Camus and Foucault

I‘ve just finished reading The Rebel by Albert Camus. It is in many ways a masterpiece of equivocation, devoted to finding a mediating principle between diametrically opposed positions. It is far from uncommon for Camus to strike a tentative tone as he writes, "as this double revolt is always contradictory… his reasoning is always … ambiguous." Camus seems uncertain as to whether "values are above history and its (Bourgeois and Jacobin society) formal virtues then lay the foundation of repugnant form of mystification… (whereas communist society) decrees that values are intermingled with the movement of history and that their historic foundations justify a new form of mystification." This is a contradiction that runs throughout the entire book, "revolution… supposes the absolute malleability of man and its possible reduction to the condition of a historic force. But rebellion… is the refusal to be treated as a subject and be reduced to simple historic terms."

This is not merely a question of ambivalence within the subject matter; it is also a matter of ambivalence in the entire thesis of the book, presupposing as it does fundamental changes in the psychology of society throughout history. In this he resembles no-one so much as Foucault. This is somewhat odd company to keep given how critical he is of Marxism; "if there is no human nature then the malleability of man is in fact infinite" writes Camus in condemnation of how the irrational is excluded from Communism. It is difficult to think of anything more opposed to the image of human nature as a footprint in the sand, that Foucault advanced. Camus could well have been thinking of Foucault when he writes "a few thoughtless marxists were rash enough to imagine that they could reconcile their doctrine with that of Freud." This was Foucault’s task in The Order of Things, but to Camus it is a doomed attempt to subject the unconscious to a historic ego, without which communism can never be complete.

However, as with Foucault, it is easy to be left feeling uneasy at the amount of generalisation contained within the thesis propounded by the book, as it traces a linear curve from a literature of social assent to one of dissent. For example, Camus says of Hegel that "he himself gave birth to another type of nihilist… it was at this point." Yet he also postulates that "if.. there had not existed, from the beginning of time, two kinds of consciousness." Camus flits between immutable and historicised models of consciousness, noting changes to historical consciousness while criticising Hegel, Marx and Nietzche for their own attempts to do so, by noting that both of them had substituted the idea of progress for the divine will; "the rebel whom Nietzche set on his knees before the cosmos will, from now on, kneel before history."

I’ve also just finished reading a collection of the writings of Thomas Carlyle, an experience that I cannot claim to have been anything other than unpleasant. His piece on modern prisons, where he speaks of prisoners being kept in better conditions than princes, is uncomfortably close to something from the Daily Mail. Much of the disquieting sensation comes from his prose, which, unlike that of Arnold (to take but one example) does not hold rational persuasion and debate as its main goal – Carlyle even denounces the precision that French has brought into the language. As Carlyle regards democracy with contempt persuasion has no particular value for him, and a such the appeal of his prose is much more visceral; to sensation. The concern with such a position is clear, with it being in many ways an appeal to demagoguery, as is demonstrable by Hitler’s reading of Carlyle (one does wish to avoid recourse to Godwin’s law at points such as these, but it nonetheless seems to me that the Nazi connection is much more close for Carlyle than it was for Nietzche), wherein Carlyle’s lauding of Frederick the Great closely mirrors Hitler’s moulding of himself in Frederick’s image.