2 (1999), Nr.1/März


1. How Foucault Could Have Approached Modern Art: Archaeology Expanded. Korrigierte Fassung eines Referats für die Sektion "Foucault, Bourdieu, Practice" von "Passions, Persons, Powers", die 7. Jahreskonferenz der International Association for Philosophy and Literature an der University of California at Berkeley 1992, am 2. Mai 1992. Dank für last minute help an Ms. Anne Hurley, B.A., Berkeley. 14528 Zeichen.

It will come as no surprise that Foucault's approach to modern art set in to develop by search of an example. Right after the publication of The Order of Things in 1966, Foucault was asked whether there was a painting of recent times that corresponded to what Velasquez's Las Meniñas had been for the classical epoche. Foucault declared Paul Klee to be the one who had let surface the sparkling knowledge of painting - in analogy to the pure being of language of the Mallarmé tradition. In the following year, he extended the significance of that knowledge to Kandinsky. This search had a theoretical parallel.

Since The Order of Things, Words and Things, as the French title has it, had included only a reference to a painting for a particular reason, Foucault saw quickly that he had to come up with a more general account. He wrote The Words and The Images - Les mots et les images - , being the review of the 1967 French edition of art historian Erwin Panofsky's Essays in Iconology. In 1968, Foucault finally arrived, in an essay on Magritte, at the so called triangle of images, words and things. The framework was a result of his correspondence with the Belgian surrealist painter. The essay - "This is Not a Pipe" - appeared 1973 in book form including some short and important additions.

Regarding Lautréamont's famous encounter of the sewing machine with the umbrella on the operating table to which Foucault refers in the preface of The Order of Things <dt. OD 19>, I will try to make the following two points. First: Foucault succeeds in lifting the Lautréamont encounter to a more general level of a space of thought. Second: For the sake of art, Foucault could well have included the expression of painting, something he approached quite decisively in works prior to the Archeology of Reason.

The paper has four parts:

What is Foucault's archaeology of the modern humanities. What role is literature to play in it? How does the so called triangle words/images/things work in the structure of modern painting? Where are we to situate the expression of painting?

(1) In The Order of Things, the archeology of the human sciences unfolds its history against the hiddeen background of classical mechanics. But classical is also a dominant part of French literature in the 17th and 18th centuries, including some of the Enlightenment, further a bourgeois society that is in full swing of taking power, and a capitalist economy coming along with the industrial revolution. Foucault takes the modern into consideration historically for the end of the eighteenth century. The sciences to take the floor since do not only represent themselves but the history of the modern as a whole. They represent the history of man as it had entered a self-conscious state with the French Revolution and left it in the aftermath of World War II.

This archaeology of the modern consists of showing several things. Biology, philology and economics emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century simultaneously with the formation of their positivities and the appropriate empirical-methodical accesses. Life was opposed to and at the same time comprising classifiable natural beings, labor as opposed to and containing exchangeable wealth, and language as opposed to verbal signs in a succesful representative bond to what is signified.

Especially language is important here. Because of the breakdown of a supposedly comprehensive representation guaranteed by the very nature of it - as it had been understood in the classical age - , language did not only become an object extraneous to a hitherto unquestioned functioning, but became increasingly detached from reality theoretically and aesthetically. This change concerns subjectively experienced language. And in thsi experience there is not only the place of the Idéologues or Kant and the transcendental turn in the history of thought. It is not only the point from which constantly arises reasoning oscillating between the bounds of modern critique, positivism, and metaphysics. Not only is there a wake of history drawing whatever there is into attempts at human perfection or into the frailty of relativity. Nor is there a way of constituting a human being fully capable of representing her- or himself without the finitude that is demoted to mere traces by the human sciences themselves.

Language moreover, for us most important, is determined by the mode of language that gets involved with its own being by self-reflection. It is literature that, according to Foucault (and Barthes), does not occur before 1800. Literature, in this view, leaves behind the classical values of taste, pleasure, the natural, and the true. "It breaks with every definition of 'genres' as forms adjusted to an order of representations and becomes the pure and plain revelation of a language that has as its law only the affirmation of its crude existence."<OD 366>. An art for its own sake, that is the destiny to which all threads run together up from Sade, Hölderlin, Nerval, Nietzsche and down from Blanchot, Klossowski, Bataille, Artaud and Roussel. The knot is Mallarmé. His attempts to write the word of words, all books on one page result in the black line of ink and not even that: in the empty page.<OD 369> These attempts reveal for Foucault nothing but an index of an experience, a 'Formalism' of "the strict dismantling of occidental culture according to a necessity that it had given to itself in the beginning of the nineteenth century."<OD 459>

(2) Now, asked against this dramatic background: What function literature is to be destines to play for painting?

In his work up to The Order of Things, Foucault had dealt almost exclusively with literature. No wonder, that in contrast to the existentialism of the 1950's he found particularly appealing some advanced positions in surrealism. It is the tradition of Artaud, Bataille, Blanchot, Klossowski, Borges and the Nouveau Roman - all of them in one way or the other opposed to what might be called the position of consciousness in Breton. This was the predominantly literary basis for Foucaults inquiry into madness and medical reason.

Significant in this respect is a hosting of a Débat sur le roman by Foucault, a debate about the new novel with members of the literary circle Tel Quel in 1964. Here he distinguishes sharply between the psychological space of the surrealists and the space of thought.

If for the surrealists there are trials like dreams, sleeplessnes, or madness as points of departure for their writings, then, for the new novel, the trials must be undergone only in order to realize the "extraordinary experience of thought" <Tel quel 17, 1964, p.13>. And concerning the difference of language at that time: Had surrealist literature merely employed language to have access to automatic writing and to gain reflection of mental states, language for the circle of Tel quel was the space of experience. Here Foucault tries to apply an "anti-psychologism of contemporary philosophy" <ebd.>. If successfully so, isn't it the space of language, the language of the new novel, the space of thought? Isn't it this kind of thought which Foucault had in mind to which he devoted a full-length study in analysing Raymond Roussel's writings published in 1963?

In Raymond Roussel's writings again, there is no common system of existence and language, because language alone forms the system of existence. Roussel - who in 1911 conceived of a machine that produces innumerable paintings of a painting; Roussel - who replaced the literature of signification by a literature of the signifier; Roussel - who continued formalism by introducing linguistic-methodical procedures into his experience of finitude - this Roussel creates a space that would be populated by very specific literary beings. "As the hatch for the gaze, language is that interstice through which being and its stand-in are unified and seperated, is related to that hidden shadow that lets things become visible in hiding their being. It is always more or less a rebus." <Foucault, Roussel (dt. S.140)> That is to say, a rebus with a double sense, which serves as a mask that connects being with appearance, language with the visible.

(3) Having described Foucault's conception of literary language - how does the relation of words, images and things work in modern painting?

In visual representation since Renaissance times, Foucault thinks to detect two principles. The first one is: Visual representation and linguistic reference are seperated from each other in order to subordinate one to the other. Either a text serves as a commentary on an image and is employed simultaneously with the visual form. Or a picture serves as a figurative illustration to the text. In both cases this principle of subordination of visual representation to linguistic reference or vice versa is abolished. Paul Klee executed that.

As for the second principle, resemblance and the affirmation of the representative bond to reality are comprehended as equivalent. That means, a painting is almost always silently taken as a statement, a statement in the form of "What you see is that ..." <This Is Not a Pipe, p.34>. Be it the reference to something around it or be it an invisible world, the painting's task is to resemble. Because affirmation and resemblance cannot be dissociated from each other, according to Foucault, the abolition of the second principle destroys the representative bond and resemblance at the same time. It is Kandinsky who achieved a pure affirmation by affirming line and color without resemblance and thus founded the basis for a statement like "What you see is what you see" - a basis for the self-reference of painting to painting as such.

What had started with Klee and cubist collage - the inclusion of words and signs as paint and the use of figures for the writing of words resulting in an unstable space - , and what had taken place as a formalist dissolution of resemblance and representation in Cézanne, Kandinsky and abstract painting thereafter, was preceded by the unique painting of Magritte that Foucault takes as the master case to deal with.

Klee had had success in the exterioration of written and figurative elements. He mingled figures and signs, created an unnameable space without depth by means of graphical signs to which the reading gaze corresponds. Magritte on his part, unlike Klee, does not establish a hierarchical relationship of visual representation and linguistic reference. He uses rather a space of representation being told, compresses it to a surface, multiplies it, and generates an absence that would have allowed to make a series of analytic operations, similar to Rothko, Noland and Warhol. This is at least how Foucault puts it into perspective in "Ariane s'est pendue" <Rez. Deleueze, Différence et répétition, Le Nouvel Observateur Nr. 229, 1969>.

According to Foucault, Magritte sticks to resemblance to the extent that he incorporates features of the surrounding of an image's motif or until a multiplication takes place within one and the same painting as if affirmation had to be increased. In contrast to Klee and others, there is a sharp seperation between writing and the figurative. These elements - writing, image - are superimposed to force the expression of a hidden statement behind painting. The identity of the figure and the name usually connected with it is to be contested.

Although Magritte seems to be closer to Klee, his link to Kandinsky is not less important. Kandinsky negates common-sense-affirmation by reducing it to the affirmation of what is left: material, action, eruptive form. Magritte successfully removes from painting both resemblance and affirmation of a representative bond. He plays them off against each other and thus discerns an affirmation next to discourse. Since resemblance is transformed to similarity, it is a similarity without any affirmation. Foucault summarizes: "Resemblance serves representation, which rules over it, similarity <instead of the translator's Harkness similitude, who orients himself at the use of The Order of Things. Similitude (fr.) is always similitude (engl.). But Foucault is not conceptually consistent either. In the 1968 version of This Is Not a Pipe he uses 'similitude', engl. p.14, 16, 18: similitude, in the 1973 version 'ressemblance', engl. p.34, 43, 53: resemblance.> serves repetition, which ranges across it. Resemblance predicates itself upon a model it must return to and reveal; similarity <my transl.> circulates the simulacrum as an indefinite and reversible relation of the similar to the similar." <This ..., p.44> At the same time, affirmation requiring discursive language leads similarity beyond resemblance, like Warhol has removed the identity of the image and its name. <This ..., p.54>.

As Foucault says, classical painting spoke when it constituted itself outside of language. But once it had done so it kept being silent during the classical age and provided, beneath the surface, the all-too-well-known-ground for the bonds of words and images. What Foucault reads in Panofsky particularly - the opening of the relations of discourse and the visual world shown in the embodiment of themes, the representations of texts and icons according to their contexts, and the distinction of different sets of formal rules - all that had subsequently enforced the type of analysis which was brought forth in The Order of Things. But does this cover enough of what we call modern painting?

(4) Let me come to the last part, the extending part: Where are we to situate the expression of painting?

So far we only dealt with painting as knowledge and the way how the break of modern painting by Klee, Kandinsky, and Magritte resulted in a knowledge different to that of classical representational painting. But is there an experience that is specific to modern painting equally? Is there painting as experience apart from the psychological space? These questions do of course hint at van Gogh, the painters of the Brücke, Francis Bacon, even de Kooning and Vienna Actionism - to include abstract expressionism. But the more basic dimension of expression needs to be uncovered before it can be referred to a movement or style like expressionism as the occupation with the surrealism of Magritte unearthed.

Looking at Foucault's earlier archaeological enterprises - the History of Madness in the Classical Age of 1961 and The Birth of the Clinic from 1964 - under the perspective towards art, we discover a phenomenon that surprisingsly or even enigmatically is not touched by The Order of Things.

Recall what I said of Foucault's interpretation of the Kantian turn, of the history of te modern. What is it exactly that makes reason taking the throne? Nothing else than what happens in the madhouse. For Sade as for Goya - the latter will not keep his place in the archaeology of modern reason - , classical unreason watches during the nighttime and perceives its forces that had been a non-being. Since that historical point of time reason will be transcended into violence, unreason will uncover what the work (l'oeuvre) contains of the murderous and constraint.

Of all that NOTHING, it is Goya who gave "an expression" to it <passage of afterword included in engl. trsl. of Madness and Civilization, p.281> and a hold on occidental culture that would equally make possible any critique and contestation. The search for truth does not find anything other than madness providing the possibility for both man and world. For whatever appears, there is no background, no landscape, no night sky, not even walls. Without origin, there are only cries, monsters, glances of witches, obsessions of things like pipes. And not to forget: the experience of the manifestation of finitude connected with death.

And now - to close with a question instead of a synthesis - : Why shouldn't we make one more move and ask ourselves if expression in a completely non-arbitrary sense is not the other side of the coin - the coin being Mallarmé's desperate activity - that joins the unfolding of the formalism of modern painting comprising language, image and words in its own birthright?

Zusätzlich verwendete Literatur:

Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, übers. v. Séan Hand, London: The Athlone Press 1988

Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting. In: Arts Yearbook 4 (1961), S.193-201

Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge-MA/London: MIT Press 1981

Rosalind Krauss, In the Name of Picasso, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge-MA/London: MIT Press 1986, S.23-41

Walter Seitter, Michel Foucault und die Malerei, in: Michel Foucault, Dies ist keine Pfeife, übersetzt v. Walter Seitter, München: Carl Hanser Verlag 1974, S.61-68

Hugh J. Silverman, Michel Foucault's Nineteenth Century System of Thought and the Anthropological Sleep, in: Seminar III (1979), S.1-8

Peter Mahr (c) 1999