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This review appeared in Volume 4 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Foucault In/And The Text

by Aubrey Rosenberg

Foucault and Literature: Towards a Genealogy of Writing. By Simon During, London and New York: Routledge, 1992, X + 259. ISBN 0-415-01242-2 (pbk)

This book has two purposes. The first is to demonstrate to students of literature that although Foucault's main preoccupations were ostensibly with the development and analysis of modern society and culture, much of what he wrote has direct relevance to literary theory. In short, although he wrote on topics such as history, medicine, sexuality, politics, philosophy and the like, and only rarely engaged in speculation of a purely literary nature, Foucault was essentially a historian with a literary bias whose primary interest was in the myriad manifestations of language and its power by means of which institutions organize and control modern society. This is implicit, for example, in the linguistic underpinnings of historical works such as Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic and the "archaeological" writings, and explicit in the brief disquisitions on the functions of the author. The second purpose is to highlight "the favourable reception given to Foucault's work in literary studies" (5).

In an introduction that is as long as most of the chapters, the author gives us his own understanding of Foucault's contribution to knowledge. One of the basic premises of his argument is that, in France, the turmoil resulting from the events of 1968 marked a turning point in the conception of society, and that this change in attitude had a direct effect on the attitude towards literature. "Old-fashioned" thinkers such as Sartre and Blanchot were replaced by professional intellectuals and academics who broke down the barriers between disciplines and questioned the validity of current theories and institutions. They lectured to an increasing student population anxious to through off the yoke of tradition, especially in the humanities whose goal had been:

to produce "civilized", civil, impartial selves who might appreciate, understand, critique and preserve the history, tendencies and treasures of their culture outside of any partisanship or self-interest. Such aims are now generally interpreted as idealist and exclusionary. Just as left/right divisions no longer organize political groupings, the humanities no longer transcend power. Increasingly, they have become (seen as) merely another form of training, or a means of transmitting cultural capital. And this shift has profound consequences for the study of literature(5).

Although the author points out certain similarities between Foucault's view of literature and traditional literary criticism as practised by writers such as Leavis, Conrad, Eliot and the originators of "new criticism" who privileged the text or, like Hegel, Goethe and Marx, railed against subjectivity, he believes that Foucault's programme is original. For Foucault, the object is to study historically the ways in which individuals are formed, the methods used to exploit them, and the means whereby they assert or regain their autonomy. Foucault always refused to be labelled a historian of ideas, an appellation that signified for him the notion of continuity. He always preferred to associate himself with, and indeed propounded, a theory of discontinuity or rupture whereby sudden and clearly definable shifts in thought and practice occurred almost, as it were, overnight.

Similar changes of direction, not quite as abrupt, have been identified in Foucault's own career which, according to certain critics (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983), can be divided in four stages -- early Heideggerian, protostructuralist or archaeological, genealogical, and ethical. The first stage, up to about 1961 (the date of the first edition of Madness and Civilization ), refers to the early works on psychology and madness. The second begins with The Birth of the Clinic (1963) and ends with The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). The third stage, deriving from a rereading of Nietzsche, examines in a number of works the nature of power, and the final stage is identified in the last two volumes of The History of Sexuality. During objects to these classifications, first, because they take no account of what Foucault had to say about literature, and second, because they discount his preoccupation with the political role of the intellectual in society. During prefers to speak of three distinct periods in Foucault's career, namely, before about 1970, the early seventies to about 1980, and after. In the first period, Foucault favoured the works of socially marginal writers such as Sade, Artaud and Roussel, and the authors of the "nouveau roman".These "transgressive" works challenged the theory that language corresponds to and represents life, that it forms a coherent system, and that it can be the product of an individual self. In the second period, Foucault concentrates more on the role and especially the social responsibility of the writer than on the text. This led him to a historical consideration of the origins and evolution of the institutions of social control and power. In short, from about 1970, Foucault can no longer be classified simply as an academic, a philosopher, historian, or sociologist. He is first and foremost an activist intellectual. The third period, the ethical one, belongs to that of the composition of the last two volumes of The History of Sexuality and related writings in which he seems to turn away from purely literary and political questions in order to analyze the self-formation and motivations of the individual, and to redefine the notion of the liberty of the individual in society.

The last part of During's introduction is taken up with a discussion of whether Foucault can be categorized as a post-structuralist. This discussion is important for During's thesis since it enables him to distinguish Foucault from a variety of thinkers with whom critics have attempted to link him. During argues that although the topics of Foucault's critiques are often the same as those of writers such as Derrida, Barthes, de Man and Lyotard, i.e. humanism and subjectivity, hermeneutics, and dialectics, his methods and interests differ from theirs. Foucault is primarily a historian whose goal is to deconstruct the conceptual and cultural bases of conventional historiography. Inspired partly by the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger, he insists that:

the thinker's task is to show how knowledge is used to shape individuals, their lives and bodies. For him, the large questions and large claims can only be articulated following careful attention to documents both well known and forgotten, and after deliberation on analytic methods. In the archives, traditional concepts and debate take on a different appearance: they become discourses -- sets of sentences with their own materiality. (Foucault) believes that the glamour of concepts such as ~'Humanity" or "Art" have been obstacles which obscure the relations between the individual and the apparatuses that administer modern society (23).

During concludes his introduction with the observation that, by the end of his career, Foucault was not an anti- but a post-humanist, not a left-wing but a post-revolutionary writer.

The book is divided into nine chapters of which the first seven deal with Foucault's publications in chronological order, "presupposing no prior acquaintance with his work" (2). Whether this absence of acquaintance applies to the author or the reader is not quite clear but, in any case, it is already too late to count on such a presupposition. The advantage of dealing with the works chronologically is that it allows the author to show how Foucault's analysis of society progressed from an early involvement with psychological theories, owing much to Heideggerian philosophy, to a discarding of existential and phenomenological principles in favour of historical studies of the mechanisms of society whose power is employed for the exploitation of the powerless. The last two chapters are devoted to the consequences of Foucault's theories for literature.

Chapter one ("Madness, Medicine, Death and Realism") briefly outlines the role of some of those responsible for Foucault's education -- Bachelard, Hyppolite (through whom he came to know Hegel and Heidegger) and Canguilhem. From such teachers he learned that "no theory can bridge the separation between truth and its objects once and for all" (25). Armed with this knowledge, he turned his attention to "existential psychology, rejecting both Freudian psychoanalysis or any method that looks for the physical causes of madness rather than treating it as the product of lived experience. At the same time, he offered the somewhat contradictory Marxist thesis that mental illness is a response to alienation from society. In an attempt to reconcile these disparate diagnoses, he proposed madness as a fundamental condition and mental illness as the name society gives to madness in order to control it. During insists on the importance of this move which is basic to Foucault's work. In a long preface to Binswanger's Dream and Existence, Foucault argues for a phenomenological approach and against the "scientific", psychoanalytical system of Freud. On the question of dreams, he is interested less in the dreams themselves than in the literary account of them throughout the ages, and associates the role of the therapist with that of the poet: "To dream is not another way of experiencing another world, it is for the dreaming subject the radical way of experiencing its own world" (quoted by During, 30). In his 1961 work on madness (Folie et dérision), the one that established his reputation, Foucault turns from a phenomenological or ontological view of the world to the now well-known historical account of its manifestations and receptions, the ways in which it is defined and experienced in society. The study divides the history of madness into three discrete periods pre-classical, classical (the main part of the book), and modern, and portrays the decline and fall of the tragic down to the clinical through a long process of secularization. Here again, in keeping with his thesis, the author insists on the literary evidence and implications of Foucault's refusal to interpret texts in the light of the writer's supposed state of mind.

Chapter two ("Medicine, Death, Realism") deals with The Birth of the Clinic (1963), a historical study of medicine that parallels the one on madness. Again the emphasis is on development during discontinuous periods, and again the method is to examine the relationship between theory and practice as demonstrated in institutions, especially between doctor and patient, to the detriment of the latter who becomes progressively objectified in a reformulated dance of death. During draws on examples and attitudes taken from English and French literature and sociology, with particular reference to Madame Bovary, Middlemarch and The Wings of the Dove.

Chapter three ("Literature and Literary Theory") traces the brief period (1963-1966) in which Foucault applied his theories to specifically literary concerns as encountered in writers such as Rousseau and Roussel, transgressive writers whose sanity, by conventional standards, was called into question. In 1962, he wrote a preface to Rousseau's Dialogues which have generally been considered the product of a paranoid disposition. Addressing the problem of Rousseau's language, Foucault traced it not to madness but rather to a state of delirium in that, like delirium, language has no fixed and stable structure. Because language cannot account for itself, it certainly cannot account for its author, however much Rousseau tried to make it a vehicle for transparence. Roussel, by contrast, has no such aim in mind. His preoccupation was with the possibilities of language, with the freedom it offered despite its poverty, with what Foucault referred to as "topological space" somewhere between the ontological and the experiential. It was during this period that Foucault became well known in literary circles for his championing the work of writers such as Blanchot, Bataille and Klossowski, always with the emphasis on linguistic features and the incapacities of language for communication and interpretation. This view has implications both for literary criticism and for the history of literature:

Criticism finds a language for what is "mute" in its objects: the reversibility of their ruptures and relations. For it, texts do not exist in time conceived of as a one-way street, as they do for traditional historians: after all, time punctuated by death has no final destination. In grasping this, criticism can be both secondary to the texts it reads and "fundamental," or original. I need not retrieve the past as if it were buried under a glacier of continuous and linear time. It can replay history. Time itself is merely an effect of "aspect," partly because "real" time -- in which one was born and in which one will die -- cannot be experienced; partly because temporal sequences cannot necessarily be reduced to causal sequences and vice versa (91).

Chapter four ("Knowledge") follows the development of Foucault's "archaeological" works, The Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), that explore the notion of modernity. The first work examines the history of modernity through the familiar tripartite division into three epochs -- renaissance, classical and modern, ending with the revolutionary anticipation of the death of man, while the second, dealing with the same fundamental issue, i.e., what constitutes knowledge, does so in a more theoretical way. Archaeology, for Foucault, is the study of the énoncé, the basic element of knowledge. Enoncés are, so to speak, the building blocks of discourse and are described by Foucault as events that can be thought of in different ways depending on the circumstances (the strategies and the institutions) in which they occur and the purposes for which they were designed. This is the theory that underlines the discussions in The Archaeology of Knowledge which has to do with how discursive events and their regularities determine our ability to make statements about the world in which we live, about the connections between word and things. In The Order of Things, the Renaissance is characterized as a period when there is no gap between language and objects since "the latter are already 'signatures' of God's creation, hieroglyphs to be decoded in commentaries which relate them to other microcosms in the chain of being" (104). For reasons such as the effect that commentary and exegesis had on the status of language, or the changing attitudes towards the role of God in the universe, this identity between words and things disappeared by the end of the seventeenth century when sign became representation, when the signifier and the signified were born. With the advent of modernity (around the French Revolution), language and man lose their sense of direction in a vain attempt to reconcile knowledge with experience, to know the unknown and unknowable. Again, says During, these conclusions have implications for the humanities. The literary and artistic references in The Order of Things are used mainly to illustrate the argument, to demonstrate the change from analogical to representational thinking, from Don Quixote the knight to Don Quixote the madman.

Chapter five ("Genealogy, Authorship, Power") is mainly about the relationship between knowledge and power. It begins with Foucault's prediction of the death of man in the context of the role of the author as enunciated in his 1969 paper on "What is an Author?" in which he seems to subscribe to Barthes's announcement of the author's death (Barthes, 1984). During does not make this connection but rather sees the paper as primarily an attack on Derrida's notion of écriture. Rather than speak of an author, Foucault prefers the term author-function, thus eliminating the concept that a specific individual may be considered as responsible for a specific text. What matters is not who is speaking but what is said. At this stage of his career, Foucault moves from archaeology to what he calls genealogy which he defines as a history of the present and of problematizations through which, by analyzing the nature of power embodied in modern institutions, he hopes to provide a voice for the exploited and the marginalized. The purpose of genealogy, as he defined it in 1983,is:

First, an historical ontology of ourselves in relation to truth through which we constitute ourselves as subjects of knowledge; second, an historical ontology of ourselves in relation to a field of power through which we constitute ourselves as subjects acting on others; third, an historical ontology in relation to ethics through which we constitute ourselves as moral agents (quoted by During, 130).

Foucault's notion of power differs from the conventional one that sees it as something wielded by individuals or groups, or as something from which individuals or groups suffer. Power, for Foucault, is the basic condition of society and, far from being necessarily repressive, it provokes resistance and self-expression. The chapter ends with a discussion of the various objections historians and social theorists have brought against Foucault's problematization of the power-knowledge relationship, particularly with regard to his neglect of traditional areas of study such as the influence of religion, territory, law and commerce. Critics such as Habermas, Dews and Taylor, referred to by During as "enlightened humanists" (144), attack him for discounting culturalist traditions and mythology, while Jean Baudrillard opposes the notion of "seduction" to that of power.

Chapter six ("Discipline") examines Foucault's view, in Discipline and Punish (1977), of modern power and the docile society, as distinguished from pre-modern sovereign power and divine right. During uses British society as an illustration of the ways in which the transition was made from one to the other and finds Foucault's arguments wanting in the case of developments in Britain where the origins of modern power are found not such much in resistance to sovereign power but rather to the latter's failure to adapt to the conditions created by the Industrial Revolution. During frames his arguments with documents drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth-century sociology and literature, especially those having to do with crime and prisons and as portrayed in the writings of Defoe, Fielding, John Gay, Hoicroft, Bulwer Lytton, Ainsworth, Dickens, Thackeray, to name a few.

Chapter seven ("Life, Sexuality and Ethics") moves from the issue of disciplinary power to an analysis, in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1980), of the power designed to maintain the well-being and foster the growth of society, particularly in the general field of sexuality with all that is encompassed by this term birth, marriage, gender, prostitution, venereal disease, homosexuality, paedophilia, etc. -- and how it is regulated by appeal to the now almost outmoded ideal of the stable, nuclear family. As in the case of crime and punishment, so, in sexuality, "a moral discourse is consolidated and displaced by practices and modes of thought that construct norms and impose them as respectable, natural or normal"(169). Changing attitudes towards these matters are discernible in literature from Clarissa through Madame Bovary to the works of Lawrence, Joyce, Miller and Dreiser who, by the standards of 1993, seem somewhat tame, an indication of the profundity of the revolution that has taken place. Foucault's reading of Kant led him next to the relationship between power and ethics, to the heroic but doomed obligation to achieve individual freedom and self-realization. The origins of these efforts are set out in the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality where instances of Greek and early Christian sexual ethics are examined. The chapter ends with three illustrations of modern ethics taken from literature and art.

Chapters eight and nine ("Post-Foucauldian Criticism: Government, Death, Mimesis" and "After Reading Foucault: Back to the Author") constitute a demonstration of the influence of Foucault on literary context. In Chapter nine, in an illuminating and provocative commentary, he analyses Hamlet and An American Tragedy in the light of the theories of Hunter, Greenblatt and Foucault, and considers the consequences of this kind of analysis for theory and practice in university departments of literature.

As far as I know, this is the first work of any substance to deal with Foucault's writings primarily from the standpoint of their implications for literary theory. The investigation is carried out with commendable tact and clarity. I have left out of this review a great deal of the author's own contribution to the argument and the mass of detail he has assembled and so well analyzed. All I have attempted to do is give some sense of During's thesis that Foucault's ideas, explicitly or implicitly are important for the understanding and interpretation of literature. My objections to this book are twofold. First, although During is justifiably critical, from time to time, of Foucault's ideas, he is not sufficiently so. He seems to accept with little question, for example, Foucault's unproven theory of discontinuity, of discrete and clearly defined historical periods, including a characterization of the Enlightenment that has been categorically rejected "on the uncompromising basis of scientific proof and concrete demonstrability" (Rousseau 1972-73). Perhaps During would argue that this aspect of Foucault's thought was not his concern, or that enough has already been documented on this subject (Clark, 1983, passim). But if Foucault's contribution to literary theory is to be derived from his major works, then the validity of the ideas propounded in these works must be examined. Discontinuity and fragmentation are certainly features of modern literature, but where is the evidence that they occurred in the way and for the historical reasons that Foucault provides? Only in his portrayal of British society, in chapter six, does During really challenge the basic premises of Foucault's argument. My second objection is to During's somewhat uncritical acceptance of Foucault's thesis concerning the relationships between power, language and literary theory. Clearly, Foucault's greatest contribution to the study of literature theory has been to draw attention to the parallel structures of power and language. Power manifests itself, or is hidden, in every aspect of social exchange, public and private. It is present at all levels and at all times, both in its implementation and in the efforts to resist it, in the sense that it both represses and incites to knowledge. Language, the institutionalized discourse of power, is similarly a structure of society that operates to inhibit and to produce knowledge. Whether one can ever go beyond the confines of political and social power, except perhaps by pursuing a solitary existence on a desert island, is open to question. But literary theory, in its capacity as commentary and interpretation of "literature", although composed of and subject to the same linguistic codes and systems, is different from literature in that, following Foucault's prescriptions, it represents a conscious attempt to transcend the received, the traditional and the conventional, in short, to escape or resist the power of language by exposing that power. If this were not so, then everything Foucault has written on the subject would be pointless. The question is, then, to what extent Foucault's relevations about the nature of power and discourse have empowered literary theorists to free themselves from linguistic constraints. New terminologies have been invented, new criteria proposed, interdisciplinarity is now de rigueur. But the quest for meaning, the attempt to have, through writing, some sense and some control of the world in which we live, seems doomed to failure. In the eighteenth century, when the belief in progress was a given, Diderot and d'Alembert conceived of an encyclopedia that would contain all the knowledge in the world. Nowadays, we are left with only theories of knowledge. Tomorrow, there will be only the knowledge of theories. It should be emphasized that this is not the conclusion of During who is still optimistic enough to see a relationship between literature and life.

He finds that biography, for example, "is no longer utterly separable from textuality: the life is ordered by the work, just as the work is ordered by the life. Both share a condition in which what is scripted cannot be disentangled from what is not scripted" (237). It is a conclusion that I share, but not one that is readily discernible in Foucault's contributions to literary theory, and not one that follows logically from his observations on the function of the author. As to During's affirmation of "the favourable reception given to Foucault's work in literary studies", it must be said that, although Foucault's ideas have had an important influence on a variety of disciplines, especially those with an interdisciplinary bias, his works and his name are cited with decreasing frequency these days in the field of literary studies where such luminaries as Barthes, de Man, Derrida, Greimas and others still figure prominently in the theory and practice of the criticism.


Barthes, R. (1984) "La Mort de l'auteur", in Essais critiques IV. Le Bruissement de la langue. Paris: Seuil 61-67. The article was first published in Mantéia 5 (1968).

Clark, M. (1983) Michel Foucault. An Annotated Bibliography: Tool Kit for a New Age. New York and London: Garland Publishing.

Dreyfus, H.L., & Rabinow, P. (1983) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Second Edition, With an Afterword by and an Interview with Michel Foucault. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Greenblatt, S. (1987) Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hunter, I. (1988) Culture and Government: The Emergence of Literary Education. London: Macmillan.

Rousseau, G.S. (1972-73) "Whose Enlightenment? Not Man's: The Case of Michel Foucault". Eighteenth-Century Studies 6.

Aubrey Rosenberg is a professor in the department of French, University of Toronto. His main interests are in 17th and 18th century French literature with especial emphasis on the history of ideas, imaginary voyages, utopias, and the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He is the author of Tyssot de Patot and his Work (Nijhoff, 1972); Nicolas Gueudeville and his Work (Nijhoff, 1982); Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Providence (Nasman, 1987). He is currently preparing critical editions of some of the works of Tyssot de Patot and Denis Vairasse, and is a member of the group editing the correspondence of Mme. de Graffigny.

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