Monday, 22 February 2010

Tolkein and Foucault

Odd as it may sound to some, I think that there is a very important connection between the ideas of Tolkein and Foucault. Tolkein's 'eye of Sauron' and Foucault's panopticon seem to me to be different expressions of the same fundamental idea. More specifically, both these thinkers seem to be suggesting that with the advent of modernity a new form of power has emerged; a form of power that is connected to war, technology and visibility.

However, I think that whereas Tolkein viewed this power as a very ancient form of power returning to haunt us, for Foucault this form of power was in philosophical terms an innovation. Also, they both differed quite markedly on how they conceived of who or what is best equipped to resist this form of power. For Tolkein, it was the little people of the shires; whereas for Foucault it was socially 'the marginalised' and the hedonistic libertines of the bohemian counter-cultures.

I wonder who was right?

Neil Turnbull


  1. Interesting parallel between two very contrasting figures here.
    I am hardly an expert on Tolkein. In fact, I haven't read the novels since I was a teenager, so I may well be completely on the wrong tack here. However, my abiding memory is that the novels were suffused by a nostalgia for an imagined past that never existed, some sort of rural idyll. Foucault, meanwhile, has a very different view of "history", however we might conceive of that term.
    Personally, I'm not sure how power in Focuault's terms could be resisted, given its invisible diffusion throughout society and its discourses, but if it could be, I'm pretty sure that it won't be the little people that do so. Rather it is only those who perpetuate discourse that are able to see it for what it is, who are aware of its existence. One can't fight an invisible enemy.
    Ruth Griffin

  2. Agreed.

    But Foucault does advocate an 'aesthetics of existence' and a politics of 'self-fashioning' against the discplinary forces inherent in offical discourses etc.

    Hence his hero is very much 'the dandy' a la Baudelaire.

    Of course there is, for some, an important relationship between 'the dandy' and contemporary neo-liberalism. For isn't the dandy, as the highly aestheticised and 'perfectly elastic' individual, the ideal type for contemporary modes of conusmer capitalism?

    If so, we may have to look to other more mundane heroes and I think that this is what Tolkein is asking us to do. I don't think that Tolkein is really advocating a return to a prem-modern idyll, more that he wants to defend an idea that the real political heroes in the context of a dark and destructive modernity are the small but fundamentally decent individuals who in the end strive to do the right thing.

    Neil Turnbull

  3. I think you have to see the story as one which is fundamentally about war. Whilst Sauron etc seems very WWII fascism, the shire people seem to me to represent working class WWI 'cannon fodder'.

    So yes I think he is definitely suggesting that the real heroes are the decent 'little people', but personally I find the portrayal of these figures rather patronising. The final victory comes about because the wise and the powerful entrust their fate to those whose life is too 'simple' to be corrupted.

  4. I don't know much about Foucalt but i have been watching some videos about this illumanati conspiracy. It's a very convincing theory and i feel that Tolkien expresses ideas of the theory with the eye of Sauron representing the 'all seeing eye', a masonic symbol shown on the back of a dollar bill and can be seen in manyy movies and music videos. All part of a theory suggesting that this symbol of one eye represents the anti-christ...
    The idea of the hobbits saving middle earth to me seem to be a way of telling us that it's the 'little' people in the world that can make a big difference. As we are governed by powerful people who are feeding to us values in which they want us to believe in via the media.

  5. I wondered when someone would point this out - Robert Anton Wilson certainly has a lot to answer for!

    The point here is that Philosophers can't really 'do' conspiracy theory.

    Such theories presuuppose a paranoid interpretation of social and political affairs. They also make you hate yourself and hate life! Not good for anyone in my view.

    Moreover, most conspiracy theories, such as the 'world Jewish consipracy' put about the Nazis, have turned about to hoaxes (in fact there is an initmate relation between conspiratorial and fascistic thinking).

    Yes, the Masons exist. Yes, the Masons are a powerful, secretive and influential grouping. Yes, they did have a hand in the birth of modernity.

    However, that's it. Not at lot more you can say really. Do the masons rule the world? No - money rules the world and the biggest investors in contemporary capitalism are pension funds not the Masons!

    Also, Tolkein wasn't really writing about the Hitler etc in the Lord of the Rings. His target was secular modernity (of course Hitler must be viewed as one of the deepest pathologies of secular modernity). This is because the book is not a liberal lament about the horrors of Nazism but rather a work examines that consequences of a modernity that, as Heidegger recognised, was giving rise to a 'darknening of the world'.

    So what I am trying to get at here is whether Tolkein's social philosophy is more sophisticated than we want to think. It seems to amount to a Foucauldian style of social critique, but without the ridculous dandyism and without any absurd attempt at 'radical chic'.

    Neil Turnbull

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  7. In Tolkien though as much as Sam represents the 'little people' fighting against the all seeing power of sauron it must be remembered that it is actually Gandalf, not the hobbits, who wields the true power. It is Gandalf as the manipulative but powerful eminence grise who controls and it is actually just a struggle for power between Gandalf and Sauron.

    Of course Sauron does seem to be a good example of Foucault's power theory but I would suggest that Metatron (His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman) who gazes at Mrs Coulter and sees all who is a real prime example of Foucauldian Power whereas Sauron for Tolkien was just nasty industrialization who chopped down all his favourite trees.

  8. Interesting point.

    I think that you are right to draw parallels between God and modern forms of power (Metatron being God's most powerful warrior Angel). There is however a difference. In most religions God is seen as a figure of justice and mercy ('slow to anger and quick to forgive').

    Of course we cannout apply such concepts to Foucault's panopticon because in essence it is a machine. Just as it no use pleading with speed camera - or typically even to the magistrate later - so there is no mercy and justice in the Foucaudlian system of power.

    'Modern power as a merciless and unforgiving God'. This is what both Tolkein and Foucault were getting at in my view.

    Neil Turnbull