Foucault suggests that the relationship between the two subjects is more complex than we often think.
In The Order of Things, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, Michel Foucault describes the birth around the turn of the nineteenth century of two new epistemological or linguistic forms, forms, he suggests, that his contemporaries have taken for granted. The first of these, which pervades all of the soft sciences, is history, here the name not only for the awareness that events and our experience of events occur in time but also for the peculiarly modern belief that a thing’s most fundamental truth can be revealed through an interrogation of the temporal processes by which it came to be. The second is literature, now in the emphatic sense of the term as it unfolds from Hölderlin to Mallarmé, Roussel, and Beckett, a mode of language concerned not with adequation to reality but with its own intransitive existence: “a silent, cautious deposition of the word upon the whiteness of a piece of paper, where it can possess neither sound nor interlocutor, where it has nothing to say but itself, nothing to do but shine in the brightness of its being.”
Foucault wants to show how we’ve moved away from an earlier moment guided by the rationalist ideal of clear and distinct ideas.
History and literature, then: two uniquely modern forms. Although expressed in the sometimes oracular language typical of his milieu, Foucault’s claim about the roughly coincident birth of these forms is not, I think, especially controversial. History was indeed “born” in the nineteenth century, not only in the grand sense that Foucault intends but also in the more prosaic sense that it was codified as a discipline almost simultaneously at the University of Berlin (1810) and the Sorbonne (1812), and very much in the wake of the French Revolution. And it was certainly present to the consciousness of the age. Literary critic and philosopher, Friedrich Schlegel, for example, could write in 1798 to his brother August that “I am disgusted by any theory that is not historical”; half a century later, Flaubert would write to the Goncourt brothers that “the historical sense dates from yesterday. And it is perhaps the best thing about the nineteenth century”; and Nietzsche’s warning in the second essay of the Untimely Meditations that “there is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of historical sense which injures every living thing and finally destroys it, be it a man, a people, or a culture” would hardly have seemed as urgent a century earlier.
As for the birth of literature, it is more difficult to pinpoint. The earliest modern use of the term, as a name for a body of imaginative writing rather than as a more general designation of erudition or rhetorical skill, appears in the middle of the eighteenth century. What Foucault has in mind, though, is a mode of literature that is essentially concerned with its own conditions of possibility; and, at least in that sense, literature is almost certainly a modern invention, a product of romanticism and, so, part of the legacy of Kant’s critical turn.
History and literature, then: two uniquely modern forms.
In examining the modern “episteme,” Foucault wants to show how we’ve moved away from an earlier moment guided by the rationalist ideal of clear and distinct ideas; and he wants to suggest that we’re even now moving toward something different, toward “a day scarcely even heralded yet” when the modern arrangement of knowledge that seems to us so natural will fall to pieces. It is enough, therefore, for him to sketch the modern episteme and to indicate that history and literature (like the modern sciences of economics, biology, and philology, and like post-Kantian philosophy) originate from this modern turn and share as their common source certain epistemological assumptions. He is less interested in establishing between history and literature the sorts of resemblances that notions of origination from a common source tend to suggest. And, indeed, his characterizations of history—a form of knowledge concerned with everything, insofar as everything is now historical—and literature—a form of language concerned only with itself—seem designed to foreground their differences rather than expose their similarities, and so to reveal that apparently incompatible structures can be erected on the same ground.
Nonetheless, and whatever his particular aims as an “archaeologist” of the human sciences, when Foucault represents history and literature as two manifestations of modernity, he ends up shedding light on something that anyone who has studied modern literature and the place of history in modern literature must be at least dimly aware of. I mean those cases when history and literature, reflecting on their own conditions or limits, encounter one another. On the one hand, we find literature encountering history where it would least expect to find it: in the interrogation of literature’s own formal possibilities. Here, turning back on itself, literature does not only reach the “whiteness of a piece of paper”; it also recollects all of the forms that lie behind it, a movement that is already visible in the encyclopedic imaginings of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and culminates in the maximalism of Ulysses.
On the other hand, we find an opposed but complementary operation, one in which attempts to understand the source of history’s claims to legitimacy ends up discovering that history has always borrowed from literature—a discovery that points back as far as the Poetics. In Book 9 of that work, Aristotle compares poetry to history (albeit in their premodern senses), elevates the former over the latter (poetry, he writes, is “a more philosophical and more serious thing than history”), and thus establishes the path that history would have to travel to constitute itself as a science: it would have to learn from poetry to eschew the merely particular, and to approach general or universal truths through the construction of plots.
Foucault’s treatment of the connascence of history and literature has not had the same impact on the humanities as his later and more explicitly political work on power relations. It seems to me, though, that the former has wider-reaching implications than the latter for what we do as historically-minded literary critics, and especially as critics of modern literature. In my own work, I am interested in how European modernism inherits from the nineteenth century, not only a certain literary tradition (in the sense that modernism can be said to confront an earlier romanticism or realism), but also, and more importantly, the very literature-history doublet that Foucault describes. Keeping this inheritance in mind, we can recognize a blind spot in most historicist criticism. In their eagerness to read modernism historically, critics have rarely paused to consider how history—not as a collection of past particulars but as something like the historical sense celebrated by Flaubert and censured by Nietzsche—is itself read critically by modernism, how it becomes a problem for modernism, and why this problem comes to invite a specifically literary solution.
In this regard, the writings of T. S. Eliot and Walter Benjamin are instructive. For both Eliot and Benjamin take as their starting point an understanding of history as something formed, something written; and so, both turn to specifically literary devices—devices such as lyric, satire, anecdote, and allegory—to reimagine the shape of historical time and the possibility of historical change. It is precisely this sort of project that most historicist criticism misrecognizes insofar as it remains satisfied with “container” models of literary history, with those that treat history as a neutral casing in which literary works or periods are successively located, or with those that treat literature as a receptacle for historical details.
At any rate, Foucault’s work suggests that the entanglement of literature and history might be more complicated than we had realized. As such, this work should help us to understand both the complexity of our own inheritance as literary critics—at least insofar as we accept the exhortation to “always historicize”—and the possibility that modern literature has already provided its own resources for thinking history differently.