A toolbox of deadly spanners

Dits et Ecrits 1954-88 par Michel Foucault - Dits et Ecrits 1954-88 par Michel Foucault - Dits et Ecrits 1954-88 par Michel Foucault - Dits et Ecrits 1954-88 par Michel Foucault
October 13, 1995

I am rather little capable of pleasure. I have a profound incapacity for experiencing pleasure." Thus speaks Michel Foucault, in his Dits et Ecrits, published several months ago in France. Respecting Foucault's will, which stipulated "no posthumous publication", Daniel Defert and Francois Ewald have not edited any unpublished material. They have collected all the texts (excluding his books) published by Foucault, both in France and elsewhere.

The four volumes of the Dits et Ecrits contain 364 texts, presented in chronological order, covering 1954 to 1988; a total of 3,450 pages. The texts belong to very different genres: prefaces, articles, interviews, debates, book and film reviews, newspaper articles, letters and so on. Their publication has caused quite a stir in France (four pages of reviews and commentaries in Le Monde), where many of these writings had become relatively inaccessible. Somewhat ironically, a good number of the most important texts have on the contrary been available for some time in English versions, collected in "readers". Indeed, the interest in Foucault's work has been much greater in the English-speaking world than in France over the past decade. However, because of the comprehensiveness of the Dits et Ecrits, their publication is an important event.

This collection underlines the constant changes in Foucault's philosophy. Whereas his books represent different moments in the development of his thought, these texts allow us to see the changes as they occur, while Foucault is both grappling with and working out new ideas. In this sense, the texts provide, in his own words, "a scaffolding, which serves as a bridge between work that is coming to a close and new work". The publication of the Dits et Ecrits has sparked controversies in France over the apparent paradox of regrouping the "oeuvre" of the "author" who has probably done most to problematise both these notions. These discussions seem rather pointless, however, in the face of someone whose work is so fluid and diverse. As Foucault said in a 1980 interview: "If I had to write a book in order to communicate what I already think, before starting to write it, I would never have the courage to undertake it. I only write because I don't know yet exactly what to think of this thing that I would so much like to think through. Thus, the book transforms me and transforms what I think. I write in order to change myself, and to not think the same thing as before."

Underneath these constant changes, the texts show a significant shift in Foucault's interests. His earlier writings reflect his passion for literature, in particular for writers like Roussel, Klossowski, Mallarme, Artaud, Bataille, Blanchot or Sade, who dissolve the "subject" in the experience of language, of madness or of eroticism. As such, his writings on literature fit in with his more general theme of the "death of the subject" and his attack on humanism, which he called "the little prostitute of all thought, of all morals, of all politics over the past 20 years". Around the beginning of the 1970s, however, Foucault started to express his doubts as to the subversive power of writing, whether literary or philosophical. Like literature, he argued, "philosophy has lost its subversive force, all the more so because, since the 18th century, it has become a university professor's job". As a university discipline, philosophy has become limited to the discussion of "the totality of the entity, 'writing', the 'materiality of the signifier' and other similar things." Having recently become a professor of philosophy at the University of Vincennes, he wondered aloud in an interview in 1970 whether he should not stop writing altogether, in favour of concrete political activism.

Luckily for posterity, Foucault did not pursue this temptation. However, from then on he combined intense political militancy in a variety of fields (especially after his participation in the launch of a movement against the French prison system in 1971) with the writing of, as he called them, "book-bombs". Shifting the metaphor, he declared in 1975: "All my books I are, if you like, little toolboxes. If people want to open them, to use a particular sentence, a particular idea, a particular analysis like a screwdriver or a spanner to short-circuit, to discredit, to break systems of power, including perhaps even those that my books issue fromIwell, so much the better!" To a philosophy that deals with eternal questions, he opposed a philosophy that is a "diagnosis of the present", "a sort of radical journalism". "If we want to be the masters of our future, we must fundamentally pose the question of today." The Dits et Ecrits bear witness to the intensity and scope of his philosophy in action, containing a large number of militant writings that accompanied his activism: on the Iranian revolution, on the Vietnamese boat people, on police violence, on the prison system, on Solidarity and so on. They show a philosopher who tried to think through and put into practice the political consequences of his theoretical positions. This led him to adopt stances that were often controversial. Thus, during a debate with David Cooper and others in 1977, he discussed his views on sexual relations and the law. He emphasised his rejection of legal constraints, notably in the case of sex between adults and children: "I'm inclined to say: if the child doesn't refuse, there is no reason at all to sanction anything."

The texts also offer more personal glimpses of Foucault. For example, the image of an ageing gay man who, interviewed by the French gay newspaper Gai Pied, admitted to feeling excluded by the gay press's culture of youth. Or, that of a man who, in his youth, failed in several suicide attempts, but who still showed a certain fascination with suicide. "One of the things that has preoccupied me for some time is that I realise how difficult it is to kill oneself" (interview, 1981). "If I won several millions of francs at the lottery, I would create an institute where those who would like to die could spend a weekend, a week or a month, with pleasure, perhaps with drugs, then to disappear, fading away into oblivion" (interview, 1983). We see someone who, claiming to dislike polemics, threw himself rather enthusiastically into that pastime. On Sartre, he said in 1966: "The Critique of Dialectical Reason is the magnificent and pathetic effort of a man of the 19th century to think the 20th century." On Piaget, in 1976: "I explicitly accuse of lies, shameless lies, people like Piaget who say that I am a structuralist. Piaget can only say that as a liar, or out of stupidity: I leave the choice to him."

The editors' comprehensiveness leads them to include a certain number of texts that are of doubtful interest. Others appear distinctly dated, reflecting the intellectual debates of the time. Nevertheless, as a whole, the Dits et Ecrits allow us to follow the development, ten years after his death from Aids, of one of the most original thinkers of our time.

Veronique Mottier is assistant lecturer in political science, University of Geneva.

Dits et Ecrits 1954-88 par Michel Foucault: Volume Four - 1980-99

Editor - Daniel Defert and Francois Ewald, with Jacques Lagrange
ISBN - 2 07 073989 9
Publisher - Gallimard
Price - £26.09
Pages - 902

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