Gospel of Jean Grey: Pulls out a God

Here is the second of an eight part series of poems titled “The Gospel of Jean Grey,” all shot at MINT Gallery in Atlanta, where I had a reading October 27, 2013.

towards an ethnography of the dead

tracing the ghost in Michel Foucault’s autoportrait as surprised anatomist

In an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, Michel Foucault reimagines his project of writing as one that slices into the dead body of other people.1 Only the corpses are not dead, and it is unclear who those people were. He says, “For me the sheet of paper may be the body of the other” (39). He says, “For me, writing means having to deal with the death of others, but it basically means having to deal with others to the extent that they’re already dead. In one sense, I’m speaking over the corpse of others” (40). The metaphor resonates with some autobiographical details Foucault divulges: his father, a surgeon, does not act through speech, but through an act of dissection, to “reach the silent truth of the body” (35); the son, a writer, acts only through a way of speaking which becomes also an act of dissection, but one undertaken only for a post-mortem diagnosis, a ferreting out a kernel of truth that finally became fatal.

Prominent Foucauldian Dana Scully exercising an archeology of knowledge.

Prominent Foucauldian Dana Scully exercising an archeology of knowledge.

Speaking over could also mean that he speaks the loudest in a chorus of the dead. This meaning becomes a stranger fantasy than one of the self-deprecating philosopher, assuming a creepy naïveté. Foucault continues his autoportrait, “I don’t condemn them to death. I simply assume they’re already dead. That’s why I’m so surprised when I hear them cry out” (41). These three sentences would be an excellent epigraph for a horror-adventure novel—words of a villain, an accidental necromancer, a mad scientist. The “they” could be anybody, made ambiguous by Foucault’s conversation: the immediate context suggests his readers (the antecedent seems to be the people in this sentence: “I also understand why people experience my writing as a form of aggression”), but the statements about the death of others, the corpse of others could indicate the lives buried in medical and penal archives, the writers who are quoted in his works (Linnaeus, Nietzsche, Descartes, etc.), or even the Man ushered forth in the modern episteme—the Man that is the subject and object of anthropology, psychoanalysis, medicine, and political economics. To consider Foucault as the one who speaks louder than corpses makes sense with the expanded “they”; after all, their voices are indeed subsumed within his writing. If he masters them there, through analysis and criticism, he has spoken over them. But mastering the subjects of his studies does not seem to be the point of Foucault’s writing.

These master surgeons often mistook the living for the dead.

These master surgeons often mistook the living for the dead.

In this metaphor, this becomes immediately salient. A master surgeon would most certainly not mistake the living for the dead. Here, Foucault may be employing meiosis: the surprise at hearing the croaking voice of the dead may be a euphemism for abject terror. If a master surgeon would, in fact, accidentally perform an autopsy on the living, he would face self-doubt, uncertainty, and a malpractice lawsuit. He would be incompetent. Meiosis, a figure of speech that understates, comes from the Greek μει, to reduce, and is a good description for Foucault’s strategy with his botched-autopsy metaphor: he diminishes himself, attempts to make himself seem less “aggressive,” less mean-spirited, less harsh. Meiosis is also the word for a process of cell division, specifically the one that produces gametes—in humans, sperm and egg cells. This process might be an interesting way to consider Foucault’s autoportrait. His incompetence as a surgeon is no less incisive for being naïve. The scalpel still cuts, and cuts deep. But instead of killing, it becomes an accidental resuscitation, the production of a voice from a place long thought mute. In short, the charred root of meaning.2

Foucault, the necromancer.

Foucault, the necromancer.

Enter Foucault the necromancer, the conjurer, the modern-day Prometheus. One could say that his insistent use of the archive, the way he is clearly haunted by “these lowly lives reduced to ashes in the few sentences that struck them down,”3 is a way of resurrecting those history has excluded. The sodomites and madmen and hysterics. The poor locked up at the Hôpital-Général alongside syphilitics. The nameless ones buried underneath the names scribbled in the penal ledger. It is clear that Foucault is haunted, that his writing is the result of striving to understand the divisions people made which enabled us to know ourselves as subjects, to understand the great cost of this knowing. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault re-presents the horrific destruction of the living body of Robert-François Damiens, the last would-be-regicide to be drawn-and-quartered. In “Lives of Infamous Men,” we do not receive the spectacular gore of Damiens, but the muffled voices of minor people suffocated by the velvet pillow of administrative reportage. For us to be suspicious of the meiosis of death in modernity, we have to hear the eldritch voices of the lost. Foucault, in one sense, wanted to stab these dead until they cried out, in order to show us what it means to be alive. This is a productive and reproductive autopsy.

Here is what Foucault describes as the charred root of meaning in History of Madness:

The plenitude of history is only possible in the space, both empty and peopled at the same time, of all the words without language that appear to anyone who lends an ear, as a dull sound from beneath history, the obstinate murmur of a language talking to itself—without any speaking subject and without an interlocutor, wrapped up in itself, with a lump in its throat, collapsing before it ever reaches any formulation and returning without a fuss to the silence that it never shook off. The charred root of meaning.4

In this passage, Foucault imagines the fullness of history as a place that seems empty but is not. It exists on a dimension unintelligible to us, and we can only become suspicious that it exists by the subaudible sound of strange cries, sounds that come from dead mouths. This sound, these ghosts, Foucault tells us, will not go away. In fact, these are obstinate ghosts: ones that refuse to go away, to be exorcised, to be silenced by small deaths. They exist on the precipice of strong emotion, the lump in the throat that precedes crying.5 The emotion itself is marked by tension: sympathetic response versus parasympathetic response, an intensity that collapses without a complaint, becoming swallowed in an obstinate silence. It is a feckless gesture, and yet, it still resonates, vibrating the very foundation of history. This murmur is not something that can be known, only gestured toward, only cared for.

Penny Dreadful, a new comedy on Showtime about the medical career of Michel Foucault, tells the story of a crew of ethnographers who get into all sorts of hijinks.

Penny Dreadful, a new comedy on Showtime about the medical career of Michel Foucault, tells the story of a crew of ethnographers who get into all sorts of hijinks.

You can see this care in the way Foucault tells his little story about the surprised, incompetent anatomist. Although the three sentences I wrote about above may be read darkly (Foucault as monstrous mortician), there is also the hint of a smile within these lines. He continues his autoportrait by giving this metaphor more texture:

I’m as astonished as the anatomist who becomes suddenly aware that the man on whom he was intending to demonstrate has woken up beneath his scalpel. Suddenly his eyes open, his mouth starts to scream, his body twists, and the anatomist expresses his shock: “Hey, he wasn’t dead!” (41).

You can see here the telltale signs that this is a sort of joke. Foucault characterizes the anatomist as a clueless professor in the theater of medicine, astonished that the loaner cadaver he used to show students where a spleen might be and what it looks like has something to say about this tidy operation. Then Foucault draws out the description before the punch-line, adding the gross corporeality of what a few lines back might have been simply a metaphor: we get sinew and the tightening of the face into a scream. We get undead eyes popping open. And then, instead of the obvious human reaction in the face of unexpected resurrection, the anatomist expresses his shock with a casual, bemused comment (“Hey!”). The site of unholy life returning to a body of formaldehyde and rot becomes a farce, something stuffed with silliness, a type of sketch comedy mixed with body humor.

Pink Floyd riffs on Foucault’s concept of “Hey,” elaborating it to their concept “Hey, you.”

This is not to say that these ghosts do not represent a tragic loss, snuffed out by sovereign punishment in older times and by statistics in the modern era. They are tragic. But this tragedy is tinged with a comedy of human error. You see moments of Foucault’s macabre sense of humor in his writing, but especially in his speech acts: the reading aloud of the absurd criminal profiles at the beginning of the Abnormal lectures, his jokes in his speeches and interviews, and here, where Foucault makes fun of himself, places himself alongside the overconfident criminal psychologists whose testimony led to executions. The only difference—and this is an important difference—is that he does not condemn people to death, he merely assumes they are already dead. In other words, his writing, his analysis, his turn in the game of truth has not resulted in beheadings, imprisonment, or exclusion. Rather, his writing becomes a way for him to laugh in the face of death, to incite us to laugh alongside him, to perhaps give us the tools to change the discourse that does condemn and sentence to death.

Near the end of Speech Begins after Death Foucault offers the following theorem of writing:

To write is to position oneself in that distance that separates us from death and from what is dead. At the same time, this is where death unfolds in its truth, not in its hidden, secret truth, not in the truth of what it’s been, but in the truth that separates us from it and means that we’re not dead, that I’m not dead at the moment I’m writing about those dead things. (74)

Perhaps this passage will point us toward the first “they” that he assumes is dead, the one of the antecedent, his readers. To assume that his readers are dead is a stranger action than summoning up the ghosts of the archives. The very concept of ghosts and of their potential, if accidental,6 resurrection rests solely on the presumption of their death. It might be macabre and fantastical to imagine ghosts of victims of a juridico-linguistic power relationships, but it is not unreasonable. It is hard to even begin reconstructing an image of writing books the dead will read, only to surprise you later by responding. By opposing truth to death instead of life to death, Foucault complicates the very nature of what death might mean. To write, here, becomes an act of making a stand against death, not in the sense of living on immortality in print, but in the sense of condensing a life into a truth-claim that declares itself not dead. It is to freeze the self in the act of warding off death. It is to distance this truth of the self (the truth of the self as not being dead) from others before the self collapses back (without a fuss) into the silence of others. In short, it is to imagine that everyone else is dead.

Michel Foucault, last person standing.

Michel Foucault, last person standing.

It is also to try to erase the self in that distance, to make one’s life unknowable and uncapturable, because once we capture it, once we know it, we kill it. We cut through the speech of others, excise the truth of their bodies without which they cannot live. We exercise the discursive and nondiscursive power of biopower, which can allow or disallow life and death. By placing one’s self in this third space (truth) instead of life or death, Foucault tries to escape back to the shadows where he can expose “the atmosphere, the transparency that separates us from them and, at the same time, binds us to them and enables us to talk about them” (73). By articulating this space, he makes the familiar unfamiliar, or more accurately, uncanny—the horror of the reanimated corpse, foreignness and recognition that we have when we hear our own voice recorded and played back for us, the past that was never as close to us as we imagined it. This articulation has an ethical imperative: to give in to death in all its unknowability, to maximize it—not to glorify it or to see it better or to make us maudlin with regret or to sacralize it, but to allow us to recognize its mystery and humble us who had pretenses of knowing it, devaluing it, transforming it from the limit-experience that it is to scatter plots and the sanitized halls of hospitals and geriatric centers, forgetting our own culpability in its deployment.

Perhaps this reading of Foucault’s methodology as defamiliarization of both object and audience may explain his description of his interest in the past as an interest in “the history of the present.”7 The past, in its grisly distance, becomes the obstinate ghosts that form our present. Foucault, the diagnostician, seeks to find what poison led to our ghosting, does so in making us only as distant as a corpse. Without the defamiliarization, his diagnoses would be impossible because there would be too much urgency to know, to slice away, to render silent the complaint. The strange thing, though, is that in this serene autopsy (done, no doubt, by the last medical examiner on earth), the old vocal chords pick up the resonance of the murmur. And it is in that recursive moment, the echoes descending back into the body, that Foucault begins to feel out the “seat of pain, that something that has characterized their life, their thought, and which, in its negativity, has finally organized everything they’ve been” (41). Then, the astonishment—a word from Latin extonare, to strike with thunder. To be jolted, in a strange reversal of defibrillation wherein the doctor is the one who feels the course of electricity through his body while the patient cries out.

Sometimes, getting struck by lightning can turn you into a superhero.

Sometimes, getting struck by lightning can turn you into a superhero.

This jolt—of recognition, of revelation—is the jolt one receives when writing, as Foucault does, with a sense of wonder. It is the jolt that pushes the writer into feeling, to rest with the lump in the throat, a state that creates the possibility of taking care—of worrying over, of protecting, of treating. In the same interview, Foucault says, “I only discover what I have to show in the actual movement of writing, as if writing specifically meant diagnosing what I had wanted to say at the very moment I begin to write” (46). This type of writing is different than a writing that seeks to expound, to offer a programmatic way of knowing the world, to categorize, and to prove a point. Foucault’s historical method based on uncovering the accidents of the past, of seeking out those moments that have left their specter among us, of surrendering to the passion of imagining the lives whose murmurs still resound in the archive—this method is his diagnosis, the rendering visible a problem that we live with in its invisibility, a problem that can then be cared for. This type of writing requires an openness to transformation and tenderness.

Although tenderness is a term rarely used to describe Foucault’s work,8 it seems to me to be a crucial element of his method. This is evident from History of Madness where the project of the book is to hint toward the silent suffering of the people history failed, those ghosts of lepers and sleepers and delinquents and lunatics. Tenderness is also evident in his critique of the various dispositifs of biopower, as he suggests that while the balance between repressive and productive power has shifted toward a bloodless productive power that shapes our lives, gives us identities, allows us to master the things that would have once expelled us from society, it also comes at a cost: causing us to believe we have mastered ourselves through knowledge, limiting and pathologizing difference, sanitizing the richness of experience, championing normal distributions, regulating pleasure, replacing punishment of actions with the punishment of identities, and, at its worst, eugenics and nuclear war and genocide. He helps us recognize that though we believe that the ideals of the Enlightenment have made for a gentler, more rational society, they have also masked the fact that the old repressions have not been eradicated, only transformed. In Foucault’s autoportrait as necromantic mortician, I find a different kind of compassion, of tenderness, one that colors the rest of his oeuvre.

In Speech Begins after Death, Foucault’s explanation for his writing could be called an ethnography of the dead. I use the term ethnography because at the base, Foucault’s object of study is people, modern Western subjects, those he assumes are already dead when he begins his inquiry, and the way he studies is through the writing of them. It is an ethnography of the dead because this ethnography is a horror show: corpses speaking, the ghosts of the mad murmuring in libraries and hospitals, the readers, too, all assumed dead. But in this ethnography, Foucault inaugurates a tenderness built from a longing to be dissolved into an act of communication, a gesture of speech that transcends the border between death and truth. When speaking of his experience of writing, Foucault says, “For me, writing is an extremely gentle activity, hushed. I get the impression of velvet when I write” (38). Curiously, this velvety writing “continues to haunt [his] writing project” (38). The gentleness Foucault writes with haunts him because he writes over the corpse of others, because he’s condensed that body into the small rectangle of paper. It is an affectionate gesture of a person respecting the delicate composition of the broken body of an other, the touch of a doctor, mourning the loss of the patient who can no longer speak but whose dissection may be able to save others. It is an exploration of a body, of a present perpetually haunted, of a people who will always be with us—despite their shortcomings—and who might someday cry out once more.

  1. Michel Foucault, Speech Begins after Death, ed. Philippe Artières (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Parenthetical citations refer to this edition. []
  2. A phrase from History of Madness, which I will discuss on the following page. []
  3. Michel Foucault, Power, ed. James D. Faubion, Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (New York: New Press, 2000), 158. []
  4. History of Madness, ed. Jean Khalfa and Jonathan Paul Murphy (New York: Routledge, 2006), 521. []
  5. Science, by the way, leaves no mystery to the shadows: apparently this lump is caused by the body attempting to close the throat to prevent choking in case the body needs to mobilize to avoid danger and the attempting to open the airways to recuperate from stress. In other words, the sympathetic (the system that activates response to danger) and the parasympathetic (the system that attempts to reduce activity to recover from stress) are at odds with one another. My source for this, unsurprisingly, is a website called “MadSci.com,” hosted by Washington University Medical School, the same university that also hosted Masters and Johnson’s studies of biological sexuality in the late 1950s. Michael Onken to MadSci Network, February 16, 1997, http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/1997-03/855114309.An.r.html. []
  6. Foucault is not trying to bring anything back from the dead: “I’m not at all interested in the past to try to bring it back to life but because it’s dead. There’s no teleology of resurrection there, but rather the realization that the past is dead” (44). Rather, he analyzes the dead, but turns out they are not exactly dead, but, perhaps, undead. []
  7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 31. []
  8. For a notable exception, see Lynne Huffer, Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 277—78. []

Civilizations without Boats

a heterogeography of chauvin, Louisiana

research proposal, Spring 2014, Institute of the Liberal Arts, Emory University

These are the facts of Chauvin, Louisiana: a small, coastal town, populated by refugees from the Acadian diaspora; a place where men are trawlers, roustabouts, and roughnecks, and the women wives, cashiers; a hurricane disaster plain; shore-zero for oil spills; a French community that morphed into an illiterate American one; a repository for the old songs, two-steps, and trickster tales from a beautiful, impossible past; a population uneducated on behalf of the state, a still-spooky Catholicism, and technological maladjustment. And yet, facts are not enough.

This project intends to map the impossible places in Chauvin. Foucault used the term “heterotopia” to mean micro-utopia that collapse time, space, official narratives, bodily intensity, and imagination. He called the boat “a heterotopia par excellence.”1 As the story goes, each year during the blessing of the fleet, there are fewer boats than before. One can point to this as evidence of a decline: people are abandoning traditional culture and labor, assimilating, selling out. And yet, perhaps in a civilization without boats, the imaginative energy that burrows out a heterotopia finds its expression elsewhere: in unfixed moments when, briefly, some fantasy might corral a few people together, create an intensity for a single person: on the fairgrounds where people listen to a Cajun French heavy metal band, eating jambalaya by the fistful; the tour of an Our Lady of Fatima statue in living rooms; the outlaw poker run for charity that turns into a fishing trip; the outsider grad student lurking in the library, hoping someone old might talk to her.

I want to study these people’s imaginative lives in order to understand how the people of a small, precarious town imagine themselves as belonging to something, how they manage paradoxical fantasies and stories, what populates their dreams and where it comes from. I want to understand how they might intervene in their own mythmaking.
keep reading

  1. Michel Foucault, “Les hétérotopies,” (French Radio Feature, 1966). []

let’s whisper our diagnoses and start a science

a close reading of a nearly mystical passage at the end of History of Madness
Foucault was looking at this very image while writing the above words.

Foucault was looking at this very image while writing the following words.

Man and madmen are perhaps more closely linked in the modern world than they could ever have been in the powerful animal metamorphoses illuminated by the burning mills of Bosch: they are joined by the impalpable link of a reciprocal and incompatible truth; they murmur to each other this truth of their essence, which evaporates from having been said by one to the other. Each light is extinguished by the light that it has brought into being, and is thereby returned to the light that it tore, yet which had summoned it, and which it had so cruelly exposed. Today, the only truth that men possess is the enigma of the mad that they both are and are not; each madman both does and does not carry within him this truth about man, which he bares in the fall of his humanity.1

L’homme et le fou sont liés dans le monde moderne plus solidement peut-être qui’ils n’avaient pu l’être dans les puissantes métamorphoses animales qu’éclairaient jadis les moulins incendiés de Bosch : ils sont liés par ce lien impalpable d’une vérité réciproque et incompatible; ils se disent l’un à l’autre cette vérité de leur essence qui disparaît d’avoir été dite à l’un par l’autre. Chaque lumière s’éteint du jour qu’elle a fait naître et se trouve par là rendue à cette nuit qu’elle déchirait, qui l’avait appelée pourtant, et que, si cruellement, elle manifestait. L’homme, de nos jours, n’a de vérité que dans l’énigme du fou qu’il est et n’est pas; chaque fou porte et ne porte pas en lui cette vérité de l’homme qu’il met à nu dans la retombée de son humanité.2

This passage comes at the climax of History of Madness, wherein Michel Foucault turns his archeology of madness to the human sciences: (the medicalization of, the giving voice to) madness becomes the condition that makes possible for Man to become the subject and object of anthropological study, to become the bearer of a truth that resides in the psyche of the self, a truth that can be excavated and analyzed by sociologists and psychologists. This brief context—which is only a sliver of Foucault’s archival digging—should give his suggestion that man and madmen are more closely linked its drama. While the giant toads and chimerical incarnations in Bosch’s paintings are monstrous, unnatural, and terrifying in the meticulous forms fixed in oil and pigment, they are the kind of eldritch horrors that reside within us, the kind of little devils that live in our own sinew. The painting with the mills on fire, for instance, refers to a triptych called The Temptation of Saint Anthony, wherein the desert father has basically a carnival from Hell attempt to lead him astray, and this carnival, in its didactic role as an altar piece, clearly makes certain vices into a vision of demons feasting on people. In short, the point of Bosch (for Foucault) was that these monsters were in us from the beginning, that the human person tends towards all sorts of brutal tendencies that reveal the undead splendor of the infernal and the untamed chaos of nature.3

That equation of our own weak humanity with monstrous forms was not nearly as tight as the bond between Man and the mad as exists in modernity.

    Michel Foucault, author of History of Madness, about to enjoy some delightful udon soup after a taxing day considering the birth of the modern subject.

Michel Foucault, author of History of Madness, about to enjoy some delightful udon soup after a taxing day considering the birth of the modern subject.

And the word bond is not quite sufficient to characterize what this relationship is either. Although the English translation by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa uses “link”—a word that nicely echoes the “impalpable link” in the next line or so—Foucault’s word choice is “lier.” What is lost in the passage from French to English is a richness of connotation: both the literal meanings of lier and its use in idiomatic French speech. Specifically, Foucault puns on the phrase “être fou à lier,” which means to be raving mad, literally to be mad (enough) to be tied down. Lier, here “to link,” does not only (or primarily) carry the connotation of linking ideas together; rather, it is the same verb one would use to describe what a nineteenth century doctor would do to a frenzied inmate or a convulsive: to tie them up, to bind them.4 A word-for-word translation of the first line would be “Man and madman are tied in the modern world more securely than perhaps…” The use of the adverb “solidement” (solidly, securely) further extends this metaphor, which now sees the mad and the not-mad tied together, firmly, constrained to be connected to one another—not merely by theme, but by body.

It is after the colon that Foucault shifts from the realm of the body to the realm of discourse and genealogy. Continuing to use the word lier, he now adds “lien,” the link to this passage. Lien, obviously cognate with lier (specifically from the third-person plural form, lient, which is nevertheless not pronounced like lien), does mean primarily relationship, though it pulls together imaginative and logical links (between thematic connections), textual links (as the word for hyperlink, as in English), physical links (like in a chain), and genealogical links (family ties). This link, the one between man and madman, is impalpable, something that cannot be felt, something intangible. Despite its ethereal nature, this link must be something whose force is still strong enough to chain together the fates of man and the mad. But what could it mean for a link to be so strong and not be felt, especially a link that had at its origins some kind of material reality located in the body of the person? Impalpable is the negation of the palpable, from the Latin palpitare (to touch gently), a word that is the origin word for another “delightful” 19th century medical terms: palpitation—the trembling of the heart aflutter, the prodding of the doctor towards the wombs of his hysterics, the convulsions of everyone thrown in the asylum.

A few denizens of the Salpêtrière, a little over century before Foucault died there.

A few denizens of the Salpêtrière, a little over century before Foucault died there.

This impalpable link is of a “reciprocal and incompatible truth.” It is the flow of a truth from Man to the mad and back again, and, with each circuit, the truth of Man is not the right truth for the mad and (definitely) vice-versa. It is a truth that is ephemeral (impalpable, if you will). A truth that evaporates like some liquid solvent—the ether for cleansing the tools of trepanation?—is something that becomes transmitted across the impalpable link. Foucault alludes here to his argument that the medicalization of madness gives madness a voice with which it can communicate with the world of reason (in fact, banishing the unreason that came before). The original French does not use evaporate, instead choosing “disparaître,” to disappear. But the translation stays close to the “spirit” of the passage, which plays off of the double meaning within “essence,” a word that is commonly used in French to refer to gasoline in addition to the core reality of a thing found in ontology. Essence in French also refers to a type of a thing, a definition that puts the sentences murmured (“se disent” in the original: to say to oneself, to claim) back and forth between the mad and the not-mad in a different light. I can almost imagine the archetypal Man and the archetypal Madman, uttering their diagnoses at one another, claiming their DSM-IV categories, listing the ways in which they utterly fit the criteria for some pathology or another. And then the telling itself exorcises those categories, undoes the existential underpinnings of the rupture between madness and non-madness—or at least makes those categories, those essential truths of categorically different selves disappear (only to reappear later).

The next sentence in the English translation is marked by the mystical language of a parthenogenic light. When I first read it, my first thought was the phrase in the Nicene Creed used by Roman Catholics, referring to Jesus: “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father; through him all things were made.” Foucault inverts this formulation: it is both a light-from-light situation and a situation where the original light snuffs out the begotten one. In the preceding few sentences, Foucault had established the figure of Man (and the truth contained in that category) as the metaphorical light.5 Light here references both the positive pole of the obvious good/evil, white/black binary and the light of the Enlightenment: the light of rationality and visibility that rid the world of its superstitions, ignorance, theatre, and madness. The problem of madness post-Enlightenment was that of the counterpart, the darkness, the night-time mysteries that retain the old-world flair of the supernatural. Foucault challenges this easy scheme, placing the rational Man and the madman in the same category of light. Although Murphy and Khalfa’s translation creates this lovely parody of the Catholic confession of faith, Foucault’s words less closely mirror the lumen de lúmine section of the creed. In fact, the phrase in English would actually translate to “Each light is extinguished by the day it gave birth to and finds itself returned to the night it tore apart” (my italics). Here, the logic is slightly different: the light (truth, or specifically, the truth of the essence) is extinguished by the day (reason), a day created by that light, and returns to the night (unreason), which the light had destroyed.



I would suggest, however, that though it seems like there is a major word-level translation error here, the English does point toward some of the same interpretations that the original does. For one, there is still the strange doubling, the double-birth (recalling another god of sacrifice—Dionysus, the twice born, who drove his followers to stark madness).6 The light creates the day, the light of some kernel of awareness that could only exist as consubstantial with the day. And this light, encountering the impossibility of itself as a truth spoken by and through the figure of the mad, extinguishes the day, which it had created. It is tossed back to the night, a tossing back that destroys the night, for the emergence of light at night-time is the end of night—either as the great light called dawn that breaks the darkness or a light that clarifies that which can be hidden (and therefore imagined to exist) at night. Furthermore, the light had already thrown itself into this night, exposing the shadows and the possibility of magic in the shadows to be nothing more than fantasy, to be just the fears of an ignorant species who needed a helping of light to see that everything is a function of biology and economics and history. This is the cruelness Foucault speaks of: the light of rationality snuffing out an imagination borne from the impossibility to know, from a titillating uncertainty.

But at the same time, this light of reason is also what has conjured up the night of madness in the first place. It is unclear in the English translation whether the summoning was done by the original light (the subject of the sentence: “Each light…”) or the ruptured light/night. It is also ambiguous in the French (“qui l’avait appelée pourtant”), though following the trail of antecedents implies it is the light of reason, the little truths murmured by man and the mad to one another, that does the summoning. This reading seems to be more in line with the trajectory of Foucault’s genealogy: that in the classical age, a distinction between reason and unreason gave way to one between reason and madness. It was only possible to consider oneself reasonable by not being mad, and this naming of a sudden presentation within the scalar field of unreason was what enabled a shift in inquiry toward the truth within man. What was “exposed” (“manifestait”) were the divisions of behavior into symptoms, symptoms that arose from a natural order written by doctors and philosophers, symptoms that were no longer (at least not quite) marks of sinfulness, criminality, or even a separate (unreasonable) way of seeing the world. The exposition was that, for the mad, nothing spooky was going on, only traits that were not normal. These traits were put under the knife, in laboratories and on analytic couches, scrutinized under the harsh light of reason. Under this light, no one found anything that could not be accounted for.

A common procedure during the Age of Enlightenment.

A common procedure during the Age of Enlightenment.

Concerning the genealogy expressed in this sentence, we are brought back to the genealogy of gods. “Brought into being” and “fait naître” can both be translated as “to beget.” The light that is extinguished by what (another light or day) it has brought into being is not the progenitor of the light of the Enlightenment or the day of the “freeing” of the mad or the system of study wherein Man is the subject and object of his own research. It is an impossible origin, one that makes possible this new episteme and exists alongside it, can be extinguished by it, and can yet be found (“se trouve”) in another realm. As ephemeral as it is, this light cannot be destroyed. In the previous sentence, the verbs “evaporate” or “disparaît” tell us as much. Neither verb marks a destruction, but a change in state. When water evaporates, it becomes vapor and carries the potential threat of coalescing back into liquid, to create a mist or storm. To disappear has nothing to do with not being somewhere, but to not appear to be somewhere. Likewise, this light is snuffed out in its relationship to the day it brought forth. Another theological term is useful here: perichoresis or circuminsession. Perichoresis is a possible candidate to explain the unreason of the triune god of Catholicism: each person (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) is interpenetrated by each other, they are enveloped. The expression of God as Father, for instance, contains within it the full expression of the godhead as Son or Spirit. This envelopment has also been applied to the relationship between God and Man, wherein the Holy Spirit indwells within the body.7 Unsurprisingly, another use of the word indwelling is in medicine, referring most often to catheterization—to fix something inside the body of a patient for a long period of time (the imperfect tense for an injection).

Following this path, the next sentence, where truth (the light, essential knowledge, etc.) is something to be found inside the person, is a bit less murky. Man contains within him the ghost of madness, and to be mad is a condition that also contains the ghost of reason. The mad are paradoxical because they still do represent that night of unreason, but then again, they do not. They are part of the natural order; they have these symptoms that cause them to be abnormal, to be unpredictable, to be chaotic. This chaos is enveloped by the totality of nature as it understood by positivistic scientists, charted out on the edges of normal curves. Their reliance on probabilities, on language, on the rightness of classification models defangs madness, gives the mad some terms they can use to describe their affects. But Man now is called into question as the origin of truth, the sovereign wielder of the cogito, of the capacity to critique and self-critique. It is only by sloughing off the nagging concerns that one might be crazy can one develop a theory of rational truth. This banishing (the opposite of summoning) of madness within the human subject allows him to access himself as a fount of truth. From the thigh of madness, he enters life by a double door.8

A rare medical diagram depicting "thigh birth."

A rare medical diagram depicting “thigh birth.”

This double door is the dual states of being a person must undergo—being both mad and not mad, the bearer of truth and not the bearer of truth—to be able to function as excavation site of truth. The madman, the tragic and shifting hero of History of Madness, “bares” this enigmatic passage to truth. In the French, it is “met à nu,” to undress, to strip, literally to put on nudity (instead of clothes). Both verbs have a bodily dimension, to uncover, to be naked. To bare all. To strip. The mad, then, strip off their straightjackets, wipe away their lithium grins. They show that beneath their clothes is their body (like ours), which itself is the fleshy source of our truth—the truth of Man—and this body shows itself as the site of enigmatic truth in the moment its humanity falls. Foucault could have used tomber, to fall, to express this fall, but he chose instead “retomber,” which also means to fall in the sense of waning (the fall of Rome) but has the added dimension of falling again. This process of shedding all to uncover the body of a paradoxical truth (a reciprocal and incompatible truth, preferably whispered) is a cyclical, Sisyphean fall: one that happens again and again and again. It is a fall because the special quality of being the body of truth makes the self alien. The self becomes too precious, too analyzable, too orderly. It falls because the moment of truth is marked by the banishing of unreason from the equation first and banishing madness into treatable symptoms at last. It is a fall because falling is the only way for it to rise again, playing the game of ephemerality and murmurs, disappearing and reappearing, and changing shape. It is a fall because the only way we can get to this truth is by deciding that truth is something that can be found and can be found in us. This last fall begins a process of creating and distinguishing the possible outcomes of being human, a process that we unceasingly repeat in different forms in different times, a process we memorialize by creating histories.

Among the many things that tempted Saint Anthony is this crazy head, according to Joos van Craesbeeck.

Among the many things that tempted Saint Anthony is this crazy head, according to Joos van Craesbeeck.

Our madnesses are no longer the uncanny alchemy of demonic beasts in a weird landscape replete with apocalyptic windmills, a landscape where anything could happen. They are now philosophical questions that can be swallowed up by sweatless logicians. They are now glitches, the contradictions that prove the theory. They are vices we give ourselves permission to treat. They are objective splinters in our objective subjectivity. Whatever madness is now, it is something that is in close, intimate dialogue with Man, the realm of reason, the realm of doctors and statisticians. This situation is not unsexual either: the reasonable and the mad are securely tied up, murmuring to each other sweet truths that dissolves the stability of their bodies—which are then made bare for the hunt for truth. What happens in this foundational courtship is nothing less than the creation (parthenogenically, by virgin birth, begetting not making) of a total body of knowledge. A body of knowledge that excludes the violence that allowed it to be, that reshapes exclusion as the great devourer, that does not silence what is outside (such as unreason) so much as gerrymander the field of knowledge so that nothing is outside of it, so that everything in this district is subject to regulation. This district is called Man, a landscape that both is and is not human due to side-effect of its engineering.

  1. Michel Foucault, History of Madness, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (New York City: Routledge, 2006), 529. []
  2. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1972), 548. []
  3. Nature here refers to the bestial aspects the classical age associated with madness, which contains its own paradoxes about sin, morality, the natural, grace, etc. []
  4. Here, nineteenth century is not meant to be an exclusive date range. []
  5. “If madness in the modern world has a meaning other than being a night in the face of the light of truth…” English translation, page 528. “Si la folie pour le monde moderne a un autre sens que celui d’être nuit en face du jour de la vérité…” Original, page 548. []
  6. Besides the dithyrambs—which were named in his honor, although the etimology is hazy—retelling of his strange double birth of womb and thigh, most Dionysus tales end in his crazy followers (Maenads) or some other victim slaughtering someone/something and eating the target while bathing in blood. See Homer, Illiad 6: 136–137 and Homeric Hymn to Dionysos; Euripides, Bacchae; Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Beyond Good and Evil. []
  7. For a great and strange exploration of indwelling in this sense, please read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. []
  8. Enter now life’s second portal,
    Motherless mystery ; lo I break
    Mine own body for thy sake,
    Thou of the Two-fold Door, and seal thee…

    From Euripedes, Bacchae, 519, referencing Dionysis. []

how did i become a ghost beta release

TREALanthropology e01 s01 logo Download the beta release of TREALanthropology s01 e01: how did i become a ghost, an upcoming podcast featuring Christopher Lirette and Lindsey Feldman, two humanities punks trying to figure out how to be both true and real. This first episode features interviews with Mark Boccuzzi, a parapsychologist of the Windbridge Institute, and Lynne Huffer, a queer theorist and scholar of Michel Foucault. Everyone talks about ghosts, points towards an ethnography of the dead. Music from Nine Inch Nails, licensed under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-SA). This podcast is likewise released under a CC-BY-NC-SA (attribution, noncommercial, share-alike) license. In other words, you are free to use or distribute this audio in any manner you see fit as long as you credit us, you don’t use it for a commercial purpose, and you release your work under the same license.

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