The Early Foucault Update 12: A writing/cycling retreat and some time in London’s libraries

As I said at the end of the last update on this book project, after the week in the Paris archives I took a week away on a kind of writing/cycling retreat. It started as the idea of a holiday, but became more of a working break with some hilly rides in the Peak District and quite a bit of writing. For the most part the weather was awful with high winds and heavy downpours. I did clock up some miles, but not as many as I’d hoped.

The writing was good, though for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I don’t seem to be able to make substantial progress on one particular chapter, which is on the things Foucault actually published in the 1950s. I keep messing around with bits of it, but really need to sit down with the texts and put something down. In some ways, this ought to be the most straight-forward chapter to write – almost all the others are dependent on archive material, more arcane sources, reports and so on. Perhaps it’s the ease with which I should be able to write it that is the barrier. Perhaps it’s because it’s the chapter that retreads reasonably well-known ground, and so is less interesting to write, though there is limited work on these pieces.

In any case, there is plenty of other work to do. Simply for my own reference, I put together a timeline of Foucault’s early career. It relies heavily on the ‘Chronology’ Defert wrote for Dits et écrits, but also draws on the biographies and other sources, and includes all the detail I know of the early courses at Lille and the ENS. I did the same for his later career when I was researching Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade, and it was an invaluable source for me. We know so much more about Foucault in the 1970s and 1980s than the 1950s, but with all these periods there are discrepancies in dates, and lining things up – with marked up uncertainties and disagreements – is helpful to me. As with the one I did for the later period, I imagine I’ll continue to add to it over the writing of this book.

In terms of the book itself, I wrote a little about Foucault’s short book notice from 1954 (rediscovered in 2011 and omitted from Dits et écrits); sketched out a small section on Foucault’s first encounter with Raymond Roussel’s work in 1957; and one on the dispute with Presses Universitaires de France about Maladie mentale et personnalité being reissued. I did a bit more work on the discussion of Jean Barraqué, mainly through discussions of his work and Hermann Broch. Although I’ve not yet really written about the 1950s publications, I do have a discussion of the dates they were written and their publication history. This question is discussed in all the biographies, and the order is not at all clear. I don’t think I’ve fully resolved it, but I’ve done a fairly thorough search of material, and have found a couple of other bits of evidence. My checking of original sources wherever possible also paid off in finding a discrepancy between the first version and the one reprinted in Dits et écrits. I also found a fascinating source about Foucault’s father quite by chance.

Yet generally one thing I’m finding with much of this work is how limited the sources are. For Foucault’s work in a psychiatric hospital and a prison in the early 1950s, for example, the biographies already cover the key material, informed by Foucault’s few recollections in interviews. They also had the benefit of being able to talk to Georges and Jacqueline Verdeaux. But there is not much to go on. With this, and other things, I’m searching for the tiniest bits of evidence.

I then had a week in London, where I ordered a range of things in the British Library. I also made short trips to Senate House, UCL and the Wellcome Library to check some things not at the BL. Among other things this involved some pieces about Barraqué in old music newspapers, early translations of Ludwig Binswanger in French and English, news reports after Foucault’s death in which friends and colleagues reminisced about his early years, and more extensive memoirs from Jean-Paul Aron and Maurice Pinguet. Of course, checking one thing often throws up something else to check; reading one thing gives a list of other things to look at. And while I can resolve many of these things in London or at Warwick, many more are added to a list of things to do when next in Paris. Some might need to be done further afield. This reference checking and extra reading will likely continue right until I finish this book, but it’s always good to chip away at it as I go.

Term begins on Monday, and I have a couple of short pieces I need to work on in the first week or two. But I’m determined to keep writing for this book and the Canguilhem one during term, even though that’s going to mean a shift to writing in the fairly early mornings before I go into work. It’s great to have the Shakespeare book in production, as I reported last week, as that is one of the multiple book projects off my desk. But I’m still writing two books and co-editing another.

 

The previous updates on this project are here; and Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power are now both available from Polity. Several Foucault research resources such as bibliographies, short translations, textual comparisons and so on are available here. On the related Canguilhem project, see this page.

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