Beckett and Foucault: Some Affinities

by Michael Guest (

Copyright © 1996 by Michael Guest. (Originally published in Central Japan English Studies, English Literary Society of Japan, Chubu, Vol. 15 (1996) 55-68. Reproduced here with the permission of the author.)

Foucault frames his essay "What is an Author?" with a quotation from Beckett: "'What does it matter who is speaking,' someone said, 'what does it matter who is speaking'" (Harari 141-60); and Beckett figures prominently in the seminal post-structuralist Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari, to whom Foucault acknowledges an extensive debt in a note to Discipline and Punish. Foucault's essay was the first to discuss the question of the "non-empirical author," positing the author as a "way of being within the discourse" (Eco 46); Beckett's reflexive thematization of these issues is scrupulous to the point of obsession. Foucault's quotation of Beckett refers us to a further theoretical issue, one that is described succinctly by Jacques Derrida: "Metaphor is less in the philosophical text [. . .] than the philosophical text is within metaphor" (258). Particularly when considered together, Beckett and Foucault radically interrogate the "philosophical" and "literary" genres within which they might be traditionally held to write; interrogate, indeed, the status of these genres in relation to the equally problematical notion of "reality."

The post-structuralist context of the point of contact between the writer and the philosopher implies an affinity, in respect to the primacy of text and discourse. My paper will trace out some of its contours, while seeking to avoid the critical temptation to reduce the "metaphorical" or literary discourse (exemplified by Beckett) to the terms of the philosophical one (Foucault); or to validate one in terms of the other. They are equally problematical and paradoxical, existing evidently ungrounded within a field of discourse. I wish to observe some cognate themes and their implications, and to consider their implicit dialogue. A broad thematic affinity pertains to the systematic construction of the self-subject by discourse. Beckett enacts the process textually; Foucault historicizes it. Foucault describes the process in terms of an expanding humanistic mythology, that masks the growth of a complex, self-perpetuating system of power. Corollaries may be observed, in turn, within Beckett's writing: such as practices and structures of surveillance; disciplines imposed upon the body; and the transformation of the body into a sign-subject by physical torture.

Let us begin with a rough outline of one or two of Foucault's ideas. He begins Discipline and Punish with graphic descriptions of public tortures and executions conducted in the eighteenth century. He explains the reason underlying them: by breaking the law, the criminal has personally offended against the king. Rectification must be witnessed in a public ritual: an awe inspiring spectacle of the monarch's power, unleashed upon the criminal. The offender's body becomes a sign of this power; the monarch inscribes - writes - his power upon that body, for all to read: "[Torture] must mark the victim: it is intended, either by the scar it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim with infamy . . . ; it traces around, or, rather, on the very body of the condemned man, signs that must not be effaced" (34). Further, "[It] is the prince - or at least those to whom he has delegated his force - who seizes upon the body of the condemned man and displays it marked, beaten, broken (49). The ritual is the manifestation of "a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sovereign" (49).

Foucault goes on to demonstrate a historical transformation of the process of social order. The monarch is removed as the visible origin of power; but power itself remains as an insidious, self-perpetuating network (although this is not to suggest that the monarch invented power to begin with - he himself was in all probability a function of it). The necessary nature of power is to mask its workings, in order to induce its subjects to conform. According to Foucault, power's grandest lie is a historical narrative that incorporates the emergence of the humanistic disciplines and the enlightenment they purport to foster. The lie constitutes the fictional existence of man as we know "him" - humanity as we know it. Foucault refers to a "new figure which, under the old name of man, first appeared less than two centuries ago" (Order of Things 325). We cast our eyes back in horror at the tortures he describes, because our subjective identities are the illusory products of power's lie of humanistic progress.

Strikingly similar themes are central to Beckett's novel How It Is, a satirical allegory of human progress, depicting a huge circle of alternating "torturers" and "victims," crawling perpetually one after the other through a universal sea of mud. The torture instills language and identity, by the method of carving words into the flesh of each victim. Beckett's allegory refers to the transmission of an individual conscious identity through time, as the Word is conveyed from one instantaneous self to the next, as much as to the idea of a communal history. The creation of the subjective self is seen as an innately torturous process; it takes place in the context of a cycle of power in which all are implicated. The novel is narrated from a perpetually fragmenting perspective, that relates a linear chronicle of history as imagined by these creatures, but with the understanding that, confined as they are within their own instantaneous existences in the mud, they are unable to know concretely that the infinite line of history is not, in fact, a cycle. In other words, there is essentially no human progress beyond the primeval slime, and the humanistic history is little more than a fairy tale, at best consoling, at worst delusive. We should however, note a significant contrast with Foucault, in that one of Beckett's perspectives appears to deny the very possibility of history: he makes it seem a fallacy, to cast back for origins into a sphere of representation, from one's blind entrapment in the instant of present reality. This is a consideration that requires of Foucault's project a high degree of methodological originality and sophistication (see for instance Hoy; Dreyfus and Rabinow).

Foucault upturns commonly held preconceptions about history and locates man as a function rather than the originator of history. Power is seen as the originator - power with intention but without a human source. While the idea has a ring of science fiction about it; there is no need to accuse Foucault of writing any type of fiction rather philosophy: he admits as much himself, while asserting that this is so because the institutions do not yet exist that could validate what he says (Hoy 52). Foucault distinguishes himself from philosophers such as Adorno and Derrida, who reinterpret received notions in similarly paradoxical ways, by his use of quite ordinary, everyday historical documentation, such as political and legal ordinances, institutional timetables and so on, as evidence. He is not writing about "grand" themes of philosophy, which have served to condition humanistic self-conceptions, but about everyday sites of control and order: prisons, schools, armies, hospitals, factories, human bodies; indeed, he abandons the traditional philosophical claim to make serious statements of truth:

Foucault has already shown that the imperative to use reason to discover a deep truth about ourselves and our culture is a historical construction which has to hide its history in order to function as goal for us. Moreover, the belief that there is a deep truth in the self leads directly to the application of scientific rationality to the self and thus to the very normalization one seeks to avoid.

Whenever he hears talk of meaning and value, of virtue and goodness, he looks for strategies of domination (Dreyfus and Rabinow 260, 109).

There is a significant comparison to be drawn here with Beckett, who departs from the idea of literature as an expression of the "higher" aspects of human existence, in favour of exploring "impotence and ignorance . . . that whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable . . ." (Beckett, To Israel Shenker 14).

A fascinating example of Foucault's technique, and a linchpin for the area of his thought I have described so far, is his interpretation of the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham's plans (1791) for the construction of a "new" style of prison, which was to be called the "panopticon." Bentham is popularly conceived as an enlightened reformer of an inhumanly cruel system of punishment dating from the middle ages. The panopticon does not constrain the body with chains, disfigure it, or cast it into the darkness. Its ostensible purpose is not annihilation, but rehabilitation, which it undertakes to perform not through effects on the body, but via the operation of knowledge upon the mind and soul.

The panopticon is a "technology of surveillance" rather than a brutal means of constraint; it relies upon the clever organization of bodies in space. Inmates occupy individual cells that are located in a circle surrounding a central observation tower. The inmates are unable to communicate with each other; but, lit from behind, they may all be clearly observed from the tower: "They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible" (Discipline and Punish 200; my emphasis). Their behaviour can be monitored and tabulated; they can be organized into typographies and hierarchies, and minutely analysed. Thus a form of knowledge will be produced that is simultaneously a means to their control. This is the paradigm, Foucault asserts, for the various institutions of knowledge and discipline to be found in modern society: isolating man as an object of study, it is the model for the human sciences:

The prison became a sort of permanent observatory that made it possible to distribute the varieties of vice or weakness . . . A whole corpus of individualizing knowledge was being organized that took as its field of reference not so much the crime committed (at least in isolation), but the potentiality of danger that lies hidden in an individual and which is manifested in his observed everyday conduct. The prison functions in this as an apparatus of knowledge" (Discipline and Punish 126).

The tower is made in such a way as to conceal from the inmates whether or not it contains any observers at any particular time. The inmates have always to assume the possibility that they are being watched and behave accordingly: internalizing this state of "permanent visibility" (Dreyfus and Rabinow 189) they become their own guardians, performing constant surveillance upon themselves. Foucault believes that the panopticon marks the development of a certain kind of human reality. "We are . . . in the panoptic machine," he writes (Discipline and Punish 217). The human subject exists inside the panoptic system, having internalized it in such a way that it becomes something like a structure of consciousness. At the same time, the panoptic technology produces the human being "as a subject"; subject in both senses, of being a subject to its power, and of having a particular kind of subjective consciousness (Foucault, afterword to Dreyfus and Rabinow 212). We are in the panopticon and it is in us: an effect of Foucault's paradoxical thinking is to undermine the "inside-outside" dualism that is the basis for the traditional notion of the individual human subject.

Critics have noticed the similarity of Beckett's Catastrophe (1982) to the panoptic idea (McMullan 27, Garner 48). Throughout this short play, a character named Protagonist stands immobile - though by no physical constraint - on a pedestal, while a dictatorial theatre director manipulates him, via the actions of a notebook-carrying assistant, whom he orders about. Protagonist is in a sense ironically named, because until the end of the play, he performs no action by his own motivation. Director's orders, as he "fine tunes" his production, serve at first increasingly to expose Protagonist to the theatre lights and reveal him to the audience. He has Assistant remove Protagonists's black dressing gown and hat, uncovering his pyjamas that are the colour of "ash"; then he has her make notes to "whiten" his "cranium," hands, and the rest of his "flesh." Finally, he calls to an offstage technician named Luke to reduce the scope of the theatre lighting in stages, so that the performance for which they are rehearsing will end with Protagonist's body having become invisible, while his bowed head will remain floating in darkness, lit by a spotlight.

The transition from black to white and the focusing of the theatre lights bespeak the significance Beckett places upon the gaze. These not only convey the impression of an intensifying gaze that brings Protagonist into an increasingly individualized existence, like the "actors" in Foucault's panopticon, but they also enable the process as a reality in the theatre. We are Director's intended audience and we share the gaze that discerns Protagonist - that draws him out of the darkness and inscribes him, shivering and impotent, into consciousness. It is sometimes pointed out that Beckett's work conforms to what he once said of James Joyce's: it is not about something, but rather, "it is that something itself" ("Dante..." 14). In Catastrophe's transformation of the theatre metaphor, in its critique of the myth of God, the audience members take on the role of the gaze of surveillance that assaults and shapes the image of Protagonist. The gaze does not ensue from them so much as they occupy a place within it - inside the space that Beckett has set aside for the representation of the gaze in the context of his play. Thus we observe a distinctly Foucauldian approach to the paradox of the human subject, particularly in Beckett's characteristic demonstration that crucial humanistic elements are artifices.

The gaze is an integral factor in much of Beckett's later drama, including his Film (1963) and television dramas, which are, of course, highly visual forms. The prototype for his dramatic use of the gaze was the "play" Breath (1969), only thirty-five seconds long, that Beckett sent to Kenneth Tynan on a postcard, as his contribution to Oh! Calcutta!. In Breath, the stage lights intensify at the same time as the sound of an inhalation; there is a pause before the exhalation is heard, synchronized with the dimming of the lights; all we see on the stage is some rubbish. The representation of the breath-pulse of consciousness starts and ends with the recorded sound of a "faint, brief cry," reminiscent of Pozzo's comment in Waiting for Godot: "They give birth astride of a grave. The light gleams an instant, then it's night once more" (Waiting for Godot 89).

Beckett's vision of human existence confined in a perpetual moment, no more living than not, has a philosophical affinity with Foucault's project to write a "history of the present" (Discipline and Punish 31), to his radical view of historical time, and as well, to the profound logical problem that Foucault takes on when he attempts to write a critique of power from a position that, it may be argued, is located within power's regime. How may he unveil power using power's own discourse, when any statement thus made could serve only to extend its domain? For Foucault, knowledge-discourse is immediately power. Many years ago, Beckett announced an equivalent aesthetic problem and the same sense of impotence, when he spoke of an art that might turn from the "dreary road" of tradition, toward the "expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express." ("Tal Coat" 139). We may observe once again in Breath, as in Catastrophe, an assault upon the humanistic notion of the subject, as collectively we inhabit and perform our function within a purely mechanical representation of a moment of subjective human consciousness.

We should note, however, that what I have referred to as Beckett's dramatization of certain ideas, is not limited to his work for theatre. His prose has developed, along equally minimalist lines and in opposition to traditional modes of logic and grammar, toward a form of writing that involves the reading subject in the dramatic enactment of a deconstructing subjective identity. Beckett conditions the reader to depart from conventional frameworks, as though in an irrational attempt to pursue an ever receding significance. He describes impossible "inner landscapes," where no sooner is a feature proposed by one voice than it is refuted by another: "At the inexistent centre of a formless place" (Ill Seen Ill Said 9); "A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded" (Worstward Ho 11). Or where our subjective gaze, our mind's eye, will suddenly, like an absurd surrealist eyeball, fall into the image it is trying to discern or produce: "The eye breathes again but not for long. For slowly it emerges again. Rises from the floor and slowly up to lose itself in the gloom" (Ill Seen Ill Said 22), with an effect recalling Magritte and Redon. (Caws's The Eye in the Text, while overlooking Beckett, presents an intriguing analysis of such reflexive figures of perception.) Beckett adopts unconventional modes of metaphor and grammar so as to elude the reality of subject and object that narrative and grammatical conventions themselves imply.

Beckett uses the processes of writing to simulate the production of the subjective identity and the world it represents to itself. He develops the convention of the omniscient third person narrator to extremes where it collapses upon itself in absurdity. In his novel The Lost Ones for instance, the narrator describes a sealed subterranean cylinder, occupied by a society of individuals whose existences are constituted and governed by (Breath-like) rhythmical patterns of light and darkness, and complex rituals of movement, which are determined, in turn, by the geometry of the cylinder. The narrator is like God, inasmuch as the rules and realities exist before his gaze and as he articulates or dictates them. The more complex and precise his definitions become, the more his dictated order threatens to break down into chaos and impossibility. Undermining his attempt to describe the scrupulous logic of the cylinder's reality, is the implication that his language must refer to beyond the cylinder - that he himself must exist, illogically, both inside and outside its finite reality. Thus his persona cannot be maintained according to the terms he himself sets, and he is unmasked as one contrivance of an inhuman intention toward total control of an infinitely expanding system. Incidentally, Foucault writes of the importance of geometry to the production of the individual and society (see for instance Discipline and Punish 163, 316 n. 12). Beckett's adherence to the idea is striking in The Lost Ones, as in the prose works All Strange Away (1976) and Imagination Dead Imagine (1966), where an equally impossible omniscient narrator uses geometry to determine the form of the human body:

No way in, go in, measure. Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into two semicircles ACB BDA. Lying on the ground two white bodies, each in its semicircle.

Still on the ground, bent in three, the head against the wall at B, the arse against the wall at A, the knees against the wall between B and C, the feet against the wall between C and A, that is to say inscribed in the semicircle ACB . . . (Imagination Dead Imagine 35, 37)

A startling comparison is to be made with Foucault on official surveillance of a plague-stricken town at the end of the seventeenth century:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead - all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. (Discipline and Punish 197)

Confession is a further prominent thematic affinity. Foucault argues that in rituals of torture and execution the application of pain was precisely geared to the production of truth; the victim's confession under torture served to validate the written findings of the secret investigations by which he had been accused (Discipline and Punish 38; and see Dreyfus 145-6). In Foucault's History of Sexuality the theme is crucial: he proposes the Christian confessional as a model for the later "explosion" in talk about sex. Sex comes to be regarded as the repressed inner truth of the individual; however, the ensuing process of self-articulation, through self-examination, questioning and analysis, is really a means by which power further refines its enmeshment of the mind and body, as it pursues and produces the subject at ever deepening levels, within ever shrinking spaces on the table of human knowledge.

Beckett's characters are almost invariably obsessed with producing themselves through the discourse they utter. In some works the theme of confession is emphatic. In the play Not I (1972), the main character, Mouth, is a woman's mouth, isolated in a small light, with the rest of the actress's body hidden in darkness; the only other character is a hooded, priest-like Auditor, who listens in silence. Mouth's monologue - her existence - gushes forth, a stream of impressions and recollections, with repeated allusions to sin, God, punishment and guilt. She likens her discourse to excreta (". . . nearest lavatory . . . start pouring it out . . ."): it is at essence and origin a tainted organic flow. From a religious viewpoint, she seems to have fallen into a purgatorial state as a result of some forgotten or ill defined sin that it will take eternity to articulate. However, the context of Beckett's theatre suggests an ironic interpretation of the purgatorial scenario, as an allegory for an immediate state of existence, that coexists beneath, behind or prior to the illusion of conscious identity. Our gaze pierces into a primal dimension, where it "torment[s]" into existence her human essence of confessional discourse.

We can trace Beckett's and Foucault's affinity from their application of similar specific ideas and images to general philosophical and aesthetic stances - there are many more specific instances than I am able to deal with here. We are led to acknowledge an interplay between the oeuvres that not only contributes significance to both, but which appears to open the way to a general critical perspective. We should not consider that, as a philosopher-historian, Foucault speaks in a more authoritative voice about something we should perceive as "reality," for it would appear that Beckett has helped inform that reality to an indeterminate extent; as we have seen, Foucault is well acquainted with Beckett's pattern of thought (to say the least; but how could we ever affirm or deny that the reverse were not equally true?) Rather than consider traditional terms of influence, it is more fruitful to think of their writings as converging independently within the sphere of a "more real" reality than we are used to have represented to us: in philosophy, or in art or literature, or through the manifold systems through which we produce our workaday world - and have it produced for us. Foucault's writing can be described as "fiction" to the extent to which it is accepted that the interpretative institutions to which he refers are founded on power's lies and illusions. Reciprocally, Beckett's ostensible "fictions" for the stage and page evade conventional genres of illusory representation, and focus themselves reflexively upon the processes of production and reception as they occur within the reality of the present moment.

It is perhaps true that a Foucauldian perspective tends to "politicize" Beckett, by subtly re-shading understated elements that are implicitly political anyway. Beckett's shadowy wraiths, cringing from the light of consciousness may merely be interpreted as the expression of an aberrant existential angst. Who is to say that the light is not a "natural" and "normal" mode of existence, rather than an insidious, disembodied gaze of discourse-power? Hence, the oeuvre is considered by some to recede into apathy: as in the opening words from Waiting for Godot, there is simply "Nothing to be done." We must bear in mind, however, a familiar charge against the political Foucault's "inability to ground the resistance to power which [he claims] to articulate" (Callinicos 6).

Foucault's response is that, "from the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art" (qtd. in Dreyfus and Rabinow 237). Similarly, Beckett's act of writing, which is at once an act of self-creation, implies a site of resistance against whatever it is that imposes the failure and impotence to which he habitually refers. The act of resistance needs to be an act of assertion that is not an act of power; hence, for instance, Beckett's writing speaks only ever of its own failure, avoiding claims of truth and emancipation. Leo Bursani and Ulysse Dutiot write of "something exhilarating in the idea of a joyful self-dismissal giving birth to a new kind of power" (9); while Foucault proposes an attitude of "hyperactive pessimism" (qtd. in Dreyfus and Rabinow 264). The act of resistance is a free and aesthetic act which aims to produce an alternative form of subjectivity; but it is an unverifiable possibility - as unknowable as death. In Catastrophe - which is perhaps Beckett's most overtly political play, dedicated as it was to the then politically imprisoned Vaclav Havel - Protagonist performs such an act when, contravening the Director's explicit order, he raises his head and opens his eyes to meet the gaze streaming at him from the dark, immediately halting the recorded audience applause (which had occurred right on Director's schedule). It is an aesthetic act in contravention to the established order; but to speak of an "heroic" act would be to pervert the image into a grotesque cliché in Beckettian terms, something tantamount to the "inspirational" figures of socialist realism. Beckett rescues the image from the type of meaning that could be so used as an instrument of power, and Protagonist's gaze fades into the dark, a mute gesture in the void.

Works Cited

  • Beckett, Samuel.
    • All Strange Away. London: John Calder, 1979.
    • Breath. 1969. Collected Shorter Plays 209-211.
    • Catastrophe. 1984. Collected Shorter Plays 295-301.
    • "Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce." Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress. London: Faber and Faber, 1929. 3-22.
    • Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. Ed. Ruby Cohn. London: John Calder, 1983.
    • Film. 1967. Collected Shorter Plays 161-174.
    • How It Is. London: John Calder, 1964.
    • Ill Seen Ill Said. New York: Grove Press, 1981.
    • Play. 1962-3. Collected Shorter Plays 145-160.
    • Six Residua. London: John Calder, 1978.
    • "Tal Coat." 1949. Disjecta 138-39.
    • The Lost Ones. 1972. Six Residua 53-79.
    • To Israel Shenker, 'Moody Man of Letters,' New York Times, May 6, 1956. McMillan and Fehsenfeld 14.
    • Waiting for Godot. 1956. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
    • What Where. 1983. Collected Shorter Plays. 307-316.
    • Worstward Ho. London: John Calder, 1983.
  • Bersani, Leo and Dutoit, Ulysse. Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
  • Callinicos, Alex. Against Postmodernism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.
  • Caws, May Ann. The Eye in the Text: Essays on Perception, Mannerist to Modern+. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1981.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley et. al. 1973; Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1983. Foucault wrote the preface.
  • Dreyfus, Herbert L. and Rabinow, Paul. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.
  • Eco, Umberto. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.
  • Foucault, Michel.
    • Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
    • The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction, Trans. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
    • The Order of Things. No trans. New York: Vintage, 1973.
    • "What is an Author?" 1969. Harari 141-160.
  • Garner, Stanton B. Bodied Spaces: Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.
  • Harari, Josué V., ed. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. London: Methuen, 1979.
  • Hoy, David Couzens, ed., Foucault: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
  • McMillan, Dougald and Fehsenfeld, Martha. Beckett in the Theatre. London: John Calder, 1988.
  • McMullan, Anna. Theatre on Trial: Samuel Beckett's Later Drama. New York: Routledge, 1993.