SubStance 31.1 (2002) 77-84
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Michel Foucault: Literature and the Arts
A Report from the Colloquium at Cerisy-la-Salle, June 23-30, 2001
Michel Foucault was multiplied at Cerisy. However, this magisterial place is not the reason, since this effect stems more generally from the posthumous reception of his work. This has inevitably grown in nearly twenty years. Its volume and weight, henceforth vast and heavy, distance us from Foucault, and, perhaps more strangely, bring us closer to him. How does this come about?
Foucault is never exactly where we expect him. The power of his language undermines and compromises the constancy of his thought and his being by linking them to other thoughts, other beings. And despite numerous rapports with writers, painters, musicians, and philosophers, concretized in texts, interviews, demonstrations, etc., the virtual horizon of his encounters seems endless. Since his death, his oeuvre has continued to be unfolded by unpublished connections, sometimes untimely, which often are born and exist only at the moment of their expression. Thus Foucault becomes a sort of cross-roads constantly traversed by thinkers and artists, a perpetually moving nerve center that opens aesthetic and intellectual experiences into countless interpretations. This is what was experienced at Cerisy in June 2001.
Despite this, it is easy to detect a common denominator in the heterogeneity of the papers given, a common thread in the disparity of the encounters that have been staged with varying degrees of success. In fact, the speakers have attempted to present the principles of Foucault's thought, as though they had been directed to find the origin of his knowledge. Paradoxically, this urge is perhaps involuntary, for don't the peripheral objects of the conference ("literature and the arts") naturally take his thought back to its origins? Nonetheless, one thing is certain: the sobriety with which [End Page 77] the speakers approached his oeuvre is in sharp contrast to the abundant use of his concepts over the last two decades. From a practical or even strategic point of view, one can interpret this sobriety as a return to the sources that are essential to his reactualization in the art world of the 21st century. This would seem to justify the recalling of thinkers who formed his thought (Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot, etc.), the recollections of his first battles against phenomenology and existentialism, and the very primary reflections that today would not satisfy a Foucault specialist (such as one speaker's questioning of the possibility of mounting a philosophy against power that would not be a counter-power). If one has read his work, these rehashings and reflections seem banal and pointless--it has all been said already! On the other hand, they point out the numerous resonances in his work, particularly those that echo his early writings--often ignored because they did not cause a great stir or because of their fastidious literary style. Further, these returns to origins avoid the partitioning of his oeuvre into two or three periods--an arbitrary division that evades rigorous analysis of the coherence of his thought. They also allow for a moderate reprocessing of his thought, by focusing more on his principles than on his conceptual constructions, which have been awkwardly compared to tools.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Foucault's death; the dust has settled since his explosive exploits. Modestly, an archeology of his thought has been done. Haven't we thereby attempted to get close to the source of his thought? If so, will this intimate rapport enable the active rethinking of literature and the arts in the new century? Henceforth, will it be a recycling or a Renaissance of Foucault? Finally, regardless of the term, the reprocessing of his thought will doubtless give a certain attitude to contemporary thought.
Rather than compiling an exhaustive account of the colloquium, 1 I would like to summarize three papers that set forth decisive encounters in Foucault's intellectual itinerary. These encounters, which took place really...