In the Myth of Sisyphus(1942), Camus writes that ”That science that was to teach me everything ends up in hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art” (Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays 23). Michel Foucault states that “In a society like ours…”truth” is centered on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it”(Foucault "Truth and Power" 73). Camus’ vision of the absurd world is one where the mind can never truly attain the transcendental meaning it desired. Instead it only arrives at a frustrating array of mindless constructed and convoluted “truths”. Foucault problematizes this idea of truth and suggests that truth is produced by power in society. Like Camus, Foucault does away with the idea of an innate ‘truth’. In the Foucauldian view of omnipresent power, Charles Taylor also explains that “liberation in the name of ‘truth’ could only mean the substitution of another system of power for this one”(Taylor 178). However, in this essay I would like to argue, through a combined reading of Camus’s notion of the absurd and Foucault’s notion of ‘power/knowledge’, that the idea of liberation is a central issue in Foucault’s work.
The post-war intellectual climate in France was one dominated by existentialism on one hand and phenomenology on the other hand. Along with Marxism, these were important formative paradigms in his intellectual development. In 1983 Foucault clarifies his own difference with Sartrean existentialism in an interview with Paul Rabinow when he states:
Sartre refers to the work of creation to a certain relation to oneself – the author to himself – which has the form of authenticity or inauthenticity. I would like to say exactly the contrary: we should not have to refer the creative activity to the kind of relation he has to himself, but should relate the kind of relation one has to oneself to a creative activity. (Foucault "On the Geneaology of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress" 351)
Foucault’s notion of power that does not dominate but also works through coercion in society, conjures an image of man which seems to be completely opposed to the popular existential viewpoint that emphasizes freedom of choice and personal responsibility. A desire to read Foucault through Camus’ existentialist idea of the absurd not only sits ill at ease with general interpretations of his work as anti-humanist and structural, but also goes against what Gutting argues is an essential key to understanding Foucault’s work: the “desire to escape general interpretative categories” (Gutting I). Thus, it becomes essential to note that an attempt to read Foucault and Camus together does not entail a similar attempt at labeling Foucault’s work as existential or absurdist, and admit that it is reading Foucault against his own grain.
Foucault’s early work reveals the role played by existential philosophy in his intellectual development. In the year 1954, Foucault writes an introduction to Ludwig Binswanger’s “Traum und Existenz” where he develops the idea of dreaming or the imaginary as a primal space which is critical to the constitution of man. Foucault suggests that the dreams must not be identified solely as a psychological symptom, but what Miller refers to “as a key for solving the riddle of being” (Miller 77). Foucault aligns himself with Heidegger’s notion of the ‘unthought’ and argues that the dream was “the origin of existence itself”. He goes on to further say that the dream could “throw into bright light the secret and hidden power at work in the most manifest forms of presence” (Foucault, cited in Miller 2000: 77). Foucault later states in an interview to D. Trombadori that “existential analysis helped [him] to delimit and get a better grasp on what was heavy and oppressive in the gaze and knowledge apparatus of academic psychiatry”(Foucault "Interview with Michel Foucault" 257-58). In his first book Madness and Civilization (1961), Foucault investigates the historical development of the discourse of madness and attempts to pin-point the “zero point in the course of madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience…the start of its trajectory”(Foucault Madness and Civilization x). The book is abundant in traces of Foucault’s early existential influence. Gayle Himmelwright notes that the book is characterized by various phrases, which reveal a certain humanist existential tendency in Foucault. However, he labels Foucault a ‘closet existentialist’ on the basis of the constant conflict between human agency and an anthropomorphized sensibility (Himmelwright PAGE?). Such reductive labeling is problematic, especially in the case of Foucault’s work as it tends to lead to misinterpretations and limited readings. However, Himmelwright’s recognition of existential strains in Foucault’s early work, if seen as isolated elements and not a unitary basis to label his work, proves interesting. Foucault writes:
Since the end of the eighteenth century, the life of unreason no longer manifests itself except the lightning-flash of works such as those of Hoderlin, of Nerval, of Nietzsche, or of Artaud – forever irreducible to those alienations that can be cured, resisting by their own strength that gigantic moral imprisonment which we are in the habit of calling, doubtless by anti-phrasis, the liberation of the insane by Pinel and Tuke. (Madness and Civilization 264)
Foucault’s admiration for ‘the life of unreason’ and the ‘lightning-flash’ works of certain individuals is obvious. What becomes interesting is the idea that certain individuals could resist the power structures in society that repress and imprison them to create such works. Madness and Civilization commences Foucault’s engagement with the ideas of power, knowledge and penal confinement. It becomes important to note that Foucault’s description of society as one which leads to a “gigantic moral imprisonment” (PAGE #) resembles Camus’ idea of the absurd. In his philosophical tract on the absurd Camus argues that “…the world in itself is not reasonable…But what is absurd is the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.” (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays 25). For Camus the absurd was the disjunction between the unity that the human mind desired and the awareness that such unity did not exist. I would like to argue that Foucault’s idea of power investigates as to why such a transcendental, unitary truth is not possible.
The Foucauldian view of power views it as all pervasive and is productive. Foucault’s view of power differs from the normative definition of power as power over. Instead Foucault argues that “power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name of that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” (Foucault The History of Sexuality: Volume I 93). Individuals do not simply exercise power or are the recipients of power; they become the ‘vehicles’ of power application. Like the condition of the absurd, power can’t be traced back to an individual source. Such a conceptualization of power as a series of complex and interconnected networks destroys the dialectic between power of the oppressor over the oppressed. Further, power cannot only produce consent but also creates pleasure and is intrinsically linked with the production of knowledge. Foucault argues that power is productive and it is responsible for producing truths. This dialectic between knowledge and power becomes crucial to the Foucauldian view of power. D.C. Hoy notes that he “accordingly labels what he is studying ‘power/knowledge’. The slash suggests that for his purpose power and knowledge are not to be studied separately ” (Hoy 129). Foucault’s view that power is not simply repressive or negative, is based on the idea that power produces different kinds of knowledge that are essential in controlling the human body and in the act of normalizing society. As he states, “Knowledge is not a faculty or a universal structure. Even when it uses a certain number of elements that may pass for universals, knowledge will only belong to the order of results, events, effects”(Foucault "Truth and Juridical Forms" 14-16), Foucault further goes on to say that although the realm of science is unconsidered uncontestable “even in science one finds models of truth whose formation derives from political structures that are not imposed on knowledge from the outside but rather are themselves constitutive of the subject of knowledge”(“Truth and Juridical Forms" 15-16).
Foucault problematises the very idea of truth and notes that truth does not lie outside power. Power no longer needs to be violent in order to be wielded, and cultural truths become a way of propagating hegemony in society. Instead he argues that truth is characterized by the following characteristics: It is centered on scientific discourses and institutions that produce it. Truth is subject to external factors, which create a demand for it through a constant “economic and political incitement” in society. It is produced by the dominant political and economic apparatus existing in society. Due to constant production through dominant apparatus in society such as churches, schools etc, truth is an object of constant diffusion and consumption. Thus truth also becomes the site for social confrontation and political debate (Foucault "Truth and Power" 73). Thus the changeability of truth becomes of paramount importance in our understanding of ‘power/knowledge’. The need for truth according to Foucault arises from the need for norm or social contract; truth provides stabilization in society which is essential for maintaining hegemony. Foucault argues that historically different kinds of knowledge have been produced by power in order to produce different kinds of truth.
This radical undoing of the moral aura of truth becomes important in both Camus’ idea of the absurd and Foucault’s idea of ‘power/knowledge’. Camus notes that man faces a “choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypothesis that claim to teach me but that are not sure” (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays 23). Thus, Camus, like Foucault, recognizes that transcendental truths that project a halo of stability and unity are productions of dominant forces of power in society. By using the words ‘description’ and ‘hypothesis’, Camus seems to express the Foucauldian nexus between power and knowledge. Knowledge can either be in the form of a scientific hypothesis or in the form of an artistic description. However, this difference too breaks down as it is revealed that in the absurd world the scientific hypothesis is but a description. The truth that the hypothesis describes is not uncontestable, but subject to change. Truths change nature as one hypothesis replaces another, or alternatively one description takes the place of a previous one. Camus recognizes the fact that truths, especially scientific truths, attain their aura of incontestability due to a ‘generally accepted’ notion that “scientific propositions can be empirically verified to prove its truth value”(Foucault "Truth and Power" 57). It’s this loss of the transcendental truth, rather the recognition of the impossibility of such transcendence, that eventual leads to the metaphysical condition of absurdity. Camus argues that human beings are forced to accept “simulated ignorance, which allows us to live with ideas which if we truly put them to test, ought to upset our whole life” (The Myth of Sisyphus 22). According to him the condition of absurdity is a direct consequence of this ignorance, which exists under the façade of knowledge. Camus and Foucault were united in their recognition of the constructed nature of ideas that were accepted as truths. Ideas that are accepted as ‘truths’ can never be put to test by the absurd man, says Camus, as he is innately aware of their falsity. Instead he is faced by a “nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute” which “illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama” (The Myth of Sisyphus 21). This ‘human drama’ according to Camus, is the result of the constant conflict between the desire to organize the world through the obscuring lens of an ‘absolute truth,’ and the knowledge that such absolutes do not exist. In the absence of this absolute meaning then, life itself becomes meaningless. Camus notes that in the case of such meaninglessness the most important question faced by men is the question of suicide. Suicide takes the form of an extreme existential choice. Camus says:
Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized...the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering. The Myth of Sisyphus 13
What Camus means by ‘Living naturally’ is the act of living without questioning. A life of ‘simulated ignorance’ where the individual accepts the values that are handed down to him and does what he is asked to do. He leads a life of habit, replicating a series of gestures that he is told to repeat. Man no longer has a profound reason for living; perhaps he never did. Foucault’s idea of ‘power/knowledge’ and truth(s) suggest that such reasons for living are the result of the existing power nexus in society. The suppositions and values, on the basis of which man is supposed to live his life, are revealed to be construction of the power nexus in society. These values are endorsed in order to maintain hegemony in society. Camus further writes:
A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested with illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger... this divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. 13
For Camus the world can no longer be explained through doctrines, the feeling of absurdity is the knowledge that the world is filled with illusions and constructions. Foucault’s idea of power investigates this feeling of absurdity and interrogates the ways in which these illusions are constructed. They go on to explain the fact that the divorce between man and his life is not an event; it is instead merely the recognition of the fact that power creates truth.
The nostalgia for an absolute truth, a transcendental meaning, in Camus’ construction of the absurd can perhaps be sensed in Foucault’s writings as well, albeit in a different form. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) interrogates the historical development in the various new technologies of disciplining and punishing the individual in society. What becomes critical in our understanding of power and its relationship to the absurd is the decrease in the visibility of power and its functioning. The creation of artifices and illusions that depoliticize the workings of power and make individuals in society unaware of the various contradictions that constitute constructed nature of their existence. Discipline and Punish begins with the comparison of two distinct penal styles: The public and brutal execution of Damiens, the regicide and a timetable in a prison. Foucault points at the clear distinction between the torture as a public spectacle and a carefully constructed punishment where “the body as the major target of penal repression disappeared” (Discipline and Punish 8). By choosing to place these two styles of penal repression in society together, he posits that, “progress is not necessarily for the better…[and] challenge[s] the supposed superiority of the present without postulating and ideology-free understanding that transcends power relations” (Hoy 141). He goes against the view that the decrease in violence in punishment is a direct result of increased humanitarianism. Instead, he suggests that humanitarianism is only another illusion created to veil the absurdity of power relations in society. He notes that the “notion of repression which mechanisms of power are generally reduced to strikes me as very inadequate and possibly dangerous” (Foucault, cited in Hoy 130). Albert Camus’ idea of the absurd is based on a similar ability to discern the artificiality of such society, what Foucault calls the “technology of power over the body” and “technology of the ‘soul’” (Discipline and Punish 30). Therefore, the absurd is a direct consequence of understanding how power works invisibly through society. This investigation into the way power operates through society in an unseen manner has been a fundamental facet of his work. Joseph Rouse explains that Foucault saw these techniques of power and knowledge as undergoing a two-stage development. They were instituted initially as a means of control or neutralization of dangerous social elements, and evolved into techniques for enhancing the utility and productivity of those subjected to them. They were also initially cultivated initially within isolated institutions…but then were gradually developed into techniques that could be applied in various other contexts (Rouse 97).
In Discipline and Punish, it is possible to note certain moments of what could be read as nostalgia, for a past where such artifices do not cloud power relations in society. The execution of Damiens, which the book begins with is recounted in excruciating detail; every facet of his torture is described. The reader alongside the spectators of his torture and eventual execution, become unwilling participants in this nude display of power. By comparing his torture with the dry timetable of a prison which claims to render criminals fit for society, Foucault seems to mourn the loss of such visibility. Foucault argues that in the modern functioning of power there are no such events, events such as the punishment and public execution have become ‘exemplary’ ("Truth and Power" 61). It is this exemplary nature of the spectacular public execution which becomes important in Camus use of the myth of Sisyphus while theorizing the absurd. Camus writes, “the gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of the mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour”(Camus 96). He further goes on to describe the incredible physicality of this punishment, “one sees…the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up…” (67). Like Damiens, Sisyphus “knows the whole extent of his wretched condition” (Camus 67). It is the same idea of knowledge that becomes so important in the context of Foucault’s idea of power, both Damiens and Sisyphus recognize the nude force of power that seeks to punish them. Camus writes that “the workman of to-day works every day in his life at the same tasks” (Camus 67), however it is only if he recognizes the forces of power that affect his fate that he realizes the absurd. Camus interprets the myth of Sisyphus in the context of the common man to describe his absurdity. What becomes interesting in this interpretation is the invisibility of the forces of power that ‘punish’ the common man. It’s only when Sisyphus’s fate is brought from the realm of the exemplary and into the realm of the common and the ‘generally accepted’, that he can no longer recognize his own torture.
Foucault and Camus don’t see hope as a solution to this recognition of the way in which power works in society and consequently the recognition of the absurd. The hope that the future will bring with it, the transcendent meaning that man has lost is recognized to be yet another constructed ‘truth’. Instead Camus writes:
Living is keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is above all contemplating it. Unlike, Eurydice, the absurd dies only when we turn it away from it. One of the only coherent positions is thus revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity. It is an insistence upon an impossible transparency. It challenges the world anew every second…It is not aspiration for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.
The Myth of Sisyphus 48-49
For Camus this idea of constantly challenging the world, even in the face of certain defeat is the only way to confront the absurd. In a world devoid of higher meaning or judicial afterlife, man becomes absolutely free. It is through this freedom that man can act either as a mystic (through appeal to some supernatural force) or an absurd hero (through a revolt against such hope). Henceforth, the absurd hero’s refusal to hope becomes his singular ability to live in the present with passion. Camus writes that the absurd and happiness are intrinsically linked to each other. The essay concludes, “The struggle itself...is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”(page # and source?). It’s through this struggle one recognizes the ways in which power operate in society, and understands the way in which power creates “that indescribable universe where contradiction, antinomy, anguish or impotence reigns” (Camus 25). According to Camus it’s only through resisting power that it is possible to be happy.
Camus writes that “happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth”(98) and Foucault states that “where there is power there is resistance” (The History of Sexuality: Volume I 95). This is not to equate happiness with resistance or even attempt to say that Foucault means the same thing by resistance as what Camus means by happiness. Happiness itself is a problematic idea; Eagleton argues that
happiness…is an institutional affair: it demands the kind of social and political conditions in which you are free to exercise your creative powers…Happiness as a state of mind may require untroubled surroundings, but it does not require a particular kind of politics. 87
Resisting power does not necessarily lead to happiness. Camus notes that the ultimate point of life is to live, and it is only possible to be happy in the face of absurdity through revolt. He further states, “An analysis of the concept of revolt could help us to discover notions capable of restoring a relative meaning to existence, although a meaning that would always be in danger”("Three Interviews" 259). Camus also admits that through revolt it is possible to restore only some sort of vestigial meaning, a meaning founded in skepticism. Happiness at the cost of evading the real socio-political reality does not count as happiness for either Foucault or Camus; happiness is only possible through freedom. The only freedom that counts for Camus is absurd freedom: “The only conception of freedom… is freedom of thought and action. “(The Myth of Sisyphus 49-50). If the absurd is the recognition of the way power operates in society, then the absurd freedom is the freedom from the artifices constructed in society that tell man how to live. And if this freedom is capable of making an individual happy, then it could be argued that happiness is possible through empowerment.
It is at this point it becomes important to make a distinction and relationship between what is means by revolt and revolution in this context. Camus was aware of the destruction to individual life that the bloody process of revolution inevitably led to; according to him revolt did not justify the happiness of future generations at the cost of existing human life. However, according to him “each man has an idea of human nature; his revolt, in communion with other men, defends it” (Garnham 255). Foucault argued that power is characterized the presence of multiple points of resistance within it. If individuals are to be viewed as vehicles of power, then it can also be deduced that individuals could also be sites of resistance. Foucault argues that it is only through “the strategic codification of these points of resistances that…revolution [is] possible”(Foucault The History of Sexuality: Volume I 96). Thus, for both Foucault and Camus revolution can only begin through individual revolt. Camus asks the rhetorical question, “What is a rebel” and he answers “A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation”(Camus The Rebel 19). It is the refusal that becomes central to the idea of liberation in the context of both Foucauldian power and Camus’ notion of the absurd. Foucault suggests that behind the invisible and visible workings of power in society there is always the possibility of the moment “where life cannot be exchanged where power becomes powerless and where in front of the gallows and the machine gun men rise up” ("Is It Useless to Revolt" 264). It is this refusal that ensures that power can never become truly absolute.
Foucault wrote that the basic driving impulse of his work was curiosity. He explains:
The only kind of curiosity…worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy; not the kind of curiosity that seeks to assimilate what is proper for one to know, but that which enables us to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another … in the knower’s straying afield of himself.
“The Use of Pleausure” 8
It is this curiosity that leads to the knower straying further and further away from normative ideas of truth and knowledge that become critical to the idea of liberation within Foucault’s idea of power. However, Taylor’s idea that for Foucault “unmasking can only be the basis for a kind of local resistance within the regime”(179) is limited.
By reading Foucault through Camus we have come to realize that power structures in society inevitably lead to the condition of the absurd. And the process of revolt against this absurdity is only possible by admitting its inevitability, perhaps even to embrace it. For both Foucault and Camus resistance of power begins with the seemingly simple act of refusal, refusing to accept living a life of artifices and illusions. It is through this act of negation that Sisyphus revolts. It is through this refusal to submit to the forces of power that Damiens could perhaps be viewed as an absurd hero. Barry Smart notes that the principal objective of resistance is “a critical examination of the various ways in which we have come to govern ourselves through the articulation of a distinction between truth and falsity”(171). It is this articulation of a distinction between truth and falsity that leads to obscuring the constructed nature of transcendental truth. Therefore, recognizing the way power creates truths, leads to a disjunction between a desire for transcendence and the awareness of its falsity: thus, as suggested earlier, leading to what Camus calls the absurd. Finally, the only way to combat this situation of the absurd for both Camus and Foucault is revolt. A revolt based on refusing the incontestability of truth, a revolt based on questioning and skepticism. A revolt based on negating the possibility of leading a life shrouded in lies.
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