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The Fold of Life, Labour, and Language by Sven-Olov Wallenstein

The question what a living being is, and more specifically what we think of as the human being, or “Man” – as an outmoded but prevalent vocabulary has it – appears to have re-entered the philosophical debate. It is, however, no longer oriented along the axes of those post-war phenomenologies of experience and subjectivity that were at stake in the debates around the death of Man and the end of humanism some fifty years ago. Instead, it draws on developments in science and technology that were then only vaguely on the horizon. Thus, while the current insecurities surrounding the vocabulary of humanism sometimes prolong and intensify the earlier discussions, they also position themselves in opposition to the philosophical tradition, indiscriminately perceived as “Cartesian” or “subject-oriented”. This tends to obscure the real stakes of the debate.

In order to get a more encompassing perspective on these shifts, a good starting point is the work of Michel Foucault, which through its meandering development insistently returns to the problem of what the inherited vocabulary of Man, the human, and humanism might mean. From his early study of Kant and the relation between philosophy and anthropology – which Kant famously attempted to summarise in the question “What is Man?” (Was ist der Mensch?), a formula that we encounter in several versions in his critical philosophy – the problem of life, in its connection to the dimensions of language and labour, traverses the whole of Foucault’s work.

But there are at least three ways of accessing the theme of life, of bios, in Foucault, all of which are equally relevant to the present, although the question remains if they can be combined into a common optic. The first access would be through epistemological reflection; the second through what Foucault calls an “analytic of power”; and the third through the problem of the subject and its self-relation. All of them are historical, although with different rhythms and time frames. The first focuses on underlying rules that makes rationalities possible, and on the rather sharp breaks and mutations that transform our discourses; the second on long-term processes, and on how we gradually become enmeshed in networks​ of power that constitute us as subjects, both in the sense of subjection and of individualisation; the third, finally, on what could be called a profound memory that extends through the subject’s layers, and that results from a long and labourious self-fashioning. Bringing these three axes together as a continually unfolding interrogation, rather than as mutually exclusive options, and seeing their interaction as the possibility of a freedom that hinges on our capacity for response might provide a different take on the present.


In the first perspective, which largely derives from The Order of Things (1966), Foucault develops a way of re-reading the history of thought in terms of “epistemic” formations. These are sets of rules that determine (in a rather loose and non-causal fashion that Foucault never really explained satisfactorily) what can be thought, perceived, and said in each period. To unearth them is the task of what he calls an archeology, and in the book he traces in three thematic fields from the Renaissance through the classical age into modernity: life, labour, and language. The discourses and theories surrounding these concepts do not develop in a linear and cumulative way, Foucault suggests, but rather through abrupt transformations, epistemic cuts, and breaks that change not only the answers, but also the mode of questioning and the very idea of truth. In order to be true or false, a statement has to be “in the true” (dans le vrai, a succinct formula that Foucault picks up from Georges Canguilhem), and archeology investigates the rules that circumscribe this field where statements become possible.

The most provocative thesis put forth in the book – and which is where it was heading all along, as evident in its subtitle, “An archeology of the human sciences” – is surely the following: Man, together with the kind of knowledge that singles him out as a privileged object, is a recent invention, dating back to the late eighteenth century, and furthermore, a figure of thought today nearing his end. Emerging at the historical moment marked by Kantian philosophy, Man ceased to relate to God as the infinity of knowledge (versions of which we find in the great rationalist thinkers of the classical period), and instead appeared as subjectivity, understood as fold, as a cross-reference to itself: man is subjected to the laws of life, labour, and language that limit him from without, but, in a second moment, through the movement of folding, he reaches back so as to form the condition of possibility for knowledge of these forces. In this Kantian “analytic of finitude”, as Foucault says (using a term from Heidegger), Man’s position as both subject and object becomes the founding structure of modernity, and he appears as a twisted centre, constantly struggling to overcome his own limitations while also being constituted by them. Unlike in the classical age, when knowledge converged upon the figure of infinite knowledge, finitude now holds sway, and “Man” is the name of this strangely folded figure.

But, Foucault argues, when the forces of life, labour, and language mutate and recombine differently, we will have to cease speaking of Man: the fold un-folds, as it were. We have not always talked the language of transcendental humanism, and we will not continue to do so forever. For Foucault in 1966, indications of this change are to be found in Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology and Lacan’s psychoanalysis, both of which decentre the modern subject in relation to the laws of symbolic systems and to the unconscious as language. Today, more immediate examples of such a shift could be recent breakthroughs in science and technology that have fundamentally reshaped our life-world – artificial intelligence redefining the idea of the “mind”; productive work, in the age of industrial robotics, ceasing to be defined in relation to the body and its hardships; and finally life being dispersed into the genetic code, more and more the subject of manipulation and possible recombination.

One need not have a taste for science-fiction to sense that we are moving toward a new epistemic formation, or at least that we are beginning to push up against the limits of the former one. This is reflected in many philosophical developments in the last seventy years, from Heidegger’s attempt to think the “essence of technology” as that which dissolves the essence of Man as animal rationale and undoes the very ground of humanism, to Lyotard’s vision of a postmodern “immateriality” based on communication technologies, to Deleuze’s ideas of an ontology of difference, multiplicities, and becomings rather than fixed identities. Contradictory and even fiercely opposed as these philosophies often are, perhaps we will at some point see them as straddling the divide between the emergent and the residual, twisting free from metaphysical humanism and opening onto other ways of thinking and sensing, other ways of situating ourselves in a landscape whose geography still eludes us.

The aesthetic dimension, however, seems both marginal and central to Foucault’s account in The Order of Things. On the one hand, works of art are cited at crucial junctures, and not only as emblematic of the shifting epistemic structures, but even somehow outside of them and with an ability to undo the present rules of discourse as well as prefigure future ones: Velázquez’ Las Meninas (1656), which deploys the representational structure of the classical age while also delineating an empty space that will be occupied by the modern subject; Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605–15), whose errant wanderings map the ruinous landscape of the Renaissance in its final phase; and Borges’ “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, published in Other Inquisitions (1952), with its fictional Chinese dictionary that provides Foucault’s book with its raison d’être by showing the ultimate groundlessness of any system of classification. On the other hand, throughout the extended analyses of the unfolding of knowledge from the Renaissance, the Classical Age, modernity, and beyond, theories of art or artistic movements in a more recognisable sense receive only limited attention, and the experience of working, speaking, and living as it unfolds in art seems not to be at the centre of Foucault’s archeology.


In the second perspective, life, labour, and language seem to drift apart as the figure of Man begins to be interrogated on the basis of its constitution in relations of power – or, rather, as these three discourses are reassembled in terms of discipline, which no longer work by sudden breaks but by long and insidious processes. Man no longer emerges as a subject-object through a sudden mutation in knowledge, but through gradually interlocking processes that transform him into an entity to be controlled and interpreted.

These claims are first set forth in Discipline and Punish (1975; in Foucault’s lectures they can be traced back to early 1970s), where Foucault wants to show a particular structure of discipline gradually emerged from several previously unconnected points in the social body: schools, the army, hospitals, prisons, etc. Step by step, through a sort of “cunning of reason” (that Hegel might have seen as the machinations of an evil genius), these various subsystems merged into one continuous diagram of power relations for which Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon provided a very striking illustration. Individualising, rendering productive, inciting – all these functions have to do with diminishing coercion, rendering power smooth, operative at every level, and continuous instead of being exerted from above as destructive, discontinuous, and repressive. Power is productive, and it begins by operating on the body – creating “docile bodies” as Foucault says – in order to fashion, on its basis, a soul at the point of intersection of the emerging “human sciences”, which probe, penetrate, and disclose this strange new object Man.

Particularly relevant here is Foucault’s analysis, in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976), of the emergence of the modern notion of sexuality, which for us post-Freudian moderns often seems like the very touchstone of our identity. Foucault’s most general claim, which at first seems counter-intuitive but follows from his general theory of power as essentially productive, is that sexuality has never, as such, been repressed. There has indeed been repression, but only at local moments as a kind of tactics within a more general strategy that has produced us as sexualised subjects, hollowed us out and given us an unconscious as a decipherable depth, and made us into the subjects and objects of hermeneutics and interpretation. Discourse around sex has in fact been multiplied, especially in nineteenth-century era considered “Victorian”, and rather than rendering sex invisible it has made it proliferate, suffusing all the recesses of the body, creating the figures of the homosexual, the pervert, and countless other deviants swarming around the great phallic signifier. Sex, so goes Foucault’s most radical claim, is produced by the discourse of a specifically modern scientia sexualis.

But Foucault also sees this process as operating on another level, namely what he calls “biopower”. Here he describes a shift in the power structure from the age of sovereignty, as we find it, for instance, in the writings of Hobbes, where the right of the ruler is to take life or to let live. The modern form of power, Foucault argues, is different: the task becomes to strengthen, render productive, organise, compose, maximise, to steer, and administer life (gérer la vie). Foucault’s understanding of these processes forms a counterpart to the analyses we find in Marx and Weber, in that they describe the genesis of capitalism from the point of view of the body, its becoming docile, healthy and sick, reproductive, desiring, but also becoming a profound question, a zone of opacity, and a source of deregulation. For where there is power being exercised, there is also resistance; and life and body, the normal and the pathological, are thus always contested objects. Nietzsche’s quasi-biological view of the subject is an instance of this, both in terms of his genealogical reading of the becoming-docile of the body and in the way he dreamed about creating a different body on the basis of affects and powers that are lodged inside it. Putting the body in place of the soul thus not only attacks the Cartesian model (Spinoza, who is rarely cited by Foucault, is the crucial predecessor, as Deleuze points out on many occasions) but could also be taken as a mode of resistance inside a specifically modern bio-political epistemic field.


Placed along the third axis, these analyses acquire yet another meaning in pointing to how the subject that emerges out of epistemic shifts and processes of discipline also, perhaps most importantly, must be considered in terms of a response, a self-fashioning that is always situated in relation to external forces without being a mere effect of them. If life is always what is governed and directed from the outside, it is also self-governing and a resistance that creates a self.

In Foucault, this return of the subject and, more obliquely, of categories like consciousness, freedom, and agency coincides with a drastic shift in historical perspective. He now returns to the sources of antiquity, from early Greek philosophy up to early Christianity, although not in order to discard his previous work on the initial phases of modernity in favor of illusory “perennial” questions. It is, rather, to explore another layer of history, changing at a much slower place, which was made accessible precisely through the rejection of various “transcendentals” that took place along the first two axes. Here, too, the problems of life, language, and labour recur, but now in relation to how a precarious self might be formed.

This is how the tripartite fold reemerges from the 1979–80 lectures On the Government of the Living onward: language in the question of how subjects, through “acts of truth” (such as early Christian confessional procedures), ways of speaking that address another subject, can come into being so that they are both subjected and related to themselves; labour in the question of what “truth-work” or alethurgy one is required to exert on oneself for such truth to be possible; and life in the question of how such a perpetually examined existence may be led. In the end, whether this truth-work produces subjection or a transformed relation to oneself as a moment of freedom and truth is a question that is gradually elabourated in Foucault’s subsequent lecture series, and their general drift is toward the second option. The “hermeneutics of the self” that he uncovers in Plato, which then passes over into the problem of “governing oneself and others”, and finally to the “courage to truth” that he locates in the Cynics as disobedient disciples of Socrates and their quest for self-knowledge, is however not only, or even predominantly, an introspection, but an imperative to each and every one to take a stance in public life.

The themes that traverse Foucault’s lectures (of which the two final volumes of The History of Sexuality only give a snapshot) just before his untimely death in 1984 can be taken as circling back to the themes of life, language, and labour broached in 1966, although in a profoundly transformed sense. They are no longer forces from the outside that at one point in history compose a figure called “Man”, destined to exist between two epistemological breaks and then to be erased. Nor are they fields of application of a discipline that produces the subjected subject who must live in order to multiply and form a population; labour so as to produce and sustain himself as a useful being; and speak so as to display his secrets. They are, instead, domains in which the subject is formed through acts of language, a life that is examined, and work on the self. These three axes do not exclude each other, nor can they be combined into a system; rather, they are fields of interrogation, whose interrelation and forms of overlapping change over time, which is why the Kantian question that once set Foucault on his path can have no single and conclusive answer.

At the outset I noted the seeming absence of systematic aesthetic considerations in Foucault. While in his early writings literature and visual arts often appear at crucial moments as signposts and guidelines, as he moves toward the analysis of power and discipline, and toward the problem of the subject, references to artworks become more sparse (with the interesting exception of Greek tragedy, to which he returns repeatedly). This has obviously not prevented his writings from becoming overwhelmingly influential in aesthetic theory, presumably less because of his scattered remarks on art and more because of the general questions they pose of modernity, political rationality, subjectivity, power, and other issues prominent today.

While the four exhibitions at Moderna Museet that are in focus here – Explosion! Painting as Action (2012), After Babel – Poetry will be made by all!–89plus (2015), Life Itself (2016), and The New Human (2015–17) – were not conceived only as responses to this type of question, in hindsight we might trace a line, no matter how sinuous, that traverses them and at several points intersects with the Foucauldian problems delineated above. The idea of art as acting and doing draws on a long tradition of self-realisation through a resistant matter both belonging to and foreign to the self. Poetry can be understood as a mode of access to language as it unfolds in a dimension of the collective, the anonymous murmurings of a discourse that always precedes us. And, finally, life itself might be the enigmatic power that draws the others along with it and yet comes to itself as we transform it by working on ourselves and by speaking. But if these three spheres are brought to bear on each other, they also immediately place us in the dimension of power. According to which strictures is action to be undertaken to exist inside painting as discipline? Who is the “all” that makes poetry? In what sense is the collective poetic murmur already traversed by fault lines and inner divisions? Is not life always already the object of manipulations and calculations, so as to extract a surplus value from it, or even to expel some lives outside of sphere of value? Finally, they also necessitate a response from us. While no one response is necessary, no answer can be forced upon us by some historical necessity – the response we give, by folding these questions back on themselves and in the process setting up a space for action, will decide who we will be.

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