Death

Once one becomes alert to it, it is astonishing how frequently death appears in Foucault's writings, sometimes in its literal meaning, and often as a metaphor or rhetorical trope. Foucault is in this at one with the Western cultural and religious tradition, which, as I have argued elsewhere, is founded and built upon a gesture of death (see Jantzen 1998: 156-70). Indeed, perhaps it is because the Western symbolic is so saturated with death that we are inured to it and at first may hardly notice its prominence in Foucault's writings. But it is there: from the death of God to the death of the subject, from Death and the Labyrinth (1963) to death and sacrifice, death and revolt, death and the simulacrum, the mortification of the flesh and the dissection of corpses. Scarcely any of Foucault's writings does not involve an invocation of death, at the very least as a telling metaphor.

Before I proceed to discuss Foucault's treatment of this theme, however, I wish to make clear what I am not discussing. I wish to distance myself from the emphasis in James Miller's "psychological life" of Foucault on Foucault's fascination with "limit experiences," whether of sex, mysticism, or death (Miller 1994). Indeed in Miller's book these three seem to be linked in Foucault's psychological make-up, and to lead inexorably to his death from AIDS. Miller's sensationalizing and even pathologizing of Foucault has been thoroughly discredited by both David Halperin (1995) and Jeremy Carrette (2000). In any case, my purpose is not an investigation of Foucault's psyche but rather a consideration of the trope of death in his writings, particularly in relation to religion and gender.

Although I believe that there is an unacknowledged link between gender and death in Foucault's writings, I want first to point out a significant difference in his treatment of the two. Foucault, as I have said, never queers gender, or problematizes it at any depth; whereas he does explicitly acknowledge the importance of analyzing death. He writes, for example, of "the relations between experiences like madness, death, crime, sexuality, and several technologies of power" (Carrette 1999: 136, 144): apart from death, this is precisely the list of the genealogies which he developed. There is more than a hint here that although death appears to be a physical and biological fact, it actually has a genealogy too, just as do madness, crime, and sexuality; and that exploring that genealogy would illuminate our situation as we enter postmodernity In the three volumes of The History of Sexuality, Foucault explicitly links changing attitudes to death and immortality with shifts in the genealogy of sex (Foucault 1990-2: I, 135-59; II, 133-9; III, 105-11). I shall return to this. The point here is that Foucault is rather less blind to the significance of death and to its ripeness for queering than he is to gender. However, he never gets around to giving that analysis or genealogy of death; and so, as in the case of gender, a gap is left open which his own strategies can be summoned to help fill.

The significant death, proclaimed by Nietzsche as the defining moment of modernity, is the death of God. This death is related to human subjectivity, sexuality, and transgression. Foucault also links the death of God with the end of philosophy, at least of the kind typified by Hegel; and when he is being careful he points out that the death of God has different meanings for Hegel, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche (Carrette 1999: 85). Of these, it is Nietzsche whose ideas most influence Foucault, especially in connecting the death of God with sexuality, in response to de Sade and Bataille (Carrette 1999: 57). Indeed, in "A Preface to Transgression" Foucault considers how sexuality - in particular sexual transgression, queer sex - reveals what the death of God means.

What, indeed, is the meaning of the death of God, if not a strange solidarity between the stunning realization of his non-existence and the act that kills him? But what does it mean to kill God if he does not exist, to kill God who has never existed?. . . The death of God does not restore us to a limited and positivistic world, but to a world exposed by the experience of its limits, made and unmade by that excess which transgresses it. (Carrette 1999: 59)

Now, if there is one thing we have learned from Foucault's own strategies ever since his Madness and Civilization it is to listen to the silences, to be alert to what is not said. As I have already indicated, one of those silences in his own writing is about women; and here again, when he talks of death gender is not scrutinized. Yet obviously it is the Father who dies, the sons who kill him (who has never existed). It is the male subject whose death Foucault elsewhere links with the death of God. And it is male sexuality whose excesses and transgressivity exposes all this death, the male who is now free, "beyond life and death," to develop an aesthetics of the self (see Bernauer and Mahon 1994: 155).

Where, then, are the women? When we listen carefully, the silence about them is not complete: they are there, but noticing their location changes the rhetorical scene quite dramatically. They are there, first of all, in the scenes of sexual transgression depicted by Bataille (and de Sade) and cited by Foucault; but for the most part they are there as objects for this male sexuality, sometimes for violence and abuse. They are not there, however, as subjects. The subject whose death Foucault announces is male. Yet since this death, like the death of God, is evidenced by sexual transgression which involves this abuse - and in the writings of de Sade even the murder - of women, the actual death of women becomes the basis for the rhetorical death of the male subject and the aesthetic actualization of the male self. If Foucault ever wanted a study in silence, projection, and the inscription of power, it is all here in his own writing.

But the female is also present in this scene in another way, for it transpires that it is not just God the Father who is killed but that "God is a whore" (Carrette 1999: 59; citing Bataille). So if God the whore has been killed, and killed through male eroticism, and if it is this which makes for the possibility of a new aesthetics of the male self, surely it is necessary to ask what fantasies are at work here? How will they be enacted on the bodies of actual women? In Western society, where every woman knows herself the potential and too often the actual target of male sexual violence, it will not do to pass these phrases off as only rhetorical. It is necessary first to take seriously how they reinscribe rather than challenge cultural misogyny, and second to queer them so that they can do so no more.

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