Thursday, April 23, 2009

Polemics, Politics and Problematizations (and me?)

I always find Foucault to be a hard read for an untrained and un-schooled reader like me, but this interview of Michel Foucault really caught my attention maybe because it is a conversation more than Foucault's mostly opaque (to me) lectures. Specifically because I think that Pakistani discourse, if there is such a thing, mainly consists of polemics. Our political discourse especially is mainly polemic in nature, and I think it emanates from the fact that we (as a people) take cues from the weekly barrage of sermons that are repeated ad-infinitum, contra everything that the sermoneer doesn't think is "cool with the world". This attitude then permeates the school, the parliament and the public sphere in general.

I think I myself have been guilty of polemicising, not to mention "vitriol", ... but mostly it has been exorcism (for me at least.) Perhaps others see this in me, but I see myself as the opposite of "the polemicist" as defined by Foucault. Simply because discourse (tinged with occasional or frequent vitriol) for me is search for truth, regardless of where it leads. While I see so many falling in the trap of being polemicists while leaving the search for truth (not necessarily 'solutions') on the back burner.

I guess it is because it "feels good". Search for truth is a arduous and difficult journey. Polemics on the other hand has all the trappings of mob rule and mob justice KKK style, but only in the intellectual domain.

Reading this passage reminded me of the way how discussions have been shaping up on the Pakistani Political forums, at least the ones I hang out at, and it probably says more about me than the forums:

Perhaps, someday, a long history will have to be written of polemics, polemics as a parasitic figure on discussion and an obstacle to the search for the truth. Very schematically, it seems to me that today we can recognize the presence in polemics of three models: the religious model, the judiciary model, and the political model. As in heresiology, polemics sets itself the task of determining the intangible point of dogma, the fundamental and necessary principle that the adversary has neglected, ignored or transgressed; and it denounces this negligence as a moral failing; at the root of the error, it finds passion, desire, interest, a whole series of weaknesses and inadmissible attachments that establish it as culpable. As in judiciary practice, polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion: it examines a case; it isn’t dealing with an interlocutor, it is processing a suspect; it collects the proofs of his guilt, designates the infraction he has committed, and pronounces the verdict and sentences him. In any case, what we have here is not on the order of a shared investigation; the polemicist tells the truth in the form of his judgment and by virtue of the authority he has conferred on himself. But it is the political model that is the most powerful today. Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.

Regarding the finely balanced intercourse that is the search for truth:

In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other. Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

And about the polemicist itself:
The polemicist , on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.


Anonymous said...

May I ask you why you removed the link to contemptible from your blog?

Taban Khamosh said...


Anonymous said...

was just curious ... no worries...
BTW I was not sure if the link was there before, I take it was there..

commoner said...

This is "commoner". What's "HALD", and how can one join it and paticipate.
Take care

Taban Khamosh said...

Commoner, HALD is the working title for a policy / lobbying or something like that wiki that a bunch of us are putting together.

it's at

The idea is to create a space where people can discuss issues and try to come up with ideas to help out Pakistan in terms of providing a repository of solutions.

as you can tell, its all up in the air, so things will gel as people participate and mold it.

If you're interested, create an account on, let me know what your id is and I'll add you to the member list.

right now it is only 10 ppl because it's free version, but hopefully we can open it up for larger participation.

commoner said...

My id is: commoner

Taban Khamosh said...

You're in! send me email at taban.khamosh aatt gmail dawt cawm I'll send you the secret phrase as we have a slot open still from the 5 original allowed.

Taban Khamosh said...

Actually, just try logging in, you should be in without anything to do. let me know if you don't see forums, wiki page etc. email is above.

Rabia said...

I guess the reason Pakistani political discussions often degenerate into polemics is that in any given political conversation, about 80% of the possible viewpoints are going to get you labeled as a traitor if you express them so it leaves a pretty limited space in which to discuss.