Foucault 20th Century Viconian

I am aware of exactly two comments Foucault made on Vico (cross posted at the group blog NewAPPS). From Discipline and Punish, with regard to the description of the ‘spectacular’ and famously brutal execution of Damiens: ‘As Vico remarked this old jurisprudence was “an entire poetics”‘ (Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, Penguin, 1977: p. 45). Then from ‘What is Enlightenment’:

The present may also be analyzed as a point of transition toward the dawning of a new world. That is what Vico describes in the last chapter of La Scienza Nuova; what he sees “today”; is “a complete humanity … spread abroad through all nations, for a few great monarchs rule over this world of peoples”; it is also “Europe … radiant with such humanity that it abounds in all the good things that make for the happiness of human life”

Of course Foucault did not get into much commentary and exegesis on his great predecessors, or anyone at all really. I’m inclined to qualify this aspect of Foucault’s writing by saying that he there is a lot of commentary and interaction between the lines in some places, but with regard to Vico I’ll stick to remarks on the general relation. The Foucault-Vico connection has not been greatly studied, and Vico himself is a bit stuck on the margins as a minor classic, though it seems to me his contributions to Enlightenment, philosophy of history, emergent social science, the nature of philosophy, the historical aspects of state theory, philosophy and myth, philosophy of literature and so on, deserve more attention at least on  level with Montesquieu, though I fear that the latter figure is a bit more marginal than he should be. I will return to the more general issues concerning Vico before very long.

The comment in Discipline and Punish suggests that Foucault’s thoughts on pre-modern or ‘spectacular’ punishment are to some degree inspired by Vico’s thoughts about the heroic age, which for Vico can be most poetically understood, and that is the aspect of Vico highlighted by Foucault here, through the epics written by, or attributed to Homer.

The heroic age, whether represented by Achilles or Odysseus (who represents a step beyond the purest barbarism for Vico), does display extremes of cruelty towards the enemy, in a world where there is not much distinction between the violence of battle and the punishment of criminals. The punishment of the suitors in the Odyssey, the most famous example of punishment as extreme violence in Homer, though the whole Trojan War could be seen in that light, does not have the staged drama of cruelty associated with the execution of Damiens, but is bloody and horrifying, and can be taken as a justification, or normalisation, through literature of the ind of criminal punishments given at the time.

Moving to Vico’s general understanding of the heroic age, it is one in which state power, including knowledge of laws and the right to apply them, is restricted to an aristocracy, which claims connections with the heroes of mythology, and communication with the gods, if not ultimate descent. They exercise extremes of force against enemies internal and external, with the people classified as an inner enemy, and certainly as below the level of legal rights. Punishment of the people is close to protection against savage aggression of humans close to animals.

Again there is none of the spectacle of punishment that Foucault draws attention to, but the heroic age is the poetic age for Vico, so that the world of extreme punishments is a world of poetry, in which imaginative universals created by poetry enter memory, before a human world emerges in which democracy and law prevails over pure force, and in which philosophical refection on abstract universals can flourish. That shift rather parallels the shift in Foucault between spectacular punishment and disciplinarity, rooted in Enlightenment humanism.

There is evidently an element of nostalgia in Foucault for the punishments of the past, which in their cruelty allowed a kind of contest between executioner, or interrogator, in which the victim could become a hero of a kind. There is something like that in Vico, for whom Homer shows a world in which pure passions create a poetic power impossible in the human world. For Vico that human world begins with a democratic overturning of the heroic-aristocratic state, which itself becomes unstable so has to evolve in to a monarchy, but a monarchy based on the interests and welfare of all, rather than the heroic kings that emerge from the people hating aristocracy.

The Viconian Enlightenment of a new humanity  ruled by a few kings alluded to in the second quotation from Foucault comes then from the way that democracy necessarily becomes a monarchy, based on human welfare. The timing of that human age is very ambiguous in Vico for reasons that include his belief in the cycles of history, and the way ages themselves contain various stages and prolongations. This is important for Foucault’s own emphasis on Enlightenment as the ‘now’ rather than as a distinct epoch, tied to events of the eighteenth century, and in the various ways he questions what is rational and ethical through different historical experiences. It also gives a clue to Foucault’s creative schematism.

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