Nancy Luxon on Oedipal Excess and the Regulation of Social Space

By Nancy Luxon

Already Bernard Harcourt’s wonderfully synoptic introduction of these Lectures on the Will to Know has recalled something of the events preoccupying Foucault and perhaps his audience in the post-68 moment. These preoccupations around law, economic distribution, and struggle are not, I would hazard, too distant from our own time.  They invite us to move between text and world in a way very much on display in the lectures themselves.

It may seem surprising for these themes, as well as the play of the seeable and the sayable, to unfold through a reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a text more usually understood in terms of desire – the very terms Foucault seeks here to contest. And so I want to begin by teasing out some of the threads that lead us from Foucault’s lecture on Oedipus back into the series itself.

This extraordinary lecture will serve as a touchstone for Foucault on a number of occasions. Indeed, as Daniel Defert notes, Oedipus stands as the set-piece for this lecture series: “in relation to this course it plays something like the role played by Las Meninas in relation to the theory of representation in The Order of Things” (279). If the overarching theme for this and the lecture series to follow is 19th century penality, then the lecture on Oedipus sets the stage for the production of power and truthful discourse through legal process. Oedipus serves as asumbolon – a figure torn apart. Most obviously, this sense of being pulled apart plays out biographically, as Foucault describes in some detail (234-36). More centrally, however, the figure of Oedipus marks the conjoinment of two forms of truth-production. With Oedipus, we see a shift of the enunciation of truth from the divine and prophetic to human recollection and witness (249). Oedipus stands in between the predictions of Apollo prophesied by Teiresias, and the evidentiary claims of the two slaves who reluctantly recollect and attest to witnessing the murder of Laius. Caught between the divine and the popular, between future predictions and past recollections, the tyrant Oedipus thereby opens up the space for presence, for the present, for the event.

Returning to the earlier lectures, we can now see that across the series Foucault charts a series of transformations that historicize this shift, alter the terms of knowledge production, and muffle the effects of power. This shift plays out more subtly in Foucault’s account of the move from Homeric oath-taking (with the directness of verbal confrontation), to Hesiodic justice (with its measured cadence in Works and Days), to the Gortyn laws (and the displacement of truth onto the witness). As for Oedipus, a tragic figure himself, his position is entirely untenable. Born and then undone by the conflict between the truth of his biography and that of his surrounding order, he births a new mode of truthful discourse but one ultimately and profoundly unmoored from power (192-93). From his example emerges the problem of political knowledge – “of what it is necessary to know in order to govern the city and put it right” (256).

What makes political knowledge into a “problem”? If Oedipus opens up the question of right governance and knowledge, he does so from a position of excess. Struggle appears when Oedipus presses the recollections of others, forces the slaves’ testimony, is driven to discover. Political power here is in excess: it is the power of the tyrant, that autocratic power to coerce. Excess likewise comes to characterize Oedipus’ knowledge. Oedipus lacks the divine insight of Apollo that is prophesied by Teiresias, just as he lacks the knowledge of the murder at the crossroads that is attested by slaves. He is the inarticulate point of articulation between two orders. As these two halves of the sumbolon come together, the effect is “too much.” The present becomes fraught as it staggers under the portent of prophecy and the weight of a recollected past. As tyrant, Oedipus both does too much and knows too much; he has too much power and too much knowledge. That excess must be drained of its capacity to unsettle and destabilize for order to survive. Caught between divine prophecy and human memory, the present becomes characterized in terms of evidence, as evidence to be tested and stabilized through inquiry.

And so we find ourselves before the first aspect of the production of truth: an excess that demands regulation. We confront the preoccupation around that proliferation, that excess, that sense of “too much” that defines the human present and demands measurement and moderation. Most obviously, these lectures hint at the profusion of mechanisms, processes, and practices that will later come to encase such tests and inquiries and still later transform them into a more specifically legal form. After Oedipus, the explicit connection to power is denied, repudiated, disavowed.

But the preoccupation with excess also extends along a second dimension, that of measurement. Foucault’s lectures – with their attention to the entanglements of nomos, or law, and nomisma, or money – also trace the extension of such regulation into social space. Given that Foucault rarely broaches the topic of money, the preoccupation with excess in Oedipusclarifies his otherwise puzzling comments. If elsewhere money occurs as symbolic form and representation (Order of Things), or as stamp and blazon (Courage of the Truth), then money here is entangled in the political struggles around that accompanied economic issues of public taxes, private debts and wage payment in ancient Greece. No wonder that Foucault claims: “Rather than compare the monetary stamp to the linguistic sign… it would be better to compare it with the symbols and rites of power” (140). Foucault clarifies that money functions neither as sign or symbol, but as “simulacrum.” Influenced, no doubt, by Pierre Klossowski’s simulacra of endless reversals, Foucault defines these as “a fixed series of superimposed substitutions which replace each other” (140). Foucault sketches the historical emergence of inequalities that threaten a surge – an excess – of popular power and instead become muffled through economic exchange. Money is at once the trace of political relations and asymmetries that Foucault associates with Nietzsche, and it also covers over these differences with a system of commensurability. Through circulation and its role as measure, money becomes a force that shapes and structures these agreements. Money thus substitutes for earlier direct contest, and intervenes in the proliferation of things: of desires, relations of power, imbalances between groups. Citizens begin to forget the power of money as nomisma – as something created by law (nomos) and susceptible to change.

If philosophically these lectures tell of the gradual neutralization of adversarial contest in modes of truth-telling and knowledge production, then politically these lectures trace the measured diffusion of contest into a social space drained of its own value and contestability. We might ask: how does money as exchange, measure, and simulacrum extend relations of order, justice, truth? How should we understand the substitutions or catachreses that it effects?  What is the place for the vulnerable here? They are at once excluded from nomos or this “social space” of the city (187) and yet provoked by the disjuncture between political and economic domains covered over by nomos. How might they figure in these endless reversals?

Reversals of fortune, reversals of knowing, reversals in relations of political and economic power – these reversals play out recursively across these Lectures on the Will to Know. Through the play of forces that Foucault charts across the domains of knowledge and power, he shifts attention away from the stability of order that so often inheres in philosophy and politics as an ideal. The din of “real struggles and relations of domination” (2) begins to echo across these pages, through the lecture hall, and into the present. A present newly torn apart by its own proliferations of meaning, and with its own risks and potentials for coming undone.