Supplice de Damiens

Lives of Infamous Men

In his essay, “Lives of Infamous Men,” Foucault states a list of rules he has chosen for the selection of material for a broader project.

• The persons included must have actually existed.

• These existences must have been both obscure and ill-fated.

• They must have been recounted in a few pages or, better, a few sentences, as brief as possible.

• These tales must not just constitute strange or pathetic anecdotes; but, in one way or another (because they were complaints, denunciations, orders, or reports), they must have truly formed part of the minuscule history of these existences, of their misfortune, their wildness, or their dubious madness.

• And for us still, the shock of these words must give rise to a certain effect of beauty mixed with dread. (#, 159)

Foucault tells us that the purpose of these seemingly arbitrary criteria was to unearth “the existence of these men and women” of whom “nothing subsists of what they were or what they did, other than what is found in a few sentences” and present these scraps of official discourse, because what was written “really crossed lives; existences were actually risked and lost in these words”  (162, 160). Foucault gives an example of one such scrap, whose kindred surprised and enraptured him with their intensity:

Mathurin Milan, placed in the hospital of Charenton, 31 August 170 7: “His madness was always to hide from his family, to lead an obscure life in the country, to have actions at law, to lend usuriously and without security, to lead his feeble mind down unknown paths, and to believe himself capable of the greatest employments.” (158)

In my own research, I come across such lives from time to time, which effloresce briefly in the account books of a plantation, an ancient diary, or some long forgotten agricultural journals. So when there is occasion, I will try to re-present the lives of these infamous men and women I stumble across, with as little adornment as possible. Such representations have a politics, to be sure, yet these documents endure in any case, and we tend to believe that knowledge is made for cutting.

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