Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology

by Michel Foucault

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882

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...

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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,” one reads his digression on the story “The Secret Miracle” by Jorge Luis Borges, one is reminded simultaneously of the French philosopher’s life and his death. In the Borges tale, a writer to be executed by a firing squad is granted an extra year—in his mind only—to reconsider and revise some of his writings. His execution actually takes place very soon after the sentence is rendered, but in his mind it is as if he has had the additional time to contemplate and revise his literary legacy. Dying of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), Foucault finished L’usage des plaisirs (1984; The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of the History of Sexuality, 1985) and Le Souci de Soi (1984; The Care of the Self: Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality, 1986) during his last few months and received the published books in his hospital bed one week before he died. Also, most hauntingly, he had spoken during his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1970, citing Samuel Beckett, of his desire to disappear behind his writings, to make his exit as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.

Foucault did not set out to become a historian, but rather a philosopher. It was through his early philosophical investigations of questions of madness and mental illness that he encountered the kinds of problems and questions that led him into historical research. Historians especially will find the essays in the second part of the present volume profound and provocative on questions of historical methodology. His formulations on the pitfalls of researching the past are often startlingly original, partly because of his desire to dissociate himself from prevailing orthodoxies and certainly from what he thought of as an inherently Hegelo-Marxian insistence on linear schemes. Very much a man of his time, Foucault was motivated always to ask how far back one must search in order to discover different structures or modes of systems of thought or discourse. In the eyes of many interpreters, especially readers of the essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault found his alternative to dialectical schemes in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of history. For that reason, it is instructive to see how frequently in these late interviews Foucault is at pains to distance himself from Nietzsche. Sometimes, self- deprecatingly, this can take the form of denying that he had ever studied Nietzsche’s writings in much detail.

The lectures and interviews included in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology provide vivid moments in which Foucault clarifies or memorably characterizes the import of some of his major books, as in the interview with Raymond Bellour called “The Order of Things,” in which he neatly contrasts the thrust of the book that bears that title in English with his preceding book on madness. Foucault’s own assessments of his works’ significance are enormously valuable, as when he explores the contrast between his historical investigation of spaces and earlier European preoccupation with chronological development.

It is particularly interesting to observe in these selections how frequently Foucault, especially in interviews, can be seen rehearsing ideas he will later refine elaborately in his most important books and essays. The interview “On the Archaeology of the Sciences” is a fine example, one in which he considers some highly nuanced aspects of discourse and discursive fields that he was to refine elaborately in his L’ordre du discours (1970; The Order of Discourse, 1973). Readers of the previous volume of Essential Works were able to trace similar kinds of evolution through the course outlines included.

At times what the reader of Faubion’s edited volume comes away with is a sense of the breathtakingly beautiful manner in which Foucault typically expressed himself, and for many readers, their first attraction to Foucault was purely at the level of style. Apparent enough to readers of French, this can be conveyed in carefully translated English, and one benefit of this volume and the one that preceded it is the care with which already capable translations have been improved upon, even if only slightly. Robert Hurley, who did most of the first versions of these translations, has proven himself over the years to be unusually attentive to the subtleties of Foucault’s prose, especially in the books on sexuality.

Unfortunately for readers who may begin their consideration of Foucault with Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, the editor’s introduction is far less helpful and less well- written than the one Paul Rabinow supplied for volume 1. Faubion seems to have succumbed to the temptation to dazzle with intellectual pyrotechnics of his own, even to outdo the occasional knottiness of Foucault’s prose. At times his introduction is lost in minutiae and intricate etymological digressions. At others, he channels his energies into juxtaposing Foucault with myriad other Western thinkers, whether or not this is a valuable means of preparing readers for the selections that lie ahead. This is one of those introductions that might more profitably be read only after completing the rest of the book.

A larger problem for the three-volume series is the omission of some of the additional versions and commentaries the French edition contains. For example, English-language commentators on Foucault have relied heavily on his essay “What Is An Author?” for the way it seems to fundamentally challenge traditional forms and procedures of literary study. However, Foucault produced two different versions of this text, and no two exegetes necessarily use the same one. The first version, longer and more subtly argued, was given as a lecture in Paris in 1969, while the second, more forcefully stated, was given as a lecture in Buffalo, New York, in 1970. The earlier version appeared in Donald F. Bouchard’s edited volume Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (1977), while Josué V. Harari’s Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post- Structuralist Criticism contains the second version, or so others have argued. Faubion presents his version as the English translation of the Paris lecture but acknowledges Harari’s translation as the one he has slightly modified. Confusion continues on this score. How much better it would be if the reader in English could see both versions in succession, in order to judge the significance of their differences. Dits et écrits supplies both and also includes the audience responses to the 1969 lecture. It is unfortunate that the harsh economic realities of American book production deprives readers of the relatively greater riches that their French counterparts, at 215 francs per volume (about $37.00), enjoy.

What may be the finest achievement of this second volume in the series is to bring together writings and transcribed interviews both on aesthetics and methodological questions of research. No small part of Foucault’s greatness as a thinker was in his transcendence of disciplinary boundaries. One senses that he was equally at home in many different domains within what the French commonly call the “human sciences” and that what moved him more than anything was the prospect of writing: writing without fixed boundaries or limits and always looking forward to the way an author is transformed by what he writes.

Sources for Further Study

. XXXVII, December, 1998, p. 27.

Library Journal. CXXIII, February 1, 1998, p. 88.