Art and “Thick Description,” Part One

ART AND MATERIAL CULTURE

CLIFFORD GEERTZ and PHILOSOPHY

“Art, Clifford Geertz once remarked, “is notoriously hard to talk about.” However, Clifford Geertz provided art history with a way to talk about art through material culture. A term familiar to anthropology, “material culture” means the construction of what Geertz termed a “thick description” of a local culture by a detached observer, usually an anthropologist or sociologist, using—of course–the method developed by Geertz himself. A material analysis of a culture encompasses that culture’s actions, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts for the purpose of semiotically reading a particular event at a singular point in time. The semiotic reading, as Geertz said, cannot be accomplished without the creation of a “thick” or multilayered, “description” of the conditions that make not just the production of meaning but also meaning itself possible. The ultimate outcome of a “Thick Description,” a slice of a culture, goes beyond a thin or shallow semiotic linguistic reading and seeks to understand the way a society thinks. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz stated,

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate is essentially a semiotic one. Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

Later he said, “Culture, this acted document, is public.” In comparison “Thick Description” is a “depth model” compared to Jacques Derrida’s mode of analysis, which stresses the surface of texts and places the reader inside, rather than outside, the field of study. For the study of art history and aesthetics, the word “local” becomes key in relation to a Geertzian understanding of art. In Local Knowledge, Geertz asserted that

The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter..

But what is the significance of Material Culture to the study of the history and the philosophy of art? In the best Foucauldrian fashion, one must begin by noting what material culture is not. First, material culture is not connected in any way with Marxism. In fact, Marxism is never mentioned in the discourse of material culture, except to note in passing that Marxists object to Geertz’s lack of attention to issues of class and power.

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Marxism, whether vulgar, reflexive, neo, or what have you, is a theory, which analyzes a social system from the perspective of that determining engine, economics in general and capitalism in particular. Marxism is a critique of wealth, power, and class oppression. Second, an anthropologist never critiques or judges a culture, nor does s/he have a political or activist agenda—ideally—that is. Marxism also operates in terms of the dialectic: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, critiquing the teleological movement, the dynamic movement, of historical forces over time. Material culture, in contrast, is not a theory. As Geertz commented in his book Local Knowledge,

..purist dogmas…of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses…but…they head us off precisely in the wrong direction—toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life..

Geertz never worked out or revealed a theory; rather material culture is a method of study, observation, and elucidation. Finally, the Geertzian method must be synchronic and can never be diachronic or caught up in time. The importance of the synchronic was explained by William Sewell in his chapter on Geertz, “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in that the anthropologist,

..adequately realized synchrony is more important to good historical analysis than adequately realized diachrony. In the eyes of professionals, it is more important for a historian to know how to suspend time than to know how to recount its passage.

Next, since material culture is a method, not a theory, the procedure stands apart from both modernist and postmodernist theories, while at the same time making use of their theoretical insights. The young anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, began omnivorously consuming, appropriating, and employing a whole array of new ideas tumbling out of that 1960s merging of philosophy and literary theory. Long before the term “blurring the boundaries” of disciplines sunk to genuflected jargon in art history, Geertz found inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Michel Foucault. Geertz built a stratified, or thick description, of an object in culture in order to interpret it semiotically in a fixed fashion, but Geertz turned to Ludwig Wittgenstein who unfroze meaning by declaring, in Philosophical Investigations,

For a large class of cases–though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning,’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

Indeed Geertz attributed his position to

..that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, “The Later Wittgenstein.” The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish…I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master.

In his essay, “Thick Description,” Geertz noted that

..cultural forms find articulation…in various sorts of artifacts and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.

The quotation on meaning and its “use” by Wittgenstein comes from his Philosophical Investigations, “Part 1, Section 43,” as published by Basil Blackwell in 1953. Elaborating upon the ideas of Geertz, Eric Kline Slverman’s essay, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?” noted that

He was the first American anthropologist to employ a textual metaphor for understanding culture. In Geertz’s writings, however, we do not find a single, clearly articulated elaborate theory of the text..His textual metaphor emerges from a series of conceptual themes—it is not one notion of several orientations. Geertz approaches cultural meaning through a symbolic or semiotic framework. He was particularly influenced by Susan Langer..Geertz defines cultural symbols as medals of and models for social reality.

Although Geertz was sometimes lumped together with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, his project is not to read texts but to write texts. Indeed Silverman stated that “Geertz is wary of intertextuality, except in the instance of thinking of parts in terms of the whole or the whole in germs of the parts.” Geertz said in Local Knowledge that

To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted…a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them..

However, Geertz embraced the postmodern notion that academic and scientific writing is a form of literature or écriture, and he wrote deliberately in a metaphorical style, embracing the Lyotardian concept of the “figure” in the “discourse.” It not that Geertz read Derrida, it is that one can do a Derridan reading of a Geertzian text. Certainly, there is a degree of Kristvian intertextuality in Geertz, but, for a field ethnographer, a word far more suitable than “intertextuality,” would be “connections” or what historian Wilhelm Dilthy called “connectedness” or “context” (Zusammenhand) or Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” among cultural elements. Dilthy commented,

It is a relationship of whole to parts…Meaning and meaningfulness..are contextual. One would have to await life’s end and could not survey the whole on the basis of which the relations between the parts can be determined until the hour of death. One would have to await the end of history in order to possess the complete material for the determination of its meaning. On the other hand, the whole exists for us insofar as it becomes understandable on the basis of the parts. Understanding always hovers between these two approaches.

Geertz accepted the postmodern concept of a consciousness that is socially and linguistically constructed, but he did so via Emmanuel Kant by way of Ernst Cassirer with a drive-by for Foucault. For Geertz, the individual, or Foucault’s fictive “Man,” was never the object of study. A person is but an actor situated within a thick cultural matrix, acting and reacting, with limited agency, out of pre-existing cognitive structures, a priori producing culture. Marxists, feminists, postcolonial critics have, rightly, criticized Geertz for not including the voices of the dispossessed. The voices of women, for example, cannot be retroactively added to field research for each thick description is bound up in a synchronic moment in time. It can be stated with or without kindness that Geertz was creating his notion of “thick description” in a time in which women and people of color were silenced in philosophy at the very time when they were vocalizing loudly in the streets. It is possible that, with later anthropologists, once silent voices can be included only in a later thick description. That said, at the time, the scholars who surrounded Geertz or who commented on his theories seem to be more interested in the theory than in the practices. According to Stephen Greenblatt, Gilbert Ryle’s

..thick description is manifestly a quality of the explication rather than of the action or text that is explicated; it is not the object that is thick or thin but only the description of it. A thick description thus could be exceedingly straightforward or, alternatively, exceedingly complex, depending on the length of the chain of parasitical intentions and circumstantial detachments..Thickness is not the object; it is in the narrative surroundings, the add-ons, nested frames..Thickness is no longer seems extrinsic to the object, a function solely of the way it is framed.

Clearly, Geertz, like many of his generation was formed from a mélange of cultural forces swirling around during the 1960s. During this fertile period, decades of thinking coalesced and philosophical ideas that dated back to the beginning of the century began to be assimilated and, having been digested, began to emit descendants in further thought. In his way, Clifford Geertz was a prototypical Postmodern thinker who assembled a coalition of concepts that allowed him to further anthropology and to take the new field in new directions, combining field work with philosophy, specifically semiotics. Material culture became a way to “read” a society like a text, but part of any society is its works of culture–art objets. Given a broad mandate as an anthropologist, Geertz would turn his attention to art and delved into the links between art history, art historians, philosophy and semiotics and philosophy–a complex combination of text and image, discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1986)

PART FIVE

Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975)

The opening pages of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault were one of the best representations of his long term project of making history or the past “strange.” Barely a two decades before the Declaration of Independence was issued in the American colonies in 1757, “Damiens the Regicide” was tortured to death in Paris in a manner so gruesome that the 21st century reader recoils in shock and horror. In fact, the distance was not just the two centuries and twenty years between the execution of Damiens and the publication of Discipline and Punish but also the difference between an absolute monarchy in France and the budding democracy in the Colonies. However, the content of Discipline and Punish is not a tale of progress from absolutism to self-rule but an archaeology of discourses and an analysis of how these discourses mold and shape societies and lives and personas. Discipline and Punish is the middle step between the Archaeology of Knowledge and the three volume The History of Sexuality, published just a year later, which can be read as the journey of Foucault from the way in which discourses were formed to the impact of those discourses. The reentry into is a re-visiting of the question of the formation of the “subject” and Foucault’s “historical a priori” shifted from mechanics to application.

Just as The Archaeology of Knowledge encouraged a number of scholars to initiate their own discourses on various forms of knowledge, so too did Discipline and Punish suggest new ways to talk about a subject that began to weigh upon Foucault from the early seventies on. Perhaps his concerns with power came from his experience with the “days of May” in 1968 or due to the obvious implications of the impact of discourses, or savoir, Foucault began to link “voir” or “to see” with “pouvoir” or power. He works out an unholy trinity of voir, savior, pouvoir, in other words, to see is to know is to have power. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault tranced to rise of the discipline of the body, rather than punishing it as a public spectacle which was, not a spectacle of pain but of the centralized power of the king. As long as power radiated outward from the ruler, it was negative or prohibitive, but during the Enlightenment a new kind of power emerged: not the negative power–the “shalt-nots”–but a positive power that dispersed, multiplied, spread out, and became non-localized. As opposed to the bloodthirsty and regressive regime of torture that acted as a public deterrent to crime and as a form of entertainment, the new positive power introduced a regime of the regard or the steadfast gaze of power.

Foucault did not seem to be interested in power until he mentioned it in public until 1970 when he began to shift from archaeology to genealogy which allows him to examine these discourses as they are received: as regimes of “truth.” However, his interest in state power came from his involvement in a campaign to reform French prisons. This practical experience, which included visits to French and American prisons, was followed by a theoretical book on power. Foucault came to understand, via the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on genealogy, that knowledge is entangled in power. With Nietzsche morality is neither metaphysical or sacred but is implicated in changing conceptions of “good and evil” that are tools for domination. Indeed, for Foucault, knowledge is part of a larger “will to power” which is “malicious” and unjust. Foucault became preoccupied with power because it seemed clear that although society was enmeshed in a web of laws, there was no clear idea of power. We understand a government by laws, but we had no conception of modern power until Foucault, beginning with his early writings on the clinic and madness, slowly came to the realization that a combination of the “gaze” of the authority and discourse (knowledge in the service of the dominant) had the power to construct where to put what kind of bodies and why. As Foucault wrote,

The classical age discovered the body as the object and target of power. It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body–to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces.

As early as Madness and Civilization (1966), Foucault talked about the “medical gaze” bearing down upon an individual, discursively named as “patient.” He made the link between voir (to see) and savior (to know) and pouvoir (to be in power). The body became objectified in order that it be controlled, disciplined, and placed under surveillance in the panopticon society. Although madness, for example, has always existed, the language to discuss language has not, nor have the conditions always existed to “construct” the idea of the mad person. The “mad” or “madness” come into being only through the force of discourse. Under certain conditions, discourses begin to form as distinct objects, but these social “conditions” are not what intrigued Foucault. Like language itself, discourses cannot exist outside of groups of relations. These complex relations are what enables the objects to appear and these relations are what is interesting to Foucault.

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Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish (1975)

In the spirt of investigating discursive structures and their impact, Foucault began Discipline and Punish. This is the most accessible of Foucault’s books: it starts with a riveting scene of horror and then he established a sequence of social practices that established what he called “the carceral society,” which is where the book concluded. In the chapter, “The Gentle Way in Punishment,” Focault described the changed from from public spectacles to different forms of penalties. As Foucault wrote, “..everyone must see punishment, not only as natural, but in his own interest; everyone must be no more spectacular, but useless penalties. There must be no secret penalties either, the punishment must be regarded as a retribution that the guilt man makes to each of his fellow citizens, for the crime that has wronged them all..”

The role of government is to maintain good order, and by the 18th century the role of discipline before the fact, rather than punishment after the fact began to play an important role in social control. Foucault selected several institutions which were large and influential in creating the “docile bodies:” the military, the factory, hospitals, and schools, all being located in enclosed spaces. According to Foucault, these “projects of docility” are based upon “the scale of control” that were used to put the body under “meticulous control.” During the classical age, society was subjected to what Foucault described as “A meticulous observation of detail, and at the same time a political awareness of these small things, for the control and use of men, emerge through the classical age bearing with them a whole set of techniques, a whole corpus of methods and knowledge, descriptions, plans and date. And from these trifles, no doubt, the man of modern humanism was born.”

This is a striking passage and it is buried in the middle of the book but sums up its entire contents. Foucault made the point that discipline needed what he called “an analytical space.” The analytical space separated individuals into specific areas “..to locate individuals, to set up useful communications, to interrupt others, to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of each individual, to assess it, to judge it, to calculated its qualities or merits. It was a procedure, therefore, aimed at knowing, mastering, and using. Discipline organizes an analytical space. Perhaps the most powerful and frightening chapter is the one on “docile bodies” where Foucault explained the meticulous training of the large bodies of the soldiers and the small bodies of elementary school students, all of whom are trained to respond to tiny signals and small gestures, creating what he called“the correlation of the body and the gesture.”

In a passage that is both inhumane and alarming, Foucault demonstrated the level of detail and control, described as dressage, that was brought to bear upon young children in the 18th century:

A distance of two fingers must be left between the body and the table; for not only to the health than to acquire the habit of pressing one’s stomach against the table, the part of the left arm from the elbow to the hand must be placed on the table. The right arm must be at a distance from the body of about three fingers and be about five fingers from the table, on which it must rest lightly.

The most famous chapter in the book concerned the “panopticon society,” a term that was derived from an experimental prison created by the architect Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who was responding to the new necessity to incarcerate and discipline, prisoners. Bentham was an economist who devoted himself to bringing about social reforms under his ideas of utilitarianism. Although he was trained as a lawyer, Bentham never practiced law and spent his career devising plans for numerous institutions devoted to incarcerating people for a number of reasons. As Bentham explained, Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated, instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

According to Foucault, surveillance began with the plague which meant that an entire town had to be closed off and all of its inhabitants kept under close watch. He compared the condition of the townspeople with that of the exclusion of the leper who is free but separated. The Panopticon, designed by Bentham, was as he described it, “A building circular…The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or…without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.” The result of the regime of watching is that the prisoners internalize the gaze and end up watching themselves, a condition called by Foucault, “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”Foucault continued,“..one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without being seen..He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both sides; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

One of the crucial conclusions made by Foucault is that power is not negative–does not reside in prohibitions, but is productive and positive. One power was no longer located within or upon the body of the ruler, then, in the modern era, power was dispersed throughout the population all of whom, whether “inspectors” or prisoners, were under the anonymous control of a myriad of regulations.“The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function.” The result of the panoptic schema was the evolution of a carceral society, called by Foucault, “the carceral” or a social condition in which“The judges of normality are present everywhere..The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power. The carceral texture of society assures both the real capture of the body and its perpectual observation; it is, by its very nature, the apparatus of punishment that conforms most completely to the new economy of power and the instrument for the formation of knowledge that this economy needs.”

There is no ultimate origin for power but a production of a discursive object through the discourse itself. Foucault investigated the discursive relationship between power and knowledge and the body in Discipline and Punish in 1975 and continued the connection in The History of Sexuality, begun in 1977 and not completed when he died. Human sciences are played out in social institutions and practices. The organization of society is carried out through bio-techico power and Foucault gave a unique, but ultimately influential, emphasis on the body in explaining the operations of power. Although The History of Sexuality suffered due to his illness–the final volumes were not as well-developed as the first–this series established a new and significant concept: that social bodies were determined through discourse. In other words, human beings are not natural and from birth they are, as Simone de Beauvoir noted, “made.”

However, influential the idea of the unnatural fabrication of even such intimate aspects of one’s private and personal life, gender and sexuality, are social constructs were, it must be noted that Foucault managed to write a “history of sexuality” which almost entirely leaves out women–half the human race. In addition, the institutions highlighted in Discipline and Punish existed mainly to control the male. Women would be found in workhouses and factories but not in schools or the military, the two largest institutions in charge of creating the “docile body.” Although Foucault does not deal with gender in this book, the fact that, once again, half the human race is left out does not seem to disturb the thrust of the thesis. In addition, the fact that women would never be in positions of authority, not as teachers, or “inspectors,” or military commanders, or as supervisors in a hospital, and so on, meant that the social condition of women and their bodies were never taken into account in creating a society of subjugation. In addition, in concentrating on the prison, it is possible for Foucault to leave out more “primitive” forms of maintaing power, such as those exercised in the American South to control slaves and those exercised in the family to oppress women.

While it is never fair to criticize a writer in terms of what s/he choses to not address, it seems clear that Foucault’s position, although always a critique, would preclude a Marxist or a Feminist reading or a post-Colonial interpretation, which might “reveal” white male dominance and oppression relative to the position of the Other. Foucault’s stance was decidedly conservative and regressive in its effects. One of the major criticisms of women and people of color make against Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism is that, just as their voices are beginning to be heard, critique for political purposes was been “ruled out” in favor is the study of discourse, silencing the Other once again. Intellectually, Foucault and his contemporaries got around the objection to the way in which theory distanced itself from the effects of real life. Post-Structuralism is located outside of Structuralism, that is, away from the task of interpretation, stems from phenomenology of Edumnd Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Post-Structuralism does not interpret but finds and describes. The divide between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism is the divide between Modernism and Post-Modernism and Discipline and Punish was an important move towards a Post-Modern critique of society. There are, however, problems with this position.

Structuralism is a method, an assumption of being and takes the object of examination out of context and subjects it to the clear light of an “objective gaze.” For the Post-Structuralist, the very idea of the “objective” is as fictitious as the “subjective.” In addition, through decontextualizing the object, Structuralism neglects history and cannot account for the force of the text. Foucault’s refusals, his “nots,” were always in opposition to Structuralism, which created a formal order of development for the sake of knowledge. Structuralism “creates” regularities that make representation possible and the world become knowable. In contrast, the Post-Structuralist refuses all the outcomes of humanism: “spirit,” “influence,” continuity, tradition, and psychoanalysis–all forms of the “self.” The self which can be actualized through affirmative action, as posited by Jean-Paul Sartre, was the major target of the post war generation.

Given that advocates for feminism and post-colonialism, both of which could be said to be part of the Modernist project of social justice still hoped for “progress” in human equality, their method of practical critique–“the personal is political”–would be excluded in favor of a more abstract critique of discourse. Although there are many elements in Post-Structuralism or Post-Modernism that were radical and even revolutionary towards authority, even Discipline and Punish, which laid out the mechanizations of power, was a conservative document. While it was of great interest to understand that gender was a social construction, the other side of such an analysis was not a proscription for change but a description of a web of power from which there was no escape.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Michel Foucault: “What is an Author?”

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART FOUR

What is an Author? (1969)

To read Michel Foucault, is to feel the grounds of one’s belief systems shift underneath one’s feet. For Foucault, as for Roland Barthes (1916-1980), the notion of the author must come into question. Although Foucault was not a literary theorist, he, like Barthes, was a theorist of history, and “What is an Author?” echoed many of the thoughts of Barthes on the subject of authorship. Over a decade earlier, in Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes laid out how the “Author” came into being during a certain historical period and discussed how the term “author” was privileged due to the concept of what Foucault would call “individuation.” The notion of the author as a proper name produced “the author function” that became characteristic of certain kinds of discourses, such as fiction, and not others, such as letter writing. The system that produced the author function is a system of ownership and, by the end of the 18th century, the author was placed at the center of a system of property. Given at the Societé Francais de philosophie on 22 February 1969, this talk was published in 1969 in Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie.

Foucault turned the concept of “author” inside out by examining the text points to the author and not, as is assumed, vice versa. He began by quoting Samuel Beckett, who wrote, “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?” The question connoted an “indifference,” Foucault noted, towards writing that had become an “immanent rule” that precluded expression. Like Barthes, Foucault was acting against Structuralism or a formal reading of a literary work and was opposed to the concept of expression, a holdover of Romantic thinking. Foucault understood writing to be “freed” from the need to “express” and was able to represent only itself. Writing was identified with its own unfolded exteriorly—an interplay of signs arranged to the nature of signifiers. As Foucault wrote,

Writing unfolds like a game (jeu) that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.

Like Barthes, Foucault used drastic language to get his point across. Writing, he stated, is linked to sacrifice: Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer.

“Writing” for Foucault was like “Text” for Barthes and thus, writing possesses the “right to kill” the author, to be the author’s murderer. Writing cancels out signs of particular individuality so that, ironically, the sign of the writer is the singularity of absence. The writer has the role of the dead person involved in a game of writing. But, as Foucault warned,

It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared. For the same reason, it is not enough to keep repeating that God and man have died a common death. Instead, we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers.

Foucault pointed to exceptions to his assertion that the author is an ideological construct and made note of transdiscursive writers, such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and Ann Radcliffe, all of whom established paradigms or what Foucault called “discursive instaurations.” These are rare figures in the field of writing who created a genre that spawned writing in their particular area. Like Ann Radcliffe, who created the Gothic Novel which inspired a genre that continues to this day, like Karl Marx whose followers created Marxist theory, these individuals started discourses and disappeared into the discourse. That being said, Foucault considered it dangerous to reduce either non-fiction or fiction to the notion of the “author.” Most authors are fictive and Foucault reverted to his familiar stance of defining the “author” in terms of what it was not:

The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s sources and riches, but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author..the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction.

“Literary” discourses were opposed to “truth” discourses, that is, discourses linked to a culturally affirmed “truth” in the sense that a literary discourse was a “fiction.” The distinction between truth and fiction necessitated an author to avoid the kind of appropriation that overtook the discourses of the sciences. In other words, the “author function” was obliterated in the sciences so that anonymity (disinterest) guaranteed “truth” but accelerated in fiction in order to guarantee sales. Foucault made his point, not to cement the idea of the “author” as an owner of ideas, but to destabilize the idea of establishing a bounded and constrained field, for in all of the cases set forward by Foucault, the discourse exceeded the writers–Marxism, Freudian thinking and Romanticism.

In separating the author from his or her body of work, Foucault shifted literature into discourse, so that individual works become part of a larger body of texts. As Foucault wrote,

Perhaps it is time to study discourses not only in terms of their expressive value or formal transformations but according to their modes of existence. The modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation of discourses vary with each culture and are modified within each.The manner in which they are articulated according to social relationships can be more readily understood, I believe, in the activity of the author function and in its modifications than in the themes or concepts that discourses set in motion.

Foucault’s attack on the author is much more powerful than that of Barthes. Barthes kept within the boundaries of literary theory in his essay “The Death of the Author” and merely wanted to activate the reader. Foucault, however, seemed to view the author as being implicated in a system of thought that was mired in personification and personalization that got in the way of the preferred object of study: the discourse. Foucault wrote that the author was an “ideological” figure that is linked to a cult of personality:

The question then becomes: How can one reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world? The answer is: One can reduce it with the author. The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s resources and riches but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result, we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author. We are accustomed, as we have seen earlier, to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work in which he deposits, with infinite wealth and generosity, an inexhaustible world of significations. We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.

The question was why had the author become an “ideological figure?” Foucault answered that in conceiving of the author as the source of meaning, meaning is confined to the author’s intention. This artificial containment is why both Foucault and Barthes were both suspicious of the exercise of “close reading.” “Close reading” and the mystification of the author as a creator, closes off what “we fear,” something Foucault called “the proliferation of meaning.” The author has therefore the function as a regulator of meaning and this function as an element (not as someone) that controls meaning is closely linked to the control of distribution and profits. In the end Foucault imagined that in the future the author function and/or the author him or herself would disappear in a proliferating discourse. But as was usual in Foucault’s writings, the actual mechanisms of such a change are never explained. He merely ended his essay by stating,

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest sell did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

To women and people of color, who have been denied the privilege of writing, “who” writes makes a difference. Foucault must be compared to his female counterparts who were asserting not only the possible uniqueness of écriture féminine but who were also attempting to subvert a male-made language. Although Foucault, like Barthes, was writing against the social constraints against meaning, his last sentence would be taken out of context and used to obliterate the writing of the Other and to elide the fact that the canon of writers and artists still consisted of the white male. Foucault, like most of the men of his era, did not spend much time considering women or emphasizing with people of color. In reading the text of the Other/Woman, Foucault would dispense with interpretation. Interpretation sets up a play against the original text and leads to infinite regression. For Foucault, it was always too late to recover an “original meaning” and a stable “context” for “everything is already interpretation.” However, it is important to know “who is writing” in order to interpret a statement in the context of gender and race. Without this contextual tool, critique becomes difficult and Foucault, as did his colleagues, carefully neutered critique and rendered social criticism mute, coincidentally or not, at the time of a struggle for the rights of women and people of color.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Michel Foucault: “This is not a Pipe”

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART THREE

This is not a Pipe (1968)

Michel Foucault’s essay, This is not a Pipe, his contemplation on a famous painting by René Magritte, La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (1929) can be read as a follow-up to his earlier analysis of the much larger painting by Diego Velasquez, Las Meninas (1656). Both essays–“Las Meninas” was the introduction to The Order of Things (1966) and This is not a Pipe is a small book in its own right–are about the same length and are concerned with the question of representation. In addition, La trahison des images (1929) can be sequenced in relation to Las Meninas (1656) in that Las Meninas is part of the “Classical” episteme and La trahison des images is an examination of the Modern episteme. The Belgium Surrealist, René Magritte (1898-1967), had long defined himself as a thinker (philosopher) who used paint to explore philosophical issues. Throughout his career he had read not only Heidegger and Sartre, but he had also lived long enough to read the early works of Foucault, such as Les mots et les choses, published a few years before his death. Indeed Magritte made a connection between the two paintings. As he wrote to Foucault in 1966:

“It is as completely invisible as pleasure or pain. But painting interposes a problem: there is the thought that sees and can be visible described. Las Meninas is the visible image of Velásquez’s invisible thought? Then is the invisible sometimes visible? on condition that thought be constituted exclusively of visible images.”

Starting with a drawing in 1926, Magritte used the pipe in a number of his paintings but the best known version of the “pipe” is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The painting is medium sized, carefully rendered in tones of browns. As was the usual case with Magritte, paint is smoothly applied to neuter its expressive qualities and to foreground the concern with the relationship between language and perceived “reality.” A wooden pipe with curved stem floats unaided against a café au lait background, isolated except for a carefully executed sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” placed underneath the pipe. Except for the “not,” the painting is a mirror image of a schoolbook with images labeled with the attendant words. With one word, Magritte undermined the metaphysical connection, assumed by Plato, that held between words and things. Magritte also severed the “pointing” gesture of the word “this” which now has an ambiguous referent: to what does “this” refer–the pipe, the canvas, the sentence itself?

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René Magritte. This is Not a Pipe (1929)

Always interested in language, Foucault explored the modern system of representation, and he again turned to art to explore alternatives to Structuralism and its reliance on representational systems. When he wrote This is not a Pipe, which was published in Les Cahiers du chemin in 1967, Foucault’s attack on Structuralism landed in the middle of an ongoing debate in the French press on literary theory. Using a painting by Magritte came naturally to Foucault who was in correspondence with the artist and like many writers of his generation, he was interested in Surrealism and its strategies that attempted to undo narrative connections that made the world make sense. Foucault explored the gaps between discourses and events and sought to say the unsaid in order to defamiliarize. As the Comte de Lautréamont once said, the Unfamiliar or the Marvelous was “..as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

The themes Magritte explored on canvas were deliberately “disorientating” and showed a fascination with visual non sequiturs and heterotopias. The term heterotopia in medical terms means the displacement of an organ from its accustomed place. In art, Magritte displaced part of one body and relocated it to another body, such as his carrot-bottle, his fish-human, with disconcerting results. To be clear, the union of fish and female is not metamorphosis but a forced fusion that is fixed and arbitrary. In The Order of Things, Foucault refers to the “heterotopia,” or a place where multiplicities co-existed. The heterotopia was produced by linking together that which was “incongruous” producing an even worse kind of disorder. All the possible orders exist separately and simultaneously and become an lawless and uncharted dimension, called the heteroclite. Things are laid, placed, arranged in sites, and it is too difficult to find a common ground for them all. This concept of “ensemble” is not unlike Benjamin’s “allegory” in the sense of assemblage, but unlike the allegory, the heteroclite resists unitary meaning. In contrast to a utopia, an untroubled region, the heterotopia is disturbing and impossible to name, thus contesting the possibility of language.

What Magritte presented to the viewer was an unreconcilable contradiction that rendered language dysfunctional. Both Foucault and Magritte critique language and agree with Ferdinand de Saussure that signs are arbitrary, circumstantial, and conventional. In contrast to classical painting’s attempt to identify scenes or images with models that inspired them, Magritte sought to banish resemblance by employing familiar images whose recognizabiltiy would be subverted. He explored the secret linguistic element in painting: “This painted image is that thing,” by employing familiar images whose recognizability is to be subverted. Taking up the anti-linguistic program of Modernism, that painting is nothing other than itself, Magritte used literalism to undermine itself. He played with “resemblance” as the primary reference that prescribes and classes: copies on the basis of mimetic relation to itself and “similitude” in which there is on reference, the anchor is gone. With similitude, the relations are lateral with infinite and reversible relation of “the similar to the similar” in an endless series of repetitions. The concepts of resemblance and similitude are familiar to those who have read The Order of Things and belong to the old episteme.

According to Foucault, what renders Magritte’s figure “strange” is not the contradiction between the image (the pipe) and the text (“This is not a pipe”) because a contradiction can exist only between two statements. In La trahison des images, there is only one statement and one simple demonstration but, through our own habits of reading, we assume a “natural” connecting of text and drawing. Foucault attempted to correct this misreading. Rather than reading the painting as a sign with its label, Foucault asserted that Magritte’s painting was a calligram, “secretly constructed and carefully unraveled.” According to Foucault, a calligram augments the alphabet and repeats without the aide of rhetoric, trapping things in a double cipher. The calligram brings text and shape as close together as possible: the lines delineate the form of an object and arrange sequences of letters, lodging statements in the space of a shape. A calligram makes the text say what the drawing represents and distributes writing in a non-neutral space. The ideogram is forced to arrange itself according to the laws of simultaneous form. Thus La trahison des images is tautological in opposition to rhetorical, which is allegorical, rich, and full. The calligram uses letters to signify both as linear elements arranged in space and as signs in a unique chain of sound. The calligram effaces the showing and naming opposition and creates a trap of double function: the signs invoke the very thing of which they speak.

As Foucault explained, Magritte’s painting recovered the functions of the calligram in order to pervert them. He disturbed the traditional bonds of language and image and the text resumed its place–below the image, supporting, the task of “naming” and becoming “the legend.” Meanwhile the form is released and re-ascends, floating anew in its natural silence. Magritte returned to a simple correspondence of image to legend or of word to thing. He names what does not need to be named and denies that the object is what it is. In redistributing the text and image in space, each retains its place and the text affirms its own autonomy. “This” refers to the drawing or to the statement and the text and image have no common ground. Nowhere is there a pipe and negations multiply themselves. The exteriority of written and figurative elements are symbolized by non-relations between the painting and the title. A gulf prevents the reader/viewer at the same time, because Magritte named his painting in order to draw attention to the very act of naming. According to Magritte,

Between words and objects one can create new relations and specify characteristics of language and objects generally ignored in everyday life…Sometimes the name of an object takes the place of an image. A word can take the place of an object in reality. An image can take the place of a word in a proposition.

Words are not bound directly to other pictorial elements, and, as Foucault wrote,“Magritte allows the old space of representation to rule, but only the surface, no more than a polished stone, bearing words and shapes: beneath, nothing. It is a gravestone.” By the end of the Seventies, Foucault and Barthes had brought together a number of ideas borrowed from their precursors and had extracted fragments for fuller examination. This pluralism in philosophical thought was exemplified by Magritte’s critique of Plato and the date of his death in 1967 marked the beginning of Postmodernism. The late works of Magritte coincide with American interest in the late works of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) as seen in the works of Jasper Johns. In False Start (1963), Johns, mockingly pointed different areas of color in the “style” of Abstract Expressionism” and then, using the universal style of the stenciled label, proceeded to (re)name all the colors. “Red” was stenciled in yellow floated on top of an area of blue paint. The Name and the Thing were disconnected, indicating Wittgenstein’s concern with pointing, the basis of the proposition. The proposition that “red is red” is undermined by disconnecting the expected link between the object and its label. The ultimate “point” of the exercise is that our “reality” is linguistic and rests upon our naïve belief that our words have an inherent meaning. Wittgenstein warned that meaning does not exist in and of itself but only “in the use,” a point that both Magritte and Foucault were making in other words and in other ways.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Michel Foucault and Archaeology

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART TWO

The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

Like many French intellectuals, Michel Foucault witnessed the now-legendary days of May, 1968 in which the students and later the proletariat or working class rose up against the forces of law and order, against oppressive institutions and against post-war materialistic society itself. During a dramatic month, French society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance, caught between total breakdown and a break away into a new future. Foucault held a prestigious chair in history at the Collège de France and was part of a network of patronage within a system that was rapidly becoming more institutionalized. The old free-wheeling ways of academic freedom and intellectual development among café convocations came to an end with the wave of post-War rise of the university system. Foucault remained, nevertheless, a freewheeling individual, moving back and forth from between Paris and Berkeley where he enjoyed the pleasures of the bathhouses of San Francisco. His life was marked by a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, and a police file when he was accused of theft as a student. He was institutionalized and eventually died of AIDS, a disease that was acknowledge in France and denied in America.

Foucault witnessed one of the great events of 20th century French intellectual life, May 1968 and saw its results: the incarceration of intellectual thought in the university. The revolutionaries were caught up in a revolution for which there was no plan of action and without direction the explosive situation fizzled into the status quo. Charles de Gaulle and his minions regained control and observers, such as Foucault, noted the cooperation of the media with the government in conveying approved information. Knowledge, Foucault realized, was intertwined with power and the spectacle of the exercise of power during the month of May changed his approach to history. The grand ideals could not longer be legitimized and the Enlightenment categories failed to come in close contact with reality. The events of May 1968 or “soiyant huitard” created a political opening for transgressive writing. As a result of his experiences as witness to a failed revolution, Foucault took up transgressive writing to disrupt the notion of language as a set of representations, which mirror the world. He re-looked at the familiar, at the social institutions that (de)form our lives in order to put the audience through the ordeal of de-familiarization. Foucault had long been concerned with how various aspects of culture evolved, but his mature work rejected traditional ways of writing history and became something he called “archaeology.”

The archaeological approach to the past was part of Foucault’s attempt to find a way out of the Marxist explanation of historical forces. For the post-war generation of disillusioned French scholars, the other fortress that needed to be taken was that of Marxism. The failure of Marxist theory and the extent of its limitations became glaringly clear during the events of May 1968. Disillusioned intellectuals emerged from the wreckage of Marxism with an undiminished need for a tool to critique society and Foucault and Barthes were part of that shift in that they understood that the Marxist mode of production had become irrelevant. It was the Mode of Information, as Mark Poster termed it in his (now outdated) 1990 book, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Content, that became the key element in social control.

Roland Barthes (1916-1980) was well aware of the role the ordinary discourses, such as mass media, of everyday life played in shaping the public mindset and how these semiotic mechanisms were deployed to to control group thinking. The old form of Marxism had placed the locus of exploitation and alienation in the workplace, but by the late 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that oppression was dissipated and existed at many levels, from the family to knowledge itself. Of course oppression had always existed in these sites, but the resulting alienation of women in the family, for example, had always existed but once intellectual attention shifted from class to a more precise view of a complex social world, the old Base-Superstructure model was inadequate.

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Foucault Pins

Once it was clear that it was clear that history had no goal and once it was clear that history was enmeshed in language, the question ceased to be what happened? but how did it became possible to make certain statements at a certain time? The answer did not lie in the historical context, for the search for “origins” had changed over the course of the century. Thanks to Structuralism, it was understood that there was no origin in the singular. There was no one point in time, such as in Greek tragedy, when a human event occurred, like Oedipus killing his father, that could be seen as one event that was preceded by other events and that led to subsequent events. There could only be a certain historical period when a certain social practice manifested itself out of, not one event, but many events. What was significant was not that the practice emerged but that at some point of time it became possible to speak of this condition. Therefore there was no origin, only discourse.

Nothing can come into being, except through language, and discourse is language. Therefore, all objects must necssarily be discursive or formed out of language. “Archaeology” is the treatment of the human sciences as an object of discourse or a discourse-object, without regard to their presumed external “value.” The discourse object is neither true nor untrue; it is an object to be studied from a stance of neutrality as to truth or meaning. In other words, the archaeologist studies not so much the object itself, but how the object was constructed out of discourse. The mechanics of discursive formation, as it were, and how the discourse was created had to be studied without being concerned about what “truth” content the discourse might or might not contain. This was an intellectual move that re-directed the way in which historians treat documents, meaning that if what was analyzed was the mechanisms of creating a discursive object, then the intellectual would be “disengaged” and critique would be re-located to mechanics and away from effects. The subsequent disempowerment of critique would be remedied in Foucault’s later work and The Archaeology of Knowledge should be understood as the second in a series of steps to rethink “history.”

Just as The Order of Things sought, on one hand, to make the past strange while creating a “history of the present,” on the other hand, The Archaeology of Knowledge distances the discursive object, distances it in order to make it strange–to alienate the concept or “serious discourse” from the observer. Although these two books can be seen as a sequence, first, establishing the end of the self dissolved in a new episteme and then second, examining the consequences of the disappearance of the active human agent which is a non-humanistic version of history. Between the two volumes, traditional history was severely challenged by Foucault, who said,

The document, then, is no longer for history and inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long..history is that which transforms documents in to monuments..history aspires to the condition of archaeology to the intrinsic description of the monument.

This shift in perspective or point of view, from taking monuments and turning them into documents to turning documents into monuments would mean that, for example, instead of using records of slavery to tell the story of slavery in the South one would examine the documents themselves to see how and under what conditions these documents “describe” slavery.

The monumentalizing of documents or the archaeological effect had important consequences: the surface effect which replaces continuity with distinct elements that now need to be organized in a series to find the appropriate relations. The result of focusing on elements, discontinuity is made obvious and the discontinuity itself or the gaps becomes the object of study. With the end of continuity, the idea of total history also disappears and something Foucault called “general history” emerges. This general history is quite at odds with the expected mode of document reading. Foucault went to great length (literally many pages) to explain what he was not doing: he would not “interpret” the contents nor attempt to deduce the intention of the writer. Instead, as with Structuralism, the author disappears so that the discourse can be foregrounded. As Foucault wrote, “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrences; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes.”

Foucault’s concept of discursive formations was perhaps his most fruitful contribution to the humanities. His former professor Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) felt that Foucault’s archaeological methods constituted an historical a priori for knowledge or the precondition for knowledge. Knowledge is a metaphysical emanation of a “truth,” but the result of a series of statements (enounce or systematic statement) that may not be continuous but are related and eventually form a “discourse” over time, and that discourse becomes “knowledge.” Many scholars adopted Foucault’s ideas. Canadian scholar Ian Hacking became part of a Foucauldrian group of scholars in many areas who used Foucault’s ideas that knowledge was a construction of discourses and that these discourses which shape the world, arbitrarily through the language, construct society. In his 2006 essay “Making up People” in the London Review of Books, Hacking examined the emergence of various types of psychological “disorders” through discursive formations.

In Rules of Art (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was another scholar who profited from using Foucauldrian methods in the study of the avant-garde in Paris during the 1830s. One scholar, Hacking, is interested in how discourses form people; the other scholar, Bourdieu, was concerned with how discourse formed cultural attitudes. One of the better known examples of a study of a discourse was Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978), in which the author asserted that the “Orient” was a Western or Occidental discourse formed for the purposes of dominating the East. Said was the most overtly “structuralist” of these authors and violated Foucault’s strictures against Structuralism by setting up a formal opposition between the “East” and the “West.”

Foucault expended a great deal of space in setting up how and under what linguistic–not social or cultural–circumstances a discourse would be formed. He began with the “enunciative function” in which statements are made and related to one another. The “author,” Foucault cautioned “is not identical with with the subject of the statement,”a point he made over and over. The guide must be whether or not a sentence is a proposition or not and he pointed out that a sentence should not be analyzed in isolation. The sentence becomes a statement only when it is part of an associated field. As Foucault stated, “There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions of roles.” The subsequent “objects” as Foucault called them are placed in “a domain of coordination and coexistence” where they are placed in a space “in which they are used and repeated.” This space is, for Foucault, is “the operational field of the enunciative function.”

The next stage is the organizations of these statements into a “discourse,” which Foucault described as “a group of verbal performances,” “a group of acts of formulations, a series of sentences or propositions.” “A discourse,” Foucault stated, “is constituted by a group of sequences of signs,” which demonstrate “assigned particular modalities of existence.”He further described the function of this series as a “discursive formation..the principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements that “belong to a single system of formation.” Foucault described “that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation” as the historical a priori, a term he employed in order to shake off the old fashioned notion of a “history of ideas.” Foucault was concerned with “positivity” or what we would also call productivity that produced discursive formations, which are objects and not ephemeral “ideas.” But then Foucault has to determine the “rules” that create a discourse, but he sidesteps once again and formulates, not rules, but the “archive” or “that which determines that all things said do not accumulated endlessly in an amorphous mass..” The archive “defines at the outset the system of enunciabiltiy” and “the system of functioning.”

The archive is closely linked to “archaeology” and Foucault laid out his steps carefully leading up to describing his method. Given that the archive exists at the level of what he called “practice,” that practice enabled “statements both to survive and to undergo regular modifications, the archive “forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations,” which Foucault explained must be uncovered in a search called “archaeology.” Archaeology “designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.”

Foucault ended his book on archaeology by expressing his doubts on the concept of the “author,” an issue that he would take up quickly. The author is not exactly eliminated but must be understood as the agent of a series of statements that in their turn must be properly placed within a discourse. The author is part of a larger practice and is subsumed under the task of examining the rules that allowed the discourse to form. Foucault also expressly distanced himself from Structuralism. Although throughout the book, he used linguistic and semiotic language, discussing sentences, statements and so on, Foucault’s intention was to denounce the Formalism of Structuralism. What he was trying to do was to move away from the major project of Structuralism which was the reading of specific documents and analyzing them through a “close reading” or a Formal analysis. Far from examining the “structure” of the discursive formation, Foucault examined the “practices” or the dynamics of how discourses were formed over time and the mechanisms of their placement (the rules that allowed them to exist) in the archive. Archaeology sought to redirect the gaze of the historian away from the “history of ideas” to the ways in which certain speech acts were gathered together into a specific practice.

Foucault’s position needs to be understood in relation to what he is “not” writing about. Reading Foucault always involves wading through many sentences that state what he is not doing in order to find a sentence that states what he is doing. The negative sentences will outnumber the positive sentences. Foucault’s rather backwards approach–that of backing into his position–is necessary because he must clear away the rubble of past methodologies. What Foucault is not doing is traditional history. “History” is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural construct. We all have a “past”, but the “past” is simply a random un-patterned cacophony of non-events and non-incidents until this jumble of moments is taken up by a historian and is constructed into something called “history.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Michel Foucault: The Order of Things

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART ONE

The Order of Things. The Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)

For English speaking readers lacking the intellectual and cultural background to understand the transformation of French philosophy after the Second World War, French theory is something of a puzzle. First, there is the organization to the books and essays themselves. For the Anglo-American reader and writer, it is standard practice to create a narrative that builds from beginning middle and end, with the main point at the conclusion. To those readers, it is confusing when a French writer embeds the main argument in the middle and even more baffling then the same ideas are repeated throughout a book, appearing and reappearing. But this approach is very French. In France, American directness and desire to get to the point is considered rude and aggressive. All conversations begin, not with the purpose but with a lead-in, and, after slipping in the substance in the middle, end with additional elements that are ancillary. The substance is built up, often through repetition and reiteration, and this substance will be revisited across many books. This mode of writing is very clear in the works of Roland Barthes (1916-1980), especially in his last book, Camera Lucida (1980) where the most significant section–about Death–is in the middle, where his main them surfaces.

Second, this post-war generation of French scholars were engaged in a major project–to find new ways to analyze a contemporary culture that had out run the old theories. This need to renew and reestablish explains the enormous outburst of intellectual achievements in a fairly brief thirty year period, between 1950 and 1980. All of the now-famous French scholars came from different fields and the re-writing of the past towards the future took place on many fronts with many individuals. No where is this effort to rethink history in view of the present more obvious than in the work of Michel Foucault. Large parts of his many books are spend with explaining, not what he was doing, but what he was not doing. But in writing so extensively about the negative–this is not about that–Foucault was trying to clear away the ground rubble of the ruins of the crumbling edifice of Enlightenment philosophy. He was dueling with a number of targets, the foremost of which was the subject or as he put it “man,” present in theories of “consciousness.” In the sixties, when Focault’s doctorat d’état was published in 1961 as Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age, the major proponent of the free subject who had agency and choice of action over his or her own life was, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Sartre was the Oedipal Father for most of the post-war generation who were greatly impacted by structuralism, which categorically dismissed the idea of the “self.” Sartre became the force to be reckoned with, and he and Foucault had a wary relationship of admiration and dissent. The Order of Things was the book in which Foucault ended the anthropological study of “man.”

Michel Foucault was a historian who, at the time his books were published, in the sixties and seventies, was denounced by traditional historians. Today, his theories have had impact, not just on the profession of history but also upon the humanities in general, even generating a new way of examining historical conditions through an analysis of discourse. Unfortunately, most students in colleges and universities encounter Foucault through a list of assigned readings, devoid of context, forcing the readers into a very complex debate that was interdisciplinary: historical, philosophical, linguistic, with little or no preparation. In order to understand what Foucault was both not doing and was doing, it is necessary to have extensive background in Enlightenment philosophy–years of reading are required, from Kant to Hegel. History, as it is known today, from a traditional perspective, was developed in the Nineteenth century in a period of optimism, positivism, and dominance of the known world by Western powers who were convinced of a grand idea called “progress.” It was Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who developed the theoretical basis for history: thesis, anti-thesis: the clash that produced synthesis or progress and evolution. The establishment of the concept that “history” was driven by an “engine” towards “progress” led, intentionally or not, to the neglect of women and people of color, who were considered to be rooted in “nature” and therefore incapable of being part of “culture” or history. Even though Hegel’s tripod approach was ideal or abstract, the effects upon the writing of history was very real. From the standpoint of minority groups, history became a history of “great men” and their deeds, which is why Foucault supported not just homosexual rights and also women’s rights.

But the left out part of history were never Foucault’s main target, it was the Hegelian system which suggested an inevitable continuity of history. Foucault was interested in gaps and spaces that were unaccounted for, concerned with discontinuities and breaks and fissures in time. The position of the historian was that of a storyteller who told a smooth teleology of the march of time towards preconceived goals but these narratives were overlaid upon selected events and hid the fault lines. The problem with establishing continuity is not that one thing doesn’t lead to another–it does–but that the stories we tell ourselves as “history” transform history into something familiar: we see the past through the anachronistic lens of the present. Foucault’s task is twofold: the defamiliarize the past which is infinitely strange and second to trance the strangeness of the past into the present in order to mark how strong the contrast is. Only by reestablishing the alien and even frightening nature of the past can we understand how change occurred. Foucault hoped to write a “history of the present.” As Foucault related, I seek to diagnose, to carry out a diagnosis of the present. To say what we are today and what it means, today, to say what we do say.”

Because of Foucault’s rewriting of history, historians have re-examined the practice of the writing of history. Historian Hayden White has noted the “story” aspect of history and has pointed out that historians construct history in terms of a trope. The Les annales school of historians in France have been writing that part of history that was neglected: the lives of ordinary people over the longe duré or great sweeping long term trends in history. Foucault was part of the generation that understood that so-called serious discourse is never innocent and that science and philosophy was never innocent. Like Theodore Adorno, Foucault saw the dark side to the Enlightenment and to “history.” Progress and History have been linked ever since Hegel, connected to Western ideas of linear thinking and to Western ideas of dominance and control and mastery. For the Westerner, progress is the progress to greater and greater “civilization” defined as that which is valued and exemplified by Western societies and cultures. Thus “History” is defined as a linear and a teleological process towards greater “Civilization.”

History, then, has a purpose and life, then, has meaning and purpose. The role of the historian is to tell a tale of progress-as-meaning. In order to construct this narrative, the historian works within the confines of the larger meta-narrative (life has meaning, reason and purpose) and connects events through the use of cause and effect constructs, which in turn construct unity and a smooth linear progression from point to point. This unity is in the service of the lesson or moral that is embedded in a seemingly scientific and objective analysis of a moment in time. Isolated and designated as an “event,” termed “significant” and “important,” this event is seen in terms of the present and thus serves the purposes of what is called “the Master Narrative,” which is then presented as “history.” The master narrative in Western culture has always been concerned with and is in the service of continued dominance of those in power and the maintenance of their mastery of the Other.

This process of making history is arbitrary and falsifying and is an act of sheer power, but Foucault did not judge, he merely examined. He was a libertine, not a revolutionary. He had seen the “revolution” (the days of May) and it never happened. Foucault was a sanguine observer who re-made himself into a archaeologist. Foucault located a different history, not one of events, but one of systems of representation or modes of order. “Western thinking” is a mere construct, implying a constancy, or a unity, that, in fact, does not exist. Foucault was able to locate different systems of epistemology, called épistemé, or the foundations of knowledge. The way in which the world is ordered has changed over time, indeed in the larger scheme of things, over a relative brief period, from the pre-Classical or pre-Modern era of the Renaissance to the Classical period of the 17th century to the contemporary time, the now of the late 19th century. Foucault is at his most maddening in this book, because he refuses to explain why an episteme would change from one century to the next. In fact it precisely the “why” Foucault avoids. The point is not way; the point is that one episteme is different from the one that preceded it.

To select an example from the art world, Renaissance perspective was an example of the belief that perspective was a science that was capable of replicating three dimensional space. Part of the pre-Modern episteme was an ordering in terms of similitude and resemblance, but in contrast, the Baroque era, working under another episteme, played with trompe l’oeil and knew that the illusion of reality was not in terms of resemblance but due to the skillful use of representational codes. The Order of Things (1966/70), began with an essay on Diego Velazquez’s Las Meniñas (1656), a painting he used as an example of 17th Century representation, which was the belief in the transparency of representation.

360px-Las_Meninas_(1656),_by_Velazquez

Diego Velazquez. Las Meniñas (1656)

The more modern understanding of representation denies the possibility of transparency, and, for Foucault, as well as for those of his generation, language was actually opaque. Representation is a process of symbolization or of coding, and, even more, of language. If this is the case, then, as Foucault pointed out at the end of The Order of Things, “man” disappears with this realization and is reduced to mere “representation” as Foucault wrote,

This gap is caused by the absence of the king – an absence that is an artifice on the part of the painter. But this artifice both conceals and indicates another vacancy which is, on the contrary, immediate: that of the painter and the spectator when they are looking at or composing the picture. It may be that, in this picture, as in all the representations of which it is, as it were, the manifest essence, the profound invisibility of what one sees is in­separable from the invisibility of the person seeing – despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits. Around the scene are arranged all the signs and successive forms of representation; but the double relation of the representation to its model and to its sovereign, to its author as well as to the person to whom it is being offered, this relation is neces­sarily interrupted. It can never be present without some residuum, even in a representation that offers itself as a spectacle. In the depth that traverses the picture, hollowing it into a fictitious recess and projecting it forward in front of itself, it is not possible for the pure felicity of the image ever to present in a full light both the master who is representing and the sovereign who is being represented.

Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velazquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being. But there, in the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping to­gether and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was im­peding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.

It was Foucault, more than any other Postmodern writer, who combined Saussure and Marx at the level of language and ideology to critique “representation.” Representation was linked with power. Those who represented were those who owned the “gaze”, those who had or owned or used the power to depict and to portray. Representation was an act of ideology, implicated in a system of oppression, and never innocent, never transparent. Las Meñinas was a painting of painting as a belief system, that contains within itself the mirror, a relic of the old belief that a portrait could replicate the King and Queen as a mirror, a belief in the absolute ability of painting to represent “transparently,” as a mirror of nature. Velasquez has turned his canvas to the viewer, concealing the “work” of representation while at the same time emphasizing that pure visibility is impossible. The “order” or “things” must be recounted through indirection.

The modern épistemé, on the other hand, understands that representation is not a mirror of nature, not a window on reality, but a linguistic and coded system complicit with the structures of power. Given that this is the world we have inherited, some writers, following some implications of Foucault, analyze “representation” to reveal how these codes function. Up until the 17th century, the world was “ordered” (in the West) in terms of “resemblance” or the repetition of the things through the world in speech and writing. By virtue of similitude the world had to “fold in upon itself, duplicate itself, reflect itself, or form a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another.” And then a change occurred and the “arrangement of signs was to become binary..as the connection of a significant and a signified.” What Foucault wanted to do was to make the idea of a system of signification based on resemblance strange and to emphasize the strong difference that was a break. As Foucault wrote,

The new arrangement brought about the appearance of a new problem unknown until then: in the sixteenth century, one asked oneself how it was possible to know that a sign did in fact designate what it signaled; from the seventeenth century, one began to ask how a sign could be linked to what it signified..This involved an immense reorganization of culture, a reorganization of which the Classical age was the first and perhaps the most important stage, since it was responsible for the new arrangement in which we are still caught–since it is the Classical age that separates us from a culture in which the signification of signs did not exist, since it was reabsorbed into the sovereignty of the Like..

The classical episteme, Foucault explained, was binary and therefore arbitrary and functioned within a system allowed the random relationship between the word and the thing to be considered “universal.” “All of this,” Foucault said, “was of the greatest consequence to Western thought. Resemblance, which for a long been the fundamental category of knowledge–both the form and the content of what we know–became dissociated in an analysis based on terms of identity and difference.” Foucault laid out the rift between similarity and difference and the division between the activity of interpretation that must be activated in the case of resemblance and the new mode of epistemology which is analysis. The Classical episteme orders scientific knowledge along a system of contrast rather than similarities.

But Foucault, ever alert to discontinuity, noted the change from the Classical episteme and its regime of positivity to the Modern episteme that emerged in the 18th century, one that is still not completely evolved. Foucault wrote,

Until the end of the eighteenth century, this new analysis has its place in the search of the representative values of language. It is still a question of discourse. But already through the inflection system, the dimension of the purely grammatical is appearing: language no longer consists only of representations and of sounds that in turn represent the representations and are ordered among them as the links of thought require; it consists also of formal elements, grouped into a system, which imposes upon the sounds,syllables, and roots of an organization that is not that or representation.

Foucault, ever the anti-historian never explained why these changes took place, he just asserted, to the irritation of more traditional historians that one episteme broke from another. To the traditionalist, the historian was a detective, who searched for clues through primary documents, but Foucault presented another way of doing history by presenting a new way to theorize history as a series of discontinuities and breaks. There was no need of him to explain history because Foucault was discussing discourse and the way in which the Cartesian form of “self” was dissolved into language. “This displacement of the word, this backward jim, as it were, away from its representative functions, was certainly one of the important events of Western culture towards the end of the eighteenth century. And it is also one of those that have passed most unperceived.” What happened in the modern world is the dissolution of the “self” into language which can only speak itself. In other words the final break, following the cleavage of the word from the thing, is the break between the self and language, puts the project of “man” in jeopardy. Foucault concluded his book by saying,“..man will be erased like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory

COMPARING MODERNISM AND POSTMODERNISM

The comparison of these two time periods was an inevitable result of the desire of Postmodern theorists to critique Modernist theory. But comparison was an early impulse trapped in the very polarities of Modernism that Postmodernism rejected. Nevertheless, establishing pairs of opposites allowed Postmodern thought to distinguish itself from its the ancestor before the new generation could go forward on its own terms. Regardless of the simplistic Oedipal origins, Ihab Hassen’s 1987 essay “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” provided a neat model of comparison that was highly influential:

Modernism

Romanticism/Symbolism Form (conjunctive, closed)/ Purpose/ Design/ Hierarchy Mastery/Logos Art Object/Finished Work/ Distance/ Creation/Totalization/ Synthesis Presence/ Centering Genre/Boundary/ Semantics/ Paradigm/ Hypotaxis/ Metaphor/ Selection Root/Depth/ Interpretation/Reading/ Signified/ Lisible (Readerly)/ Narrative/Grande Histoire/Master Code /Symptom/ Type/ Genital-Phallic Paranoia/ Origin/Cause God the Father Metaphysics/ Determinancy/ Transcendence

Postmodernism

Pataphysics/Dadaism/ Antiform (disjunctive, open) Play/ Chance/ Anarchy Exhaustion/Silence Process/Performance/Happening Participation Decreation/Deconstruction/ Antithesis Absence/ Dispersal/ Text/Intertext Rhetoric Syntagm Parataxis /Metonymy/ Combination/ Rhizome/Surface/ Against Interpretation/Misreading Signifier/ Scriptible (Writerly)/ Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire/ Idiolect/Desire /Mutant Polymorphous/Androgynous/Schizophrenia/ Difference-Differance/Trace/ The Holy Ghost Irony/ Indeterminancy/ Immanence

The destruction of Modernism was a slow moving chain reaction, like the 1987 video, The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss–element was pushed and toppled into another element which fell into the the third piece until a major explosion took place at 3.32pm in St Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972 when a sprawling housing complex named Pruitt Igoe was dynamited. Destroyed by its inhabitants who pulverized it from within before it was exploded from without, the highly decorated, prize winning celebration of Modernism utopianism imploded under the weight of Modernist entropy. The occasion, an ordinary one in the larger scheme of things was elevated into a historic landmark by Charles Jencks in his 1977 book The Language of Postmodern Architecture and set to music in the brilliant documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1975-1982).

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The Demolition of the Pruitt Igoe Complex 1972

One could quibble that the example chosen by Jencks was a convenient but arbitrary one, but history has a grim way of making a prophet even of a mere historian. The architect of Pruitt Igoe was none other than Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), who was also the architect for the Twin Towers. When the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on September 11th 2001, it was widely announced that Postmodernism was over. So a somewhat obscure Asian American architect had the honor of being the omega and the omega of Modernism and Postmodernism.

Las Vegas as a Sign System

Wherever Postmodernism ended, it began where all things begin, in Las Vegas. It is perhaps no accident that iconoclasts Tom Wolfe (1930-) and Robert Venturi (1925-) both had Yale connections: Wolfe as a graduate and Venturi as a member of the architecture faculty. Wolfe made his literary mark wrote two seminal essays that defined the growing “counter-culture:” “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the famous 1963 article on the Kar Kulture of Los Angeles and “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” of 1964, both for Esquire magazine. As a contemporary of the Pop artists, Wolfe was not only rattling the cages of the ossified Modernist establishment, he was also pointing the way a new appreciation of one of the major taboos of Modernism, the vernacular. Indeed one could argue that Las Vegas, with its ambivalent status as a proper “city,” is a work of folk art, an unconscious counterpart to the less-is-more austerity of Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In 1968 the Strip with its riot of lights and pleasure became the destination for Robert Venturi and his new wife and fellow architect, Denise Scott Brown (1931-), their colleague Steven Izenour (1940-2001), with Yale students in two to see Wolfe’s “incredible electric sign gauntlet” for themselves.

In seeking an architectural site where contemporary “life” was organically creating architecture, the architects rejected other “new cities,” such as Los Angeles in favor of Las Vegas, which was “more concentrated and easier to study.” In the late sixties, the famed Strip, lined with casinos and hotels displaying brightly lit signs, was less a place where people lived and more an isolated site servicing improbable fantasies. Four years later, the trio published Learning from Las Vegas and by championing the vital and the vernacular, the book upended the purity of Modernist theory. In advocating for the intersection of art and life, Robert Venturi could be thought of as the architectural equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg as he and his partners called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. The preference for the ordinary and this attention to the unartistic world surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style, which had come to a sterile and corporate dead end. Not only did Venturi and Scott Brown not turn their backs on architectural history, they used the past to explain and validate their analysis of Vegas. The parking lot the the A & P grocery store is compared to the parterre of the gardens of Versailles: this is contemporary space where the architecture is taken over by the signs that are the façade of the buildings.

The architects have the Baroque tradition in architecture in mind: the long vistas of power are now long vistas of Route 66 which promise pleasure. Las Vegas is the new Rome, centrally planned and precisely laid out for a specific purpose. Like a Roman military camp, Las Vegas is laid out in an orderly grid which keeps in check the blazing lights constantly jumping and jiving to their own internal rhythms. What Venturi and Scott Brown pointed out that Las Vegas is more symbolism than architecture, meaning that meaning had become detached from the form and its function. The result was a landscape of free-floating signifiers. As they write, “Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned toward the front and no one sees the back..the artistic influence has spread and Las Vegas motels have signs like no others..” The visual contrast between the Weissenhof housing estate built by canonical Modernist architects in Stuttgart in 1927, and the brightly lit and colored pleasure palaces of Las Vegas is striking. The white box absolutism of Walter Gropius and his colleagues favored the general over the specific and the absolute over the particular. Las Vegas is all incoherence and is fixated on detail of the signage. “Detail”, that is, a reference, which would locate the work and place it beyond the realm of transcendence, was to be banished.

As the late Naomi Schor pointed out in her 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, the “detail” had long been relegated to the feminine as being opposed to the General or the Universal. The Detail was the unassailable Other and had to be banished. Detail like decoration is unnecessary within the totality. At the beginning of the 20th century, Viennese architect and theorist Aldof Loos declaring “ornament” to be “crime” in architecture. The stripping of “white architecture”, as architecture critic Mark Wigley termed it in his 1995 book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, coincides with the development of abstract art. Abstract art, stripped of representation, needed to ally itself with humanism, spiritualization, and self-actualization—all while excluding the other half of the human race: women. Wigley goes on to point out that Modernist architecture, in its turn, was only fashion, the “structure” of its “erections” betrayed by the white (dress) covering. It would take twenty years for a new generation of architects to develop a Postmodern approach to architecture.

Taking a cue from Las Vegas, Postmodern buildings emphasized detail and façade and referential signage over purity. Architects followed the “linguistic turn” of literary theory and were aware of the latest in philosophical trends. One of the most interesting theories that was manifested in art and architecture was that of allegory. Because Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism, which broke firmly with the past, Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins. Each element re-found by the architect retained its historical meaning even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure. A building by Michael Graves or Charles Moore would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to consistency of period or meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text.

vegas1960s

Allegory as Text

The theories that would support Postmodern art preceded the art and were then applied to the works of art in a mix and match fashion. Unlike Modernist theory, Postmodernist theory came from numerous sources, from linguistics to post-Marxism to the critique of Enlightenment philosophy. Because all of the texts upon which Postmodernism would be based were either in French or German, the translators and explicators became significant players in disseminating the unfamiliar theories to the academic and artistic audiences. Borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which in 1980 was still unfamiliar to American readers, the late art historian Craig Owens (1950-1980) wrote “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” The significance of this two part article is its early publication date, meaning that Owens introduced many readers to one of the important aspects of Postmodern theory. Owens begins by locating allegory in its site of origin, which is literature. As the prefiguration for the New Testament, the Old Testament, allegory was the origin of critique because of its role as commentary. Owens explained,

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos =other + agoreuei =to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather,he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however,he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance

Because Owens was writing his essay before art became “Postmodern,” his choices of art and artists to explain allegory are forced. When he stated that “Allegory concerns itself,then,with the projection-either spatial or temporal or both-of structure as sequence; the result,however,is not dynamic, but It is thus the of for it static, ritualistic,repetitive. epitome counter-narrative, arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events,”it is hard to understand how Minimal artists Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt–as we analyze them today–could possible have any relationship to allegory. Owens continued by linked appropriation and hybridity to allegory: “Appropriation,site specificity, impermanence,accumulation, discursivity, hybridization these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.” Owens identifies allegory with a kind of writing in the visual arts. Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1925-1993) was completed in 1978 and provides an excellent example of allegory. First, it is a witty reference to Robert Venturi’s comparison of Las Vegas to the piazzas of Rome and second, it is an ode to Las Vegas in its fictionality and in its assertion of the façade, which, indecently, is lit like a sign on the Strip. The Piazza is an assemblage of architectural elements and is a dizzy discourse on the history of the built environment. Therefore, “reading” the Piazza involves Robert Venturi, the Las Vegas strip, and a heavy dose of architectural historian Vincent Scully. In a nod to New Orleans, the façade rises like a fake Hollywood set from its shallow bed of water, the worst enemy of the low lying city.

In explaining how allegory is writing which is a text that must be read, Owens wrote,

If allegory is identified as a supplement, then it is also aligned with writing, insofar as writing is conceived as supplementary to speech.It is of course within the same philosophic tradition which subordinates writing to speech that allegory is subordinated to the symbol. It might demonstrated, perspective, that the suppression of allegory is identical with the suppression of writing. For allegory, whether visual or verbal,is essentially a form of script-this is the basis for Walter Benjamin’s treatment of it in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “At one stroke the profound vision of allegory transforms things and works into stirring writing.”

In the second part of his essay Owens discussed the art of Édouard Manet as a form of allegory. In his early career Manet made a number of what Michel Foucault would term “museum paintings,” or art that referred to other works of art. As hybrids these early paintings appropriated motifs from other famous works of art which could be recognized, even in their buried state, by viewers familiar with art history. In acting as though he was leafing through the pages of an art history text, Manet performed as a bricoleur that cultural producer highlighted by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Writing in The Savage Mind in 1966, Lévi-Strauss stated,

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’ – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

A comment that Lévi-Strauss made was particularly interesting for Postmodern theory: “It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the ‘bricoleur’ addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture.”In other words, the bricoleur works with”sub-sets” and does not, like the engineer, “question the universe.” Rather than attempt to remake subject matter for painting, Manet played with sub-sets of the already existing elements of culture. Compared to the awkward contemporary examples put forward by Craig Owens in 1980, the paintings of Mark Tansey who was actively involved in creating works of art that one had to “read thorough” to decode are a far superior example of allegory. Like Manet who dueled with the classical Renaissance tradition, Tansey rifled through the history of Modernist painting and piled on references to both Modernist and Postmodernist theories. Painting backwards by lifting paint off the canvas, illustrating in the discarded style of Norman Rockwell, Tansey paid homage to Lévi-Strauss in his 1987 painting, The Bricoleur’s Daughter, in which a young girl stands on a step stool and rifles through a set of cabinets. The cabinets, which are both above and below the counter are stuffed with art supplies and items gone astray from Dutch still life paintings, are a reference to the origin of museums as wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity. The role of the allegorist is that of a gatherer who piles on references through a collection of emblems found in the ruins of a past culture.

Allegory is always specific to the needs of a culture, meaning that there are periods when the intelligentsia drives “impure” forms of expression,such as allegory, from its boundaries. The intent of Walter Benjamin was to revive the reputation of Baroque allegory. Although he did not state his intention as directly, Robert Venturi’s frequent appeal to Baroque architecture in Learning from Las Vegas suggests a swerve away from the classicism of Modernism. And, in his turn, Craig Owens noted that Modernist literary theory had also rejected allegory. Allegory then is a commentary on a recent past and it is also a rejection of its predecessors, suggesting that allegory should be viewed as symptom of a cultural need to “take stock,” like The Bricoleur’s Daughter of the leftovers of the past.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Julia Kristeva: Transgression and the Féminine

JULIA KRISTEVA (1941 – )

Transgression and the Feminine

The philosophy and theories generated by Julia Kristeva bear traces of her own personal marginality: a woman in a man’s world, an east European from Bulgaria in the heart of Parisian intellectual culture, and a philosopher trying to write her way out of the patriarchy while still maintaining a relationship with that power structure. When Kristeva slipped through a crack in the Iron Curtain, she arrived in Paris in 1965, the high point of Existentialism and of Lacanian theory. Years would pass before the intellectuals of Paris would rethink their politics and practice and a decade would go by before ideas on feminism would be articulated. Like all women caught in the liminal zone between the last of masculine domination and the first gestures of female defiance, Kristeva reflected the transition into feminism through a critique of the texts of male precursors.

Keeping in mind that Kristeva was an Eastern-European exile, who came to Paris before May 1968, it is clear that her intent is to involve art in politics through the avant-garde in art. When Kristeva arrived in France, the Hegelian lectures of Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) had been the cutting edge of philosophy in Paris, setting an example for a way to rethink traditional philosophy as inherited from the late 18th and early 19th century. The real crises that forced theory towards a more modern position was the evident failure of yet another uprising of the working class by early June 1968 and the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which exposed the fraud of Communism. As a result of these disillusioning events, there was a return to a Kantian morality of disinterest and a sense of moral commitment to the public good, fueled by the Paris events. For Kristeva and her colleagues, French theory should be political: intellectuals were engagé, involved and took political stances, and opposed the establishment through their texts. Kristeva would propose the use of poetic language becomes a ethical function for art. Poetry (art) is the “carnival” to society, a subversive practice which is destructive and conducive to madness, becoming a refusal of the “flight into madness.”

Kristeva was part of the newly formed Tel quel group, organized around the famous journal of the same name, established in 1960. Her group was engaged but opposed to writing/speaking in a “transparent” fashion, inherited from Sartre. These intellectuals become materialist writers who followed the non-academic work of Philippe Sollers (1936-), her husband, who legitimated flamboyance, intensity, and excessiveness. After the events of 1968, Tel quel (“as is”) issued a manifesto and declared the new stance for the French intellectual. Along with her colleagues, Jean-Louis Bardry, Hubert Damish, Denis Hollier, Julia Kristeva gave her support to the following points, which read in part:

it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages; consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state; in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science); any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although Tel quel remained Marxist, its authors shifted towards the theory of language and Post-structuralism, Kristeva analyzed linguistic theory from the standpoint of psychoanalysis. As one of Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) students, Kristeva took up the issue of symbolic language and its hidden other side, as unspoken element to language that she developed and named semanalysis. Through “semanalysis” (the analysis of the semoitic as opposed to the Symbolic) Kristeva reasserted the buried and repressed theoretical Mother upon whose abjected body, the consciousness of the subject is formed. Her theory of semiotics investigated poetic language as a productivity of the text through which it is possible to speak about what used to be unspeakable: the prohibited language of the maternal material body. It is important to understand that Kristeva, much like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would later do with difference and différance, commandeers a familiar word: “semiotics” and alters it slightly to “the semiotic.”

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Julia Kristeva (1941-)

As Mary Ann Caws in her 1973 discussion of the Tel quel group noted, the editors used the neutral term “text” in order to separate writing from a system of capitalist ownership and valorization of the individual. In “Tel quel: Text and Revolution,” Caws marked off some of the key words for the translingualistic take on language: “Materiality, Refusal, Transgression/The sign, whether painted or written, has become opaque and therefore visible, so that the interest formerly attaching to content now attaches to the language and the structure of the text or canvas.” Caws continued, “An activity disruptive and self-aware, a development of semiotic consciousness: this general description of the deliberate and unreadable action of the “revolutionary avant-garde” displays the recurring themes of protest, distance, cutting off, refusal and political commitment, visible behind the proliferation of technical vocabulary.” By “translinguistic,” Caws means that the study of language has moved beyond Saussure and is now “a productive process, operating within another space at once self-constituting and self-exhausting, an inscription traversing language..rather than enclosed within it.”

Although Kristeva, possibly due to her association with the French feminists, is often severed by later explicators of her work from Tel quel, the genesis and the development of her break into Poststructuralist intertextuality remained part of the development of a very small but very influential group of thinkers. Clearly, as a member of the Tel quel group, Julia Kristeva was part of a group that was rethinking the role of language in society, post revolution. In La Révolution du langue poétique, 1974/1984, her doctoral thesis, Kristeva introduced the concept of le sémiotique, which would articulate the realm of the pre-Symbolic, which is the basis of poetic language. Although “the semoiotic” can be located within the signifying process, one should image the pre-Symbolic as the Feminine coming back to live and erupting back into consciousness to disrupt the Name of the Father.

This feminine element is the chora or receptacle for poetic language. The chora is a place, a theoretical site for activity that underlies the Symbolic. The chora, a term borrowed from Plato, is unbridled energy and instinctive drives that are part of a dialectic of the positive and the negative, the creative and the destructive. The chora, defined by Kristeva as “the place where the subject is both generated and negated,” is therefore part of the Mother’s Body, which is the unrepresentable and belonging to the semiotic as the pre-Symbolic, meaning the materiality–the energy and the drive–that precedes the Symbolic. The semiotic is the Voice and the Body, compared to the immaterial Father who is Symbolic. In a dialectic with the Mother who is the chora or Non-Place or the Semiotic, the destination of the child, which is society belongs to the realm of the Symbolic or signification. As Kristeva wrote, ‘What we call significancethen, is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language.” Kristeva, using Hegelian dialectical thinking, opposes the semiotic to the symbolic, which are resolved in the “thetic,” which is the “threshold or the resolution between the two. But the thetic not only the place where the human being constitutes herself, it is also a crossing over between boundaries.

But Kristeva re-places that non-place and makes the chora into a Place that provides the materiality for the symbolic. If the Chora precedes the division between subject and object, then the “feminine” is located at language’s unrepresentable materiality, which is indeterminate and ephemeral. Kristeva questions all forms of formalism and Structuralism, which is based upon reason and rationality, which is inherently male, and in doing so opened the way to Post-Structuralism. In opposing the concept of the poetic to the rational in language and in gendering this “poetic” as female, Kristeva places the poetic on the side of the political in that it disrupts official (male) (establishment) language. Like many women of her generation, Kristeva takes the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Jacques Lacan and holds them up to the light of criticality, not with the intent of dismantling their ideas from the outside but from the standpoint of appropriating their theories from the inside.

In the writings of Sigmund Freud, the woman is the “dark continent,” for Jacques Lacan, she does not exist, and it is the self-imposed task for Kristeva to recover the long lost body of the Mother and to reinstate the “feminine” in language. In Totem and Taboo, Freud’s version of the origin of Law in the Killing of the Father by the sons in order to possess the wives of the father is one the many grim tales of male-made violence. Freud places this act of fratricide at the heart of the incest taboo. The sons suffer remorse and melancholia (the refusal or inability to mourn) and renounce their claims on the father’s women (The Mother) in the name of the father. The primal Oedipal drama was the struggle between father and sons over the body of the murder, resulting in the shame of murder, which is the name for the repressed memory of the time before imposition of the Law. The original transgression, the murder of the Father in order to possess the Mother, becomes the foundation of the Law. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) would point out that the beginning of organized society and the advent of the symbolic was based, in Freudian and Marxist terms, upon the exchange of women. Lacan’s version of this primal trauma is somewhat different. The Sacrifice (of the Mother), made by all children who must be ushered into the social, is a re-enactment of this Founding Death, initiates the Symbolic at the moment in which the pre-Symbolic is divided from the Symbolic.

Here in this primal repression: the renunciation of the Mother, and this interdiction against incest, is an end to jouissance. Jouissance is a word that translates, badly, into the English word, “pleasure,” which in inadequate for the full meaning intended by French writers. The most succinct definition comes from Jane Gallop in Thinking Through the Body. As Gallop explained that “..Barthes distinguishes between plaisir, which is comfortable, ego-assuring, recognized, and legitimated by culture, and jouissance which is shocking, ego-disruptive, an d in conflict with the canons of culture..” Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Julia Kristeva were close colleagues and there were several topics in which both were interested, including intertextuality. The act of writing or the performativity of the text was the other side of (traditional) writing and Kristeva examined jouissance, the disruptive act of forbidden or unacknowledged “pleasure,” as the subject of serious philosophical attention. Joy is unnameable, the other side of reality, which taps into the unthinkable or the female, beyond tradition and history, drives thought beyond itself, to its own limits. Here new thought is possible or to put it another way “thought is again possible.” Writing becomes experience and engenders jouissance and pleasure and perversion. She echoes Luce Irigaray (1930-) in pointing out that the Law of the Father is predicated on the Murder of the Mother.

But for later generations of feminists, such as Judith Butler, Kristeva’s revision of phallic theory was too cautious and too wrapped up in language. Indeed, Butler called for a greater emphasis on the “materiality” of the female body, rather than allowing the woman to vanish into the theoretical materiality of language. Although Kristeva never broke with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, in her 1993 article, “Trans-Positions and Difference: Kristeva and Difference,” Tilottama Rajan argues that it is important for her to remain within the precincts of Lacan in order to retrieve “the materiality” that Freud left behind, even if it means staying in the patriarchal family. But Rajan suggests that Kristeva took an intertextual position in order to attack male theory from within as an act of a “transgression of the symbolic.” Indeed, Kristeva’s writings build upon the ideas of others and these ideas are not explained, leaving the texts opaque to the uninitiated reader and drawing the reader in the know into an extended conversation among generational writers.

By the eighties, Kristeva could be linked to key terms–all linked to the feminine: the semiotic, jouissance, abjection and transgression. “Transgression,” as described by Suzanne Guerlac in her 1996 article (later part of her book), “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)” “If there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without-at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel quel-it is “transgression,”inherited from Bataille” and transmitted from the Surrealist writer to the Tel quel group via Michel Foucault (1926-1984). As Guerlac explained,

Foucault defined transgression as”a gesture concerning the limit.” He presented it as a flash of lightning, an image that not only figures transgression but also emblematizes the move into what will become the philosophical register of poststructuralism. It traces a line, a line that figures the Heideggerian ontology of limitation, the coming into being (or appearance)of beings on the horizon of Being; it suggests the limit of the ontological difference between Being and beings.

Within French theory, “transgression” would be meaningless without “interdiction,” or that which is prohibited, that which is taboo: the limits that can be transgressed. In her 1997 book, Literary Polemics, Guerlac continued her discussion of transgression which is linked to art through Breton and revolution through Sartre and to language through Mallarmé, all of which became reconciled, as she put it, through Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Thinking once again of intertextuality working through Kristeva, it can be seen that she takes over these disjointed but joined ideas and re-pieces them together for her own purposes: to make a case for avant-garde (poetry) as a form of artistic revolution. Poetic language, rather than the logical language of exposition and knowledge, is the language of transgression, through the process of rejection and negation.

In returning to the semiotic and the material, art is both a revolution in that it is subversive of the received order and is also transgressive in the Surrealist sense. As Kristeva stated, “It is in the so-called art practices that the semiotic condition of the symbolic, also reveals it self to be its destroyer.” However, in linking art and revolution, Kristeva marks the text with both its contradiction and the formation of the contradiction, or rejection which can also contain discourse. Thus jouissance and its opposite returns under the guise of transgression and its opposite, meaning. Transgression or the defiance of a “sacred” law is bound up in both art and religion. Religion ritualizes and enshrines prohibition and taboo and enmeshes the sacred with its opposite the profane. Art is the expression of transgression which, as was noted, part of the feminine, the suppressed, the murdered. As Ceceila Sjoholm stated in her 2005 book, Kristeva and the Political,

The conflict between the semiotic and the symbolic is not just to be interpreted in terms of poetic versus normative language. It is intertwined with the processes of history, ideology and religious where woman introjected as the threatening fantasmatic inside is recast and projected as a fearful and contaminating outside.

The next post will discuss abjection, the contamination of the repressed Mother, and the alter ego of transgression.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Jacques Lacan: Historical Context

JACQUES-MARIE ÉMILE LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Among the most important philosophers of the post-war period was Jacques Lacan who lectured to a number of future Postmodern thinkers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom sat in on his famous lectures. A careful reading of his lectures, the Écrits, followed by a careful reading of the ideas of his students reveals traces of his thought in their writings. Lacan became more widely known in America through his appearance at the now famous 1966 symposium at Johns Hopkins University. This symposium introduced European post-Freudian thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States. In fact his last essays, concerning his now controversial interpretations of women and their position in psychological theory, were not translated until 1998.

Jacques Lacan was first and foremost the fulcrum through which many impulses of Postmodern thought were injected into a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to feminist theory to Marxist theory to philosophy. The scatter-shot effect of his texts indicate the very complex construction of his widely influential books and lectures. One of the themes in Elizabeth Roudinesco elegantly laid out in her 1990 book, Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Lacan’s entire career was certainly self-invention and re-invention and his re-take on Freudian theory was a bricolage re-construction.Born of a middle class Parisian family whose ordinariness he would take pains to hide, Lacan was, in many ways, a reinvented man by the time he entered into the still new medical field of psychoanalysis. For one seminal year, 1928-1929, he interned at the Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture under the colorful Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a specialist in “erotomania,” paranoia, and the draping and knotting of cloth. Clérambault held dramatic sway over his pupils and, believing in the power of the “gaze,” observed his patients, who were never allowed to talk with him, and based his conclusions on his observations.

It is important to understand that when Lacan began his independent professional career, he was part of a purely French take on psychoanalysis: from Clérambault’s reworking of Freud’s teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot to his own reworking of Clérambault (who accused his pupil of plagiarism). But this French foundation would be infused with more than a touch of alien German-ness. It is through his interest in Dada and then Surrealism that Lacan discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1930s, but, once again, it is important to note that Lacan came to Freud through late Surrealism and ideas of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) on paranoia. For Dali, seeing one thing and thinking (due to paranoia) that it is something else–different and threatening–is the equivalent of living in an hallucination.

Although Freud was alive and quite accessible in the 1930s, Lacan and the second generation of French psychoanalysts knew Freud through reading his books, and it was through Freud’s writings that Lacan learned of the “talking cure” or the “couch,” and of the importance of language. Clearly, the young doctor could see, first, that his field was changing and that with the demise of the teachers, the students could now assume leadership positions and that, second, there was nothing and no one preventing him from stepping forward with new ideas. Through sheer will and force of personality, Jacques Lacan took the lead in re-creating a new version of psychoanalysis. Lacan was not and would never be an originator or an innovator, instead his talent lay in a penchant for theatrical delivery and in drawing together numerous concepts, already in circulation and recombining and reinventing the already invented. His method as a teacher was to teach (dramatically) the work of others, especially Freud, filtered through his own re-interpretations, which then, in and of themselves, could become a distinct body of work in its own right.

If the first step towards a re-thinking of psychoanalysis was Freud, then the second step was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), but Lacan would absorb a very particular re-interpreting of Hegel. As a member of the generation of 1930, Lacan was influenced by Hegelian thought transmitted to the French through the 1933-34 lectures of Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939. Although other work was discovered posthumously, Kojève’s most famous book was his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (published in French in 1947 and in English in 1968). Because this book is a compendium of a series of lectures, the text is a bit oddly segmented but it presents the ideas of Georg Hegel in a succinct and comprehensible fashion. As philosopher Michael Roth recounted in his 1985 article, “A Problem of Recognition: Alexandre Kojève and the End of History,”

The center of Kojeve’s oeuvre is, and will remain, however, his book on Hegel. This interpretation, a collection of notes and texts assembled by Raymond Queneau, is gleaned from a seminar which was a hothouse for intellec- tual development: Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Aron Gurwitsch, Gaston Fessard, Alexandre Koyré, Queneau, Andre Breton, and Jacques Lacan were among the auditors.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit introduced the notion of a dialectic between the self and the other and/or the master/slave. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out in his lectures, the desire for recognition, which leads to self-consciousness, is linked to the desire for the Other. As Michael Roth explained, “Human desire, properly so-called, has as its object another desire and not another thing.” What is significant about Kojève’s re-reading of Hegel through a Marxist filter is that by placing “desire” at the center of Hegelian thought, Kojève moved the desire for recognition (self-consciousness) out of Hegel’s theological (transcendental) time to Marx’s material time (class struggle as the basis for history itself). Then he substituted Hegelian being with the Being of Heidegger, in which Being or Dasein is achieved through the anticipation of death. So what beings in desire ends in death, all enfolded in a life lived in real historical time. Desire creates history and even time itself.

Lacan would take up the psychological implications of the One/the Other and sexualize the alterity or otherness between the self and the other. For Lacan, following Kojève, the emergence of individuality would revolve around Desire, which is always directed toward an/Other Desire, which is always deferred. Lacan also re-cast Marxism in that economy became a way to explain an “exchange” system of loss and gain, now connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, an original thinker, who labored alone, Lacan re-examined Freud by filtering him through other disciplines–anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and semiotics (Ferdinand de Saussure)–and focused on what is particularly human about the human mind. Rejecting Freud’s biology, which insisted that the workings of the mind was determined by the body, or to put it more bluntly, “anatomy is destiny,” and borrowing from Saussure, Lacan substituted nature for culture and biology for anthropology and sociology and claimed that the unconscious was structured by language, in other words by culture. As Lacan stated in Seminar XX:

…I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters…

Although Lacan had already presented his idea of the “mirror stage” in 1936, he did not announce his fabled Return to Freud until November 7, 1955 with the aim of dislodging the ego from its position of ascendancy and of dethroning consciousness. As Terry Gamel pointed out in his “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,'” Lacan posited that the “mirror stage,” or how a child comes to literally “see” herself as a separate (conscious) individual, evolved through (trace of Dali’s ideas) “paranoiac knowledge,” or how we make sense of the world. By the 1950s, the interest in Freudian studies had declined in France. There was no psychoanalytic study in France until 1926 (remember Surrealism emerged a few years earlier), during the war, Freud had been rejected for being “German,” and many (Jewish) practitioners of Freud’s ideas were killed during World War II.

The post-war scene in French philosophy was dominated by Existentialism and its notion of the self as an actor with individual autonomy. But in 1963, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) revived Lacan by inviting him to bring his famous seminars to École normale supérièure from Sainte Anne Hôpital. At the hospital, Lacan had performed in the amphitheater from 1954 to 1964 as a spellbinding and prophetic leader: the kind of scholarly superstar that is unique to France. He claimed he made the unconscious manifest through his self-conscious style of performance. In keeping with what would later be called “postmodernism,” Lacan radically critiqued psychoanalysis by re-reading Freudian theory. In keeping with his linguistic take on Freud, Lacan asserted that the whole truth could never be spoken and that any perceived totality was imaginary.

Once he moved to the École, Lacan’s circle quickly expanded and included Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), author of Structural Anthropology to whom he owed some of his thinking on the role of culture in shaping the human mind. In addition, both Althusser and Lacan were re-thinking the philosophy of Karl Marx without reference to Hegel’s absolute and Freud without reference to the unified self/ego, respectively. But, as Elizabeth Roudinesco stated, the events of May 1968 transformed psychoanalysis from an academic enterprise to a psychoanalytic culture that was dedicated to social and political issues and to social criticism. These events of 1968 created a political community that changed the French intellectual psyche. In comparing Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to those who came after him, one could now say he was the last Enlightenment philosopher and perhaps the last Modernist philosopher after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and that Lacan was the first Postmodernist in that he was one of the early re-writers and re-thinkers who also used bricolage to re-assemble a new take on old ideas.

To the generation of 1968, the theory of language as a discours engagé, meaning politically committed writings, had to be reappraised. Although a political uprising had begun spontaneously, the end result was a reassertion of power under an autocratic and dictatorial Charles de Gaulle. Discouraged by the collapse of oppositional forces—labor and students—French intellectuals began to manifest their refutation of the “classical” tradition, which stressed clarity above all, in French literature by deliberately writing with oblique political gestures. In other words, the new philosophers position themselves in a postmodern position of critique by re-reading and re-writing or re-newing the philosophy of Others, or to put it still another way, they overthrow or overwrite their precursors. One of the best books on this transformation of French thought, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was written by Richard Wolin, who explained,

As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninsit authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence French intellectual life was transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insights into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holds of power by flaunting timeless moral truths.

At all costs, totalitarian thinking or grand narratives must be avoided. The experiences of 1968 also explain the commingling of philosophy and other disciplines, especially with the arts. As with the Frankfurt School, political events brought about an interdisciplinary approach within philosophy. Lacan’s Seminar of 1969 reflected not only his long apprenticeship and absorption of multiple strains of pre-war intellectualism but also his post-war reactions to political upheaval. First, he stated his objections to the idea of totalization of knowledge and began a critique of the Hegelian idea of the Master, by pointing to what he termed the “hysteric” discourse of Socrates. Lacan blended the dialectic between question and answer with the circular and symbiotic relationship between the doctor and patient. The presumed role of the pupil/subordinate/hysteric who asked questions of the Master, demanding the Master’s answer, only brings the master and the hysteric into a symbiosis or a symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship. This entangled and self-enclosed discourse of universality is the discourse of the Master, implying a mastery of all disciplines.

The Master reinforces his Mastery through mystification of ideas and deliberate obscurantism of intellectual thought, which produces the non-mastery of the subordinated and bewildered students. In his rejection of Socratic thought and method, Lacan was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche (184401900), who saw Socrates as destroying the balance between Apollo (the rational) and Dionysius (the irrational). In his dialogues with his pupils, Socrates attempted to upset this balance to make logic (the rational) the primal mode of thought which should dominate (like the Master) the workings of the mind. It is not clear how Lacan, the “master” performer surrounded by students and disciples, avoided the position of the Master and the consequent mutual identification in his turn, but he was part of the post 1968 reconfiguration on the part of French intellectuals who took a subversive turn. The goal of the Postmodern enterprise was to question prevailing wisdom by critiquing the already said.

In the decades after this death, his possible upending of authority attracted a new commentary on and a new critique of Lacan himself by a younger generation. A more contemporary reading of Lacan would find a bias towards Eurocentrism and a phallocentric (male) perspective on the world. Although the “culture” of Freud and Lacan was a white European male culture, Post-colonial writers have found Lacan’s notions of Desire to be an important aspect of the colonial question of the relationship between the One and the Other. Since the seventies, many feminists debated both of these writers, while other feminists did not bother to do battle on a terrain that does not include women. Re-reading Jacques Lacan in the 21st century is a challenging enterprise and calls into question the relevance of Postmodern thinking to a world that has so clearly moved beyond the culture that formed Lacan. For women and for people of color, for people who are not heterosexual, Lacan is at best anachronistic. Yet it cannot be denied that the relevance of Lacan lies in his insights into how relationships of power shape the consciousness, bending it towards either dominance or submission: concepts that have profound political implications today.

The next four posts will discuss Lacan’s re-reading and re-writing of Sigmund Freud.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

History of Sexuality, Part Two

WHAT IS “QUEER?”

“Queer” was once an insulting term of scorn and distaste applied to homosexuals and the aggressive appropriation of this term by the homosexual community as a defiant positive identification signaled a change from the meaning of the term “identity.” “Queer” is also a Postmodern term, signifying an awareness that it is a classification that is artificial and constructed by society. “Queer” is a representation and was (and still is) used as a prerogative term, a word that was deliberately repressive, designed to designate the Other, as an act of power and control. Postmodernity understands representation or the power to represent stems from a position of social dominance and that sexuality is linked to economic power and control of the One. To say “queer” is to identify. “Queer” theory was also a reaction to the rejection of a meta-theory or meta-narrative of of sexuality, which positioned heterosexuality as the privileged state and marginalizing homosexuality as the Other.

Following the thinking of Michel Foucault that one should investigate smaller units, Queer Theory was a concept of the 1990s. The theoretical basis for “queer” was feminist theory, which was a theory of difference. In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argued that gender relations–the binary between male and female—was stabilized by the immobility of women and that once “female” became unstable, the position of the male was threatened. Gender was constructed by society and then performed by the individual, with both male and female playing social roles. “Queer Theory” emerged at the same time as Butler’s arguments for gender performativity but “queer” did not necessarily mean “gay” or opposite from “straight” or “homosexual” or opposite from “heterosexual.” As Samuel Allen Chambers and Terrell Carver stated in Judith Butler and Political Theory,

Queer identity therefore must not be confused or confuted with gay identity; it rests no on the ground of a fixed desire for the same exa, but on the position of one’s marginal sexuality in relation to the norm of heterosexuality.

Thanks to theorists, such as Adrianne Rich and Monique Wittig, writing about lesbian theory, “identity” was revealed to by a mere construct. For Rich, heterosexuality was “compulsory,” forced upon all, regardless of their preferences. For Wittig, gender relations were constructed solely for the imposition and maintenance of heterosexuality, so much so, that lesbians were totally outside of that binary. Nothing was natural; all was constructed and given out to individuals by society. In Queer Theory, Annamarie Jagose stated that “Queer” marked a break and a rupture with the politics of liberation and assimilation of the sixties and seventies. Although it should be pointed out that twenty-first century gay culture strives towards assimilation and bourgeois life styles, “Queer Theory” emerged in the nineties as an acknowledgment of Michel Foucault’s insistence in Discipline and Punish that power was not concentrated in a central place but was distributed and disseminated widely, impossible to confront. Foucault noted that power was productive and produced categories, such as “queer.” These categories were used to classify people into groups where they could be marginalized and oppressed through a “discourse” or body of “knowledge” which reinforced the spread of power. For Foucault, surveillance produced knowledge of the subject under examination and that knowledge, in turn, produced more power. We have seen this process very clearly in the “creation” of the “homosexual” in the 1870s through medical discourse. By the end of the nineteenth century, homosexuals had been declared “inverts” and laws were passed to prevent homosexuality from spreading, like a disease.

Alert to the danger of categories, the new activists adopted the term “queer” which is non-specific and non-exclusionist. “Queer” can be seen as a counter discourse, an act of resistance to the existing discourse on homosexuals which actually produced “homosexuals.” Rather than having a label applied to them by the heterosexual society, homosexuals began using the word “queer” as a self-designation, chosen deliberately as a new form pf personal identification and of political organization. “Queer” was an attack on the entire concept of “identity,” and upon sexuality. Far from being “natural,” sexuality was, according to Foucualt, a cultural category, an effect of power, and something produced through discourse. The emergence of “queer theory” revealed the extent to which society and culture expended enormous efforts to shape human sexuality in certain directions: heterosexual with men dominating and women pleasing men. Following Foucault’s line of thinking, Judith Butler asserted that the whole notion of “marginalized” identities privileges the center and is complicit with regimes that maintain power through identifying who is at the “margin” and who is in the “center.”

Gender, Butler stated, was a performance and gender roles were performative. The performance of a particular gender is a kind of masquerade, a role that is played by the individual who is rarely aware that he or she is acting from a script written by a system seeking to maintain the “naturalization” of heterosexuality. The way a person dresses or walks or talks or even the hairstyle defines him or her as “male” or “female.” The apparent “unity of gender” inscribed by these ritualized and repetitive performances is achieved under constraints, such as, men cannot wear women’s clothes or, in some cultures, women cannot be unveiled. Any deviation from the standard performances is punished. Queer theory questions conventional understandings of gender; and, when one describes oneself as “queer,” the term is a self-designation and self-identification, taken by the individual. Queer theory insists that sexuality is a discursive effect and the primary goal of queer theory is to “denaturalized” gender and sexuality, revealing the artificial constructs of “male” and “female.” Monique Wittig memorably proposed that perhaps we could all simply be “people:”

Like racism, sexism is so well implanted in ruling class ideology that only a radical seizing of power can destroy it—a political takeover to represent, in our turn, our interest as being the universal interest. That is necessary for the first phase, the send goal of all seizure of power by the people being an abolition of domination in general. Our interest is that of the people. We are the people.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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