An almost unknown summary of a 1972 lecture by Foucault

On 7th April 1972, Foucault delivered a lecture under the title of “Cérémonie, théâtre et politique au XVIIe siècle”, in Minneapolis. This was published only in a brief English summary, written by Stephen Davidson, in Acta: Proceedings of the fourth annual conference of XVIIth century French Literature, pp. 22-3. I’ve finally managed to get hold of a copy of this. [update 10/10/13 – the summary is available here].

It’s an interesting topic, especially given what we know about Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France, Théories et institutions pénales, earlier that year. Foucault suggests in the course summary that the course was the second of a three-part analysis, on the inquiry and the formation of the state. The first part was on measure and the Greek city-state (discussed in Lectures on the Will to Know) and the third would be on the examination, “as a form of power-knowledge linked to systems of control, exclusion, and punishment characteristic of industrial societies” (this was to be the focus of La société punitive). The lecture presented here could easily fit into the second of the analyses, and indeed may well be derived in whole or part from Collège de France lectures in 1972. But there are some discrepancies: the Collège de France course supposedly concentrated on the formation of the medieval state, whereas this lecture treats the 17th century, specifically a political ceremony from 1639-40 following the peasant and urban revolutions in Normandy, known as La révolte des Nu-pieds (The revolt of the barefoot).

Foucault presented the analysis in a theatrical form, in five acts. The summary outlines these five stages of the ceremony, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse into what Foucault thought his first few courses at the Collège de France would yield: a plan that is clearly related to what would become Discipline and Punish, but differs in some fundamental aspects. It may well be that the imminent publication of the 1972-73 lectures, La société punitive, will shed substantial light on how and why Foucault came to revise his plans. Here’s the key paragraph:

Before attempting the specific analysis, Mr. Foucault explained that this analysis of the political ceremony in the Seventeenth Century would ultimately become part of a larger study of the ceremonial manifestations of political power from the debates in the Greek and Roman agoras to the ceremonies at the end of the Eighteenth Century. This will be a study of how political power takes on visible or theatrical forms and imprints itself on the imagination or behaviour of a people. It would really be an ethnology of the manifestations of political power, a study of the system of demarcation of power within a society (p. 22).

I’d like to make the whole text of the summary available here, since it is hard to get hold of, and should be of more general interest. But I’d like to at least try to ask the author of the summary if that is okay. This may be a fool’s errand given 41 years have elapsed, but if anyone has contact details for Stephen Davidson, who in 1972 was at the University of Minnesota, I’d be grateful.

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5 Responses to An almost unknown summary of a 1972 lecture by Foucault

  1. cmccall says:

    I hope you will be able to make the summary available; it sounds fascinating.

  2. Pingback: Foucault’s 1972 lecture at Minnesota – summary now available | Progressive Geographies

  3. Pingback: Michel Foucault, ‘Médecins, Juges Et Sorciers Au XVIIe Siècle’ – some thoughts on dating and content | Progressive Geographies

  4. Thanks a lot for providing the text! I went through it and came up to one part, that imho needs deeper explanation. Stephen Davidson in his “preface” mentions (according to Foucault, though), that the ceremony “represented the mise en jeu of fundamental theories of political authority which had been elaborated a century before and finally formulated by Sessel.” Well, I skimed through La société punitive and other sources and haven´t been able to find out anything about this man Sessel. Any idea or hint?

    • stuartelden says:

      My best guess is that Foucault means Claude de Seyssel, political theorist of the 16th century and author of the La Grande Monarchie de France.

      I think it is likely this lecture uses and/or builds on material delivered in Foucault’s course Théories et institutions pénales, the year before La société punitive. There are a few indications in the lecture that link to what we currently know of that earlier course.

      Thanks for reading and the good question.

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