‘Raulff: As I understand it, almost every philosopher has had a vision of the good and the right or of a philosophical life as well. What does yours look like?
Agamben: The idea that one should make his life a work of art is attributed mostly today to Foucault and to his idea of the care of the self. Pierre Hadot, the great historian of ancient philosophy, reproached Foucault that the care of the self of the ancient philosophers did not mean the construction of life as a work of art, but on the contrary a sort of dispossession of the self. What Hadot could not understand is that for Foucault, the two things coincide. You must remember Foucault’s criticism of the notion of author, his radical dismissal of authorship. In this sense, a philosophical life, a good and beautiful life, is something else: when your life becomes a work of art, you are not the cause of it. I mean that at this point you feel your own life and yourself as something “thought,” but the subject, the author, is no longer there. The construction of life coincides with what Foucault referred to as “se deprendre de soi.” And this is also Nietzsche’s idea of a work of art without the artist.’
From this 2004 interview.
In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that around the time of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a great divide, illusory maybe but no less powerful for that, took place. In Western culture before that age there was a ‘reciprocal kinship between knowledge and language. The nineteenth century was to dissolve that link, and leave behind it, in confrontation, a knowledge closed in upon itself and a pure language that had become, in nature and function, enigmatic — something that has been called since that time, Literature.’
It isn’t easy or even possible to project back to a time when readers thought Job or Achilles existed, when foundation stories were read as faithful renditions of events or people. This was the emergence of fiction, when literature was set a higher task. At the moment when literature became disassociated from reality, it became essential, a way through another consciousness to glimpse a possibility of truth. This project was in a way always doomed, a failure to translate the untranslatable, but it is the latent and revelatory nature of the search that is the measure of accomplishment.
This failure is constantly visible in the act of translation, whose task is to unearth the buried fragments of pure language. Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”
“The entire species of the verb may be reduced to the single verb that signifies to be. All the others secretly make use of this unique function, but they have hidden it beneath a layer of determinations: attributes have been added to it, and instead of saying ‘I am singing’, we say ‘I sing’; indications to time have been added, and instead of saying ‘before now I am singing’, we say ‘I sang’; lastly certain languages have integrated the subject itself into their verbs, and thus we find Romans saying, not ego vivit, but vivo. All of this is merely accretion and sedimentation around and over a very slight yet essential verbal function, ‘there is only the verb to be . . . that has remained in this state of simplicity’. The entire essence of language is concentrated in that singular word. Without it, everything would have remained silent, and though men, like certain animals, would have been able to make use of their voices well enough, yet not one of those cries hurled through the jungle would ever have proved to be the first link in the great chain of language.”
— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
It doesn’t get enough recognition, this brilliant and beautifully written work (sadly there is no translator credited), amidst Foucault’s better known books. I’m reading a Routledge reprint, but have tracked down a first translation into English and will credit a translator if included in that edition.
“Strangely enough, man — the study of whom is supposed by the naïve to be the oldest investigation since Socrates — is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things, or, in any case, a configuration whose outlines are determined by the new position he has so recently taken up in the field of knowledge. Whence all the chimeras of the new humanisms, all the facile solutions of an ‘anthropology’ understood as a universal reflection on man, half-empirical, half-philosophical. It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.”
— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
“I know that knowledge can transform us, that truth is not only a way of deciphering the world (and maybe what we call truth doesn’t decipher anything) but that if I know the truth I will be changed. . . . Or maybe I’ll die but I think that is the same anyway for me. . . . You see, that’s why I really work like a dog and I worked like a dog all my life. I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation. . . . This transformation of one’s self by one’s knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience.”
—Michel Foucault, The Minimalist Self, 1982 interview by Stephen Riggins, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984