Tuesday, 5 August 2014

To write like a surgeon

Full title: Speech Begins after Death
Author: Michel Foucault, Philippe Artières
Genre: Non fiction, interview
Attributes: 96 pages, hardcover
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In 1968, Michel Foucault participated in a series of private interviews with Claude Bonnefoy (also known for having conducted a series of interviews with Eugene Ionesco). There were ten conversations in total, all intended for publication. For some reason, though, the planned publication did not happen. What’s more, the interviews with Bonnefoy passed unnoticed for a very long time, so most of them were gradually lost. The script of the first of these interviews was discovered fairly lately. Although it appears to end abruptly, the script was interesting enough to make it into a volume on its own. This is how Speech Begins After Death came about, with a twenty-page introduction by Philippe Artières, who clarifies a few important things about Foucault’s relationship with interviews, lectures, rallies, and other forms of public speech.
A few topics form the flesh of this thin but dense volume, in which Foucault displayed himself as a relaxed, casual at times, uninhibited interviewee. What really stands out, though, is the theme of writing. This interview, which Artières defines as “Foucault putting himself in danger,” marks an interesting point in the career of the philosopher-speaker: his employment of “autobiographical speech.” Indeed, Foucault talks extensively about his childhood and the medical discourse in which he was raised, as the son of a surgeon. The memory of his upbringing offers him the opportunity to talk about his later development as a writer with the words and logic of a medic:
“The physician listens, but does so to cut through the speech of the other and reach the silent truth of the body. The physician doesn’t speak, he acts, that is, he feels, he intervenes. The surgeon discovers the lesion in the sleeping body, opens the body and sews it back up again, he operates; all this is done in silence, the absolute reduction of words. The only words he utters are those few words of diagnosis and therapy.”
Writing, to Foucault, is like clinical analysis, or like dissection.
Source: Dentistry and Medicine
One doesn't need to know much about Foucault to realize that right here, in this definition of the medical profession, lies the very essence of his career as a writer. He says it upfront: the silence of physicians, doubled by that of writers, generates a unified silence, from which writing rises like a necessity, like an “obligation,” and, at the same time, like a dissection.
“I've transformed the scalpel into a pen. I've gone from the efficacy of healing to the inefficacy of free speech; for the scar on the body I've substituted graffiti on paper; for the ineradicability of the scar I've substituted the perfectly eradicable and expungeable sign of writing. Maybe I should go further. For me the sheet of paper may be the body of the other.”
From beyond his texts, Foucault almost always requires to be quoted through long passages, like the ones above, because there is, behind his words, a desire and a lack: the desire to find out for himself what he might be able to say on a given topic, and the lack of a clear trajectory. Surprising as it may seem, the latter is not a shortcoming of his philosophy, but the actual principle that puts things in motion. Through this interview, as through his oeuvre, Foucault is attempting to satisfy the desire and overcome the lack; and he does so through a convincing theory of writing (convincing because so very personal). To him, as the interview makes apparent, writing is a tool used in the much more complex process of reflection.
“When I begin to write an essay or a book, or anything, I don’t really know where it’s going to lead or where it’ll end up or what I’m going to show. I only discover what I have to show in the actual movement of writing, as if writing specifically meant diagnosing what I had wanted to say at the very moment I began to write.”

Through this exploratory writing Foucault learned, made light, discerned the atmosphere of things. And this is the reason why he didn't consider himself a systemic philosopher, but rather a scalpel-wielding surgeon, a muted-yet-eloquent diagnoser; one who took every task as a new beginning, every word as a new operation.