In May, 1969, three years after the publication of Les Mots et les Choses, and a year after the upheavals of May 1968, Foucault presided over a colloquium at the University of Paris’s Institute of the History of Sciences and Technologies celebrating the bicentennial of Georges Cuvier’s birth (1769-1832). I read this colloquium as part of my daily plunge into Dits et Écrits; Lynne Huffer has beautifully translated the presentation and proceedings for us in Foucault Studies (No. 22, pp. 208-237).
I wish for more time (of course)–time to reach back to The Order of Things and forward to “L’ordre du discours”, but I’ll settle for a short note on the status of the individual. The backdrop for me, here, is actually Marx, specifically the Marx of the Manifesto (1848) and the Eighteenth Brumaire (1852).
In turning to Cuvier, Foucault looks for the epistemological seeds of Darwin, not in the crass sense that somehow Darwin could pilfer what Cuvier spent his life growing, but in the much murkier sense in which the epistemology assumed by Cuvier somehow allowed for a kind of cracking. Foucault calls this an “epistemological transformation” of biological knowledge (savoir), particularly pertaining to the status of the individual.
For Cuvier, an individual (e.g, a mollusk or a guinea pig) is an ensemble of (1) anatomical functions that can be compared across different species, and (2) a paleontological inheritance that can be studied in the fossil record and related to differences in environment. An individual, then, is for Cuvier a kind of nodal point between the organic history given to it and the specific anatomical variation that describe its current position vis-à-vis other individuals (which are more or less similar, and which are divided by this very “more or less” into species, genus, class, and order).
Foucault writes that, “One can say that Cuvier was only able to make his system hold together by submitting the conditions of existence to the unity of type. This is what Darwin did, as he says in fact in The Origin of Species (1859): it is to free the conditions of existence in relation to the unity of type. The unity of type is fundamentally no more than the result of [historical and environmental] work on the level of the individual” (Huffer’s translation, p. 214).
I am struck by the resonance between Cuvier’s sense of an individual as a complicated navigation between the constraints of the given (i.e., anatomy) and contemporary constraints of a milieu (i.e, environmental variation), and Marx’s famous opening of the 18th Brumaire, namely, that “Humans make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Marx, in fact, was keenly sensitivity to what humans “find” or “are given”. His material approach to history wrestles with ways to articulate the possibility of social change in light of the dense weight of the past and also without recourse to the internal will of separate individuals. Humans do act singly sometimes, but we are never separate. We carry our pasts quite literally in our bones and flesh, and whatever future we make, we make together. Cuvier, it seems, knew this intimately.
Darwin, on the other hand, seemed in good British fashion to idolize the prestige of the individual, even while he nudged historical agency to the individual’s reception–suffering, passive–of environmental effects on (basically) reproducibility. Foucault doesn’t put the matter quite this way. He writes, “For Darwin, then, there is one reality that is the individual and a second reality that defines the “varietivity” [“variativité”] of the individual: its capacity to vary. Everything else (be it species, genus, order) is a kind of construction built from this reality’s starting point: the individual” (Huffer’s translation, p. 210).
From one perspective, this difference in the understanding of individuality illuminates what Foucault terms the two thinkers’ openness to “conditions of existence”, that is, to life as a category of that knowledge (savoir) the 19th century would eventually call biology. But from another perspective, might we (well, might we?) see in Foucault’s subtle delineation of the difference between Cuvier and Darwin the political difference between Marx and Adam Smith?