"A Case, an Affair, an Event" (the Dossier by Michel Foucault)
Chrostowska, S. D., CLIO
Throughout the 1970s, Michel Foucault compiled numerous archival documents as dossiers. He incorporated many of these into his lectures and prepared some for publication. (1) Likewise, his long-term collaborative projects with historians resulted in several annotated archival anthologies. (2) Two such dossiers published in book form--I, Pierre Riviere ... and Herculine Barbin--revolve around a mysterious, "masked" individual whose unmasking was once imperative from medical, legal, and moral standpoints. Foucault's use of dossiers in his historical research, however, raises a number of epistemological and methodological questions. What is the knowledge engendered by dossiers concerning individuals? Can one reconcile their institutional lineage and continued role in producing cases with their part in the writing of history?
Although Foucault did not theorize the dossier as a historiographic genre, his continued interest in collecting and publishing material as dossiers evinces an implicit trust in the power of this form to establish an alternative discursive order. The ordering or reordering of documents representing different discourses was meant to facilitate another understanding of discursive relations without leading to definitive conclusions. Dossiers could effectively demonstrate Foucault's ideas about the ways various discourses were deployed, worked, and interacted. His association of texts within dossiers became the provision of primary sources for genealogy--which, as Jan Goldstein points out, "was, after all, Foucault's 'substitute' for history in its traditional guise." (3) This purpose is expressed in his foreword to the Riviere dossier:
I think that what committed us to the work, despite our differences of interests and approaches, was that it was a "dossier," that is to say, a case, an affair, an event that provided the intersection of discourses that differed in origin, form, organization and function ... But in their totality and their variety they form neither a composite work nor an exemplary text, but rather a strange contest, a confrontation, a power relation, a battle among discourses and through discourses.... I think the reason we decided to publish these documents was to draw a map, so to speak, of those combats, to reconstruct these confrontations and battles, to rediscover the interaction of those discourses as weapons of attack and defence in the relations of power and knowledge. (4)
These expectations, voiced more strongly in the instance of the Riviere dossier but equally applicable to that of Barbin, make Foucault's published use of the dossier genre a topic worthy of reflection.
Foucault's 1974-1975 lecture course at the College de France focused on human abnormality, especially its three types prevalent in the nineteenth century: individual monstrosity (physical or moral/psychological), masturbation, and undiscipline. The lectures offered "a very clear trace" of several dossiers (on medico-legal expert opinion, on the human monster, on onanism) and of two manuscripts. (5) The first of these manuscripts concerned the practices of confession and spiritual direction; the second addressed the question of hermaphroditism in medico-legal literature and appeared to be an "extension of the dossier on monsters" (but intended either for a projected volume of the History of Sexuality or as part of a volume on the Perverse [333-44]). The editors of Foucault's lecture series make a point of qualifying that "dossiers" refers to "the collections of notes classified by Foucault and preserved by Daniel Defert," and "manuscripts," to the '"dossiers' in which the notes and commentaries by Foucault appear, no doubt in preparation for future publication" (334, 339). One may infer from the glosses and description of these works-in-progress that, if published, the texts would closely resemble in aim the dossiers of Riviere and Barbin: minimally annotated examples of discourses and their function, as well as of the quality of archival material available to historians. More importantly, dossier-making emerges as a supplement to Foucault's research, and the liaisons he forged with historians for this purpose demanded substantial firsthand involvement.
In his preamble to the dossier of Herculine Barbin, Foucault makes reference to his earlier project: "An exhaustive documentation, like the one that was made for Pierre Riviere, will not be found here." (6) The dossier of the French hermaphrodite (1838-1868) consists solely of "some of the principal documents"; while that of the French parricide (1815-1840) contains "all the material evidence in the case ... we could find written by or about Pierre Riviere, whether in print or in manuscript" (Herculine Barbin, 119; Pierre Riviere, xii). The comparison and evident disparity are noteworthy, since they draw attention to the makeup of both publications: as products of archival research they were drawn from and drew on archival sources; their contents were culled and ordered in keeping with a set of specific criteria; the individual texts comprising them were not initially intended for "re-issue" for a lay audience, published not side-by-side but separately (both geographically and historically) and compiled only later, or published in another order than they are now; and, lastly, they are the result of a series of (re)constructions.
Foucault comments on the original publication of the assorted documents pertaining to both cases as follows. The report on the Riviere case, published in the Annales d'hygiene publique et de medicine legale (Annals of public hygiene and legal medicine) in 1836, "comprised a summary of the facts and the medico-legal experts' reports. There were, however, a number of unusual features about it," notably three divergent medical reports--"each with a different status within the medical institution"--a "fairly large collection of court exhibits including statements by witnesses," and Riviere's memoir ("but published there only in part and with some errors") (Pierre Riviere, vii, xiv). The memoir was first published as a pamphlet in 1835, the year of the trial. The pamphlet contained the version printed later in the Annales (xiv). Auguste Tardieu's report on Barbin--also the first part of his Question medico-legale de l'identite dans ses rapports avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuels (Medico-legal question of identity in relation to the structural defects of the sexual organs)--appeared in the Annales in 1872. Barbin's memoirs appeared in a much abbreviated form in the second part of the Question (Herculine Barbin, 119).
The construction and historicity of the two dossiers raise, in turn, specific questions about the status and function of such official, institution-bound ensembles of texts centered on a (human) subject--dossiers, but also case studies, case histories, case files. Moreover, if the material in each dossier is framed by Foucault as a historical study--an act which overwrites its meaning to its legitimating institutions--what category of inquiry does such manipulation constitute? What problems or possibilities attach to dossiers as sets of historical evidence? In other words: what are their uses, what their misuses? These are undoubtedly important questions at a time consecrated to the massive gathering of personal data. I will restrict addressing them to the two dossiers ushered by Foucault.
What makes the dossier a discursively viable genre? How does it differ from related genres (for example, case histories or case studies)? What makes a dossier? Dossiers are commonly defined as constellations of papers containing information intended to establish facts about an event, a topic, or an individual (usually as record or report--medical, legal, academic, financial, and so forth). As a corpus of documents assembled to determine facts--because of disagreement over them or their paucity, that is, their inadequacy with respect to the object concerned--the dossier is internally inconsistent and, at least for a time, susceptible to supplementation, suppression, or deletion by accredited quarters. Extrapolating from Foucault's examples, the dossier is a context-, subject-, and structure-based genre: the context is the institutional users; the subject, documentation pertaining to an individual; the structure, the required format and specialized rhetoric used in reporting pertinent information and assessing his/her conduct and condition. Aside from the unity obtaining from these three features, the dossier's ostensive objectivity stems from its lack of a unified perspective and its accrual of testimonials, witness accounts, examination results, and expert opinions, whose conformity to discursive schemas projects formal homogeneity and consistency onto the individual statements. Thus, it is also a combinatory genre, combining other and smaller generic forms as its components. Its prose may range from the administrative, through the descriptive and the predictive, to the normative. Its rhetoric is chiefly couched in terms and visuals connoting exactitude and accuracy, seldom qualified.
In Foucault's historical account, dossiers were a novelty in nineteenth-century medical and legal discourse. (7) With their assistance power fixed individuals in their particularity within the field of writing. (8) The "apparatus of writing," evolving "small techniques" of notation and tabulation of observations, was useful "in maintain[ing] [the individual] in his individual features ... under the gaze of a permanent corpus of knowledge" (190). Simultaneously, it was statistically useful in the "constitution of a comparative system that made possible the measurement of overall phenomena ... the calculation of gaps between individuals" (190). The allegedly intimate knowledge of aberration, frequently drawing upon expert opinion, was made possible through the introduction of this new, routine information gathering. Conversely, accumulating such painstakingly precise information served the maintenance/ adjustment of current norms; it enabled new areas and technologies of generalization.
Foucault saw the genre of the dossier as an aggregate of objectifying, individualizing, and marginalizing data that mobilized the discourses of abnormality: the sexual (perversion) and the psychological (madness). In the nineteenth century--"haunted," Foucault tells us, by the themes of hermaphroditism (Herculine Barbin, xvii) and "homicidal mania" (9)--the corresponding categories of the "human monster" and the "individual to be corrected" were gradually overlaid by the "abnormal individual." The 1835 Riviere murders coincided with the pairing of monstrosity and criminality, and the elaboration of the concept of "monstrous criminality" and the "moral monster" type. (10) The earlier figure of the "human monster," at one time "extreme and extremely rare," had paled by the 1860s (Barbin's day), "reduced, appropriated, and absorbed" by the widening domain of abnormality (55-56). The monster became a "commonplace," a rather quotidian exception--and an indistinct shadow of his/her former self (57). Monstrosity lost the power to evoke anxiety, to violate and contradict the law, "leaving it with nothing to say," no longer capable, as Riviere still was, of reducing discourse to silence (56)--reduced instead, as Barbin was, to a whisper. Reconceived, no longer confined to labyrinths built to contain them, monsters met with "medical care and pity," ostracism, or indifference. Nonetheless, they remained as the leitmotif--the "principle of intelligibility" and "major model"--for deviances and irregularities (56).
Their split ancestry and their convergence in the abnormal make the two cases of monstrosity which Foucault undertook isomorphic. The "encasement" of monsters in dossiers was not accidental: as instances of the "principle of intelligibility" of the anomalous, they were just the objects to find themselves in a genre reflecting--then as now--the intelligibility of normality and the exercise of normativity attached to it. Dossier-ized documentation dovetailed with the disciplinary-penal grid: the objectification and subjection of individuals to description (on the supposition of their "describability") (Discipline, 187). As a result of disciplinary intervention, individuals like the pair in Foucault's studies were made "visible," "legible," and "known" (to the extent that the current mechanism of power permitted). From the end of the eighteenth century, the procedure of examination produced a new modality in power-knowledge that "lowered the threshold of describable individuality," thus introducing "ordinary individuality" into the field of documentation (189, 191). "[T]he child, the patient, the madman, the prisoner, were to become, with increasing ease ... and according to a curve which is that of the mechanisms of discipline, the object of individual descriptions and biographical accounts" (192). This increasingly compulsory entering of the individual (as a datum) into the systematics of documentation made each individual a "case," "a case which at one and the same time constitutes an object for a branch of knowledge and a hold for a branch of power" (191). In other words, the case was never "a monument for future memory, but a document for possible use" (191).
The contents of a dossier represent, then, a double conceptual movement: individualization (analysis of the human subject, in order to pin down his/her particulars) and typification (synthesis and theory, so as to mend him/her) of abnormality and, indirectly, of normality (299-300, 193). The individual as "knowable" is the "object-effect of this analytical investment, of this domination-observation" (305). When used, the case stands in for and, effectively, becomes the individual--"as he may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc." (191). What we are to "know" of individuality must neatly divide into such disciplinary rubrics.
The dossier is not a coherent narrative account in the manner of case histories, psychiatric or psychoanalytic. Admittedly, the case history is more akin to the dossier than to "conventional" history, which, as Mark Cousins and Athar Hussain point out, handles evidence by the rule of exhaustiveness. (11) In a case history, by contrast, adequate evidence obeys, instead, the rule of intelligibility (3). The case history "make[s] a problem intelligible by reconstituting its conditions of existence and its conditions of emergence" (but not "origins") and "never produces evidence in the form which satisfies historical canons of proof and demonstration" (3). For Cousins and Hussain, Foucault's historical accounts--presumably including the dossiers--are case histories in the Freudian tradition (like, for example, the Schreber case, based on a memoir and consisting of minimal interpretation), since they, too, do not supply final pronouncements and may "be said to be incomplete and subject to rectification" (3).
This analogy between Sigmund Freud and Foucault seems, however, a bit careless. Freud did not wholly resist the pursuit of origins; in his well-contextualized etiological speculations, he insisted on the centrality of the story-symptom connection for discovering genetic relationships among phenomena. Furthermore, as Adam Phillips reminds us, he complained of both the story-like nature of his own case histories and of the lack of insight in regular, psychiatric case histories, which however bore the "serious stamp of science." (12) There existed a discernible conflict in Freud's approach between, on the one hand, theoretical generalizations (therapeutic method) and empirical testability of data (symptoms and treatments) in psychiatric case histories, and, on the other, uneasy attention to the uniqueness and detail of the patient's story (14, 16-17). Oscillating between "scientific" discourse and "storytelling," he feared psychoanalysis being "a science with no examples ... A science of the specific. A science of the special case" (12). Freud, it appears, drew a finer line than Foucault between the literary and the scientific, the singular and the redemonstrable, which led to his perplexities about form. Nonetheless, for both Freud and Foucault literariness/ singularity and scientificity/redemonstrability seemed to lie on a continuum.
If, however, I choose to distinguish between dossiers and case histories or case studies--and thus to separate what Foucault himself conflated when glossing the dossier as "a case, an affair, an event"--it is to show them as subsequent stages of the discursive movement of the Foucauldian volonte de savoir (will to knowledge). The dossier, then, represents the process of case-building, document-by-document. It provides raw materials which individually and collectively may be conclusive or approaching conclusion. Their life as a form of evidence is not part of a conclusion foregone, but of the unpredictable process of drawing one. In this sense, the dossier is like the case file, defined by one archive as a grouping of documents such as correspondence, form records, memoranda, and other records insofar as they relate to the same person, place, or thing. Both precede the case proper (involving any medical or judiciary proceedings) as much as they do the "final word." This is not to imply that the compiling of individual documents in a dossier is unbiased, only that the multiple actors generating them are not prepared or authorized to evaluate and consolidate evidence into a settled case. The case is, therefore, what crystallizes through review and synthesis. That Foucault's selection and compilation of the material in the two dossiers disperses them, unsettling its official "case" status, vouches for his commitment to historical analysis. In contrast to Freud, Foucault renounced the logic of origins and absolute conclusions (even as he volunteered tentative ones). Like Freud, though, he explains his motivation and methodology and affixes this to his results. His dossiers aid in disestablishing the methodologies applied and the interpretive lines taken in the past. In effect, Foucault remakes the dossier into a medium of historical study.
The volume on Herculine Barbin is limited to the reproduction of original reports; second-hand material, be it quotations from the originals or mentions of Barbin in medical literature, have been excluded (120). The table of contents reads: 1. My Memoirs; 2. The Dossier--comprised of four sub-sections: Names, Dates, and Places; Reports; The Press; Documents. The third and final part is a work of fiction echoing Barbin's life and written by a German psychiatrist. In the introduction--one of his two contributions to the book--Foucault states that the two texts, the memoir and the novella, "deserved to be published side by side" (xvi). The reasons for this (just?) desert are unclear: should the fictional narrative be biographically associated with Barbin; does it make for a richer picture of the influence of contemporary medico-legal discourse or does it deliberately distort it; was it merely appended as a curio?
In I, Pierre Riviere ..., the output of cooperative research, Foucault's textual input is likewise minimal. He authored the foreword--where he elaborates on the choice of material--and a commentary/essay, one of several such "notes" by collaborators on the project (and printed in the book's second part, entitled Notes). The Riviere dossier (part 1) consists of six sections: 1. Crime and Arrest; 2. The Preliminary Investigation; 3. The Memoir; 4. Medico-legal Opinions; 5. The Trial; 6. Prison and Death. At first glance, the tables of contents of the two books overlap, but, upon closer inspection, one realizes that Barbin's dossier does not feature her memoirs. Why is this? The character of the autobiographical and its utility in the original contexts may give some indication of the reasons. In contradistinction to Riviere, Barbin seems to lack an ulterior motive--though she does concede deceit and betrayal of confidence, revealing not the presumed "innocent blindfold that veiled the truth from her," but an awareness of transgression (Herculine Barbin, 145). Riviere, however, seems intent on masking his motives for writing and killing. His memoir--composed twice, the first time prior to the murders--is taken as a calculated if erratic move toward self-incrimination and capital punishment, thereby becoming a salient document in the case. Its singularity and authenticity, for Foucault, derive from its both justifying and forming part of Riviere's crime. (13) Barbin's memoirs, by comparison, had no legal relevance and, although some of the text was later to surface in a medical journal, they supported no medical claims in her lifetime. Rather than compelling evidence of a unitary, "genuine" sexual identity, the memoirs are a recounting of intense secret pleasure and pain--of mysterious genitalia and fluid sexual orientation. They can be read as "a strategic move to confound closure" after her death. (14)
The Barbin memoirs are endowed with an internal chronology registered during the last, most miserable year of her life. The remaining material--the dossier itself--is grouped typologically, so that external chronology is maintained only within each section, being otherwise illegible. By contrast, Riviere's dossier (including his memoir) is organized like a biography, with temporal progression rendered by self-explanatory section titles. As such, it represents a principled departure from the "typological method" of dossier-arrangement: "the court file followed by the medical file" (Pierre Riviere, xii). Foucault explains: "We have rearranged them more or less in chronological order around the events they are bound up with.... This throws a good deal of light on the confrontation of various types of discourse and the rules and results of this confrontation" (xii, emphasis added).
Appendage of the memoirs to the official documents demonstrates the characteristically nineteenth-century liminality (a liminality compounded in the two cases by the type of individuals involved) of the subject-object of power-knowledge, as perceived by Foucault. One outcome of the "entry of [human] life into history" was that individual life had now "a dual position ... that placed it at the same time outside history, in its biological environment, and inside historicity, penetrated by the latter's techniques of knowledge and power." (15) In another sense, the subject now existed in the "gap between history and History," or between the actual events and the "compilation of factual successions or sequences as they may have occurred." (16)
The fact that both Riviere and Barbin expressed themselves in memoir form testifies also to a discursive transformation, already then underway, of the auto-monument--the holographic self-inscription forming "part of the rituals of power"--into the document (Discipline, 191). (That the genres of memoir, autobiography, diary, and private journal emerged on the cusp of this conversion is evident from their continual situation between literature and history, as well as from their membership in the literary class of "personal document.") Riviere's text, written under no direct legal pressure though in view of its use in his trial is still a highly individualized, self-interested statement: it encompasses his life up to that point. Barbin's text is a sentimental journal written against spectrality and death. Its writer reminisces on onetime freedom, ultimately unconcerned about penality or potential redress (the restitution of her nonidentity by belated opinions). In her dossier proper, the above-mentioned paradigmatic shift seems complete--needless to say, to the exclusion of the autobiographical.
As memoirs, the two accounts were not meant as confession of guilt, sheer defense, or matter-of-fact disclosure and confirmation of the justness of accusations. Their nonconformity--veiled, fragmentary, and inconsistent character--lends them a contestatory force missing in most of the accompanying, institutional documents (Riviere's text is particularly striking in its moments of incongruous eloquence). For all their worth, the texts broke institutional conventions. In Foucault's estimation, "Riviere's own discourse on his act so dominates, or in any case so escapes from every possible handle, that there is nothing to be said about this central point, this crime or act, that is not a step back in relation to it. We see there nevertheless a phenomenon without equivalent in either the history of crime or discourse: that is to say, a crime accompanied by a discourse so strong and so strange that the crime ends up not existing anymore; it escapes through the very fact of this discourse held about it by the one who committed it." (17)
Similarly, the testament of Barbin's sexual confusion and suicide, caused in part by the unsuccessful superimposition of the requisite, definitive sexual identity, begged the counter-question: was it just to "settle" her sex? Her discourse, though it did not overwhelm the case, created a reflux. In this way, the memoirs brought to light a subjugated knowledge. By inscribing themselves single-handedly in institutional history, each mediated between the contemporary apparatus (dispositif) of normalization of the abnormal (demarcating the "undisciplined" and the "deviant," as series linked in the disciplinary-punitive network) and the particularities of an individual's lived experience.
In both cases, however, the preoccupation with "unmasking" the morally crippled individual--probing the menace of Barbin's sex to resocialize her, and the core of Riviere's incorrigible, inhuman criminality in an attempt to mitigate his conviction--ideally to reform him/her, took precedence over the routine classificatory and corrective aims of disciplinary discourse. Because of their particular circumstances (the time and place of their treatment by medicine and law), as well as for the textual reasons mentioned above, Barbin and Riviere were, by all accounts, "special cases," defying generalization and utilization as representative "examples" in institutional environs. Though, at the time, cases of parricide were fairly common, Riviere's was, in Foucault's words, "a magnificent case: in 1836 [sic] a triple murder, and then not only all the aspects of the trial but also an absolutely unique witness, the criminal himself, who left a memoir of more than a hundred pages" (203). Barbin's case was also unusual, since her anomalous sex/sexuality went unnoticed (undisciplined and unpunished) in a stringent, cloistered environment. Nevertheless, publishing the two dossiers is meant by Foucault to "furnish an example of existing records that are available for potential analysis," regardless of how "unique" those happen to be--Riviere's in particular, remarkable as it is for its "full documentation, full not only for that period, but even our own" (Pierre Riviere, x-xi, ix). The dossiers are to speak for themselves--their particularizations and generalizations are not to adumbrate the specific. That each presents a special case does not mean that it is (still or temporarily) impenetrable.
That being said, nineteenth-century strategies of control, gained in part through the production of dossiers, arguably find their unbroken continuation in today's institutional and corporate practices. A critical consciousness of this lineage no doubt spurred the two publications, and it is debatable whether Foucault's approach here is complicit with the ideological dominant. The two projects fit directly into his genealogical framework by allowing the "immediate emergence of historical contents," and questioning not only the institutional employment but the very format/structure of the dossier itself. (18) Foucault was mindful of the potential consequences of reactivating such "local discursivities": "no sooner accredited and put into circulation, than they run the risk of re-codification, re-colonisation... And if we want to protect these only lately liberated fragments are we not in danger of ourselves constructing ... the unitary discourse to which we are invited, perhaps to lure us into a trap [?]" (86).
In and of themselves, the two volumes are not reproductions, however, but recastings of grossly punctured, recondite cases. Foucault's recuperation and reframing of the constituent documents does not merely repeat the findings, and losses, of prior observation. His offering can even be construed as literary: the autobiographical texts in the two dossiers are given to us as historical as well as literary artefacts--this suggested even further by the pairing of Barbin's private, passion narrative with the German psychiatrist's grotesque, "medicolibertine" tale (Herculine Barbin, 120). Foucault understood the Riviere memoir to be functionally "literary" before his encounter with it. Indeed, the book on Riviere was to "grasp the movement, the little process, by which a type of nonliterary discourse, neglected, forgotten as soon as it was made, enters the literary field" and how it is modified by its new guise. (19) According to Raymond Bellour, "This text is in the first instance an archive ... Then it becomes literature, but still as an archive ... bearing the voice of a subject who is moving towards his dissolution, his death, before coming back from this death, changed, abolished in words." (20) That Foucault was enthralled by the memoir's "literarization" and literary "magnetism" is a pivot for comparison with Freud, troubled as the latter was by the incursion of the literary into his case histories--a threat to their scientific legitimacy. (21)
Of course, possessing an eye and an ear for the literary does not alone absolve Foucault from complicity. Foucault's handling of the material, however, arises from a specially devised strategy. Without reencasing the texts in updated specialized discourse seeking true resolution, Foucault displays the "designs" once directed at them: "in their totality and their variety they form neither a composite work nor an exemplary text, but rather a strange contest, a confrontation, a power relation, a battle among discourses and through discourses. And yet, it cannot simply be described as a single battle; for several separate combats were being fought out at the same time and intersected each other ..." (Pierre Riviere, x).
The appeal of cases like Barbin's and Riviere's, both monstrous and enigmatic in their own way, was that they perplexed the documentary discourse of legibility and knowability, exposing its inadequacy to the subject matter and its failure to reveal a unified, humanistic subject: no cohesive picture emerged, no final verdict was pronounced (Foucault relates that "curious doctors" assigned to Barbin posthumously "the reality of an inadequate sex" [Herculine Barbin, xvi]). The two books devoted to them try to salvage the complexity of the subjects' speech, even if this occasional self-scrutinizing speech is somewhat modeled on (without being able to usurp) the medical, the juridical, the pedagogical, the specialist in normalcy.
The individuals in question became subjected and subjected themselves to external examination (physical, psychiatric, interrogational, postmortem) and its internalized version (self-examination of, respectively, sexual history and the prehistory of transgression). The autobiographical statements of each indirectly take up issues commonly raised by medico-legal discourse, fill in some lacunae, and in that sense appear to complement it. What they end up doing, however, is obscuring their speakers--while claiming to unmask them--and undermining expertise--while inviting it. Riviere is far from the stock carceral candidate described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. The cacophony of competing discourses was to resolve itself in the truth about him--or put to death--so that he could be put away--but, though the medical side is said to have won, it fell short of achieving this objective. Foucault's point in presenting Riviere's dossier was that its "facts" proved frustratingly inconclusive. Riviere slaughtered--that much is known; the crucial rest is conjectural, overstretching and bringing expertise to silence--then as much as now.
More than merely challenged, the cases foiled the experts. Offering them to his contemporaries was Foucault's way of defying twentieth-century psychiatry: "What do you have to say about it? Are you better prepared to discuss it than your 19th century colleagues?" (22) Riviere in particular was a "trap"; he not only was relegated to the grey zone of contemporary knowledge but flew in the face of already eroding social values. He was, nevertheless, judged according to those values, which accounts for much of the ethical controversy surrounding the case; his sentencing attended the integration of psychiatry into medical jurisprudence. Barbin, by comparison, was less sensational, "hardly even scandalous" (Herculine Barbin, xvii). Due perhaps to the sensitivity of the situation and the scene affected by it (a convent and a school run by nuns), "[n]either Alexina's case nor her memoirs seem to have aroused much interest at the time" (Herculine Barbin, xiv).
Caught in the network of power-knowledge, both of Foucault's historical "cases" were exceptions used in the support or justification of competing positions, categories, themes. Through the two dossiers, Foucault aimed to address the cases of two specific individuals as precisely such cases in point. At the same time, he exemplified his own historical ideas and the application of his method. The resulting historical studies outline what remains (after the traditional histories were composed), the conservation of which is ethically grounded. But the compulsion, on Foucault's part, to share these nonillustrative, indefinite remains of the past also sprung from his aesthetic response ("It was simply the beauty of Riviere's memoir. The utter astonishment it produced in us was the starting point ... [O]wing to a sort of reverence and perhaps, too, terror for a text which was to carry off four corpses along with it, we were unwilling to superimpose our own text on Riviere's memoir") (Pierre Riviere, xiii, x-xi). In Foucault's hands, the dossier became an aesthetic and ethical means of unraveling what was once the case. As such, it was an alternative avenue for de-composing history while studying the past. Indeed, Foucault's own recourse to the dossier form, along with the concessions of authorial and (broadly) discursive control that this implied, became vital to the incremental success of genealogical undertakings.
Judging by his own statements, Foucault found himself caught in the double bind of power-knowledge: the claims of global, totalizing theory on the one hand, and the local, disparate, illegitimate, subjugated knowledges on the other. Foucault's problem was, then, the tension, negotiation, and fundamental irreconcilability, in all knowledge and all power, between the representative (general, systematized, abstract, significant, willed, visible, redemonstrable) and the singular (particular, untheorized, concrete, insignificant, accidental, mute, archival). He feared his critiques coming across as too casual (superficial, incoherent, disorganized, ineffective), though this casualness may in fact be their most valuable trait--yielding the irregular, the eclectic, the informal, the ready-for-use, and encouraging the "amazing efficacy of discontinuous, particular and local criticism." (23) At the same time, Foucault faulted the "functionalist coherence or formal systemisation" for burying historical contents (81). His scrupulous resistance to repetition, to straightforward causality, was counterbalanced by his embrace of the "event," the casus of many causes, and shaped the framework of his historical endeavors. Excluded from his methodology, the casual, diffuse, disconnected, and particular states of affairs returned both to haunt and to reinforce Foucault's method. In evaluating his contribution in the two dossiers, it is important to view it in the context of the goals set by him for genealogy and to focus not on what these texts prevent but, rather, on what they enable. Ultimately, what Foucault and his collaborators' historical studies make possible is the preservation/reservation of the exceptional extant event, without its subsumption by sweeping historical generalizations. By forgoing--as well as preempting--unitary, totalizing narrative or analysis along with the closure it delivers, they elicit meaningful conclusions on a case-specific basis.
Events as such consisted, for Foucault, in their singularity. Perhaps out of a sense of obligation to acknowledge this truth of events, Foucault upheld the epistemic impossibility of such truth--as something not simply buried but extinguished with the event to which it belonged. Speaking of the rupture that marked the transition from one age to another, he wrote: "Only thought re-apprehending itself at the root of its own history could provide a foundation, entirely free of doubt, for what the solitary truth of this event was in itself." (24) Only the effects of the event can be retraced step-by-step. This scepticism bespeaks interminable suspension in one's historical present: the truth of the past can neither be fully known nor made known. Still, it is asserted. Given the irreducible ontological status of events alone, assembling archival documents in dossiers seems a most apposite historical method. The historical dossier presupposes its own inadequacy to the event, which is always greater than the sum of its (the dossier's) parts. It is a form of commemoration of the past, a step up from silence.
Granted, Foucault knew how to make virtue of necessity. He theorized eventalization, an analytic mode
making visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant, an immediate anthropological trait, or an obviousness which imposes itself uniformly on all. To show that things "weren't as necessary as all that" ... A breach of self-evidence, of those self-evidences on which our knowledges, acquiescences and practices rest: this is the first theoretico-political function of "eventalization." ... This procedure of causal multiplication means analyzing an event according to the multiple processes which constitute it.... As a way of lightening the weight of causality, "eventalization" thus works by constructing around the singular event analysed as process a "polygon" or rather a "polyhedron" of intelligibility, the number of whose faces is not given in advance and can never properly be taken as finite. (25)
The dossier's stellated presentation of archival material judged relevant, with minimal commentary and annotation, has the potential to yield a radically eventalized perception of the past. In contrast to the de-eventalized history of "unitary necessity," of linear, self-evident causation (78), the dossier stands as an open invitation to reexamine the surviving evidence and effects of events, connoting a multiplicity of causal relationships and exposing the stitches of historical narratives fashioned from them. The ineffable event is an absent point of convergence and divergence of multiple vectors, for a myriad of "intelligibilities" (78).
It is around events' singularity, this "overdetermined" shadow, that the documentary congeries become clustered, designating still more minute occurrences. The two memoirs, disabused and discussed here in the context of their dossier-ization, are in themselves events, as is the coroner's report, and so forth. The dossiers gathered in each case are configurations of select text-events opining or shedding light on the events described therein. Composing dossiers with the aim of decomposing monocausal historical objects is, however, no roundabout way to greater historical objectivity (that illusion Foucault put to rest). Even if their ramifications have partially been unearthed, the manifold "unsaid" events to which each dossier refers remain buried. Nevertheless, the dossiers enabled the problematization of received historical notions and distinctions of norm versus deviation. Within the framework of genealogical analysis, research into how the "abnormal individual" has come to be objectified and identified, in oft-competing legal and medical terms, has moved ahead.
In one sense, of course, Foucault's dossiers also sustain a case: the case for genealogy. Like their institutional counterparts, they suspend documents in a comparison, holding interpretations in stellar conjunction. As has been said, they exhibit a double epistemic movement. On the one hand, they particularize a subject, separating it from the typical and the general (even while hosting generalizing interpretations). On the other hand, by using that very particular, they distinctly set it up as concrete evidence and example of the past. Thus, the dossier's function, though married to specificity, is not mired in it. If one is to make a case for dossiers in historical research, it is not only as providing historical "raw material"--though, inadvertently, compiling and publishing dossiers lets the archive itself breathe and speak--but as reconstituting primary historical evidence. The contemporary historiographic climate is favorable to such practice, and Foucault's work in this respect is exemplary. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect historians to confront the fact that the ongoing process of conventional history-writing abstracts primary sources and marks the erosion of a sense of events' singularity. This, however, is why both types of presentation--the dossier and the history--should coexist.
The formal relevance of Foucault's dossiers is not restricted to the analytics of power-knowledge; its practitioner need not adhere to Foucault's genealogical method to put them into operation. However, obtaining the most use out of dossiers entails a commitment to the particular as something that not only informs, but is inalienable from and irreducible to, the interest in writing history. This ethos and the praxis of dossier-historiography speaks to Paul Veyne's (26) reflections about singularity (of individuals and events in the ordinary sense) and the writing of history:
History is interested in individualized events ... but it is not interested in their individuality; it seeks to understand them--that is, to find among them a kind of generality or, more precisely, of specificity.... We have moved from individual singularity to specificity--that is, to the individual as understandable (that is why "specific" means both "general" and "particular").... All that is specific is historic; everything is understandable except the singularity ... On the other hand, once given the singular existence, all that can be said of an individual possesses a kind of generality. (27)
If, in this respect, Foucault's dossiers are crosscurrents to histories, Foucault's genealogies--"knit together in the manner of narrative" (28) interested as much in the specific as in the general--have more in common with standard historiography. And yet, from the 1960s onward Foucault's "abnormal" histories have been approached with scepticism, if not directly discredited, by exponents of "disciplinary history." (29) But while mainstream disciplinary historians were opposed to Foucault's way of doing history as incommensurate with their own practice, historians erstwhile on the fringes of their discipline were more favorably disposed and increasingly took up his methods. Even today, twenty years after Foucault's death, and after as many years of posthumous commentary and tribute, Foucault's reception by professional historians is awaiting rapprochement. Goldstein's endorsement in Foucault and the Writing of History, now over ten years old, has not lost its currency: without necessarily subscribing to Foucault's historical methods, one can find in Foucault "a refreshing and consistently stimulating guide to asking historical questions and conceptualising historical phenomena." (30)
The above discussion, though circumscribed by the tactical use and status of the dossier in Foucault's research, hopes to serve as an impetus for further investigation into this genre's conventions and historiographic usefulness. The two lines of my argument--the dossier as a form suited to Foucauldian genealogy and as a potential medium of historiography in general--are predicated on two realizations. The first of these was that Foucault's genealogical method made possible the use and re-use of dossiers in historical-cum-philosophical study. The second was that Foucault's use of dossiers instantiated the problematic of dossier-historiography, an epistemological trap at its core. We have inherited Foucault's dossiers as examples of both the application of the dossier in historiography and of the pitfalls inherent in its applicability.
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
(1.) Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Salomoni, "Course Context," in Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France, 1974-1975, by Michel Foucault, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Arnold I. Davidson et al. (New York: Picador, 2003), 333-34, 340.
(2.) Gerard Noiriel, "Foucault and History: The Lessons of a Disillusion," Journal of Modern History 66 (1994): 548.
(3.) Jan Goldstein, introduction to Foucault and the Writing of History, ed. Jan Goldstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 14.
(4.) Michel Foucault, foreword to I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother ...: A Case of Parricide in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Frank Jellinek, ed. Michel Foucault (New York: Pantheon, 1975), x-xi. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically as Pierre Rivere.
(5.) Foucault, Abnormal, 333.
(6.) Michel Foucault, introduction to Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, by Herculine Barbin, trans. Richard McDougall (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 119. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(7.) Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983), 159.
(8.) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), 159. All further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.
(9.) Michel Foucault, "The Dangerous Individual," in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, trans. Alan Sheridan et al., ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988), 126.
(10.) Foucault, Abnormal, 74-75.
(11.) Mark Cousins and Athar Hussain, Michel Foucault (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984), 3.
(12.) Adam Phillips, "Making the Case: Freud's Literary Engagements," in Profession 2003 (New York: MLA, 2003): 11, 14.
(13.) Michel Foucault, "Tales of Murder," in Pierre Riviere, 201-03.
(14.) Frank Pignatelli, "Critical Ethnography/Poststructuralist Concerns: Foucault and the Play of Memory," Interchange 29.4 (1998): 409.
(15.) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), 143.
(16.) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994), 219.
(17.) Michel Foucault, "I, Pierre Riviere ...," in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston, ed. Sylvere Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), 204.
(18.) Michel Foucault, "Two Lectures," in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-77, trans. Colin Gordon (Brighton: Harvester, 1980), 81.
(19.) Michel Foucault, "The Functions of Literature," in Genealogy and Literature, ed. Lee Quinby (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P), 6.
(20.) Raymond Bellour, "Towards Fiction," in Michel Foucault Philosopher, trans. Timothy J. Armstrong (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 153.
(21.) Phillips, 13.
(22.) Foucault, "I, Pierre Riviere ...," 203.
(23.) Foucault, "Two Lectures," 80.
(24.) Foucault, Order of Things, 217.
(25.) Michel Foucault, "Questions of Method," in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, trans. Colin Gordon, ed. Graham Burchell et al. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991), 76-77.
(26.) For an extensive discussion of the topic, see Paul Veyne, "Foucault revolutionne l'histoire" (Foucault revolutionizes history), in Comment on ecrit l'histoire (Writing history) (Paris: Seuil, 1978), 203-42.
(27.) Paul Veyne, Writing History: Essay on Epistemology (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1984), 56.
(28.) Goldstein, 14.
(29.) Allen Megill, "The Reception of Foucault by Historians," Journal of the History of Ideas 48.1 (1987): 117.
(30.) Goldstein, 15.…
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Publication information: Article title: "A Case, an Affair, an Event" (the Dossier by Michel Foucault). Contributors: Chrostowska, S. D. - Author. Journal title: CLIO. Volume: 35. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2006. Page number: 329+. © 1998 Indiana University, Purdue University of Fort Wayne. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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