Language, Counter-Memory, Practice

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2078

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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 came about in this way: As language is seen as an artifact, as the historical philologists of the nineteenth century, for example, treat language as an object, working on their task of reconstruction, the myth of the original language is seen as less and less tenable. At the critical juncture in human history, also in the eighteenth century, the rise of experimental science led to writings that no longer needed an author as proof of their veracity. In place of the medieval practice of arguing from authority, of citing Galen or Hippocrates, came the experiment, a set of conditions and procedures which, if matched exactly, would yield an exact replication of the results. In place of Chaucer guaranteeing the authenticity of one of the Canterbury Tales by attributing the story to a nonexistent source, in place of Malory pointing to his “French book” as the guarantee of an episode from the Morte d’Arthur, we find the account of the experiment guaranteeing itself. Nature, like language, is something to be manipulated.

Thus, a vacuum replaced a world formerly filled with authority: God disappeared from the Book of Nature just as the author disappeared from ordinary books. Literature turned inward, away from reality, and went its own way, leaving the language of scientific discourse to go another.

Without divine or human authority, there is no check, no limit on the writer’s subject or method. Literature searches not for the normal as its subject but for the unusual, the bizarre, the occult. Hence the characteristic literary artists for Foucault are Sade, Hölderlin, Flaubert, Nietzsche. He sees their work as beginning in a separation from reality and ending in a separation from the expression of thought. If they number many madmen among them, that is understandable; since their literary language has been cut off from rhetoric, the author who uses it risks being cut off from reality, cut off from sanity itself. The mad philosopher becomes the characteristic writer, and mystery and paradox become his characteristic language.

Foucault’s views on language are not immediately convincing; first, his judgments about the important figures and works in the history of linguistics are not the standard ones. He wants to find the breach between scientific and literary language beginning in the eighteenth century, but the real changes in our view of language come a hundred years later, out of the work of historical philology. The typical eighteenth century commentator on language does not see change in language, but degeneration. Languages, in the view of the time, suffer a decline from an earlier, more perfect state as the result of the corrupted nature of man, just as all human institutions and undertakings do. Thus the French Academy and Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, both products of the eighteenth century, have as their original aim not the manipulation of language as an object, but the preservation of language as an institution. During that century, lexicography becomes an important scholarly undertaking for the first time, and dictionaries appear with much the same form they have today. The making of a dictionary is an act of faith in the possibility of finding observable and statable connections between language and reality. And in Johnson’s practice of supplying illustrative quotations for his definitions from the works of the great literary figures of English, the ties between literary language and ordinary language were made even stronger.

Foucault has been criticized before for dealing very casually with the order of events in history. His book The Order of Things was especially singled out by specialists in eighteenth century history for blame on this weak point in his method of argument.

One has the impression as well that many of Foucault’s judgments on language in general stem from the thoughts of his particular language, French. In one essay he finds the preeminent forms of the verb to be the present tense and infinitive forms. This comment seems especially language-bound since, had Foucault spoken a Germanic language, the absence of a separate infinitive form would hardly have encouraged special notice of the infinitive, while on the other hand the past tense form, having the only suffix that appears consistently, would have demanded more attention than the unmarked present.

In any case, Foucault sees literary language as essentially separate from other modes of discourse by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and separate as well from the values by which literature had previously been judged. The old values, whether a work gave pleasure or whether it was true, and similar questions, were replaced by the values of Foucault’s benchmark authors, Sade or Nietzsche. Of course, one may again question Foucault’s choice of representatives.

The second section of essays, “Counter-Memory: The Philosophy of Difference,” continues and develops the theme of a separate literary language. The first question Foucault discusses is the status of the author in modern literature. He argues that authors became “necessary” only when a literary work became property to be exploited. Only when literature is seen as a collection of objects rather than as a way of speaking, a method of discourse, is there concern for the author, self-expression as a justification for literature, biographical criticism, and the whole series of literary concerns which mark much of nineteenth and twentieth century literary discussion.

One odd omission in Foucault’s argument is the absence of any mention of the New Criticism, since that would seem to be a large and important counterargument to his insistence on the artificial nature of the author in modern literature. The first half of the twentieth century, far from insisting on the author as the centrally important concern of literary criticism, saw the New Critics stressing just the opposite, that literary criticism should concern itself with the work of literature as a thing in itself. But not much in American or British letters seems an important consideration in Foucault’s view of history.

What is important is the creation not of new literary works but of new methods of discourse. Thus Marx and Freud find an important place in this second section, as the inventors of entirely new “languages” by reference to which we transform our views of whole spheres of human activity.

Part Three, “Practice: Knowledge and Power,” presents two curious interviews with Foucault in which he discusses the consequences in political life of his theories. The section is vastly disappointing, for we find that his view of the future is much like that of a campus radical of the 1960’s. The picture of the ideal society which forms, more or less by indirection, is that of a rural commune in which there are neither police nor parents, but plenty of LSD. Moreover, any sort of political action which aims not at the complete destruction of all hierarchies but rather at their reform is seen as hypocritical and pointless. A French student rejects this intellectual quietism, preferring a movement that has some goal in mind beyond the immediate group, a movement that will reform all of society. Foucault replies that the notion “all of society” is one of the things that must go. He is then questioned by a student with some knowledge of current history; the student observes that all revolutions that have sought to eliminate power structures have ended only by replacing them with new ones. Foucault assures him that the revolution he has in mind will make sure that this does not happen. The reader may not be convinced.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10

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

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