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  • The Art of Life:Foucault's Reading of Baudelaire's "The Painter of Modern Life"
  • Corey McCall

In his essay "What Is Enlightenment?" Foucault compares the role of modernity in the work of the decadent Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire with that of the austere Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. He claims that the relationship between these two strange bedfellows can be found in the value each writer accords to the present in contrast to the past and future. Each writer claims, in his own style, that each individual must render his or her existence meaningful by cultivating what Foucault calls in this essay a philosophical ethos. This conception of the philosophical form of life forms the conceptual basis of Foucault's later work. I briefly interpret Foucault's discussion of Kant and Baudelaire in "What Is Enlightenment?" in order to begin to reconsider this idea of a philosophical ethos through a reading of Baudelaire's seminal essay in art criticism, "The Painter of Modern Life." From this initial ethical sense of life as self-fashioning, I turn next to the living body as the object of discipline (in Foucault) and custom (in Baudelaire) in the first section, before concluding with a consideration of life in its biological sense in the final section of the essay. I track these three senses of life in both Foucault's work and Baudelaire's "The Painter of Modern Life" and compare the philosophical significance of these three [End Page 138] conceptions of life in the work of Baudelaire and Foucault. In terms of the title of Baudelaire's essay, the first section focuses on the figure of the painter, while the second examines the concept of life.

My essay begins with a consideration of Foucault's "What Is Enlightenment?" essay of 1984 before considering of Baudelaire's essay, first from a Foucauldian perspective, and proceeds by reading certain concepts from this essay (Baudelaire's concept of life in particular) back onto Foucault's work. Rather than presenting biographical speculations on Foucault's motivations, I examine the philosophical relevance of the relationship between art, on the one hand, and life and its relationship to death, on the other, through a reading of Foucault's work alongside Baudelaire's essay.

Art, Ethics, and Politics: Modernity and Identity in Kant and Baudelaire

The fact that Foucault turned to the question concerning the role of the Enlightenment in European modernity and endorsed a version of it himself has long been a source of some consternation among Foucault scholars and Foucault critics alike.1 After all, Foucault's work is widely thought to epitomize anti-Enlightenment postmodern thought in France. While one can perhaps sympathize with such consternation on the part of Foucault's readers, one cannot endorse it. Foucault's approval of the Enlightenment and Kant's project in particular makes sense against the backdrop of the concerns Foucault was investigating in his other writings at the same time.2 Foucault summarizes these concerns under the rubric of the aesthetics of existence, or, as he puts it in "What Is Enlightenment?" a philosophical ethos. Rather than construing modernity in strictly temporal terms, Foucault construes it as a question of style, that is, aesthetically.3

My initial question concerns the role Baudelaire's essay "The Painter of Modern Life" played in Foucault's formulation of this idea. I will focus in this section on Foucault's brief essay from 1984, but I relate the concerns of this essay to several of Foucault's other texts at the conclusion of this article in order to begin to investigate the conceptual resonances between Foucault's treatment of Baudelaire's essay and ideas of self-fashioning and the aesthetics of existence animating Foucault's thought, especially during the final period of his work. [End Page 139]

As is well known, Foucault turns to Baudelaire's essay "The Painter of Modern Life" in order to provide an example of what he terms a philosophical ethos. In order to articulate a philosophical ethos, one must attempt to define oneself. In both Kant and Baudelaire, the term modernity comes to be understood as an ethical task of self-articulation, rather than simply a temporal designation. Foucault...


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