Eight Questions on the Will to Know

By Jesús R. Velasco 

Let me build on the fascinating introductory comments of Nancy Luxon and Jim Faubion to articulate some questions that may connect Foucault’s theoretical interventions in the Lectures on the Will to Know with the contemporary issues in which he was involved. Not in the manner of analogy or figural allegory —the lectures are not a roman à clef—but as part of a larger project that calls for the kind of research undertaken by Foucault and others.

  1. The GIP manifest was signed two days before Foucault’s lesson addressing the correlation between dikaion and krinein. One of the elements of this correlation is the participation of individuals in terms of power and in terms of knowledge, against traditional chiefs. It would be easy to see an important link between this part of the research and the political goals that Foucault, Vidal-Naquet, Deleuze, Defert, and others were trying to achieve in the political arena.
  2. GIP procedures: the preeminent model of acquiring the necessary information from the different prisoners was the enquête, the very same inquisitorial model that he investigates in some of the lectures, and that he will be interested in studying in “La vérité et les formes juridiques,” among other places. How does the research on truth and the “effects of truth” affect the different procedures undertaken by Foucault and the GIP? To what extent was it necessary for Foucault to undertake the historical and conceptual research he undertook in the Lectures at the same time in which he was promoting the implementation of those systems of information? Does the question of the intolerable that leads part of his activism in the prisons group play any role in the analysis of questions like the political knowledge, the struggle among different forms of knowledge, etc.?
  3. The GIP enquête contemporary to the Lectures seems to run at two different levels at least. On the one hand, the very documents produced by the GIP, like the Enquête in Twenty Prisons, that offer a set of conclusions based on the procedures themselves –the very intellectuals who promoted the inquests become, here, the judges who present the results that need to change the relationship between knowledge and power in society. But on the other hand, there is this other more subterranean way of acquiring information by means of identifying the prisoners as “witnesses” to the enquête. However, for this second level, there were many hurdles–for instance, the authorities and wardens forbade the introduction of the questionnaires into the prison, which meant that the two main inquisitorial forms to obtaining information (living voice and dead voice) were in the hands of strange “notaries”, like family members, or volunteers visiting the prisoners. Again, I wonder about the entanglement between Foucault’s research on knowledge and truth, and the activities to obtaining information, constituting a political knowledge in the midst of his interest in the critique of the carceral models.
  4. The intellectuals who took unto themselves the task of thinking about discourses of power were invoking the necessity to include in their thought the silenced discourse of the prisoners. Inquests (inquisitorial models) have frequently been perceived by historians as early ethnographies (in 1975, Emanuel Leroy Ladurie proposed precisely that in hisMontaillou, Village Occitan, a research about the great inquisitions of the 14th Century in Southern France). One could perhaps say that the “strange inquisitorial notaries” that these intellectuals became, doubled as contemporary ethnographers, including the hitherto silenced discourses of the prisoners in the process of thinking about discourses of knowledge and power.
  5. One additional question would be how the research on the will to truth, that will unfold in his interest in the concept, procedures, and risks of parrhesia, inflects the kind of political activities Foucault is involved in. I am not trying to see an instrumentalization of the academic research, or a chain of causality, but in several parts of the Lectures Foucault hints at the ways in which research and contemporary issues are related for him (as he does in his interview with Berten in Louvain in 1981) without ever developing it in depth.
  6. Reading Oedipus and the plague on Thebas that divides the history of the polis in two, one must think of the Dyonisian dramatic agon of 427 BCE, in which Sophocles obtained the second place, after Philocles (whose work is so important… that is not extant anymore);Oedipus was premièred probably after the death of Pericles in 429, and maybe it questions the succession of the strategos, that is, the general. Oedipus is not a strategos, he is both abasileus and a tyrannos, and we have discussed some of the issues raised by Foucault in his reading of Oedipus the King –including his competing forms of knowledge, and the lack of his knowledge of the self (thus opposing the Delphic motto). Perhaps I am completely out of line, but I cannot stop thinking of the invention of the Fifth Republic from 1958 onwards: the new Constitution (nomos), followed by with the different changes incorporated to the systems of election in 1962, and the new franc of 1960 (nomismos); changes, however, that perpetuated not only the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, but also the permanence in power, first as a Prime Minister, and then as the President, of Georges Pompidou, whose law “anti-casseurs” elicits the reactions of intellectuals including Michel Foucault, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, or Jean-Pierre Vernant –all three interested in understanding the knowledge-power relation in Classical and Ancient Greece. Why was the study in Ancient and Classical Greece so important for the intellectual activity of those individuals? Why Greece? Why the ancient polis in this other agonistic polis we call Paris?
  7. Among the plethora or Greek words used by Foucault in his Lectures and elsewhere, there is one that is missing: μάρτυς (mártus), that is, “witness”, from which the word “martyr” –which occurs in Sophocles, although not in Œdipus. Foucault seems to be extraordinary interested in two different consequences of witnessing (and witnessing well, not bad –hence his insistence on the Spinozian concept of detestari, which means “to give testimony badly”): on the one hand, by the research into the question of truth and knowledge in his lectures, but on the other hand in the kind of witness and witnessing that the active intellectual (like himself) is ready to present in front of a society that in the late 60s and early 70s is under the pressure of a heavy political violence that turns some of the political detainees into “martyrs”.
  8. Foucault explains, at the beginning of his lectures, that he is most interested in the question of penality and criminality in 19th century France, and, as Bernard Harcourt has mentioned, it is only logical, insofar as the constitutional reform of 1958 and the emergence of the Fifth Republic did not encompass the creation of a new penal code. How do we interconnect the long research on truth and knowledge, the distinctions regarding the Sophists and the history of philosophy, with his interest in this particular question of penality in 19th century France?

Foucault, as we have expressed in the general description of the Foucault 13/13 series, is always suggesting pistes de recherche. Many of these research suggestions or ideas are as well, or at least seem to be, outside the history of philosophy; they are intellectual history only insofar as intellectual practices have an impact on public life, and an impact on the purported autonomy of disciplines (Law, Medicine) that claim to have the truth inscribed in their body of knowledge.