Negative Participation

Foucault writes: “No technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; nor can the art of living, the technē tou biou, be learned without an askēsis that should be understood as a training of the self by oneself.” There are many forms of self-examination and medication that can make up this exercise of living, and Foucault notes how “writing — the act of writing for oneself and for others — came, rather late, to play a considerable role.” So partial to classics, Foucault seemed, at least publicly, to find no problem with continuing such a practice in modernity. It was an essential expulsion for any would-be philosopher, who prides themselves on reading at length:

Writing, as a way of gathering in the reading that was done and of collecting one’s thoughts about it, is an exercise of reason that counters the great deficiency of stultitia, which endless reading may favor. Stultitia is defined by mental agitation, distraction, change of opinions and wishes, and consequently weakness in the face of all the events that may occur; it is also characterized by the fact it turns the mind toward the future, makes it interested in novel ideas, and prevents it from providing a fixed point for itself in the possession of an acquired truth.

There is a tension here, of course. Reading and stultitia are orientating, for sure, but writing is grounding. And one cannot be orientated sufficiently without a ground, even if that ground is itself prone to agitation, distraction, change of opinion. At the same time, a ground without orientation is static and staid. Though we must always push off into a future, it is necessary to have a secure base onto which we can withdraw, just as it is essential to have a horizon over which ground fades from view.

And so, to what extent is writing ever a withdrawal in the present? To what extent is it an excursion?

Foucault himself, despite his commitment to the askēsis of self-writing, later longed for anonymity. He felt trapped under a more public writing persona, even attempting to publish anonymous essays in contemporary periodicals, which he was always denied by editors who refused to pass up the marketing opportunity of the great philosopher being a recognised contributor to their publications.

But this tension was hardly one to be fully resolved. It was precisely the tension that was productive. To give in fully to his public persona would be to feel subsumed by the world he rejected; to disappear fully into anonymity would also mean giving up on forcing the world to queer itself to his bent. Trapped in a world that felt at once malleable and immovable requires an exercise of one’s own power, an “ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom.” Foucault explains in an interview of the same name:

The idea that there could exist a state of communication that would allow games of truth to circulate freely, without any constraints or coercive effects, seems utopian to me. This is precisely a failure to see that power relations are not something that is bad in itself, that we have to break free of. I do not think that a society can exist without power relations, if by that one means the strategies by which individuals try to direct and control the conduct of others. The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve them in the utopia of completely transparent communication but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ēthos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible.

This problem has never felt more pronounced than in the present. Twitter, in particular, is rife with the contradictions that are unbounded by Foucault’s perspective. Earlier today I saw a screenshot from some article or blogpost in which an anonymous centrist decried the progressive left for its tendency to bully others into a more utopian thinking. Elsewhere, the fearmongering around pronouns is framed as an attempt to coercively adapt other’s use of language. It is cognitive dissonance, pure and simple. The demand for more freedom — subjective, social, linguistic — is framed as a new kind of domination, and true freedom is the persistent and continual domination of the marginal by a hegemony. Not all ground can bear flowers.

As I continue to struggle against this reenergised practice of writing, and writing anyway, I’m reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa’s closing remarks in his study of Flaubert and Madame Bovary:

As a result of the specialization that industrial development brought in its wake and of the advent of modern society, fiction today has a more and more disquieting tendency to branch off in two different directions: a literature for popular consumption, manufactured by professionals with varying degrees of technical skill whose one aim is to turn out, as mechanically as a production line, works which repeat the past (as regards both form and content), with a slight cosmetic touch of modernism, and which as a consequence preach the most abject conformism in the face of the established order (the best-sellers of the capitalist world and the flag-waving, self-congratulatory, officially approved literature of the socialist world fall alike within this category), on the one hand, and on the other a literature of the catacombs, experimental and esoteric, that has given up before the fact any attempt to win a hearing for itself from the public that consumes the other sort, and instead meets self-imposed demands of artistic excellence, bold experimentation, and formal creativity at the price of (and, it might be said, a maniacal insistence on) isolation and solitude. Thus, on the one hand, whether through the workings of the crushing mechanisms of supply and demand of industrial society or through the flattery and blackmail of the patron state, literature is transformed into an inoffensive occupation, a means of harmless diversion, shorn of what was once its most important virtue, the critical questioning of reality thanks to representations which, by drawing from this reality, even its smallest element, added up to works that were at once its revelation and its negation, and the writer is transformed into a domesticated, predictable producer who propagates and promotes the official myths, having unconditionally surrendered to the reigning interests: success, money, or the crumbs of power and comfort that the state hands out to docile intellectuals. On the other hand, literature becomes a matter of specialized knowledge, remote and sectarian, a super-exclusive masoleum of saints and heroes of the written word, who have haughtily handed over to writer-eunuchs the task of confronting the public, yielded the mandate to communicate, and buried themselves alive to save literature from ruin: they write to one another or to themselves, they say they are engaged in the rigorous task of investigating language or inventing new forms, but in practice are multiplying each day the locks and keys of this redoubt in which they have imprisoned literature, because at heart they habor the terrible conviction in which the media, advertising, and the pseudo-products of a publishing industry that caters to a mass readership reign supreme, can an authentic literature of creation flourish in our day, like a hothouse orchid, hidden away, exquisite, preserved by hermetic codes from being sullied and cheapened, accessible only to certain valiant confreres.

Flaubert sits uncomfortably in between, the author of one of the most famous books ever written who nonetheless resisted constantly the pressures of being caught up in an industrial publishing complex. His contradictions, notes Llosa, are writ large in his letters:

Dozens, even hundreds, of paragraphs from his letters could be cited as proof that, for him, writing was a selfish compensation, a cowardly, imaginary way of giving expression to deeply buried impulses: “I was born with a whole bunch of vices that never poked their noses out the window. I love wine and don’t drink. I am a gambler and have never touched a playing card. Debauchery delights me and I live like a monk. I am a mystic at heart and believe in nothing”…

Llosa soon quotes the letter that gives his study its title: “The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy” — a line that is so wonderfully debauched, but which in itself diverts a reader’s attention from the reality of a writer’s life, which seems so sexless and unaffectionate at its most hermetic. Llosa continues:

From a vocation whose roots lay in a furious rejection of all humanity there might have been a literature in which language was not a meeting place but a shield, a boundary line, a tomb, a proof of the impossibility of reconciling art and dialogue in the tumultuous new society.

But this did not happen. […] From his world apart, Flaubert, through literature, engaged in an active polemic with the world he hated, made of the novel an instrument of negative participation in life. […] Literature for Flaubert was this possibility of forever going beyond what life permits…

Art and life feel totally irreconcilable in Flaubert’s letters, but he found himself involved in life regardless:

This fury, bordering at times on the apoplectic, was in reality a healthy one, causing Flaubert to build a literary bridge (though admittedly one whose planks were insults) to the society from which he felt himself exiled. Thus his vocation produced a work that was what great literature has always been: at once a cause and an effect of human dissatisfaction, an occupation thanks to which a man in conflict with the world finds a way of living that suits him, a creation that examines, questions, profoundly undermines the certainties of an era…

Writing the self is also always a process of unwriting the self. Neither position resolved, we find truth regardless, painfully indeterminate. Indeterminacy as truth. A paradox but the only one.

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