In A Preface to Transgression, Foucault’s 1963 essay on Bataille, Foucault discusses the at the time Utopian hopes vested in the seeming fall of sexual taboos. And he expresses something rather marvelous.
... sexuality is a fissure – not one that surrounds us as the basis of our isolation or individuality, but one that marks the limit within us and designates us a limit.
Perhaps we could say that it has become the only division possible in a world now emptied of objects, beings and spaces to desecrate. Not that it profers any new content for our age-old acts; rather, it permits a profanation without object, a profanation that is empty and turned inward upon itself and whose instruments are brought to bear on nothing but each other. Profanation in a world which no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred – is this not more or less what we may call transgression?” [Sorry, I could only find the English translation by Bouchard and Simon]
Li takes this, and indeed the whole essay, as a marker, from which we can measure our own dialectical leaps that, collectively, express our idea of the relationship of the happiness norm and the eclipse of the human limit; two moments that mutually condition one another. If at one time I, too, took, took transgression as the way to dissolve personal structures that stood in the way of what Bataille called Pure Happiness, I now see it from a different point of view, one that is much more skeptical of the entire project of happiness.
By chance, when I was in Mexico, I seemed to get into a lot of discussions about Foucault. R. was reading Veyne’s book on Foucault, and we had a long and rather clumsy argument about Foucault’s relativism (R. being against that interpretation, I being for it, but regretting the terms in which such arguments are usually cast). And then I met a professor who was conducting a seminar on Foucault, and we discussed what I consider to be Foucault’s arbitrary principle in Les Mots et Les Choses, which is that a period could be characterized by one episteme only – which I think is a Duchampian rule, something that exists in order for one to create a new kind of picture of an object, but cannot be defended outside of that realm). Finally, I talked a lot with my friend M. about the lack of any discussion of “discovery” as a mot du savoir in Foucault. To me, this is tied in to the treatment of Europe as a closed system from the baroque to the 19th century. To really look at discovery as the key to an episteme would be to see the tight tie between imperialism and knowing. All of my caveats, however, are not meant to jettison Foucault, but to get my bearings in relation to him, get a useful sense of the limits of someone who is looking at the same period I am, with some of the same assumptions.
“A world that no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred” – this came about in some way that we hear about only on the margins of the early work. Because Foucault wanted to emphasize discontinuity, because he wanted to free himself from the tiresome tropes of the dialectic, he chose this route. There was a price, however, and it is interesting that as he came back to sexuality as a continuing theme in the end. That the human limit is within us, wrenched from its sacred correlate, in a sense orphaned, without a vocabulary of its own, or a conceptual scheme – an impulse, an instinct that has to cloth itself in metaphors borrowed from a past that is in conflict with the history that validates its very position, its interiority, its integrity, this is the puzzle that I’ve been working on. The larger question that faces the critique of the happiness culture is: is it even possible to carry through this critique without recourse to the sacred, without infusing the conceptual structure one uses with borrowings, and thus debts, to the religious?
Now, of course, my utopian idea is that this is possible. The possibility is realized in the performance of the critique, but – my position, the positive possibility of a position, is definitely rooted in Bataille’s impossible. My own use of an ironically magical and hermetic vocabulary is a not wholly successful way to express my intuition.
This may be why I feel such a kinship to Foucault’s project, since I feel like the “lunar” starting point, the sense people had that Foucault was inhuman, has to do with an assumption that was rooted in impossibility. If, now, I end up on the other side of that impossibility, if I refuse the path to “pure happiness” – that last sentiment that Bataille could not give up – well, maybe that is because my impossible is beyond happiness – the only truly radical beyond, in my opinion. The Archimedean point for overturning the modern order. This conviction I will, of course, scrupulously disguise in my book to come – since I don’t want to be rejected so easily. I will smile, smile, and be a villain still.