The Early Foucault Update 21: Pushing Gravel Uphill


Just over two years ago, while I was having something to eat in Pasadena, before a conference on Early Modern Literary Geographies, I sketched out how a pair of books on Foucault’s work up until 1969 might look. I’ve been working on the earlier of the two books since, albeit with the detour of the Canguilhem study and the final work on Shakespearean Territories. Although The Early Foucault is far from finished, it’s come a long way in that time. The chapters have increased to nine and changed some of their arrangement, though it covers all of this and more, as I learn more about this period. Increasingly though I’m finding I’m gathering sources, making notes and thinking about the 1960s book.
The Early Foucault-Foucault in the 1960s

Term 1 is when I do most of my teaching, and the first half of the term is always the busiest time of year. Even though I tried to keep to a rhythm of writing a bit every day, or most days, I wasn’t able to manage this as often as I’d like. I’m teaching European Political Theory for the first time in years, and I am writing the lectures afresh. I also teach an MA module on Geopolitics Today, and although I have the framework for each lecture from previous years, I continually update material depending on what is in the news. There are also lots and lots of meetings, with PhD students, personal tutees, committees and so on. Add in the proofs and queries on the Canguilhem book, the talk at the Architectural Association, and some other things, including a grant application, and the time for research and writing has been limited. Writing during term feels a bit like completing a huge jigsaw a few pieces each day instead of a chunk at a time or, on bad days, like pushing gravel uphill. Even when I get to the British Library it’s often a fragmented day, with meetings or other work. But even a little bit each day or a few days a week adds up.

I did write up a very few thoughts on Foucault at the Movies, read an advance copy of the Foucault in California memoir by Simeon Wade, and began reading the new Foucault courses on sexuality. These all relate to later periods of Foucault’s life and work. I have however managed to do little things here and there in relation to The Early Foucault. Much of this began with looking into the work of Georges Bataille and the short-lived Acéphale journal (a little more about that here). That made me think I needed to know more about Bataille, so I read Michel Surya’s biography.

I also looked at a few books about the use of Nietzsche in France, both pre-World War II and afterwards. There are quite a lot of studies, both in English and French. This forms a context for Foucault’s own reading of the material, and the way in which Nietzsche was read and taught. Strangely, Henri Lefebvre’s 1939 book Nietzsche is largely absent from these accounts, despite being an important challenge to the fascist reading. That relates to both previous project of mine, the book on Lefebvre, and the next piece on Lefebvre I’ve agreed to write. I also spent a little time with the edition of Nietzsche’s work that Foucault used in the first half of his career. The Kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by Colli and Montinari only began publication in 1967, and Foucault would initially be one of the editors for its French translation. But before this date he, like any other researcher, had to make use of the earlier, flawed editions. Aner Barzilay has been really helpful here, and elsewhere, in sharing his insights into Foucault’s early work with Nietzsche. It matters which edition Foucault used especially when looking at Nietzsche’s Nachlaß.

Among the other things I was looking into was La Table Ronde publishing house. Foucault signed a book contract with them in the mid-1950s for what he generally describes as a history of psychiatry. His work on this developed while he was in Uppsala, and it became the History of Madness, published by Plon. I did some work reading up about La Table Ronde, and there are some interesting things about it which may well find a way into my book. Their archives are at IMEC, which may be something to follow up on when next there. But it did feel that I was spending a lot of time learning about a publisher Foucault did not work with…

Another task took a wildly disproportionate amount of time in relation to its importance. It began with what seemed a pretty straight-forward question: when did Foucault join the editorial team of the journal Critique? David Macey reports that he was invited by Jean Piel when he became the editor, and this means it was after July 1962, because Piel took over when Georges Bataille, the journal’s founder, died. Jean Piel had been working with Bataille on the journal for a while, along with Eric Weil, though Weil stepped down in July 1962, the last issue Bataille edited. The journal had an editor – Bataille, and then Piel – a small ‘Conseil de Rédaction’, and a wider Comité. Foucault was part of the Conseil de Rédaction along with Roland Barthes and Michel Deguy. Warwick has an incomplete run of the journal, only beginning to have a sequence of issues from late 1963. Sometimes when libraries bind multiple issues of journals together, they remove the initial pages with the editorial information, so even though I could review all the issues in another library, this didn’t solve the issue. The British Library has one sequence of the journal, with 1961 and 1962 complete, and with the mastheads. But for the first half of 1963, they only have four of the six issues, unbound. Useful, but it transpires the missing two are the ones I need – Foucault is not part of the board in the last issue of 1962, and he’s there in the third issue of 1963. So, he clearly joined in early 1963, but is there some kind of announcement of the new team? The BL has another sequence of the journal under a different classmark, but like the first one I ordered, these take 48 hours to arrive. And since I can usually only get to the BL once or twice a week in this term, that means it was another week to wait. This did resolve the issue, but only to say he joined in January 1963 – no announcement or other information.

This might seem ridiculously pedantic. But by looking at this sequence of journals, I found a number of interesting things. These included Roland Barthes’s review of Histoire de la folie in late 1961; Foucault’s review of Jean Laplanche’s Hölderlin et la question du père in 1962 – his first publication in the journal; the notice of Bataille’s death; and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s essay on Roussel’s Oeuvres, which is also supposed to also be on Foucault’s Raymond Roussel, but fails to mention Foucault’s book. There is a double issue in tribute to Bataille in late 1963. Some of these pieces are anthologised elsewhere, but it’s often worth seeing the original place where something was published. Not relevant in this case, but sometimes original versions of publication have ephemeral information that is not reprinted in later versions – short author biographies, for example. But above all looking through these issues gives a sense of the intellectual community in the pages of this journal. It’s very self-referential, and a relatively closed group of contributors. The wider Comité has an extraordinary list of names – Raymond Aron, Maurice Blanchot, Fernand Braudel, René Char, Etienne Gilson, Julian Huxley, Alexandre Koyré, Lewis Mumford, Jean Wahl and others – but as far as I know, all male and all white. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see some of the first pieces by people like Foucault, Derrida and so on.

At some point I also need to check to see exactly when Derrida joins the team, and when Foucault leaves it. This is important for another aspect of the story. But that I should be able to do at Warwick next week, since they have a complete run from 1964 onwards. Hopefully they didn’t cut out the mastheads.

Next week is ‘reading week’, which for academics should perhaps be described as ‘writing week’. The task will be a short text as the introduction to a forthcoming translation. More details when the publisher announces it.

The previous updates on this project are here; and the earlier books Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power are both available from Polity. Canguilhem is forthcoming in early 2019, and is discussed a bit more here. Several Foucault research resources such as bibliographies, short translations, textual comparisons and so on are available here.

This entry was posted in Canguilhem (book), Georges Bataille, Georges Canguilhem, Michel Foucault, teaching, The Early Foucault, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Early Foucault Update 21: Pushing Gravel Uphill

  1. janet abbey says:

    Do you correspond with Babette Babich prof at Fordham U. She is strong on Nietzsche, Holderlin, Heidegger and in German?

  2. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

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