Michel Foucault, ‘a kind of criticism’

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes-all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault, The Masked Philosopher, The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 1, New Press, 1997 (1994)

First We Write, Then We Fail

Plato Watching Socrates Read. From Prognostica Socratis Basilei by Matthew Parris
  1. “Any serious student of serious realities will shrink from making truth the helpless object of men’s ill-will by committing it to writing.” Plato, Seventh Letter
  2. “Until writing, most kinds of thoughts we are used to thinking today simply could not be thought”. Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology
  3. “Writing is in no way an instrument for communication, it is not an open route through which there passes only the intention to speak.” Barthes, Writing Degree Zero
  4. “Why write? One important reason is that unless we do there are mental acts we cannot perform, thoughts we cannot think, inquiries we cannot engage in.” Richard Young and Patricia Sullivan, Why Write?
  5. “You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.” Foucault, Interview with Claude Bonnefoy
  6. “Every bit of writing is imagined as mass which occupies space. It is the duty of writing, therefore, to admit no other, to keep all other writing out.” Edward Said, Beginnings
  7. “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.” Derrida, Writing and Difference
  8. “Endings then, are faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” Frank Kermode, “Sensing Endings
  9. “. . . I was sweet when I came down out of me mother. My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence, I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fail.” Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Disturbing Fiction

It must have been at thirteen, fourteen at most that I found a piece of fiction both repugnant and riveting in equal measure. I remember the fiction. It was Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Perhaps I was too young to read Kafka, or maybe already too old. The word repugnance is fitting with its late Middle English sense of offering resistance, from the Latin repugnant opposing.

After the horror of Gregor Samsa’s transformation and death in The Metamorphosis comes the chillingly cold final pages when the mood lightens and the family head out for a stroll, equally transformed and full of joy. I still recall the terrible loneliness and vague anxiety that came over me as I read those pages and threw the book aside, resisting to the end its abominable conclusion. Then, the same day I picked it up and read from the beginning again. And again; each time the same feeling of terrible anxiousness.

It fascinates me, how these twenty-six squiggles on a page can induce such sensation. Thomas Bernhard’s fiction does the same thing, and, more recently Jens Bjørneboe’s Moment of Freedom, which I set aside six days ago, more repelled than compelled. But it has been on my mind all week, and last night I submitted, allowing its moments of acute brilliance to overcome my opposition.

In Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature, she writes of being transfixed by Sartre’s Nausea, a text I read annually for its intellectual and visceral force, like an assault. Felski writes, “Here, indisputably, was the literature of extremity, of what Foucault and others call “the limit experience,” a bracing blend of solipsism, paranoia, brutality, and despair, where the standard supports and consolation of everyday life are ruthlessly ripped away.”

Moving Toward Muteness

  1. Forgive, please, this muddled post, more a dialogue with myself than intended for general readership but ‘published’ as a sort of Foucauldian attempt to overcome internal resistance.
  2. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, “…. the ‘meaning’ of my expressions always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify….As soon as I express myself, I can only guess of the meaning of what I express-i.e. the meaning of what I am.”
  3. Lately I binged on Sontag’s essays. Central to her work are themes of alienation, negation, and a term she uses that I particularly embrace, disburdenment, in the sense of intellectual, or cultural disburdenment. How to refine one’s filters, to jar one’s pre-conceived narratives? Can it be done solely using cultural and intellectual expedients?
  4. Foucault in The Use of Pleasure talks of ‘technologies of the self’ as “models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for deciphering the self by oneself, for the transformation one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object”.
  5. Lately I find myself moving toward muteness, different from silence; refraining from personal expression, not due to a failing of language, but out of a fundamental boredom with myself, not entirely rooted in self-absorption, more with what I signify as a heterosexual, white male (the lowest difficulty setting there is). If I am profoundly bored with much of the cultural outpourings of university-educated, middle-class, straight white men, what more should I add to the discourse but muteness?
  6. Remember the arm-wrestling match in The Old Man and the Sea? Mano a mano, in which the compulsion to settle into muteness struggles with a deep rooted urge to (re)create, to narratively recreate oneself.
  7. One of the fundamental claims Foucault makes of confession is that the confessor does not know the truth. “…silence, …. the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, functions alongside the things said …. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.”

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

The Shaping of the Self

Yesterday I alluded to Foucault’s Self Writing [PDF: Technologies of the Self/Self Writing], one of a series of studies on “the arts of oneself” that draws heavily on Greco-Roman thought, particularly that of Seneca.

Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina
Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina

The illustration above depicts Seneca’s suicide (his wife was spared by Nero) who chose the traditional Roman suicide of cutting multiple veins to bleed to death. For some reason the illustration brings to mind the procedure enacted in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. In Kafka’s story a device is constructed that very slowly, minutely inscribes a condemned man’s sentence on his flesh. It is Kafka’s most chilling and unforgettable short story. Judith Butler, in an early essay, draws an analogy between Kafka’s device and Foucault’s concept that the body is figured as a blank page available for inscription, awaiting the “imprint” of history and knowledge.

In Self Writing Foucault quotes Seneca’s phrase, “It is necessary to read, but also to write” as an exercise in self-inscription, what Plutarch termed ethopoietic, a procedure for transforming truth into essence. My own framework is not dissimilar to that described by Foucault, whereby I read, make notes reflecting on what I’ve read, spend time contemplating my notes, often reread, and converse about reading with others. This desire for conversation about literature is what drew me to blogging. As Foucault describes, “to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self”.