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The Long 1968
Revisions and New Perspectives
By Daniel J. Sherman, Ruud van Dijk, Jasmine Alinder, A. Aneesh
Indiana University Press Copyright © 2013 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All rights reserved.
Michel Foucault's career as a public intellectual, his stances in words and deeds, in theory and practice, were deeply informed by the events of May 1968 and the political struggles that followed upon it. It is difficult to single out any cultural theorist or political philosopher of importance for whom May 1968 had such a decidedly dramatic impact or who was more engaged with its meaning and import. Yet, there has been scant scholarly attention to this relationship, perhaps because it is thought to be of little interest beyond the biographical or because it is surmised that he was not particularly sympathetic to the uprisings of May 1968, given his often-expressed skepticism concerning the emancipatory promise of mass revolutionary movements. Absent from Paris in May 1968, he had no memories to share of the barricades nor any badge to wear.
Against these doubts, I argue that Foucault's relation to May 1968 was extensive and intimate as well as crucial for understanding his theory and practice in the 1970s. Most obviously, in the wake of 1968, Foucault became a militant political activist, whereas earlier his posture toward politics was one of ironic detachment. Less appreciated is the shock and disruption that the events of 1968 administered to his theoretical work and methodologies. It is well known that, roughly between 1969 and 1975, Foucault's thinking underwent a major transformation, usually described as the transition from "archaeology" to "genealogy," that eventuated in the publication of Discipline and Punish in 1975. According to most commentators, this resulted from Foucault's discovery of basic flaws in his archaeological method. A closer analysis, however, reveals that his intense engagement in political militancy within a post-1968 horizon was the chief catalyst for temporally halting and then redirecting his theoretical work.
Also not well appreciated is how much Foucault reflected on 1968 to determine its meaning. This is understandable, since these reflections appear not in his books or well-known articles but in the mass of interviews conducted in the 1970s, many of which were published originally in foreign languages during Foucault's travels abroad and not available in French until the publication of Dits et écrits (Things Said and Written) in 1994. In these texts, Foucault dismisses not the importance of May 1968, which he considers a major rupture in Occidental politics, but the dominant Marxist interpretations of it. In his rereadings of May 1968, he sought to wrest control of its meaning from Marxism as a strategic maneuver in his objective of providing a non-Marxist, left-wing critique of modern liberal societies.
By using May 1968 as a subtext for reading Foucault, I put into play three interpretative strategies at variance with those of standard commentaries. First, I treat his militant political activity as an integral part of his oeuvre as a public intellectual. Commentators on his theoretical work generally disregard his political activity, in some cases dismissing it outright as mere "biography" and thus wholly "un-Foucauldian" as a basis for interpretation. Why it should be "un-Foucauldian" is not clear, given that Foucault's political militancy was wholly public and on the record, not the sort of intimate biographical detail that Foucault would want to "efface" from his texts. Failure to attend interpretatively to these political practices diverts us from those rich textual sources in which Foucault, by grappling with the issues addressed by his militancy, takes the first theoretical steps in the trajectory toward Discipline and Punish.
Second, by focusing on Foucault's post-1968 interviews, I highlight his reflections about the present, the contemporaneous, in stark contrast with his canonical work, which barely ever proceeds beyond the nineteenth century and austerely excludes any reference to the present, leaving it to readers to draw the contemporary implications. Foucault's multifarious discourses on the present, in addition to reflecting the twists and turns of his thinking during this volatile period, performed the strategic function of legitimating the timeliness and relevance of his new theoretical work for post-1968 politics. Of equal importance, Foucault needed to provide a counter to the voluminous Marxist analyses of the present, particularly of May 1968, which dominated leftist discourses at the time.
This leads to my third interpretative strategy: to cast Foucault's theoretical perambulations between 1969 and 1975 in the light of his ongoing engagement and debate with Marxism. The extensive scholarship on Foucault's relation to Marxism has treated his work as a finished system to be compared and contrasted with Marxism as a system while giving little or no attention to the evolution of his thinking about Marxism. On the other hand, those who follow Foucault's theorizing through its mutations barely attend to his relation with Marxism. And yet, during that crucial 1969–75 period, Foucault was entangled thoroughly with Marxism, sometimes appropriating, sometimes critiquing its concepts, sometimes working in alliance with or in opposition to various Marxist groups. In sum, these three interpretative strategies afford us a richer, more complicated, and plausible account of Foucault's so-called transition from "archaeology" to "genealogy." No linear narrative, it moves by fits and starts through moments of confusion along multiple registers.
Detachment from Politics (1953–1967)
When Foucault returned to France in late 1968, after three years at the University of Tunis, he was received with suspicion by fellow Left intellectuals, still basking in the glow of the May—June events. He had the reputation of being condescendingly apolitical, a ferocious critic of the French Communist Party (the PCF, Parti communiste français), a Gaullist technocrat, and a denier of the power of human agency. A year before, these charges, though seriously distortive of his words, had some merit. Between the end of World War II, when he entered the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), and 1967, when he was teaching at Tunis, Foucault never displayed more than a glancing interest in political engagement. Though he had joined the PCF in 1950 (partly due to the encouragement of Louis Althusser, his mentor then), he did not perform even the minimal duties of a PCF cadre: he only occasionally attended the ENS cell meetings and never hawked the party newspaper on the streets. He left the PCF within three years, fed up with its unretracted lies, aesthetic dogmatism, and up-front homophobia. From then on, Foucault largely displayed contempt for PCF intellectuals when not ignoring them altogether—the exception being fellow "structuralist" Althusser. When teaching at Clermond-Ferrand in the early 1960s, he lost no opportunity to humiliate his colleague Roger Garaudy, who was the best-known spokesperson for the "Marxism is a humanism" theme that was being propagated at that time by the PCF (as well as by its Soviet counterpart).
Foucault was also unengaged in the other major political battles that stirred French public life in the 1950s and early 1960s, which is in part, but only in part, explained by his absence from France between 1955 and 1960, when he served as a cultural attaché in Sweden, Poland, and Germany, and between 1966 and 1968, when he taught in Tunis. Upon returning to France in 1960, Foucault showed no interest in joining the movement of resistance to the Algerian war, which was at its height at the time, despite the involvement of his long-term partner, Daniel Defert. The charge that he was a Gaullist technocrat was nourished by his enthusiastic participation in the top-down educational reforms of the Fouchet commission (1965–66), a major project of Prime Minister Georges Pompidou that was despised by students and faculty alike and credited with being one of the sparks that set off the 1968 student uprisings.
The publication of The Order of Things in 1966 and its astounding commercial success drew a number of attacks from the Left and cemented Foucault's reputation as an apolitical technocrat and a virulent anti-Communist. Reviews in Sartre's Les temps modernes and various PCF journals inveighed against this work for its structuralist snapshot approach to historical periods (thus, in the eyes of his critics, evincing no interest in the study of historical change), its prioritizing of "systems," and its apparent denial of human autonomy. Nothing more incensed spokespersons for the Left than Foucault's cavalier put-down of Marx's work as a minor movement in the history of thought. "At the deepest level of Western knowledge," declared Foucault in what is perhaps the most quoted passage of The Order of Things, "Marxism introduced no real discontinuity." For Foucault, the controversies surrounding Marxism in the nineteenth century "may have stirred up a few waves and caused a few surface ripples; but they are no more than storms in a children's paddling pool."
With this and other provocative statements in subsequent interviews, Foucault did not hesitate to stoke the fires of outrage from leftists. Sartre complied by declaring that The Order of Things was "establishing a new ideology, the final dam that the bourgeoisie can erect against Marx"—to which Foucault reportedly rejoined, "Poor old bourgeoisie, with only my book for its ramparts!" In Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, a Maoist student is seen throwing tomatoes at a copy of the book. Godard said that it was against people like "the Reverend Father Foucault" that he wanted to make films—so as to assure that "future Foucaults cannot affirm such things with so much presumption." Apolitical, anti-Marxist, technocratic—this is how Foucault was generally viewed when he returned to Paris in the fall of 1968, an anomaly in intellectual circles where calls for revolution were the order of the day. But by this time, this once-plausible perception had become grossly inaccurate. Unbeknownst to most, he had already moved toward militancy.
The Militant Professor (1967–1974)
Foucault experienced his "1968" while at the University of Tunis in March of that year, though he had been embroiled in recurrent student unrest and strikes to some extent since his arrival in the fall of 1966. He was provoked into more active, though discreet, support of student leaders in the wake of a brutal government suppression involving torture and the threat of long prison terms (up to fifteen years). He helped hide the students who escaped the roundup and allowed them to keep their copying machine in his apartment. Behind the scenes, he sought to have the egregious sentences reduced—without much effect, as it turned out. Apparently, his phones were wiretapped, and he was roughed up by government henchmen. Tunis provided Foucault with his first taste of political militancy, though it would be a few years before he went from a position of reacting to events to being a committed political activist.
Upon his return to France, Foucault became the lead candidate for chair of the philosophy department at the new experimental University of Vincennes. In this politically charged atmosphere, he was often confronted by leftists in the decision-making process with objections for having "done nothing" in May 1968—"having done May" being a badge of honor and a near requirement for positions at what was to be the lead radical university. He was tempted to reply, "While you were having fun on your Latin Quarter barricades, I was working on serious things in Tunisia," but he refrained, perhaps for reasons of political discretion. Queries about his May 1968 absence at the barricades continued to dog him even after he became a known activist. He reported later: "I remember that Marcuse said reproachfully one day, where was Foucault at the time of the May barricades?"
Vincennes became an island of political radicalism immediately after opening in January 1969. Upon his selection as chair of the philosophy department, Foucault appointed a young, unconventional faculty, preponderantly Maoist, many of them students of Althusser or Lacan, such as Étienne Balibar (the lone PCF member), Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Judith Miller (Lacan's daughter), and her husband, Jacques-Alain Miller. Within a few weeks, Foucault was drawn into his first act of confrontational militancy when he joined students occupying a building to help fend off the police. He helped to set up barricades and hurled whatever projectiles were available, all of which led to overnight detention. Apparently, Foucault enjoyed himself immensely in what appears to have been his baptism by fire in political confrontation—"Il s'amusait comme un petit fou" (He had a hell of a time), recalls his partner, Daniel Defert.
After a tumultuous year at Vincennes, Foucault was appointed to the prestigious, and studentless, Collège de France, a haven from the political storms. Contrary perhaps to expectations, rather than returning to a life of scholarly detachment, Foucault made the transition from the occasional reactive to an active, full-time militant. In February 1971, only a few months after his inaugural lecture at the Collège, he formed the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons (GIP), which would be his main political preoccupation for two years, even trumping his academic interests. The GIP was organized to gather information, often surreptitiously, about the conditions of prisons from the prisoners themselves and their families during a period of extensive prison revolts. The spark came from a hunger strike organized by incarcerated Maoist activists, mainly from the violently confrontational Gauche Prolétarienne, who sought the status of political prisoners. The GIP went beyond these issues to the concerns of all prisoners, its activists often finding themselves at prison sites in direct conflict with the authorities. In one instance, Foucault was arrested and roughed up, and others were subjected to various abuses, such as anti-Semitic taunts, by the police. Foucault was also very much involved—along with Sartre and Jean Genet—in manifestations for the rights of North African immigrants, campaigns against police brutality, demonstrations at factories, and the signing of infinite petitions. There is thus no question that Foucault's transformation into a political activist occurred within the framework of May 1968. So now the questions are: How was Foucault's theorizing affected by May 1968? How did he address these events at the level of theory?
Theory (1970–1974): Why the Interlude?
After a highly productive period between roughly 1961 and 1969, when he published six books, it took Foucault six years finally to produce the next one, Discipline and Punish. During this hiatus, he underwent a major transformation in theoretical approaches and focuses that is usually understood as a transition from the "archaeological" methods associated with his 1960s work to the "genealogical" approaches of Discipline and Punish and the works that follow. According to some influential commentators, this period of authorial quietude resulted from Foucault's discovery of basic methodological flaws in the archaeological project that took some years to redress by turning to genealogy. That is, these commentators base their account for this crisis in theory on purely internal textual and methodological grounds, for example, his failure to connect discourses to institutions in his archaeological work.
This interpretation is implausible for a number of reasons. First, nothing in the large number of interviews and talks, consisting of roughly eight hundred pages, that Foucault gave during this supposed period of "self-imposed silence" suggests that Foucault was agonizing or ruminating over his previous work or questions of methodology. Also, there is no reason to believe that archaeology and genealogy are incompatible approaches, nor does Foucault ever suggest that they are. They are tied to different problem sets and often work together. In any case, Foucault did not in the long run disown any of his major books from 1961 onward, though at different times he provided different interpretations of their place in his overall oeuvre. We must take him at his word that each work is an "experiment" and a self-transformative "experience" rather than "the construction of a system." He moves from project to project, each with its own "problematics," conceptual bases, and methodological strategies. He was not one to agonize or fret over already published works—in the few reeditions of previous work, he made the most minimal changes. Finally, it is inaccurate to say that archaeology is flawed because it fails to connect discourses to institutions. All but one of the "archaeological" works—The Order of Things—discussed the relation of discourse to institutions. Though today only a minority of scholars subscribe to the claimed incompatibility between archaeology and genealogy, writings on Foucault continue to portray the transformation he was undergoing between 1969 and 1975 primarily as a transition from an archaeological to a genealogical methodology. This view is not so much false as highly distortive of the theoretical and practical concerns that dominated Foucault's thinking in that period and the richly complex discourses and contestations that eventuated from them.
Excerpted from The Long 1968 by Daniel J. Sherman, Ruud van Dijk, Jasmine Alinder, A. Aneesh. Copyright © 2013 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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