Interview with the ghost of Michel Foucault

Nick Lewis: Michel, I appreciate you coming back from the dead for the purpose of expanding a few minds that have retained curiosity about their world. That said, this medium has an impatient audience, so I hope you'll forgive me for moving straight to the first question:

The vast majority of people are unaware of who you are and why they should care. You've been dead since 1984; what role can you see yourself possibly playing in our times?

Foucault: My “role” - and that is too emphatic a word - is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed. To change something in the minds of people - that's the role of an intellectual.

Lewis: The phrase you used, though, “people accept as truth, as evidence, certain themes built up during history” has some very political overtones. Where exactly do you stand, politically?

Foucault: I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal and so on. An American professor complained that a crypto-Marxist like me was invited in the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern European countries for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean.

Lewis: It seems you don’t put very much stock into political labels…

Foucualt: If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake; the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.

Lewis: So why is it that you are so interested in politics?

Foucualt: Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn't I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.

So I can't answer the question of why I should be interested; I could only answer it by asking why shouldn't I be interested?

Lewis: The audience is no doubt wondering, “Okay, this bald French guy sounds very intelligent, but what exactly does he do?” I see you most commonly referred to you as a historian or a philosopher. How would you describe yourself?

Foucault: I don't feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don't know what will be the end. My field is the history of thought. Man is a thinking being. The way he thinks is related to society, politics, economics, and history and is also related to very general and universal categories and formal structures. But thought is something other than societal relations. The way people really think is not adequately analyzed by the universal categories of logic. Between social history and formal analyses of thought there is a path, a lane - maybe very narrow - which is the path of the historian of thought.

Lewis: Most of today’s undergraduates will probably be unwillingly subjected to at least one of your works. Often the biggest complaint from them (beyond your rather dense style) is the obscurity of the subjects you cover. Why study the obscure, why not study more significant social forces?

Foucault: I deal with obscure figures and processes for two reasons: The political and social processes by which the Western European societies were put in order are not very apparent, have been forgotten, or have become habitual. They are part of our most familiar landscape, and we don't perceive them anymore. But most of them once scandalized people. It is one of my targets to show people that a lot of things that are part of their landscape - that people are universal - are the result of some very precise historical changes. All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence. They show the arbitrariness of institutions and show which space of freedom we can still enjoy and how many changes can still be made.

Lewis: This is all very interesting; however, could you perhaps give an example of thinking in this manner, that might be of use to say – a progressive activist living in 2005?

Foucault: I believe that political power exercises itself through the mediation of a certain number of institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power, and as if they are independent of it, while they are not.

One knows this in relation to the family; and one knows that the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class.

Institutions of knowledge, of foresight and care, such as medicine, also help to support the political power. It's also obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.

It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

This critique and this fight seem essential to me for different reasons: firstly, because political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centres and invisible, little-known points of support; its true resistance, its true solidity is perhaps where one doesn't expect it. Probably it's insufficient to say that behind the governments, behind the apparatus of the State, there is the dominant class; one must locate the point of activity, the places and forms in which its domination is exercised. And because this domination is not simply the expression in political terms of economic exploitation, it is its instrument and, to a large extent, the condition which makes it possible; the suppression of the one is achieved through the exhaustive discernment of the other. Well, if one fails to recognise these points of support of class power, one risks allowing them to continue to exist; and to see this class power reconstitute itself even after an apparent revolutionary process.

Lewis: I think we best give our 3 members in the audience a rest at this point. Michel, thanks for all you shared with us. Is there a final note you’d like to leave before returning to the afterlife?

Foucault: My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to hyper- and pessimistic - activism.


1. All words that are attributed to Foucault are excerpted from various essays and panels. These were remixed with the hopes that perhaps, a less French or scholarly flow might entice more readers to explore Foucault’s work further.


[links to sources under construction… must eat lunch]