PRINT December 1998


Michel Foucault’s aesthetics

WHAT EXACTLY IS MEANT by Michel Foucault’s “aesthetics”? The ideas of sex and power we now associate with the philosopher and historian seem to exist in an entirely different register from what he found in the arts. And yet in a certain way this paradox in our relation to his thought is already present in his own work, his own aesthetics.

The recent publication of Volume Two of Foucault’s collected writings confronts us with just such questions. Much of his writings about the arts are contained in essays, reviews, interviews, lectures—a whole body of journalism that accompanied his work as a historian, leading him to his book on Raymond Roussel as well as to one on Manet (Foucault eventually destroyed the manuscript). After his death, Gallimard undertook the project of bringing together all of Foucault’s writings not already published in books; and from the resulting volumes that appeared in France in 1994, the New Press, in its three-part series, is making its selections according to topics or themes, sometimes adding material from books. The second volume is about “epistemology, methodology, aesthetlcs.” But what do these three things have to do with one another—what exactly did “aesthetics” mean for this historian of discourse, knowledge, madness?

Foucault’s aesthetic writings are preponderately situated in a rather narrow period of time—basically what he later called “those strange years, the ’60s.” It was the moment before ’68, when the loose group of historians, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and philosophers that Americans now classify as “poststructuralist” or “postmodernist” was emerging. Not only do most of Foucault’s aesthetic writings date from this period, but they form a coherent group with a distinct relation to his archival research. In his “methodology” and in his “aesthetics” from this period there is much talk of impersonality, anonymity, faceless authorship. It was, after all, a time of Minimalism, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Warhol, and Foucault tried to associate with such work the existence of a kind of “neutral space”—an “absence of oeuvre” that “affirms nothing.” He tried to show that the turn to this space was “archaeologically” significant, forming a sort of counterpoint to the importance given to language of the “linguistic model.” For it exposed something in language that was prior to linguistics or analytic logic and the ways in which words and images, saying and seeing are thought to be related to one another. The aim of Foucault’s own analysis of discourse was then at once to specify and attain this prior zone.

Foucault’s well-known reading of Magritte exemplifies this attempt. The logic of abstraction in Kandinsky and Klee, he said, is in fact not one of reduction and self-reference. Rather, Kandinsky undoes the relation between resemblance and affirming a subject, while Klee undoes the hierarchical relations of images to words in an “uncertain, reversible, floating space.” In taking up the problem posed by the two Bauhaus painters, Magritte may then be seen to point to a free zone before words and images, forms and contents, signifiers and signifieds are determined, a zone where at last painting might “affirm nothing.” Abstraction, in other words, leads to this free space before saying and seeing become “archivally” determined within some particular “discourse”; and Ceci n’est pas une pipe would then be Magritte’s paradoxical procedure to diagnose the existence of this space. Conversely an “archive” is what at a particular time and place so relates seeing and saying as to make something like “representation” or “affirmation” or the distinction between form and content possible. The aim of Foucault’s aesthetics was then in each case to attain what he described as the “anonymous murmur” of discourse, where what can be said and who can speak is up for grabs. As a kind of new archivist (as Deleuze called Foucault), he would thus join with the artist in trying to diagnose who or what, outside the prevailing “archive,” we might yet become. A strange asceticism and madness permeates this attempt. For, much as with the “neutral space” in the artwork, to attain the free anonymity of discourse was to undo one’s own discursive position in an act of depersonalization that Foucault took precisely to be characteristic of madness in his time, a matter of course of great concern and ongoing research for him. But it is at this point that the problems begin. Is it that the “absence of oeuvre” just is this zone “outside” a given archive in thought, and with it, “aesthetics”? Or is this zone rather something future historians will assign to us or our archive, the reason for our having been drawn to it a mystery? Foucault in fact entertains both hypotheses; and when after ’68 there was no further talk of such questions, one may infer that he silently adopted the second option.

And yet Foucault returns to the question of what constitutes the “modern work” in a beautiful essay that did not make the editorial cut of the New Press collection. In the 1977 piece “La vie des hommes infâmes,” he is concerned with a problem that much preoccupied Andy Warhol—the problem of fame. In the ’60s Foucault had written, along with Deleuze, about Warhol. The problem both addressed in Warhol’s work was not the familiar one that supposedly leads to the end of art—those works in which there are no perceptible differences from ordinary objects. Rather, the “serial” nature of the work allowed for the introduction of apparently insignificant differences or deviations that served to pose the whole question of the ordinary or the banal in a new way. For instead of opposing to the “mechanically reproduced” object an “auratic” one, one would, more interestingly, push through the mechanical to an “automatism” or “impersonality”; and in this respect Warhol’s output would belong with other “modern” strategies—those of the nouveau roman, for example. Indeed, when Deleuze later tries to work out the logic of the violence in Francis Bacon that “illustrates nothing,” we find another path in such strategies.

But Foucault’s problem of “fame” and the modern work comes later, after ’68, when he had adopted a new attitude to the archive. He had become interested in how power works in the most “ordinary,” banal, everyday aspects of our existence; and to this end, he had extracted figures from the archives, conferring on them a sort of strange, posthumous fame—Pierre Rivière, parricide, Herculine Barbin, hermaphrodite. The “infamous men” of Foucault’s title refers to just such figures, except that their lives would be even more anonymous, since all that is known of them would be contained in several peculiar sentences by a bureaucrat in a long forgotten dossier. Foucault points out that their infamy contrasts with the “fama” of great men and the fables that pick out the singular features of their words or deeds that set them apart. The emergence of the modern work, he goes on to say, is inseparable from such procedures. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault had distinguished ascending from descending procedures of individualization. When instead of looking “up” to fame, one instead looks “down” to infamy, one looks for different things—a system of law is replaced by one of norms or normalization. The “modern work” emerges in this shift: in relation to the “abnormal” it incurs a great obligation to ferret out what is most hidden, most difficult to see and say. The aesthetic problem for Foucault then becomes how to free oneself from this “discursive rule”—how to find a free zone of experimentation prior to it.

It is suggestive to think of this problem in relation to Warhol beyond the famously odd celebrity of the “superstars” in his cinema. One might take, for example, the “Most Wanted Men” that Philip Johnson arranged to appear on the walls of the New York State Pavilion in the 1964 World’s Fair. In this work we find “wants” of infamy, connected up with the serial procedures Warhol helped introduce; and the theme would accompany such serial procedures in the work of other artists—in particular, that of Gerhard Richter, starting already in his series of murdered nurses from Chicago. By the time Richter gets to 48 Portraits, not to mention the later strangely elegiac Stammheim Prison series, we find something different form Warhol—something more Protestant, more “German.” For not only had Richter sought in the automaticity of photopainting a “neutral zone” between painting and photography that would “affirm nothing”; he had also used it to turn the “daily practice of painting” into a kind of spiritual exercise for an era deserted by the “great men” of literary or philosophical genius. In this zone of “indifference”—this “neutrality,” this “gray”—painting could rediscover the color of the new “abstract pictures” at the same time as the painter acquires a new kind of public persona.

But might Foucault’s paradox then not apply to Warhol and Richter? Do they supply us with the archive in relation to which we still find our possibilities? Or is it rather precisely our distance from them which helps us to diagnose what we have become?