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Foucault gets the "fictocritical" treatment


In a touching and very personal review for Public Books, Allen Shelton, a sociologist living in Buffalo, New York, writes about the “fictocritical” novel Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden by Michael Joyce. As Shelton explains, “fictocriticism” is “a hybrid of history, theory, and fictional techniques” that has been practiced by the likes of Michael Taussig and Donna Haraway. Shelton is deeply moved by the book, which manages to renews his curiosity and admiration for a thinker who’s been written about so extensively that it’s hard to imagine there’s more to say. Read an excerpt from the review below or the full text here.

Is it possible today to write anything about Foucault that isn’t already empty?

This is the big question the sometimes poet, hypertext novelist, and theorist Michael Joyce’s epistolary novel confronts. The letters are addressed to a ghost-like woman named Gabrielle, and to the historical figures of Foucault’s lover Jean, his mother, and a colleague and mentor. He solves the problem by going back in time, to Sweden, in the winter of 1956, before Foucault had become an international superstar. He’s still a minor figure on the intellectual stage in Paris. He has a full head of hair. Joyce doesn’t pretend to be doing a straight history. He constructs a fictional Foucault as a narrator meticulously rescued from historical pieces. The Jaguar he drove and put in a ditch in Sweden appears, as do the gold-rimmed eyeglasses that were so characteristic of his stare. There is his opera cape, and a gamut of relationships, seminars, and students gleaned from multiple biographies.

The narrator’s voice allows Joyce to get into spaces typically ignored, forgotten, or deemed irrelevant. In doing so, Joyce joins a group of theorists/writers like Michael Taussig, Lesley Stern, Donna Haraway, and Kathleen Stewart who practice a thing called fictocriticism, a hybrid of history, theory, and fictional techniques. Joyce cuts a different avenue for conceptualizing the historical Foucault’s work. By chance I came across a reference to Foucault’s breath, included by his friend and former lover Hervé Guibert in his novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a portrait of Foucault’s death from, and of Guibert’s own ongoing struggle with, AIDS. It was minty fresh. This is the kind of detail Joyce utilizes, adroitly torquing historical details to resuscitate Foucault. The result is addictive. The writing is so beautiful it makes me ache, which is a peculiar emotion for a sociologist. Beauty is not ordinarily a part of my discipline. Nor is the personal confession, and this book draws me, as it did its Foucault, toward confession. My own is that this book scares me. I’m afraid of where it’s taking me.

Image: Molly Jarboe, By Train. Via Public Books.