- Birthday, Books, Philosophy, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Michel Foucault on Art, Knowledge, Critique, History, and More

Happy birthday, Michel Foucault! Here are some quotes from the philosopher and historian:

 

“But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?”

 

“I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.”

 

“Unreason is to reason as dazzlement is to daylight.”

 

“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”

 

“I’m not making a problem out of a personal question, I make of a personal question an absence of a problem.”

 

“Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are.”

 

“If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.”

 

“The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries; it is born and takes shape in the interval between books. It is the phenomena of the library.”

 

“A critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based… Criticism consists in…making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.”

 

“Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.”

 

“What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”

 

“My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is danger­ous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apa­thy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.”

 

“What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing―with a rather shaky hand―a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again.”

 

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

 

“A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest.”

 

“There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than ‘politicians’ think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think.”

 

“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end. My field is the history of thought. Man is a thinking being.”

 

“Absurdity destroys the and of the enumeration by making impossible the in where the things enumerated would be divided up.”

 

“The soul is the prison of the body.”

 

“Today, criminal justice functions and justifies itself only by this perpetual reference to something other than itself, by this unceasing reinscription in non-juridical systems.”

 

“The most defenseless tenderness and the bloodiest of powers have a similar need of confession. Western man has become a confessing animal.”

 

“The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.””As long as we keep repeating the same refrain of the little anti-repressive anthem, everything remains as it is and anyone can sing it without being noticed.”

 

“Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and to build up what we could be.”

 

“The problem is not so much that of defining a political ‘position’ (which is to choose from a pre-existing set of possibilities) but to imagine and bring to being new schemas of politicization. If ‘politicization’ means falling back on readymade choices and institutions, then the effort of analysis involved in uncovering the relations of force and mechanisms of power is not worthwhile.”

 

“If you wish to replace an official institution by another institution that fulfills the same function—better and differently—then you are already being reabsorbed by the dominant structure.”

 

“What we need is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done.”

 

“A theorising intellectual, for us, is no longer a subject, a representing or representative consciousness. Those who act and struggle are no longer represented, either by a group or a union that appropriates the right to stand as their conscience. Who speaks and acts? It is always a multiplicity, even within the person who speaks and acts. All of us are ‘groupuscules.’ Representation no longer exists; there’s only action—theoretical action and practical action, which serve as relays and form networks.”

 

“It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

 

“[T]he major enemy, the strategic adversary is fascism…And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini—which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively—but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

 

“The art of living counter to all forms of fascism, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles that I would summarize as follows […]:

“Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.

“Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.

“Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.

“Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.

“Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.

“Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to ‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.

“Do not become enamored of power.”

 

“If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.”

 

“I try to carry out the most precise and discriminative analyses I can in order to show in what ways things change, are transformed, are displaced. When I study the mechanisms of power, I try to study their specificity… I admit neither the notion of a master nor the universality of his law. On the contrary, I set out to grasp the mechanisms of the effective exercise of power; and I do this because those who are inserted in these relations of power, who are implicated therein, may, through their actions, their resistance, and their rebellion, escape them, transform them—in short, no longer submit to them. And if I do not say what ought to be done, it is not because I believe there is nothing to be done. Quite on the contrary, I think there are a thousand things to be done, to be invented, to be forged, by those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they are implicated, have decided to resist or escape them. From this point of view, my entire research rests upon the postulate of an absolute optimism. I do not undertake my analyses to say: look how things are, you are all trapped. I do not say such things except insofar as I consider this to permit some transformation of things. Everything I do, I do in order that it may be of use.”

 

“One can say that the author is an ideological product, since we represent him as the opposite of his historically real function. (When a historically given function is represented in a figure that inverts it, one has an ideological production.) The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.”

 

“It seems to me that the current political task in a society like ours is to criticize the working of institutions that are apparently the most neutral and independent, to criticize these institutions and attack them in such a way that the political violence that exercises itself obscurely through them becomes manifest, so that one can fight against them.”

 

“But what then is this confrontation below the language of reason? Where might this interrogation lead, following not reason in its horizontal becoming, but seeking to retrace in time this constant verticality, which, the length of Western culture, confronts it with what it is not, measuring it with its own extravagance?”

 

“Absurdity destroys the and of the enumeration by making impossible the in where the things enumerated would be divided up.”

 

“We must first rid ourselves of the illusion that penality is above all (if not exclusively) a means of reducing crime and that, in this role, according to the social forms, the political systems or beliefs, it may be severe or lenient, tend towards expiation of obtaining redress, towards the pursuit of individuals or the attribution of collective responsibility. We must analyse rather the ‘concrete systems of punishment,’ study them as social phenomena that cannot be accounted for by the juridical structure of society alone, nor by its fundamental ethical choices; we must situate them in their field of operation, in which the punishment of crime is not the sole element; we must show that punitive measures are not simply ‘negative’ mechanisms that make it possible to repress, to prevent, to exclude, to eliminate; but that they are linked to a whole series of positive and useful effects which it is their task to support (and, in this sense,although legal punishment is carried out in order to punish offences, one might say that the definition of offences and their prosecution are carried out in turn in order to maintain the punitive mechanisms and their functions).”

 

“The public execution, then, has a juridico-political function. It is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular. The public execution, however hasty and everyday, belongs to a whole series of great rituals in which power is eclipsed and restored (coronation, entry of the king into a conquered city, the submission of rebellious subjects); over and above the crime that has placed the sovereign in contempt, it deploys before all eyes an invincible force. Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.”

 

“Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise. It is not a triumphant power…it is a modest, suspicious power, which functions as a calculated, but permanent economy.”

 

“Today, criminal justice functions and justifies itself only by this perpetual reference to something other than itself, by this unceasing reinscription in non-juridical systems.”

 

“The most defenseless tenderness and the bloodiest of powers have a similar need of confession. Western man has become a confessing animal.”

 

“There are moments in life where the question of knowing if one can think otherwise than one thinks and see otherwise than one sees is indispensable for continuing to look and reflect.”

 

“The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

 

“All these present struggles revolve around the question: Who are we? They are a refusal of these abstractions, of economic and ideological state violence, which ignore who we are individually, and also a refusal of a scientific or administrative inquisition which determines who one is.”

 

“I don’t really know what they mean by ‘intellectuals,’ all the people who describe, denounce, or scold them. I do know, on the other hand, what I have committed myself to, as an intellectual, which is to say, after all, a cerebro-spinal individual: to having a brain as supple as possible and a spinal column that’s as straight as necessary.”

 

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John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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