Dates: 1926-1984

Nationality: French

Michel Foucault, born Paul-Michel Foucault (October 15, 1926 – June 25, 1984), was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian. He held a chair at the Collège de France with the title “History of Systems of Thought,” and also taught at the University at Buffalo and the University of California, Berkeley.

Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. His work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse has been widely discussed. In the 1960s Foucault was associated with Structuralism, a movement from which he distanced himself. Foucault also rejected the post-structuralist and postmodernist labels to which he was often later attributed, preferring to classify his thought as a critical history of modernity rooted in Kant. Foucault is particularly influenced by the work of Nietzsche; his “genealogy of knowledge” is a direct allusion to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. In a late interview he definitively stated: “I am a Nietzschean.”

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Michel Foucault’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 November 2010, 23:04 UTC, <en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Michel_Foucault&oldid=398710932>

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. A strange asceticism and madness permeates this attempt. For, much as with the “neutral space” in the artwork, to attain the free anonymity of discourse was to undo one’s own discursive position in an act of depersonalization that Foucault took precisely to be characteristic of madness in his time, a matter of course of great concern and ongoing research for him. But it is at this point that the problems begin. Is it that the “absence of oeuvre” just is this zone “outside” a given archive in thought, and with it, “aesthetics”? Or is this zone rather something future historians will assign to us or our archive, the reason for our having been drawn to it a mystery? Foucault in fact entertains both hypotheses; and when after ’68 there was no further talk of such questions, one may infer that he silently adopted the second option.

Rajchman, John. “Out of the Ordinary.” ArtForum, December, 1998. <findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_4_37/ai_53479685/>

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