Between Emergence and Possibility: Foucault, Derrida, and Judith Butler on Performative Identity

By Nealon, Jeffrey T. | Philosophy Today, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Between Emergence and Possibility: Foucault, Derrida, and Judith Butler on Performative Identity


Nealon, Jeffrey T., Philosophy Today


FOUCAULT, DERRIDA, AND JUDITH BUTLER ON PERFORMATIVE IDENTITY

It would seem that the book is closed on the relation between Jacques Derrida's work and Michel Foucault's. I As Derrida writes in a recent essay on Foucault, the sometimes acrimonious debate ended with Foucault's death.2 In retrospect, however, it seems clear that the acrimony of the debate has covered over more productive reflection on the possible intersections between their work. Perhaps such reflection is only now becoming possible, as the polemics fade into the background. In this essay, I'd like to suggest that one such productive way of (re)articulating the differend between Foucault's work and Derrida's would be to take very seriously Foucault's repeated emphasis on material conditions of emergence rather than philosophical conditions of possibility. Even in his most recognizably "philosophical" or methodological work-for example, in The Archaeology of Knowledge and its analysis of the "statement"-Foucault remains skeptical of any discourse that engages itself with a transcendentalist thematics of origin: as he writes in the Archaeology, "for statements it is not a condition of possibility but a law of coexistence."3 This Foucaultian insistence on the emergence and coexistence of statements (and his concomitant emphasis on the genealogical sites of chance, materiality, and discontinuity) may offer a slightly more sober way of understanding the dispute with Derrida than is offered in Foucault's "My Body, This Paper, This Fire," his rather vitriolic response to Derrida's reading of Madness and Civilization.

Foucault's 1971 essay, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," is very clear concerning the stakes of this distinction between conditions of emergence and conditions of possibility. For him, Nietzsche allows us to disrupt the specious privilege of metaphysical originality when he poses the question of origin not in strictly transcendentalist terms-not as Ursprung-but rather in "genealogical" terms. Nietzsche challenges us to rethink origin in two specific ways: first, as Herkunft (stock or descent; the chance, discontinuous history of what Foucault calls "the body-and everything that touches it: climate, diet, soil");4 second, Nietzsche asks us to think origin as Entstehung, which Foucault glosses as emergence or event, "the moment of [force's] arising"5 that "designates a place of confrontation."6 By insisting on this distinction between conditions of possibility and conditions of emergence, Foucault's reading of Nietzsche continually highlights the genealogical principle, which holds that "what is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things; it is disparity."7 Genealogy consistently "opposes itself to the search for `origins"'s-that is, it opposes itself to the search for conditions of possibility, to the continuous exposure of the Ursprung's historico/transcendental traces in philosophy and in the human sciences.

It is in this context that we might recall or reexamine Foucault's objections to Derrida in the Archaeology of Knowledge (though note that Derrida is never named directly in the text): according to Foucault, even if one emphasizes a radically discontinuous notion of conditions of possibility, a certain kind of pernicious transcendentalism nevertheless

can be purified in the problematic of a trace, which, prior to all speech, is the opening of inscription, the gap of deferred time; it is always the historico-transcendental theme that is reinvested. A theme [from which] enunciative analysis tries to free itself. In order to restore statements to their pure dispersion.... In order to consider them in their discontinuity, without having to relate them . . . to a more fundamental opening or difference. In order to seize their very irruption at the place and at the moment at which it occurred. (AK, p. 121 )

At least provisionally, Foucault posits his emphasis on conditions of emergence (the "very irruption at the place and at the moment at which it occurred") as a wedge to interrupt the smooth disciplinary movement from objects to their governing laws of possible inscription. …

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