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.
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.