Foucault on Literature

Foucault on Literature

There has been a long and tedious arc to the posts that I have been writing the last few weeks regarding interpretation and the structuralist analysis of texts. What I have been trying to understand is one long and complex paragraph in “The Prose of the World,” the second chapter of Foucault’s The Order of Things. I finally feel prepared to try to take it apart.

It is possible to believe that one has attained the very essence of literature when one is no longer interrogating it at the level of what it says but only in its significant form: in doing so, one is limiting one’s view of language to its Classical status. (44)

The classical status of language is that of resemblance. This is analogous to what M.H. Abrams called “the mirror stage.” Jonathon Culler summarized the mirror stage in these terms:

The seductiveness of the mirror stage is its offer of totality and a vision of the self as a unified whole. What lies “beyond” the mirror stage is a loss of totality, the fragmentation of the body and the self—what Lacan calls the symbolic order. The child is born into the symbolic order in that he has a name which stands for him in the order of language and because he already figures in an oedipal triangle that lies beyond the binary order of reflection.

What seems clear is that representation, for Foucault and Culler, is not an essential part of literature. Hence, the evaluation of the level of correspondence between thought and expression is not the essence of “literature.” Structures can be evaluated on these terms, but the gaps of signification lie beyond the structures. In understanding aesthetics, structuralism seems to be severely limited. Foucault’s definition of the use of literature is telling:

In the modern age, literature is that which compensates for (and not that which confirms) the signifying function of language.

This appraisal drives a profound wedge between modern literature and history, rhetoric and politics. Without a confirmation that what is signified is authentic, there can be no real motive for action. Foucault accepts this gladly:

Through literature, the being of language shines once more on the frontiers of Western culture—and at its centre— for it is what has been most foreign to the culture since the sixteenth century; but it has also, since this same century, been at the very centre of what Western culture has overlain. (44)

This passage points to the idea of our literary mythology. This seems to be a correct observation to me. In a real sense, before the sixteenth century, literature was a codex of culture. It contained beliefs and social practices related in an oral fashion. It seems to me that with the advent of printing these cultural codes became fixed, and in being fixed they become arcane. And yet we have found it impossible to break away from those old codes in our behavior. The Greco-Roman model of conquest and enslavement still reigns supreme. Yet, for some reason I just don’t get, Foucault still seems to believe in literature.

This is why literature is appearing more and more as that which must be thought; but equally, for the same reason, as that which can never under any circumstance, be thought in accordance with a theory of signification. (44)

Foucault seems to undermine his own project when he declares this. His thesis ultimately reduces all of modern literature into a language of literature, and it is a language that cannot be analyzed but only appreciated in its futility.

Whether one analyses it from the point of view of what is signified (of what it is trying to say, of its “ideas”, or of what it promises or what it commits one to) or from the point of view of that which signifies (with the help of paradigms borrowed from linguistics or psychoanalysis) matters little: all that is purely incidental. In both cases one would be searching outside the ground in which, as regards our culture, it has never ceased for the last century and a half to come into being and imprint itself. Such modes of decipherment belong to the Classical situation of language—the situation that predominated during the seventeenth century, when the organization of signs became binary, and when signification was reflected in the form of the representation; for at that time literature really was composed of a signifying element and a signified content, so that it was proper to analyze it accordingly. (44)

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with this passage. I think what seems to be at stake is a sort of “literary impulse” which for Foucault and other modern critics is seen as strictly non-representational; hence, to apply representational types of analysis to “literature” is completely misdirected and incidental. However, it seems to me that the modes which Foucault neatly dismisses here are of great use in the analysis of purposeful discourse. All discourse is composed of signifying elements and signified content; I fail to see how one can draw such a firm distinction regarding literature without exiling it to the ghetto of the useless “art for arts sake” crap.

In a profound sense, Foucault is arguing against interpretation, but only in the case of literary discourse. I find it hard to accept this avoidance strategy. Walker Evans used it when he declared his photographs to be in a “documentary mode” rather than being documentary. By setting art outside of the society that produces it, the practitioners who declare themselves to be “artistic” want to avoid the rules of resemblance. And it seems we are so far from understanding those rules, let alone the rules of similitude. If literature is indeed at the center of our society, it seems that we must try to understand it rather than just view it as transcendent.

Degree zero, for Foucault, seems to be the absence of indication rather than the pure indication theorized by Barthes.

1 thought on “Foucault on Literature”

  1. I really enjoyed your piece…
    F’s trying to get away from idea that lit is exhausted in its interpretation – the nihilism that ‘reads through’ a text in order to core it and then toss it into the trash can. I think this is his (political) point: that the interpretation of ‘purposeful’ discourse is vicious. Art discourse, though, can’t be interpreted like this – as you point out via F, critical paradigms are never adequate to the text and always seem arbitrary: hence the ease of doing a marxist, freudian, deconstructive, foucauldian, feminist, humanist etc reading of the same text. Art discourse is purposeful but without purpose, as Kant said. It’s interpretatively unsettled and unsettling, the condition of possibility of thinking and rethinking and rethinking. It’s radically open, a provocation to interpretation that refuses definitive readings (ie the sacred – the dogmatic). F is, then, I think, reviving the political aspect of ‘art for art’s sake’ – which in Wilde, at least, is married to an ultra-left vision (The Soul of Man Under Socialism; The Decay of lying; The Critic as Artist). But because F gets caught up in the language of structuralism, I suspect the politics becomes obscured once again. It’s in Adorno, perhaps, that the Kant-Wilde formalism gets its clearest political expression – ‘Lyric Poetry in Society’…

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