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.

Part II: Fanon’s Descent Under the Burden of the White Gaze

The history of black people, as mentioned previously, is simultaneously erased and re-written by the white Frantz Fanon imagination.  This new history defines what a black person is—intellectually inferior, in need of a (white) master, incapable of contributing positively to (white, European) society and culture.  The black person does not create this narrative, but is scripted into it and constructed by it.  Nonetheless, a time comes when a black person is confronted with the white mythos by way of a particular, concrete and often painful encounter and thus begins to accept and internalize the mythology.  In Fanon’s words, “[d]isoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself, and gave myself up as an object.”[1]

Fanon’s dramatic re-telling of the train episode and the pre-theoretical, racial assumptions apparent in the child’s remarks about Fanon serve a two-fold function.  First, the narrative calls attention to the deficiencies of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema.  Second, the narrative highlights the way in which phenotypic or so-called “racial” differences—as negatively interpreted by the dominant group in a given historical epoch—close off or a least severely hinder the possibilities of freedom, as well as personal and cultural transformation for the oppressed group.   Hence, Fanon offers his historico-racial schema as a corrective.  Yet, his account also includes the racial-epidermal schema.  Whereas the historico-racial schema brings to light the historical contingencies and mythological narratives imposed upon blacks, the racial-epidermal schema speaks to the sedimentation of the so-called “black essence.”   In other words, once the new narrative of what it means to be a black person, which includes the various meanings that have been assigned to phenotypic differences, has become fixed, ossified and even naturalized in the social consciousness and cultural and legal practices, the black essence has been successfully created.[2]

Once we transition to the racial-epidermal schema, the all-pervasiveness of the white gaze—here understood broadly as the white mythos as manifest in the cultural consciousness and systematically expressed in the cultural institutions and practices of a given society—functions like a Panopticon, keeping the black person under constant inspection.  Though speaking of the incarcerated, Foucault’s description applies quite well to the black person’s situation vis-à-vis the white, European other, “he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[3] Once the racial-epidermal schema has come to fruition and the black essence has been fixed, the requisite racial machinery has likewise been established to ensure “proper” social boundaries and to keep the white mythology unchallenged.  In a way similar to the Panopticon’s ability to “disindividualiz[e] power” and distribute it through various socio-cultural and legal structures, institutions and people, Fanon’s schemata points to the systemic racial structures of colonized Europe.  These racialized disciplinary practices, though not identical to the disciplinary practices Foucault describes, nonetheless share close family resemblances with “a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference.” [4] The racial-epidermal schema, broadly construed to include these systemic, disindividualized power structures, enables even the most vulnerable and innocent members of society—the child on the train—to be an instrument of and even operate the racial machinery.


[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

[2] On the movement and interpretation of Fanon’s schemata, I follow Weate, who views the racial epidermal schema as “a later stage in psychosomatic disintegration and alienation” (p. 174).  Weate describes the movement to the epidermal schema as Fanon’s attempt to trace a “genealogy of racial essentialism” (p. 173).  As he explains, “[t]he epidermal marks the stage where historical construction and contingency is effaced and replaced with the facticity of flesh.  The colour of skin now appears to be intrinsically significant.  With the outset of epidermalization, we are at the edge of being-for-others sedimenting into an essence, a ‘fact’ of blackness.  Fanon is therefore demonstrating that essentialism is a discourse derived from a perversive repression of history.  By marking the two stages of the ‘historico-racial’ and then the ‘racial-epidermal’, he is therefore contesting the view that essentialism, and in particular black essentialism, is grounded in a biological problematic.  For Fanon, the essentialization of blackness is the product of a concealed perversion of history. It is only once this concealment is consolidated (through epidermalization) that questions concerning the biological ground of race arise.  The distinction he makes between the two stages of schematization or epistemic enframing therefore allow biologistic discourses around race to be seen as phenomena derivative upon a prior perversion of history that is subsequently concealed” (“Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” pp. 174-75).

[3] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 200.

[4] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 202.

Jean-Luc Marion: A Postmodern Dionysian of Sorts

As I noted in a previous post, a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology, giving special attention to Dionysius. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found Dionysius a valuable resource in the development of his own theology. In this post, I want to briefly mention some of the ways that Marion incorporates Dionysian thought into his own project. Both Dionysius and Marion are concerned with upholding God’s transcendence and avoiding conceptual idolatry of any sort. For Marion, there are two basic orientations to world: (1) an iconic consciousness or (2) an idolatrous consciousness. As Marion explains, “[t]he idol measures the divine to the scope of the gaze of he who then sculpts it.” Hence, an idol is produced when we attempt to conceptually circumscribe God, which is in essence to limit God to the human gaze. In our attempts to measure God by human understanding, we become trapped in a kind of self-reflexivity in which the idol becomes a mirror that reflects the human gaze back to itself. In contrast, the icon allows one’s gaze to move through the icon (visible) to that which is invisible. That is,

“[w]hat characterizes the icon painted on wood does not come from the hand of man but from the infinite depth that crosses it—or better, orients it following the intention of a gaze. The essential in the icon […] comes to it from elsewhere. […] Contemplating the icon amounts to seeing the visible in the very manner by which the invisible that imparts itself therein envisages the visible—strictly, to exchange our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us.”

Following a Dionysian emphasis on the positive value of symbols, Marion likewise underscores that signs and images are not to be despised, as they can and should be used as contemplative aids in our worship of God. In fact, not only does creation itself function iconically to reveal the invisible things of God through that which is visible (Rom 1:20), but Christ Himself is said to be the Icon of God (Col 1:15). Moreover, given the kind of creatures that we are, it is fitting that we embrace signs and images which simultaneously hide and reveal that which exceeds this, so to speak, “clothing” of the formless.

Marion’s aim is of course to bring us into a more iconic consciousness, which in turn allows God to manifest himself according to his terms (not ours). If we embrace an iconic orientation, then, as Marion puts it, we must abandon any attempt to measure the divine by our own human gaze. Here Marion again seems very much in harmony with Dionysius. That is, for both Marion and Dionysius, there is no concept that adequately captures God. God, who is beyond being, is ipso facto beyond definition, and Marion is at pains to free God from our limiting (idolatrous) gaze. As Robyn Horner observes, Marion both continues within the Dionysian trajectory and also furthers the conversation with his own distinctive contributions. That is, in addition to drawing our attention to conceptual idols, Marion likewise speaks of conceptual icons as a way of thinking God in a non-idolatrous way. This path does not move “through the traditional metaphysical route that focuses on being, but through the mystical route of love.” Marion also adds to the discussion of icons, the idea of our being gazed upon and hence transformed by the other. Instead of a self-reflexive gaze necessitated by the idol, the icon breaks the circle of reflexivity and “gives the invisible to thought, not on the basis of the capacities of the metaphysical ego, but on its own terms.” Contrasting the two gazes, Marion writes that with the icon

“our gaze becomes the optical mirror of that at which it looks only by finding itself more radically looked at: we become a visible mirror of an invisible gaze that subverts us in the measure of its glory. The invisible summons us, ‘face to face, person to person’ (1 Cor. 13:12), through the painted visibility of its incarnation and the factual visibility of our flesh: no longer the visible idol as the invisible mirror of our gaze, but our face as the visible mirror of the invisible. […] It [the icon] transforms us in its glory by allowing this glory to shine on our face as its mirror—but a mirror consumed by that very glory, transfigured with invisibility, and by dint of being saturated beyond itself from that glory, becoming, strictly though imperfectly, the icon of it: visibility of the invisible as such.”

Though the icon indeed “opens distance,” it never claims nor pretends to exhaust God or to produce any kind of comprehensive knowledge of the incomprehensible.

Derrida on Dionysius: A Mystical Iconoclast or a Misread?

In recent years a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology and Neoplatonism. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found within negative theology an inexhaustible resource that harmonizes well with his own theological and phenomenological project. Jacques Derrida has also engaged negative theology; however, he seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it and particularly dislikes what he interprets in Dionysius’ thought as the retention of a “transcendental signified.” As Eric Perl explains,

“Deconstruction is fundamentally a theory of signification, which attacks the (supposedly) traditional notion that a signifier (word, text, or image) refers to a signified, the meaning which itself is prior to and independent of the signifier. Derrida calls this the “transcendental signified”: the meaning underlying the expression, the archetype underlying the image, that which is not sign but “pure signified.” On the traditional assumption, any system of meaning, be it a written text or the cosmos itself, has such a transcendental signified. In the case of a text, it is the author’s intent, what he means to express; in the case of the world, understood as a system of signs, it is God” (“Signifying Nothing,” p. 125).

Derrida takes the description above to be characteristic of Western metaphysics, and thus his own project attempts to show that no such transcendental signified can be found outside, beyond or prior to the text or world. In the end, all we have are signs. “We can never transcend signs to arrive at a pure signified which is not itself a sign” (Ibid., p. 126). Here is where Derrida’s attraction to negative theology and Neoplatonism comes in focus. As we have seen, in Dionysian thought, God is beyond being and thought. That which can be thought exists and that which is is not God but “only an image, sign, or expression.” Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).

Though Derrida has no doubt contributed significantly to contemporary thought and his insights have and should continue to be appropriated, one wonders whether he has correctly interpreted Neoplatonism and negative theology particularly as manifest in Dionysius. For Dionysius, as is the case with Plotinus, God is both beyond being (transcendent) and excessively present (immanent). As Dionysius explains,

“God is […] known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything (DN VII.3).

Here Dionysius highlights both creation (i.e., everything that exists) as theophany, where everything that is manifests God, and God’s radical transcendence in light of the fact that He is beyond the order of being, the created realm. Derrida seems to focus only on the “and” side of the Dionysian world, i.e., on God as wholly other—other in the sense of a transcendental signified, a being beyond Being who is still entangled in a signifier/signified dualism. Hence, the Derridean read of Dionysius is that of “a kind of ‘mystical iconoclast,’ who calls us to strip away all created symbols and images and attain a non-symbolic vision of and union with God as ‘pure signified’” (Ibid., p.) Dionysius, however, in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God. “This divine ray can enlighten us only by being upliftingly concealed in a variety of sacred veils which the Providence of the Father adapts to our nature as human beings” (CH I.2). Hence, we experience God not by peeling away or overcoming signs, but by embracing the signs as icons. In other words, God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him. Derrida has done a superb job of describing the concealing aspects of Dionysius; however, it seems that he has not properly understood the iconic function of signs.