“A Face Drawn in Sand…”

Here, in full, are the notorious final two paragraphs to Michel Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things, 1966):

“One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge. Taking a relatively short chronological sample within a restricted geographical area – European culture since the sixteenth century – one can be certain that man is a recent invention within it. It is not around him and his secrets that knowledge prowled for so long in the darkness. In fact, among all the mutations that have affected the knowledge of things and their order, the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words – in short, in the midst of all the episodes of that profound history of the Same – only one, that which began a century and a half ago and is now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for the figure of man to appear. And that appearance was not the liberation of an old anxiety, the transition into luminous consciousness of an age-old concern, the entry into objectivity of something that had long remained trapped within beliefs and philosophies: it was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge. As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.

If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

It is for such lines as these that Foucault came to be described – indeed, came to be attacked – as anti-humanist. This term is accurate as long as we don’t confuse anti-humanist with anti-human. Foucault is not a misanthrope. He is critiquing here the humanist subject, and the anthropomorphism that is implied in humanism. He is critiquing the idea that man is the necessary end or telos to evolution (as though the goal of life were … mankind). His argument here is simple: the term “modern man” is entirely accurate to the extent that it refers to a historical category, a historical formation – the result of a specific series of discourses and discursive practices. And it is precisely because of this – precisely because it is a historical emergence – that it is possible, at the same time, to envisage a future without this particular form, without this particular mode of being. Again, what this means is not necessarily a world without humans but rather a world without the “human” in the sense that the term is used today. This, by the way, is also what Nietzsche means by the over-man.

Not surprisingly, when Deleuze was interviewed in the mid-eighties, at the time of the release of his monograph on Foucault, it was the question of his colleague’s anti-humanism that was repeatedly brought up and which Deleuze explains or defends. As he says in the interview entitled “Breaking Things Open, Breaking Words Open,” Foucault questions the extent to which man, as a conceptual category, can be understood as an opening –  a line of flight – and to what extent as an obstacle or obstruction, “a way of imprisoning life” (91). Understanding man as a historical entity also allows us to think about the “play of forces” in each historical epoch and how these forces work with, and against, “man” in order to create a composite form, e.g., man in relation to the infinite; man in relation to labor and language; man in relation to new kinds of materials and discourses. “In all Foucault’s work” – Deleuze says – “there is a certain relation between forms and forces that’s influenced my work and was basic to his conception of politics, and of epistemology and aesthetics too” (89). It is because the relation between forms and forces is not eternally fixed, he adds, that we are able “to follow some restless line still further,” pushing things forward, breaking things open, breaking words open. And this, Deleuze argues, is what Foucault did. This is why the development of his thought takes him from his initial interest in knowledge and power to an increased focus on what Deleuze calls subjectivation: the process of becoming a subject. At the end of his life, Foucault wanted to move beyond the enclosures that he himself had brilliantly diagrammed and follow another path, a leap into the unknown – a leap into the void. This is why we can’t interchangeably use the terms subject and subjectivation. The latter must be understood in intensive terms (not extensive ones), like “an electric or magnetic field” (91). And this is how Deleuze wants us to remember Foucault as well. Not as a self-enclosed substance but as “a gesture,” “a laugh,” “a volcanic chain” far from equilibrium.



Deleuze, Gilles. “Breaking Things Open, Breaking Words Open.” In Negotiations 1972-1990. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Oxford and New York: Routledge, 1989.

3 Responses to ““A Face Drawn in Sand…””

  1. remarkable passage

  2. Reblogged this on wallacerunnymede and commented:
    As Karl Marx no doubt would have said: ‘I, for one, am not Humanity!’

  3. […] The centre-right commentator Damir Marusic returns to the idea that America is riven by a culture war. He points his readers to sociologist James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book and suggests ‘his point was that everything in America was suffused with a religious sense of mission — even spheres we might normally imagine are completely secularized’. As Richard Hofstadter warned in the 1950s and ‘60s, mission and belief feed millenarian visions and paranoid fears that the secret hand of the enemy is active in all things; all information is potentially meaningful whilst the truths of the community are sacred and unquestionable. The weaving of religiosity into modern national psyches is not an unfamiliar idea and the anthropologist Michael Taussig has written of the elliptical presence of magic in the state, its rituals and the bond that its subjects feel connecting them to the wider community. The sociologist Emile Durkheim identified shared religious convictions as tying a community together and reifying those common values whilst Emilio Gentile has written about the centrality of political religiosity in fascism. But what happens when cultural boundaries are rendered obsolete by global communications and connections transcend and subnavigate the state? In a networked society where are our subjective borders even if we observe them in any meaningful way anymore? And what happens to the intangible connections and energies incorporated into the groups of believers that make up a nation? Well, this is one of the futural crises that are washing away the modern humanist man who Foucault explained was just a temporary configuration of knowledge and values. […]

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