Marxist political and literary theorist Michael Hardt came to Yale Monday to spark revolution — not with petitions or protests, but with the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Chair of the literature department at Duke University, Hardt was invited by the Department of Comparative Literature to give a talk entitled “Militancy Beyond Critique: Foucault Reads Kant” in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Hardt said critique has been a prominent project for students of philosophy, literature and sociology since the 1960s. But he added that many scholars now think critique — which was intended to “reveal hierarchies of power in what was presumed to be neutral and natural” to society — has failed to improve society; however, during his talk, Hardt said he could not provide examples of how Foucault’s theory of “militant” social change would work in the real world.
Hardt began his talk by stating his ambivalence toward the mandate for academics to claim their work as political, which started in the 1980s. He used Foucault’s last lectures at the Collège de France before his death in 1984 as an example of politicized theory. Hardt said Foucault’s final works outline “a form of philosophical and political militancy beyond critique” that could be used to reach political autonomy. Foucault, in turn, used the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant as a jumping-off point and used ancient Greek history to narrate the interplay between truth-telling and democracy.
Hardt concluded with Foucault’s depiction of the Greek Cynic philosophers, whose stubborn, uncompromising way of life offended their peers but pleased Hardt’s crowd.
The Cynics rejected wealth and social codes, Hardt said before drawing laughter from the audience with stories of the Cynics’ racy public antics, which included public defecation. The group tried to spread their own version of truth “to humanity, in order to change humanity,” Hardt said, and serve as a model for a new approach to political activism. “Militant truth-telling,” Hardt said, could overthrow the existing order where academic critique just sought to minimize harm from power structures.
Several audience members asked Hardt how these theories could be applied today, but Hardt hesitated to offer concrete responses. Instead, he encouraged students to ask such questions of themselves.
“I don’t have any answer,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I like hiding behind Foucault — because I don’t have an answer myself.”
Ariel Bardi GRD ’14, a graduate student of comparative literature, said she had looked forward to seeing Hardt and that she had voted for him to come as a speaker from a list of potential scholars provided by the Department of Comparative Literature. Bardi said she has been a fan of Hardt since she read his 2000 book “Empire,” but Hardt’s talk assumed a familiarity with Foucault’s last lectures that Bardi said she did not have.
Still, Bardi said she thought the talk, with its focus on theoretical foundations instead of political calls to action, provided her with a good background for future discussions about social problems.
“It helped frame the discussion,” she said.
Three of four graduate students declined to comment about the talk. Two said they could not comment because they did not want to harm their job prospects.