Kundera and Foucault on Dogma, Ideology and Intellectuals
For Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, the novelist is akin to an explorer of existence, rather than a historian or documentarian, with such ‘explorers’ having a preference for questions over answers.
“Outside the novel, we’re in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel, however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and of hypotheses. In the novel, then, reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical.”
Similar to the thinking of Lukacs on the novel, Kundera believes that this interrogation is performed through what he calls ‘experimental thought’ by which he means, essentially, a non-systematic and inherently agonistic mode of ironic thinking.
“…a person who thinks is automatically prompted to systematize; it is his eternal temptation (mine too, even in writing this book): a temptation to describe all the implications of his ideas; to pre-empt any objections and refute them in advance; thus to barricade his ideas. Now, a person who thinks should not try to persuade others of his belief; that is what puts him on the road to a system; on the lamentable road of the “man of conviction”; politicians like to call themselves that; but what is a conviction? It is a thought that has come to a stop, that has congealed, and the “man of conviction” is a man restricted; experimental thought seeks not to persuade but to inspire; to inspire another thought, to set thought moving; that is why a novelist must systematically desystematize his thought, kick at the barricade that he himself has erected around his ideas.“
Conviction is, argues Kundera, the death of thought and dialectic. It is the rendering of the living and supple body of one’s imagination and turning it to a statue that may last forever albeit at a cost…that it is no longer human.
Such thinking is not dissimilar to Foucault’s views on the role of the intellectual when he briefly touched on this issue in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?‘
“The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play).”
Perhaps the role of the intellectual is by neccesity to maintain thought that is that living body of agonistic, dialectical and contrary thinking as opposed to the statue of ossified convictions that belong to the rest of us.