The Archaeology of Foucault Update 4: The term from hell, Foucault in Brazil and Tunisia, and the problems of archival research in a pandemic

This was an exceptionally difficult term – probably the hardest I can remember in twenty-five years of working in universities. It was very hard to make any progress on this manuscript – the fourth and final book in this sequence of studies of Foucault’s career and writings, this time looking at 1962-69. 

As I mentioned in the last update some of the work in Wales in the last days of summer was making a long list of things to check when home, back online, with my books and limited access to libraries. This gave a number of small things which I could tick off the list in relatively short periods of time, which does give some sense of progress, however small, when more consolidated periods of writing are harder to get. Warwick’s library was reopened for term, after a long period of closure, although you could order books late in the summer. But getting access to older, non-digitised journals wasn’t possible until it reopened, so when I had a chance I worked through some issues of CritiqueEsprit and Tel Quel.

Some of the other work concerned Foucault’s 1965 visit to Brazil and his time in Tunisia between 1966-68. The Brazil visit is discussed by Heliana de Barros Conde Rodrigues, in a book now translated into French as Michel Foucault au Brésil by Antony David Taïeb, and Marcelo Hoffman has been doing some further research on this theme, including editing an issue of the Carceral Notebooks on this topic. Foucault was in Brazil in 1965 to give a course which was based on his then forthcoming book Les mots et les choses (translated as The Order of Things). He returned to Brazil four times in the 1970s, each time giving some important lectures. The manuscript of the 1965 Brazil course is in Paris, and is due to be published in the new sequence of courses and works. I have read the manuscript, but would like some more time with it before finalising this section. But I think I’ve been able to set the text in a context now.

I’ve tried to do similarly for Foucault’s time in Tunisia. There are quite a lot of sources mentioned in the biographies by Didier Eribon and David Macey, and am tracking these down as I continue the work. One revealing interview from this time is in Dits et écrits. One course from Tunisia is also due to be published in the new series. Again, I’ve read this in manuscript but need more time with it. There are a few other lectures from this period which exist in manuscript, and some are published. Initially this was in unauthorised form on the basis of transcriptions, but they are now available in official editions. There are reports of other courses or lectures for which no manuscript trace seems to have survived. More recently, Marnia Lazreg in Foucault’s Orient and Kathryn Medien in an essay on “Foucault in Tunisia” have done some important work on Foucault’s time there, including uncovering some memoirs by some of his students. Both have given me some useful leads to follow up.

Foucault was often back in Paris while in Tunisia, and spent one summer back in his family home near Poitiers. In Paris he gave some lectures and appeared on some radio shows. There was a brief discussion with Raymond Aron on one of these, which was published as a little book a while ago. I’d bought and read it at the time, and didn’t think much of it then, but have returned again and it is an interesting little part of the story. It makes a bit more sense of a somewhat cryptic reference in Defert’s ‘Chronology’. Unfortunately, there seems to be no archival trace of Foucault’s attendance at Aron’s seminar at the Sorbonne around the same time – perhaps not surprising if it was discussion based, rather than a presentation – but there is another potential source, so that’s something else to try to track down whenever I can get back to Paris. The biography of Aron by Nicolas Baverez has a little detail.

The list of things to check in Paris and London libraries is growing. It’s not at all clear when I can get back to Paris. When I cancelled a trip in September I’d half-hoped I’d be able to get there in reading week this term, but that wasn’t possible. I then hoped that I might get there in the Christmas break and now I’m imagining it will be the spring, at best. All the time there is self-isolation for foreign travel it makes a trip impractical. These were intended shorter visits, which have been difficult enough to arrange. Add in the challenges of a post-Brexit relation with the EU, and teaching spread through the year rather than in blocks, and getting to Paris to do the next consolidated period of archival work is getting a whole lot more complicated.

I did have a couple of half-days in the British Library this week. You need to pre-book slots, and there are various other restrictions. But I had some time in the Newsroom with old French newspapers on microfilm, and in the Rare Books room where I was mainly checking a whole host of small things like journal mastheads, articles or chapters in obscure places, original language publications to compare to translations (or vice versa) and so on. There is loads more on my list, but at least while there are these restrictions I am concentrating on smaller things which can be done in shorter visits.

While getting back to Paris and other archives in France seems unlikely until the spring, getting to the USA to do the planned work at Yale and Princeton, and hopefully Irvine, feels even further into the future. Research leave I had in term 3 has been cancelled, and it’s not clear when it will be reinstated. All this means that my original plan for when I’d complete this manuscript is probably unrealistic, but I’m not yet sure enough of anything to come up with a revised plan. I’ve also been applying for research fellowships for the planned project after this, but so far nothing has worked out. I’ve had some particularly disappointing rejections this term.

I had hoped to get back to work on a couple of articles I’d agreed to write over this teaching break, but I started writing something which went in a quite different direction. I might be able to use elements from it in a talk I’ve agreed to give in the New Year, but it doesn’t work for the writing commitments. So I now have fragments of three possible pieces developing from this Foucault work, but can’t work out how to complete any of them.

A little more on this book is here, and updates for The Early Foucault here. A list of the resources on this site relating to Foucault – bibliographies, audio and video files, some textual comparisons, some short translations, etc. – can be found here. The earlier books Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade are both available from Polity. The Early Foucault is forthcoming in June 2021, and is now listed on the Polity site and some online bookstores.

This entry was posted in Michel Foucault, teaching, The Archaeology of Foucault, The Early Foucault, Universities. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Archaeology of Foucault Update 4: The term from hell, Foucault in Brazil and Tunisia, and the problems of archival research in a pandemic

  1. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

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