[The following was written for a seminar on French post-structuralism with Yue Zhuo at Yale. One of my favorite undergrad courses. At the time I was unaware of the famous Foucault/Derrida exchange about Descartes and the History of Madness, but I don't think the paper suffers for it.]
An Exploration of the Limits of Discourse in Foucault and Derrida
In reading the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, we are constantly faced with questions about discourse: How are our discourses structured? Where are they centered? How are they historically conditioned? What made possible the development of a certain mode of thinking about the world? Chief among the questions raised by both philosophers is: What lies at the limits of discourse and is there a space beyond? In the following paper I will attempt to give a detailed explanation of Foucault’s answer to this question, and then briefly compare it to Derrida’s. Ultimately we will see that while Foucault allows for a space beyond the limits of discourse, Derrida insists that everything must return within the playful closure of representation.
Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I is largely a reflection on the ways power serves to structure our understanding of things and things themselves, i.e., power is a primary organizational function, which establishes relations between things. Power is, first of all, “the multiplicity of force relations [italics mine] immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization” (Sexuality 92). It is also the process which transforms these force relations “through ceaseless struggles and confrontations,” as well as the compounding or contradiction of these relations with one another in order to create “a chain or system” or the reverse (92). Finally, power consists of the strategies in which these force relations take effect, i.e. the ways difference is deployed within the field of force-relations (e.g. through law, social norms, taboos, etc.). Foucault complements his definition of power with the clarification that power relations are not exterior to other types of relations — economic, social, legal, etc. — but are “immanent” in them, and in fact power relations are “the immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums which occur in the latter” (94). In short, Foucault defines power as the condition for the possibility of difference between individuals, groups, positions, possibilities, etc., as well as the processes and strategies through which that difference is enacted, transformed, and maintained.
Within his definition of power, Foucault has already opened up an incredibly rich network of possibilities for describing and explaining social (and anti-social) activities and structures of classification. It is important to realize, as Foucault points out, that power is not merely a matter of military-political coercion or the allocation of monetary resources. Power includes the whole field of differences: differences in knowledge, taxonomy, behavior, sex, speech, physical ability, and on and on. All of these take their place in the play of power relations. Chief among Foucault’s applications for the concept of power is the issue of taxonomy and discourse: How are our ways of describing and classifying phenomena related to the deployment of power? How is “power-knowledge” deployed? In order to answer these questions we will look at Foucault’s discussion of issue of the disclosure or “Truth” of sexuality and the development of sexual taxonomies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As part of his attack on the “repressive hypothesis”, Foucault attempts to show that, far from being hidden away in the Victorian era, it is primarily in the nineteenth century that sexuality is brought into discourse. Foucault sees the nineteenth century as a late stage in the long development of western “confessionalism”. Confessionalism is the impulse toward disclosing the “truth” of things. Foucault insists, contrary to the familiar adage from John’s gospel, “that truth is not by nature free—nor error servile—but that its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power” (Sexuality 60). Confession as a struggle to disclose truth is thus seen as directly related to power-knowledge. Much of Foucault’s work in The History of Sexuality involves exploring the power relations involved in the disclosure of sexuality. Foucault sees sexuality as an object of concern for the Victorian middle-class, and the attempt at disclosing the truth of sexuality (through its medicalization) as a way for the bourgeoisie to consolidate themselves by regulating social-sexual practices. However, at each new stage of disclosure the vocabulary of sexuality must be changed an expanded. For example, in the late middle ages the discourse of sexuality focused primarily on marriage, leaving sexual irregularities like sodomy poorly defined and treating the sexuality of children with “indifference” (37). On the other hand, by the late nineteenth century a whole taxonomy of irregular sexualities had been invented, stretching from “zoophiles and zooerasts” to “dyspareunist women” (43), and there was a great deal of interest in hysteria and child sexuality. Foucault highlights the transformation by pointing out that in the Middle Ages “the sodomite had been a temporary abberation; [while by the nineteenth century] the homosexual was now a species” (43). Thus the impulse to uncover the “truth” of sexuality and the “demand that it tell us the truth of its truth” (69) is a drive to create distinctions and differences within the field of sexuality and thus bring sexuality explicitly within the domain of power-knowledge. Perhaps Foucault’s greatest thesis in The History of Sexuality is:
“Sexuality [is not] a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or ... which knowledge tries gradually to uncover [but rather] a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse... the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.” (105-106)
The greater part of sexuality, for Foucault, has been invented within the past few centuries in the process of developing the taxonomies and assumptions through which we describe it, and it has been invented as part of a strategy for transforming the power relations within society.
If we turn away from The History of Sexuality and consider The Order of Things, we can see similar forces at work. Instead of focusing on the production of sexuality, The Order of Things attempts to uncover “how a culture experiences the propinquity of things, how it establishes the tabula of their relationships and the order by which they must be considered” (Order of Things xxiv). Here Foucault aims to express the implicit undercurrents through which the discourses of various periods of western history have been organized. As a consequence of what we have already said, the structure of any episteme (Foucault’s term for this implicit ordering of things) must be tied up with power, because through it we recognize the differences and inequities that constitute our world. This means that language itself, reason, and representation are all wrapped up in the structure, transformation, and maintenance of power relations. Since order and reason are essential ways of determining what is included within a given discourse, what can be said and what cannot, this means that the bounds of reason and the limits of discourse are also part of the field of power relations. This raises the question of how power-knowledge, discourse and order map on to silence and the space outside of discourse.
Foucault treats the issue of silence in two different ways, thus allowing for two different kinds of silence. First there is the silence of what is left unsaid; for example the everyday Victorian silence about sexuality. Here silence is clearly a part of power-knowledge because there is still consciousness of what is left unsaid. For example, with reference to child sexuality in the eighteenth century, Foucault says: “Not any less was said about it; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them, from a different point of view, in order to obtain different results” (Sexuality 27). He illustrates this point by describing the panopticon-like architecture of secondary schools and various rules about vigilant observation of solitary students. All of this helps to demonstrate that consciousness of child sexuality was in fact more intense at this period than before, even though it had seemingly fallen out of public discourse. Thus this silence can be seen more as a shift in the means through which a discourse is expressed than as “the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a clean boundary” (27). This naturally leads us to ask about the absolute limit of discourse and seek a second, more complete form of silence. Instead of a silence which has merely shifted expression from speech to other modes of discourse, we must find a silence which eludes the taxonomy of our knowledge structures, which stands outside of the order of things and transcends reason. Foucault finds the possibility of such a silence in madness.
Foucault’s History of Madness tracks the evolution of the western conception of madness from the late Middle Ages to the turn of the twentieth century. Madness is placed in a complex and unique relation to order, reason, and truth. In the late middle ages, the madman is exiled from the civic center and put to sea on the “ship of fools”. He stands outside the order of things and is represented in scenes of senselessness, misdirection, and destruction. Later, the madman is absorbed into the discourse of reason and seen as possessing special access to the truth of things. He is epitomized by the figures of the holy fool and the court jester, who, through their absurdity are able to express more sharply than anyone else the truths which lie at the basis of everything. This version of the madman, which predominated during the Renaissance and can be seen in works such as Erasmus’s Encomium Moriae, is described by Foucault as a way of subverting the wild terror of insanity and bringing it into reason: “Madness was no longer a dark power that threatened to undo the world ... it is caught up instead in the indefinite cycle that attaches it to reason; they deny and affirm each other” (Madness 32). Here madness and reason become interdependent: one cannot exist without the other. Eventually the Renaissance conception of madness gives way to the penalization and then medicalization of the insane. In this reconception, madness is given a new place. Rather than being the terminus of order or the absolute in view of which all reason is folly, madness becomes a form of sickness which is to be treated. In the middle ages, the madman was exiled from the order of the community as a symbol of chaos and apocalypse. In the renaissance he was idealized as a source of secret knowledge and unspeakable truths. In the enlightenment he was seen as a useless member of society who was guilty and was to be punished or confined so as to become productive. Finally, this sense of the madman’s guilt is coupled with the desire to reintroduce the madman into society at the turn of the nineteenth century to create the last major iteration of the madman; one who is guilty but is required to tell the truth of his insanity in order to be cured. In other words, the madman as “alienated”.
Here once again we return to the theme explored in The History of Sexuality: “the truth shall set you free.” At the hands of the proto-psychiatrists, Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke, the insane are seen as alienated from proper self-knowledge. In order to recover (i.e. to rejoin society and leave the asylum), the madman is required to submit to the imposed social order: “The city of reasonable men only welcomes him to the extent that he conforms to [an] anonymous type” (487). The requirement that inmates conform to social stereotypes as a part of the recovery of their identities places this new “cure” for madness firmly in the midst of the play of power relations. By telling the truth of his madness, the madman is forced to accept a new dimension of his supposed guilt. While formerly a marginalized figure kept at bay by the protective walls of the prison and left to his own devices, the madman is now taken from his cell and forced to speak. In this move, his exile is internalized once more. Though once he had been removed from populated areas entirely (via the “Ship of Fools”), and then later exiled within society by means of imprisonment, the madman is now physically let free, but “trapped in his own truth and thus exiled from it. A Stranger from himself. Alienated.” (Madness 516). The development of alienation introduces a new dialectic into the madman’s self-consciousness. Induced into the space of language, “wrapped in a language that was never exhausted... reflected in a game of contrasts and opposites, where man appeared in his madness as being other than himself” (527-8), the madman is perpetually drawn between the poles of identity and difference.
The play of identity and difference is quite complex. On one hand, “identity” is tied to the circle of language and the drive toward the madman’s re-entry into the dominant discourses and “reason” of the period. “Difference” evokes the absolute alterity of a madness which is without reason and stands outside of discourse. At the same time, it is only through difference that any discourse is possible, and the play of differences is the field of power relations. Thus the madman’s madness must transcend the dichotomies which usually frame structuralist conceptions of difference and must fall totally outside of language. At this point the question of freedom re-enters our discussion.
By liberating the insane, Pinel attempts to force them into the circle of language, much as the researchers of the nineteenth century brought sexuality into the circle of language. Both processes can be understood as strategies within the field of power-knowledge. Thus what Foucault says of sexuality can also be said of the psychology of alienation: that it is “a great surface network in which... the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, [and] the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.” (Sexuality 105-6). Additionally, just as the confessional impulse to have sexuality “speak the truth” (69) is not freeing sexuality but implicating it further in power-knowledge, the treatment of insanity as guilt and alienation which must be remedied through a confessional talking cure is similarly not liberating the insane but forcing madness into a paradoxical space at the limits of freedom and determinism. The madman is free in that he is no longer confined within his cell, but is also confined by the circle of language and the taxonomy of social types which he is forced to join. He is freed from criminality while being “locked into the rigorous mechanisms of a determinism” (Madness 514) without which he would also be guilty. A series of paradoxes surround the madman on all sides, and among these paradoxes psychology comes into existence to help madness disclose itself.
Psychology thus seems to have the last word, but it is not the end of Foucault’s account. Instead Foucault looks to the figures of Goya, Sade, Nietzsche, and Artaud for a madness beyond psychology. In these four figures, Foucault sees the image “not of the mad who were thrown into prison, but that of man cast into his own night” (531). In particular we think of Nietzsche, with his great pronouncement that “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” What does this mean for Foucault? In the absence of truth, there is an absence of discourse; discourse is closed off and difference eliminated. In this space without truth, power-knowledge cannot play a role. Nietzsche does not simply stand at the limit of discourse and look out upon madness; his work actively partakes of madness, thrusts itself into void of unreason and ultimately falls silent: “Madness is an absolute rupture of the oeuvre: it is the constitutive moment of an abolition... it delineates the outer limit, the line of its collapse, its outline against the void” (536). Here, beyond reason and the limits of discourse, Foucault finds “a new triumph for madness” (538) and ends his account.
While Foucault’s critical archaeology of the history of psychology is very systematic and structurally organized, the work of Jacques Derrida is based on a move against systematicity and toward the dismantling of structural frameworks. Derrida’s philosophy often seems endlessly complicated and frustrates all attempts at comprehensive interpretation. Hence what follows can only be seen as a provisional analysis of Derrida’s treatment of the limits of discourse.
For the comparison of Foucault and Derrida there is a convenient point of departure. Both show an interest in the work of Antonin Artaud. For Foucault, Artaud stands with Nietzsche as an individual who thrusts himself into the night of unreason. Derrida’s analysis is somewhat less accommodating. Derrida’s essay on “The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” in Writing and Difference analyzes Artaud’s conception of the “theatre of cruelty” as “not a representation ... [but] life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable” (WD 234). Derrida highlights several further characteristics of the theatre of cruelty. First, the theatre of cruelty excludes “all theatre of words” (243). The theatre of cruelty cannot be determined by speech; it cannot favor the spoken word, cannot be scripted. Thus the threatre of cruelty resists entry into language. Second, the theatre of cruelty is not the theatre of alienation. The audience is not meant to become conscious of its simultaneous presence and distance from the stage. Instead, the theatre of cruelty effectively dissolves the audience, so that “there is no longer spectator or spectacle, but festival” (244). The theatre of cruelty erases the difference through which the audience is able to exist. Third, the theatre of cruelty does not aim to communicate. It has no message to be repeated, but must itself in its absolute singularity and difference be incapable of reproduction and repetition: “Artaud wanted to erase repetition in general” (245). Instead of being communicative or representational, the theatre of cruelty must offer “pure presence,” which “can never be made the same way twice” (246).
What, then, is the theatre of cruelty? Derrida points out that in excluding all of the forms which the theatre of cruelty is not, we are forced to realize “that fidelity is impossible” (247), and the grammar Artaud proposed for the theatre of cruelty “will always remain the inaccessible limit of a representation which is not repetition, of a re-presentation which is full presence, which does not carry its double within itself as its death...” (248). As a theatre of presence, the theatre of cruelty is always already representational, because in doing away with the structures which necessitate repetition (God, Being, and the Dialectics), it eliminates the possibility of any point of origin. Without origin, presence “has always already begun to represent itself” (249). In the absence of the transcendental structures the theatre of cruelty, as nonrepresentational and noncommunicative, seeks to destroy, the very horizon against which nonrepresentationality was defined becomes porous. The horizon of representation, opened and limitless, thus envelops the theatre of cruelty once more in the play of representations.
Derrida’s discussion of the theatre of cruelty is clearly relevant to Foucault’s treatment of madness. We note that both the theatre of cruelty and the Nietzschean form of madness turn away from alienation and reject submission to “discourse”, whether in the form of prioritized speech or psychological confessionalism. However, for Derrida it is impossible to escape the enclosure of representation. The moment one steps outside the circle of representation, one must admit that the circle itself has been poorly defined and is permeable. A constant, playful exchange occurs between the “inside” and “outside” of representation which effectively destroys the distinction between the two.
If one cannot escape the closure of representation, how does one defy systematicity? Derrida provides an answer to this question in his essay “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve.” This essay attempts to apply Georges Bataille’s notion of “expenditure” to the Hegelian system. Expenditure is a sort of destruction without reserve which is derived from the Native American practice of “potlatch” in which one person expends a wealth of resources in the form of gifts or simple destruction merely to demonstrate his superiority and humiliate his rivals. Expenditure is “without reserve” because there is no simple utilitarian purpose for it. The expended resources are not recovered.
Derrida is looking for “the blind spot of Hegelianism” and he finds it at “the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so irreversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity... that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or a system” (WD 259). What is particularly significant for Derrida about Hegelianism is the Hegelian aufhebung, the negation which embraces and elevates so that no direct contradiction to the system can help but be absorbed by it. Derrida’s way of undoing Hegel and reinterpreting him against himself depends on the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty is a re-interpretation, a “doubling” (260) of the Hegelian concept of lordship. Hegel’s lordship comes into conflict with and then is absorbed by the figure of the bondsman, in accordance with the system. However, in Derrida’s re-reading of Hegel, the concept of “sovereignty” replaces lordship in such a way that it overflows the economy of lordship: “sovereignty provides the economy of reason with... its unlimiting boundaries of non-sense ... and makes it function within the sacrifice of meaning” (260-1). Sovereignty sacrifices meaning and “submerges discourse... through ... an irruption suddenly uncovering the limit of discourse and the beyond of absolute knowledge” (261). Furthermore, sovereignty is silent, and in its silence it is “foreign to difference as the source of signification” to the extent that it pushes itself toward “the experience of absolute difference... a difference which would no longer be ... in the service of presence, at work for (the) history (of meaning)” (263). Rather than Hegelian difference, through which History comes into relation with itself as Absolute Spirit, “a sovereign silence ... tolerates no relations” (264). It does not belong to the order of things.
As with the theatre of cruelty, Derrida’s description of sovereignty begs the question: What is sovereignty? His reply is unsurprising: “There is no sovereignty itself. Sovereignty dissolves the values of meaning, truth and a grasp-of-the-thing-itself... Sovereignty is the impossible, therefore it is not” (270). However, when we read sovereignty into Hegelianism, and the sliding of Hegel’s terminology “makes the entire old shell crack” (260), the system is not “simply overturned” (271), nor does sovereignty somehow “escape dialectics” (260). Instead, the system remains, but its horizons are transformed and opened up into a “general economy” which is without reserve. This general economy’s openness makes it impossible for the Hegelian aufhebung to perpetually reabsorb that which is negated. Hence there is no reserve, but rather an opening up of expenditure through the figure of sovereignty.
Sovereignty has clear relevance to Foucault. In its opposition to the closed system of meanings which constitute the Hegelian discourse, sovereignty resembles madness. However, the two are very different. While Madness stands on the other side of a boundary and represents absolute alterity, sovereignty works from within the system to transform it. In the silence of sovereignty we do not have a plunge into the night of insanity, but a silence which, through its expenditure, bursts the rigid boundaries of the system. The Madman cannot transform the order from which he is excluded. Instead it is against that order that the madman is perpetually be defined and re-understood. By contrast sovereignty is capable of enacting a subtle but fundamental shift in the structure of discourse and works from within.
The discussions of the limits of discourse in Derrida and Foucault overlap considerably. Both see in the limits of discourse an essential issue for coming to terms with western rationality. For Foucault, the limits of discourse open the possibility of a critique of psychology and a renewed look at the history of sexuality. For Derrida, the consideration of these limits shows the essential permeability and openness of any system of discourse. However, their conclusions are as different as their writing styles. For Derrida there is no escaping the field of discourse, but there is always the distortion and incompleteness inherent in our structures of speaking and understanding. We can summarize their differences by considering how each would describe Nietzsche. Derrida would think of Nietzsche as engaged in counter-readings of the western tradition and wrapped up in the play of meanings which eventually deconstructs western metaphysics. However, Foucault assigns him a much more serious role. For Foucault, Nietzsche is the figure within discourse and reason who willfully thrusts himself into the night of insanity and becomes exterior to the system. Nietzsche’s move into madness is a way of relating to knowledge-power which subverts the given orderings and reason of the period. Ultimately, their difference resides in the fact that Derrida does not allow for an absolute alterity which escapes discourse, while Foucault does.