Foucault's dandy and some thoughts on modern poetry

by on Aug.11, 2011



The dandy as philosopher: It is will known that in the last decade of his life, Foucault moved away from attempts to describe power as simply normalizing and repressive and towards a notion of power that could be seen as creative, stimulating, constructivist. A form of power related to his notion of “the care of the self.” At its most radical, the “care of the self” can be seen as a continual and systematic experimentation upon the self.

Foucault: “From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” But this isn’t a redrawing of the existentialist map. Foucault, unlike Sartre, does not dilute his insights with the concept of authenticity. Rather, for Foucault there can be no appeal toward an authentic self (no matter how we situate that authenticity, be it Freudian, Marxist, etc.) and no final appeal to the sciences (economics, psychology, sociology, etc.). All we have, and all we can ever have, are different forms of fiction.

Which made me think: Instead of framing poetics as a dialectic between form and content (that constant obsession for so many Language writers), it might be more interesting to think of poetry in terms of varying types of fiction: the realist mode, the gothic mode, the pastoral mode, even the murder ballad mode, the self-destruction as theater mode (Plath and Artaud), the horror mode (Poe and Baudelaire and Frank Stanford and Aase Berg).

No form, no content, no truth, no “science” of the signifier, only modes of fiction and expression.

The dandy as political figure: As Foucault said in one late interview: “After all, why truth? Why are we concerned with truth, and more so than with the care of the self? And why must the care of the self occur only through the concern for truth?…The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve [power relations] in the utopia of completely transparent communication but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible.”

The “care of the self” should not bee seen as a bourgeois turning inward from the times, or as a retreat from the turmoil of political upheavals. In “What is Enlightenment?” Foucault sees Baudelaire’s fascination with the dandy and flâneur and the figure of the modern painter as having potential not only in terms of how contemporary people might relate to modernity, but also to how we might relate to politics as a whole.

Baudelaire’s modernity “does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.” And in this light vast utopian projects that thirst for some ultimate salvation and purified vantage point (and usually lead to mass slaughter for those exact reasons) lose a great deal of energy: it is hard to carry out mass slaughter if you don’t believe you have the some transcendental knowledge on your side. Foucault was interested in a politics as experimental as his notion of the self: “I prefer partial transformations, which have been made in correlation of historical analysis and practical attitude, to the programs for a new man that the worst political systems have repeated throughout the twentieth century.”

Which made me think: political poetry, be it experimental or not, frequently seems to spring from this desire to “liberate man in his own being.” But why? And what gives the poet the right to tell us who we are, and how we should think? Why should the poet assign to his or herself the role of liberator at all? A more interesting approach, I would argue, is the mask. The constructed figure. The ballroom dance where we never know who is really in front of us. The tradition of Dante and Borges. Hell as fiction and earth as fiction and both in constant metamorphosis.

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Excellent. I think the idea of writing as “liberation” is what I was objecting to as “safe space” a while back, and which Megan wrote so interestingly about in her post about the gothic video game.


  2. Jared

    Interesting post, James. I have no Foucault directly, only secondhand, but some prior understanding of his late shift.

    I like the connection to “self-destruction as theater” and the switch of political task for the poet from (as I take it) exemplary human being on display (which seems the height of neoliberal culture) to something more like what I guess could be called an ironic understanding of the aboriginal dance around the fire wearing the masks of the gods, at once displaying them and showing them to be a construct and, thus, applicable to human beings as masks to be worn and cast off, not transcendent realities but what I take to be localized and mobile forms of understanding.

    I like how this move dispels “the dialectic between form and content” — a thing I am puking up even as I turn to examine it. This dialectic itself appears to me as a mask the poet wears, revealed as a mask by the fact of the constantly changing relations between form and content with poets only hiding behind (and arguing) the results (and their relative/supposed merits), which in every case is a made object, the painted face, a dance around the fire.

    Am I catching what you’re throwing? This seems a profitable shift in understanding, though in my own model of the fireside dance there is still the question of does the mask somehow still gesture toward the transcendent? Is there still a potential here for the abuse of that? Is there any way around this potential, or does the actual understanding truly dispel the potential? Seems plenty of room for trickery of the ego here, for any created self to attempt to keep the mask on, to claim more than is due.

    This of course bears interesting connections to Joseph Campbell’s work, who did not deny the transcendent but deplored the mistaking of the local expression, the mask, for the transcendent itself, a thing that in his view as I understand it equates to a complete misunderstanding of the transcendent, which is always an unspeakable mystery. Thus, the need to keep gesturing toward it anew in myriad formulations through the ages.

    From here we’re only a hop skip jump to Star Wars and George Lucas… 😉

  3. Adam Henne

    I’m underschooled with the Foucault too, not to mention the literature, but yr first paragraph struck me. It’s true, as I understand it, that Foucault’s ideas about the relationship between power and subjectivity changed significantly with his later works. Many of us mainly know these ideas from History of Sexuality which came late in his life, and now the posthumous Lectures at the Collége de France. What I’m not sure about what it is he moved away from. He explicitly rejects the “repressive hypothesis” in History of Sexuality vol. I, but his theory of power in earlier stuff on norms and the gaze (Birth of the Clinic) or knowledge/power (Archaeology of Knowledge) is still quite different from a theory of power as “simply normalizing and repressive.” Even his earliest work is anti-foundationalist, rejecting any authentic self to be repressed; the power of the medical gaze or the authoritative discourse is a productive one right from the start. Authentic selves are not repressed by power, disciplined selves are produced by it.

    What’s new in the later Foucault is, as you note, the agency of individuals in that production. People who know this stuff better than me debate if/when Foucault was/became a structuralist/poststructuralist, but what I see changing is an orientation — from social contexts that shape disciplined selves, to action of/by/on the self. Which does take place in a social context, inextricable from those still very real structural disciplinary forces.

    What that means for politics gets debated a lot, especially because Foucault kind of famously refused to be pinned down politically and ended up being called a crypto-conservative or a mushy liberal and so forth. One of his essays that’s become really popular with geographers is actually from 1967: “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias.” Here he articulates a theory of territorialization (before LeFebvre!), that is, the materialization of power in space, that resurfaced in a lot of radical politics like the squatting movement, bioregionalism, Temporary Autonomous Zones, etc. Rather than the creation of a revolutionary New Man, or the liberation of authentic selves from the repressive state, heterotopia is about carving out spaces for experiment; moments of resistance to repressive power that don’t depend on a foundationalist idea of self or humanity because they are plural, minor, maybe temporary.

    I don’t know what that means for poetry. But it’s certainly post-dialectic, and allows for signification without a stable signifier. That’s very early-period Foucault, though, in that it’s about an anti-, while remaining agnostic about what entity might be doing the resisting. I wonder how this might change with his later interest in care and experimentation?

  4. James Pate


    Interesting comments, especially about the possibility of the mask gesturing toward the transcendental…Early Foucault (and Bataille) might argue that the mask instead gestures toward transgression, toward that which is always outside thought, the limit-mark of thought…But I think the danger of the mask taking on some sort of essence, some sort of ontological status is always there. Maybe the answer is to wear one mask over another over another (which is exactly what Foucault claims Deleuze does).


    I’m pretty tired of writing as liberation too: it almost always falls back upon boring (and covertly oppressive) notions of what really constitutes the human.


    I agree, I might have stated the differences between early and later Foucault too strongly. He was always an anti-foundationalist, he always despised (that’s not too harsh a term) the dialectic, and he was always drawn to limit experiences.I haven’t read “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias” but I’m looking forward to doing so.

    As for poetry, he loved Renee Char, whose work was read at his funeral. And Artaud for course. But more generally, I think he would be skeptical of how so much American poetry circa 2011 (and I mean both experimental and not experimental) is premised on unexamined notions of self, authenticity, on what human desire is, etc. Joyelle and Johannes’ posts about genre, I would argue, relate to this skepticism about essences and humanism…

  5. James Pate

    I should also add Foucault preferred the term “pleasure” to “desire,” desire of course implying that is is a natural manifestation of the self…he used to make fun of radicals who held up signs telling us to liberate our desires.

    In contrast, he argued we should invent and construct new pleasures…much like Rimbaud actually (and in a quieter manner, Ashbery)…

    Again: types of fiction…

  6. adam strauss

    I love this: “Foucault preferred the term “pleasure” to “desire.”

    Has anyone here read Brian Teare’s book Pleasure? It’s very interesting—-and at times rather devastating (I think).

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  8. Lara Glenum

    The problem I have with realism is that its singular, monolithic strategy is its utter refusal to conceive of itself as a fiction or strategy (i.e. it reifies the real, the authentic, the true, which it alone has the tools to represent). In doing so, realism effaces and denies the validity of all other strategies/fictions.

    I’m very interested in this:

    “The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve [power relations] in the utopia of completely transparent communication but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible.”

    A call, it seems, for the emergence of total play and flux (i.e. vast communal pleasure) that’s predicated on a very specific kind of ethical concern/arrangement, no? Or am I reading it wrong?

  9. James Pate

    I think you’re exactly right, Lara…At least that’s my way of reading Foucault on this point. Foucault almost always used the word “utopia” in a negative fashion. For him, a space devoid of power simply couldn’t exist, and he found the prospect of a completely transparent society oppressive…

    And I think his interest in play and games (his notion of games of power) should probably be read in the most radical fashion possible. Play as a roll of the dice, the intersection of chance and necessity. I think he would’ve been very fascinated by a lot of Marina Abramovic’s work, had he known about it (if he did, he never wrote about it):art/ethics as continual experimentation. I think there’s many interesting links between the two of them….

  10. Lara Glenum

    I love the connection you’re making with Abramovic, James. I hope you post more of your thoughts on this. Very exciting!

    And the word utopia always makes me want to throw up in my boots, too. It’s unbearably oppressive.

    The idea of transparency seems yet another valence of realism: the idea that there’s something “real” that we only need see/position clearly, and then all will be ducky.

  11. James Pate

    Good idea, Lara. I’ll write a post about the two of them soon. Their fascination with limit-expereinces and with a kind of ascetic practice of art/ethics (where ascesis paradoxically becomes excess, and constructivist in a highly radical manner) is a shared theme between them.

    I’ve read some interesting Foucaultian essays on Paul Thek (who along with Abramovic is one of the favorite artist from the past 50 years or so) but I haven’t come across anything relating her to Foucault so far…

  12. Lara Glenum

    O yes! Thek, too! Love the connectivity here.