towards an ethnography of the dead

surgical theater header
tracing the ghost in Michel Foucault’s autoportrait as surprised anatomist

In an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, Michel Foucault reimagines his project of writing as one that slices into the dead body of other people. Only the corpses are not dead, and it is unclear who those people were. He says, “For me the sheet of paper may be the body of the other” (39). He says, “For me, writing means having to deal with the death of others, but it basically means having to deal with others to the extent that they’re already dead. In one sense, I’m speaking over the corpse of others” (40). The metaphor resonates with some autobiographical details Foucault divulges: his father, a surgeon, does not act through speech, but through an act of dissection, to “reach the silent truth of the body” (35); the son, a writer, acts only through a way of speaking which becomes also an act of dissection, but one undertaken only for a post-mortem diagnosis, a ferreting out a kernel of truth that finally became fatal.

Prominent Foucauldian Dana Scully exercising an archeology of knowledge.
Prominent Foucauldian Dana Scully exercising an archeology of knowledge.

Speaking over could also mean that he speaks the loudest in a chorus of the dead. This meaning becomes a stranger fantasy than one of the self-deprecating philosopher, assuming a creepy naïveté. Foucault continues his autoportrait, “I don’t condemn them to death. I simply assume they’re already dead. That’s why I’m so surprised when I hear them cry out” (41). These three sentences would be an excellent epigraph for a horror-adventure novel—words of a villain, an accidental necromancer, a mad scientist. The “they” could be anybody, made ambiguous by Foucault’s conversation: the immediate context suggests his readers (the antecedent seems to be the people in this sentence: “I also understand why people experience my writing as a form of aggression”), but the statements about the death of others, the corpse of others could indicate the lives buried in medical and penal archives, the writers who are quoted in his works (Linnaeus, Nietzsche, Descartes, etc.), or even the Man ushered forth in the modern episteme—the Man that is the subject and object of anthropology, psychoanalysis, medicine, and political economics. To consider Foucault as the one who speaks louder than corpses makes sense with the expanded “they”; after all, their voices are indeed subsumed within his writing. If he masters them there, through analysis and criticism, he has spoken over them. But mastering the subjects of his studies does not seem to be the point of Foucault’s writing.

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let’s whisper our diagnoses and start a science

Temptation of St. Anthony Bosch Detail
a close reading of a nearly mystical passage at the end of History of Madness

Man and madmen are perhaps more closely linked in the modern world than they could ever have been in the powerful animal metamorphoses illuminated by the burning mills of Bosch: they are joined by the impalpable link of a reciprocal and incompatible truth; they murmur to each other this truth of their essence, which evaporates from having been said by one to the other. Each light is extinguished by the light that it has brought into being, and is thereby returned to the light that it tore, yet which had summoned it, and which it had so cruelly exposed. Today, the only truth that men possess is the enigma of the mad that they both are and are not; each madman both does and does not carry within him this truth about man, which he bares in the fall of his humanity.

L’homme et le fou sont liés dans le monde moderne plus solidement peut-être qui’ils n’avaient pu l’être dans les puissantes métamorphoses animales qu’éclairaient jadis les moulins incendiés de Bosch : ils sont liés par ce lien impalpable d’une vérité réciproque et incompatible; ils se disent l’un à l’autre cette vérité de leur essence qui disparaît d’avoir été dite à l’un par l’autre. Chaque lumière s’éteint du jour qu’elle a fait naître et se trouve par là rendue à cette nuit qu’elle déchirait, qui l’avait appelée pourtant, et que, si cruellement, elle manifestait. L’homme, de nos jours, n’a de vérité que dans l’énigme du fou qu’il est et n’est pas; chaque fou porte et ne porte pas en lui cette vérité de l’homme qu’il met à nu dans la retombée de son humanité.

This passage comes at the climax of History of Madness, wherein Michel Foucault turns his archeology of madness to the human sciences: (the medicalization of, the giving voice to) madness becomes the condition that makes possible for Man to become the subject and object of anthropological study, to become the bearer of a truth that resides in the psyche of the self, a truth that can be excavated and analyzed by sociologists and psychologists. This brief context—which is only a sliver of Foucault’s archival digging—should give his suggestion that man and madmen are more closely linked its drama. While the giant toads and chimerical incarnations in Bosch’s paintings are monstrous, unnatural, and terrifying in the meticulous forms fixed in oil and pigment, they are the kind of eldritch horrors that reside within us, the kind of little devils that live in our own sinew. The painting with the mills on fire, for instance, refers to a triptych called The Temptation of Saint Anthony, wherein the desert father has basically a carnival from Hell attempt to lead him astray, and this carnival, in its didactic role as an altar piece, clearly makes certain vices into a vision of demons feasting on people. In short, the point of Bosch (for Foucault) was that these monsters were in us from the beginning, that the human person tends towards all sorts of brutal tendencies that reveal the undead splendor of the infernal and the untamed chaos of nature.

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