For Foucault, religion is distinguished by how it inscribes language on bodies.
Reading takes time. Its passing often leaves traces—in marginal scribbles, in typed outlines, in proud commentaries on collected works. Reading, no matter how cumulative, occupies different times. A reader moves through texts in segments of bodily life. Reading falls among other episodes—accomplishments, boredoms, traumas. It calls on other readings already done or set aside.
I began to read books by Foucault more than thirty-five years ago. I started to record my reading of Foucault on a warm Cambridge Saturday in June 2011 and finished that recording about two years later in San Francisco. The traces would have been different if I had recorded them over another interval. Before writing down this record of a reading, I “came out” as a gay man, fell away from Christian community, and returned to it. I spent most sunsets of a July watching fog over Kite Hill in San Francisco. I held men as they died from the “complications” of the unnamable virus that killed Foucault. I lived beyond the age at which he died.
Which of these moments determine how I read him now? Which kind of story best tells my life as a reader, or Foucault’s, as a writer? I couldn’t say, with any certainty. What I can say is that I am lured by whatever lured him to write endlessly about the bodily production of our words for our bodies—and in particular by how religion overwrites bodies in so many ways.
Foucault would sometimes laugh about his fascination with Catholic topics. A first reading of his major works from the 1970s and 1980s will discover that Christianity appears in them both frequently and prominently. But Foucault also engages with the religious elsewhere in his writing, especially when he tries to register bodies that elude or excite speech by resisting it. Even his explicit discussions of Christianity are much less concerned to present or correct some narrative history than they are to examine that religion as an insistent example of speech with power over bodies. So if Foucault is interested in details of Christian doctrine, law, and ritual, he attends most to the forces that move through Christian speech and then after it. He appreciates Christianity as a succession of forms of power, but even more as a library of genres for speech that projects figures to be inhabited.
Taught by Nietzsche, Foucault takes up Christianity as a rhetorical provocation. He responds to it in various ways. Sometimes he is a sympathetic exegete and unlikely defender. Then he is a formal analyst or structural engineer. He will notice the appropriation of Christianity’s rhetorical forms by its angriest critics; he will let his own texts imitate the Christian speeches he rejects. He is a gifted mimic of Christian voices. He will say at one moment that the form of his language is “pro-foundly anti-Christian,” then proceed to testify at length to a double “conversion” that enabled him to write or else declare that his daily writing practice is both absolution and benediction. None of these responses makes him a tacit Christian. Their combination does suggest that he has unusual sensibilities for religious rhetoric and that he is never unaware of the effects on bodies of the religious texts he reads.
Readers underestimate the importance of religious topics in Foucault when they look only for what he says about religion. “Religion” is not a category that Foucault relies on for his most important writing. He often just assumes its usual meanings. He neither projects a fixed essence behind the term nor uses it with a single valuation. For him, Christianity is a religion or a series of religions. So are the ancient civic cults and mysteries. But so too, by analogy, is modern psychiatry. Foucault’s thinking about what we ordinarily call “religion” moves through other notions: most frequently ritual but also ceremony or liturgy, doctrine or dogma, myth or scripture. None of these terms is separated from the supposedly secular. Foucault’s inquiry presupposes that religion arises from and issues in fields of forces inseparable from the rest of human history. What distinguishes it is not some rigid connection with an already separate realm of special entities. Religion is distinguished instead by how it arranges languages and practices—teachings and rituals—to control this world and the bodies very much in it.
Even so, Foucault does not entirely absorb gods and their rites into the everyday. Some elements typically called “religious” persist in his writing as boundary markers for moments of unexpected fracture and unlikely transformation. He sometimes uses the more potent notion of “the divine” or “the sacred.” The latter term has a significant history in various modern debates but also in recent writers whom Foucault engages. In some of them, notably Durkheim, the sacred is definitionally (if ambivalently) opposed to the profane. In others of these writers, notably Dumézil, it is wrapped from the first around articulations of social sovereignty. Foucault is interested in some religions because of their salience in the genealogy of contemporary forms of power, but he is also drawn to human bodies that delimit power by scrambling language when they speak about the sacred or to it. Bodies are shaped by religious powers, and bodies use religious discourses or practices to resist powers. In the fugitive gaps between controlling words and bodies convulsed by pain or ecstasy, Foucault discovers moments of resistance.
This post was adapted from Mark Jordan’s book, Convulsing Bodies (read more »)