Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dialecticalizing the proverb about the the first casualty of war

Describing the mentality of a leader who declares his society to be in a state of permanent war, Michel Foucault thirty years ago made the following pungent observation about such a person’s sense of truth:
In this general struggle of which [the leader] is speaking, he is inevitably on one side or the other. He is caught up in the battle, has adversaries, and is fighting to win. No doubt he is trying to assert a right; but it is his right that is at issue—and it is a singular right that is marked by a relationship of conquest, domination, or seniority: the rights of a race, the rights of triumphant invasions or millennial occupations. And while he also speaks about the truth, he is speaking of a perspectival and strategic truth that will allow him to be victorious.
This view of truth is not the sort, Foucault goes on to say, that legislators or philosophers
have dreamed of: standing between the adversaries, at the center of and above the fray, imposing an armistice, establishing an order that brings reconciliation. [Rather] it is a matter of establishing a right that is stamped with dissymmetry and that functions as a privilege that has to be either maintained or reestablished; it is a matter of establishing a truth that functions as a weapon. [Emphasis mine]

I think that this quote is worth pondering as one considers not only the Bush regime's relationship to the truth, but also its attitude toward the role of legislation and reconciliation in the process of waging war.

This perspective on the Bush regime’s relationship to the truth, I believe, is the only way to make sense of statements like, "We don't torture." These guys regard the idea of universal objectivity as an illusion or a trap; for them, rather "truth" is simply a weapon in war in which they seek unconditional victory.

(Note that Foucault is not saying, simply, that war destroys truth, but rather that war, especially when warfare is perceived as constitutive of society, creates a condition in which truth becomes defined as that which is necessary to win the war. It's also worth noting that Foucault doesn't have a particular problem with this perspective on truth, which he regards as less insidious than the scientific pretentions to universal and unimpeachable authority. Science claims that the truth is what it is; the warrior-leader subject can recognize that losing a war can potentially disinstantiate his understanding of the truth.)

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