From the Lips of the Archivist

By Jesús R. Velasco

You probably remember those intense moments at the beginning of courses like La société punitive (1972-73), or Le courage de la vérité 1984). In them, the “new archivist”, as Deleuze called Foucault, complains about the very institution and about the conditions in which he has to present his research. He would prefer to do it in a different way, in a much smaller group. He would prefer to do it in collaboration. Surrounded by a multitude, he feels alone. Reading those course, one can feel the crowds filling up every single square centimeter of the room; one can hear the sound of the tape recorders going on and off, and even, accidentally, one of them playing some notes from a song by Michael Jackson.

Not here. Here, the sensation of loneliness is not the result of the hundreds of arms, and feet, and eyes, and hearts in the amphithéâtre. This course about theories and penal institutions, a course in which Foucault develops his ideas about the complex configuration of penal institutions and the repressive systems, is dry. It is silent. One can barely hear Foucault’s voice. Let alone anybody else’s voice.

This is, perhaps, the reason why this particular volume, the second one from the series of the thirteen courses taught by Foucault at the Collège de France, and the last one to have been published, has some many entry doors. 

A medievalist like me will probably take the most obvious one—the door that leads through the hallways where ordeals and inquests are in dispute. There, we can laboriously understand the importance of the inquest, a juridical form that he will develop afterwards in other texts, like the Rio lectures on “Truth and Juridical Form” from 1973. This will lead to the study of the enquête, a juridical form that, according to Foucault, will also shape the future of the human and social sciences. In June 1973, at the end of the seminar, Foucault wrote a summary of the course. In it, he recovers the idea of measure, studied during his first year at the Collège, in the Lectures on the Will to Know, and connects it to his current interest in the enquête, the concept that underpins the whole inquisitorial system; finally, he projects these two conceptual centers of gravity onto the one he plans to explore in future courses, the examen.

Other readers will be those interested in the archivist himself. They will probably accompany him to the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (site Richelieu, the only one existing at that time) containing the revolts of the Nu-pieds of 1639-1640, and the immediate repression ordered by Richelieu. They will accompany him reading Séguier’s Journal regarding the same events. They will soon realize that, along with those archives, Foucault is reading as well soviet historian Boris Porchnev’s work on French peasant revolts in the 17th century, as well as the works of Catholic historian Roland Mousnier and his pupil, Madeleine Foisil published between 1967 and 1970—works that ground a series of historiographical debates that will mark the seventies and the eighties in Europe, and that will become extremely important in such unlikely places as the late-francoist Spain. As you can see, this historiographical door is in fact two different doors, as shown by the inclusion of an extra chapter by Claude-Olivier Doron at the end of the volume, titled “Foucault and the Historians. The debate on popular revolts.” Here, Doron proposes some important elements to understand the historiographical debate in which Foucault finds himself.

But here is where another door seems to open up perhaps unexpectedly, in the form of a letter dated December 4th, 2014, and signed by Etienne Balibar. Balibar sends this letter to Bernard Harcourt—we are probably missing the letter sent by Bernard to Balibar, or maybe it was only a phone call, or, who knows, an SMS. At any rate, Balibar puts us on a different, extremely complex track—that of the intellectual history of the late sixties and the early seventies in the context of the revolts in Paris, the École Normale Supérieure, the founding of Vincennes, and, of course, the debates among Maoists, Leninists, and Marxists, with the two towering figures of Althusser and Foucault in the foreground. Balibar remembers, and remembers in a way that I can only suggest you read this letter as if it had been addressed personally to you. Archives and historiographical debates seem to take place on top of the cobblestones, and there is no sign of the promised beach.

Every single edition of the courses is accompanied by a chapter on the “situation du cours”. This is no exception. My dear Bernard Harcourt and François Ewald are in charge of this. They remember Alessandro Fontana, who had died in January 2013 without having seen the publication of the complete series. I might be wrong, but the almost forty pages of this “situation” is among the longest in the series, and it is the only one that includes a semi-codicological and philological account of the manuscripts themselves, as they are preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This is yet another door, in which the materiality of the courses are in conversation with some of the political, philosophical, and historiographical debates addressed by the rest of the voices.

Many doors, many voices, for a course that, as I said before, is quite silent.

And yet, it is a strange silence. Reading these lectures is an exercise in imagination. One needs to imagine the way in which Foucault was thinking. One needs to imagine how he developed every single one of the ideas that appear schematically in the manuscripts, among erasures, added leaves of paper, marginal annotations, and other jottings. Reading the book out loud, it almost reads like an epic poem; each note, each line, has a recognizable rhythm in it. Not only Foucault’s rhythm of thought, that we have learned to admire throughout the years, but also the cursus, the rhythm of the classical scansion with which that expert in classic literature who was Foucault always wrote and spoke. It does not take any effort to reproduce this rhythm, and this is why even the most complex of his concepts is easy to retain in the memory. But the thing is that these lectures do not have a narrative in them. They are like poetry lines that one needs to unleash; one needs to meditate on them—perhaps the medievalist that I am is speaking again. One small sample from the very first pages:

“Pas d’introduction

  • La raison d’être de ce cours?
    • Il suffit d’ouvrir les yeux
    • Ceux qui y répugneraient s’y trouveront dans ce que j’ai dit.
  • L’objet
    • Théorie et institution pénale
    • Manqué un troisième terme: pratique.” (p. 3)

Perhaps it is again the medievalist in me, speaking. But there is something about the square brackets on the manuscript. In a book like the one we are reading today, they often play an intense role. Because these lessons, unlike most of the other lessons given by Foucault at the Collège de France since 1970, and published from 1997 onwards, are a series of fragments and ideas, a cascade of theses in a very long chain, reading them is like an exercise in intellectual neurosurgery. I have not seen the manuscripts; both Bernard and François have, but I have not. I only have this edition as a representation of what is on the manuscripts, with references to edited passages, erasures, marginal annotations, and so on. And square brackets. I am not referring to those square brackets that have been introduced by the editors to supply information, or to point out an ellipsis. I mean the square brackets introduced by Foucault himself to question his own ideas, or to introduce doubts about his own theses, or sometimes to comment on a short quotation.

I will only give one example. On March 8th 1972, on the occasion of his thirteenth and last lesson, Foucault writes about the insertion of torture in the inquest process. He makes a couple of remarks: one is that the insertion of torture, as the last resource, comes about as a way to obtain a confession; the other one is that there is a way to understand this process as the “ordeal of truth”, that he opposes to the “ordalie du meilleur droit.” And then he goes on to say that torture  “is a kind of duel with he who represents the power. If the accused puts up with torture, the other cannot apply the totality of the sentence –in a sense, the judge loses the trial” [“c’est une sorte de duel avec le représentant du pouvoir. Si l’accusé a supporté la torture, l’autre ne peut pas appliquer la peine entière – en un sens, le juge a perdu.” (207)] The words he has used, however, pass a toll on his thought, and this is when he inserts a square bracket: “[Regarding this, lots of complications and subtleties: put up with torture, isn’t it to be hardened?  Nevertheless, confessing acknowledges but purifies. In religious terms: isn’t it the devil the one who gives the strength to put up with torture? And forcing somebody to confess, don’t we help him to get saved? An ethics and a theology of confession and truth. Ethical and religious links between the subject and truth.]” (“[Là-dessus, beacoup de complications et de subtilités: supporter, n’est-ce pas être endurci? Cependant que l’aveu reconnaît mais purifie. En termes religieux: n’est-ce pas le démon qui donne  la force de supporter? Et en forçant quelqu’un à avouer, ne l’aide-t-on pas à faire son salut? Toute une éthique et une théologie de l’aveu de vérité. Lien éthique et religieux du sujet à la vérité.]”).

I shall not take more of your time. But I would like to end this contribution by opening up the door in which, as I said before, Foucault narrates and explains his project. Not only this course, but a project that felt extremely coherent to him, a series of courses that would explore the concepts allowing him to delve into the punitive systems of 19th century French society. I will simply leave you with his pages from the summary of his course—from the lips of the archivist, his contribution to the archives of the institution he worked for.