Foucault and Baudelaire: On the Double Construction of the Self or Resistance is Not Futile

In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, Foucault notes that Baudelaire heralds artist Constantin Guys as an example of modernity.  As Foucault explains, “what makes him [Guys] the modern painter par excellence in Baudelaire’s eyes is that, just when the whole world is falling asleep, he begins to work, and he transfigures that world.  His transfiguration does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom; ‘natural’ things become ‘more than natural,’ ‘beautiful’ things become ‘more than beautiful,’ and individual objects appear ‘endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of [their] creator.’  For the attitude of modernity, the high value of the present is indissociable from a desperate eagerness to imagine it, to imagine it otherwise than it is, and to transform it not by destroying it but by grasping it in what it is.  Bauderlairean modernity is an exercise in which extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it” (41, emphases added).Resistance is Futile

Does this not sound like Foucault’s own project? That is, as Foucault’s analyses of delinquents, the insane, and the sick evidence, we must turn our attention to the real, concrete instances of “life on the ground.” For instance, we must look to the various oppressions of the marginalized and exploited, as well as other subjectivities created through the complex interplay of social apparatuses, institutions, discourses etc. In so doing, we see how subjects are in fact not autonomous, exposing what Joerg Rieger calls, “the myth of individualism,”[1] but rather are shaped by the particular practices, institutions, language, and myriad other beyond-our-control  convergences and socio-political relations into which we are born into and live out our existence.  Even so, as Foucault explicitly affirms, particularly in his later essays and interviews,[2] we are nonetheless agents who can in fact resist other-imposed narratives; social construction for Foucault does not go “all the way down.”  Rather, as human free agents, we can transgress self and other imposed limits, narratives etc.  All this highlights Foucault’s attempt to balance and give full weight to both social and self construction, an issue which he believes is thematized in modernity.  On the one hand, we must pay “extreme attention to what is real” (i.e. study and analyze the ways in which disciplinary practices are inscribed upon the bodies of prisoners creating very specific subjectivities). On the other hand, as free agents, we engage these realities—albeit social and not natural realities— “with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects and violates [them]” (41).  Resistance, for Foucault, is decidedly, not futile.


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key, 48.

[2] See, for example, Foucault’s essay, “The Subject and Power.”

5 thoughts on “Foucault and Baudelaire: On the Double Construction of the Self or Resistance is Not Futile”

  1. Interestingly, Foucault expressed in his latter life a sympathy towards Christian mysticism as a viable way to transcend the imposed limits of self.

    Not that we should overstate Foucault’s allegiances, but it does indicate how much of an ally we Christians have in Foucault and his incisive reading of history.

  2. Dear “High and Dry”,

    I so appreciate your comment. Often, all I receive are very negative comments from fellow Christians about how “evil” Foucault is.

    Kind regards,

  3. Nice post Cynthia! Foucault was only culturally anti-Christian. He couldn’t escape the contemporary intellectual european anti-Chrisitan climate. Now that Christianity is in shambles in Europe, perhaps now he could. There is a problem with Foucault, as you accurately describe him. There is only the same thrown into the political spaces that come to shape and mold. Freedom is only in owning that forces and creating something new out of them. Yet, in so doing, one reenacts the transcendento-empirical doublet. It is a kind of Nietzchean will to power and eternal return meeting each other. There is no transcendence, only transgression.

    Beatrice Han puts it this way; Foucault is caught between the transcendental and the historical (not the transcendent). She said he never found freedom because he was a bad phenomenologist. Her task has become to do better phenomenology in order to get out of the predicament; she concludes that this will be a phenomenology that avoids the theological turn. Against her, I have concluded otherwise.


  4. Thank you for this wonderful blog. I’ve only just discovered it, so I look forward to delving into your back-catalog.

    I was lucky enough during my undergraduate degree to study Foucault with a lecturer who had a keen sense as to what Foucault was on about. He also chose the course readings very wisely. I am forever in his debt as Foucault’s philosophy has proved invaluable in my philosophical and theological thinking.

    However, I did spend some time during my theological training debating with other classmates as to the value of Foucault. I am pleased there are others that share my appreciation of Foucault as well.



  5. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your comment! I’m just now digging into the thorny issue of Foucault’s relationship with Kant, the Enlightenment, modernity, etc. I recently came across a series of excellent articles by Colin Koopman, who offers, in my opinion, some pretty good counter-arguments to Han-Pile’s position; yet, there as aspects of Han-Pile’s and Kevin Thompson’s read that seem right as well, not to mention appealing with regard to the direction I see my project moving. Suffice it to say, I’m still undecided at this point. However, if I have time, I hope to post on the Koopman/Thompson exchange that was recently published in _Foucault Studies_. If I do, I’d love to hear from you.

    Best wishes,

Comments are closed.