Language, Counter-Memory, Practice

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

It is difficult to relate Michel Foucault to modern systems of thought, because he seems preeminently an enemy of systems. Thinkers as eminent as Jean Piaget have classified Foucault as a structuralist, but he has repeatedly and vehemently denied that association. It is easy to see how the classification could arise: Foucault shares many concerns and procedures with the structuralists, and he frequently cites approvingly the works of people such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. But there is a difference.

Structuralists, to some extent at least, have seen historical foundations for their theories, discovering the foundations of their system of thought in the nineteenth century. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, for example, is often cited as one of the founding fathers of the structuralist approach. But Foucault does not do this: he strives to dissociate himself from historical traditions. For Foucault, what is important and interesting is not so much a tradition or the great figures within it, but the outsiders, the rejected, the ones categorized as mad or puzzling in their own times. The thinkers he finds important for his methods are people like Sade, Nietzsche, or Hölderlin. The insane French aristocrat, the rejected and disturbed German philosopher, and the mad German lyric poet become key figures in his view of history. He studies, therefore, not the normal but those set apart from society: the inmates of asylums were the subject of an earlier book, Madness and Civilization, and prisoners are his concern in one of the interviews printed here.

One great obstacle to a better understanding and appreciation of Foucault is his prose style: although it is vivid, often striking, he writes on a level of abstraction that is baffling at times. Pages pass without a human agent making an appearance, although abstractions like the idea of transgression, or the concept of limits, are leaping and flashing across the universe of discourse. Readers of Language, Counter-Memory, Practice should not jump to the conclusion that the translators are to blame, however, for the fault lies with Foucault, and it has marred many of his works. George Steiner, reviewing The Order of Things, a book published in English in 1970, said that the book produced on first reading “an almost intolerable sense of verbosity, arrogance, and obscure platitude,” and his was one of the kinder reviews. Yet Steiner went on to say that one who persevered through the difficulties of the style would be rewarded by insights.

An instance of that perseverance on the part of one reader resulted in the present book. Donald F. Bouchard, the editor, began the project in an attempt to reduce the difficulty of Foucault’s thought by examining his earlier essays, especially the ones about writers who had influenced him. In the selection of material for inclusion in the work that resulted from that examination, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Bouchard faced some problems that restricted his choice. Foucault is very much a Frenchman, a product of a Continental culture in many ways different from that of Americans or even Britons; some of the essays Bouchard would have wished to include, for example, dealt with writers whose works have not been translated into English. Even so, it will be an unusual reader who has firsthand familiarity with many of the writers Foucault discusses.

The material Bouchard did include falls into three groups: the first of these is titled “Language and the Birth of ’Literature.’” Foucault has often commented at length on literature, from what might pass as ordinary literary criticism to more innovative forms. He sees “literature” as embodied in a distinct form of language, and believes that this separation of literary language from ordinary language resulted from a radical change, beginning in the eighteenth century. According to Foucault, at that time two older views of language began to be superseded. Prior to the eighteenth century, those who thought about and discussed language might view it as a transparent medium through which and by means of which reality could be perceived and expressed. It was at the same time something that did not interfere with one’s view of the world, and a supple tool by means of which that view could be communicated to others.

The other older view of language was not quite so complacent: it viewed language as an entity with forms and rules of its own, ones different from those of nature, but still as a neutral framework through which reality could be ordered, as if language were a grid of reference lines on which reality could be charted. But Foucault argues that in that century, the relationship between reality and language was ruptured, or more accurately, found to be nonexistent. Language came to be viewed as a thing in its own right, not as a medium for the knowing of things.

The consequence of that new view of language, he argues, is the separation of the language of literature from the language of other forms of discourse. The separation...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, August 15, 1977, p. 897.

Library Journal. CII, October 15, 1977, p. 2162.