Thursday, January 02, 2014

Makes Him Wanna Holler

Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault had a famous debate in 1971, which has spawned all sorts of analysis from various angles. I must admit, though, that I've never quite seen the two contrasted in the way that Evgeny Morozov did here:

The Sharknado example, for all its vacuity, elucidates the differences between these two thinkers. Confronted with TV pundits and salesmen, Chomsky would list the errors in their presentations. To put "events in their historical perspective," he would mention CIA's affinity for sharks. He would remind us how America’s imperialist foreign policy stands to benefit from "sharknados." Marxism has made this form of critique predictable – and easy to counter with propaganda.

Foucault would ask different questions. Could "sharknado" be an excuse for treating sharks, people and weather in a way that maximizes our feelings of anxiety? Is there another way to talk about all three that does not force us to think about matters of life and death? What is it about sharks and tornadoes as objects of scientific inquiry and national security policy that makes a concept like "sharknado" believable and coherent?

Chomsky's denunciations are easier to grasp but the advent of electronic media highlights the limitations of his method. If revealing "the truth" is just a matter of revealing "the facts," then the public would be well informed already: the facts are just a click away. Something else stands as a barrier to "truth." For Chomsky, like Marx, this something is ideology. But the way to disentangle oneself from false ideology is to demand more facts: this model runs in circles.

Foucault has little use for ideology, as he seeks to understand what's involved in defining something as "true" or "false" within a particular knowledge regime. This doesn't imply relativism: Foucault doesn't believe that sharks are going to destroy LA. For Foucault, figuring this out is the least interesting aspect of intellectual work; the real task is to understand how something like "sharknado" becomes a stable concept around which a TV show and a for-profit evacuation service are built and a whole set of behaviors like "getting ready for sharknado evacuations" become possible. The emancipatory aspect of his project is to reveal that other types of relations to sharks, water, and weather – not just the one we call "sharknado" – are possible.

The link to that story was included in this CJR article about Morozov's career; both are well worth reading.