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. []

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