(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With this second large volume in the New Press Foucault series under Paul Rabinow’s general editorship, the selection of Michel Foucault’s occasional pieces grows more imposing, if less so than Gallimard’s four-volume definitive French collection Dits et écrits, edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald. James D. Faubion, an anthropology professor at Rice University, is editor of this volume, which groups the French author’s essays and interviews into two main sections: “Aesthetics” and “Method and Epistemology.” Some of Foucault’s most celebrated and frequently cited essays appear here, such as “What Is an Author?” “This Is Not a Pipe,” “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx,” and “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” The sequence of essays and interviews follow the publishing history of Foucault’s major works yet in many ways constitutes a separate corpus altogether, almost an “alternative” Foucault in some ways.

Volumes such as Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology may give the appearance of existing merely to accommodate the dedicated reader of Foucault, one who desires as complete a collection of the author’s work as possible. However, especially in the case of the interviews Foucault generously granted throughout his life, such an anthology may provide a good starting point for readers just beginning to contemplate his work and its place in twentieth century French thought. In interviews Foucault often clarified positions or made more direct professions of his methodological and political intent. He was also more inclined to address the question of his relationship to Marxism, psychoanalysis, or poststructuralism, subjects he liked to obscure in his major works. More often than not, he punctuated his remarks with a cathartic laughter difficult for some readers of his books to imagine.

Compared to the often austere tone of Foucault’s major books, such asLes Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (1966;The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970) orSurveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison, 1979), Foucault’s interviews appear more relaxed, especially in later years as he dispensed with the quasistructuralist jargon that infiltrated his discourse in the early 1960’s. His fascination with the theoretical ferment in the human sciences at the beginning of his career can be seen in his treatment of Friedrich Hölderlin, the poet who is the subject of the first essay in the volume, “The Father’s No.’” This essay was a review of a book on Hölderlin by French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, and Foucault at that time appeared to regard the German Romantic poet as a kind of structuralist avant la lettre who reduced human beings to meaningless “signs.” A famous 1966 French cartoon depicted Foucault as part of a structuralist quartet that included Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan. He always resented the association and repeatedly explained to interviewers in detail the reasons why he should not be considered a structuralist.

By the time (1972) of Foucault’s scathing reply (“My Body, This Paper, This Fire,” included in this volume) to Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist critique of his reading strategies, he had begun to exhibit much greater distance from theories of textuality. As some of the last items included in the section on method and epistemology show, Foucault’s theory of discourse was never divorced from historical events, the world never reduced merely to a “text.” Foucault’s celebrated antihumanism, expressed in his wary examination of the forces at work in modern civilization that served to produce men and women as “subjects,” nevertheless remained with him.

Reading or rereading these early and late essays on aesthetics, students of Foucault cannot help but be affected by the detailed and often disturbing biographical treatment accorded the author by Didier Eribon, James Miller, and David Macey. Foucault’s aesthetic preferences appear to be part and parcel of his fascination with what he called “limit experiences,” those that push body and mind alike to the threshold of what can be endured or imagined. Hence Foucault’s admiration for the texts of “transgressive” writers in the modern French tradition: The Marquis de Sade, Raymond Roussel, Antonin Artaud, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, and Pierre Klossowski.

When, in the 1963 essay that Foucault wrote for the influential journalTel quel, “Language to Infinity,”...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)