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  • History and the Real: Foucault with Lacan
  • Charles Shepherdson

The entrance into world by beings is primal history [Urgeschichte] pure and simple. From this primal history a region of problems must be developed which we today are beginning to approach with greater clarity, the region of the mythic.

—Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic1

The Oedipus myth is an attempt to give epic form to the operation of a structure.

—Lacan, Television2

By the madness which interrupts it, a work of art opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself. —Foucault, Madness and Civilization 3 The historicity proper to philosophy is located and constituted in the transition, the dialogue between hyperbole and finite structure, between that which exceeds the totality and the closed totality, in the difference between history and historicity.

—Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness” 4


In spite of the difference between English and Continental philosophy, there is a link between Foucault and writers like Swift, as there was between Nietzsche and Paul Rée: “The first impulse to publish something of my hypotheses concerning the origin of morality,” Nietzsche says, “was given to me by a clear, tidy and shrewd—also precocious—little book in which I encountered for the first time an upside-down and perverse species of genealogical hypothesis, the genuinely Engl ish type . . . The Origin of the Moral Sensations; its author Dr. Paul Rée” (emphasis mine).5 Taking this upside-down and perverse English type as a starting point, let us begin with the strange tale by Jonathan Swift.6

At the end of Gulliver’s Travels, after returning from his exotic and rather unexpected voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms, where the horses are so wise and discourse so eloquently, while humans sit up in the trees throwing food at eac h other and defecating on themselves, our poor traveller goes back to his homeland, where he is so dislocated that he cannot even embrace his wife or laugh with his friends at the local pub (being “ready to faint at the very smell” of such a creature, tho ugh finally able “to treat him like an animal which had some little portion of reason”); and in this state of distress, he goes out to the stable and sits down with the horses, thinking that maybe he will calm down a bit, if only he can learn to whinny an d neigh.

In Swift, how is it that this voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos is not simply an amusing story about some ridiculous foreign land? How is it that this “topsy-turvy world,” this inverted world (die verkehrte Welt), where horses d isplay the highest virtue and humans are regarded with disgust because they are so filthy and inarticulate—how is it that this is not merely an amusing departure from reality, an entertaining fiction, but also a revelation of the fact that our own world, the world of reality, is itself inverted, already an absurd fiction, a place where human beings are already disgusting irrational filthy inarticulate and comical creatures, worthy only of satirical derision? How is it that the inverted image turns out t o reflect back upon the real one—that what begins as the very reverse of our normal world, an absurd, excessive, and foreign place, a world of science fiction, where madmen wander freely in the streets and objects in nature are inscribed with strange ins ignias, written on their surfaces by god, turns out to be both foreign and yet also a picture, both exotic and yet precisely a mirroring of our own world, by which we are brought to see ourselves?

This is a question of fiction and truth, but it is also a question of history, a question concerning genealogy. How is it that genealogy, which wanders around in what is most distant and unfamiliar—not the old world where we recognize ourselves, fi nding continuity with our ancestors, but a strange and unfamiliar land—turns out to be, at the same time, an account of our own world...

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