Monday, July 08, 2019

Foucault, The Birth of Free Will (2019/1974)

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Free Will, translated from the French by Pierre Menard. Routledge Focus, 2019 [1974]. Pp. xvi + 48. ISBN 978-6-472649-45-8. £46.99 hb/£15.99 pb.

Reviewed by Fabio Fernandes

When reviewing a dead author, one must be an archaeologist of sorts. One must read beyond the mere narrative, and open before oneself the text like a map, being careful about the paratexts and everything that surrounds the text. This Genettean approach is very useful in cases like the chapbook I have in my hands: The Birth of Free Will, by Michel Foucault. This is a very special book, because, among the whole work of the French philosopher, this is the only one he explicitly asked that be published only after his death. The fact that it took so long to finally see the light of day probably has to do with the fact that it’s about a book that doesn’t exist. Or rather, about a book that does not quite exist the way Foucault tells us. An alternate book, so to speak.

The story behind it, as far as we know: in October 1974, Foucault gave two conference presentations in the Institute of Social Medicine of the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) in Brazil. Two of them had been published in France the following year, and in 1978 both the UK and the US editions saw the light of day. However, this posthumous opuscule seems to tell us a different story.

According to Foucault’s preface, La naissance du libre arbitre was indeed a third conference paper, but its subject was deemed highly controversial then. Ewigkeit, the world-famous German corporation behind the Frankenstein Method, was deemed responsible for the fact that this paper remained unpublished for so long. According to the translator’s note at the end of the chapbook, Ute Frank, speaker for the company, issued a formal statement denying this as soon as Gallimard announced it was going to publish it.

It goes without saying that this company does not exist—more on that later.

One should remember that, in the mid-seventies, Foucault was at the height of his thinking accuracy, and it shows: in its forty-eight pages, The Birth of Free Will is a powerful statement of history and its malcontents. He starts telling us a short history of the Frankenstein Method, relating it to the invention of the hospital (subject of one of the Rio conference papers) in the late eighteenth century:
“This period, not by chance, is the same as the creation of the Frankenstein Method. The resuscitation technique invented by the Swiss Victor Frankenstein in 1794 is not only an advance in medical technology but also a socio-political and religious revolution: it removes from the hands of God the responsibility for human life and the power it entails (…)”
Foucault reminds the audience of the books the so-called “monster” (at least according to Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus) read: Milton’s Paradise Lost makes him aware of his own predicament as a creature abandoned to his own fate by the creator, and it is precisely this reading, together with Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, that triggers the events that would lead to the death of creator and creature, in the cold, desolate Arctic landscape.

But Foucault asks us to be cautious, remembering that Mary Shelley was the daughter of the humanist writer William Godwin and the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, two eminent libertarian figures in 18th century England, and was therefore created along the rational humanist lines of that time. In his words,
“It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine the need for the representation of the creator as a figure of capitalist exploitation, holding—now more literally than ever before—the power of life and death over his creature, even though this attack is carried out through the elaborated stained glass of the Gothic novel: and its spokesman is the monster, a clear metaphor for the oppressed class rising up against its manipulator. Mary Shelley has never been happier in the lessons of political morals than in the prophecies: the Mensheviks in the USSR and the Maoists in China are the clearest example of this.”
I had to read the paragraph above twice: why should Foucault mention the Mensheviks instead of the Bolsheviks? Foucault was a Socialist with Communist inclinations, so why would he erase history here? Why does he guide us into the woods, so to speak, of a kind of parallel Earth where Victor Frankenstein does not reject the creature, but also sees in it the opportunity to profit with the technology behind its creation?

After all, it’s not as if Victor Frankenstein was a man of the Industrial Revolution. He is himself a creature born of the encyclopedic rationalism that precedes him. Another clue is in a fragment of Stendhal’s memoirs presenting Frankenstein’s comments on Spinoza.

The Dutch philosopher is the author of Ethics, the work that, according to Henry Beyle, cavalry officer for the Napoleonic Army who is best known for his alias, Stendhal, really influenced both Victor and William, the “monster.” And here we find another point of divergence in this astonishing tale told by Foucault, who deftly points us to a report by Stendhal about his meeting with Victor Frankenstein in his castle, days before his disappearance—a report that I couldn’t find, of course, because it does not exist.

Spinoza’s Ethics is of utmost importance in the Frankenstein narrative according to Foucault because of two fundamental factors: first, the predominance of the concept of immanence over that of transcendence, which leads to the proposition that there is no God as a creative force outside his creation, but as a creator and creature at the same time; this literal idea is not the principle that will motivate Frankenstein in his obsession to recreate life, but what it implies: the God of our ancestors becomes nothing more than a superstition. There is no divine punishment, because there is no hierarchical categorization: God is everything, he is in everything. We are, therefore, God.

This is quite interesting in terms of worldbuilding, for here Foucault gives us the cornerstone of the capitalist principle: since there is no God but us, we can transform nature at will. Therefore, all the benefits come from us, and to us they must come back.

Hence Mary Shelley’s inaccuracy, in Foucault’s view, in her search for a strong image that would translate the entire impact of creation: the alleged need for atonement would make Victor be amazed and suddenly aware of the sin against Nature, and flee in fear. Would it not make more sense for Frankenstein’s Enlightenment stance for him to contemplate the creature both with fear (as he had just overcome a barrier never before crossed by a human being), but also with joy for the same reason—and raise his hands, arms towards you, shouting, like Michelangelo to his Moses, “Parla!”?
“For it is from Frankenstein’s invention that man performs a fundamental transformation in his attitude towards Science: everything is possible, therefore everything is allowed. If the recreation of life, previously only possible by beings said to be superior (we immediately remember the biblical account of the resurrection of Lazarus by Christ), now it is not only possible but practicable and endorsed even by the Protestant Church, although in the beginning only liberal Calvinism, and they reluctantly, dare to side with Frankenstein, or rather, the nobility that sponsored and supported him, so even the most crazy and discredited projects take shape: it is the Era of Inventions, or New Renaissance, as some New Right historians want to exaggerate. In any case, this fever has taken over Europe and the Americas for about three decades, and, despite the absurd amount of inventions without the slightest sense or practical purpose, bequeathed us advances such as the transoceanic airship, the differential machine, advanced neurology and the hospital intensive care unit.”
Foucault also reminds us of the untimely demise of Victor Frankenstein, in circumstances never totally explained:
“In 1813, on the occasion of Napoleon’s Austrian campaign, Prussia secretly sent its troops to the Frankenstein Mansion, in order to prevent the secret of the Method, until then exclusive to European royalty, from falling into the hands of Bonaparte. Here it is necessary to quote Stendhal again, this time briefly in his biography of Napoleon: having himself been a non-commissioned officer of the Dragons of the French army, at the same time he was sent on another secret mission to capture Frankenstein. The defense he would find there, both from the Prussian soldiers and from the servants themselves and the Frankenstein family, was so wild and desperate that it resulted in many deaths and a fire that destroyed all the equipment, notes, the Doctor and his creatures. Victor’s body, however, was never found, which gave rise to many later speculations.”

Regarding the foundation of the company invented by Foucault, Ewigkeit. Even though Doktor Georg Faust (who was a doctor of medicine but also chemist, philosopher and astronomer, among other activities—a typical Renaissance man, Foucault calls him) had no contact with Frankenstein as far as anyone knew, there are quite a few revelations that Foucault makes in his paper, revelations he claimed to have exhaustively researched in libraries across Europe:
“(Faust) presents documentation signed by Dr. Victor himself as his will and testament, transferring the rights to use the Method and permission to transfer material to the then incipient hospitals, committing himself to send the vital fluid and train specialized staff to use the equipment.”
But maybe the most interesting part of the text is when Foucault lifts the curtain to show us what we might well call “the dark side” of the Method:
“The agreement signed by Faust and the hospitals in Europe stated that the Method would be introduced with equipment and training of personnel under two conditions: 1a.) that the hygiene conditions of the hospitals were impeccable; and 2a.) that the formula for the vital fluid conducting electricity be kept secret. The first condition was a fundamental factor (along with the invention of the rifle, which we mentioned in the previous conference) for the improvement of hospitals, previously considered places to die. Then, the franchise system and the Intensive Care Unit were born at once.”

As I wrote in the beginning of this review, the company that, in Foucault’s words, virtually manages to further Capitalism to its actual condition, does not exist. But the foundational narrative of Ewigkeit is not only intriguing but also dazzling in its complexity. Mentioning yet other texts of that time (including an essay supposedly written by Goethe), Foucault describes a strange man, always dressed in black, who accompanied Faust everywhere, giving him strength and encouraging him to go on, even when the difficulties seemed almost insurmountable. And the Foucaultian master stroke: Faust himself would call him Mephistopheles, not in the biblical sense, but Machiavellian: anticipating the savage capitalist behavior, the strange man argued that everything was valid in the name of progress, even the sacrifice of some lives, a fact that is just trivialized by the gift that they would be bequeathing to humanity. It is a remarkably Frankensteinian attitude, even though Dr. Victor was not the exclusive holder of the rights to the cold and calculating reasoning prevalent among the scientific class in the eighteenth century.

Foucault’s writing is mesmerizing, so it took me a while to understand the whole thing. The carefully elaborated worldbuilding around these narratives from the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century shows us a new aspect of the Foucaultian work: the history of madness. In this case, however, not the incarceration of people deemed mad by society, such as homosexuals. Foucault is talking about the collective madness of Capitalism in its very beginning.

The fact that he chooses Faust as the focal point is significant: a few years later, Marshall Berman would do the same in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. In all probability, Berman didn’t have the chance to read this paper, that now we know has never happened, but it’s instead a very elaborate joke with a serious punchline, and even a postscript of sorts: Pierre Menard, who is credited as the translator to English, happens to be the protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” A careful search doesn’t give away any other clue about this person.

One wonders if anything about this book is real—including the original authorship. Could it be a hoax the kind of which the Wu Ming Collective in Italy used to do using the name of the former soccer player Luther Blissett? Could it be that Michel Foucault never really wrote this conference paper at all? Maybe we’ll never know, but does it matter, really? As the Italians say, se non è vero è ben trovato: even if it’s not true, it’s well-conceived. Very well indeed, and we are the richer for it.

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