I return, finally, to Foucault’s early interest in limit. But as the past 12 weeks (!!) have seeped away, I have realized that to return to this question in the context of his relation to the Tel Quel group, on the one hand, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, on the other, is too large and complex a task for a blog post. Here is a briefer engagement, which I hope can stand as a promise toward further thinking.
In January 1966, on the cusp of the April publication of Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things), Foucault writes to a friend: “Non, ce ne’st pas cela, le problème n’est pas la langue, mais les limites de l’énonciabilité”: “No, not that; the problem is not language but the limits of enunciability” (Dits et Écrits I, 36; the addressee is not named). The problem–what problem?–is not language (here langue, a linguistic system such as French or Russian, and not langage, a style or pattern of use within une langue), but the limits of enunciability, the limits of the capacity to assert (something)(anything).
What does it mean to pinpoint the limits of enunciability as a problem? At least three things, I think:
- It means to seek in language not signification but that which signification borders and excludes. In recognizing that linguistic assertions block out and exclude meaning as much as they ground and substantiate it, Foucault’s attention to the limits of enunciability attends to language as both norm and technology of normalization.
- It signals a hermeneutic attentive not to desires or affects that are expressed but to those that are silenced. In sensing that words form channels for desires, Foucault attempts to peer over or beyond the boundaries of these channels toward desires(affects, intensities) that flow against or outside them, thereby evading the limits of enunciability, and leveraging (perhaps) something like encounter or shock with those limits, or transgression of them, or change within them.
- It pursues lines of inquiry that sink a scholar into discourse not so as to better understand what is said but rather to tease out, by attending to the space or structure of the work itself, the merest suggestion of those murmurings that limn discourse and steer its functioning without ever breaking through to expression. Such limits of enunciability lead Foucault to distinguish unreason from the binary of reason/madness (to approach, as he writes, the “murmur of obscure insects” (“ce murmure d’insectes sombre”, Dits et Écrits, 192) that precedes the division between reason and madness). Such limits suggest to Foucault that Rousseau’s writing structures language so as to function madly or deliriously, even if it is not itself ‘mad’ or ‘delirious.’ Such limits, finally (for here, skipping the usual references to Roussel and Bataille), lead Foucault in the 1964 Cerisy-la-Salle seminar on the novel to suggest “a chache, a blind spot, something from which one speaks and is never there” (“une cache, un point aveugle, quelque chose à partir de quoi on parle et qui n’est jamais là“). The poignancy and difference of the “new novel” comes from writing from or as this cache, writing words that effectively are limits more than they are indices or referents.