Paul Veyne, Foucault: His Thought, His Character.Paul Veyne Paul Veyne, born 13 June 1930 in Aix-en-Provence, is a French archaeologist and historian, and a specialist on Ancient Rome. A former student of the École normale supérieure and member of the École française de Rome, he is now honorary professor at the Collège de France. , Foucault: His Thought, His Character, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press 2010)
READING VEYNE, now age 82 and Honorary Professor at the College de France, is a bit like listening to an elder patriarch hold forth on his favourite subjects. It's not without its charm and much can be learned, if one is prepared to put up with the other things that often accompany such a performance.
The digressions. In a book about Foucault, there is an entire chapter on "the beginnings of Christianity." This is one of Veyne's own areas of expertise, and one that certainly interested Foucault. While Veyne's detour can be read as a demonstration of how the genealogical method effectively deflates the universalist pretensions of Christianity, Foucault's name isn't mentioned even once in the chapter. This is followed by a long aside on Heidegger. Again, connections could be made, but instead they remain implicit, forcing Veyne, as if suddenly remembering the actual subject of his book, to make the rather awkward transition, "So let us now return to Foucault, our hero." (73)
The dizzying degree of disparate detail. Veyne tells us Foucault was not a relativist rel·a·tiv·ist
1. Philosophy A proponent of relativism.
2. A physicist who specializes in the theories of relativity. , a structuralist, or a nihilist ni·hil·ism
a. An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.
b. A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.
2. . But he was a nominalist nom·i·nal·ism
The doctrine holding that abstract concepts, general terms, or universals have no independent existence but exist only as names. , perhaps a positivist pos·i·tiv·ism
a. A doctrine contending that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis of human knowledge and precise thought.
b. , and a one-time Communist. He was also, in Veyne's estimation, a warrior and Samurai. But above all, Foucault was "a sceptic thinker." (1) Here Veyne is at his best, although it is impossible not to read Veyne's privileging of skepticism in Foucault's thought against Foucault's own arguably greater interest in elaborating a politically useful version of Cynicism in The Courage of Truth, his last lectures at the College de France. There is also a goldfish in a bowl, Veyne's recurring metaphor for how we are all trapped within discourse (Foucault's "ill-chosen word" ), and a cat that shows up at Foucault's apartment and upon which Veyne bestows philosophical significance. Readers will likely identify with Veyne when he declares, "My head is spinning," and this only halfway through the text. (66)
The distinct sense of having heard it all before Heard It All Before was released by Jamie Cullum when he was without a record deal and copies are now highly sought after. Track listing
It's really only in the last chapter that Veyne takes "the risk of being too anecdotal" (140) to offer some of his more personal memories, which is another way of saying that anyone hoping to find a full memoir of Veyne's friendship with Foucault will be disappointed. Veyne remains too committed to elucidating "his thought." And this may not be such a bad thing. A number of Veyne's reflections on Foucault's "character," particularly in relation to sex and gender, give one pause. For instance, Veyne recounts how at a meeting of their cell in the early 1950s Foucault made deliberate use of a feminine homosexual argot ar·got
A specialized vocabulary or set of idioms used by a particular group: thieves' argot. See Synonyms at dialect.
[French. to shock Veyne and other comrades into their first awareness of homosexuality within the Parti communiste francais (PCF PCF - A simply typed, functional language.
["Fully Abstract Translations Between Functional Languages", J. Riecke, 18th POPL, pp. 245-254 (1991)].
["LCF Considered as a Programming Language", Theor CS 5:223, 1977]. ). Veyne reports that 20 years later Foucault "no longer sneered or relayed tittle-tattle. There was nothing at all hysterical about him." (141) What a relief. We can all rest easy now knowing that one of the 20th century's greatest thinkers was no flamer. And what is really behind Veyne relating in some detail the story of having once discovered Foucault, "proud as a peacock "Proud as a Peacock" was the advertising campaign used by the NBC television and radio networks from 1979 to 1981, used to help introduce the "Proud N", a logo that would be used until 1986. The campaign
By 1979, NBC had fallen to third place in the ratings. ," in bed with "a beautiful young woman with an intelligent face"? (139) The ostensible Apparent; visible; exhibited.
Ostensible authority is power that a principal, either by design or through the absence of ordinary care, permits others to believe his or her agent possesses. purpose is to demonstrate Foucault's "open-mindedness" and to draw a far-fetched parallel with Nietzsche, but Veyne's own tittle-tattle, now preserved in print, seems rather churlish churl·ish
1. Of, like, or befitting a churl; boorish or vulgar.
2. Having a bad disposition; surly: "as valiant as the lion, churlish as the bear" Shakespeare. , especially when compared to Foucault's gracious acknowledgement of Veyne in The Use of Pleasure.
Not all of the book's idiosyncrasies can be pinned on Veyne. Some of them surely stem from the translation into English (the book first appeared in French in 2008). Janet Lloyd is a prominent translator of French work in ancient Greek cultural studies, including some of Veyne's previous work in that field. But she may not have been the wisest choice for a book on Foucault, for she appears not to be overly familiar with the academic discourse on Foucault in the English-speaking world. And so we get clunkers such as "Foucauldism," (51) or more seriously, Foucault as a "specialized intellectual," (76) which misses by a long shot Foucault's notion of the "specific intellectual." But most bizarre is Lloyd's decision to render the notoriously difficult dispositif as "the 'set-up'" and in the index as "set-ups," as if such a generic use of the concept actually existed in Foucault's work. (Foucault was always careful to specify le dispositif de guerre, le dispositif disciplinaire, le dispositif de sexualite, etc.) In her translator's note, Lloyd opines that "dispositif is usually a hard word to translate, it can mean so many things, depending on the context." (9) True in a general sense, but the context here is clearer than Lloyd realizes, and it includes the essays by Deleuze (1989) and Agamben (2006), both titled "What is an Apparatus?," which, in addition to their interpretive contributions, signal the more accepted if still imperfect English translation of dispositif. Greater precision and understanding about this key concept are not likely to emerge from such off-the-wall renderings of dispositif as a "set-up." Those interested would do better to consult the 1977 interview, "The Confession of the Flesh," in which Foucault set out quite clearly what he intended by the term.
Two of Veyne's many characterizations of Foucault are particularly pertinent to those with a historical-materialist bent. First, and unsurprising for the author of the much admired essay, "Foucault Revolutionizes History," Veyne insists Foucault was an "empiricist em·pir·i·cism
1. The view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge.
a. Employment of empirical methods, as in science.
b. An empirical conclusion.
3. " who started with "the concrete practices of power" to "establish the material reality of what happened." (17, 48) If reality could only be comprehended in and through discourse, that discourse remained part of what Veyne usefully designates as the "materiality of incorporeals" in Foucault's work. (33) Second, in answer to the question about Foucault posed in the chapter title, "Was He the Despair of the Workers' Movement?," Veyne argues he was not, pointing to Foucault's exemplary history as a political militant. At the same time, Veyne is unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the basis of Foucault's life-long radical political activity. Veyne's efforts to fold Foucault into some form of liberalism, detectable in characterizations of Foucault as "this righter of wrongs, this reformer always on the attack, neither a Utopian nor a nihilist, neither a conservative nor a revolutionary," are unconvincing. (143) Foucault quit the PCF in the mid-1950s, but remained within more of a left milieu than Veyne is willing to seriously consider.
There's no doubt, this is a strange little book. Still, faced with a choice between Veyne's eccentric perspectives, which sometimes also take the form of insights, and the many other solemn, all-too-straight introductory texts on Foucault, I recommend Veyne. After such a long and illustrious career, surely Veyne is entitled, following his favourite poet, Rene Char, to cultivate his "legitimate strangeness."