Spivak, Foucault, Fanon, and Zizek at a roundtable discussion on the role of the intellectual in today’s emancipatory struggles
Foucault: I would like to start by addressing the question of why there has been little involvement by the intellectuals with respect to the Occupy Movement. Perhaps the intellectuals of today are wise enough to realize that the masses no longer need to be represented and spoken for. The masses know very well their conditions, and can speak for themselves.
Spivak: It seems to me that you are much too quick to move past the problem of ideological mystification and ideology.
Zizek: Here I would like to interrupt for a second to say that we need a new formulation of how ideology functions today. Ideology in the old Marxist terms is no longer accurate. As my friend Peter Sloterdijk has said, now we have cynicism as a form of ideology. What we have now is a reversal of Marx’s concept of ideology. It is no longer the case that people do not know, but instead they know what they do, and yet they continue to do it.
Spivak: Zizek, maybe the surprising thing here is that some intellectuals have not moved past ideology in the old Marxist conception. They are not cynical, they are mystified. They are not even aware of what they do. Foucault, I find a couple of things problematic with what you said about “the masses” and their ability to speak for themselves. First, when you refer to “the masses” as if they are an undifferentiated mass, you are not acknowledging the international division of labor and the ramifications of the differential positions of the actually heterogeneous masses you speak of.
Fanon: Let’s not forget that it is not just the international division of labor that complicates this notion of “workers struggle.” There is a racialized nature to this division of labor. This is part of the problem of the European discourse on the sovereign subject. It constitutes the subject as white, or now, “the West.”
Foucault: Which was not my intent at all. In fact, my work has been concerned with examining the problematic process of subject-making but in terms of the Occupy Movement, I think that any struggle against power can be a part off the workers struggle.
Spivak: Going back to what you (Foucault) said about the masses being able to speak for themselves. In some cases, this is true, as in the case of the Occupy Movement in the West, but it is important to note that there are those not able to speak—the subaltern, like the illiterate peasantry, and the urban subproletariat, for example. It is not the role of the intellectual to speak for the subaltern, as this only serves to perpetuate their position as a subaltern.
Fanon: Precisely. Spivak and Foucault, you both spoke about epistemic violence. I think it would be useful to use this concept to lay bare the conditions that make the subaltern unable to speak. Many intellectuals have been complicit in the deployment of epistemic violence. Every time an intellectual pushes non-Western episteme to the margins, or even worse, deny it as a form of knowledge at all, they commit epistemic violence.
Spivak: Yes, and this is precisely why the subaltern cannot speak. The structures of our episteme as shaped by the academic discourse and the global capitalist order make it so that they cannot be heard. Going back to what I said about ideology, Foucault’s erasure of the subaltern through his disavowal of the realities of the global capitalism, post-colonial issues, and race is a manifestation of the ideology of liberalism.
Foucault: Okay, there are perhaps some blind spots in my work that I should own up to.
Fanon: It’s not all bad. Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate the fact that you have made a move against representation. It’s just that you have to be careful not to do an erasure of those that have been, for so long, represented.