I ♥ Foucault

Since I’ve already corrupted my neat order of readings and bloggings (bloggings? sure), I figured there was no harm in continuing to do so, and taking the time now to share my thoughts on Foucault. I anticipate this blog post will be considerably shorter than my previous entries, and will likely contain mostly gushing tales of my (pleasantly pleasant) experiences reading excerpts from The History of Sexuality and The Archaeology of Knowledge.

When I think about it, other than reading (and re-reading and re-reading) his essay “What is an Author?” I have not really read Foucault. I’ve read a lot around him; I’ve heard a lot about him; I knew, generally, what to expect from the above mentioned works; but I had not, until now, taken the time to read him directly. I don’t really know what I was expecting but I was certainly pleased with what I found. His writing and argumentation lives up to his renown. What can I say beyond that and listing off my many “likes?”

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault attempts to “define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality” (11). And by “attempts,” I mean “succeeds in his attempt.” His argument, without being overburdened with endless references (read: crutches), is so astoundingly convincing you feel entirely ready to accept it straight-up as gospel (and, as I understand it, many people have). I would love to go on and eagerly point out all the holes discoverable upon further digging, but I’m afraid I have no such reactions in my notes. What I do have in my notes is a pile of starred material, such as the following:

It is the agency of sex that we must break away from, if we aim–through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality–to counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies, pleasures and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance. The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasure. (157)

Gah. Amazing. Where others might throw out and reconstruct, Foucault opts to reframe. His goal is not to be rid of “sex” (well, to a degree it is), nor to implicate himself more fully within its (mis)conceptions; his goal, rather, is “to account for the fact that [sex] is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it,” or to expose “the over-all ‘discursive fact,’ the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse'” (11). A fine lesson in responsive argumentation (did I just make up that term? does it even make sense?). Also, I think Foucault would have liked this:

I came across the “power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (138) bit earlier this year in Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz (should I include the short piece I wrote on Agamben for a course on the archive and everyday life in this blog? Perhaps) and if I found it convincing then, reading the original only furthered its “hellz yeah”-ness for me. I should probably know a lot more about “biopolitics” and “biopower” than I do (apparently a lot of folks are engaging with these concepts nowadays?) but I think (I hope?) I get the gist (and reading Foucault’s concluding chapter contributed to my emergent comfort with these concepts, at least as he describes them…but I’m certainly no expert).

What can I say about this final chapter? “A normalizing society is the historical outcome of a technology of power centered on life” (144)? Yep, makes sense. Where, formerly, one found a “society of blood,” one now encounters a “society of sex” (147), where “the idea of ‘sex’ makes it possible to evade what gives ‘power’ its power; it enables one to conceive power solely as law and taboo” (155)? Uhuh, sounds right to me. Seriously, I have pages full of this, of checkmarks and yeses and stars and underlines and double underlines.

While I found The History of Sexuality supremely readable, The Archaeology of Knowledge proved a bit more of an enigma…wrapped in a multiple-personality meander through self-referential, critical excess (Foucault really likes to talk/write to himself in this one; he’s quite the Foucault-Foucault conversationalist). Which is not to say I didn’t find a pile of useable stuff here, too, namely time spent referencing (without actually referencing) the concept of the “author function,” or “that anonymous voice that passes for that of the author” (116) (if I’ve got my dates right, he would have been writing “What is an Author?” and The Archaeology of Knowledge around the same time- please, someone correct me if I’m wrong). In the midst of his delineation of the “statement,” Foucault writes,

the subject of the statement is a particular function, but is not necessarily the same from one statement to another; in so far as it is an empty function, that can be filled by virtually any individual when he formulates the statement; and in so far as one and the same individual may occupy it in turn, in the same series of statements, different positions, and assume the role of different subjects. (105)

This “function” certainly sounds reminiscent of Foucault’s “author function” from his essay “What is an Author?”: a “variable and complex function of discourse,” which “can give rise to several selves, to several subjects” and I don’t think it by any means a stretch to conclude that they are one and the same. This is the point at which I should say something really interesting about this discovery.

Some additional notes/questions about The Archaeology of Knowledge (that I do not have time to explore atm):

How does Foucault’s emphasis on “discontinuity” (10) in his delineation of “archaeology” (i.e. “the discipline of interferences, the description of the concentric circles that surround works, underline them, relate them to one another, and insert them into whatever they are not” [154]) compare with Althusser’s “descriptive theory” (138, Lenin and Philosophy) (i.e. how “descriptive theory…runs the risk of ‘blocking’ the development of the theory, and yet that development is essential” [140])?

I’d like to extend Foucault’s example of a “pile of printer’s characters” as “the tools with which one can write statements” (96) to bpNichol’s poem “The Complete Works,” though I believe bp would assert that his poem is, in fact, a statement…or would he?

I don’t think I agree that “a statement is not dissociable from the status  that it may receive as ‘literature’, or as an unimportant remark that is barely worthy of being forgotten, or as a scientific truth valid for all time, or as prophetic words, etc.” (111). I want to counter that context–or “borders” as Foucault prefers to characterize it (110)–informs the statement and can be altered so as to alter the statement, but every time I try to recontextualize “To be or not to be” or “Will you still love me tomorrow?” I can’t shake Shakespeare or The Shirelles.

How does Benjamin’s “aura” compare to Foucault’s “repeatable materiality” (quoted below)?

The time and place of the enunciation, and the material support that it uses, then become, very largely at least, indifferent: and what stands out is a form that is endlessly repeatable, and which may give rise to the most dispersed enunciations. But the statement itself cannot be reduced to this pure event of enunciation, for, despite its materiality, it cannot be repeated. (114)

Is the “book” (Foucault’s scare quotes) really “a locus of exact equivalences for the statements,” “an authority that permits repetition without any change of identity” (115) no matter who is reading it or when or under what circumstances?

Finally, were I to summarize all of Foucault’s notes on “the statement,” I would conclude thus: STATEMENTS MATTER, as in they matter, and they are matter.


~ by pamelaingleton on 29 July 2010.

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