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The Art of Life: Foucaults Reading of Baudelaires The Painter of Modern Life

Corey McCall
Elmira College
Abstract: Michel Foucaults readers have long wondered at the curious pairing of Kant and
Baudelaire in Foucaults 1984 essay What is Enlightenment? Through a reading of Foucaults
essay, I examine the relationship between Foucault and Baudelaire centered on the conception of
life. This essay presents a retrospective reading of Foucaults debt to Baudelaire in order to
examine the relationship between the concepts of life, death, and art in Foucaults texts. I
discover three senses of the term life at work in Foucaults writings, and examine how these
various conceptions of life operate in Charles Baudelaires The Painter of Modern Life.

In his essay What is Enlightenment? Foucault incongruously pairs the decadent Parisian poet
Charles Baudelaire with the austere Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. He claims that the
relationship between the two authors can be found in the value each accords the present. Each
writer claims, in his own style, that we must render our own individual existence meaningful by
cultivating what Foucault calls in this essay, citing ancient Greek sources, a philosophical ethos.
This conception of the philosophical ethos of self-cultivation forms the conceptual basis of
Foucaults later work, and has been much remarked upon by commentators. I briefly gloss
Foucaults remarks in this essay in order to begin to reconsider this concept through a reading of
Baudelaires essay in art criticism, The Painter of Modern Life. This essay begins with a
consideration of Baudelaires essay first from a Foucauldian perspective, and proceeds by
reading certain concepts from this essay (and Baudelaires concept of life in particular) back onto
Foucaults work. Although the idea for this paper grew out of speculations about precisely what
might have led Foucault to pair Kant with Baudelaire, in the end, such biographical speculation
should be of little or no philosophical concern for Foucaults readers. Rather than presenting
biographical speculations, I examine the philosophical relevance of the relationship between the
concepts of art (in the context of Foucaults concept of an aesthetics of existence) and life and its
relationship with death (with special attention paid to Foucaults Introduction to Georges
Canguilhems Normal and the Pathological and the Conclusion to The Birth of the Clinic). To
that end, I distinguish three senses of the concept of life present in Foucaults texts. The first is
the idea of life as that material which we inform with meaning (life considered under the rubric
of the aesthetics of existence),secondly life as something utterly mundane that must either be

acknowledged or rendered routine (in Discipline and Punish, for example), and finally life
understood in its biological sense. I consider the first two senses of the term in the first section
and begin to consider the third sense of life in the final section.

1. Art, Ethics and Politics: Modernity and Identity in Kant and Baudelaire
The fact that Foucault turned to the question concerning the role of the Enlightenment in
European modernity and endorsed a version of it himself has long been a source of some
consternation among both Foucault scholars and Foucault critics. 1 While one can sympathize
with this sort of response on the part of Foucaults readers, one cannot endorse it. Foucaults
approval for the Enlightenment and Kants project in particular makes sense against the
backdrop of the concerns Foucault was investigating in his other writings at the same time.
Foucault summarizes these concerns under the rubric of aesthetics of existence, or, as he puts it
in What is Enlightenment?, philosophical ethos. Rather than construing modernity in strictly
temporal terms, Foucault construes it as a question of style, i.e. aesthetically. 2
My question in this paper, at least at the outset, is what role Baudelaires essay The
Painter of Modern Life played in Foucaults formulation of this idea. I will be focusing in this
section on this short essay from 1984, but I relate the concerns of this essay to several of
Foucaults texts at the conclusion of this paper in order to begin to investigate the conceptual
resonances between Foucaults treatment of Baudelaires essay and ideas related to the aesthetics
of existence animating Foucaults thought.
As is well known, Foucault turns to Baudelaires essay The Painter of Modern Life in
order to provide an example of a philosophical ethos. In order to articulate a philosophical ethos,
one must attempt to define oneself. In Kant and Baudelaire, the term modernity comes to be
understood as an ethical task of self-articulation, rather than as a temporal marker. Foucault
argues that it is the project of self-definition rather than a particular period in history that
primarily characterizes modernity. This modern task of self-definition plays an ambivalent role
in Foucaults thought, for this attempt to define oneself as a modern autonomous subject is an
ideal that Foucault sees as increasingly difficult, or at least increasingly rare, during the modern
period. 3 Self-cultivation is both the essential feature of modernity and the difficult ideal which it
presents to those wishing to become absolutely modern. 4 It is in the ambivalence of this ideal

of modernity as an individual task and the essence of modernity that Foucault turns first to Kant
and then to Baudelaire. 5
Foucault reads Kants What is Enlightenment? in terms of this ideal. Kants call in this
essay amounts to a negative appeal, and herein lies its novelty for Foucault. Kant defines
Enlightenment modernity in terms of an escape or Ausgang from the present: he seeks the
difference that today makes with regard to yesterday. 6 The present is absolutely distinguished
from what has come before, and this is the novelty of Kants conception of the process of
Enlightenment in this short essay. 7
One other aspect of Kants original essay merits further comment: the Kantian concept of
Enlightenment as Ausgang has both ethical and political consequences, for it bears on both
individual and collective action. The individual and political dimensions of Enlightenment do
not correspond to the distinction between the private and public use of reason that Kant
elaborates in this essay however. In other words, the private use of reason, as Kant points out at
the conclusion of his essay, renders individuals both submissive to external political authority
and identifiable in terms of strictly definable social roles. Man, Kant says, makes a private use
of reason when he is a cog in a machine, that is, when he has a role to play in society and jobs
to do: to be a soldier, to have taxes to pay, to be in charge of a parish, to be a civil servant, all
this makes the human being a particular segment of society; he finds himself thereby placed in a
circumscribed position, where he has to apply particular rules and pursue particular ends
(Ethics, 307). The public use of reason, like its private employment, has both an ethical and a
political significance, for it affects the individuals attempt to elaborate herself as an ethical
subject and attempts at collective action. As Foucault writes, Enlightenment must be
considered as a process in which men participate collectively and as an act of courage to be
accomplished personally (Ethics, 307).
But how do these two features of Enlightenment that Kant elaborates relate to
Baudelaires concerns in The Painter of Modern Life? The significance of Kants essay lies in
its definition of the present in terms of an exit or escape, one with both ethical and political
dimensions. As a preliminary step, I wish to show how these two aspects function in Foucaults
analysis of Baudelaire, before turning to the themes of art and life (first in Baudelaires short
essay and then in Foucaults work) subsequently.

Foucault utilizes Baudelaire in this essay to help him make sense of the voluntarism
implicit in his elaboration of Kants conception of Enlightenment as escape and, more
importantly, to flesh out the conception of modernity that this stylistics of existence presupposes.
As Foucault notes, for Baudelaire, the attitude of modernity means taking a stand with respect to
the novelty and break with tradition that this modern attitude requires. Rebellion for its own
sake is simply insufficient for the attitude of modernity. Hence, Kants Aufklrung understood
merely as escape is a necessary condition for this modern attitude, but is itself insufficient, as is
fashion (and for similar reasons):
Modernity is distinct from fashion, which does no more than call into question the course
of time; modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the heroic aspect of the
present moment. Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting present; it
is the will to heroize the present (Ethics, 310).
In these modern fashions themselves and through various depictions by contemporary artists, the
ideal and the fleeting come together. The painters uniquely modern task, according to
Baudelaire, is to grant the stability of meaning to that which is by its nature most transient and
circumstantial, i.e. fashion. According to Baudelaire,
Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively
difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like,
whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without
this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing
on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or
appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature. I defy anyone to point to a
single scrap of beauty which does not contain these two elements. 8
Baudelaire provides two examples that mark the boundaries of transient and intransient beauty.
In both paintings of religious subjects prior to the modern period and the most frivolous work of
a sophisticated artist belonging to one of those ages which, in our vanity, we characterize as
civilized one can see the duality embodied (PML, 3). The former emphasizes the eternal and
unchanging, while the modern artist emphasizes the fleeting contingency of the circumstantial.
Furthermore, this artistic duality remains constant because it represents the more fundamental
duality of man as embodied soul (PML, 3). This philosophical prelude already shows the reader

that it will be impossible to discuss art without discussing the individual who makes the art,
understood as that individual who defines herself in terms of this creation.
Initially it seems that this treatment of beauty in its dual aspect might undermine
Foucaults analysis, in which the artists task is simply to heroize the present in order to make
sense of it and thereby provide her own existence with meaning. Ultimately, this talk of beauty,
this philosophical prelude, that begins Baudelaires essay complicates Foucaults treatment of
Baudelaire, but it does not necessarily undermine it. Rather, it is a question of focus, for
Foucault focuses less on the philosophical reflection on the nature of beauty that structures
Baudelaires essay and more on the question of the individual whose task it is to express this
beauty. Foucault emphasizes that the question concerns the relationship between freedom and
reality: what is given and what one does to transform the given into something radically new:
For the attitude of modernity, the high value placed of the present is indissociable from
a desperate eagerness to imagine it otherwise than it is and transform it not by destroying
it but by grasping it in what it is. Baudelairean modernity is an exercise in which extreme
attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously
respects this reality and violates it (Ethics 311).
In his essay, Foucault focuses on the individuals attempt to stylize her existence and utilize
artistic means to do so. Indeed, Foucault claims that this heroization of the present is
necessarily ironic, for otherwise it would be nothing more than a nostalgic attempt to recover a
lost unity or, as Foucault points out, a futile attempt to preserve a fleeting moment and render it
little more than a curiosity. The attitude of modernity does not treat the passing moment as
sacred in order to try to maintain or perpetuate it. It certainly does not involve harvesting it as a
fleeting and interesting curiosity (Ethics, 311). This would reduce the modern artist to little
more than a collector of experience, a flaneur, that idle, strolling spectator who is content to
capture memories and experience as specimens for study (Ethics, 311). There is an essential
difference between the flaneur understood as a mere collector of experience and the true artist,
the painter of modern life. This is not the only pertinent contrast at play in Baudelaires essay,
however, for the true painter of modern life must be contrasted with both the artist and the
dandy. Baudelaire introduces these oppositions and, as I shall show, more fundamental ones in
the all-important third section of his essay entitled The Artist, the Man of the World, Man of the
Crowd, and Child.

Most artists according to Baudelaire are little more than technicians. They spend time in
their studios working, that is, engaging in the patient labor that might yield a masterpiece, but
this work is essentially a private affair. Furthermore, this labor is ultimately a waste of time,
because this labor lacks the essential lan of genius, for the run of the mill artist lacks the
cosmopolitan dimension of Guys, a consummate man of the world:
When at last I ran him to earth, I saw at once that it was not precisely an artist but rather
a man of the world with whom I had to do. I ask you to understand the word artist in a
very restricted sense and man of the world in a very broad one. By the second I mean a
man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and lawful
reasons for all its uses; by the first, a specialist, a man wedded to his palette like the serf
to the soil (PML, 7).
Much more than a mere artist, Guys is fascinated by the whole world, and seeks to understand it
in all its maddening diversity. Guys art transcends mere artistic limits because his interests are
both moral and political. Baudelaire continues,
Monsieur G. does not like to be called an artist. Is he not perhaps a little right? His
interest is the whole world; he wants to know, understand, and appreciate everything that
happens on the surface of our globe. The artist lives very little, if at all, in the world of
morals and politics (PML, 7).
So, there is an ethical obligation entailed in Guys understanding of what it means to be a
The dandy compares unfavorably with the painter of modern life, for the dandy
ultimately aspires to insensitivity: the attitude of the dandy is a thoroughly anesthetic one:
I have told you that I was reluctant to describe him as an artist pure and simple, and
indeed that he declined this title touched with an aristocratic reserve. I might perhaps call
him a dandy, and I should have several good reasons for that; for the word dandy
implies a quintessence of character and a subtle understanding off the entire moral
mechanism of this world, however, the dandy aspires to insensitivity, and it is in this that
Monsieur G., dominated as he is by an insatiable passionfor seeing and feelingparts
company decisively with dandyism (PML, 9).

The dandy is blas and indifferent toward existence and her essential Stoicism makes it
impossible to identify Guys with this attitude of disengagement. Although his moral bearing is
somewhat similar to dandyism, the dandys indifference prevents an easy identification.
Indeed, the entire discussion in this section demonstrates the difficulty inherent in
attempting to identify Guys in terms of pre-established categories. Neither strictly artist nor
dandy, Baudelaire next suggests that his character is somewhat similar to that of the philosopher,
but his fascination with the unclassifiable singularities of existence comes at the expense of
universal categories, thus precluding this identification. 9 Guys modesty, which Baudelaire
respects by addressing him as Monsieur G. throughout the essay, is related to attempts to classify
him. One suspects that Baudelaires difficulties stem from the fact that Guys the not-quite artist,
not-quite moralist remains, like all geniuses, singularly immune from the mania for classification
so beloved by critics and philosophers alike. Indeed, Foucault is correct to point out the manifest
ironies inherent in the attempt to define oneself vis--vis the present, let alone Baudelaires
unsuccessful attempt to critically assess another individuals relationship to the present and
thereby identify him in relation to his time.
Although we may not be much closer to defining who precisely Guys is, we can begin to
see why Foucault draws on Baudelaire in order to make sense of Kants original essay. Through
his art, Guys enacts the public use of reason and demonstrates the inadequacy of private artistic
technique. Furthermore, Guys fiercely guarded anonymity and his ability to defy classification
provide a concrete example of what Foucault might have meant when he described Kants
conception of Enlightenment in this essay as a form of exit or Ausgang. Additionally,
Baudelaires stress on Guys anonymity reminds one of Foucaults reticence with regard to his
own identity as well, as exemplified in texts such as the well-known concluding remarks of the
Introduction to The Archaelogy of Knowledge and elsewhere. 10
However, this raises a potential difficulty: if the aim of Enlightenment (or at least one of
its primary aims) is the refusal of identity (Kantian Enlightenment understood as an Ausgang or
escape), then what might this art of anonymity, this art of refusing a predetermined identity have
to do with the aesthetics of existence, in which one identifies oneself as an ethical subject?
Initially the two impulses seem to be, if not contradictory, then seriously at odds with one
another. Indeed, Foucault seems to be saying that Kants and Baudelaires writings are helpful
because they exhort us to escape from given identities, or at least to understand the radical

contingency of these identities. On the other hand, Foucault points out that Baudelaires text in
particular demonstrates that there is an essentially ascetic dimension to this attempt to articulate
oneself as a modern subject. To be modern is not to accept oneself as one is in the flux of
passing moments; it is to take oneself as object of a complex and difficult elaboration: what
Baudelaire, in the vocabulary of his day calls dandysme. (Ethics, 311). To be modern is to
invent oneself, not to discover within the recesses of oneself ones true freedom (Ethics, 311).
And here one can find a helpful clue to resolve this apparent dilemma: both Kant and Baudelaire
adamantly oppose the attempt to impose an identity from outside which forces one to speak as in
Kants phrase, a cog in a machine. The difficulty that Baudelaire has in determining Guys
precise identity stems from his manifest originality, an originality or freedom that refuses given
identities in order to speak or create an identity on ones own behalf; this is an enactment that
constitutes ones identity but that cannot be reduced to preexisting categories.

2. Life and Death

This first section provides one possible answer to why Foucault might have paired Baudelaire
with Kant in order to clarify his idea of modernity. In so doing, I hope to have begun to clarify
what Baudelaire means by calling Guys a painter and the significance of this for Foucault. Put
simply, for Baudelaire it is the activity of painting that defines Guys. In this second section, I
would like to take up a different question. If the first section began to explore what it might
mean to call Guys a modern painter (as opposed to a modern artist or dandy or philosopher), in
this second section, I would like to take up the second term from the title of Baudelaires essay
and explore the significance of life, beginning with the Baudelaires treatment of it, and then
turning to a brief consideration of how this idea might be reflected in Foucaults work.
Broadly speaking, we may distinguish three distinct meanings for this term life,
meanings present in both Foucaults work and in Baudelaires essay. First, the term indicates an
ethical task, i.e. something that we attempt to inform with meaning. Of course Foucault finds
this use of the term present in ancient Greek and Roman practices of the self, and he finds
Baudelaire utilizing the term in much the same way in his description of Guys. Secondly, the
term life indicates something beyond or beneath the purview of theoretical scrutiny, that which
goes unnoticed as individuals discover what is truly important. Life in this sense has an utterly
mundane character. Although this sense of the term is less easy to discern in Foucaults work, it

certainly applies to his treatment of the regulation of life and lifes processes in Discipline and
Punish [find examples]. 11 Finally, there is the brute biological and physiological significance of
the term that Foucault made the subject of his earliest studies (Order of Things, Birth of the
Clinic) and to which he returned late in his career with his treatment of biopower, most
obviously in the conclusion to the first volume of the History of Sexuality, Volume 1. While I
have touched on these first two senses of the term with regard to both Foucault and Baudelaire in
the first section of this paper, now I would like to turn to the third, biological sense of the term
life. In addition, I will begin to point out certain connections between this third biological
conception of life and the other two.
Baudelaire turns to Guys sketches of the Crimean war in order to make sense of the
vitality he finds in these works:
I have studied his archives of the Eastern Warbattlefields littered with the debris of
death, baggage trains, shipments of cattle and horses; they are the tableaux vivants of an
astonishing vitality, traced from life itself, uniquely picturesque fragments which many a
renowned painter would in the same circumstances have stupidly overlooked (PML, 19).
In his What is Enlightenment? essay, Foucault discusses the transfiguring element that is so
essential to Guys genius. Citing a passage from Baudelaires essay, Foucault writes
But let us make no mistake. Constantin Guys is not a flaneur. What makes him the
modern painter par excellence in Baudelaires eyes is that just when the whole world is
falling asleep, he begins to work, and he transfigures that world. His transfiguration
entails not an annulling of reality but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real
and the exercise of freedom; natural things become more than natural, beautiful
things become more than beautiful and individual objects appear endowed with an
impulsive life like the soul of their creator (Ethics, 311; Cf. PTL, 11).
But what Foucault neglects to mention is that not only does Guys impart a semblance of life that
is perhaps something more than life to inanimate objects, but he also imparts a semblance of life
to those who were once living but have perished.
On the one hand, this is utterly mundane, for Guys paints things that other artists would
ignore because they find the subjects unworthy of the of their grand artistic vision. The wonder
of Guys art lies not just in how he paints, but in what he paints, and in the fact that he can, due
to the way he sees and how he expresses himself, transfigure mundane subjects and thereby grant

these insignificant subjects an enchantment seemingly precluded by their utter insignificance.

And what could be more insignificant and mundane than a corpse on a battlefield?
But this feat, impressive as it might be, cannot alone account for Guys genius, nor can it
account for his originality. After all, the greatness of Dutch still life and genre painting lies in
the ability of its practitioners to transform the quotidian into something much more significant.
Vermeer for example had the vision and the ability to make something mundane into something
extramundane. An essential aspect of art, at least since the modern separation of art from its
prehistoric and pre-modern origins in ritual, consists in (in Arthur Dantos phrase) the
transfiguration of the commonplace. So this alone cannot account for his genius. Both Foucault
and Baudelaire point out that the greatness of Guys lies in his ability to define himself in term of
his art, i.e. to lose himself in his work or, alternatively, give his life meaning in light of his work.
But what is the significance of the term of modern life in the title of Baudelaires essay?
First, the painter of modern life is the painter who can, through her art, give meaning to
this modern form of existence. For Baudelaire, modernity is another name for contingency itself:
By modernity, I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose
other half is the eternal and immutable. Every old master has had his own modernity; the
great majority of fine portraits that have come down to us from former generations are
clothed in the costume of their own period (PML, 14).
Indeed, the modern corresponds to the transitory aspect of beauty, of which fashion is the
paradigmatic expression: the painter of modern life gives form to the fugitive itself. Whereas
prior ages had employed this modern element in order to lend their art a concreteness it would
otherwise lack, the challenge facing the modern painter is to give meaning to this contingency
that might otherwise go unnoticed, and thereby transform this contingency into something more
meaningful. Rather than looking to the art of the past in order to find his own style, Guys looks
to the life of the present. Most of us for whom nature has no existence save by reference to
utility pay no heed to the utter originality of modern life as it unfolds before our very eyes
(PML, 15). Hence this individual who loses himself in his art gives form to an age and
represents those types of individuals that populate it. Guys marks the physiognomy of an age by
representing the physiognomies that typify it, the outward show of life. Guys paints everyday


Although it is more difficult to discern, there is a natural correlate to this cultural

significance, one that conforms to the third sense of life in Foucaults work. I would like to
briefly outline this natural dimension of life in Baudelaires essay before returning to the sense of
life in Foucaults work.
Recall that Baudelaire began his essay by stating that beauty possesses both variable and
invariable aspects, and this dualism conformed to the natural dualism of the human being
understood as the conjunction of body and soul. Furthermore, Baudelaire repeats the idea that
there is a certain naturalness to Guys art and that he possesses a child-like wonder in the face of
the world, and that his artistic ability could not be achieved unless he were in some sense
naturally gifted: Guys is described, for example, as a natural colorist, and yet he must, through
art, transfigure this natural endowment.
Nature ultimately stands for all that is wicked and depraved in existence for Baudelaire,
while art is a sign of the good. Thus civilization is a transfiguration of the fallenness of
humanity in its natural state:
Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats
on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac that the natural life
accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a
permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation (PML, 33).
Thus fashion has an inescapable moral significance, in that it provides an example of how we
might escape the depravity of nature. For Baudelaire, fashion exhibits the life of a people and
individuals moral struggle to define themselves as something more than simply natural. Fashion
is thus a mark of the human, for it distinguishes human beings from mere animals, which are
simply alive. Human life understood as a moral form of life as exemplified by fashion develops
as a way of escaping from mere life, from the depraved natural existence that Baudelaire claims
is the source of all criminality and licentiousness. 12 Thus we return to the theme of
Enlightenment once again, but seen from a very different perspective.
In his Introduction to Georges Canguilhems The Normal and the Pathological, Foucault
treats this theme of Enlightenment from the point of view of French history of science,
specifically the science of life. As he explains in What is Enlightenment?, Kants essay
marked the point at which philosophy poses the question of the present strictly in terms of the
present, and not subordinated to any other concern past or future. In France, at least, it is the


philosophy of science that carries on this legacy. I am not claiming that Foucault had
Baudelaires essay in mind when writing about French historians of science, but there are
nonetheless similarities to be found between this movement in thought and Baudelaires
treatment of the relationship between art and life:
In the history of the sciences in France, as in German Critical Theory, what is to be
examined, basically, is a reason whose structural autonomy carries the history of
dogmatisms and despotisms along with ita reason, therefore that has a liberating effect
only provided it manages to liberate itself (EW2: 469).
Hence the French historians of science played a structural role similar to that played in German
society by the Aufklrung: to liberate thought from itself.
Foucault begins this essay by pointing to the work of Georges Canguilhem as the key to
making sense of the disparate strands of the French intellectual scene during the 1960s.
Canguilhem provides a point of reference for French Marxists and sociologists as well as
Lacanians of the period. What was distinctive about him as a historian of science is that he
forced the history of science back down from the heights of science understood in terms of
So he brought the history of the sciences down from the heights (mathematics,
astronomy, Galilean mechanics, Newtonian physics, relativity theory) to regions where
the knowledge is much less deductive, where it remained connected, for a much longer
time, to the wonders of the imagination, and where it posed a series of questions that
were much more foreign to philosophical habits (EW2: 470).
In a word, Canguilhem devotes himself to understanding the contingency of life. One might
draw parallels between this concept of the radical precariousness of life and the living beings
need to ceaselessly navigate the threat of disease and eventually succumbing to the inevitability
of death, with certain aspects of Baudelaires treatment of Guys and, indeed, with Foucaults
own treatment of modernity understood as contingency, as the attempt to find meaning where
one might find only oblivion.
Such an exercise might seem very farfetched: what could seem odder than trying to
understand biological functions in terms of art; indeed, what could be stranger than trying to
comprehend art in terms of life and vice versa? Except there are indications that Foucault
thought that art could help us to understand life. Not only does he claim in the passage cited


above that Canguilhems studies of the concept of life were much more imaginative than those of
his colleagues who were studying the more formal, deductive sciences, he associates Baudelaire
with death in at least two places. The first place is in the essay What is Enlightenment? itself,
in which he cites Constantin Guys as the painter best able to depict fashion as symbolic of death:
The modern painter is the one who can show the dark frock-coat as the necessary
costume of our time, the one who knows how to make manifest, in the fashion of the
day, the essential, permanent, obsessive relation that our age entertains with death
Foucault had already noted the relationship between Baudelaire and death some twenty years
prior. In the Birth of the Clinic, Foucault mentions Baudelaire in passing. It is significant that
this mention of Baudelaire explicitly connects the concerns of knowledge with life, which are the
terms that interest him in Canguilhems work. Furthermore, this discussion of the relationship
between knowledge (and by extension language) and death takes place within the context of a
question already posed in the first section: can we ever have precise knowledge of an individual,
and, more specifically, can we ever have precise knowledge of an individual life?
The introduction of death into discourse allows for something which had been disavowed
since Aristotle, the knowledge of the individual. 13 What made this knowledge possible was the
realization that death was not something beyond life and hence utterly distinct from it but rather
intrinsic to life. Foucault points out that this knowledge of the intimate relationship between
death and life became expressed through the art of the nineteenth century:
The nineteenth century will speak obstinately of death: the savage, castrated death of
Goya, the visible, muscular sculptural death offered by Gricault, the voluptuous death
by fire in Delacroix, the Lamartinian death of aquatic effusions, Baudelaires death. To
know life is given only to that derisory, reductive, and already infernal knowledge that
only wishes it dead (BC, 171).
Foucault suggests that for these nineteenth century artists, embracing death becomes a means of
escaping the monotony of life. When it comes to modernity, death and the transitory are never
far away. Indeed, in these concluding passages of The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault suggests that
during this period, death provides the means not just to understand life, but also give ones life
meaning as well:


Now, on the contrary, [death] is constitutive of singularity; it is in that perception of

death that an individual finds himself, escaping from a monotonous, average life; in the
slow, half-subterranean, but already visible approach of death, the dull common life
becomes an individuality at last; a black border separates it and gives it the style of its
own truth (BC, 171).
The concerns of life invariably point us toward death; perhaps, in the end, all arts of existing are
only really ways of confronting death and rendering ones life meaningful in its harsh light.

See the essays in Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate. Ed. Michael Kelly (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1994). See in particular the essays by Bernstein (Foucault: Critique as a Philosophical Ethos),
Habermas (Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present: On Foucaults Lecture on Kants What is Enlightenment), and
Schmidt and Wartenberg (Foucaults Enlightenment: Critique, Revolution, and the Fashioning of the Self), but all
of the contributions reflect this consternation to one degree or another.
Michel Foucault, What is Enlightenment? The Essential Works of Michel Foucaultl 1954-1984-, Volume 1:
Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow (NY: New Press, 1994), 309-310. Hereafter cited as Ethics.
Interestingly, this would put Foucault in the company of thinkers like Rousseau, Hegel, Diderot, Kierkegaard, and
Heidegger that Robert Pippin analyzes in his recent article on the art historian and critic Michael Frieds conception
of artistic (painterly) authenticity as a reflection of the problematic of personal and social authenticity during the
modern period. Perhaps (if Foucault is right), Kant and Baudelaire must be added to the list as well. Indeed, issues
of absorption and theatricality (Frieds terms) abound in Baudelaires text. See Robert Pippin, Authenticity in
Painting: On Michael Frieds Art Criticism, Critical Inquiry 31:3 (2005). See also Michael Fried, Absorption and
Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Vincent Descombes points out the ambiguity of this ideal and criticizes Foucaults philosophical response to the
present (and, indeed, all explicitly philosophical responses to the present) in his book The Barometer of Reason: On
the Philosophies of Current Events. Trans. Stephen Adam Schwartz (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993). Foucault
is not the only philosopher Descombes critiques in this text; indeed, his thesis is that philosophy is fundamentally
unsuited to deal with the vagaries of the present moment, and that making sense of the modern should instead be the
aim of literature. I will confront Descombes specific claims more thoroughly in a subsequent essay.
Putting the matter this way helps to underscore the relationship between Foucaults notion of self-fashioning and
what Stanley Cavell calls moral perfectionism, the idea that one must define oneself and ones society relative to
imagined future that one hopes will be better than today. Indeed, Cavell has recently aligned Foucault with moral
perfectionism along with the likes of Emerson, Nietzsche, and others:
I do not conceive of [moral perfectionism] as an alternative to Kantianism or utilitarianism [] but rather
as emphasizing that aspect of moral choice having to do, as it is sometimes put, with being true to oneself,
or as Michel Foucault has put the view, caring for the self. Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a
Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 11).
Elsewhere in the same text, Cavell summarizes the standpoint of moral perfectionism thusly: Moral perfectionism
challenges ideas of moral motivation, showing (against Kants law that counters inclination and against
utilitarianisms calculation of benefits) the possibility of my access to experience which gives to my desire for the
attaining of a self that is mine to become, the power to act on behalf of an attainable world I can actually desire
(33). Notice that identifying Foucault with moral perfectionism as Cavell understands it does not preclude
alternative understandings of Foucaults ethics, as, for example, a variety of virtue ethics. However, Cavells
suggestion that we understand the care of the self as a sort of moral perfectionism might shed new light on
Foucaults debt to Nietzsche as one not simply based upon Nietzsches conception of genealogy but upon his
conception of ethics as well (provided that Cavell is correct in his assessment of both men as moral perfectionists).
Ethics, 305: Now, the way Kant poses the question of Aufklrung is entirely different: it is neither a world era to
which one belongs, nor an event whose signs are perceived, nor the dawning of an accomplishment. Kant defines
Aufklrung in an almost entirely negative way, as an Ausgang, an exit, a way out.


Foucault points out that this novelty is apparent with respect to Kants other texts concerning the philosophy of
history, which display a teleology absent from this short text.
Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. Jonathan
Mayne (NY: Phaidon, 1964), 3. Hereafter cited as PML.
PML, 7: He is a master of that only too difficult artsensitive spirits will understand meof being sincere witout
being absurd. I would bestow upon him the title of philosopher, to which he has more than one right if his excessive
love of visible, tangible things, condensed to their plastic state, did not arouse in him a certain repugnance for the
things that form the impalpable kingdom of the metaphysician.
What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I
would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparingwith a rather shaky handa labyrinth into which I
can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself,
finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I
will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who
I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in
order. At least spare us their morality when we write, Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and the
Discourse on Language. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (NY: Pantheon Books, 1972), 17.
Baudelaire points out that Guys paints both the death that results from battle and the pomp and circumstance or
life that goes along with being a soldier in nineteenth century Europe:
Once more to attempt at the kinds of subjects preferred by our artists, we would say that it is the outward
show of life, such as it is to be seen in the capitals of the civilized world; the pageantry of military life, of
fashion and of love (PML, 24).
PML, 32
Foucault writes:
The individual is not the initial, most acute form in which life is presented. It was given at last to
knowledge only at the end of a long movement of spatialization whose decisive instruments were a cerain
use of language and a difficult conceptualization of death [] The old Aristotelian law, which prohibited
the application of scientific discourse to the individual, was lifted, when in language, death found the locus
of the concept: space then opened up to the gaze the differentiated form of the individual, Birth of the
Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (NY: Vintage, 1994 [1961]),
170. Hereafter cited as BC.