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Discourse as Event: Foucault, Writing, and Literature

Author(s): John Johnston

Source: MLN, Vol. 105, No. 4, French Issue (Sep., 1990), pp. 800-818
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Discourse as Event: Foucault,
Writing, and Literature

John Johnston

In the second Preface to what he claimed was his first book (having
disavowed his chronologically first book), Michel Foucault writes:
"I would like that this object-event [by which he means Madness and
Civilization], almost imperceptible among so many others, re-copy,
fragment, repeat, simulate and double itself, [and] disappear fi-
nally without ever allowing the one who happened to produce it to
be able to claim mastery over it, to impose what he meant, to say
what he had to say." In the same Preface, however, Foucault also
states that he wants his book to be "simultaneously battle and arms,
strategy and shock, struggle and trophy (or wound), conjuncture
and vestige, irregular encounter and repeatable scene."1
While these two desires are not exactly contradictory, it is not
immediately clear how they are related. I would like to suggest that
they reflect or at least anticipate two distinguishable aspects of a
theorization of writing Foucault will pursue until at least midway
through his career: the first assumes a highly self-conscious mod-
ernist conception of writing as a self-reflexive activity that dis-
places the writer and dispossesses him or her of a coherent iden-
tity; the second yields a more combative image of writing as a tran-
sitive intervention, a means by which the hardly visible coercive
powers of discourse are confronted, wrestled with, even subverted,
thereby revealing the ultimate inadequacy of discursive knowl-

I Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie & l'age classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 10;
my translation.

MLN, 105, (1990): 800-818 C 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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edges, categories, and their rules of formation. As we shall see, in

his comments on a series of what for him are exemplary literary
writers, Foucault develops both of these conceptions, albeit never
systematically or even explicitly. Nevertheless, in so doing Foucault
conveys how his own writerly desires have been specifically real-
ized by others, on what scenes and with what at stake.
In contrast to Jacques Derrida, whose theory of writing un-
dergoes development and complication while remaining funda-
mentally consistent with its first formulations, Foucault constantly
shifted perspective and reassessed his earlier views. Furthermore,
though no less concerned with writing and language throughout
his work, Foucault had no fully explicit theory of writing per se.
With certain important exceptions, his remarks about language
and writing were always situated in relation to something else, to
some non-discursive practice, and were highly qualified by the his-
torical context he sought to question and clarify. And this is true of
both aspects of the theorization of writing which concern us here.
As Foucault revealed in an interview given in 1975, the mod-
ernist literature of Beckett, Blanchot, Bataille and Klossowski were
crucially important to him during his formative years as "exits out
of philosophy," not because they left philosophy behind but be-
cause they problematized the boundary between philosophy and
non-philosophy.2 Foucault makes this problematizing of bound-
aries functional in The Order of Things, where literature occupies a
privileged position in regard to the "epistemic" limits by which
each historical epoch is defined. Literary works like Cervantes' Don
Quixote and Sade'sJustine andJuliette occupy a space between epis-
temes (the Renaissance and Classical epistemes in the former in-
stance, the Classical and the Modern in the latter), and thereby
both escape from and help to reveal the discursive logic at work in
the episteime's on either "side." Literature, moreover, assumes an
even greater importance when it comes to the modern episteme. On
the one hand, it achieves a certain autonomy: by abandoning the
representative or signifying functions of language, and by re-
turning to "this raw being [of language] that had been forgotten
since the sixteenth century," it forms what Foucault calls a
"counter-discourse."3 On the other hand, if the modern episteime'

2 Michel Foucault, "On Literature," in Foucault Live (Interviews 1966-84) tr. John
Johnston (New York: Semiotexte, Foreign Agents Series, 1989), 118-19.
3 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Random House Vintage
Books, 1973; orig. pub. 1966), 44. For a fuller elucidation of the shift from the
Classical to the Modern gpistgm&, see 299-300 and the entire section, "The Return of
Language," 303-07.

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means the "disappearance of discourse" and a "dispersion of lan-

guage," it also makes possible a new role for literature: "To redis-
cover the great play of language in a single space could just as well
be a decisive leap toward an entirely new form of thought as a way
of closing back upon itself a mode of thought constituted in the
preceding century" (OT, 307). At one and the same time, then,
modern literature both reveals conceptual and discursive limits,
and "leaps" toward an entirely new mode of thought. Somewhat
paradoxically, however, if "the being of language" shines through
modern literature (a recurrent image in The Order of Things), it is
because modern literature reposes on a void, on the groundless
space it hollows out through its own self-reflexivity.
This hasty summary of Foucault's conception of modern litera-
ture in his early period (which spanned the 1960's) is complicated
by the fact that his interest in a language that freed itself from
discourse through its own "play" or "dispersion" also coincided
with an interest in another kind of writing, one that seemed to
revolve around and exemplify what Jacques Lacan, describing
psychosis, called a "language without discourse." Thus it turns out
that Foucault's interest in modernist writing conceived in relation
to a formal ontology of language cannot really be separated from
his interest in the problematic of madness, especially when viewed
in relation to certain writers-Holderlin, Nerval, Nietzsche, Ar-
taud, as well as Raymond Roussel, who was the focus of Foucault's
only book-length "literary" study.
What Foucault finds most interesting about Roussel's intricate
literary machines is not so much the way their linguistic prodde's
generate marvelous descriptions and strange events, thus under-
mining common assumptions about literary representation, ex-
pression and authorship, as the fact that it is Roussel's death that
sets these machines going. For Roussel, Foucault suggests, writing
is first and foremost the means by which the writer inscribes his
own disappearance, even making it a formal condition of the
work's aesthetic functioning. Thus the work's essential "event" is
actually the writer's death, as Foucault stresses by beginning Ray-
mond Roussel (aptly titled Death and the Labyrinth in the English
translation) with an account of Roussel's intentionally posthumous
How I Wrote Certain of My Books. By explaining posthumously the
linguistic transformations by which his books were created,
Roussel gives them an entirely unsuspected layer of meaning, in-
deed, modifies fundamentally what his books could be said to be

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"about." (In so doing, and perhaps inadvertently, he anticipates

and even parodies a fundamental assumption of 20th-century lit-
erary criticism: that future generations of readers will find layers
of meaning that remain invisible to the writer's contemporaries.)
The essays Foucault published subsequently on Holderlin, Ba-
taille, Blanchot, and Klossowski constitute or point toward what
Foucault himself calls a "formal ontology of literature."4 But in
these essays Foucault is concerned not solely with the mode of ex-
istence of literature in relation to language and the author's death
or disappearance, but equally with the necessity of literature's
broaching the limits of experience. In his view literature, at least
modern literature, defines itself through formalistic, self-reflexive
procedures, yet at the same time proves to be essentially transgres-
sive of the inherent limits of the discourse of its time and hence of
the categorizations of experience the latter articulate. How is this
double transgression -at once formal and experiential -possible?
It is possible, first of all, because the modernist quest for the
fundamental essence or source of all art leads modernist writing to
a dangerous, even suicidal, confrontation: "Writing, in our day,
has moved infinitely closer to its source, to this disquieting sound
which announces from the depths of language-once we attend to
it-the source against which we take refuge and towards which we
address ourselves" (LCP, 60). Not surprisingly, the source of this
"disquieting sound" at the heart of a language wrenched free of its
social functions and hence no longer obsequiously obedient to
"discourse" turns out to be intimately close to madness. Or rather,
more specifically, the sources of the two turn out to be structurally

Hence ... this strange intimacy between madness and literature to

which one should not lend the meaning of a finally revealed psycholog-
ical relation. Uncovered like the language silencing itself and superim-
posing itself on itself, madness doesn't manifest or recount the birth of
an oeuvre (or something which, with genius or luck, could have become
an oeuvre); it designates the empty form whence the oeuvre derives,
that is to say the place from which it never ceases to be absent, where
one will never find it because it was never there. In that pale region, this
essential hiding, the common incompatibility of the oeuvre and mad-

4 Michel Foucault, "Language to Infinity," in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice,

ed. Donald Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 59.

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ness reveals itself; it is the blind spot of their possibilities and their mu-
tual exclusion.5

Like madness, modernist writing is a "language silencing itself and

superimposing itself on itself." The concrete work itself is a kind of
remainder, a ruin or testament to the impossibility it must none-
theless inscribe within itself-that of a madness somehow 'inside'
and constitutive of literary language. This impossibility constitu-
tive of modernist writing will henceforth appear thematically in
modernist works as death, anxiety, and the restlessness of a name-
less desire.
A more specific grasp of the relationship between madness and
writing in Foucault can be gleaned by looking at two rather curious
texts in Foucault's oeuvre, which at the same time indicate how his
interests shifted in the 1970's. The first, entitled Sept propos sur le
septieme ange, is a short essay originally published in 1970 as the
Preface to a new edition of Jean Pierre Brisset's two books, La Sci-
ence de Dieu and La Grammaire logique. The second is Foucault's edi-
tion of a memoire by the nineteenth-century parricide, Pierre Ri-
viere, which includes Foucault's introduction to the volume and a
short essay called "Tales of Murder." In both instances Foucault is
engaged with fairly marginal texts, which may account for the fact
that his own texts have themselves been marginalized (at least in
the sense that they are rarely mentioned and never discussed).
This negligence will seem hardly justified, however, once we see
that for Foucault what is at stake in both texts is precisely how
discourse becomes an "event."
Foucault's most explicit-but at the same time most general
discussion of discourse as an "event" is no doubt L'Ordre du dis-
cours, his inaugural address delivered to the College de France on
December 2, 1970, and published early the following year.6

5 Michel Foucault, "La Folie, l'absence d'oeuvre," in La Table Ronde (1964), no.
196, 19. In the first Preface to the original edition of Histoire de lafolie (Paris: Plon,
1961), Foucault describes madness as "words deprived of a language" to which he
would like to re-open our ears: "all those words deprived of language whose muf-
fled rumbling, for an attentive ear, rises up from the depths of history, the obsti-
nate murmur of a language which speaks by itself, uttered by no one and answered
by no one, a language which stifles itself, sticks in the throat, collapses before
having attained formulation and returns, without incident, to the silence from
which it had never been freed. The charred root of meaning."
6 All quotations which follow are taken from the English translation by Ian
McLeod which appears in Untying the Text, ed. Robert Young (Boston: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1981), 51-76. Also relevant to Foucault's notion of "discourse as event"
is his discussion of his strategy of "eventalization" developed in his contribution to
L'Impossible Prison, ed. Michelle Perrot (Paris Editions du Seuil, 1980), esp. 43-46.

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Having enumerated and described with Cartesian systematicity the

various means, both intrinsic and extrinsic, by which every society
controls discourse, Foucault spells out four methodological prin-
ciples which define an entirely new approach to discourse. To em-
ploy his own terminology, these principles constitute a field of
study in which discourse can finally appear as a new object in itself,
and not, as heretofore has been the case, as a reflection of other
considerations. First, a principle of reversal will enable us to see that
where tradition had explained the "swarming abundance" of dis-
course and insured its continuity by tying it back to positive
sources and roles-the author, the discipline, the will to truth-
we must now recognize the negative actions of a cutting up and
rarefaction of discourse. Which does not mean, however, that this
rarefaction operates on a vast underside of discourse, a virtual
plenitude of uninterrupted murmurings, since a principle of discon-
tinuity prevents us from assuming that there is "a great unsaid or
unthought which runs throughout the world and intertwines with
all its form and all its events." Instead, discourses are to be con-
ceived as discontinuous practices, which cross or pass through one
another, but which can also exclude or remain unaware of one
another. A principle of specificity simply states that discourse cannot
be resolved into pre-existing significations. There is no pre-discur-
sive correspondance with the world that insures its legibility; hence
our knowledge is not a deciphering of already inscribed meanings.
Discourse, rather, is essentially "a violence which we do to things
... a practice we impose on them." Thus it is our own practice
that must account for the regularity of events that characterize dis-
course, not something inherent in the world. Lastly, a principle of
exteriority prohibits us from seeking the interior, hidden nucleus of
discourse, where its supposed meaning or signification would be
manifest; instead, starting from its appearance and regularity, we
must search for its external conditions of possibility, in order to
determine the aleatory series of events out of which it appears and
which fix its limits.
Foucault insists that his own crucial terms-the event, the series,
regularity, the condition of possibility-oppose term by term the
notions of creation, unity, originality, and signification which have
dominated the traditional history of ideas and thus rendered dis-
course invisible. The only model at all similar to the kind of work
he now envisages is that followed by the Annales school of French
historians. The latter have also given a new meaning to the event,
which tends to be something as highly resolved as the rise or fall of

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grain prices, rather than the colorful narrative dramas with which
we are familiar. These historians analyze what appears to be the
continuous flow of history into a highly stratified and discon-
tinuous series of events which take place at different levels and
according to different rhythms of regularity. Such studies have no
methodological use for notions of consciousness and continuity
(with their correlative problems of freedom and causality), or even
for structure and sign. What allows the series and event to be
mapped are notions of regularity, chance (alea), discontinuity, de-
pendence (or conditions of possibility), and transformation.
Nevertheless, Foucault acknowledges that if we are to treat dis-
course as sets of discursive events, there are philosophical
problems we must confront, starting with the status of the event
itself. Neither substance nor accident, quality nor process, the
event occurs neither at the level of bodies nor in some immaterial
realm. It is, rather, a material effect with a specific locus, as Fou-
cault's definition suggests: "it consists in the relation, the coexis-
tence, the dispersion, the overlapping, the accumulation, and the
selection of material elements. It is not the act or the property of a
body; it is produced as an effect of, and within, a dispersion of
matter. Let us say that the philosophy of the event should move in
the at first paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incor-
A second philosophical problem is the status of the discontinuity
of the series of discursive events, for this discontinuity is neither a
temporal one nor a matter of the plurality of thinking subjects: "It
is a question of caesurae which break up the instant and disperse
the subject into a plurality of possible positions and functions,"
thus invalidating what are traditionally the smallest recognizable
units, "the instant and the subject."8 Beneath these units and
acting independently of them are relations between the discon-
tinuous series which are not of the order of succession (or simulta-
neity) within one (or several consciousnesses), and which thus
cannot be conceived in the terms of a philosophy of time and the

7 For more on the "incorporality" of the "event," see Foucault's "Theatrum Phi-
losophicum," an essay-review of Gilles Deleuze's Difference et repetition and Logique
du sens, two books which no doubt strongly influenced Foucault. The essay appears
in English in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 165-96.
8 Foucault discusses this "dispersion" of the subject throughout various positions
and "enunciative modalities" in the Archaeology of Knowledge, tr. A. M. Sheridan
Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, orig. pub. 1969), 54-55.

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subject. What is needed, therefore, is "a theory of discontinuous

systematicities" which would introduce the necessity of chance ele-
ments (ale'a) into the theory of the production of the event, since it
is no longer possible to establish links of mechanical causality or
even ideal necessity among the elements which constitute it.
The primary (and clearly intended) effect of Foucault's re-con-
ceptualization of discourses as regular and distinct series of events
is to install, as he puts it, a "small (and perhaps) odious piece of
machinery" in the narrow gap that the history of ideas has always
sought to keep free and clear. Instead of an idealized, progressive
"adventure of Reason," Foucault gives us a very different picture
-of a piece of "machinery" by which "chance, the discontinuous,
and materiality" are introduced at the very roots of thought. This
means that thought itself must be conceived in a new and different
way, since these factors are precisely what classical thinking could
not admit as constitutive of thought, and consequently banished to
an "outside" realm of utter contingency. For Foucault, however,
this "outside" must be conceived as both what limits thought, and,
strangely, inhabits it from within. But whereas in his earlier for-
mulation it was through a "fold in being" that the "outside" of
thought becomes the unthought inside, here it is the utter material
contingency of discourse that defines the unthought (impense').9 To
put it in somewhat different terms, the externalization or objectifi-
cation of discourse as a field of forces yields a "new image of
thought," by forcing us to acknowledge determinations that here-
tofore have been unthinkable. For discourse is precisely what
blocks new thought, and prevents us from thinking otherwise.
The functioning of discourse in relation to knowledge (savoir)
and power (pouvoir), Foucault's major themes in the work that both
precedes and follows "The Order of Discourse," provides a spe-
cific illustration of how his reconceptualization of discourse pro-
duces new thought, indeed, makes possible a whole new concep-
tion of power, knowledge and their interrelationship. In a general
sense it might be said that discourse is what connects them, since
discourse is both a vehicle or instrument of knowledge and a spe-

9 Deleuze argues in his book on Foucault that the notion of an "outside" and a
"fold in being" are essential to Foucault's philosophical underpinning, while also
indicating how Foucault distinguishes himself from Heidegger and phenome-
nology in regard to these formulations. See Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, tr. Sean Hand
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, orig. pub. 1986), 94-123.

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cific object of power, both a site and object of struggle. Yet the
relationship is still more complex, since Foucault shows that savoir
and pouvoir presuppose and produce one another reciprocally:
knowledge presupposes and produces power, power presupposes
and produces knowledge. In Discipline and Punish, for example,
Foucault shows that after the French revolution the exercise of a
new kind of power constantly created new forms of knowledge
which in turn engendered and consolidated this new kind of
Rather than pursue these larger themes, let us return to the spe-
cific type of discourse that Western society classifies as "literature."
If Foucault's early views on literature center on "the language of
being" and literature as a formal ontology, his later interests are
more concerned with questions about the selection, circulation, sa-
cralization and institutionalization of certain texts deemed "lit-
erary."'0 At the same time, there are observable, underlying conti-
nuities with his earlier interests. In fact, in the essay Foucault pub-
lished on Jean Pierre Brisset and the dossier he compiled on Pierre
Riviere, to which we shall now turn, we see evidence of both.
At the beginning of "Seven Proposals on the Seventh Angel"
and then towards the end, Foucault allusively suggests two entirely
different contexts for considering Brisset's work. The first is his-
torical, and would situate Brisset within the centuries-old tradition
of scholarly research on the origin of language. During the course
of the nineteenth century this tradition gradually drew more and
more upon and was itself drawn more into a kind of linguistic de-
lirium. This de'rive-both a derivation and a drift-becomes
quickly apparent in Brisset's published books. In fact, his Gram-
maire logique, when presented to the Academie Francaise, was re-
jected immediately by Ernest Renan, and in 1913 Brisset himself
was made the butt of an elaborate practical joke by Jules Romains,
who invited him to Paris to receive a prize as "prince des penseurs."
In this way, however, Brisset came to the attention of the Parisian

10 See Michel Foucault, "On Literature," in Foucault Live (Interviews 1966-84),

11 In Paris, Brisset achieved a certain notoriety for the seriousness with which he
advanced his theories that man as species being descended from the frogs, and that
the Latin language never really existed, but was merely a ruse perpetrated by the
Roman ruling classes. Brisset receives an honorable mention in Andre Breton's
Anthologie du humour noir.

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Foucault makes it explicit that Brisset should be situated pri-

marily in this second context-that of the language experiments
of an artistic avant-garde-when he compares Brisset's linguistic
procedures [proddes] with those of Roussel and Louis Wolfson.
Brisset's writing on language thus stands at a curious intersection
or crossover point between an archaic and no longer credible or
bonafide scholarly discourse and a newly emergent practice of lan-
guage experimentation which would come to include the writings
(and not just the poetry) of Mallarme, Saussure's work on ana-
grams, and Judge Schreber's grundsprache, not to mention such ob-
vious examples as Lewis Carroll and Antonin Artaud.'2
Brisset's search for the origin of language breaks entirely with
the tradition as represented by scholars like Court de Gebelin, who
postulated a primitive but universal language, composed of a small
number of elements linked directly to things, the traces of which
have remained in all the languages of the world. Instead of
seeking some such elementary but supreme ur-language, from
whose immediately expressive forms all other languages would de-
rive, Brisset remains exclusively within the domain of the French
language, as if it carried within itself its own origin, which could
only be sought there. Instead of theorizing an abstract, universalist
grammar that would underlie and thereby provide a formal struc-
ture for the articulation of words and things, Brisset constructs,
through a curious blend of etymology and homonymy, a language
in a state of primitive multiplicity. It is not, however, an archaic
language from which modern French might be said to derive; it is
primitive, rather, because language exists in a "fluid, mobile, in-
definitely penetrable state," in which there is "the possibility of cir-
culating in every direction, the field open to all the transforma-
tions, reversals, cut-outs [de'coupages], the multiplication at each
point, in each syllable or sonority, of powers of designation.'3 It is
language, Foucault notes, in a state of play [a 1'e'tat du jeu], con-
stantly traversed by chance, as if each sound or syllable were a die
with a different meaning associated with each face, and that die

12 For accounts of Brisset's work that set him in this tradition, see Michel
Pierssens, The Power of Babel: A Study of Logophilia (London: Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1980), and Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy Through the Looking Glass (La
Salle: Open Court, 1985).
13 Michel Foucault, Sept propos sur le septieme ange (Montpellier: Fata Morgana,
1986, orig. pub. 1970), 14; my translation. Page numbers to all subsequent page
references will be inserted in the text after the abbreviation Sept.

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were ceaselessly retossed to form ever new combinations with

other dice.
Brisset constructs this language by breaking down words into
component sounds or syllables and re-arranging them to form (he
would probably say reveal) a semantic field or networks of
meanings in which enonce's surge up. Although his "etymologies"
are in principle and practice untranslatable, I shall try to give some
idea of how he proceeds. Consider his comments on the word
"demon" [demon]:

Le demon = le doit mien. Le demon montre son de, son dais, ou son dieu,
son sexe . . . La construction inverse du mot demon donne: le mon di = le
mien dieu. Le monde ai = je possede le monde. Le demon devient ainsi
le maitre du monde en vertu de sa perfection sexuelle ... Dans son
sermon il appelait son serf: le serf mon. Le sermon est un serviteur du
demon. Viens dans le lit mon: le limon etait son lit, son sejour habituel.
C'etait un fort sauteur et le premier des saumons. Voir le beau saut mon.

(Sept, 15)

Brisset thus inverts the more usual and recognizable procedure

whereby several words lead back to the single root. Instead, he
proliferates the number of phonetic combinations or "anterior
states" that have come to be crystallized in the unity of a current
word. Often the same word will be made to pass several times
through the filter of analysis, with different results each time. Fur-
thermore, by breaking down the word again and again into several
elementary combinations Brisset uncovers a number of "archaic
states," which, through a kind of "compressive play or settling
down [des jeux de tassements], contractions, phonetic modifications
proper to each one . .. end up converging toward a single and sole
expression that regroups and contains them" (Sept, 19). Thus en
societe [in society] yields: "En ce eau sieds-te = sieds toi en cette eau.
En seau sieds-te, en sauce y etait; il etait dans la sauce, en societe.
Le premier ocean etait un seau, une sauce, ou une mare, les an-
cetres y etaient en societe" (Sept, 19).
Brisset assumes that the first state of language is neither a
hidden word treasure nor a small number of expressive cries, but a
multiplicity of enonces. Within this indefinite mass of phrases he
unearths not a set of "morphological constants" but a "stream of
spoken things" [ruisellement de choses dites], of affirmations, ques-
tions, wishes, and commands. Thus his analysis does not turn
around some emergent linguistic system or pure symbolic order of

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signifiers but faces outward, toward actions in violent scenarios in

which emergent human beings are caught in competitive and can-
nibalistic struggles. In fact, what might have been the material for
the derivation of the word saloperie for another writer serves
Brisset as the generative matrix of a series of primitive scenes:

Voici les salauds pris; ils sont dans la sale eau pris, dans la salle aux pris. Les
pris etaient les prisonniers que l'on devait egorger. En attendant le jour
des pris, qui etaient aussi celui des prix, on les enfermait dans une salle,
une eau sale, oui on leur jetait des saloperies. La' on les insultait, on les
appelait salauds. Le pris avait du prix. On le devorait, et, pour tendre un
piege, on offrait du pris et du prix: c'est du prix. C'est duperie, repon-
dait le sage, n'accepte pas de prix, o homme, c'est duperie.

(Sept, 27-28)

For Brisset, then, the word possesses neither morphological, se-

mantic, nor referential unity. It only exists, Foucault argues,

to join [literally: to form a body with] a scene in which it surges up as

cry, murmur, command, story; and its unity it owes on the one hand to
the fact that, from scene to scene, despite the diversity of the decor, the
actors, and the upsets, it's the same sound that runs [throughout], the
same sonorous gesture that detaches itself from the melee, and floats
an instant above the episode, like its audible sign; on the other hand, to
the fact that these scenes form a history, and are connected in a sensible
fashion according to the necessities of our ancestral frogs. A word-it's
the paradox, the miracle, the marvelous hazard of a same noise that, for
different reasons, for different characters, aiming at different things,
resounds throughout a history. It's the improbable series of the die
which, seven times in succession, turns up the same face. Little matter
who speaks, and, when he speaks, why, and in employing what vocabu-
lary: the same clattering, unreasonably, resounds.

(Sept, 31)

If Brisset displays how words are defined through a "scenic ho-

mophony," as Foucault calls it, it is through a "phonetic scenog-
raphy" that Brisset forces them to penetrate and hence become
again part of the body, to assume once more their functions of cry
and gesture in which their vociferous, gesticulatory power is re-
vealed; in short, he places the words back into the mouth and
around the sexual parts. It is this intrication of words in scenes of
struggle and the "incessant play of appetites and violence" that
give them their flesh and bone, and insure that repeated sounds
will indeed form into words. If, for Brisset, around any word in

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the French language, no matter how bland or grey, alliterative

cries will swarm, evoking other words linking immemorial scenes
of desire, war, sexual savagery and devastation, it is because he has
already restored the words to the noises that gave them birth, put
them back into the scenes of violence and assault of which they
form the now silent blazon. He thus renders, as Foucault puts it,
the thesaurus linguae qallicae to a primitive dinning, "retrans-
forming words into theater, putting sounds back into croaking
throats, mixing them again with all the tatters of torn and de-
voured flesh, raising them up as a terrible dream, and con-
straining men once again to bow down" (Sept, 41). In the mythic
scenes sketched by Brisset, words have the power and force of
bloody deeds precisely because they are fully immanent to those
scenes: they speak only of what they are part of.
Clearly, for Foucault, what we might call the "language before
discourse" constructed by Brisset has a signal value in and for it-
self. Foucault is therefore concerned neither with the discursive
constraints operating within the tradition in which Brisset worked,
nor with any pathological factors that may have contributed to
Brisset's special "delirium." In short, he reads Brisset's works nei-
ther as an historically determined discourse nor as a cluster of
symptoms expressive of a particular psychological case study. The
essential context, rather, is provided by this passage from Gilles
Deleuze's Preface to Louis Wolfson's Le Schizo et les lanques, which
Foucault quotes: "Psychosis and its language are inseparable from
'linguistic procedure,' from a linguistic procedure. It is the
problem of the procedure that, in psychosis, has replaced the
problem of signification and of repression" (Sept, 45). Within this
context, Foucault will indicate how the specific linguistic proce-
dures of Roussel, Wolfson, and Brisset set into motion three dif-
ferent types of "writing machines," which begin to operate when
"the relationship of words to things is no longer one of designa-
tion, when the relationship of one statement to another is no
longer one of signification, and when the relationship from one
language to another (or from one state of language to another) is
no longer one of translation" (Sept, 45-46). In each case, the proce-
dure is first what manipulates the things intricated in the words,
and in each case a different organ of the body-the eye for
Roussel, the mouth for Wolfson, the ear for Brisset-forms part
of a "machinery of domination and transformation."
Turning now to Foucault's research on Pierre Riviere, we notice

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that the historical and psychological dimensions eliminated from

the Brisset study are here at the center, but intricated in such a
way that a completely new problematic is made to emerge. I,
PIERRE RIVIERE, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my
brother. . ., published by Gallimard in 1973, carries the explanatory
subtitle "A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century." The title itself
thus reflects a division: the main title repeats the first words of
Pierre Riviere's account of the murder of his family, signaling that
the book will let the parricide "speak for himself," while the sub-
title indicates that this is an exemplary case story of some historical
significance, and thus implies that this document necessarily main-
tains a relationship not only with other documents that surround
and contextualize it, but also with an historical discourse and com-
mentary that will presumably establish its status and importance.
Let us hypothesize right away that it is the difference between
these two pieces of language-the singular, constative enunciation
of the first, and the institutional anonymity and power of the
second-that will be of interest to Foucault.
This division in the title is immediately repeated in the book's
organization. Following Foucault's short editorial Foreword, the
contents are divided into two major sections, a "Dossier" and
"Notes." The "Dossier" includes various medical and legal docu-
ments, as well as newspaper reports, contemporary with and per-
taining to Riviere's trial in 1835. The me'moire itself is published
here in full for the first time since it appeared in pamphlet form
just after the trial. The "Notes" are comprised of seven investiga-
tory essays by Foucault and members of his research group. In the
Foreword Foucault points out that Riviere's parricide, which was
reported in the Annales d'hygiene publique et de medecine Megale in
1836 and discovered there by his group, was not in itself a "notable
crime" for the nineteenth century. What made it stand out were
the conflicting medical reports regarding Riviere's sanity, the
abundant court documents which included statements by wit-
nesses, and Riviere's own written account of his crime. But it was
the latter that the group found most astonishing. On several occa-
sions, in fact, Foucault remarks on its singular strangeness and
Part of its fascination lies in the way it seems to govern or at least
provide a standard of measure for all the discourses elaborated
around it in relation to the status and nature of the crime. Because
of its compelling accuracy and wealth of detail-all at the service

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of a powerful narrative and rhetorical structure-the memoire at

first was taken to be proof that Riviere was not mad; however, when
read by the more eminent Parisian clinicians Esquirol, Marc and
Orfila, it serves as the principal object of proof that he was not sane.
In fact, the me'moire became the essential reference in their ulti-
mately successful argument that the death penalty be commuted.
And, of course, hidden behind this highly visible drama, another
much less visible one unfolds in which the case represents an his-
torically significant turning point in the rationale of the discourse
of social control; for the case marks a shift from a legal and juri-
dical framework to a medical and psychiatric one.
Confining our observations, as here we must, to Foucault's Fore-
word, the essay entitled "Tales of Murder" that he contributed to
the volume, and comments he made in an interview, it becomes
immediately apparent that what strikes Foucault most about Ri-
viere's me'moire is its capacity to silence commentary, and to oblit-
erate the boundary between the deed and its writing:

Riviere's own discourse on his act so dominates, or in any case so

escapes from every possible handle, that there is nothing to be said
about this central point, this crime or act, that is not a step back in
relation to it. We see there nevertheless a phenomenon without an
equivalent in either the history of crime or discourse: that is to say, a
crime accompanied by a discourse so strong and so strange that the
crime ends up not existing anymore; it escapes through the very fact of
this discourse held about it by the one who committed it.'4

How can we explain the effect of Riviere's discourse? Partly, as

Foucault does, by remarking how intricately entwined are the deed
and the writing of the deed, as if the "murder and the narrative of
the murder were consubstantial."'5 It is through this entwinement
that this twenty-year-old Norman peasant, though "barely able to
read and write" (as a number of witnesses reported), was able to
make himself, "in two different ways but in virtually a single deed,
an 'author' " (I Pierre, 201).
Even in the minds of his contemporaries, everything seems dou-

14 Michel Foucault, "I, Pierre Riviere," in Foucault Live: Interviews (1966-84), 132.
15 Michel Foucault, "Tales of Murder," in I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my
mother, my sister, and my brother. . ., ed. Michel Foucault, tr. Frank Jellinek (Lincoln
and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, orig. pub. 1973), 200. Page
numbers to all subsequent references will be inserted in the text after the abbrevia-
tion I Pierre.

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bled from the outset, and yet these doubles are all aspects of the
same. When first arrested, Riviere is unable to tell what he thinks is
the "truth" of his crime and feigns madness: he was commanded
by God to kill his mother, who had made his father miserable, and
threatened to ruin him utterly. At a certain point in the interroga-
tion, however, he abandons this version and gives a completely dif-
ferent account in which he confesses that he himself had planned
the crime. This account is then written out in jail over a period of
twelve days. In the ensuing trial, this written account becomes the
chief piece of evidence for both prosecution and defense, since it
contains, at one and the same time, "signs of lucidity" for the
former as well as "signs of madness" for the latter. Most important,
for neither side does the account exist outside the crime; rather, it
forms part of it.
Significantly, neither in the writing of the narrative nor in the
text itself is there a simple chronological sequence. As Foucault
puts it, "The text does not relate directly to the deed; a whole web
of relations is woven between the one and the other; they support
one another and carry one another in everchanging relations" (I
Pierre, 201). Originally, Riviere intended to write the memoire
first, starting with an announcement of the crime, followed by an
explanation of his father and mother's impossible life together,
then concluding with the reasons for the deed. Upon completion
of this draft, he intended to commit the crime, mail the manu-
script, and then kill himself. This order undergoes two subsequent
changes, the final result being that the me'moire is not written until
well after the murder, which was followed by a month of confused
wanderings and a series of false statements. However, when Ri-
viere finally does write it, he emphasizes that "he had considered
most of the words he would put in it"; it was, in short, a "me'moire
stored beforehand in a memory" (I Pierre, 202).16
A second characteristic of Riviere's text is its "verbo-ballistic" na-
ture. As suggested above, from the outset the text functioned as
neither confession nor defense but as a factor in the crime. For
Foucault, the manner in which the text and murder continually

16 This curious textual logic continues to determine events. Several contemporary

readers interpreted Riviere's memoire as a suicidal device written expressly to in-
sure his death, which was the usual penalty for parricide. After the intervention of
the Parisian doctors and the death sentence he had earlier received was commuted,
Riviere continued to consider himself "already dead." After four years in prison, he
finally hanged himself.

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change places or move around one another simply means that they
are stages in the operation and production of a single mechanism,
"the murder/narrative":

The murder would rather appear to be a projectile concealed at first in

the engine of a discourse which recoils and becomes unnecessary in the
propulsion discharging it. We might well call this mechanism the mech-
anism of the "calibene" or "albalester," from the names of the instru-
ments invented by Riviere, fabricated words, instruments to discharge
arrows, weapons to bring down clouds and birds, wrought names that
brought death and nailed animals to trees, all at the same time.

(I Pierre, 202)

Foucault notes that the equivalence of weapon and discourse is

accentuated by Riviere not only in the me'moire, but also in the way
he draws attention to himself in order to be arrested. Having wan-
dered for a month on the outskirts of woods and small villages and
always been ignored by those whom he encountered, he finally
makes a bow or "arbalest" which attracts attention and results in
his arrest. The bow thus functioned as a "mute declaration which
became a substitute for the dark discourse engendered with the
crime and intended to make him, by the narrating of it, glorious."
The role assumed by the bow, Foucault further speculates, seems
to have been part of an essential transformation around which Ri-
viere's entire life turned. This was the day when what Riviere
"called his 'ideas' and 'thoughts' were ... transformed into dis-
course/weapon, poem/invectives, verbo-ballistic inventions, instru-
ments for 'enceepharing' [one of Riviere's curious invented
words]; into those engines of death whose names were fabricated
and whose corpses were buried, those words/projectiles which
were from now on never to cease springing from his lips and
spurting from his hands" (I Pierre, 203).
Foucault next turns to consider the historical dimensions of Ri-
viere's self-production as an "author," and how he came to "lodge
his deed and his speech in a defined place in a certain type of
discourse and a certain field of knowledge" (I Pierre, 208). Fou-
cault is thus interested in those popular me'moires and narratives,
especially of violent crime, the broad sheets and feuilletons by which
the familiar and the everyday are converted into the remarkable
and the historical, as well as with the "lyrical position of the mur-
derous subject" in those popular songs of murder whereby "the

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speaker displays his murder for all to see, isolates himself in it,
summons the law and calls for both memory and execration" (I
Pierre, 208). It is this already constituted historical field of popular
knowledge that makes Riviere's premeditated murder/me'moire pos-
sible, since it operates and has its effect at a certain level of popular
discursive practice and of the knowledge bound up with it. What is
striking, however, is that "in the inextricable unity of his parricide
and his text he really played the game of the law." For as Foucault
emphasizes, that Riviere played this familiar game simultaneously
on both registers, as author of the crime and author of the text, as
subject of the deed and subject of discourse, appeared in the eyes
of his contemporaries not so much as insane or irrational as truly
In the institution of criminal justice, however, Riviere's writing
machine or verbo-ballistic mechanism became an object of scrutiny
in a new and different field no longer constituted by the rules and
assumptions of popular knowledge. It was a field in which the sub-
jects who spoke did not have the same status, in which the dis-
courses were not the same type of event and did not produce the
same type of effects. It was, in short, a field in which Riviere's
"deed/text was subjected to a threefold question of truth: truth of
fact, truth of opinion, and truth of science. To a discursive act, a
discourse in act, profoundly committed to the rules of popular
knowledge there was applied a question derived elsewhere and ad-
ministered by others" (I Pierre, 210).
Foucault's curt and understated phrase-"a question derived
elsewhere and administered by others"-chillingly points up the
radical recontextualization which the Riviere "case" undergoes.
Needless to say, in this new context of "truth" the very terms of the
discourse must disallow in advance the peculiar power and
forceful beauty of Riviere's "deed/text." To the silence it neces-
sarily met, Foucault now responds some hundred and fifty years
later, from within the confines of a juridical and psychiatric dis-
course that has grown ever more refined and constricting, with a
scholarly volume within which that muted event can reverberate
once again.
In a recent book on Foucault, John Rajchman argues that in the
1970's Foucault abandons his earlier interest in modernist litera-
ture as "a tradition of great works . . . or texts referring to one
another in the infinite web of intertextuality," and begins to treat

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literature solely as "documents through which are constituted cen-

tral categories of individuality in our modern life."17 In his con-
cern to situate literature or literary discourse within a larger con-
figuration of other kinds of documents which together constitute a
specific, historical reality, Foucault anticipates-perhaps provides
the foundations for-what might be designated as the "politics of
cultural representations."'8 Nevertheless, I should like to insist fi-
nally that it is not so much that Foucault loses interest in "litera-
ture" as that the literature which interests him is perhaps not gen-
erally recognized as such, or in the terms in which he would dis-
cuss it. This become evident in a passage like the following from
Discipline and Punish:

And if from the early Middle Ages to the present day the "adventure" is
an account of individuality, the passage from the epic to the novel, from
the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the internal
search for childhood, from combats to phantasies, it is also inscribed in
the formation of a disciplinary society. The adventure of our childhood
no longer finds expression in "le bon petit Henri," but in the misfortunes
of "little Hans." The Romance of the Rose is written today by Mary Barnes;
in the place of Lancelot, we have Judge Schreber.19

In these allusions Foucault assigns as much importance to schizo-

phrenic writing-that of Mary Barnes and Judge Schreber-as he
does to the classics, as least in regard to the formation of our
modern subjectivity. Foucault thus reconfirms and challenges at
the same time the assumptions by which we normally ascribe a spe-
cial value to literature. But clearly, it is the challenge rather than
the confirmation that we must now accept. Which means that what
should now command our attention are those rare occasions when
the nearly invisible shaping powers of discourse stand revealed as

Emory University

17John Rajchman, Michel Foucault: The Freedom of Philosophy (New York: Co-
lumbia University Press, 1985), 33.
18 Foucault's work has of course been heralded for providing in part the theoret-
ical foundations of the New Historicism. For one example, see D. A. Miller's The
Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), which studies
the 19th-century novel in relation to the carceral society Foucault depicts in Disci-
pline and Punish.
19 Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, tr. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random
House Vintage Books, 1979, orig. pub. 1975), 193-94.

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