One of the unexpected heroes of Cusset’s account of post-structuralism is Sylvere Lotringer, whose Semiotext(e) helped disseminate writers like Foucault and Baudrillard in inexpensive little editions that I remember being sold in book stores, museums, gift shops, and art galleries all over New York in the 1980s. Apparently those traveled quite far, and helped introduce these writers to the art school kids and gallerygoers of that era. One of the gems of this series was Foucault Live, which Cusset inspired me to return to, and there I found this interview from 1975, “On Literature.” I find this interview interesting because MF claims not to have much to say about literature, which, whenever it does appear in his works, serves only as a “point of rest, a halt, a blazon, a flag” (113).
It’s curious that Foucault, whose work has been so important for the literary criticism of the past 30 or 40 years, should talk in this manner about his own uses of literature:
It seems that traditionally literary or philosophical discourse has been made to function as a substitute or as a general envelope for all other discourses. Literature had to assume the value for all the rest. People have written histories of what was said in the 18th century by passing through Fontenelle, Voltaire, Diderot or the New Heloise, etc. Or else they have thought of these texts as the expression of something that in the end failed to be formulated on a more quotidien level.
In regard to this attitude, I passed from a state of uncertainty–citing literature where it was, without indicating its relationship with the rest–to a frankly negative position by trying to make all the non-literary or para-literary discourses that were actually constituted in a given period appear positively, and by excluding literature. In Discipline and Punish it’s a matter only of bad literature (114).
Having read this, I’m struck by how easy it is to use literature as a “substitute” or “general envelope for all other discourses,” especially in literary criticism. This seems the besetting sin, the reflexive blind spot for any literary scholar: the “historical contexts” we are so fond of referring to in our analyses turn out to consist of other works of literature. Foucault’s only solution to this substitution-effect is to stop quoting literary works altogether, so that he can work without that kind of mystification. But literary critics (including myself) have simply undone his exclusion, by restoring the literature to a book like Discipline and Punish.
So what is it about literary discourse that seems to invite this kind of easy substitution? Why should we feel, for example, that a reading of Jane Austen’s novels should give us insight into the lives and experiences of women and men in a particular historical moment? What encourages such an assumption? And is it utterly misguided to feel this way about the literary authors we enjoy?