Now that marking is complete, and the end of term is here, it’s been great to regain time and focus for this work. Some of the nice comments I had about The Early Foucault helped to encourage this. I’m not tired of this book, but I am impatient to move it forward, at least to get it to a point where all that remains is archival work once travel becomes possible again without periods of self-isolation.
I had some productive days at the British Library in June, across a couple of visits. The length of the visits means that I’m largely using the time to check small details or survey works which I might need to read in more detail. Some of this work was looking at the books Foucault reviewed or otherwise referenced.
I continue to work on Foucault’s literary essays in the first half of the 1960s, along with his links to the journals Tel Quel and Critique. There is some good secondary literature on Tel Quel – books by Patrick ffrench, Niilo Kauppi, Danielle Marx-Scouras and Philippe Forest, for example. (Interestingly, these books all appeared within a few years of each other in 1994-96.) There is also the useful Tel Quel Reader with the translation of some key essays, including Foucault’s “Distance, Aspect, Origin”. The literature on Critique seems more limited, with the signal exception of an excellent study by Sylvie Patron, Critique, 1946-1996: Une Encyclopédie de l’esprit moderne.
I think that this is one of the approaches I employ in this research, which is something that opens up some different perspectives. Instead of just approaching the question of Foucault and X by looking at the literature on Foucault which might mention X, and thereby go over many of the old and sometimes tired debates, I try to read the literature on X, partly for what it might say about Foucault certainly, but also more generally. In places this provides some new angles, and certainly lots of things to follow-up.
Foucault’s appreciation of Pierre Klossowski’s work is quite well-known, though this tends to be through some comments in interviews and his essay “The Prose of Actaeon”. Melissa Pawelski doctoral research on Foucault and translation alerted me to look again at Foucault’s review of Klossowski’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, and a note by Daniel Defert led me to look at what Klossowski Foucault might have been reading in 1963. Klossowski’s major book on Nietzsche was not published until 1969, and there is a letter from Foucault to Klossowski praising this, and another one on La monnaie vivante [Living Currency] but at least some of the engagement comes much earlier. The reading goes back to the 1950s, when Foucault read Bataille’s journal Acéphale, to which Klossowski contributed, but there is certainly a renewed interest in the early-mid 1960s.
One of the last literary texts Foucault wrote was a two-part lecture on the Marquis de Sade, which he gave in North America – at SUNY Buffalo in 1970, in Montréal in 1971 and at Cornell in 1972. I have begun quite a long discussion of this, but it wasn’t working in the chapter on literature. Instead, I’ve moved this to the book’s Coda, and I think it works better there – both chronologically, and probably in terms of the argument.
In the second half of the 1960s, Foucault writes some very important pieces on artists – the ones on Velásquez, Magritte and Manet are the best known. All these will be discussed in the book. There are also some interesting small essays on art, some published in Foucault’s lifetime, others since, and a few as yet only available in the archive. A couple of the small pieces he did publish, on Erwin Panofsky and Maxime Defert, led to some interesting things I hadn’t previously considered. There are a few later pieces from the mid-1970s, which while outside the chronological scope of this book, fit thematically. In trying to locate one late piece, which Foucault wrote under a pseudonym, I went down a long but ultimately fruitless rabbit-hole. The first source I read (A), reports a publication in a well-known outlet, commissioned by a named figure, but provides no date or other reference. Hunting around, including in the electronic archive of the outlet, provides no answer. So, I went looking for other sources, including a biography of the person named (B). That reports nearly the same story, and seems to be C’s source. But the person named also wrote a memoir (C). The author of B seems to have read C, and reported the story with a slight difference. A read B, and inferred something which wasn’t actually said. Had they read C, they’d have realised their error. The piece was written but not published, and ultimately lost, with the original probably destroyed. All this would have been much easier if people actually cited their sources.
I’m also digging into what is probably well-trodden ground on the relation between Foucault and Sartre, and to a lesser extent, de Beauvoir; and his relation to structuralism. A lot of this revolves around the early critical reaction to Les Mots et les choses/The Order of Things. Some of these pieces are collected in the useful Regards critiques volume, but some of the other required a bit of work with old French newspapers and journals. There are also some relatively minor pieces by Foucault on the (very odd) Jean-Pierre Brisset, which I’m not currently sure how to discuss.
The wordcount of the draft chapters and working files is getting close to the length of the book itself. I do always struggle with keeping to limits, but this is fairly normal for me. A graph of the cumulative word count for one of my books would look like a billhook – going upwards and past the limit and then curving back down as I cut out things in the final stages. Fortunately, with this book the agreed word limit is a bit higher than the others at 110,000 words – the length which The Early Foucault was in its final form. (The Birth of Power was 94,000 words; Foucault’s Last Decade 102,000 words.)
The intention, as with the others in this series, is that I am writing this book both as a standalone study and to fit into the sequence. When I was writing Foucault’s Last Decade I’d originally intended that to be the only book, but at quite a late stage I decided in discussion with Polity that it would work better to take some material out and develop that into Foucault: The Birth of Power. So, I finished Foucault’s Last Decade knowing that there would be this other volume, and The Birth of Power was completed fairly soon after, knowing how it needed to end. At that stage I didn’t think I’d be writing more, but fairly soon after decided to treat the earlier period, and a but later that it should be two books to complete the sequence. But while with the others I either had in mind a book which would come either before or after it, with this book I have both. It has to follow The Early Foucault and lead into Foucault: The Birth of Power. In other words, this book has to fill a gap with a restriction on either side. That has its own challenges.
I also had a couple of visits to the Warburg Institute library which has one of the UK’s few copies of the 1940 edition of Georges Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna. As I mentioned in the previous update I’m editing a revised edition of this text for HAU books. I have a photocopy of the 1948 text, and I’m annotating that as I do the slow, word-by-word comparison to track the changes between editions. I’m about two thirds of the way through. So far, I’m finding enough changes for this to be worthwhile and interesting work, but not so many that notes to a critical edition would be overwhelming. Dumézil indicates the most substantive changes are to a late chapter and the conclusion though, so this remains very much work in progress.
The Foucault book and the Dumézil editing work are the two main projects over the summer. The copy-editing and proofs for the Lefebvre rural collection will take up time, as will the final editing work on the Foucault theme issue for Theory, Culture and Society, and some other nearly complete pieces. But as much as possible I’ve tried to complete the work on those other pieces in the last couple of weeks, and get some consolidated time this summer to make progress on this Foucault book.
Previous updates on this book are here. The Early Foucault was published by Polity in June 2021, and updates for its writing are 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 in this series are Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade, both available from Polity.