Foucault’s Last Decade: An Interview with Stuart Elden

Michel Foucault died in 1984, at the age of 57, leaving much of his work unfinished. At the time of his death, he was still working on additional volumes of The History of Sexuality series, leaving behind an incomplete fourth volume and countless notes, writings and lectures around the subjects he planned to cover.

Stuart Elden, in his latest book “Foucault’s Last Decade,” meticulously pieces together Foucault’s work in the last 10 years of his life.  Elden draws heavily from Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France, where many of his ideas were tested and refined, along with archival material and his already published work. “Foucault’s Last Decade” provides an invaluable resource for scholars interested in Foucault’s later work, and the projects he had hoped to undertake.

Eugene Wolters: What motivated you to study this very specific period of Foucault’s life?

Stuart Elden: There were a number of reasons. The first was that we now have a lot more material from this period, with the completion of the publication of his Collège de France courses. I thought that a book which took all these courses into account in a study of Foucault’s work would be worthwhile. The courses fill in all sorts of detail that the books only hint at, show connections where there were seemingly discontinuities, and many discuss all sorts of new issues and material. So in one sense Foucault’s Last Decade acts as a companion to the lecture courses, treating them alongside the books and shorter writings, as well as some unpublished material, while trying to respect the differences in genre between published work, interviews, lectures and other material.

In addition the book treats a very specific project in Foucault’s career – the History of Sexuality. This is a project which had roots back to the 1960s, but which becomes the major focus of his work in the mid-1970s. Material which relates to this project begins to appear in his lecture courses from around 1974, and the first volume appeared in 1976. There he outlines the plan for five further volumes (as well as talks of a separate volume on power and truth). But he publishes none of these volumes, and when the series continues in 1984 the two volumes he publishes are on very different material, both in terms of content and historical period studied. A fourth volume was left almost complete at the time of his death in June 1984. So my project in this book was to interrogate how this project changed over time, using the lecture courses as a privileged insight.

Finally, I wanted to break from the idea – still very prevalent in the Anglophone literature especially – of a ‘late’ or ‘final’ Foucault. This suggests that his work took a very different turn in the early 1980s or late 1970s, with a ‘turn’ to antiquity, the subject, truth and ethics. I try to show in this book that there is a much stronger continuity of concerns, and that all the work of the 1974-84 period is connected, in some way, to the project of the History of Sexuality.

EW: Foucault’s original plan for the History of Sexuality series was greatly revised. What sorts of questions and research were omitted from publication due to this shift?

SE: As I said, none of the volumes promised in 1976 were actually published. They included ones on the constituent subjects of sexuality – the pervert, the masturbating child, the hysterical woman and the Malthusian couple. There are discussions of each in lecture courses, but if we compare the first volume of the History of Sexuality to lectures we can find a lot of material which was never tried out to an audience first, so I would assume had these books been published they would have included a lot of different material. There are various reports of at least parts of these books being written, though the archive is not yet open for this material.

The second projected volume, building on claims in the first, was to discuss confession in the church at the end of the middle ages. There are traces of that work in The Abnormals course from 1975. Confession is the thread which links this early plan for the series and the version Foucault was working on when he died. The missing fourth volume of the History of Sexuality, almost complete in 1984, was on confession too. But it was on a different historical period, the early Church fathers such as Augustine, Tertullian and Jean Cassian. I try to show in Foucault’s Last Decade that Foucault realised some of the claims he had made in 1975-76 on confession were problematic, and that much of the work following that date was to try to set the project on a firmer footing. He wrote at least part of the originally planned volume, which was thought to be destroyed, though at least part has survived. He completed a new version of the book on confession around 1980 and parts of this book were published, as well as some arguments being used in lecture courses. The entire book will be published one day, but is not yet available to researchers.

Foucault says that the introduction to this book – on the early Church and confession – made claims about pagan antiquity which he thought were problematic, and so he decided to work through that period in detail. That comes through in his lecture courses and writings from 1981 onwards. So the book on confession got pushed down the scheme, first to follow a single book on antiquity, and then that was split into two, so that the confession book became the projected volume four. That’s a greatly compressed version of the story which Foucault’s Last Decade tells in considerable detail. As well as accounting for the changes in the plan, I try to discuss what so-far-available evidence tells us of the unpublished and uncompleted volumes.

EW: When will the rest of his archive be opened up?

SE: I don’t know is the simple answer. The new material comprises 110 boxes – about 37,000 pages of material. At the moment, about 40 boxes appear in the catalogue, and I’ve worked through around 30 of them. The 40 boxes have become available only very recently – Foucault’s Last Decade doesn’t use the material; Foucault: The Birth of Power does. The catalogue is incomplete, and at times misleading. I do know that one of the things being done at the moment is that a researcher is going through the material to produce an accurate assessment of what is there. This is a necessary step to working out what might be publishable. From the notes in the recent Gallimard Oeuvres collection – a two volume set of Foucault’s major works in the prestigious Pléiade series – we know something of what is there relating to draft material for books, both published and unpublished, and there are also lecture courses from the 1960s and possibly 1950s. Plans are underway to publish some of the pre-Collège de France courses, though I understand that there are no recordings of these, so like the first two Collège de France courses, these will be publications of his notes, not transcripts of what he said. The fourth volume of the History of Sexuality will follow, possibly as the last publication. What the status of the other material will be is, to me at least, unclear. This is obviously quite a break from Foucault’s own wish that there be ‘no posthumous publications’.

EW: How does Foucault’s work in his last decade shift from earlier works such as Madness and Civilization?

SE: Well, Madness and Civilisation is the title of the truncated English translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, largely based on an edited version Foucault himself produced for a French ‘pocket’ series. A complete English translation has been available for a while. I think that reading that complete text indicates how many concerns of the later Foucault were anticipated in some way by that early work.

That isn’t to say, of course, that there is nothing new in Foucault’s work, and it goes through a number of developments. Most evidently, the language he uses to described his theoretical approach changes. The vocabulary around ‘power’, for example, or in a later period the relation between truth and subjectivity emerge as organising principles for his work. Foucault is explicit that these brought to the fore problems that his work had long been concerned with. That’s a more plausible reading of his work than the idea that he turns from knowledge to power as topics of concern, I think. Additionally, I’d see archaeology and genealogy as complementary approaches, the latter developed to address some problems he identifies in the former, rather than as one replacing the other. In the Psychiatric Power course from 1974 Foucault returns to some of the material in History of Madness and critically reinterrogates it with his new conceptual tools. There are concerns in The Birth of the Clinic concerning social medicine which are treated again in greater detail in some lectures and collaborative research work in the mid-late 1970s, and so on.

In other courses and writings the material that Foucault interrogated changes – he ranges across wide historical periods, and in his later work he treats antiquity in detail. Again, though we can see that earlier lecture course also discussed this period – the most striking is the detailed discussion of ancient Greece in his 1970-71 course Lectures on the Will to Know.

What I do in Foucault’s Last Decade, and the companion study Foucault: The Birth of Power, which will be published in early 2017, is to treat quite discrete periods of Foucault’s work – 1974-84 and 1969-74. I hope in time to turn to the earlier Foucault, of the 1960s and what we know of his work in the 1950s. I’ve been working backwards, in part, because of the availability of material. As yet, we have little material from the 1960s apart from the work Foucault published in his own lifetime. But that is going to change with the publication of pre-Collège de France courses over the next several years.

EW: There is still a good deal of Foucault’s work that has yet to be translated into English. Which work, or works, do you hope to see translated soon?

SE: There isn’t that much untranslated actually. The lecture courses have been translated fairly soon after their French publication, due to the enormous work of Graham Burchell. There are a couple more of the Collège de France courses still to come, but they are in process. The other posthumous volumes of Foucault’s work – courses elsewhere, and some smaller collections of lectures or interviews – have largely been translated or are under contract. All Foucault’s authored books, with the exception of his early Maladie mentale et personalité [Mental Illness and Personality] exist in English, and even his collaborative book with Arlette Farge, Disorderly Families, will soon be out with University of Minnesota Press. Foucault disowned Maladie mentale et personalité and revised it into Maladie mentale et psychologie [Mental Illness and Psychology], which we do have in English. I do think that some of Foucault’s major books could be usefully retranslated – Discipline and Punish is, I think, especially overdue for an overhaul. The recent French publication of the Oeuvres collection, which provides critical editions of the texts, might be the occasion for this work to begin.

The two big gaps in English translation are Foucault’s shorter works, and his collaborative projects. The French collection Dits et écrits [Talks and Writings] collected almost all of Foucault’s shorter writings in a four-volume, chronologically-ordered collection. There are about 360 texts in this collection, many of which were translated back into French having originally appeared in other languages. The English Essential Works is much shorter, and is arranged thematically. So there are quite a lot of texts in the French collection which are not available in English, but translating them would be a challenge for a publisher. This is in part because many of the key texts are already available, and so a collection would either replicate a lot of existing translation, or offer only a partial view. I’ve discussed this with a few publishers, but the task would be formidable, both in terms of scope, the translation work and the rights issues.

I’ve thought for a while that Foucault’s collaborative work would be interesting to highlight – both his collective activist work and what he did in his seminars and other projects. There will be a forthcoming English collection of his work with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons [Prison Information Group], which is important and worthwhile, though that’s only part of the story. His work with the Groupe Information Santé [Health information group]  – a parallel group to the prisons one– is something I discuss quite a bit in Foucault: The Birth of Power. There are also other collaborative projects from work with Félix Guattari’s CERFI group, and in his seminars, some of which are published, but often as reports or in hard-to-find places. More is in the archive, especially at the IMEC library in Normandy.

EW: At one point, you write, Foucault tried to create a “collective seminar” with his students. What happened?

SE: There were many attempts. When Foucault was elected to the Collège de France he divided his teaching duties into a lecture course and a seminar. The courses have now all been published. He abandoned the seminar in 1980 and instead gave more lectures each year until his death. We know relatively little of what happened in the seminars – there is usually a brief note in the ‘course summary’ he wrote each year on the lectures, but these don’t always give us much information and some are missing or incomplete. There are stories that some of the seminars were recorded, but no archive seems to have available copies.

The first key publication was the I, Pierre Rivière book – a publication of a memoir by nineteenth-century peasant who had murdered his family, along with legal, psychiatric and medical expert views of the case, and commentary by Foucault and his colleagues. That was a case they found in their collective research and this became the focus of the next couple of years’ seminar. One of Foucault’s colleagues in that work, Jean-Pierre Peter, published a couple of other cases which Foucault discussed in his Abnormals course a couple of years later. Later Collège de France seminars discussed hospital architecture and social medicine, the notion of dangerousness, psychiatric expertise, police science, juridical thought and liberalism. Traces of these themes appear in various places – some of Foucault’s lectures or publications, and some collaborative research reports or books. This is something I discuss in Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power, though the sources are frustratingly incomplete.

Foucault also set up research seminars when he was a visiting academic elsewhere. The two most important were in Louvain in 1981 and Berkeley in 1983. The papers from the Louvain seminar – running alongside the course we now have in English as Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling – were published, though there is no text by Foucault in the book, it has not been translated and it is hard to locate a copy. The Berkeley seminar was run in parallel to the lectures on parrēsia – which we have in English as the unauthorised transcript Fearless Speech, but which has recently appeared in an accurate French critical edition. The Berkeley seminar was to look at mechanisms of governance in the early 20th century, and the plan was that four countries would be the focus – France, Italy, the US and USSR. Foucault would work on France and Berkeley students would look at the other countries. There were several meetings, but the project had barely begun before Foucault got ill and died. He was due to return to Berkeley in late 1984 to continue this work, but of course this never happened. But the students – all of whom went on to distinguished academic careers – did publish books interrogating these concerns in their specific countries. I was able to speak to some of the people involved in this seminar and say a bit about this in the closing chapter of Foucault’s Last Decade.

EW: You mention “Maladie mentale et personalité” – why did Foucault disown this work?

SE: This was a book published in 1954, when Foucault was in his late 20s. It’s quite different from his later work, both in argument and style. It was written before he did the detailed work which informed his History of Madness, originally his doctoral thesis. Given that they were on the same topic, it’s not surprising that Foucault came to disagree with his own earlier work. As I understand it, he tried to block its republication and when that wasn’t possible, preferred to rewrite it. The second half was completely rewritten; the first half revised, and the title changed. The most detailed comparison of Maladie mentale et personalité and Maladie mentale et psychologie is provided in James Bernauer’s book on Foucault. It’s something I’d like to work on in the future, as part of a wider project on Foucault in the 50s and 60s.

EW: You note that Foucault located within psychiatry the origins of modern racism in The Abnormals. Could you elaborate on this connection?

It’s a comment Foucault makes about how the category of the abnormal or the anomalous emerges in psychiatry, as the thing by which the norm or the normal is established. Normal behaviour or characteristics are defined in a negative way, but not being abnormal. He draws parallels between this and modern racism, based on biological concerns rather than the older war of races, though both have elements of the idea that ‘we are not like them’. The modern difference is that this is based on science and calculation. It links to issues around eugenics and genetics – discourses of purification and normalisation. Foucault doesn’t make much of this theme in The Abnormals, but it returns as a major focus in the course from the following year, ‘Society Must Be Defended’, especially in late lectures, and is further developed in the final chapter of the first volume of the History of Sexuality. Foucault anticipated a volume of the history of sexuality under the title Populations et races, which I believe would have elaborated these concerns. But that was the sixth projected volume of the original plan, and I don’t think Foucault got very far in elaborating it. So it’s a frustrating gap in his work.

EW: What do you make of the recent attempts to label Foucault a proponent of neoliberalism?

SE: Not much, to be honest. Foucault is certainly not above criticism, and when I was working on territory I found many problems with his analysis of that topic. But the work on neoliberalism that seeks to suggest he had a sympathy to it is flawed for multiple reasons. Most importantly, it seems to me to miss what Foucault was actually trying to accomplish in that lecture course, which has to be seen in relation to the previous and subsequent courses – Security, Territory, Population and On the Government of the Living – and a wider continuity of concerns and problems. Foucault is trying, as ever, to understand the internal workings of specific discourses and their power relations. He is not acting as a proponent of neoliberalism, just as he is not a proponent of reason of state or the early Church fathers. (In reverse, I find some of the attempts to give Foucault precedence in neoliberalism’s critique can be problematic too.) In addition, there have been some downright dishonest manipulations of the historical record to try to assert the supposed link. Some of the people working on this, like Michael Behrent, are at least worth taking seriously and engaging with; others are not working at a sufficiently serious level of scholarship to be worth the effort. Additionally, I’m disappointed that the focus on this period has not yet, to my knowledge, uncovered new historical documents that would elucidate the topic. The course on neoliberalism had been out for a decade before this supposed revelation, and this was simply a rereading (or misreading) of that material. But we know that there is more that was said – course editor Michel Sennelart briefly discusses an unpublished manuscript on liberalism, there were seminars on the topic and so on. More could be done on this topic, but it would require more subtly and more patient labour to uncover something really worth discussing. I think Foucault’s political activism gives a much better insight into his political aims and affiliations.

EW: What are your primary criticisms and concerns of Foucault?

SE: I’m sure that people will see these two books I’ve written as uncritical. To an extent they would be right, here, because that wasn’t my purpose. I was trying to reconstruct, with all the detail I could provide, what Foucault was trying to do, and why his work got into problems. He himself came to realise that much of what he’d said in the first volume of the History of Sexuality was historically misleading, especially around confession. He realised that some of the initial claims he made about antiquity were problematic, and so he reworked that material. So there are criticisms of Foucault’s work made by him, and in these books I was interested in tracing those changing views and the ways he tried to address them. More broadly, I’ve mentioned the question of territory. In my own work on territory I made the claim that while almost everything Foucault said about the history of territory was misleading at best, and often demonstrably wrong, he was nonetheless crucial to my work in telling that story. I could add other things – I don’t agree with all he said about figures from the history of philosophy, his take on the Middle Ages is partial, and so on. But as I’ve said before when asked this question – Foucault is always interesting and thought-provoking, even when he’s wrong. I actually think he’s often more interesting when he’s wrong than most people are when they’re right.

The thing I take most from Foucault is his way of asking questions and interrogating problems. I think his political activism and engagement with contemporary problems is underappreciated, and that’s something I’ve tried to address in the Foucault: The Birth of Power book. Quite how he combined that activism with the academic work is difficult to grasp, and the research I’ve done on his notes has shown me just how much time he must have spent in the library and archive. I suppose my concern with Foucault is perhaps less about him than about how he is appropriated. If Foucault shows us anything, it is that historical and conceptual work is difficult, painstaking and slow. Many of the terms that come from his work – biopolitics, governmentality, technologies of the subject – are historically particular and geographically specific. Sometimes these are then transplanted into analyses of other times and places, often in quite an uncritical way. Doing careful, historical work on related topics to those Foucault questioned will often show up differences to his writings, but that would be truer to his spirit than uncritical applications.

If you’re interested in Stuart Elden’s work, check out his blog: Progressive Geographies.