Geoff Shullenberger,The Violence of Institutions, or Girard avec Foucault, Outsider Theory, June 2, 2021
René Girard and Michel Foucault, two of the most ambitious interdisciplinary thinkers of the twentieth century, shared an abiding interest in the violence embedded in institutions, but their names are rarely mentioned together. My modest goal here is to outline a few intellectual convergences between them and to consider what we might learn from this theoretical encounter, with a view to developing a more extensive comparison of their bodies of work.
To begin, a few biographical observations. They were born three years apart (Girard in 1923, Foucault in 1926) in mid-sized provincial French cities known for their medieval architecture (Avignon and Poitiers, respectively). Their intellectual trajectories were parallel at several key points. Girard’s breakthrough book, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, appeared in France in the same year (1961) as Foucault’s: Folie et déraison. Both were published in English, to considerable acclaim, in 1965 and 1964, respectively. The next decade, the first volume of Foucault’s most ambitious work, The History of Sexuality, appeared in 1976, two years before Girard’s magnum opus, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. By the early 1980s, they were teaching on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay, at Stanford and Berkeley; though Girard, unlike Foucault, had spent nearly his entire career in US academia.