I experienced your paper as a well-rounded consideration of rights-based discourse and its relationship to human (political) agency, as explored within the framework of the Foucault-Habermas debate. In this regard, your positioning of the contradictions you experience as an AIDS researcher/activist within the context of this debate, continually challenged me as a reader to reflect on my own ‘taken for granted’ understandings of these theoretical stances. I enjoyed the manner in which you systemtically juxtaposed Habermas’ viewpoint, that modernist notions of citizenship, human rights, autonomy and rationality, give rise to the rights-based discourse that you harness as an activist, against Foucault’s viewpoint, which you read as cautioning against too blind an acceptance of this stance, by virtue of his noting how rights-based discourse itself may be seen as an expression of the modern power/knowledge regime. While the former vantage point legitimized your actions, the latter seems to leave you as activist, devoid of agency, positing that you can ‘only act’ within the circumscribed discursive ‘iron cage’ of state power, and thereby rendering any of your attempts to liberate elements of society, as continuing the process of oppression in another content/form.
In my reading of your paper I understood you to highlight the extreme points of difference between these two theoretical positions, in order to provide the reader with a palatable sense of the tensions and irreconcilables you have experienced in your dualistic roles of researcher and activist. However, it is when situating Foucault’s position in your paper as viewing life as a ‘purely’ discursive affair, and Habermas’ at the other end of favouring a world outside of language, that I construe my own understanding of their subtle points of similarity, and in that my appreciation of your solution to this debate. In this regard, however, given that they construct their central arguments from these different vantage points or ‘realms’, how does Foucault’s notion of processes of resistance as existing in relation to power and processes of regulation (Foucault, 1982; Rabinow, 1984) compare with Habermas’ vision of “a critical public sphere capable of generating resistance to unaccountable expert authority”? (p. 5 of your present paper) Hence, maybe it is not that Foucault says that we cannot resist, but that our resistance needs to be of the same order as our regulation, i.e. discursive, so that agency is construed not as the ‘ability to act’, but rather in Parker’s (1998, p.14) sense, as the “capacity of people to (discursively) reconstruct themselves and their world.” This is what I read you as saying in part as a resolution to the extremeties of this debate, namely that if researcher/activists understand the political purpose of the positions they adopt, and the normative claims and value systems they are realizing in the process (i.e. the power of their discourse), then they may, through this ‘awareness’, experience less of the dilemma as to whether or not their actions perpetuate the oppressive positions they protest against. In other words, if you think like Foucault it may be safer to act like Hasbermas, and that both are necessary if one is to accomplish ‘effective’ change. That ofcourse not withstanding the ever ready counterargument, as to whether or not we are able to stand on top of our own enbeddedness, and appreciate so fully the political functions fulfilled by our discursive positions and resulting actions, except in hindsight.
Overall I perceive your discussion as contributing valuably to the broader debate explored at this years QM conference, namely between what we theorise as academics/researchers and its relation or lack thereof to lived experience, or to quote you, whether our “ideas (are) merely elitist language games with no relation to contemporary reality” (p. 3). In this regard I experienced your paper as an honest expression of these difficulties, as you constantly pitted your theoretical assumptions as researcher, against your experiences in the AIDS field as activist, and you should be commended for the way in which you allowed these complexities and the ways in which they have challenged both your theorizing and actions, to transparently unfold over the course of your discussion, as opposed to being dealt with in a ‘too easy’ manner.
I look forward to hearing from you and any further thoughts that have arisen for you around your topic, both from your experience at the conference and/or in these reviews.
Foucalt, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8, 777 – 795.
Parker, I. (Ed.). (1998a). Social Constructionism, Discourse and Realism. London: Sage Publications
Rabinow, P. (ed.). (1984). The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.