Foucault from Beyond the Grave

by guest contributor Michael C. Behrent

Few living thinkers have been as prolific as the dead Michel Foucault. In the thirty-two years since his death, he has published thirteen book-length lecture courses, four volumes of interviews and papers (totaling over 3,500 pages), and countless bootlegs. Meanwhile, the fourth volume of his History of Sexuality, completed shortly before his death, sits, inaccessible to all, in an archive in Normandy—a rare text to have found no way around his estate’s prohibition on posthumous publications.

His will notwithstanding, one can only imagine that Foucault himself would have reacted to this state of affairs with a caustic laugh. For as two recently published volumes remind us, Foucault was haunted by the bond between language and death, as well as the notion that writing always, in a sense, comes from “beyond the grave.”

41pbmufcnrlThe two books in question both appear in a series put out by the Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales called Audiographie, which publishes texts that were first delivered in a spoken form. La grande étrangère (The Great Foreigner, 2013), consists of a radio program on madness and literature from 1963, two lectures on literature given in Brussels in 1964, and a talk on the Marquis de Sade delivered at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. The other, Le beau danger (The Beautiful Danger, 2011), is the transcript of an extended interview on the theme of writing that Foucault gave to the literary critic and journalist Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, but which has never before appeared in print.

If there is a common theme linking these interventions, it is that of Foucault’s obsession with the connection between writing and death. The texts in these volumes all deal with literature and writing; the problem of death figured prominently in the literary essays that Foucault, in the 1960s, devoted to Bataille, Blanchot, and Roussel. Yet what the Audiographie books make clear is that the problem of literature and death was not, for Foucault, some esoteric side problem. It was integral to the ideas he was developing in his major publications. Thus modern literature exemplifies, Foucault maintains, the fact that the modern mind is steeped in what, in The Order of Things (1966), he dubbed the “analytic of finitude.” One of the many consequences of the growing consciousness of the radically finite character of human existence that follows the death of God is, he argues, the enormous significance that modern society assigns to literature. The value we attribute to literature is inseparable, Foucault suggests, from a cultural horizon shaped by human mortality.

In the 1964 Brussels lectures, Foucault contends that early modern Europe (during what he calls “the classical age”) did not, strictly speaking, have literature—at least in the way we have since come to understand the term—for the simple reason that it interpreted itself culturally as the tributary of the word of God. People in this period, of course, wrote novels. Some even experimented with the kind of knowing self-consciousness about their own literary artifices—referring in writing to the fact that they were writing—that would later become associated with literary modernism (Foucault offers a fascinating analysis, for instance, of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste). Yet what distinguishes these earlier endeavor from the literature of the modern age is the fact that, during the classical age, “any work of language existed as a function of a certain mute and primitive language, that the work was charged with restoring.” This “language that [came] before languages” was the “word of God, it was the truth, it was the model” (La Grande étrangère, 100). Rhetoric was the means through which human utterances, in all their obtuseness, could acquire something of the limpidity of divine speech. But what we have come to call literature only emerges once God has died—or become dumb, to be precise. Literature is the attempt from within the unremitting chatter of discourse to mark language, to dent it, possibly to re-enchant or overcome it—hence modern literature’s frequently transgressive character. But once it has ceased to represent the word of God, once it has become simple the words filling a page, literature becomes an emblem of human finitude. As such, it cannot be other than “beyond the grave” (104).

Foucault’s claim that, strictly speaking, literature does not exist as an independent realm of discourse until the late eighteenth century parallels the claim he would soon make in The Order of Things that “man” (in the sense of the “human”) did not exist as a specific object of knowledge until the same period. The birth of the human sciences and the genesis of literature are both, Foucault, maintains, consequences of t God’s retreat.

The problem of writing also lies at the heart of Foucault’s 1970 lecture on Sade. His question is simply: why did Sade write? What compelled him to fill volume after volume with his transgressive yet mind-numbingly repetitive fantasies? Foucault’s analysis is characteristically complex, yet his argument harkens back, however indirectly, to the themes of the Brussels lecture. Sade’s libertinism is, needless to say, directed against God. Yet it is not atheistic as such; God is not dismissed as mere illusion. God, Sade believes, exists, but as an abomination, as evidenced by the “meanness” (méchanceté) of the world—and indeed, by the fact that there are libertines. In Sade’s peculiar logic (which Foucault calls “anti-Russellian” [199]), it is because God is abominable that it is necessary that he not exist. This theme illustrates what Foucault sees as the ultimate function of Sade’s writing: the intertwining of discourse, truth, and desire. Sade needs God “insofar as he does not exist, and insofar as he must be destroyed at each instant” (204), as both his writing and his desire depend on him.

41W+Fo8Tv1L.jpgThe reason Sade wrote is thus because in discourse, truth and desire become enmeshed in spirals of reciprocal stimulation and impulsion. Yet his originality, Foucault claims, lies in the way he emancipated desire from truth’s tutelage, pulling it out from under “the great Platonic edifice that ordered desire on truth’s sovereignty” (218). The point is not (as with Freud) that desire has its own truth, which is more or less hypocritically covered up by social norms; it is also, Foucault seems to be saying, that truth is a form of desire. Truth is not the neutral and transparent element through which words can name beings. It is a libidinal force, as seen in Sade’s relentless insistence, despite his novels’ preposterous plots, that he is telling the truth. Foucault’s account of the truth function in Sade recalls the themes of his first Collège de France lectures, on the “will to knowledge” in ancient Greece, which he would deliver the following year: the sophists, who believed that arguments are not proven logically, but won or lost like battles, resemble in many ways Sade’s approach to writing. Language, here, is no longer just a rumbling murmur that literature seeks to transform into a voice. God is dead, and we—or our truth-creating discourse—have killed him.

Yet at least according to Foucault’s position in Le Beau danger, language—or at least writing—has less to do with killing than with—as he put it in Madness and Civilization—the “already thereness of death” (“le déjà là de la mort”; cf. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972 [1961]), 26). Foucault explains: “I would say that writing, for me, is tied to death, perhaps essentially to the death of others, but that does not mean that writing would be like murdering others,” in a way that “would open before me a free and sovereign space.” Writing, rather, means “dealing with others insofar as they are already dead. I speak, in a sense, over the corpses of others. I must confess, I kind of postulate their death” (Le Beau danger, 36-37).

In this sense, the death of God, Foucault suggests, is not only the cultural situation that his thought attempts to assess; it is the condition of possibility of his own work. The idea of writing as a form of resurrection, a way of rendering present the “living word” of “men and—most likely—God” is, he says, “profoundly alien” to him. Writing, for Foucault, is “the drifting that follows death, and not the progression to the source of life.” He muses: “It is perhaps in this sense that my form of language is profoundly anti-Christian”—even more so than themes that he addresses (39).

In these texts, the reader will find few of the concepts for which Foucault is best known. There is no or little mention of archaeology, epistemes, genealogy, or power (discourse is the one exception, though it is discussed in a far less technical manner than in, say, The Archaeology of Knowledge). What they remind us of are the philosophical preoccupations that presided over his early work—and that no doubt continued to shape his later thought, works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, albeit in a more subterranean way. Here, we have a Foucault concerned with finitude, mortality, and the death of God. Perhaps this Foucault is in need of—how else to put it?—resurrection.

Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University. He is currently working on a book exploring the origins of Foucault’s project.

The Methodology of Genealogy: How to Trace the History of an Idea

by guest contributor Yung In Chae

We all know the story of Man the Hunter: thousands of years ago, cavemen went out and hunted food for cavewomen and cavechildren, who sat idly at home and depended on this masculine feat for survival. Physical strength was the most important attribute in primordial times, so it was only natural that men, whose physical strength surpasses and for the most part continues to surpass that of women, ruled the world. Even now, some people will refer to Man the Hunter in order to justify rigid gender roles: look, they say, evolutionary biology is on my side.

This, of course, is problematic: even if that had been the practice of cavepeople, we aren’t cavepeople. But Man the Hunter isn’t even true in the first place. In an article entitled “Shooting Down Man the Hunter” for Harper’s Magazine, Rebecca Solnit references a plethora of anthropological evidence that contradicts it. The nuclear family described in the story doesn’t so much resemble thousands of years ago as it does the gender norms of sixty years ago.

My point here is not about the Man the Hunter myth itself, but about something larger that it illustrates: the genetic fallacy. You commit a genetic fallacy when you appeal to the origins of an idea in order to make a claim about the truth of the idea. As Brian Leiter put it in a podcast I was listening to, “If you learn that your beliefs were arrived at the wrong kind of way, that ought to make you suspicious about them.” Similarly, Nietzsche, in writing The Genealogy of Morals, wanted to say that if morals come from a not-so-good place, the notion of having morals is not obviously good in itself. Genealogies, both true and false, can be and have been used to prop up and discredit, empower and oppress. Genealogy is a theoretical practice that has tangible consequences; it can be provocative and even dangerous.

How does one trace the history of an idea, anyway? We do it often, but it is unclear how to do it well and with methodological rigor. Nevertheless, in this post I wish to question what it means to go back to the “origins” of something, borrowing ideas from Nietzsche, Foucault, and Agamben.

In 1971, Foucault published an essay entitled “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History,” in which he discusses Nietzsche’s use of “origin” words: Ursprung, or “origin”; Herkunft, or “descent”; and Entstehung, or “emergence,” “the moment of arising.” For example, Nietzsche uses Ursprung or Entstehung for the origin of logic and knowledge in The Genealogy of Morals, and Ursprung, Entstehung, or Herkunft for the origin of logic and knowledge in The Gay Science. Some uses don’t seem to mean anything beyond “origin” in the general sense, and in those cases the terms are more or less interchangeable. But other uses of Ursprung, specifically, are what Foucault calls “stressed,” and at times have an ironic cast (e.g., for morality and religion).

At the beginning of The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche says that his objective is to find the Herkunft of moral preconceptions. He started this project because he wanted to find the origin of evil, a question that he finds amusing in retrospect and calls a search for Ursprung. Later on, he refers to genealogical analyses as Herkunfthypothesen, despite the fact that in a number of his own texts that deal with the origins of morality, asceticism, and justice (starting with Human, All Too Human), he uses the term Ursprung.

Nietzsche, then, exhibits a good amount of skepticism about Ursprungen in The Genealogy of Morals, a rejection of his earlier views. According to Foucault, Nietzsche doubts that it is possible to find origins because “it is an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their carefully protected identities; because this search assumes the existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession” (78). In other words, there is no singular point at which a pure and essential “morality” or “religion” popped up. To talk of origins is actually against the spirit of genealogy.

Foucault thinks that Herkunft and Enstehung are more appropriate terms, because they do not try to “capture the exact essence of things.” He describes Herkunft as such: “…the equivalent of stock or descent; it is the ancient affiliation to a group, sustained by the bonds of blood, tradition, or social status” (80-81). The problem with Herkunft is that it sometimes leads us to “pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of oblivion” (81), which he argues is the wrong way to trace the history of an idea. After all, many ideas have not come down to us in a coherent, unbroken chain—there are just as many discontinuities as there are continuities, if not more.

There is something especially attractive about Entstehung, because it neither assumes that an idea has an essence nor requires continuity. Instead, it allows for messy interplay in bringing something about. In fact, it is precisely this clash of forces that Foucault finds interesting:

Emergence is thus the entry of forces; it is their eruption, the leap from the wings to center stage, each in its youthful strength. […] As descent qualifies the strength or weakness of an instinct and its inscription on a body, emergence designates a place of confrontation, but not as a closed field offering the spectacle of a struggle among equals (84).

I, too, think that Entstehung is appealing because it explains why writing the history of an idea is a fascinating but by no means neat process. If Entstehung means that an idea emerges without the pretense of being essential or linked to something that came before it, then I think this is a more honest reflection of how the history of ideas seems to work.

Perhaps when we do genealogy, we are looking for emergences, not origins, and when we claim to find origins we are from the beginning negating the very mission we propose to carry out. But I also find myself drawn to the argument Agamben makes in his discussion of Foucault’s essay on Nietzsche in The Signature of All Things. Agamben quotes the section in which Foucault says, “The genealogist needs history to dispel the chimeras of the origin.” He then points out that the French word that Foucault uses for “dispel” is conjurer (like the English word conjure). Conjurer, like “cleave” or “screen,” is one of those strange words that is also its own opposite—it means both “to conjure up” and “to dispel.”

Foucault probably meant to have the genealogist dispel, not conjure up, the chimeras of the origin, but the wordplay could not have been lost on him. “Or perhaps the two meanings are not opposites, for dispelling something—a specter, a demon, a danger—first requires conjuring it […] The operation involved in genealogy consists in conjuring up and eliminating the origin and the subject” (84), Agamben argues. Foucault more or less agreed, stating in a 1977 interview, “It is necessary to get rid of the subject itself by getting rid of the constituting subject, that is, to arrive at an analysis that would account for the constitution of the subject in the historical plot” (84).

When did things become different? What changed? It is the change itself that is important in tracing the history of an idea. But to speak of emergence is also to speak of a beginning, even if we do not lay claim to something as pure and essential as an origin. Agamben asks the question that Foucault does not answer:

But what comes to take [the origin and the subject’s] place? It is indeed always a matter of following the threads back to something like the moment when knowledge, discourses, and spheres of objects are constituted. Yet this “constitution” takes place, so to speak, in the non-place of the origin. When then are “descent” (Herkunft) and “the moment of arising” or “emergence” (Entstehung) located, if they are not and can never be in the position of the origin? (84)

So our investigation must go ad originem nevertheless, and expect to find something else. In professing to find origins, we deny they ever existed, and in order to deny they exist, we conjure up the origins.

Yung In Chae is a Master’s student in History and Civilizations at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, where she is writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s classical education. She graduated from Princeton University in 2015 with an A.B. in Classics. She is also a Research Fellow at the Paideia Institute and edits Eidolon, its online journal.

Neoliberal Dogma? Revisiting Foucault on Social Security, Healthcare, and Autonomy (Pt. I of II)

by guest contributor Luca Provenzano

Was Michel Foucault “seduced” by neoliberalism? Daniel Zamora and other scholars voice this allegation in Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale (English translation forthcoming). Last month, an interview with Zamora (translated from the French) and a later essay resonated among Foucault readers (See post by Stuart Elden). A vibrant debate also reignited last week at An und für sich (usefully curated here).

In my take, the accusations (often hyperinflated online, most strikingly here) disclose more about the production of knowledge under neoliberal conditions than they reveal about Foucault. To set up this argument for my forthcoming second post, I look to a 1983 interview about French Sécurité sociale and healthcare rights (the speakers were Michel Foucault and Robert Bono, the general secretary of the CFDT French trade union). The interview is “Un système fini face à une démande infinie” in Foucault, Dits et écrits IV (English translations are my own). For two reasons, this seems as good place as any to criticize the seduction claims: first, its brevity; second, the essentially “normative” mode pursued by Foucault. I consider only whether Foucault’s discussion of social security substantially reproduced “neoliberal” dogma about the dependent poor or the negative economic effects of social provisions. Far from serving as an active contributor to the destruction of social security, I believe Foucault attempted to re-envision it so as to reduce its limitations. (NB: French Sécurité sociale has a more extensive meaning than our “social security” and denotes the ensemble of social provisions for workers).

Let’s work through the interview. Foucault concluded his first statements about social security thus:

Finally, Sécurité sociale, whatever its positive effects, has also had ‘perverse effects’: the growing rigidity of some mechanisms and situations of dependency. This is inherent to the functional mechanisms of the institution [dispositif]: on the one hand, we give people greater security and, on the other, we increase their dependency. Rather, we should be able to expect our social security to grant each person their autonomy in relation to dangers and situations that would subordinate or subject them (Foucault, 368).

Foucault later qualified this statement:

There really is a positive demand for a [social] security that opens the route to richer, more numerous, more diverse and more supple relations to the self and to its milieu, all the same assuring to everyone a real autonomy. This is a new fact that should weigh upon contemporary conceptions when it comes to social protection (Foucault, ibid).

From the start, Foucault bracketed but acknowledged the positive effects of French social security. His inquiry concerned the more ambiguous effects of the contemporary system on personal autonomy, but Foucault apparently thought that social security and autonomy were potentially compatible. In my interpretation, he implicitly denied the claim that situations of mounting dependency were necessities of any social security; rather dependency inhered in the “functional mechanisms” of the contemporary system. Foucault further prodded his interlocutors to consider a renovation of these structures: “Shouldn’t we rather try to conceive of a system of social coverage that would take into account the demand for autonomy that we are talking about in such a fashion that these famous effects of placement into dependency [mise en dependence] would almost totally disappear?” (ibid., 370)

Notably, Foucault categorized the two sorts of “dependency” reinforced or produced by post-war French welfarism as “placement into dependency through integration” and “placement into dependency through marginalization or exclusion” (ibid., 369). “Dependency through integration” originated in the distribution of social aid through certain “normal” institutions like the family, the workplace, or the geographic region. “Dependency through marginalization” originated in exclusion from aid or marginalization from aid by the same administrative mechanisms. “Our systems of social coverage impose a determinate mode of life to which it subjects individuals and any person or any group,” he wrote, “that, for one reason or another, does not want or cannot integrate to this mode of life finds himself marginalized by the very play of the institutions” (ibid., 372). This is a critique of contemporary conditions of access to social provisions.

In my view, it was not a “neoliberal” critique in the sense that it was not at all about the purported negative macroeconomic effects of socialized coverage or how social provisions supposedly encouraged unproductive behavior among recipient populations. Foucault also took seriously the notion that non-access to coverage could be a source of “dependency” or heteronomy. His comments complimented the CFDT proposal to renounce “the absurd juridicism” of a French social aid system that discriminated against “marginals” through a bureaucratic firewall and to decentralize social welfare institutions in order to make them more accessible. Foucault envisioned not the destruction of social security but the move towards a system that would prove more agnostic towards the modes of life of its recipients: “the objective of an optimal social coverage conjugated to a maximum of independence is very clear” (ibid).

In short, Foucault asked: “what are the limits to autonomy posed by the way our social democracy administers and adjudicates claims to aid?” The critique of the mechanisms of access to social security fit Foucault’s contemporary philosophical inquiries into how systems enforced professions of identity; he wanted to investigate how the state validated dominant identities and modes of life via the distribution of aid and how to limit that effect. Foucault thought that the state should establish new forms of access to Sécurité sociale that were less contingent on the adherence of aid recipients to “normal” social categories insofar as these procedures tended to force individuals to identify as “X,” and in turn reinforced dominant institutions. The problem of social security reform for Foucault was “how to act so that the person would no longer be a ‘subject’ in the sense of l’assujettissement…” (ibid., 373) – a subject subjected to prevailing societal norms. In my view, the link to neoliberalism is at best a retrospective illusion.

Luca Provenzano is a second year doctoral student at Columbia University. He is currently working on Louis Althusser, May 1968, and the concept of ideology.