foucault “on literature”

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?



5 responses to “foucault “on literature”

  1. This post and the last one are really great. To answer your question here, I think a big part of it is the lingering legacy of Auerbach-style grand cultural-historical narratives, which are a fantastic way to display scholarly erudition and are somehow accessible to the broader humanities in a way that nose-to-the-archive arguments generally are not.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Greg,

    I agree that familiar, well-respected literary works make historical patterns intelligible in a way that straight archival materials almost never do. I think it has something to do with the fact that we can just bracket the problem of “representativeness”–who knows whether that this particular woman from Yorkshire represents a recognizable aspect of feminine experience in 1815, whereas readers will be immediately clued into a discussions of, say, Austen’s heroines. Historians love to use literary characters for these kinds of illustrative purposes, which is fine, I think. It seems more problematic to me when literary scholars do the same thing, because they build their referential arguments up on the basis of a single type of source material.

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,

    Welcome back! I also got too bogged down in the Spring to post much of anything.

    To make perhaps an overly obvious point: aren’t literary character supposed to be typical and thus invite you to make those associations? Most Restoration play, for example, are organized around ‘types’ (rake, fop, etc.) that invite you to think of them as representing a certain kind of person rambling around London or sitting next to you at the play. (I try to remember to warn students about this and to challenge them to see the nuances of these types in different plays.)

  4. Dave Mazella

    Hi Laura,

    Type-characters do indeed serve this purpose, since they reveal the recognizable social types of a particular historical moment, but the problem for me is that literary scholars treat the post-Restoration individuated, “realistic” characters of a Richardson or an Austen in a similar fashion. So I would say that the “typicality” of characters would vary depending on era and genre, don’t you think?

    This may be less a complaint about literature, than a complaint about trying to understand history by studying novels. But I think it’s a debate about the relations that can be drawn between literature and its social environment.

    I suppose this goes back to Susan Staves’s complaint about the overdependence of literary historians on fiction, when other nonfictional genres capture much more of the non-normative experience of, say, 18c women, than the novels do.

    To move it back to Foucault, it seems interesting that he felt it so necessary to pull away from what Greg calls the “Auerbach-style grand cultural-historical narrative,” which so many lit scholars would aspire to. It’s a form of anti-erudition to disarm his critics and their received narratives.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    I think one answer to the question about what is it about literary discourse that invites this kind of easy substitution is that the texts themselves extend the invitation. Even after the mid eighteenth century there is I think a claim that characters represent a type of person (although later of course characters become more particularized). That doesn’t mean that we should believe it and that doing so would not mislead (generalizing about women from Emma), but I think literary text work in part by inviting this elision.