Introducing Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The avowal is central to Foucault’s project in his 1981 lectures at the Collège de France, Subjectivité et vérité. As he notes on January 7, 1981, “In the case of sexuality, truthful discourse (le discours vrai) was institutionalized in large part as an obligatory discourse of the subject on himself. That is to say, it was not organized around the observation or examination, but rather around the practice of avowal.” (S&V, p. 16-17). Foucault would emphasize:

A discourse of avowal on an indissociable part of ourselves: it is around this question that we have to understand the problem of the relations “subjectivity and truth” regarding sex. [Discours d’aveu sur une part indissociable de nous-même: c’est autour de cela qu’il faut comprendre le problème des rapports “subjectivité et vérité” a propos du sexe.] (S&V, p. 17).

This provides the direct link from Subjectivity and Truth to the lectures on Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice that Foucault inaugurates the very next day. He concludes S&T in Paris on April 1, 1981, and begins WDTT in Louvain, Belgium, on April 2, 1981.

Foucault’s Louvain lectures trace a genealogy of the avowal as a form of truth-telling and focus specifically on the relationship between telling-truth and the rendering of justice. The lectures span Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, early Christian forms of penance, medieval monasticism, the birth of psychiatry, and extend into the late 1970s with the discussion of the 1977 death penalty case of Patrick Henry, who was represented by Robert Badinter.

The Louvain lectures represent Foucault’s most explicit engagement with issues of law, rights, and justice—as he himself states in the very first lecture. The lectures raise the question of the manifold ways, throughout history, that acts of truth-telling have formed part of declarations of justice: how acts of avowal contribute to the establishment of new orders of truth that themselves constitute particular instantiations of justice. By focusing on the act of avowal, the Louvain lectures place the human subject at the heart of the inquiry—the human subject who, by avowing a wrong-doing, participates in his own subjectivation, his being made a subject, and his own governance.

In this sense, the Louvain lectures contribute centrally to the development of the third dimension of Foucault’s critical apparatus: beyond power and knowledge, the lectures focus attention on the subject. Several years later, in Le Courage de la vérité, Foucault would make his intervention more pointed by emphasizing that it is a “pure and simple caricature” to present what is referred to as the power/knowledge critique through an account “in which the subject does not have a role” (CV, p. 10).[1]

The recentering of Foucault’s project on the subject’s implication in his own subjectivation and in the production of justice can be illustrated, rapidly, through Foucault’s discussion of the Homeric song regarding Antilochus and Menelaus, the famous episode of the chariot race.[2] Through the Homeric episode, a particular social hierarchy—one in which gods take precedent over humans, and senior heroic figures over the younger heroes—is reproduced by means of Antilochus’ own act of deferring to Menelaus, who he ultimately admits is older, wiser, and stronger than he. What Foucault emphasizes in the episode is that the order of truth, the social hierarchy, is not simply imposed on Antilochus by means of a traditional conception of power, namely of someone “more” powerful imposing a regime on another who would be “subject” to that power. Nor is it merely maintained or produced through knowledge; it is no mere product of a savoir. Rather, Antilochus implicates himself in the production of the social order through a quasi-avowal that functions to establish that very social order in a new way—one, in fact, that may extend even greater legitimacy to the social order. For, had Menelaus imposed his victory over Antilochus by means of a jury composed of more senior heroic figures, the victory itself would not have been received in the same way. By offering Antilochus the opportunity to take an oath, Menelaus allows Antilochus to blame his own youth and exuberance and, in effect, to embrace and himself help restore an order of truth. One can say that Antilochus (re)establishes the order of truth and is thereby deeply implicated in the order that “subjects” him to Menelaus. On my reading, the parenthetical “(re)” can be dropped: the performative aspect of telling-truth is of utmost importance. It is not so much that a prior order of truth is being reestablished, it is more the case that a different order of truth is being enacted. Antilochus is now implicated in that new order of truth in a way that had not been before. He is more wedded to the hierarchical order—at least, at that moment. The episode reveals, succinctly, how avowal and justice are deeply imbricated.

In the Louvain lectures, Foucault not only explores the multiple ways in which the subject’s avowal constitutes justice (and simultaneously reconstitutes the subject), but gives an account of the increasing importance of avowal in declarations of justice from the medieval to the modern period—the idea, essentially, being that as more traditional forms of veridiction (such as trial by ordeal, torture, and inquisitions) began to lose their hold on truth, the need for voluntary confessions increased proportionally, putting a strain on the justice system. The need for avowal augmented at the same time that the truth of the subject shifted—a shift that Foucault documents in Discipline and Punish from the determination of the criminal act to the identification of the delinquent subject. These two changes—the increased need for avowal and the shift to the notion of the delinquent—put immense pressure on the system and, in Foucault’s account, helped pave the way for the production of psychiatric knowledge to fill the gap. But these shifts also created a breach that would undermine traditional processes of justice—what Foucault described as “l’épine, l’écharde, la plaie, la ligne de fuite, la brèche de tout le système pénal.”

A helpful illustration of this is the closing scene of the Louvain lectures, where Foucault discusses the capital sentencing of Patrick Henry in 1977.[iii] Henry had been convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a young child. In a striking closing argument at the end of the capital sentencing trial, the defendant’s attorney, Robert Badinter, tells the jury:

“Of course, the accused has recognized his crime. He has confessed. But what did he say about this crime? What information did he offer you about his crime, about the reasons for his crime, about who he is? You have no idea. He could tell you nothing. Nothing appeared in the investigative interrogations, in the psychiatric examinations, nor even today when he appeared before the criminal court. He said nothing. He did not want to say anything. He could not say anything. In any case, you know nothing about him.”

Foucault then remarks on this “antimony of our penal reasoning,” closing with Badinter’s final words: “Can you condemn to death someone who you do not know?”

The irony should not escape us. Badinter had flipped disciplinary knowledge on its head: rather than being the source of punishment, knowledge of the delinquent—or here, the lack of knowledge—shields the accused. It protects him from the gallows. The need for avowal—avowal of who the accused really is—has ground the penal system to a halt.

A Reader’s Companion to Discipline and Punish

It is fascinating to see how Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling expands on the discussion of avowal in Discipline and Punish. In the latter, avowal is really only discussed within the framework of “the spectacle of the scaffold” and it has a narrow function there: in the judicial ceremony, confession produces the truth of the crime. The avowal there is important, but narrow: it is the means by which the accused “signs the truth of the information.” It is crucial for the functioning of the system; but it is very much imposed upon the accused. It is imposed externally and serves an external function of reflecting the truth of the crime. It has all the trappings of the public exhibition of truth that the sovereign imposes with these brutal early punishments. And for these reasons, it is associated primarily with two elements: with questions of proof and sermons; and with questions of torture. (The connection between avowal and torture is very important in D&P, as it is in the first volume of History of Sexuality).

Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling extends this original analysis along two important dimensions: first, it internalizes the avowing practices. They become internalized in the sense that we seem them as voluntarily assumed in daily ethical practices and contexts—for example the daily examination of conscience in the stoic tradition. Avowal is no longer something simply imposed by another in a repressive regime, but part of a daily therapeutic practice that is willingly assumed by the subject. Second, it extends the avowing practices into all periods and forms of relations of power. Avowal is not just associated with the juridical notions of sovereignty. It is everywhere. And it functions at all times as a central mechanism of subjectivation. So it becomes pervasive as a mode of self governance and governance of others.

Larger Implications

The 1981 Louvain lectures leave us with at least three significant implications. The first suggest how our own practices of reflection can serve to reinforce the relations of power that constrain and limit us. This is illustrated with the interpretation of the chariot race. The account is so fascinating because, through his avowal, Antilochus not only restores the social hierarchy, but does so in a way that reinforces it. It would have had much less purchase on him and others if it had been imposed. But he willingly embraces it.

Second, the lectures intimate that these practices can be ordinary, daily practices of ethics. They need not be inquisitorial or oppressive. We subject ourselves in the ordinary course of ethical life. This is illustrated by the stoic examination of conscience: an evening exercise, intended merely to promote a reflective and contemplative life, that functions as a means to reinforce social rules of order.

Third, the Louvain lectures underscore the mysterious force or power to the idea of telling the truth about oneself. As Fabienne Brion and I suggest in the course context to the English edition, the lectures could have been called The Power of Truth (or the power of telling truth). It is about how telling truth is linked to telling justice, to making something just. It remains mysterious as to what that power consists of. It is, of course, the driving force in the lectures: how it becomes so powerful and important and necessary, that we need to substitute for it because it does not do enough; how psychiatry can be understood as a substitute to tell the truth of the delinquent; and how it creates this breach in the whole system when we do not know or do not have a confession form the defendant. The point of the discussion of Robert Badinter is that it may even defuse punishment. The question it raises is: what is it about truth-telling that is so powerful? Why, at the end of the day, do we place so much weight on our avowals?


It may be worth noting that, during and throughout this period, Foucault continues to be deeply engaged politically, forming a committee in June 1981 with Bernard Kouchner and Yves Montand for the defense of the Vietnamese refugees who came to be known as the “boat people,” and, with Pierre Bourdieu in December 1981, called for protests regarding the situation of martial law in Poland, and would work for several months with the CFDT committee for the support to the Polish people. (See Daniel Defert’s Chronology in Pléiade edition of the complete works of Michel Foucault, Volume 2, p. xxxiii-xxxiv).


1. It is important to emphasize that from the very first, from his Introduction à l’Anthropologie (1959-1960), written as the complementary thesis to Histoire de la folie, Foucault was already focused on the question of subjectivity and truth. In fact, the question that animates his Introduction is how our knowledge of man and thus our knowledge of ourselves is possible given the limits of reason—how is it possible for there to be a self, for there to be a subject, that we can know and do things to in a world in which there is no thing-in-itself. Foucault’s early writings on madness, delinquency, and sexuality are three case studies of the way in which subjects have been created, of processes of subjectivation. They are studies of subjectivity—of the particular subject of the madman, of the criminal, of the sexual pervert. So the turn to the subject and practices of the self in the later years is by no means a new development, but a closing of the circle.

2. Michel Foucault had presented a first reading of this Homeric episode in his first annual lectures at the Collège de France in 1970-71 in Leçons sur la volonté de savoir, p. 72 et seq, and at a series of lectures at the Université pontificale catholique de Rio de Janeiro in May 1973, entitled La vérité et les formes juridiques. (Dits et Ecrits, tome II (1970-1975), n° 139, Paris, Gallimard, 1994, p. 555-556).

3. For background on the Patrick Henry case, see Robert Badinter, L’Abolition, Paris, Fayard, 2000, p. 37-105. Foucault discussed the case elsewhere in « L’angoisse de juger » (entretien avec R. Badinter et J. Laplanche), Le Nouvel Observateur, n° 655, 30 mai-6 juin 1977, p. 92-96, reprinted in M. Foucault, Dits et Écrits, III, n° 205, p. 282-297 ; and M. Foucault, « L’évolution de la notion d’‘individu dangereux’ dans la psychiatrie légale du XIXe siècle », Dits et Écrits, III, n° 220, p. 444.

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