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  • From Sovereignty to Ethopoiesis:Literature, Aesthetics, and New Forms of Life
  • Richard A. Garner

There is a dilemma: either all these books are already contained within the Word and they must be burned, or they are contradictory and, again, they must be burned.

Michel Foucault, "Language to Infinity" (100)

The consensus of culture has to be opposed by the courage of art in its barbaric truth.

Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (189)

If literature can be considered sovereign, it can only be in that singular, idiosyncratic conceptualization of sovereignty whose lineage can be traced to the work of Georges Bataille. "Only sacred, poetic words, limited to the level of impotent beauty, have retained the power to manifest full sovereignty," Bataille says, going on to equate sovereignty with a state of radical freedom (25). If literature is sovereign, it is because it insists on its autonomy from all other discourses, including interpretation. It is this vision of literature that is taken up at a certain moment in time—in a style where the concepts non-meaning, transgression, play, and sovereignty can all be linked together—by both Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Yet despite each one taking up and adopting this Bataillean association of literature and sovereignty, the different manner in which each does so (for Foucault, in "A Preface to Transgression," "Language to Infinity," and "The Thought of the Outside"; for Derrida, in "From Restricted to General Economy") is telling as to the divergent trajectories on which this path leads them. Whereas for Derrida this "poetic, ecstatic speech . . . this sovereign speech" presents the occasion for an extend philosophical meditation on Hegel and Aufhebung (261), for Foucault such figures as Hegel and Kant are immediately waylaid by history and the Marquis de Sade: "In the age of Kant and Hegel, at a time when the interiorization of the law of history and the world was being imperiously demanded by Western consciousness as never before, Sade never ceases speaking of the nakedness of desire as the lawless law of the world" ("Thought" 150). [End Page 86]

What this should indicate to us is that for Foucault this extended meditation on literature, and the sovereignty thereof, that occupies him in the 1960s is tied not to literature as some transhistorical object, but to literature as a strange and singular discourse that emerges at a particular historical moment; literature is, in the nomenclature of archaeology, a rarity: "the word is of recent date, as is also, in our culture, the isolation of a particular language whose peculiar mode of being is 'literary'" (Order 300; on "rarity," see Archaeology 118). This mutation in discourse emerges at the interstices of an epistemic shift, one which sees general grammar transmuted into philology; in the domain of language, as in the shift from natural history to biology and the analysis of wealth to political economy, "The threshold between Classicism and modernity . . . had been definitively crossed when words ceased to intersect with representations and to provide a spontaneous grid for the knowledge of things" (Order 304).

Literature, then, is a historically specific discourse. It breaks with the Classical schema of "genres as forms adapted to an order of representations" along with any other form of adequation; "detached from all . . . values," even in active "ludic denial of them," literature emerges in the interstices of "the discourse of ideas" and the emergent domain of philology (300). But toward what end? If social forms are immanent to their everyday practices, what problems does the practice of literature inhabit? In The Order of Things, Foucault offers a poetic reflection on literature whose enigma seems to be distilled into two answers: subjectivity and singularity. Literature "addresses itself to itself as a writing subjectivity" and "all its threads converge upon the finest of points—singular, instantaneous, and yet absolutely universal—upon the simple act of writing . . . where it has nothing to say but itself, nothing to do but shine in the brightness of its being" (300). These pronouncements take on an enigmatic quality, juxtaposed as they are to the concrete functions of specific discursive fields detailed throughout the rest of the book, and that quality conspires to make this passage come across as...


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