Foucault on crime, truth, confession and justice: Post Three

On to my third post on Mal faire, dire vrai [Doing bad, telling truth], published a few weeks ago by Presses Universitaires de Louvain, based on lectures Foucault gave in Louvain in 1981.  English edition out in December of next year.

The lecture of 28th April 1981 discusses Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.  Foucault apologies for adding to the vast numbers of existing readings of Oedipus.  The discussions go back to Aristotle’s Poetics, so to the beginning of the literary critical discussion.  As Foucault concedes, many have already commented on the role of law and political sovereignty in Greek tragedy, the way that tragedy deals with their foundations.  Foucault refers to the importance of such themes in later tragedies highlighting Shakespeare, Corneille, and Schiller.  Foucault does not mention the French tragedian often rated the greatest, even compared to Corneille, Jean Racine, which comes as a surprise to me.  He might also have mentioned Calderón and Christopher Marlowe, amongst others.   It seems also like a good moment to mention some of the great philosophical-literary discussions on the ethics and politics of tragedy which may have had some influence on Foucault, and are certainly worth comparing with his commentary: G.W.F. Hegel (sections in Phenomenology of Spirit and Aesthetics), Arthur Schopenhauer (sections in The World as Will and Representation), Søren Kierkegaard (scattered but important comments in Fear and Trembling, a section of Either/Or), Friedrich Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy), Walter Benjamin (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), Carl Schmitt (Hamlet or  Hecuba); more recently there as been Martha Nussbaum, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (the last two sometimes in collaboration).

Foucault compares the play’s approach to law with that of Plato in The Laws, and quotes a passage in that text which he suggests is very close to the proclamation that  Odeipus makes to the city of Thebes, regarding unknown murderers.  The issue of the unknown murderer is of course that a plague şs afflicting Thebes which Oedipus learns is for allowing the polluting act of murder to go unpunished.  The murder is of King Laius, Oedipus’ predecessors.  What Oedipus does not know at that point is that he killed Laius, and that Laius was his father.  For Foucault, the play uses the ancient to comment on law in Athens at the time of Sophocles, an entirely reasonable suggestion for which Foucault offers some good arguments.

What Foucault builds up to through the lecture is the democratisation of law in Athens, the model democracy of the ancient world.  He suggests that we look at the search for truth in the play as operating at three levels.  The first level is the level of the divine, which includes the god Apollo, and the prophet Tiresias who follows the commands of Apollo.  Foucault quotes from the confrontation between Oedipus and Tiresias, in which Tiresias only agrees to explain who the murderer is after being threatened by Oedipus.  As Foucault points put, Tiresias still claims to only speak at the command of Apollo.  He can also be seen as lined with Apollo through inversion.  Apollo is the god of light who sees everything, while Tiresias is blind but still sees everything.

The second level is the royal level, which Foucault identifies with a conversation between Oedipus and Jocasta, his queen who is also the mother he married without knowing that he was her son.  Foucault sees this as an exercise in evasion in which Oedipus and Jocasta have already realised the truth but evade it by concentrating on secondary issues, in particular the report that Laius was murdered by a group of men, not by one man.  The royal evasion of truth while looking for it goes back to the decision of Laius and Jocasta to try to evade fate by abandoning their baby son to die, in order to avoid the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother.  As those acquainted with the play know, a shepherd commanded to abandon the boy decides to find a family for him instead, with the result that he ends up as the adoptive son of another king, who engages in further evasion by not telling Oedipus about his origins.  The whole incident refers to the widespread practice in the ancient world of abandoning unwanted babies to die.

The royal evasion of truth can also be seen in Oedipus’ reaction to Tiresias’ revelation that it was Oedipus who killed Laius.  He accuses Tiresias of lying for the sake of power and money at the instigation of Jocasta’s brother Creon.  As Foucault further points out, Creon’s reaction to Oedipus’ accusation is itself evasive, as Creon just says that his life is good as it is, which does not really confirm that Creon is free of any desire to replace Oedipus.  Creon, of course, might normally have expected to be king after the death of Laius, but Oedipus’ success in destroying the sphinx leads to Oedipus becoming king.  Oedipus is ‘tyrannos’ in Greek, not ‘basileus’, suggesting someone who has royal power due to something other than normal means, or who exceeds normal limits of power.  I would like to add that the Athenian democracy had partly developed through the success of the tyrant Peisistratus in reducing the power of the aristocracy.  As Foucault explains, Creon defines his good life as that of the king who is not king, who has the prestige of a king, but who can leave the annoying side of kingship to Oedipus. Foucault suggests that therefore Creon is the king who has the ‘techne’ of ruling, that is the skill and know how of ruling.  Presumably the point is that we can suspect Creon of wishing to use that ‘techne‘ by having to official title of king.  It also suggests a separation between the art of government of the king, and the ritual aspects of kingship.  Foucault describes the ancient Greek techne of ruing as common to the who Indo-European world (without explaining why he uses that as the basis of discussion when he has little if anything to say about India, and just a bit to say about Persia, with more references to the non Indo-European ancient Jews).  In his discussion of this techne, Foucault suggests that it is defined in relation to the piloting of a boat and the skill of doctor until the early modern period.

The third part of judicial truth in Oedipus, according to Foucault, is the democratic, which arises when a shepherd and a royal servant are interviewed, they are interviewed under threat of violence, as the ‘divine’ Tiresias does, but do not claim to be commanded by Apollo rather than by state law.  It is here that the  truth emerges with a  definiteness that Oedipus and Jocasta have to accept, as it becomes clear that the servant gave the infant Oedipus to a shepherd who gave him to another king.  It also becomes clear that Oedipus murdered Laius.  Foucault sees this as the vindication of democracy in Sophocles.  The law which treats the testimony of common people as valid is the law that finds the truth.  That truth relies on confession which itself comes from threats of force.  Anyway the confession of common people is accepted without the intermediation of a master who has to give permission for a slave to be tortured.  The common people have a status which is that of citizens and is completely distinct from that of slaves.  Foucault’s progress through the divine, kingly and democratic stages f law is reminiscent of Giambattista’s account of divine, heroic and hum an stages of history, particularly law and language, in the New Science.  Foucault does occasionally refer to Vico, though it also possible that he had other reasons for adopting that threefold analysis.



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