What exactly is meant by Michel Foucault's "aesthetics"? The ideas of sex and power we now associate with the philosopher and historian seem to exist in an entirely different register from what he found in the arts. And yet in a certain way this paradox in our relation to his thought is already present in his own work, his own aesthetics.
The recent publication of Volume Two of Foucault's collected writings confronts us with just such questions. Much of his writings about the arts are contained in essays, reviews, interviews, lectures - a whole body of journalism that accompanied his work as a historian, leading him to his book on Raymond Roussel as well as to one on Manet (Foucault eventually destroyed the manuscript). After his death, Gallimard undertook the project of bringing together all of Foucault's writings not already published in books; and from the resulting volumes that appeared in France in 1994, the New Press, in its three-part series, is making its selections according to topics or themes, sometimes adding material from books. The second volume is about "epistemology, methodology, aesthetics." But what do these three things have to do with one another - what exactly did "aesthetics" mean for this historian of discourse, knowledge, madness?
Foucault's aesthetic writings are preponderately situated in a rather narrow period of time - basically what he later called "those strange years, the '60s." It was the moment before '68, when the loose group of historians, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and philosophers that Americans now classify as "poststructuralist" or "postmodernist" was emerging. Not only do most of Foucault's aesthetic writings date from this period, but they form a coherent group with a distinct relation to his archival research. In his "methodology" and in his "aesthetics" from this period there is much talk of impersonality, anonymity, faceless authorship. It was, after all, a time of Minimalism, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Warhol, and Foucault tried to associate with such work the existence of a kind of "neutral space" - an "absence of oeuvre" that "affirms nothing." He tried to show that the turn to this space was "archaeologically" significant, forming a sort of counterpoint to the importance given to language of the "linguistic model." For it exposed something in language that was prior to linguistics or analytic logic and the ways in which words and images, saying and seeing are thought to be related to one another. The aim of Foucault's own analysis of discourse was then at once to specify and attain this prior zone.
Foucault's well-known reading of Magritte exemplifies this attempt. The logic of abstraction in Kandinsky and Klee, he said, is in fact not one of reduction and self-reference. Rather, Kandinsky undoes the relation between resemblance and affirming a subject, while Klee undoes the hierarchical relations of images to words in an "uncertain, reversible, floating space." In taking up the problem posed by the two Bauhaus painters, Magritte may then be seen to point to a free zone before words and images, forms and contents, signifiers and signifieds are determined, a zone where at last painting might "affirm nothing." Abstraction, in other words, leads to this free space before saying and seeing become "archivally" determined within some particular "discourse"; and Ceci n'est pas une pipe would then be Magritte's paradoxical procedure to diagnose the existence of this space. Conversely an "archive" is what at a particular time and place so relates seeing and saying as to make something like "representation" or "affirmation" or the distinction between form and content possible. The aim of Foucault's aesthetics was then in each case to attain what he described as the "anonymous murmur" of discourse, where what can be said and who can speak is up for grabs. As a kind of new archivist (as Deleuze called Foucault), he would thus join with the artist in trying to diagnose who or what, outside the prevailing "archive," we might yet become. …