Posted on my site michel-foucault.com
I shall sum up [...] the critical operations which I have undertaken [To question] these three themes of the origin, the subject and the implicit meaning, is to undertake – a difficult task, very strong resistance indeed proves it – to liberate the discursive field from the historico-transcendental structure which the philosophy of the 19th century has imposed on it [...]
There where one used to tell the history of tradition and of invention, of the old and the new, of the dead and the living, of the closed and the open, of the static and the dynamic, I have undertaken to tell the history of perpetual difference; more precisely to recount the history of ideas as the sum of the specified and descriptive forms of non-identity.
Michel Foucault, (1996) . “History, discourse and discontinuity” S. Lotringer, ed., Foucault live (interviews, 1961-1984) (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), Translated by Anthony Nazarro, pp. 41-2. Translation modified.
Random thoughts in response
Foucault defines the event as something that has a beginning and an end. Every human experience, activity, idea and cultural form can be analysed as an event or as a series of events. Foucault uses this concept as a way of arguing against metaphysical essences in history. It is important to emphasise that his notion of the ‘event’ shares little in common with the event as it has been defined by other forms of philosophy which define it as the rare and earth shattering eruption of transcendence (or the eternal) into history.
If each event has a discrete beginning and end, it does not exist on its own, it can only exist in relation to other events and to other levels of events. An event when it begins, is already part of a history and a social and cultural structure. It both perpetuates and marks a break or difference – no matter how small – from those structures. It is both the Same and the Other.
Foucault also applies notions of the event, of difference, to his discussion of the formation of the self. The self is likewise an ‘event’. We are born into a language, culture and historical situation and we are trained by, and train ourselves, with the tools produced by our history and culture. At the same time, however, we have the capacity to modify how we belong, to make a unique contribution.
People are continually trying to tie things down and render them the Same so as to maintain social and other forms of order, but the Other, that which is different, keeps on dissolving these orders. One could argue, using worn out and questionable philosophical terms, that in Foucault’s work, this Other is ‘immanent’ rather than ‘transcendent’. Hence the Other is something that is constantly present and in dialogue with what is going on here and now and in ordinary lives. Continual difference pervades our existence, opening up the possibility for transgression at every moment, not just exceptionally. Of course, whether or not people take up the opportunities offered is another matter.
Thus one can oppose the terms ‘difference’ and ‘transcendence’. There is a vast tangle of moral judgment and elitism attached to the notion of ‘transcendence’, given only some people and some situations have access to it or are effected by it. Transcendence also reductively subsumes everything into itself and removes it from history. The term difference never operates this reduction and has far fewer grand pretensions. It doesn’t merely emerge in chosen moments but remains stubbornly historical and of this world. Transcendence has reductive and elitist overtones and is rare, whereas difference is multiple, common and accessible to everybody. Transcendence tends towards a gnostic rejection of the world, a removal to an eternal outside place (or non-place), difference tends towards an active engagement in history and the recognition of injustice.
For thinkers such as Arendt, Agamben and Badiou if the event is indeed singular, only certain events count and those events are rare. These events take on the status of crisis, revolution, exception, the extra-ordinary, the definitive break, wholesale political transformation, the departure from biological or animal necessity. Other occurences simply exist in the shadow of these rare or formative events.
Hannah Arendt, while eliminating the notion of causality and championing the cause of history, posits the idea of the division of action into two forms – one that is characterised as everyday and concerned with the mere maintenance of biological life and the social and cultural status quo and the other as ‘extraordinary action’, which has political and innovative effects. The second form of action is clearly more highly valued than the first.
The risks of elitism in proposing such a divide are high – as has of course been pointed out in various ways by Arendt’s critics. Some people become capable of producing worthy social and historical action, whereas others are condemned to spend their lives as anonymous drones. And disappointingly, especially given Arendt is a woman, those concerned with the biological continuation of the species rather than grand politics, often happen to be women.
Foucault, on the other hand, argues that all actions, thoughts, experiences and physical happenings are historical events which at one and the same time both maintain the status quo and depart from it to varying degrees. Every event by sheer virtue of the fact that it appears in time (history) both belongs to what has gone before and marks a departure from it. This departure or difference can be either virtually non-existent or large – but there is no division in what qualifies as an event and what doesn’t. There are no fundamental ontological differences between types of events, just differences in levels and strategic placement and degrees to which actions or events are transgressive (or not). And further, one has to think very carefully about how one valorises the transgressive.
So rather than a metaphysical reading of the event – where the transcendent comes down and erupts into history or negates history altogether in the maintenance of transhistorical essences, Foucault offers a historical reading where difference permeates everyday existence from moment to moment. This is not to say that the notion of difference is at a fundamental ontological level any more explicable than transcendence or less intriguing, but it is certainly far less pretentious in its ambit and a far more operable and empirically observable notion in terms of the analysis of micro-events and practices.
With thanks to Eduardo Duarte for starting the discussion which prompted these ideas.