The Foucault Effect 1991-2011 – Discussant Comments

Even though there was an audio recording, I decided to type up my handwritten comments from which I improvised my response to Daniel Defert; Colin Gordon; Peter Fitzpatrick and Maria Carolina Olarte. There is some material here that was cut due to the time – there were three long papers and it was already after 7pm when I spoke, so this is record of both what I said and would have said. This is very much a pièce d’occasion, rather than the basis for anything more, though some of the themes relate to previous concerns, or will become part of future work. [The audio of the entire event can be found here.]

Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words.

I saw Colin Gordon’s paper before, and a version of Peter Fitzpatrick and Maria Carolina Olarte’s. While I didn’t see Daniel Defert’s paper I have read the lectures he was discussing and read his excellent ‘Situation du cours’.

I will confine my comments to four registers. 

  1. Periodisations

One of the things that the newly available materials by Foucault complicate is any sense of a straight-forward periodisation of Foucault’s work. Daniel Defert mentioned the complications of the ‘dernier Foucault’, but I think that the material challenges any sense of an early, mid or late Foucault.

This works in a number of ways:-

Twenty years ago Colin Gordon talked of Histoire de la folie as an “unknown book of Michel Foucault’s”. One of the things that the full text provided for me, when I read it in the mid 1990s early in my PhD, was a sense of how many of Foucault’s later concerns were anticipated in that book. We now of course have a full English translation as History of Madness.

Dits et écrits in 1994 was perhaps the first really serious challenge, and I’ll say more about that in a moment.

The lectures at the Collège de France especially complicate these ideas. One thing that is striking is the way that issues in The Order of Things are returned to, with a more explicitly political focus, in lectures. I’m thinking of the discussion of mathesis in ‘Society Must Be Defended’; or the return to the ideas of life/labour/language and political economy in The Birth of Biopolitics, as mentioned by Colin Gordon. Or the return to the last parts of History of Madness in Psychiatric Power, but with the new ‘power’ language and conceptual apparatus of the 1970s.

Leçons sur la volonté de savoir, as Daniel Defert explained, is an important transition text in Foucault’s work, and there is lots of material that is entirely new. Coming from 1970-71 it develops themes of power/knowledge, and in proposing a genealogy of knowledge alongside an archaeology of knowledge – instead of replacing one with the other – complicates a shift from archaeology to genealogy. It also proposes a genealogy of an ethic of truth, and the relation of truth to subjectivity. So, as well as anticipating Foucault’s work up to the mid 1970s – Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, with which it shared a title – this course opens up themes that would occupy Foucault for the rest of his life. In its focus on the Greeks it shares a subject matter with the 1980s; but in its concern with money, agriculture and juridical and political practice it also links to the late 1970s work on governmentality.

So, while there are certainly very many developments in Foucault’s work; there are not the radical breaks that are sometimes suggested.

We have, perhaps, tended to see the peaks – the books – and not the valleys that lie between them – the lectures and other materials. The wider availability of the lectures has filled in much of that detail. 

  1. Reading Foucault

This raises the question of how we read Foucault, or perhaps what Foucault do we read? Peter Fitzpatrick and Carolina Olarte briefly raised this question in their paper.

There is, of course, a distinction between lecture courses and other material delivered orally, and what Foucault chose to publish himself. Even Dits et écrits included a lot of material that had previously existed only in languages other than French or English, such as Spanish, Portuguese or Japanese, and translated back into French for that collection. These were materials Foucault did not intend to have in French, often written or spoken for a very difference audience.

(Let me note in passing how unfortunate and limited The Essential Foucault is compared to Dits et écrits, and lament how fragmented existing English collections are. The thematic, not chronological, arrangement does much to perpetuate the problems of periodisation just mentioned.)

Daniel Defert mentioned Foucault’s relation to Nietzsche, which is of course primarily in terms of content and approach. But there is a long running debate in terms of Nietzsche’s writings, of distinctions that should be drawn between Nietzsche’s books and his notebooks, edited initially as the pseudo-collection The Will to Power and more recently in proper critical editions. A key question for both Foucault and Nietzsche is whether any word committed to paper is the same as any other? For Foucault we can add: is any word spoken in a lecture to be taken the same as those in print?

There is also a question of who we read Foucault in relation to. Daniel Defert mentioned Foucault in relation to Heidegger and Deleuze, of which there is much discussion in his critical apparatus to Leçons sur la volonté de savoir, but I was also intrigued by his link of Foucault to Eugen Fink, especially Spiel als Weltsymbol, which has been influential in my own work.

Colin Gordon mentioned a few other links, some of whom are familiar such as Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock and Stephen Greenblatt; and Donald Kelley. There is also the German tradition of Begriffsgeschichte. And a French tradition of writers that worked alongside Foucault but are much less known – people like François Furet whose book on the French Revolution Colin Gordon mentioned; or Blandine Kriegel, whose L’Histoire de l’âge classique can be related to some of Foucault’s concerns about the political uses of history.

Comparisons between Foucauldian genealogy, the Cambridge School of contextual history, and Begriffsgeschichte are sometimes overdrawn, though there are certainly tensions to be discussed. I found all three approaches very valuable in my own work tracing the history of the concept of territory. 

  1. Using Foucault

This opens up my third theme, that of using Foucault, of putting him to work. This is what Colin Gordon nicely calls ‘histories of later presents’. In this session, Peter Fitzpatrick and Carolina Olarte’s paper on thinking the death penalty was the most explicit use of Foucault, but the papers in the second day address this more fully.

One of the key things Colin Gordon called for was the need to finish Foucault’s projects – those he planned but did not live to write. But there are of course many themes that he would never have anticipated working on himself but on which others have found inspiration for their work in his. Many of the essays in The Foucault Effect of course did this themselves. Colin Gordon discussed this book in terms of themes within Foucault’s work that were discussed and not developed subsequently, but also in terms of what The Foucault Effect itself neglected.

But there is also the work Foucault left unfinished, but not unwritten. I am referring of course to Les aveux de la chair, a manuscript that Daniel Defert described at a conference at the LSE a few years ago as looking like a manuscript of Proust. The implication was that it was unreadable or at least unpublishable.

But there are people, many of whom are here at this conference, who could do this work. An edition with one page reproducing the manuscript in facsimile, and one page providing a working text from that; or a proper critical edition should be possible. Of course, the Mal faire, dire vrai lectures from Louvain in 1981, and Du gouvernement des vivants course from the Collège de France, both of which are forthcoming, will give us some insight into this theme. Yet given how central confession is to both the original thematic plan of the History of Sexuality and the historical plan Foucault was working on at his death, Les aveux de la chair is of crucial importance.

Given that the ‘no posthumous publications’ request is now (rightly) being interpreted in a more relaxed way, this would be a really important development. 

  1. Editing and Translating Foucault

Finally, I want to explicitly recognise that kind of work; the labours of editing and translating Foucault, but also generally.

Daniel Defert discussed this in terms of practices, but I want to mention it in terms of indebtedness. We simply would not be having these conversations were it not for the work of intellectual service or labour conducted by people, some of whom are here today.

Colin Gordon with Power/Knowledge and the Power volume.

Daniel Defert with Dits et écrits.

Daniel again for the recent Leçons sur la volonté de savoir, and others for the courses at the Collège de France more generally; Bernard Harcourt and Fabienne Brion for the Mal faire, dire vrai lectures.

Graham Burchell for his labours in translating Foucault’s lectures.

Yet these are all works of a single author. In terms of multi-authored, edited books, I find it hard to think of one in fields I work in that has had the same kind of impact (in a non-REF sense), or been more influential, than The Foucault Effect.

But this kind of academic labour – editing, translating, introducing and especially editing collections – is really undervalued, perhaps especially in the British system. This too is a particular kind of government rationality, of calculability.

As the line goes, if Foucault was writing a study of our academic research evaluation, it would be called Discipline and Publish

So I will end with a hope: that this way of operating is entirely disregarded, and that the papers from this conference do not go their separate ways, or end up in journal special issues, but form the basis for something like The Foucault Effect II.

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3 Responses to The Foucault Effect 1991-2011 – Discussant Comments

  1. Pingback: The Foucault Effect 1991-2011 audio | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Reading Foucault in Nigeria | Progressive Geographies

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