwards in a kind of “slip of the tongue” gesture by first denying that it was he who had murdered her. Here, too, ethics came too late for power. I agreed with this reading of the tragedy, which testifies (like so many things) to Shakespeare’s genius, which anticipated discourse theory by centuries.

To bring this closer to our own time, on a daily basis one witnesses the (unconscious) power of discourse all around one – where you work, in the home, in news reports. It is most obvious when there is a power-struggle of sorts, sometimes more subtly, frequently openly and crudely. In The Order of Discourse Foucault suggests that where there is a power struggle the first thing that contesting parties do is to attempt to “seize discourse”. This explains why, when there is a regime change in a country, among the first things to be done is to take over radio and television broadcasting stations. One sees this attempt to “seize discourse” in the present struggle between Numsa and Cosatu, and between other factions vying for power in our country.

More subtly and less openly, when boardroom decisions are made in companies or other institutions on the appointment of individuals to key positions in management – and sometimes not even in management, but in positions that are likely to have a significant impact on the manner in which the institution will function – discourse is at work again, sometimes operating quite openly in the expression of preferences backed up by reasons that are explicitly ideological, and sometimes more subtly, like a background humming.

Here too, ethics comes too late for power – decisions are made, under pressure of discursive (or ideological) priorities and interests; decisions that sometimes severely affect the lives of individuals who are perceived as being obstacles to discursive agendas. This is nothing unusual; it happens all the time. Fortunately, because humans are discursive animals, once one has learned to position oneself discursively in relation to those discourses that are preponderant at a given time, one can survive their often unavoidable impact.

Then there is the link between power and knowledge as epitomised in discourse – to exercise power, not merely negatively, by domination or oppression, but affirmatively, through empowerment, there has to be a mode of knowledge (of different kinds, ranging from scientific or philosophical to political savvy). As Foucault has stressed, power and knowledge are not identical, but they are inextricably linked. And the implications of this is that the Socratic dictum, “Know thyself” must be translated into self-reflective knowledge of your own discursive position, the synthesis of your own distinctive power and knowledge.

This is as much as saying that one need not be the helpless, and hapless, victim of discursively constrained actions, although I would venture to guess that most people are not sufficiently equipped in terms of counter-discourses to be able to reaffirm themselves once they have been ridden roughshod over by the agents of dominant discourses, either in a local context or a global one.

In a different sense, neither is it an inescapable fact that one must always “be spoken by” (patriarchal, or managerial, or workers’) discourse. As Foucault and Lacan – the most sophisticated discourse theorists I know – both demonstrably affirm, every human subject has the capacity to adopt a counter-discursive position against a hegemonic discourse. For example, if this were not the case, feminism could not have emerged as a counter-discourse in the face of patriarchy.

Hence, no one should be surprised to find contradictions and tensions in the words and actions of the people around one, particularly contradictions that bear on the difference between explicit ethical (or religious) postures and their (hence indefensible) actions. This is a common feature of human life. The point is to arm oneself with a different discourse, one flexible enough to weather all discursive storms, and one that will constantly serve to empower oneself despite the onslaughts of the ostensibly dominant discursive regimes. But don’t be surprised when you become the temporary victim of these discursive battles – ethics always comes too late for power. Ascertain where your own power lies, and activate it. Learn to land on your feet, always, like a cat.

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