- Language, Madness, and Desire: On Literature by Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault's legacy, whether reflected in popular culture, scholarly fashions such as the New Historicism, or his current representation in undergraduate and graduate classrooms, hinges on a few texts. For example, the influence of Discipline and Punish and "What is an Author?" give us the canonical version of Foucault: a thinker known for his carceral vision of disciplinary power and his critique of the (liberal-humanist) subject. Yet the unfortunate consequence of limiting Foucault's reception to a few masterworks is the marginalization of his early writing. A tendency to see his career in terms of a teleological development—moving from his essays on literature, monumental work on the history of madness, his structuralist phase, archaeological method, turn to genealogy, and final effort to recover "practices of the self"—might account for the truncated Foucault that routinely appears on introduction to literary theory syllabi. Luckily, recent scholarship has begun to correct the misleading dissemination of Foucault. The essays collected in Foucault/Derrida Fifty Years Later: The Futures of Genealogy, Deconstruction, and Politics (Columbia University Press) return us to The History of Madness and Foucault's important debate with Derrida while the recently published interview Speech Begins After Death (University of Minnesota Press) presents us with Foucault's thoughts on the writing process. It is in this context, what we might call the belated resurrection of the literary Foucault, that we find the current volume under review.
Language, Madness, and Desire: On Literature contains six texts—radio transcripts and several lectures—devoted to Foucault's thinking about literature. The volume's stated goal is to understand "Foucault's history as a reader [which] has yet to be fully explored" (vii) and the editors' concise introduction simultaneously contextualizes the importance of literature to the early Foucault while speculating on its changing function (or importance) for the development of his career. To this end, the six texts appear in three sections that also correspond to the titular words madness, language, [End Page 534] and desire. In the first section, "Language and Madness" we find two of the five radio broadcasts from 1963 that Foucault delivered on the topic of literature and the discourse of madness. In "Literature and Language," the second section, the editors reprint two lectures from 1964 entitled "What is Literature?" and "What is the Language of Literature?" Finally, the third section, "Lectures on Sade" includes two talks presented at SUNY Buffalo in 1970 on the divine marquis.
If the first section focuses on an exploration of the language of madness and the second aims to extract some definition of literary (and critical) language, then the third demonstrates Foucault's way of evaluating the repetitive nature of Sade's writing. It is in this third section, moreover, where we find the most sustained discussion of a single author contained in the volume. The succinct attempt to answer the question "Why Did Sade Write?" and the examination of the juxtaposition of Sade's "theoretical [or philosophical] discourses and erotic scenes" (115) show us Foucault's significance as a literary critic and theoretician. Even for scholars already familiar with his corpus, the lectures will appear as a necessary supplement to the commentary on Sade that concludes the first half of The Order of Things. However, the first two sections, on the language of madness and the question of literature, may seem to tell us less that we would call new. The radio transcripts on madness offer discussions of various length on Shakespeare, Cervantes, Diderot, Sade, Artaud, and lesser known writers like Michel Leiris and Jean Tardieu, but they mostly serve to recapitulate arguments presented in The History of Madness, especially its significant concluding chapter "The Anthropological Circle." While the radio transcripts may not go beyond the insight and argumentation of The History of Madness, they can be useful as pithy introductions for students daunted by the length and erudition of Foucault's first major publication...