Kélina Gotman (2018) Foucault, Aufklärung, and the Historical ‘Scene’, Parallax, 24:1, 45-61,
Beginning of article
No philosopher can go without examining his own participation in this us precisely because it is this us which is becoming the object of the philosopher’s own reflection.
Michel Foucault, ‘What Is Revolution?’
What does it take to imagine another world? First, perhaps, to take stock of this one: to view it, as at the theatre, as a scene – not a static, but a vibrant one, embedded in the worrying task of querying (and quarrying) one’s own situation within the scene, one’s always awkwardly vacillating standpoint at the edge, at the centre, in the wings of a scene – the scene of history, the scene within which something like the ‘present’ takes place. In a lecture given at the University of California at Berkeley 12 April, 1983 – weeks after then President of the United States Ronald Reagan first formally used the term ‘evil empire’ to describe the Soviet Union, in a notorious address now widely known as the ‘evil empire’ speech, likened to his quips about Star Wars – Michel Foucault rolled back the clock to ancient Rome.
In particular, Foucault set out a scene drawn from Lucian who, he remarks, ‘presents to us a certain Hermotime, mumbling in the street’. The scene unfolds, and we learn that this Hermotime was off to meet his teacher (or master) (‘maître’), a man named Lycinus, and that these two were engaged in the task of philosophy. What they were doing Foucault then pins to an act – a frame of mind, a stance – articulated some sixteen hundred years later, around 1784, when Immanuel Kant wrote a piece in response to a question posed by the Berlin-based newspaper, the Berlinische Monatsschrift, and to which the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn had also, two months prior, replied. Kant’s text was ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ (‘What Is Enlightenment?’), and while Foucault saw this text as being aligned with a moment in German philosophy defined among others by the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskala, by Mendelssohn, and others, he also saw it as offering not so much a rupture, or novelty, or a departure, but an opening. Where previous attitudes rested on a querying of the present moment in relationship to the past, or offered tentative prognostics for the future, what Kant did so deftly (and radically), Foucault noted, was to ask the very question of contemporaneity. This question had no time for chronology; it did not seek to speculate about whether the present was better or worse than the past; whether the present moment was in decline, or whether the past had been less ‘enlightened’. Rather, in posing the question of Aufklärung, Kant, for Foucault, asked what it meant to be within a present moment and thus to draw a ‘historical ontology of ourselves’.2