Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Poetic Fact: On Research Questions as Relations of Force

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Poetic Fact: On Research Questions as Relations of Force

Article excerpt

Drawing on Aristotle's Poetics and Peirce's philosophy of science, I argue that scholarship comes closest to contemporary creative art at the point at which it generates doubt in prior knowledge, forcefully. Foucault and Auden exemplify this convergence.

For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute and hypocritical sexuality.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem [diton]. Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence.

--Foucault, History of Sexuality Volume 1

The opening pages of Foucault's History of Sexuality Volume 1 are sprinkled with phrases like "it would seem [dit-on]" (3), "seem to have [semblent avoir]" (4), and "we are told [nous dit-on encore]" (5). (1) Such phrases serve as repeated reminders of the author's ironic distance. The mock-poetics of sentences like "But twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie [A ce plein jour, un rapide crepuscule aurait fait suite, jusquaux nuits monotones de la bourgeoisie victorienne]" (3) (2) underscore the increasing feeling one has over these first few pages that Foucault finds something risible in the common-sense tale he is in the process of recounting, indeed impersonating.

As The History of Sexuality Volume 1 continues, the play-acting recedes slightly to allow for the appearance of a number of express doubts, including the idea that this passionately critical "discourse on modern sexual repression" resembles nothing so much as a form of "preaching. A great sexual sermon" (7). "This is the point," Foucault now writes, "at which I would like to situate the series of historical analyses that will follow" (8). Foucault proceeds over the next forty pages to enumerate the series of "facts" (13)--"faits" (Histoire 22)--that will serve to substantiate what his "great sexual sermon" metaphor has already foreshadowed. In brief, it is this same Victorian period that "witnessed a veritable discursive explosion" of sexual confession, be it in diary, doctor's surgery, domestic architecture, or even demographic map (17).

The facts Foucault recounts over these pages are compelling, so much so that one invariably forgets to ask why they are not in themselves sufficient. Why does he not just tell us those facts? Do they not render his opening pages superfluous? Why does he bother, with such palpable scorn, to flesh out this "discourse on modern sexual repression" (5) when even from the first page it is apparent how little credence he places in it? Why this preliminary play-acting? To put the strategy down to a certain mandarin scorn on Foucault's part would be to ignore the fact that humanities scholars repeatedly introduce their findings in just such a fashion, in terms of the received opinions those findings will undermine. So do scientists, of all stripes. But why?

In the Poetics, Aristotle proffers a reason: "what engages our feelings most powerfully is the elements of the plot--the reversals and recognitions" (75). The best way to see this, and indeed to explicate Foucault's strangely fictive opening to The History of Sexuality Volume 1, is to focus on what Aristotle regarded as the most powerful version of such reversals and recognitions: "when the shock of surprise arises from likely circumstances" (91). For Aristotle, more than anyone else, shows Foucault to be a poet, a framer of compelling questions.

Aristotle argues that certain ways of plotting dramatic delusion and denouement produce emotions that quite literally make people think. Chapter 9 of the Poetics formalizes this, through the dense statement that "since the [tragic] mimesis is not only [a mimesis] of a full-grown action but also of [events] terrifying and pitiful, and since the events are especially [so] when they happen unexpectedly and [yet] out of [inner] logic--for that way they will be more wonderful than if [they happened] all by themselves or [as we say] by chance [. …

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