On Wednesday afternoon, I submitted the final, revised manuscript of The Archaeology of Foucault to Polity. I’d submitted the manuscript for review in February during Warwick’s reading week, and had two very positive and useful reports back at the end of March. The final revisions were completed this week, and the book is now in production.
Finishing The Archaeology of Foucault is not just the end of a single book, but the final part of a four-part study. As I’ve said before, I didn’t imagine that it would be this extensive when I began work on Foucault’s Last Decade. But that book became two, with the first two chapters of Last Decade taken out, each split into three, and then each of those six sections developed into the chapters of Foucault: The Birth of Power. For a while I thought that was it, but decided that I should write a book to precede them, The Early Foucault, and that quickly became a need for two. So chronologically, I wrote the fourth, which became the germ of the third, then decided on two to go before, wrote the first, and then finally the second. Had I began with the idea of a multi-part study of Foucault’s entire career, I would never have done it that way. But then, if I’d had the idea of the scale of what this became, then I probably would never have had the confidence to begin.
It takes a certain type of confidence to begin something, and a determination to complete it. It’s perhaps easier when you don’t know what you’re taking on. It’s not easy to complete things, but I think I’m fairly unusual in that I don’t have many abandoned manuscripts. There are a few papers which didn’t get beyond the conference presentation, and a couple of articles which were rejected and to which I never returned. Often those were cannibalised for something else.
I said recently in a supervision meeting that my own approach to writing is that I try to put off the ‘how it all fits together’ sense until as late as I possibly can. When I’ve reached that point with a couple of books too early, then the final work was an awful slog. If I know exactly what I want to do, then I start to lose interest. If I know, even worse, what I need to do, then the project is effectively dead for me. If I have a contract, or other commitment, then I need to continue, but it is the worst kind of writing for me. Two of my books, Understanding Henri Lefebvre and Canguilhem, reached that point far too early, and they were painful to finish.
With The Archaeology of Foucault, I finished the first chapter last. It wasn’t entirely intended to work that way, but it was partly to do with access to archives, which meant there were parts of that chapter I couldn’t complete until a late stage, and while I had some bits drafted, I didn’t begin the process of putting it all together until right at the end. And for reasons which are not entirely clear to me, I put off one task – writing a fairly brief section about some radio lectures Foucault gave in 1963 – until right at the end. Only two of the five have been published, and the other three are audio recordings. I think I had listened to them before, but didn’t listen again, carefully, taking notes, until very late. And something in one of them made a connection I hadn’t realised before, and then I could see how this chapter all came together. I’m probably slightly over-exaggerating, but it felt like the moment when it did. And this chapter helped to make the whole work fall into place too.
With the book’s Coda, which is now the length of a chapter itself, it was something else which led to this. I had been worrying away at a problem in the book, and in the end wrote a separate short piece about a problem – it is to do with how a text presented as one thing is actually something else, and how what it claims to be was actually unpublished and, I thought, unknown. (Thinking back, there was a somewhat parallel text in Last Decade too.) Writing this problem out both convinced me I was onto something, but also gave me something to show others. And in so doing I was told that, yes, I was onto something, but also that someone else had discovered the same by a quite different path a few weeks before. And they generously shared a transcription of the previously-largely-unknown text which the original had claimed to be. So I could throw away my short piece, whose need had been superseded, and work on the newly-rediscovered piece. But working on that, and consulting the newly-available original in the archive, opened up something else which forced me to revisit material in the Coda, throw away some things, and add some more. I’m obviously well aware that all this work is provisional. It’s intended in part to be a map, and maps need to be revised when new things come to light.
The other thing I was thinking about recently is that an author knows things that a reader doesn’t. A reader might suspect there is a crime in a book – something hurried, something in the wrong place, a bit that drags, a bit where the evidence doesn’t support a point, etc. But the author knows. They know that at one point two chapters were a single, unwieldy and long chapter. That one chapter is maybe a thematic treatment when a chronological one was attempted across sections of different chapters. That another chapter was written in two parts, some distance apart, and stitched together, Frankenstein’s monster like, at a different time. Or that the crucial clue needed to glue together something only came late, and that retrospectively, there was a need to unpick, to put back in a different order, looking like it was always clear and the journey smooth.
This is possibly the last major thing I will do on Foucault (though a book on Foucault and Shakespeare is still possible at some point, and there are a couple of other potential things…). It’s taken most of the past decade to complete this four-volume series. Although there are elements in the books which date back a lot further, from review essays and talks in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and I’d had the idea of a book on Foucault’s Collège de France courses for a long while, I began work on Foucault’s Last Decade in earnest in summer 2013. This Foucault project has been the principal focus since I completed The Birth of Territory. That was the longest single book I’ve written; but these four volumes together are over double its length. And I’m soon to embark on another mammoth project on Indo-European thought in Twentieth-Century France.
It was a liberation these past couple of weeks while the book was under review to turn to different things. One was to write a piece on a different, only tangentially connected topic, for a blog. It came together quickly, and then some days of editing, expanding and reworking. Another was a book review which I’d been putting off until I had a bit of clear time.
Having this Foucault book wrapped up by Easter means I now have about six months before the fellowship begins. There are two things already underway which connect to that work – a journal article, and a critical edition of Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna. I’m trying to complete everything else I have outstanding before the end of the summer, and, crucially, not take on any new commitments…
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.