Foucault’s The Life of Infamous Men     

by Beth Metcalf

In Part three of Negotiations, Deleuze writes about the parallels between his works and those of Michel Foucault.  Deleuze (N 89) hasn’t approached things through structure, linguistics, psychoanalysis, science, or history.  That is because he thinks there are raw materials of philosophy that enter into external relations with other disciplines.  And isn’t this a parallel with Foucault that allowed them both to appreciate philosophy as a naÔve innocence of raw art? 

Deleuze calls (N 90 & 108) Foucault’s essay, The Life of Infamous Men, a “masterpiece”.  He tells us that (N 94-8) Foucault is not a historian but a philosopher who invents new relations to history.  There is no general history.  History does not fix the identity of what we are, but is the process of dispersion into the otherness of what we are becoming.  There are different historical forms of knowledge and forces of power that are inseparable composites at different times.  I take this to be parallel to Deleuze’s raw materials of intensity that are indivisible, not because they do not divide but, because when they do divide, there is real change in nature.  There is no maintenance of a same structure.  Processes of struggle between knowledge and power vary from one historical period to another because there is dispersion into new forms of knowledge and rules of power.  Another dimension is needed to make forces fold back on themselves.  This dimension is the doubling process of subjectification that makes life a work of art.  Subjectification is not a matter of determinate forms of knowledge or rules of power.   It is ‘will to power’ that invents new possibilities of life. 

Deleuze says that Foucault’s essay expresses creative crisis.  Foucault’s concept of knowledge is (N 107) a struggle between the heterogeneity of what is seen and what is said.  We never see what we say, or say what we see (1).  The visible is between two propositions.  The utterance is between two things.  Foucault’s concept of power is strategic relations of forces.  His power-relations are not just relations between force and object, but relations of force with other forces that it affects or that affect it.  Forces of power are also related to forms of knowledge --- knowledge is a combination of forces.  Then, Foucault’s third dimension is the process of subjectification that takes form and vanishes within the fabric of seeing and saying.  Foucault’s ‘infamous man’ is just an ordinary man or woman who is seen by forces of power and then must speak.  (N 108)  “The infamous man is Dasein.  The infamous man’s a particle caught in a shaft of light and a wave of sound.”  Dasein is judged by a Power structure that does not even try to understand his otherness.  The infamous man or woman is judged to be mad or insane, but must attempt to defend himself or herself without any relation (not even a relation of opposition) to Power.  The problem for the philosopher of history is how to cross a line in order to get Outside the oppositional power structure.  The Outside can’t be reached by a negative dialectics that merely brings an exterior back into its interior.  How can we get outside the oppositional relations of power that predetermine what individuals in a particular society are able to see and speak?  How do we cross this line (N 110-11) to reach “the double’s otherness”?  Isn’t this ‘double’ parallel to what Deleuze describes as the singular intensive coupling of the content (what we see) and expression (what we say) that changes nature with each new intensive coupling?  Foucault had to ask how it is possible to open the forms of knowledge and the functions of power.  Like Deleuze, Foucault asks how it is possible to cross the line to get to the void of the Outside --- not to the outside that is the opposite of an inside --- but how to reach an (N 97 & 110) Outside non-relation farther than any external world and closer than any internal world.  How do we cross this line into the void in which the subject disappears without disappearing into that Outside?  How do we fold the line into an indiscernible zone (2) where thinking becomes an art of living? 

Foucault folds the line of the Outside.  Then language goes beyond actualized relations of knowledge and power.  There is (N 113) a process of subjectification as force folded back on itself.  This has no phenomenological sense (3).  There are relations of knowledge and power that are already structured in any given society but disappear in the void of the Outside.  Forces of subjectification affect, and are affected by, forces of knowledge and power.  However, subjectification is also the bending of force back on itself.  There is no subject as a fixed form.  There is no search for an authentic unity of self.  There is only a process whereby subjectification is produced.  Subjectification is not one form of knowledge.  It is not one function of power.  It is a creative process of singular individuation.  I take this process to be parallel to Deleuze’s counter-actualization.  Foucault, like Nietzsche, sees a “will” to truth that is not a method toward some objective, universal generality given to a subject.  There is no subject in general.  There are not already given relations of objects.  There are only external relations of elements and terms that may constitute multiplicities of knowledge-power relations.  Life becomes art of singular process of subjectification. 


So, what do we encounter in this essay Deleuze calls a “masterpiece”?  Foucault’s essay, The Lives of Infamous Men, is an introduction to an anthology of prison archives.  Foucault tells us that this is not a book of history.  Rather, “it’s an anthology of existences….nameless misfortunes and adventures gathered into a handful of words”.  These singular lives are “brief effects whose force fades almost at once”.  Foucault senses the intensity of these lives beneath the dry words.  He wanted to understand why it had been so important in different historical formations of society to suppress certain inconsequential and ordinary men.  Why were these unimportant lives selected for condemnation?  But Foucault felt incapable of conveying this intensity of affect in any discursive analysis.  He decided it would be better to leave the words in the very form that had evoked the affect.  So, Foucault does not write as a historian.  He does not write to establish historical truth.  He is not interested in theory.  His writing functions as experimentation that transforms the writer and the reader.  In order to follow the affective forces, he has some simple rules.  His raw material includes only actual, obscure words of ill-fated existences, recounted in brief sentences.  These tales of misfortune or dubious madness still shock with a dreadful beauty.  They are recounted in a rarity of words that may be false or unjust.  But these are real existences.  They express the pure discursive description of the real event.  The event is revealed in a speech act that constituted a weapon.  Performative acts of dominant discourse transformed the obscure lives into the “insane”.  These obscure existences were destined to vanish without a trace.  That is, they would have vanished except for an encounter with forces of power that illuminated them.  We can never grasp these lives in a free state, but they may be open to repetition and transformation.  They are inseparable from the power relations that brought them to light.  If we separate historical forms of knowledge from the power relations that cross them transversally, nothing would remain of the singularity of these ordinary lives. 

These obscure lives were nothing in history.  They have no existence apart from the rarity of the words.  They have only a verbal existence that makes them “quasi-fictional beings”.  Only a chance encounter focused the attention of power on the unfortunate individual.  Only a chance rediscovery of an obscure document brought it to light once more.  These lives are now revealed only by the words that were once used to crush them.  These words are read in the light of new historical formations and power relations.

Throughout different periods of history, there is no unity of discourse describing the “infamous”.  They do not always have the same status.  They may have a religious, criminal, magical, or pathological status.  Or, sometimes they are just those unfit for work (the old, sick, unemployed, or the fool.)  However, they are all said univocally as those designated as the “mad” to be confined or excluded.  Foucault notices that the infamous are seen as really different, yet always said as same --- “mad”.  That is, this is not thinking several different things according to categories of representation.  It is thinking the same thing (madness) differently.  This is thought as univocal being.  “Madness”, according to Foucault, is a void of dispersion (4). 

There is no historical unity of structure.  Conditions of subjective experience are heterogeneous. Conditions of objects of experience are heterogeneous.  Knowledge and that which is known have no prior resemblance or continuity.  At some point in history, an object (madness) took form.  A subject capable of understanding that object was being constructed.  In the process of constituting objects, the subject is transformed.  Foucault wants to discover different historical modes of transformation.  What were the conditions that motivated a conceptualization of a historical object?  How are the mad distinguished from the sane, the legal from the illegal?  Like Deleuze’s concept of ‘transcendental empiricism’, Foucault’s ‘historical a priori’ is the condition of disparate relations that does not resemble the conditioned uses.  Power-relations, like Deleuze’s sub-representative intensities, open new possibilities for action.  They are not the many related in one conceptual structure.  They are multiplicities.

We can see why Deleuze finds affinity with Foucault.  Foucault does not use a historical method.  He does not assume causal continuity.  He does not give special attention to the ideals of a dominant power.  He does not depend upon a prior conceptual structure of what is thought to be historically important.  He looks for singularities that are not already assumed to be ‘what history means’.  He does not interpret.  His raw material is the singularity of the ‘event’.  He reaches the intense affect of becoming other.  The infamous is a man, a woman, a singular becoming in a zone of indiscernibility where there is no prior continuity or connection between what is and what is becoming, what is seen and what is said.  Becoming is a real change in nature that does not maintain the identity of subject or object.  Words in an obscure document reveal a singular event that has no meaning in itself.  There is only the trace left by the words as they provoke an intense becoming in the reader.  There is no form of generality.  There is no unified subject.  There are only singular assemblages of haecceity that are not the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, or in different historical readings.  Rather, the ‘event’ enters into compositions of singular intensity.  These assemblages are dimensions of multiplicity.  With each intensive change of power relation, there is the becoming of a new singularity—and the assemblage cannot divide without changing nature within or across historical periods.  There are multiplicities of entangled time spans of really different events.  That is, a new degree of singularity brings a real change in quality when read in the light of new power relations.  Intensities are said in one sense, but in dividing or changing degree, they create real difference.  There are no prior relations of opposition.  There are only assemblages which constitute the consistency of a singular event.  There is no maintenance of one historical structure which, although infinitely variable, would still be an invariant concept of what is thought to be possible.


We have no idea what world the supplications of the infamous tried to reveal.  All that is left for us is a trace event.  All we know is that the “infamous” were judged.  Their entreaties fell on the deaf ears of the powerful.  The infamous were excluded into the otherness outside the dominant structure.  Meanwhile, dominant historical forces got the privilege of writing the history.  Foucault’s “infamous” are inessential forces Outside the powers of the dominant structure.  Who, among the humble, could appropriate and capture the forces of power?  The inessential man had, in some way, an important secret that could be manifested only when forces of power came crashing in on him.  Even the little accidents and everyday squabbles had to appear to be under the control of a grand language.  Each individual could try to appropriate the sovereign’s power for one’s own good.  But what hope did the ordinary man have of presenting a petition with the required eloquence of that grand language?  The speech of the common man or woman could not rise to the level of that dominant language.  There was a disparity between the content recounted and the manner of expression.  There was a disparity between a minor language of the ordinary life and the major dominant language --- between the language of helpless frustration and that of power structures.  However, at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, knowledge and power were related in a new way.  Literature was born.  Literature’s task was to search for the hidden, the forbidden, and the scandalous.  Literature was a non-truth presenting itself as artifice that produces effects of truth.  Literature is more than a form.  It is an obligation to tell the most ordinary secrets as conditions of existence.  Literature is the language of the infamous.  Literature is that singular art that brings to light the new strategies of power and forms of knowledge. 

We can see parallels between Deleuze and Foucault.  Saying is doing.  That is, when discourse is performative, then language itself stutters.  There are bifurcating terms and external relations of intensive continuous variation (not a constant variability).  Foucault, like Deleuze, rejects any generality of structure which, although diverse and changeable, still represents an invariant reality.  The stuttering of language creates a minor use of a major language.  The minor language is not outside (opposed to an inside) of the major language.  Language is a rhizome that grows from the middle.  It is the becoming in an intensive zone of indiscernibility.  When language stutters, language reaches this limit of an Outside that makes language fall silent because there is no subject.  A minor language is not to be confused with a structure of relations among fixed objects or positions of subjects.  Rather, there are new dispersions of continuities and discontinuities that Deleuze & Guattari describe as “flows” that do not close a structure.  Flows open new fields of possible action.  Minoritarian languages are the creative flows that the dominant language of Power seeks to bring under its control.    

Foucault writes a history of Western Culture that, as I see it, exemplifies Deleuze’s univocal thought.  He understood that, when history is conceived to be a method that presupposes prior objectifications, it cannot be the basis for them.  Foucault understood that we need a new conceptualization of singular conditions of historical events.  A historical formation is a system of light that makes things visible.  A historical formation makes things visible and utterable.  But the visible and utterable are heterogeneous.  They battle against each other in the creation of new forms and strategies.

Foucault, like Deleuze, rejects structuralism.  Foucault’s ‘power-relations’ are forces acting on other forces, not closed oppositional relations of a prior structure.  Power relations and forms of knowledge always struggle against each other to create new strategies.  There are formations of knowledge-power that constitute what can be seen or said by different social institutions or historical periods.  Foucault asks how dispersion of singular events can create new constituent oppositions for disparate practical uses.

Human beings find themselves already in relations of signifying knowledge and forces of power that would control individuals and determine their place in society.  Foucault changes the question about the relations of knowledge and power.  The question is no longer about relations in general.  It becomes the question about how it may be possible to liberate the individual from dominant forces of power that predetermine possibilities of individuation.  How can there be new forces of subjectification that do not subjugate the individual to forces of domination?

Therefore, Foucault’s historical process is in contrast to the usual historical method.  Foucault makes a distinction between the method of historical analysis (which he does not mean to disqualify) and his own philosophy of history.  He makes a distinction between the historical study of causes, ideologies, institutions, and theories on the one hand; and his own research into the conditions that make certain practices acceptable for a given period in history, on the other.  Instead of a presumption of historical constants that appear to be self-evident, he attempts to make the singular visible.  He means to reveal connections and blockages that condition appearances of self-evidence, universality, or necessity.  He means to discover practices that connect new singular events of seeing-saying.  Discontinuities are not overlooked.  New continuities are discovered that are never predetermined.  Reason is not presumed to be an absolute or inherent value.  ‘Reason’ must be restricted to the singular conditions of its practical use.  Like Deleuze, Foucault looks for the truth of relative uses, not the relativity of universal totalizing Truth.  This is not historical interpretation that would claim to integrate data into an Ideal general essence.  Foucault does not look for some essence of society as a Whole.  Like Deleuze’s difference, Foucault’s forces do not constitute negative oppositions.  Rather, a constituent opposition is actualized from its own singular positive difference, each time.  He attempts to find singular conditions of disparate distinctions between true and false --- disparate conditions of the visible (what is seen) and the expressible (what is said).  The void of indiscernibility conditions disparate distinctions between Reason and Madness (2). 

Both Deleuze and Foucault write of an Outside void where art and reason are indiscernible from the madness of unreason.  Creative power relations of this zone of indiscernibility act to change the nature of reality throughout history.  But the dominant Powers attempt to plug up all lines of flight to the Outside.  The dominant Power must attempt to maintain control.  It labels as “mad” anything that threatens the maintenance of its structural identity.  Whether by negative dialectics, structuralism with its regimes of madness, Oedipal images of psychoanalysis, or performative speech acts of exclusion; dominant Power attempts to admit only such difference that maintains its own structural identity.  But Deleuze and Foucault now, at our time in history, radically challenge the right of Power to decree what madness is.  Deleuze and Foucault see/say health as art of life that opens structures into new forms of becoming.  Now they see/say madness to be the blockages that keep structure closed.  Madness forecloses the process that is open to the Outside.                                         


In the Conclusion of The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault imagines how a debate with a critic might unfold.  I briefly paraphrase the debate as follows:     

Foucault’s critic:  You disavow structuralism.  However, historical method can’t analyze discourse outside the time of its occurrence.  Historical discourse can’t separate a speaking subject from the time of its representations.

Foucault:  There is no discourse immanent to a subject (5).  Diachrony is not a general universal form of knowledge or structure of continuity.  There is no universal model of temporal discourse.  There are only disparate discursive practices that constitute the positions and functions a subject may come to occupy.   

Critic:  The discursive succession of history must be the study of a teleological continuity.  Reason must be developed within the structure of the subject’s thought.  There must be a language of reason that determines the structure by which other languages can be analyzed.

Foucault:  Structuralism that determines who the subject is in its transcendental dominance can only see that which has made it possible.  We need to free history from this transcendental subjectivity in order to be open to possible discontinuities.  We must not assume there are pre-established horizons, teleology, subjective form, structure, or phenomenology.  But this debate is not really about structuralism.  It is really about the attempt to maintain the identity of subjective consciousness.

Critic:  How can your discourse avoid the structure you want to free yourself from?

Foucault:  My discourse avoids any prior ground.  There is no concealed origin, law, or general theory.  There is dispersion not reducible to one system of differences.  My archaeology is not a science.  It constitutes new systems of differences.  It constitutes new objects, subjective positions, concepts, and strategic choices of different practices.  However, these positivities are not determined from inside (i.e. subjective consciousness) or outside (i.e. empirical states).  Rather, they are discursive practices of formation.  There are speech acts that do something.  There are performative discursive practices that have singular uses. They do not say what a subject thinks.  They do not maintain a structure of identity. 

Foucault’s question for his critic:  How can there be any real historical change under your assumptions of universal presence?  What is the fear that motivates you to seek (beyond boundaries, ruptures, and real changes) a transcendent destiny of Western thought?  You can only be motivated from within an already formed structure of political power.  However, the time of discourse is not of consciousness.  History is not merely the synthesizing activity of the subject.  It does not trace back to an origin.  Historical discourse leaves only an insubstantial trace of objects that have no identity through time.  There is only a time of dispersion (4).  Enunciative divergence never maintains a constant relation to truth.


(1) Isn’t this why Foucault elsewhere says that perhaps one day the 20th century will be known as Deleuzian?  Certainly during that century, that which Foucault-Deleuze could see or say had not much chance of being seen or heard.

(2) This zone is a void where art and madness are indiscernible.  See my article ‘Art and Madness’.

(3) See my article ‘Univocity vs. Phenomenology’.

(4) This time of dispersion is parallel to Deleuze’s empty form of ‘Aion’.

(5) Deleuze would agree that anything immanent to a subject reintroduces transcendence of representational thought.


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