Chapter 5


Critiques of Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action


In this chapter I consider the leading philosophical critiques of The Theory of Communicative Action under two headings. A critique of power is argued from Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge (AK). A critique of judgement in The Theory of Communicative Action (TCA 1 & 2) is argued with reference to various recent articles. The relevance of these critiques to the evaluation of Exploding Cinema activity within a framework of cultural democracy is then indicated.

Foucault and the power critique of TCA

The introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge suggests that an understanding of knowledge is not to be found in books, or even the complete works of leading authors, but rather, it is to be found in the larger sets of these which discuss an area of the world or common purpose. These fields have particular rules of formation and continuance. They do not consist simply of discourses inscribed on paper or screen but also of practices, institutions and architectures. These fields of knowledge are often seen as disciplines with an emphasis on the work of leading authorities. They are also represented as unities that have an internal coherence and a unity of identity.

Foucault objects to this representation of discourse as coherent. He argues that a detailed study of the history of such fields of knowledge shows that there are in practice many contradictions, ruptures and alternative positions taken. They are also influenced not only by their own institutions but also by all sorts of external influences and interests that come to bear. He calls this broader field in which knowledge is formed the Discursive Formation.

Discursive formations are totalising in that it is difficult to think beyond them in any field of knowledge. As Foucault points out this means:

One cannot speak of anything at any time; it is not easy to say something new; it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay attention, to be aware, for new objects suddenly to light up and emerge out of the ground.[1]

The point is that knowledge is not produced from a free-floating discourse. A Discursive Formation is a rule governed set of material practices. These practices are set in social spaces with their objects and architectures, with their behaviours and norms, with their class interests and prejudice. Verbal discourses with its attendant practices and relations are a hidden part of this production of knowledge. In classical discourse the practices that are outside of the published aspect of discourse are not recognised as determinant parts of the process. The production of an argument and its legitimation are supposed to proceed purely from the rational substance of previous published books.

All the relations that surround the processes of discourse form what is in effect a prediscursive field that Foucault describes as belonging to 'an essential silence'.[2]

The preconceptual field allows the emergence of the discursive regularities and constraints that have made possible the heterogeneous multiplicity of concepts, and, beyond these the profusion of the themes, beliefs, and prepresentations with which one usually deals when one is writing the history of ideas.[3]

Foucault agrees with Habermas in emphasising the social production of knowledge but he adds the presence of fields of force, which guide the production of knowledge. These forces are the exertions of power within the process of knowledge formation and are embedded in the contexts of such formation. Foucault would see it as unrealistic to exclude such forces with an 'ideal speech situation'. For Foucault discourse is inevitably impregnated with power and realistic resistance to oppression must counter power with power and strategy.

Even on the micro level of analysis, the element of discourse, the statement is in practice not the discrete element that it appears to be in The Theory of Communicative Action.[4] The enunciative field, which extends beyond the statement, 'never sleeps' it is always alert, the slightest gesture creates a wave of significance which it acknowledges and responds to.[5]

Habermas reaches beyond the isolated idea of the statement with his adoption of Searle's Speech Act Theory but this never seems to have the critical force of Foucault's deconstruction of the statement in the context of the Discursive Formation.[6]

In terms of my thesis it is clear that a collective formed outside of institutions creates an intellectual clearing in which the power conditions decisively shift from the institutional mediation to intersubjectivity. The role of Exploding Cinema in creating a context for a discourse composed of moving images against a background of orality may be brought into sharper relief with Foucault's concepts. Habermas' insistence on a focus on the power of reasoned argument is however, surely, still to be welcomed.

One of the institutional sites of a discursive formation is the archive. For Foucault the archive is not just a passive collection of records from the past, it is an active and controlling system of enunciation.[7] The archive gives ever-changing form to the 'great confused murmur' that emanates from the discursive formation. The archive has a set of meanings (a 'form') that changes with the mental frame that we bring to it.

There is an active relationship between the archive, statements and discursive formations. Foucault describes the archive acting on the statement.[8] Statements are also a dynamic part of communication and will change the archive - both physically, with new requests changing the collection profile, but also changing the conceptual frames through which we can interpret the archive.

Archives are usually thought of as formal things within an architectural setting but they may also exist in a more diffuse way. Howard Slater describes the common archive as any set of cultural preferences held in common which may or may not take material forms such as record collections.[9] The public considered here bring moving picture statements into complex sets which may be considered as dynamic archives.[10]

Archeology concerns itself with practices rather than ideas.[11] It sees discourses as material practices to be systematically analysed rather than interpreted. It differs from the history of ideas in a focus on innovation, contradictions, comparisons and transformations. It is a space that is characterised by dissent rather agreement.[12] It is interested in establishing diversities rather than modeling ideal unities, in highlighting rupture and discontinuity rather than forming tidy linear narratives.[13]

The opacity of discursive formations can be challenged if we can ask questions such as, who gets the status to speak?[14] Or, how do the sites and domains of a discourse effect the objects produced? And what are the interests and influence of the social relations of the operators? The engine of knowledge here is clearly not the individual author but the social body.

Although they both have a similar emphasis on social discourses Foucault differs from Habermas in his emphasis on the extra discursive processes that he forcefully argues structure the formation of knowledges. According to Foucault these spaces are characterised by dissent and silences rather than Habermas' emphasis on consensus and rational speech acts. Consensus is often produced covertly by extra discursive and non-rational maneuvers and forces and is a mask for power. But we must remember that Foucault is studying what actually occurs whilst Habermas is theorising about the inherent potentials of communication for reaching understandings.

Foucault also develops his idea of discourse without favouring written forms:

Foucault stresses the agonism, the ongoing, the open-ended combat of competing positions in social life, in which all positions are finite and partial, and none can prevail absolutely. Nor is there any attempt to reduce concrete social practices to linguistic ones. (Falzon 1998 p88)

The overall practices of Western knowledge production are seen by Foucault as epistemes.[15] One of the rules of the Post Enlightenment episteme is that of coherence. It becomes the unifying focus of research, analysis, critique and publication. Contradiction is the basic process by which a discursive formation progresses as this coherence is repeatedly challenged by new ideas.

In relation to a history of ideas that attempts to melt contradictions in the semi-nocturnal unity of an overall figure, or which attempts to transmute them into a general, abstract, uniform principle of interpretation or explanation, archeology describes the different spaces of dissension.[16]

From this point some Foucauldians read a sinister sub-text to Habermas' theoretical juggernaut:

It is clear that what is being undertaken by Habermas is not mere clarification and description of the normative order underlying democracy but the establishment of a normalising project in which the statement of the conditions of democracy is a means to generate a critique of existing abnormal or pathological forms - of democratic procedures, of thought, of action. (Mitchell Dean in Ashenden & Owen 1999 p189)

The suggestion that a focus on consensus and norms inevitably derogates difference is a genealogical criticism of Habermas's argument understood on a connotative level. Mitchel Dean suggests that Habermas is trapped within the discursive formation of which he is a part, describing Habermas as being within 'a goldfish bowl of biopower from which he cannot see out' (1999 p190).[17]

A close reading of Habermas shows that he does not theorise about norms and consensus on this crude level but Foucault does allow us to think more clearly about the prediscursive formation of the democratic subject and her freedom to think, than we can with TCA. This allows us to focus on the production of subjectivity, as I do later with the oral history interviews of collective members. It allows us to think about affect outside of a rigidly intellectualised psychoanalytic framework.

Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Grieff summarise Habermas' defence in their editor's introduction to his recent The Inclusion of the Other:

In the domain of struggle for recognition of differences, the aim cannot be the institutionalisation from above of protections and benefits for previously disadvantaged groups, but must rather be the realisation of full democratic dialogue in which everyone effected has some input into the definition of needs and identities and how these will be promoted or hampered by state action. Cronin & De Grieff in the introduction to (Habermas 1999 pxxxi).

Exploding Cinema is certainly strident in its rejection of state funding and in arguing that the direct articulation of desire would be hampered by such state funding.

Another major objection to Habermas is that the universalism of his claims is contrary to the recognition of cultural difference, which has been one of the achievements of postmodernist theory. Habermas is aware that such cultural relativism, which claims that rationality is entirely dependent on its cultural context, does not help us to think about inter-cultural agreement and can just as easily become a denial of a common ground for mutual understandings and so be divisive.

His claim for the universal validity of Communicative Action is what Ricardo Blaug calls a thin claim.[18] It is restricted to a minimum set of procedures to ensure fairness in a process by which validity claims can be satisfactorily be brought to a resolution, which are derived from characteristics of language that are common to all human speech. People entering into argument who hold out the possibility of reaching understanding, must assume a set of conditions of fairness. These implied conditions are referred to by Habermas as an 'Ideal Speech Situation' (or ISS).[19]

The ISS should not be seen as a demand for the communicative competence of participants with its dubious connotation of meritocratic exclusion. Rather it is a set of guiding ethical principles. In relationship to democracy the ISS can be reduced to four simple components:

1. Inclusion (an integrated community of all humans without exclusions)

2. Free speech

3. Positive empowerment to speak

4. Protection from intimidation [20]

Foucault's criticism is that Habermas's use of the Ideal Speech Situation is utopian in suggesting that communication could ever be free from relations of power.

The thought that there could be a state of communication which would be such that the games of truth could circulate freely, without obstacles, without constraint and without coercive effects, seems to me to be Utopia. (Foucault 1988 p18)

James Tully comes to Habersmas' defence here:

It is not utopian but a strongly idealised regulative idea against which actual games inundated by relations of power can be evaluated in the name of freedom. Tully in (Ashenden & Owen 1999 p130)

In fact Foucault can also be found to insist on ideal conditions for the freedom of subjects:

Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only in so far as they are free. By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments may be realised. (Foucault in Dreyfus & Rabinow 1983 p221)

Foucault relates his idea of freedom closely with the practices of play and insubordination. If free play and expression is restricted power tends to become domination.[21]

Exploding Cinema certainly attempts to provide the conditions of an ISS however Foucault's emphasis of free play and expression would seem to have more empathy with the priorities of artists. But Foucault's theories can add up to an embattled fatalism. With no general vision of social solidarity, or direction for emancipation, play power slips all too easily towards a fragmentation, which can all too easily be dominated.



[1] Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge (Routledge 1989-97 p44 orig. Paris 1969) From now on 'AK'.


[2] AK p76


[3] AK p63


[4] In a series of passages throughout The Archeology of Knowledge Foucault deconstructs the assumed stability of this element of argumentation:

"There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions and roles". (AK p99)

"The constancy of the statement, the preservation of its identity through the unique events of the enunciations, its duplications through the identity of the forms, constitute the function of the field of use in which it is placed". (AK p104)

"It constitutes its own past, defines, in what precedes it, its own filiation, redefines what makes it possible or necessary, excludes what cannot be comparable with it". (AK p124)

"Words, sentences, meanings, affirmations, series of propositions do not back directly on to a primeval night of silence; but that the sudden appearance of a sentence, the flash of meaning, the brusque gesture of the index finger of designation, always emerge in the operational domain of an enunciative function". (AK p112 see also p147)


[5] AK p147


[6] TCA p286


[7] AK p129


[8] AK p130


[9] Howard Slater, 'Canon Blasting for a Living Culture' (Resonance Vol 8 no 1 August 1999)


[10] Exploding Cinema has material archives but it also issues a variety of statements in different media which themselves take up positions as parts of complex and ephemeral sets. A worked example is made in a later chapter by classifying the images in the programmes prior to a Semiotic Analysis.


[11] AK p138


[12] AK p155


[13] "The horizon of archeology, therefore, is not a science, a rationality, a mentality, a culture: it is a tangle of interpositivities whose limits and points of intersection cannot be fixed in a single operation. Archeology is a comparative analysis that is not intended to reduce the diversity of discourses, and to outline the unity that must totalise them, but is intended to divide up their diversity into different figures. Archeological comparison does not have a unifying but a diversifying effect." (AK p159/160)


[14] AK p68


[15] AK p191


[16] AK p152


[17] "While the classical conception of modernity was tailored to the experiences of social disintegration and the violation of universal norms, postmodern approaches direct their attention primarily to exclusions -- to the exclusionary character of every unconsciously operating system of rules that is surreptitiously imposed on speakers and actors. Thus Foucault, for example, could write social and political history by using the concepts of a history of the discourse of the human sciencesâ as if the material structure of society were made up of the concepts and discourses of social scientists". (Habermas in The Postnational Constellation 2001 p147)


[18] See, Ricardo Blaug, Democracy Real and Ideal: discourse ethics and radical politics, (S.U.N.Y. Press, 1999 p12 & 16)


[19] This is barely mentioned in TCA (See TCA1 pp26 & 42). See also his The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: twelve lectures, (Polity 1990 p323). Now 'PDM'.


[20] See R. Kemp 'Planning, Public Hearing and the Politics of Discourse' in Critical Theory and Public Life, Edited by J. Forester (MIT 1985 pp117 - 201), for a specific example and Blaug (1999) for a summary of discussions of the ISS.


[21] See Foucault in Bernauer and Rasmussen's (1988 p12) and Foucault's 'The Subject and Power' in Dreyfus & Rabinow, (1983 p225).