First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death … On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. … Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street and the interior of the houses, thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents; meat, fish and herbs will be hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting. Only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets and also, between the infected houses, from one corpse to another…

—Michel Foucault, “Panopticism” (##)

Not quite the end of the seventeenth century, but an eerie similarity. Terrorism as the modern plague. A total, city-wide discipline, but updated for our societies of control. Justified or no, haunting in the extreme …

B.B. How have you raised the problem of choice and nonchoice?
M.F. I will say that, in fact, there should not be any privileged choice. One should be able to read everything, to know all the institutions and all the practices.

Michel Foucault, “The Order of Things” (Interview)

Ethopoiesis

“From Sovereignty to Ethopoiesis: Literature, Aesthetics, and New Forms of Life,” The Comparatist 36 (2012): 86-106.

My article in The Comparatist is finally out. It is essentially a distillation of the methodological argument of my dissertation, though stripped of all the particular literary contexts with which it is developed there. It shifts the scene slightly, and focuses on the question of “sovereignty” that appears in Foucault’s early writings on literature, a concept he shares with Derrida, and that both take from Bataille. I highly recommend the rest of the articles in the issue as well.

The essay traces what becomes of this idea as it evolves into “the final Foucault,” where ethics is related to treating being as a work of art. In it, I also try and distinguish the specific discourse of “literature” from an aesthetic function that often, though not always, resides within it. A passage, not random:

Considering the domains of archaeology, genealogy, and ethics, this aesthetics would be defined by the virtual production of new subjects of enunciation in discourse around which practices can be actualized as new forms of life.

Emphasis original, &c.

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.

A labyrinth into which I can venture…

*note: this is a post migrated from my old wordpress blog, over to tumblr, and now, once again, back to wordpress … you can find the new blog right here, where it’s been for awhile…

This space is designed to be what the ancient Greeks called hupomnēmata, an aid to memory, a digital notebook. Foucault says that the simple notebook, just coming into vogue in Plato’s time, “was as disrupting as the introduction of the computer into private life today” (#). Writing is part of the structure of thinking. And, given that my chosen profession is centered around research, writing, and instructing others in the fruits of that labor, I feel as much obliged as anything else to keep a public weblog of all these activities.

So much of the things that we think which are good don’t fit the purely professional forums of conferences and scholarly journals, and even when they do they oftend to isolate themselves off from our everyday lives. A blog seems like a pretty good solution, a sort of informal publication. I am personally currently writing my dissertation in the University at Buffalo’s English Department, so the following is the likely schema of meditations that will get posted here:

  • Synopses of current dissertation research
  • Some of my less ephemeral thoughts*
  • Lives of infamous men that crop up in my historical research (#)
  • Aphorisms
  • Conferences and other academic endeavors
  • Links to interesting things, such as articles

I hope that this space will continue long enough that these will mutate and change over time, inscribing some sort of evolution over time. And maybe, just maybe,  it is to be hoped that these hupomnēmata “may be of use to others” as well as our self (#).

—Addendum 4/27/20: It has indeed continued long enough that all of these have mutate and changed over time, radically, into many shapes, even as the glimmer of this early efflorescence of social media has really begun to lose much of its shine. Nevertheless, it marks off an intention at the origin of a project that guides it in the breach, even if the walls are mostly breaches these days …