Vico and Foucault: Aesthetics and Sovereignty

(Primary version of this Post including images in post, not just linked, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog)

The image above shows Giambattista Vico’s frontispiece for his New Science Concerning the Common Nature of the Nations (1725, 1744). Vico uses the image, and the relations between the objects in it, to explain the method of his ‘new science’. This anticipates the uses of images Michel Foucualt makes in some of his books. For example, at the beginning of The Order of Things (1966) he uses Velázquez’ painting Las Meninas and in Discipline and Punish (1975) he makes a central reference to Jeremy Bentham’s model prison, the Panopticon, using Bentham’s blueprint as an illustration (see below). In these cases, the images are not mere ‘decoration’, the spatial relations within them are important to grasping the points made about law and sovereignty.

Both Vico and Foucault were concerned with the way in which the social world is revealed by aesthetic experience. Vico’s concern with the poetic and metaphorical in understanding the law and the history of the ancient world has much relevance to Foucault’s approach, as does his sense of the loss of the poetic. Foucault refers to a loss of the theatre of terror and the carnival in modern punishment; and refers to the loss of one kind of visibility in public execution in comparison with the visibility of the prisoner within the prison,

Foucault said little directly about Vico, but he said little about many things important to his work (including Marx, Weber and Durkheim; Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology).

There is however a significant brief reference to Vico in Discipline and Punish (p. 46), confirming the relevance of Vico to Foucaults’ inquiries into the forms of the poetics, aesthetics, and visibility of power and the truth.

As Vico remarked, this old jurisprudence was “an entire poetics”. There were even some cases of an almost theatrical reproduction of the crime in the execution of the guilt man – with the same instruments. The same gestures. Thus justice had the crime re-enacted before the eyes of all, publishing it in its truth and at the same time annulling it in the death of the guilty man

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