Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Exploring Complexity through Literature: Reframing Foucault's Research Project with Hindsight

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Exploring Complexity through Literature: Reframing Foucault's Research Project with Hindsight

Article excerpt

Language, Madness and Desire: On Literature, originally published in French as La grande étrangère: À propos de literature in 2013, comprising Foucault's comments on literature, constitutes a welcome if late addition to the Foucault archive of accessible books. It presents Foucault's views on literature presented in different contexts and formats over the period 1960-1971. It is based upon typed transcripts of oral presentations given by Foucault in the form of radio broadcasts and lectures. The editors have rendered these presentations as literal as possible correcting errors and punctuation for the purposes improving readability, but being careful to comply with Foucault's original intentions. The book also includes a valuable assemblage of notes and biographic information about the editors. The first section, "Language and Madness," comprises two radio broadcasts presented by Foucault in 1963. They were originally part of a series of five talks for a program titled as "The Use of Speech," broadcast by RTF France III, produced by Jean Doat, a television and theatre actor and writer. The five broadcasts, titled "Celebratory Madness," were initially presented on a weekly basis. The last two, titled "The Silence of the Mad" and "Mad Language" are reproduced in this book "because of the mirror structure they employ and their focus on literature" (p. 6). The other three focus more directly on madness, or at least the language of the mad, and were left out on this basis. The second section, titled "Literature and Language" reproduces a lecture Foucault presented to the Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis in Brussels by the same title. Here Foucault re-examines the major themes that appeared in his writing on literature from the early 1960s, referring to writers such as Bataille, Blanchot, Sade, Cervantes, Joyce, Jakobson, and others. It is here that Foucault locates the historical emergence of literature in its modern form in the period from the end of the eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Foucault's interest here is in the way that language is encoded within the literary form of discourse and what function literature plays in relation to discourse in general. In this lecture, Foucault's early concern with archaeological investigations concerned as they were with identifying literatures core discursive features becomes apparent as he asks the question, firstly, "What Is Literature?" and secondly, "What Is the Language of Literature?" His excursus proceeds from Gutenberg's invention of printing to the emergence of the book, where, finally, "literature finds and founds its being" (p. 64):

Although the book existed, and with a very dense reality, for several centuries prior to the invention of literature, it was not, in fact, the site of literature: it was merely a material opportunity for transmitting language.. ..But in fact if literature fulfils its being in the book, it doesn't placidly welcome the essence of the book (besides, the book, in reality, has no essence, has no essence other than what it contains); that is why literature will always be the simulacrum of the book. It behaves as though it were the book, it pretends to be a series of books (p. 64).

What distinguishes literature is its transgressive language, "a mortal, repetitive, redoubled language, the language of the book itself' (p. 65). In literature, says Foucault, it is the book that speaks. The third section, titled "Lectures on Sade" comprises two lectures given in 1970 at the State University of New York at Buffalo which illustrates and adds depth to Foucault's views on literature and which also signal many of the themes that were to emerge in his later book length studies. The first lecture was on Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, the second on Sade's La Nouvelle Justine, which, as the editors note, Foucault says was written "entirely with an eye to the truth" (p. 95). Foucault's interest in Sade had developed before and after The History of Madness. …

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