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Foucault: ‘What Could Be Otherwise’-Lynne Huffer

Posted by admin On April - 27 - 2013


A noteworthy conversation that took place in September 1971 between Michel Foucault and Dutch philosopher Fons Elders is to be published for the fi rst time later this year. It reiterates some of the best-known Foucauldian positions on the Enlightenment idea of reason, madness, foreign cultures, and sexuality, while reminding us what Foucault’s rare practice of knowing has to offer today.

Lynne Huffer (lhuffer@emory.edu) is at the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory University, and is the author of Mad for Foucault (2010).

1 The Vicious Circle

The following reflections were triggered by a remarkable conversation between Michel Foucault and Dutch philosopher Fons Elders. In this September 1971 interview, slated to be published for the first time later this year, Elders spoke with Foucault in preparation for his televised debate with Noam Chomsky in November the same year. Foucault participated in the conversation with Elders at the height of his anti-prison activism as a member of GIP (Groupe d’information sur les prisons, or the Prison Information Group), in the same month as the Attica revolt and the hostage crisis in the French Clairvaux prison.

Given Foucault’s lifelong interrogation of what he calls the “merciless” language of reason, it is fitting that the interview begins with madness. Like Foucault’s earlier book, History of Madness (1961), the 1971 interview brings into focus Foucault’s true target – the Enlightenment ideal of reason. Throughout the interview Foucault challenges a received assumption about the necessary relation between knowledge and freedom – the more we know, the more free we will be. Conversely, the more free we are, the more we will know. According to this assumption, reason finds its completion in universal knowledge and absolute freedom.

This is the “paradise”, as Elders puts it, of the Western Enlightenment dream. But Foucault uncovers “cruelty” lurking in paradise in the form of a chiasmus, a reversal in word order that can be marked with an x – If man frees himself, man will know everything; when man knows everything, he will be free. The logic here is as inescapable as it is definitive in the future it promises. The x of the chiasmus binds man to himself in the vice versa necessity of freedom-for-knowledge and knowledge-for-freedom. But the chiasmus also effaces, as an x-ing out, the cruelty of the exclusions that bind man to his necessity. Madness is the exclusion that exposes paradise as an illusion.

Elders asks Foucault if reason, in knowing madness, can find its completion in universal knowledge. Foucault’s response is consistent with his later critique, in the debate with Chomsky, of rational ideals such as justice. “Ideal justice”, Foucault will say later to Chomsky, “that’s my problem”. In the September interview, Foucault uses madness to demonstrate the stakes of this philosophical disagreement.

In order to know madness it first had to be excluded. … We suppressed madness, and as a result came to know it. … My hypothesis is this: the universality of our knowledge has been acquired at the cost of exclusions, bans, denials, rejections, at the price of a kind of cruelty with regard to any reality.

This is how cruelty enters paradise. Or better, this is how the idea of paradise produces cruelty. The chiastic binding of freedom to knowledge as an Enlightenment ideal both effaces and perpetuates, as “the secret of our knowledge”, a “viciousness” that excludes. Here Foucault names the edifice Friedrich Nietzsche tried to demolish by hammering away at those Enlightenment foundations. Foucault picks up the hammer where Nietzsche dropped it when, slinging his arms around the neck of a horse that had been beaten, he slumped into madness and silence.1

“If man frees himself, man will know everything; when man knows everything, he will be free.” Here we find Foucault redescribing the x as a circle, the “vicious circle” whose “viciousness” is the cruelty of knowledge. That cruelty authorises “the gesture of sovereign reason that locks up their neighbour,” the same cruelty that authorises locking up prisoners in the name of justice.2 And so, Foucault says, “we must reverse the terms” of the chiasmus – “We can’t know everything” and “to know everything” is to be unfree. The conclusion Foucault draws here is a radical one – we must “abandon” the chiastic, illusory necessity that binds freedom to knowledge. We must face the fact that we live in a time when we “will have to abandon knowledge if it wants to be truly free”.

This is not a call for stupidity, but rather an exposure of the limits of ourselves in relation to what we are not. The cost of the illusion that we can know it all – the exclusion of the other – is too high. Indeed, as the bloody dénouement of the Attica revolt on the same day as the interview attests, the stakes could not be higher.

The chiasmus marks with an x the tension of many Foucault interviews, where we find Foucault pulling in one direction and his interlocutor pulling in the other. Where Foucault’s interlocutor seeks the perfection of the Enlightenment ideal, Foucault insists that with the pursuit of absolutes we perpetuate cruelty. We imagine ourselves as tolerant when in fact we are merciless. We imagine ourselves as kind when in fact we are vicious. Bound by the chiasmus, we are trapped in our own heartlessness – a circle of viciousness, the vicious circle.

2 A Divided Ratio

Madness, the Attica riots, and the anti-prison militancy of Foucault and his friends constitute the immediate political context of the 1971 interview. But GIP and the larger movement of which Foucault was a part is connected to other late 20th century movements including, most saliently, anti-colonial struggles for independence from France and other European empires in Africa and Asia. The September interview also marks a moment of intense sexual activism – what Foucault will later call “the putting into discourse of sex” – in the name of women and sexual minorities.3

“In order to know madness it first had to be excluded”, Foucault tells Elders. But, he continues,

Could we also say that in order to know other cultures – non-Western cultures, so-called primitive cultures, or American, African, and Chinese cultures – in order to know these cultures, we must no doubt have had not only to marginalise them, not only to look down upon them, but also to exploit them, to conquer them and in some ways through violence to keep them silent? We suppressed madness, and as result came to know it. We suppressed foreign cultures, and as a result came to know them.

Here Foucault’s challenge to the despotism of Enlightenment reason is also a challenge to western knowledge’s complicity with colonial power. Further, the remark echoes Foucault’s earlier written reflections on universal knowledge as a function of a “colonising reason” (2006: xxx). In the 1961 Preface to the History of Madness, Foucault wrote,

In the universality of the Western ratio, there is this division which is the Orient: the Orient, thought of as the origin, dreamt of as the vertiginous point from which nostalgia and promises of return are born, the Orient offered to the colonising reason of the Occident, but indefinitely inaccessible, for it always remains the limit: the night of the beginning, in which the Occident was formed, but in which it traced a dividing line, the Orient is for the Occident everything that it is not, while remaining the place in which its primitive truth must be sought (2006: xxx).

In the 1961 Preface, as in the interview, Foucault clarifies what is at stake, ethically and politically, when he launches his critique of the vicious circle that binds absolute freedom to universal knowledge. In the logic that binds East to West, “the Orient is for the Occident everything it is not”. The Orient functions as the “indefinitely inaccessible” limit against which “the Occident [is] formed”. But it is the false “universality of the Western ratio” that is, in fact, the origin of its own divisions – between reason and unreason, West and East, coloniser and colony, itself and “everything that it is not”.

Foucault’s comments about his own life later in the interview bring home this point about the western ratio. On the heels of a discussion of Marxism, Elders asks Foucault about the impact of May 1968 on his life. Foucault reminds Elders that he was away during the events of May 1968. Following the success of The Order of Things in 1966, Foucault had moved to Sidi Bou Saïd, a village a few kilometres outside Tunis, and was living there when the student revolts in Paris occurred. But another student revolt was also taking place, this one by the National Union of Students against the authoritarian Habib Bourguiba government in Tunisia. Police responded by entering the university, attacking the students, and throwing them into jail. Foucault, who had been teaching these students as a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Tunisia, helped with the printing of anti-government leaflets and donated part of his salary to the defence fund for those who were arrested. As the events unfolded, Foucault became convinced that his telephone was being tapped; at one point Foucault was stopped in his car and beaten. By October 1968 he was forced to leave Tunisia. Later, Foucault said “there is no comparison between the barricades of the Latin Quarter and the real risk of doing 15 years in prison, as in Tunisia”.4

Three years later, in the 1971 interview, Foucault links these Tunisian events to the theme of universal knowledge and repression. “By living in Tunisia”, Foucault says, “that is to say in an African country that is culturally Muslim, rejected from our culture, from our cultural system in spite of many similarities, I felt with the young people I knew there the problem of exclusion and of universality.” Having lived in Sidi Bou Saïd, a Mediterranean village whose Arab cafés and Turkish-style minarets delighted the Europeans who flocked there, Foucault’s Tunisian experience was a dramatic lesson about very real cruelties in the postcolonial paradises of the western ratio.

Foucault also anticipates the arguments about sexuality he will develop in History of Sexuality, Volume One. Like madness and other cultures, sexuality is silenced by the western ratio. In modernity, that silencing of sexuality is paradoxical – the age of sexual repression also marks the birth of a garrulous science whose primum mobile is sex. As Foucault puts it,

We suppressed madness, and as result came to know it. We suppressed foreign cultures, and as a result came to know them. … And perhaps we might also say that it is not until the great Puritanism of the 19th century that sexuality was first suppressed and was then known finally in psychoanalysis or psychology or in psychopathology.

The experience of sexuality, like the experience of madness, disappears behind “the calm of a knowledge which”, as Foucault put it in History of Madness, “through knowing it too much, passes it over” (2006: xxxiv, emphasis added). Remembering the chiasmus, we might infer from these examples that the more we know about madness, about other cultures, or about sexuality the less free we will be. It is a reminder, once again, that “we can’t know everything” and that to try “to know everything” has a cost. It is a reminder that we must abandon the western ratio.

3 Raritas

The dialogue between Foucault and Elders unfolds in a syncopated rhythm that taps out the halting beat of disconnection, impasse, and transformation. In a separate commentary, Elders describes with humour how being out of sync with Foucault generated scenes we might characterise as uncomfortable moments of thinking otherwise.

Scene One: Annoyed with Elders for arriving five minutes late for his first meeting with him in 1970, Foucault greets Elders with a curt “you have 25 minutes left”. An hour later we find Foucault at the wheel of his white sports car, Elders by his side, driving him to Bordeaux.

Scene Two: Foucault is resistant to Elders’ proposal that he appear on TV with Chomsky. “I don’t like television”, Foucault says. Then Elders tells Foucault about the time he, Elders, appeared nude on Dutch TV. Or rather, he says he was almost nude, wearing only a pair of red boots. This detail changes Foucault’s mind. “Well,” says Foucault, “in that case, I want to be nude on television with you and Chomsky!”

We might read these moments, with humour, as parables of transformation, where awkwardness or irritation gives way to openings that had been previously blocked. By 1971 Foucault was a celebrity, and his resistance to Elders may well signal his desire for anonymity and his reluctance to being swept into the role of the grande vedette, the talking head, the public intellectual of his age. When Foucault changes his mind – when he gives in to Elders’ demands – it is not fame but rarity that draws him. Let me explain.

Scene Three: An Amsterdam café. Elders has told Foucault it is time to leave the café. In preparation for the televised debate with Chomsky, they must take a cab and then a plane to a private island where the filming of a biographical portrait of Foucault has been scheduled. Foucault makes it clear he is unhappy. Elders, falling silent, picks up his copy of History of Madness and begins to read. The result, Elders says, “was a Beckett play: two men sitting silently at a small table while one of them reads a book written by the other. Outside a cab and a plane are waiting.”

This moment, Elders says, is an “empty space”, a phrase he borrows from Foucault’s friend, the philosopher Paul Veyne. “Human phenomena are exceptional”, Veyne writes. “They are not ensconced in the plenitude of reason; there is empty space around them for other phenomena that we in our wisdom do not grasp; what is could be otherwise”.

After sitting in silence, one man reading a book about madness written by the other, the one who wrote the book suddenly gets up and leaves the café, turning to walk away from the cab that is waiting to take him to the plane and the film shoot. Abandoning professional protocol, and probably out of desperation, Elders hails Foucault with a grammar of intimacy he and Foucault had not used with each other before, “Michel, fais-le pour moi” (“Michel, do it for me”). And Foucault responds, echoing the tu of his interlocutor, “Je le fais seulement pour toi” (“I will do it only for you”).

In that agreement, wrested from a refusal, the rarity of the only in the intimacy of the tu marks the transformation of the “empty space” into an “otherwise”. It is the singularity of the intimate – something other than fame – that compels Foucault to give in to Elders and to turn towards the cab and the plane. Rarity: raritas. Rarity names the singularity of the intimate – that which is not widely known, used, or experienced. Rarity cannot be captured within the universally known – it is the something precious that Enlightenment knowledge can only reject, disavow, or exclude.

In “Lives of Infamous Men” (1977), Foucault writes that “it is rarity and not prolixity” that matters. 5 This is not the rarity of a precious object to be hoarded or consumed, but the rarity of an other who punctures him with “a light coming from elsewhere” and thereby transforms him. This 1971 interview, soon to be published four decades after its time, leaves us to reflect on what might be done with such singular lives and such rare practices of knowing. With raritas, Foucault offers us, today, an untimely, empty space for thinking and practising what could be otherwise.


1 In late 1888 or early 1889 Nietzsche went mad. An incident that occurred in January 1889 has achieved the status of a legend as one of the first signs of Nietzsche’s illness. After witnessing the whipping of a horse in a piazza in Turin, Nietzsche caused a public disturbance by running to the horse, throwing his arms around its neck, then collapsing to the ground. For reflections on Nietzsche’s madness in the context of his philosophy, see Ronald Hayman (1980), Nietzsche: A Critical Life (New York: Oxford University Press).

2 Michel Foucault (2006): History of Madness, trans Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (London: Routledge), xxvii.

3 Michel Foucault (1990): The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction (1990), trans Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books), 12.

4 In David Macey (1993): The Lives of Michel Foucault (London: Hutchinson), 205-6. For a more detailed account of Foucault’s political activities in Tunisia, see Didier Eribon (1991): Michel Foucault (Paris: Flammarion), 204-8.

5 Michel Foucault (2000): “Lives of Infamous Men,” in Essential Works of Foucault: 1954-1984, Volume Three (ed.), James Faubion (New York: New Press), 161.

Lynne Huffer (lhuffer@emory.edu) is at the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory University, and is the author of Mad for Foucault (2010).

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