By Gordon Hull
Foucault’s use of Nietzsche to make the distinction between history and genealogy in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” is well-known. What is less well-known, I think (perhaps I am projecting again, but I had forgotten this passage until I saw a note I’d made to it the other day), is a very clear presentation of the distinction in Society must be Defended. Here I want to tentatively suggest some connections between the language of SMD and some of Foucault’s other writings. The SMD context is a discussion of state historiography and archiving in the 18th Century. Foucault announces “another new excursus,” and writes:
“The difference between what might be called the history of the sciences and the genealogy of knowledges is that the history of sciences is essentially located on an axis that is, roughly speaking, the cognition-truth axis, or at least the axis that goes from the structure of cognition to the demand for truth. Unlike the history of the sciences, the genealogy of knowledges is located on a different axis, namely the discourse-power axis or, if you like, the discursive practice-clash of power axis” (SMD 178).
He then suggests that if one is to do a genealogy of knowledges of the 18th Century, the first thing one needs to do is to “outwit the problematic of the Enlightenment” (ibid.), which is to say that one has to avoid the urge to talk about the emergence of reason, the fading of ignorance, and so forth. In other words, one has to avoid the era’s framing of itself. Instead, one should see:
“an immense and multiple battle, but not one between knowledge and ignorance, but an immense and multiple battle between knowledges in the plural—knowledges that are in conflict because of their very morphology, because they are in the possession of enemies, and because they have intrinsic power-effects” (SMD 179).
I want to flag the text here because it helps to illuminate the political stakes of genealogy, and thus of writing history, quite clear. This is of course also in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” especially when he talks at the end about what genealogy might do. I want to focus on the first, which is parodic or carnivalesque. Foucault comes across there as somewhat cryptic; the genealogist “will push the masquerade to its limit and prepare the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing” and so “genealogy is history in the form of a concerted carnival” (Foucault Reader, 94).
It seems to me that this is a specific reference to Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais book, which had been translated into French a year or two before Foucault wrote the “Nietzsche” essay and which had been the object some discussion in the literary press. By way of a reading of Rabelais, Bakhtin suggests that Renaissance carnivals were officially sanctioned holidays from Church ritual in which people were allowed various gluttonies and carnal sins. The rhetoric of the book emphasizes the way in which the carnivals mock and upend religious hierarchies of power, and the way that the temporality of the carnivals – organic and bodily, as opposed to the static time of the Church – is itself radically different. In other words, Bakhtin basically celebrates Rabelais’ celebration of the carnival; one might say that Bakhtin is trying to identify a specific power effect of the Rabelaisian discourse as conveyed through the morphology of the carnival, and the ways that morphology is distinct from the hierarchical morphology of the carnival.
Foucault says in the passage above that one needs to avoid the temptation of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, Bakhtin is himself at pains to emphasize the need to distinguish carnival from Enlightenment satire. The difference is that satire is ultimately negative and distancing; carnival is ultimately about affirmation and continuity. What that in mind, recall that the opening lecture of SMD includes its own discussion of method, where Foucault contrasts the “totalitarian” style of Marxism and Freudianism against the “insurrections” of local knowledges, and has this to say:
“[these discourses have] provided tools that can be used at the local level only when, and this is the real point, the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaced, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalized, and so on. Or at least that the totalizing approach always has the effect of putting the brakes on” (SMD 6).
Totalitarian theory needs an insurrection in the form of a carnival. The carnivalesque text Foucault specifically cites at the beginning of SMD is of course Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Again, the stakes are partly morphological, as D&G identify and perform a rhizomatic form of writing and a “body without organs” as a form of resistance to discourses like the oedipal narrative of Freudianism. This carnival, genealogy, “is a way of playing local, discontinuous, disqualified, or nonlegitimated knowledges off against the unitary theoretical insistence that claims to be able to filter them, organize them into a hierarchy, organize them in the name of a true body of knowledge, in the name of the rights of a science that is in the hands of a few” (SMD 9).
In short, genealogy is a writing that’s meant to do something in the world; one of the earliest models is probably Rabelais as recovered by Bakhtin. Indeed, one reading of Bakhtin’s text is that although it presents as an academic study of Renaissance literature, it’s actually an esoteric critique of Stalinism, a text that changes shape depending on its reader and her subject position (a point that is given credence by the fact that Bakhtin was writing in celebration of peasant carnivals while Stalin was violently oppressing them).
In his last two lecture courses on parrhesia, in what I characterized as a parting shot at Derrida’s orality/literacy argument, Foucault extends this sort of distinction to the Greeks, according to whom one should distinguish between philosophy as “mere logos” and philosophy as ergon, as doing something in the world. In Plato’s Seventh Letter, Foucault sees an effort to establish “a philosophy whose very reality would be the practice of self on self” (Governent of Self and Others, 254). Not long after that, he is analyzing Diogenes and the cynics; in that discussion, Foucault emphasizes the continuous scandal that they attempted to provoke – in part by upending the power structures of Greek society in what can only be described as a carnivalesque manner. For example, Foucault relates reports that Diogenes responded to being treated like a dog at a dinner party by urinating on the guests, exactly as a dog might (Courage of Truth, 262). The key to the cynics, on Foucault’s reading, is not that they distanced themselves from or satirized Greek ideals; it’s that they upended them by actually living them.
I haven’t done the work to be more careful in the doxography of Foucault’s potential reception of Bakhtin, or the detailed contours of Bakhtin’s reception in France in 1970 (pointers welcome!). At that level, this is a hypothesis. But I do think it adds some texture to how one might characterize Foucault’s own understanding of carnival, ethics, genealogy and history as a constellation of terms that illuminate one another.