Book Plug: Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making

Interstitial SoundingsMy new book, Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making, is now available for purchase. Below I have included a brief description of the book. Also, Cascade/Wipf & Stock has put together a very nice promotional flyer with lengthy excerpts from the first two chapters. Those interested may download this document via this link.*

In the present work, Cynthia R. Nielsen brings music and philosophy into a fruitful and mutually illuminating dialogue. Topics discussed include the following: music’s dynamic ontology, performers and improvisers as co-composers, the communal character of music, jazz as hybrid and socially constructed, the sociopolitical import of bebop, Afro-modernism and its strategic deployments, jazz and racialized practices, continuities between Michel Foucault’s discussion of self-making and creating one’s musical voice, Alasdair MacIntyre on practice, and how one might harmonize MacIntyre’s notion of virtue development with Foucauldian resistance strategies.

*Used with permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Foucault and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors in ROTPP Vol. 2.1

Musical MetaphorsThe latest issue of Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics (Vol. 2, No. 1) has been published and contains my article, Foucault’s Polyphonic Genealogies and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors. For those interested, here’s the abstract.


In this essay I highlight the complexity of Foucault’s thought through an examination of the diverse philosophical traditions—from Kant, to Nietzsche, to Foucault’s phenomenological lineage via Cavaillès and Canguilhem—that influence his own distinctive project. In addition, I identify key Foucauldian concepts worthy of continued reflection and offer, as my own contribution to the dialogue, various musical analogies as hermeneutical and analytical “tools” that (1) illuminate and clarify Foucault’s ideas and (2) provide a coherent way to understand episteme change.

Foucauldian Strategies for the “Non-Purist” Contemporary Augustinian with Feminist and Social Justice Sensibilities or Deploying Foucauldian Insights to Problematize Alleged “Naturals”

I recently finished an essay on Augustine and Foucault that brings both thinkers into critical dialogue.  Although in the essay itself I highlight strengths and weaknesses of both Foucault and Augustine, the excerpt below (taken from my concluding section) focuses primarily on how a contemporary Augustinian of a particular sort might benefit from a dialogue with Foucault.[1]

What might a dissatisfied, contemporary Augustinian gain from a conversation with Foucault? First, Foucault’s conception of power relations are immensely valuable to Augustinians with feminist sensibilities and interests in peace and conflict studies as well as, those who desire to expand and develop Augustinian trajectories that might speak to contemporary social justice issues. Embedded in Foucault’s conception of power relations and resistance possibilities is his insight that freedom must be expressed bodily. As many critics of Augustine have pointed out, his position is wrought with dualistic tendencies,[2] which are then appealed to in order to defend a status quo position. For example, Augustine encourages slaves to submit to their masters and women to submit to their husbands even when both master and husband violently abuse them (see, e.g. City of God 19.16.) Such exhortations and calls to obedience are based, among other things, upon commitments to various dualisms. For example, spiritual freedom is touted as superior to bodily freedom just as the spiritual is superior to the material. In addition, the call to accept violent relations (such as slavery and spousal abuse) is often undergirded with an appeal to a future other-worldly justice where all wrongs will be set right.  If the Augustinian were to appropriate Foucault’s insight that freedom in this life must be expressed bodily, she could avoid some of the problematic dualisms that surface in Augustine and at the same time highlight the in-breaking of God’s transformative grace in this life.  That is, just as the redemptive power of the Christ-event irrupted into Augustine’s life, removing his bonds and re-integrating his life, so too can divine grace work through Christians and all people of good will to change unjust social structures and thus to bring healing to exploitative and violent human relationships. Of course, the Augustinian need not adopt false utopian hopes for a perfect society; Foucault had no such pseudo-hope.

Most Augustinians today readily acknowledge that relations of violence such as slavery and domestic violence hinder human flourishing and are incompatible with the Christian call to love and to promote human dignity for all. In light of these contemporary commitments, adopting some variant of Foucault’s critical philosophy of ongoing critique would be a helpful “tool” in reassessing gender relations, stereotypes, and other concepts that we have been conditioned to see as universal and necessary but which are in fact particular, historical, and contingent.

In other words, the Augustinian might engage in a type of “theologico-philosophical interrogation” that problematizes our current understanding of gender relations (or other dominating relations), re-tracing how its own tradition has come to its present position and how its past views were historically conditioned and shaped. Here the tradition asks itself:  How have we—for example, through formulating our own erroneous views (of women or slaves), adopting false views from other traditions, or misapplying our own principles—created a trajectory in the tradition that has diminished biblical emancipatory insights or worse has offered spiritualized interpretations of relations of violence that encourage their continuance rather than challenge their existence? For example, given our present understanding of slavery as intrinsically unjust and our rejection of women as rationally or morally inferior to men, what might a re-reading of St. Paul’s—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”[3] and Genesis 1:26 look like? A Foucauldian-inspired genealogical study of power relations and relations of violence between husbands and wives and masters and slaves yield significant analytical and socio-political insights. Employing Foucault’s critical philosophy, what we find, for example, are alleged universal, “natural,” and necessary concepts of women and what it is to be a woman or a wife (e.g., receptive, passive, docile, submissive, morally or intellectually inferior—interestingly, these are more or less the same concepts regularly used to describe the “essence” of a slave) are in fact particular, contingent, and socially constructed concepts.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, for Foucault, there is no outside to power relations; however, given his understanding of the correlativity of power and resistance, neither is there an outside to resistance. In other words, resistance possibilities always exist so long as genuine power relations obtain. Given the contingent, historical character of power configurations and the ever-present possibility of resistance, change over time is possible.  Thus, there is room for hope and a cautious, but in no way naïve, optimism. Rather, as Foucault himself explains, “[t]here’s an optimism that consists in saying that things couldn’t be better. My optimism would consist rather in saying that so many things can be changed, fragile as they are, bound up more with circumstances than necessities.”[4]

Analogous to Foucault’s claim regarding the ubiquity of power, for Augustine there is no outside to sin. But as Augustine’s own story testifies, God’s grace is also operative in this world. Just as divine grace transformed Augustine, healing him and bringing him into intimate union with God, so too can God’s grace transform individuals and groups today, working through and with them to change institutional structures, legislation, cultural practices, and political and religious narratives so that they might better respect human dignity and foster human flourishing. Eschatological perfection is not the goal for this world; however, a communal striving with all people of goodwill to bring into being proleptic glimpses of the world to come is completely consonant with Christian hope.


[1] The arguments for my conclusions are given in the full essay; however, the complete essay is far too long for a blog post.

[2] Augustine does, of course, proclaim the goodness of creation, employing both philosophical (e.g. goodness and being are coextensive) and theological arguments (e.g., creation comes from God and thus must be good). Nonetheless, dualistic tendencies remain.

[3] Gal 3:28; New Revised Standard Version.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

[4] Foucault, “Practicing Criticism,” 156.

Foucault: A Postmodern Kantian or Parodic Nietzschean?

Under the pseudonym Maurice Florence, Foucault writes that if it is possible for him to find a “home in the philosophical tradition,” then his at least semi-comfortable dwelling place is “within the critical tradition of Kant, and his undertaking could be called A Critical History of Thought.”[1] “Florence” then explains what comprises a Foucauldian critical history of thought. To begin with, such a history must not be equated with a history of ideas; rather, if we understand thought as “the act that posits a subject and an object in their various possible relations,” then Foucault’s project is “an analysis of the conditions under which certain relations between subject and object are formed or modified, to the extent that these relations are constitutive of a possible knowledge.”[2] Clearly, with his choice of terminology, Foucault is evoking Kantian resonances. Reference, for example, to “conditions” in conjunction with what constitutes “possible knowledge,” brings to mind Kantian concerns; yet, as “Florence” continues his explanation, we realize that the Kantian terminology has been infused with new meanings. For example, in contrast with Kant’s focus upon stable, transcultural structures of the human mind which make possible and intelligible the objects of our experience, Foucault’s critical history of thought is not concerned with “defining the formal conditions of a relation to objects”; nor is it “a matter […] of determining the empirical conditions that at a given moment might have permitted the subject in general to become conscious of an object already given in reality.”[3] Rather, with an emphasis on historical specificities, local context, and the contingent, mutable nature of our existence, Foucault is interested in how a subject comes to be a particular kind of subject at a particular moment in history.  As he explains,

the question is one of determining what the subject must be, what condition is imposed on it, what status it is to have, and what position it is to occupy in reality or in the imaginary, in order to become the legitimate subject of one type of knowledge or another. In short, it is a matter of determining its mode of “subjectivization.”[4]

Correlative to this process of subjectivization is the process of objectivization. That is, the subject itself, as the result of the emergence of various truth games—the rules structuring discursive fields and practices and thus creating the context for statements to be seen as true or false—becomes an object of possible knowledge. Here the idea is to analyze why, for instance, certain practices, institutions, and disciplines give rise to specific objects of knowledge.   The principal objects in view are, of course, subjects. As “Florence” explains, “Foucault also tried to analyze the constitution of the subject as it might appear on the other side of a normative distribution and become an object of knowledge—as an insane, ill, or delinquent individual.”[5] Since institutions along with established disciplinary practices tend to produce and to articulate norms, Foucault’s study of the subject-turned-object of knowledge involves examinations of psychiatric practices, the penal system, and other related fields which problematize subject-objects. Determining a subject’s mode of objectivization thus entails “determining under what conditions something can become an object of a possible knowledge, how it could be problematized as an object to be known, to what procedure of division it could be subjected, and what part of it is considered pertinent.”[6] In short, such an approach once again recalls Kantian themes, but themes reharmonized, transposed, and translated in order to address post-Kantian philosophical concerns.

In addition to his Kantian lineage, others emphasize Foucault’s Nietzschean heritage. Often when his Nietzschean notes are stressed, a dissonant and somewhat sinister Foucault emerges, one whose portrayal of power relations is more or less a postmodern variation on the will to power and the death of “Man” themes, both of which in some sense presuppose the death of “metaphysics.”[7] For example, in his essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault opposes the genealogist to the metaphysician or at least to the historian whose account depends upon metahistorical criteria. The task of the genealogist it not “an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their carefully protected identities”;[8] nor does it presuppose the “existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession.”[9] Rather, the genealogist attentive to the contours, fissures, fractures, and rugged topography of various historical landscapes must, for the sake of accurate analyses, recoil from placing his “faith in metaphysics.”[10]  If he does so, he will find that not only do the purported static essences “behind things” not exist as assumed, but likewise “their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.”[11] As if these claims are not sufficiently scandalous, Foucault continues,

[e]xamining the history of reason, he [the genealogist] learns that it was born in an altogether “reasonable” fashion—from chance;[12] devotion to truth and the precision of scientific methods arose from the passion of scholars, their reciprocal hatred, their fanatical and unending discussions, and their spirit of competition—the personal conflicts that slowly forged the weapons of reason.[13] Further, genealogical analysis shows that the concept of liberty is an “invention of the ruling classes”[14] and not fundamental to man’s nature or at the root of his attachment to being and truth.[15]

With this passage it appears that not only does reason itself have a history, a narrative of its various emergences and culturally contingent instantiations, but freedom is a ruse and is in no way constitutive of what it is to be a human.  For those who have not condemned at least some shared, universal human capacities to the flames, these statements paint (or seemingly paint) a rather bleak and despairing picture.  However, one of the difficulties with this passage and the essay as a whole is discerning precisely where Nietzsche ends and Foucault begins.  In other words, is every conclusion voiced in the text an expression of Foucault’s own position, or is he offering a detailed, sympathetic reading of Nietzsche? If the latter is the case (and I tend to favor this suggestion), then one need not equate every aspect, perspective, and stance articulated therein with Foucault’s own position, much less with his later views on freedom, resistance, and the interrelation between freedom and thought.


[1] Florence, “Foucault, Michel, 1926–,” 314.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314–15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 316.

[6] Ibid., 315.

[7] I am not, of course, denying Nietzsche’s influence on Foucault. After all, Foucault himself acknowledges his indebtedness to Nietzsche, whose insights no doubt aided the development of Foucault’s project.

[8] “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” 78.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nietzsche, “Reason,” in The Dawn of Day, no. 123.

[13] Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, no. 34.

[14] Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880), in Complete Works, no. 9.

[15] “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” 78–9.

Part II: Dialectic of Enlightenment and How Demythologizing Gives Birth to New Mythologies

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno make an interesting and somewhat unexpected connection between the structure of Kantian philosophy and culture industry. According to Kant, the transcendental subject constitutes objects of experience. This means that we provide the laws structuring reality. In other words, given that we bring a priori the forms of intuition and the categories of the understanding to the chaos “out there”and thus constitute the objects of possible experience, it turns out that the experience of the transcendental subject is in a sense circular. Here Horkheimer and Adorno see a parallel with culture industry.  For example, Hollywood film producers present us with images bestowing meaning. That is, the producer endows the images with certain structures, thus constituting them as does the Kantian subject. Prior to the film being made, the producer and his colleagues get together and decide what precisely people want to see. Thus, in our movie experience, we encounter objects of experience pre-constituted by the director and his/her team based on perceived cultural values (in this case, cultural values and interests that sell). So the system of the Enlightenment (a system of theoretical thought) and the “system” of culture come to be self-contained. Consider how this cultural constitution or, in more poststructuralist language, construction of social reality and subjectivities impacts our daily life. From the construction of the “terrorist-other” whom we instructed to fear and hate to what it is to be “feminine” or “masculine,” we are constantly bombarded with competing discourses, social customs, and practices, all of which shape our perceptions of ourselves, our relation to the other, our roles, the “place” of others, and so forth.

Revisiting the theme of enlightenment rationality as “purely functional,” Horkheimer and Adorno explain that such is its logical end. Why? Because with the de(con)struction, dismissal and death of a telos connected to rationality, reason becomes functional or instrumental.  As a result, enlightenment does away with difference or alterity. Interestingly, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s analyses and conclusions are very much in harmony with insights foregrounded by postmodern thinkers like Foucault and Heidegger. Because reason no longer has any goals outside itself, pure reason moves increasingly toward unreason as there is nothing regulating this “emptied out” rationality. (Of course, Foucault would not claim that this is a necessary movement). This is part of the dialectic of enlightenment; it drives its self-critique such that the basis of its own rationality is destroyed. Only after enlightenment has eliminated all, then (according to enlightenment theory), we have acceptable meaning. This is reminiscent of certain—not all of course—expressions of analytic philosophy, wherein philosophy becomes completely irrelevant to human existence.  Here thought is meaningful only after the sacrifice of meaning. The result of this formalization of reason means that since there are no external criteria (but only internal criteria), this hollowed-out rationality can then be used positively or negatively. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, this is the kind of rationality employed for example, in fascism, as well as Marquis de Sade. De Sade, as Horkheimer and Adorno would be quick to emphasize, is not illogical, but rather thinks with amazing clarity and has understood that enlightenment thinking accepts no tradition or external values; thus, it can come up with its own rationality and can eliminate pity, compassion, and the like. So de Sade can set up narratives of dissoluteness, engage in violence against women and others, and at the same time can present a “coherent” system. Examples such as these support the authors’ thesis that with the ushering in of instrumental, hollow enlightened rationality, “pure reason becomes unreason.”

Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.