"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




What Foucault Knows

Review of Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by Donald F. Bouchard (Cornell Univ. Press, 1977)

by Perry Meisel

Although Roland Barthes once characterized Michel Foucault's writing as an example of what it describes - "uneasy," said Barthes in 1961, "uneasy" like the relations between reason and unreason in Madness and Civilization - what is most striking about Foucault's achievement today is the unfailing poise and lucidity of its narrator in a remarkably stable and unified series of historical studies over the last seventeen years. Despite some shifts in accent and tone, even Foucault's intentions have remained very largely continuous as he maps from different coordinates at different points in his career the history of post-Renaissance culture and the rules by which it produces knowledge in a variety of specialized but homologous discourses. Psychiatry, economics, medicine, penology, sexology - these "disciplines" are rarely linked as Foucault links them by discerning their common functions and effects - their common structure - in producing the determinations of the social matrix that Jacques Lacan has called the Symbolic and that Foucault himself calls the episteme. Each of Foucault's major books is even built the same way and ornamented by the same rhetorical habits in a regularity of design that seems to duplicate on the level of style the "discursive regularities" that are the objects of Foucault's self-announced quest for a "typology of discourse" at large.
If there is any rupture in Foucault's thought within this otherwise continuous movement, it comes in the form of a punctuation of determinism inaugurated by the 1971 Discourse on Language, and signals what is after all a rather serious disagreement with the "structuralist" enterprise, at least as it has come to be embodied in the utopian aesthetic of Barthesian jouissance. This latter position - to encourage the polyphonic possibilities of a text, to coax the signifier to float, as Foucault himself does in The Order of Things - is what Foucault calls in the Discourse the "monarchy of the signifier," and it is the reign of its play that he wishes to depose. Rather than ask "What various things can a text mean?" Foucault wants to know "Why this meaning and not another?" And with this determinism emerges his insistence, too, that the episteme of a given period is a positive formation rather than a negative one, not an apparatus that limits or represses knowledge but one that produces what knowledge there is, that constitutes its subjects and objects alike in a single gesture of thought. Hence his project has shifted in name from a "typology of discourse" to "a morphology of the will to knowledge," with the power carried by knowledge - discourse as action in its own right - a growing preoccupation in the recent Birth of the Prison and Histoire de la sexualité.
This decisive shift in attention toward the "monarchy" instead of a given episteme, however, makes the status of Foucault's own discourse particularly problematic, magnifying as it does the imbalance that secretly accompanies his work from the start. If, as Foucault maintains, only one episteme is operative at any one time in history, how can any knowledge, even his own, be more than "epistemic," or, in the Althusserian variant that lies behind it, ideological?1 Here Barthes's notion of Foucault's writing as itself "uneasy" may be re-examined, even though it is clear that Foucault does not formally redouble the problematic space of knowledge the way Barthes himself sometimes does by producing graphically excessive texts like S/Z or Fragments d'un discours amoureux, or even as Jacques Derrida has done by producing graphically shattered texts like Glas. No, Foucault's writing as writing bespeaks the space it occupies by situating its apparent self-possession and certitude at the horizon of discourse as a practice, at that horizon of discourse known in France as the Limit.
Foucault points all this out in the essays to be found in Donald Bouchard's selection and translation (with Sherry Simon) of a number of Foucault's shorter pieces over the years, the first such collection of Foucault to appear in either French or English, and among the relatively few instances in Foucault's already considerable body of work in which we can find him reflecting overtly on the problem of discourse as such. The particular value of Bouchard's collection lies in the degree to which it allows us to see how Foucault's own methods as a writer redouble the methods of knowledge he narrates, as though knowledge of knowledge, discourse about discourse, can only find its mark if it rediscovers its real object in itself. Except for the 1969 Archaeology of Knowledge, with its tendency to self-parody, and the Discourse, with its curious personal debts and polemical tone, these essays are the only theoretical Foucault we have, and they show us Foucault as an active practitioner of the Limit at which he claims the discourse of all knowledge to be situated.
The opening essay in the collection, Foucault's 1963 hommage to Georges Bataille, "Preface to Transgression," is probably the volume's best active account of the Limit as the space within which all "works of language" play, with the "transgressive" Bataille the exemplar of such linguistic practice, even if his centrality for Foucault tends to bind the notion of the Limit a little too exclusively to its associations with the theory and practice of contemporary French fiction. From a historical point of view, though, what Bataille transgresses is "the limitless reign of the Limit" that is called into being with "the death of God," the Limit that tells us there is no limit, no boundary at all, to the void into which culture's fall from an earlier (and doubtless mythical) neo-classical plenitude has precipitated us since the seventeenth century. Only by transgressing this limit - to make it produce the Limit it does not possess on its own - does the Limit itself come into being, as an effect of its own lack or absence. "The limit and transgression depend on each other," says Foucault, "for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were not absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows."
Discourse situated at the Limit, however, is not simply Bataille's special property, nor does it need Bataille's explicitly sexual context to resonate. It is in fact the kind of metalanguage that best characterizes the condition and status of all language, and the kind of metalanguage that is best suited to Foucault's own particular purposes. If madness, disease, criminality, perversion are the transgressors that bring the Law into being in Foucault's historical books (madness/the asylum, disease/the clinic, perversion/sexology: all these pairs emerge reciprocally at one and the same moment in history), so it is Foucault's own transgression of the space in which thought is possible that brings thought's rules into relief as an effect of their violation. By attempting the impossible, Foucault brings the outline of the possible into being. How knowledge emerges and how that emergence is to be narrated are, as it turns out, reflexive procedures. Knowledge can only know itself by transgressing the conditions that constitute it, although those conditions are constituted and defined in turn by their transgression. "The limit," says Foucault, must "find itself in what it excludes." It is "the questioning of language by language in a circularity" that opens up a zone where "philosophy" itself "is realized in language and in the movement where it says what cannot be said." And it is this originary difference, this necessary inability of Foucault's project to coincide with itself, that opens up the peculiar space in which it is to be situated.
The category that emerges to account for, to describe, to be this paradoxical site in which language establishes its sovereignty is, of course, "literature," and, like the birth of the Limit of which it is the formalizer according to Foucault's historical mythology, it emerges as an institution at the same moment in history that God and neo-classical plenitude become worn out. The 1963 "Language to Infinity" describes this "literary" space and its derivation with admirable clarity, and if the language of difference is by now a customary enough "structuralist" topos, it is still astonishing to rediscover its articulation at so relatively early a date and with such compelling dramatic effect. Here Foucault's desire is for a "formal ontology of literature" that would map the mode or conditions of literature's existence as a discourse, and, by implication, the conditions of discursive practice as a whole. And whether Foucault is entirely serious about his chronology or not (English epic and the Italian sonnet are among the best examples of the language of the Limit in all "literature"), he nonetheless delineates with singular efficiency the "literary" status of all discourse, and the space in which "the literary" is to be situated and defined as such.
The decisive epistemic transformation by which "literature" emerges in "Language to Infinity" and in the 1969 "What is an Author?" is the shift from a world of neo-classical Rhetoric to what Foucault calls the world of the Library or Archive that appears in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. If, in an argument that parallels that of The Order of Things, the "double chain of Rhetoric" links the chain of language proper to the chain of a divine language inscribed in things (language in this sense is representational, since it speaks "of" something which is apart from it), the Library is a world of language only, a language no longer representational but one whose own internal differences produce a new and self-generating world of interiority for which Romanticism has been our traditional sign. Language, in short, becomes constitutive rather than expressive.
In the 1967 "Fantasia of the Library," it is Flaubert who helps Foucault to codify this "internal" and decidedly "literary" space. Flaubert "opens a domain of depth," says Foucault, the "depth" of language's internal resonances as they are symbolized by the Library in whose Archive an "art is erected" that remains "indefinitely open," "open" since its possibilities are as infinite as the number of relations language can establish with(in) itself. Here "speech discovers the endless resourcefulness of its own image," says Foucault in "Language to Infinity," "and . . . can represent itself as already existing behind itself, to infinity." And to see language "naturalize" its reign (to find a new metaphysical legitimacy for the lost one of a divine order in things), we have only to remember that language's turning back and "in" on itself as "literature" is paralleled by the simultaneous emergence of a domain of interiority on a material level, too - in the body as an inward, anatomical space in The Birth of the Clinic, and the mind as a psychological space in The Birth of the Prison, both in turn already prepared for, as Foucault will argue in his next two books in the Volonté de savoir series, in the "literature" of Protestant interiority and Catholic confession alike.
But despite Foucault's claim as a historian that this differential or literary space emerges only after the neo-classical age, there are nonetheless two examples of it in Bouchard as early as the classical age proper. In "Language to Infinity," for example, Foucault finds Ulysses already enacting an exemplary version of the language of the Limit in The Odyssey by averting the fulfillment of the disasters that threaten him by means of a "fictive speech" that "borders death but is also poised against it." "Headed toward death," says Foucault of Ulysses's discourse, "language turns back upon itself; it encounters something like a mirror; and to stop this death which would stop it, it possesses but a single power: that of giving birth to its own image in a play of mirrors that has no limits."
And in "Theatrum Philosophicum," a 1970 review-essay of Gilles Deleuze's Logique du sens and Diffèrence et rèpétition, Foucault endorses what may be read as Deleuze's own establishment of such a literary space in the renversement of Plato - inaugurated, says Deleuze, by the discordances in Plato himself. For Deleuze, the distinction Plato erects between the Simulacrum and the True Copy of the Model of Truth is an untenable one, for there is in fact no Model to be true to except insofar as it can be established by belated induction from the Copy that is true to it. In fact, the model comes into being as the absent origin to which the Copy (must) refer(s), with this act of reference really the consequence of an originary difference opened up by the notion of the Copy itself, and one that produces truth only as an afterimage or index. "Truth," as Foucault puts it in a 1971 course outline from the Collége de France that Bouchard includes here along with some recent interviews, "becomes merely an effect - the effect of a falsification that we call the opposition of truth and falsehood."
Hence Foucault's rejection of all teleology in the 1971 "Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History," especially his overt request there for "the abandonment of 'adolescent' quests" for origins and ends, wholeness of being, integrity or truth of self. "Genealogy" or "effective history," says Foucault in his Nietzschean profile, is the "search for descent," an activity not to be confused with a search for origins, since it is not taken up in the name of "erecting . . . foundations; on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself."
Ironically enough, Foucault's familiar insistence on neo-classical plenitude is just such a myth of "foundations," and one he puts plainly into question by recognizing through Deleuze that representation comes to an end at least as early as Plato, and by asserting in "Language to Infinity" that even Homer practices a language of the Limit every bit as "modern" as Bataille's. And if Foucault's own manifest classicism as a stylist belies in turn what seems to be his shared position with Barthes, Phillippe Sollers, and Bataille himself that the new novel and its aftermath are the telos of modern literature and the desired form of practice for prose today, Foucault's very erection of a telos for discourse in the transgressive discourse of Bataille and the new novel is itself in contradiction with the teleology he abjures. Teleology nonetheless invades Foucault's history at virtually every turn despite his contention that notions of development and morality are both to be eschewed by the "effective" historian: modern imprisonment is more sinister than classical torture in The Birth of the Prison; "more" of the body is colonized under psychoanalysis than under medieval sexology in the Histoire de la sexualité; madness is in fact a more privileged discourse than reason in Madness and Civilization; above all, neo-classical Rhetoric points to a plenitude in The Order of Things that Deleuze and "Language to Infinity" both defer in the light of difference in the golden age itself.
Indeed, these telltale ironies are redoubled in the very overarching paradox of Foucault's work, for the "apocalyptic objectivity" of the conventional historian that Foucault rejects in "Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History," is, of course, reconstituted in the transcendental ideality of Foucault's own search for a "typology of discourse," for something outside the game that will explain it. Of course, this telos is itself put in question by Foucault's figuration of history as an Archive of texts (a sedimentation, according to the archaeological metaphor) whose classification and analysis render the historian an interpreter who may fold or slice his material in so many different ways at once that his method opens itself up to those very perils of the signifier that the Discourse wishes to guard against.
Of course, all such contradictions are, as Foucault argues, really paradoxes, and stand for the paradoxical conditions - the "ontology" - of the mode of existence of "works of language" at large. As a work of language in its own right, Foucault's discourse answers its call for an account of discourse to itself by redoubling on the level of its own discursive practice the paradoxical situation in which discourse appears as such. Hence Foucault arrives at knowledge by crossing the limits his own laws set up for its constitution, redoubling the kind of space knowledge itself is by producing knowledge as an effect of its own transgression. This "literary" situation in which Foucault's knowledge of discourse/discourse of knowledge locates itself is best described by his own notion of "the book" in "Language to Infinity," another emergence of the late eighteenth century that is still with us, and one that characterizes as well as any notion can the active and self-accounting logic at work in Foucault's own prose: "if we make a book which tells of all the others, would it or would it not be a book itself? Must it tell its own story as if it were a book among others? And if it does not tell its story, what could it possibly be since its objective was to be a book? Why should it omit its own story, since it is required to speak of every book? Literature begins when this paradox is substituted for the dilemma, when the book is no longer the space where speech adopts a form (forms of style, forms of rhetoric, forms of language), but the site where books are all recaptured and consumed: a site that is nowhere since it gathers all the books of the past in this impossible 'volume' whose murmuring will be shelved among so many others - after all the others, before all the others."

1. I have intentionally elided Foucault's well-known distinctions among various kinds of knowledge - savoir, connaissance, and science all alike - since to do so is only to follow out Foucault's suggestion that all forms of knowledge are finally ideological or epistemic only, necessarily determined by the rules of possibility by means of which its various statements are enunciated.

Originally published in Salmagundi, Spring-Summer 1979