Foucault: The Birth of Power Update 14 – receiving the reader reports, and working on Farge and Foucault, Le désordre des familles

DF working.jpeg

I now have the two reader reports on Foucault: The Birth of Power, which are overwhelmingly positive about the manuscript. But I still have a bit of work to do revising it. I aim to complete the revisions in the next few weeks, with the book now formally scheduled for publication in January 2017. I’ll doubtless post something on the final work in a subsequent update.

The Polity website for this book should be up in a month or two. In the meantime, here’s the back cover description:

Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge was published in March 1969; Discipline and Punish in February 1975. The differences between the books are stark: a methodological treatise and a call to arms.

Several transitions took place in the intervening years. Foucault returned to France from Tunisia, first to the experimental University of Vincennes and then to a prestigious chair at the Collège de France. Tunisia was a political awakening for Foucault, and he returned to France in the post-1968 turmoil. He quickly became involved in activist work, particularly concerning prisons but also around health issues such as abortion rights. In his seminars he built research teams to conduct collaborative research, often around related issues to his lectures and activism.

Foucault’s early Collège de France courses have now all been published and provide invaluable insights into his changing preoccupations. He worked almost daily at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, taking extensive notes which are now available to researchers. Archival material relating to his activism and collaborative research has also been used to provide a detailed study of Foucault in multiple registers – writer, researcher, lecturer and activist. Discipline and Punish may be the major published output of this period, but it rests on a much wider range of concerns and projects.

A work of intellectual history, Foucault: The Birth of Power is a detailed study of mid-career Foucault that provides an essential companion to Foucault’s Last Decade.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the last update, though continuing to work on Hamlet and now Macbeth, I have also been writing a piece on Foucault’s collaborative book with Arlette Farge, Le Désordre des Familles: Lettres de cachet des Archives de la Bastille au XVIIIe siècle. This 1982 book has been long neglected, in both French and English, it was reissued in France in 2014 and will soon appear in translation with University of Minnesota Press. The book comprises an introduction, and three chapters, though it would probably make sense to think of the third as a conclusion of sorts. The two substantive chapters are mainly a collection of lettres de cachet, on a range of cases from the mid 18th century, each with an introduction by Farge and Foucault. No text is individually signed, but we know from Farge’s subsequent comments that she took the lead on the first, on husband-wife relations; while Foucault did with the second on parent-children relations. The lettres de cachet were letters sealed by the King – ‘cachet’ means seal – which could imprison someone, exile them, or force them into another kind of behavior like marriage. Readers of Foucault’s lecture courses will recall discussions of them in various places – there is a lecture on them in The Punitive Society, for example, and a case is explored in The Abnormals. Foucault’s interest in these letters, held in the Arsenal library from the former Bastille archive, stretches back to his research for History of Madness, and he signed a contract with Gallimard for a volume looking at the letters in the early 1960s. I discuss his interest in these letters, and the book with Farge, in Foucault’s Last Decade, pp. 192-4, but it’s not a substantial analysis of the book itself.

This is why I was especially pleased to receive an email from Nancy Luxon, who is editing the translation, inviting me to contribute to a companion volume, entitled Archives of Infamy. Nancy suggested that I look at the themes of space, circulation, the out-of-place and the police control of public areas. Rereading Le Désordre des Familles with these questions in mind was revealing, and it made me realise that these geographical issues really are crucial to what they do. But not at the scale of (state) territory which has so often been my focus. It is the smaller scale, the immediate and proximate, which is crucial to these letters and their interpretation by Farge and Foucault.

Prompted by this reading, I went to some of Farge’s other works. Some of these I already knew – her wonderful book The Allure of the Archives, for example – and others I’d consulted for Foucault’s Last Decade, such as her early work on food thefts (the out-of-print Delinquance et criminalité: Le vol d’aliments a Paris au XVIIIe siècle) and life in the Parisian street (Vivre dans la rue à Paris au XVIIIe siècle). But I also went to a number of her other works, and it was striking how much of her work exhibits a profound spatial sensibility. These are very much spatial histories – space not just as an object of analysis, but a tool of it. I was actually surprised that some of her work was already available in English – I hadn’t realized that Fragile Lives and Subversive Words were translated – though there are plenty of important works that haven’t been, including Les lieux pour l’histoire, which has her most extensive discussion of Foucault.

My draft chapter has just been sent off for comments, and is entitled ‘Home, Street, City: Farge, Foucault and the Spaces of the Lettres du cachet’. Part of my argument is that if we want to understand the context of the work, we should look at Farge’s wider work; and in terms of Foucault, it is the research conducted alongside his major works that is most important – his Collège de France seminars, the work with CERFI and CORDA, and so on. Despite the fifteen age difference between Farge and Foucault, and his already senior position compared to her being toward the beginning of her career, this was clearly a meeting of equals. Foucault had, unusually for him, referenced her work on food thefts in Discipline and Punish; and he asked for her advice on the letters before they agreed to work on this project. Nonetheless, Farge recognises in a number of interviews how important this work with him was for her own career profile. I end my chapter by saying that I hope that this long-overdue translation and attention leads more Anglophone readers to her own remarkable work. While she seems to be reasonably well known by Anglophone historians of France, I think she deserves a wider reading, and perhaps especially by those people interested in questions of space and geography.

Foucault’s Last Decade is now available in most places, though it seems not yet in North America. For more information on these two books, see the descriptions here.

Audio and video recordings relating to them are here; and a full list of the updates I’ve been posting on the process of writing here. Some translations, bibliographies, scans and links are available at Foucault Resources

An excerpt from Chapter Six of the manuscript of Foucault: The Birth of Power has been published by Viewpoint: The Biopolitics of Birth: Michel Foucault, the Groupe Information Santé and the Abortion Rights Struggle” (open access).

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This entry was posted in Arlette Farge, Foucault's Last Decade, Foucault: The Birth of Power, Michel Foucault, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Foucault: The Birth of Power Update 14 – receiving the reader reports, and working on Farge and Foucault, Le désordre des familles

  1. Jean H says:

    You have probably seen this post on Camille Claudel who suffered the same fate in the early 20th Century, at the ‘signature’ of her brother and father.
    http://www.popoptiq.com/tag/michel-foucault/

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