Multiplicities, discursive events — Foucault 1/13

By Jesús R. Velasco

During Foucault’s first trip to the USA in the Spring of 1971, John K. Simon interviewed him for the Partisan Review. At the outset of the interview, and after having rejected that he had invented a new method, Foucault stated that

“It is true […] that I have dealt especially with phenomena of the past: the system of exclusion and the confinement of the insane in European civilization from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the establishment of medical science and practice at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the organization of sciences of man in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But I was interested in them- in fact, profoundly interested- because I saw in them ways of thinking and behaving that are still with us. I try to show, based upon their historical establishment and formation, those systems which are still ours today and within which we are trapped. It is a question, basically, of presenting a critique of our own time, based upon retrospective analyses.” (text #89, Dits et écrits, p. 1051 “Quarto”; The Partisan Review, 38.2 (April-June, 1971): 192-201, quotation in p. 192)

In this short response, he gave a general but powerful account of the work of somebody who did not claim to be a historian, in the same way he did not claim to be a philosopher or a philologist. This is why he does not set out to do a critique of our time with a historical perspective, or something like that, but rather “based upon retrospective analyses.”

He refuses to locate himself in a discipline, because he wants to become the multiplicity he attributes to the discursive events he is interested in analyzing. He wanted to move freely between text and non textual universes, and also across activities that lie outside the “bavardage académique” and the murmur of books opened and closed. A multiplicity that is at the basis of his critique of “our time, based on retrospective analyses.”

At the time of this interview, Foucault was almost done with the Lectures on the Will to Know, a long and complex exploration in which he begins with a highly provoking and brilliant reading of Aristotle’s first lines of the Metaphysics –in order to underscore not what the Aristotelian text opens up to, but, rather the many closures and elisions it operates.  This reading, it seems to me, is in close connection with the notion of the “choice of the origins” he uses in an interview given during his trip to Japan in the Fall of 1970: this choice of origins, he demonstrates, involves, among other things, the exclusion of the Sophists –and sophismata— from the History of Philosophy. He then analyzes several discourses of truth in Ancient and Classical Greece, mostly linked with the discussion of juridical institutions in Homer, Hesiod, and Sophocles. Trying to summarize everything he does in these Lectures would be a titanic work, as everything he engages with is the object of a deep chain of theses begetting multiplicity itself. For instance, in his lecture of January 27th, 1971, he proposes to focus on poetic and judicial discourses, from fragmentary papyri to the Iliad. His retrospection works by reversing the chronological order: he begins with a final state and then proceeds to the initial state; that is, he starts with the threshold of the Hellenistic culture in which truth must be said according to witnessing procedures, to the Homeric poems. The reading of the initial state after the analysis of the final state gives more power to his theses, like the one about the dispute between Menelaus and Antilochos, in which he puts forth:

“The truth is not what one says (or the relationship between what one says and what is or is not). It is what one confronts, what one does or does not accept to face up to. It is the formidable force to which one surrenders. It is an autonomous force. But again, we must really understand its nature: it is not a force of constraint, like a yoke, to which one submits. One is not morally or legally required to submit to it. It is a force to which one exposes oneself and which has its own power of intimidation. There is something in it that terrorizes. The truth –he concludes—is not so much a law binding men as a force which may be unleashed against them.” (75)

Foucault often talks about truth in terms of affections. Truth intimidates, it even terrorizes; it requires courage. This research into truth is, as we have seen before with the intervention of Jim Faubion, a philosophical inquiry; this is also why Jim Faubion could underscore the importance not only of truth, but of truth effects. Listening to Nancy Luxon (and reading what she wrote for the blog), we can see as well how this research of truth is a legal and juridical exploration of the ways in which truth is produced.

Among the many legal institutions he explored and closely analyzed, Foucault focuses on the enquête, the inquest, the inquisitorial models of juridical research. Here he is looping the loop of Émile Benveniste’s Vocabulaire des Institutions Indo-Européennes, and with his view on George Dumézil’s astonishing work, Mythe et Épopée –whose tri-functional analysis plays a crucial role in Foucault’s “society of truth, knowledge and power”. But he is reading, as well, another book that will be central in his lectures on Théories et Institutions Pénales, Lévy’s La hiérarchie des preuves dans le droit savant du Moyen Âge. The juridical form of the enquête, its history, and its procedures, with the participation of witnesses, and the truth-unleashing forces of the opinion, fame, and rumor, will remain one of the main foci of interest for Michel Foucault. So much so, that when he signs and reads the manifest of the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, he points to the fact that their work has been conceived as an enquête, an “enquête-intolérance”. But, at the same time, although the enquête concept remains in many of the texts and activities related to the Groupe, he wants, as well, to get rid of this form itself and its restrictions, in order to focus on information, because, as he puts it in March 1971, “il faut transformer l’experience individuelle en savoir collectif. C’est à dire en savoir politique.” (text 88, p. 1046)

In other words he is not just interested in understanding a certain historical event in order to locate it where it belongs. His retrospective analysis is much more complex. As he says in some intriguing lose pages apparently attached to his lecture of March 17th 1971 (the materiality of Foucault’s manuscripts would deserve an autonomous study!), he has tried to analyze what he proposes to call “discursive events” –as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Those discursive events do not “occur in a discourse, in a text”, they are, as he puts it, “dispersed between institutions, laws, political victories and defeats, demands, behaviors, revolts, reactions.” He even goes on to say that the discursive event, which is characterized by its multiplicity, “is never textual. We do not find it in a text.” Nevertheless, he analyzes texts. He reads texts with the precision and devotion of the philologist. By analyzing the texts Foucault analyzes, however,  he seems to be interested in finding out what philology alone –the very discipline of textual analysis in which Nietzsche, Benveniste, or Dumézil, three towering presences in Foucault’s thought, were nevertheless experts—cannot even fathom: namely, the connection between the textual and the institutional, and from there to other multiple discursive events.

He proposes to find the discursive event in a series of “processus humbles et externes”, some of whose examples are “paysan debts, subterfuge in the establishment of money, displacement of the rites of purification, small humble origins.” In this sense, the analysis of the emergence of money on February 27th 1971 is nothing short of brilliant.

The location of those discursive events in Foucault’s activity would take us in many directions, including his involvement in the information and inquests about prisons, or his political reactions towards the political, legal, and numismatic unfulfilled promises of the Fifth Republic of 1958. Not because this is his context, but because there is a need to break the very concept of context –one could say that the discursive event is never in the context, we can never find it in a context, but, rather, in the ways in which the context is submitted to critique. But the challenge is more contemporary as well –those instances of discursive events Foucault talks about seem to be extremely contemporary, vibrant now, as we speak, in the prisons in our country –and beyond—in public and private debts, in the production of alternative nomisma , and other humble and not so humble, external processes. As Foucault puts it in a rather agrammatical note to himself: “Retrouver ce tout autre chose dont parlait Nietzsche.” I would like for us to speak a bit more about those challenges, about those discursive events that we need to analyze now, and about their multiplicity.