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Thoughts on ground and neoliberalism

In the interview, Catherine Malabou talks of “a lack inscribed within grounding itself” and also of the ground is that it is itself groundless”, a concept from Heidegger’s The Principle of Reason, a lecture course from 1955-56. Thirty years before these lectures, in his interpretation of the call of conscience in Being and Time, Heidegger defines Dasein as the “null basis of a nullity”: a “notness” that manifests itself in three distinct ways: as being thrown into the world it is the groundless ground of itself, in projecting a possibility it does not choose to project any of the available alternative possibilities and as being-anxious it has the feeling of not being at home. These three ‘nots’ correspond to facticity (thrownness), existentiality (being-ahead-of-itself, projection) and falling: the three elements of Heidegger’s conception of the being of Dasein as care. Later in the book, Heidegger re-interprets these three elements in terms of temporality, as past, future and present.

The everyday understanding of the call of conscience is that it occurs when we are guilty of something, when we have transgressed, broken a law, be it legal or moral. The assumption here is that the legal or ethical code comes before guilt: the law has to be in place before we can be guilty of breaking it. Heidegger reverses this: it is the call of conscience as a call to take responsibility for the lack, for the nullity at the core of authentic being, as a call to take ownership of our potentiality for being, of our possibilities, that comes first. The call calls Dasein’s attention to its ontological debt or guilt. It is this guilt in the form of the call that comes first: the laws are put in place as an attempt to answer the question “what ought I to do” which is the ontic manifestation of a more fundamental ontological need for decision. So, by an indirect route, the call of conscience is the ground for everyday conscience in that it results in the establishing of legal and moral codes which produce feelings of guilt when they are broken.

In hearing the call of conscience, Dasein accepts responsibility for its own choices in terms of the possibilities open to it as being-thrown. It chooses not on the basis of what “they” would choose, but on the basis of the indefiniteness, the groundlessness that is the ground. Fundamentally, ontologically, we are a lack, we are a nullity. To assuage our “guilt”, to fill this lack we seek a ground – in religion, morality, law, politics or metaphysics – attempts to reground the paradox of a ground that is not a ground.

For Foucault, subjectivities are produced by systems of power-knowledge: historically specific “regimes of truth” that carve up the real. In his late work, Foucault emphasises the self-fashioning of subjectivity as care of the self, power seems less of an issue, but the various historical examples of self-care analysed by Foucault all take place in the context of cultural norms and moral codes, and what are these if not truth regimes? This Foucaultian production of subjectivity can perhaps be seen as an attempt to fill the Heideggarian “lack”.

So what constitutes our truth regime today? What is our code? In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault discusses the neoliberal subject, homo economicus, who produces his own subjectivity as a “self-made” entrepreneur by making rational investment decisions, investing in himself as human capital in order to compete in the economic game otherwise known as life. This is the subject as a business, as an enterprise, each person being the CEO of his or her own subjectivity. In 1979 Foucault was talking about economic theory, but after thirty years of neoliberal hegemony, are we not all to some extent homo economicus now?

So perhaps just arguing that neoliberalism is “wrong” is ineffective because we have to a certain extent been formed as subjects under the neoliberal regime of truth. Maybe neoliberalism is the battle-hardened culmination of the continuous reconfiguration of power systems in the face of resistances – an insidious strategy of control that is so effective because it mobilises freedom – freedom co-opted by power as a ruse. Maybe this is why, despite the on-going financial crisis, there is still no alternative. Maybe what we need is a new regime of truth.

By David


3 comments on “Thoughts on ground and neoliberalism

  1. tokyowitch
    October 23, 2012

    This reminds me a little of zizek’s critique of ideology. The problem is, our future dreams are corrupted by our past. We are the product of ideology and so coming up with an alternative will be painful if at all possible. My question is how have any of the critiques of neoliberalism defined it as “wrong”?

  2. David
    October 23, 2012

    I was thinking of Keynesian economists such as Joseph Stiglitz who argue that if the state is more active in regulating and intervening in the ecomomy then economic growth will be more sustainable and meltdown less likely. Interesting that you mentioned ideology – I was arguing from a Foucaultian perspective – for Foucault, power does not need to obscure the truth with ideology, because truth itself is a product of power. I don’t know Zizek’s work well but he seems to see ideology as a form of false consciousness which obfuscates the truth – but what is truth for Zizek?

  3. tokyowitch
    October 24, 2012

    I don’t think ideology obfuscates anything in Zizek. I think he would argue it has nothing to do with illusion or distortion. In fact I think that’s part of his critique. I’m not sure what his thoughts on truth are but as a Hegelian I should think truth is through ideology or perhaps through the concepts and not external to them.

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , , .
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