Guillaume Bailliart in an earlier performance of The Disorder of Discourse (all images © Marc Domage, courtesy French Institute Alliance Française)

This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Into our postmodern milieu, where “theory” is often blamed for undermining our notions of truth, fact, and objectivity, comes The Disorder of Discourse, an odd, esoteric piece of theater that isn’t exactly interested in saving those ideas. What the show does do, if nothing else, is remind us of the influence of Michel Foucault and how the French philosopher and historian did more than anyone to link the exercise of power with the use of language. This experimental effort — one of many events in French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival — ran two nights in mid-September at Cooper Union.

A one-man show, starring Guillaume Bailliart and staged in French, Disorder dramatizes an unrecorded but notable event in 20th century philosophy: Foucault’s delivering “The Order of Discourse” at the Collège de France, his inaugural lecture there, on December 2, 1970, in which he gives his longstanding focus on discourse a political spin by looking at the institutions that control it (or so the indispensable Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy informs me).

Foucault opens by speaking of discourse as if it were a wild animal or a force of nature: “(I)n every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality.”

The Disorder of Discourse

Societies, Foucault argues, draw a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate discourse — deciding what is and isn’t truth, what can and can’t be said, who may and may not speak, whose word should be heeded and whose ignored, who deserves a platform and who a padded cell — and by this means recapitulate the society’s power structure.

Disorder, over the course of an hour, endeavored to recast this speech anew “within the context of contemporary American politics” according to the show’s press materials — in other words, amid the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine journalists, scientists, academics and other professional truth-seekers as a means of consolidating power.

This boldly minimalist production, directed by Fanny de Chaillé, featured little more than a table, a chair, a microphone, and an actor in a white turtleneck and gray blazer who didn’t so much imitate Foucault as depict a man possessed by his own message — as though the words themselves, established at the outset as instruments of power, have come to wield power over him.

Bailliart gave a restless performance, behaving in ways I can only assume Foucault, quirky fellow though he was, probably never did: standing on his chair, reclining and standing on the table (unhelpfully blocking the English subtitles), gazing at his hand as though tripping balls, rhythmically tapping his foot and rapping his chest as the words fly out of him. At one point, he dons a bald cap and glasses, looking for a moment like the bespectacled icon with the polished pate himself. And throughout, Foucault’s often maddeningly abstruse prose functions as a plaything for a skilled actor to mouth with flourish and flair.

Bailliart is neither silly nor solemn in the role but somehow straddles these tones — rather like the “madman” Foucault introduces in “The Order of Discourse” whose speech is either dismissed by society as “null and void,” or else thought to reveal truths so urgent and clear and burn so bright that the masses cannot look directly at them. As it happens, the only time this character would be listened to, Foucault says, is “in the theater,” and only then because “he played the role of truth in a mask.”

Because the show’s premise is simple and single-minded — a semi-stylized rendering of this moment in Western thought — it’s hard to know by what standards The Disorder of Discourse could be said to succeed or fail. The project hangs on Foucault’s language and Bailliart as its delivery device.

The Disorder of Discourse

The speech is what it is: a dense and difficult tract that doesn’t work as drama but as a stimulus for reflection. As a performer, Bailliart impressed me with his intensity, charisma, and memorization skills. (He did stumble briefly on the night I saw him, but, then, Foucault is nothing if not a mouthful.) Together, they add up to a decidedly peculiar entertainment that I admired more than enjoyed.

For decades, Foucault, who died in 1984, was an all but inescapable presence in academia. When the millennium turned, he was “the author most frequently cited in the humanities in general,” according to the Internet Encyclopedia. “The Order of Discourse” grew out of the social and political turbulence Foucault witnessed in France in the late 1960s — a time when the U.S. also experienced an ideological polarization not unlike it has today. It is a text for times of upheaval, when madmen seem to be found on stages everywhere while power and truth hang in the balance.

Courtney Geraghty, Crossing the Line’s new artistic director, told me in an interview that when she attended plays in Paris as a high school student, she came to see the stage as a place that “could never get old and could never get antiquated.” Artists, she said, could always explore old texts in a contemporary light, “the way people are constantly revisiting Shakespeares and Molieres.”

The Disorder of Discourse shows that, however much the theatrical stage is a medium for aesthetic play and emotional power, it is also one of political power. It could be called Foucault: Revisited.

The Disorder of Discourse ran at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan, New York, September 17-18, 2019.

Erick Bengel is a student in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.