“Mon Corps, Topie Impitoyable.” With these words, Michel Foucault starts his radio-lecture for France-Culture, The Utopian Body in 1966 (English translation transcript and French original radio version below). Those four words have been translated in English by “My body, pitiless place” but it does not commute its meaningful vibrancy when pronounced verbally. Without understanding French, you can still probably fathom the inexorable characteristics of the topos (place in greek) associated to its verbal inverse, pito of impitoyable.
This key sentence is revealing the difficulty of the text despite its accessible style. Through it, Foucault establishes a dialectical strategy to introduce the relationship between the body and utopias. His first argument for which utopias have been created to escape from this topie impitoyable is only enunciated in order to be denied later by his real thesis. The latter places the body as “the point zero of the world”, the center of each perception and by extension, the center of every utopia:
The body is as the heart of the world, this small utopian kernel from which I dream, I speak, I proceed, I imagine, I percieve things in their place, and I negate them also by the indefinite power of the utopias I imagine. My body is like the City of the Sun. It has no place, but it is from it that all possible places, real or utopian, emerge and radiate.
The ambiguity that Foucault regularly maintains between a phenomenological and a material interpretation of the world has been confusing many people, and that is why I consider this text as difficult. This ambiguity can probably be attributed to his continuous will to be considered as an historian, or rather a cartographer than a philosopher. His book, Discipline and Punish introduces a history shift between a society that was subjectivizing its members by considering them through their bodies -especially in the policies of punishment- and a society whose discipline was acquired through less material processes centered on the construction of a behavioral norm.
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Foucault denies the body’s physicality in such a way. I might attribute this confusion to my poor understanding of the text, however, he himself finishes his lecture by returning to the topie impitoyable through a very short paragraph about the act of making love as an appeasement of utopia. “Under the other’s fingers running over you, all the invisible parts of your body begin to exist.” The body is then activated and sensitive to its place, it fully experiences the inexorability of its presence here and nowhere else. Topie is therefore indeed impitoyable, but rather than attempting to ignore it, we should rather embrace it. Making love makes our body fully exist here, but so does pain. I have in mind the chapter/scene of Fight Club in which the main character has to surrender to an acid burn, fully experiencing pain in order to fathom the inexorability of his death and through it, the full intensity of life. We are not a soul within a body. We are a body and that is why we cannot think of a utopian body, i.e. a body with no place.
The following documents are the English translation of Foucault’s text by Lucia Allais in a book entitled Sensorium edited by Caroline A. Jones, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.