Truth, Power, Self: Interview con­ducted by R. Martin on October 25th, 1982.

— Foucault, Michel. Truth, Power, Self.” Interview by R. Martin recorded on October 25th, 1982. In Technologies of the Self, edited by L.Martin et al. 9-15. Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Q. Why did you come to the University of Vermont?

A: I came to try to ex­plain more pre­cisely to some peo­ple what kind of work I am do­ing, to know what kind of work they are do­ing, and to es­tab­lish some per­ma­nent re­la­tion­ships. I am not a writer, a philoso­pher, a great fig­ure of in­tel­lec­tual life: I am a teacher. There is a so­cial phe­nom­e­non that trou­bles me a great deal: since the 1960s, some teach­ers are be­com­ing pub­lic men with the same oblig­a­tions. I don’t want to be­come a prophet and say, Please sit down, what I have to say is very im­por­tant.” I have come to dis­cuss our com­mon work.

Q. You are most fre­quently termed philosopher” but also historian”, structuralist”, and Marxist”. The ti­tle of your chair at the College de France is Professor of the History of Systems of Thought”. What does this mean?

A. 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.

Q. In The History of Sexuality, you re­fer to the per­son who upsets es­tab­lished laws and some­how an­tic­i­pates the com­ing free­dom.” Do you see your own work in this light?

A. No. For rather a long pe­riod, peo­ple have asked me to tell them what will hap­pen and to give them a pro­gram for the fu­ture. We know very well that, even with the best in­ten­tions, those pro­grams be­come a tool, an in­stru­ment of op­pres­sion. Rousseau, a lover of free­dom, was used in the French Revolution to build up a model of so­cial op­pres­sion. Marx would be hor­ri­fied by Stalinism and Leninism. 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.

Q. In your writ­ing you seem fas­ci­nated by fig­ures who ex­ist on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety: mad­men, lep­ers, crim­i­nals, de­viants, her­maph­ro­dites, mur­der­ers, ob­scure thinkers. Why?

A. I am some­times re­proached for se­lect­ing mar­ginal thinkers in­stead of tak­ing ex­am­ples from the main­stream of his­tory. My an­swer will be snob­bish: It’s im­pos­si­ble to see fig­ures like Bopp and Ricardo as ob­scure.

Q. But what about your in­ter­est in so­cial out­casts?

A. 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.

Q. Your writ­ings carry pro­found emo­tional un­der­cur­rents un­usual in schol­arly analy­ses: an­guish in Discipline and Punish, scorn and hope in The Order of Things, out­rage and sad­ness in Madness and Civilization.

A. Each of my works is a part of my own bi­og­ra­phy. For one or an­other rea­son I had the oc­ca­sion to feel and live those things. To take a sim­ple ex­am­ple, I used to work in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in the 1950s. After hav­ing stud­ied phi­los­o­phy, I wanted to see what mad­ness was: I had been mad enough to study rea­son; I was rea­son­able enough to study mad­ness. I was free to move from the pa­tients to the at­ten­dants, for I had no pre­cise role. It was the time of the bloom­ing of neu­ro­surgery, the be­gin­ning of psy­chophar­ma­col­ogy, the reign of the tra­di­tional in­sti­tu­tion. At first I ac­cepted things as nec­es­sary, but then af­ter three months (I am slow-minded!), I asked, What is the ne­ces­sity of these things?” After three years I left the job and went to Sweden in great per­sonal dis­com­fort and started to write a his­tory of these prac­tices. Madness and Civilization was in­tended to be a first vol­ume. I like to write first vol­umes, and I hate to write sec­ond ones. It was per­ceived as a psy­chi­at­ri­cide, but it was a de­scrip­tion from his­tory. You know the dif­fer­ence be­tween a real sci­ence and a pseu­do­science? A real sci­ence rec­og­nizes and ac­cepts its own his­tory with­out feel­ing at­tacked. When you tell a psy­chi­a­trist his men­tal in­sti­tu­tion came from the lazar house, he be­comes in­fu­ri­ated.

Q. What about the gen­e­sis of Discipline and Punish?

A. I must con­fess I have had no di­rect links with pris­ons or pris­on­ers, though I did work as a psy­chol­o­gist in a French prison. When I was in Tunisia, I saw peo­ple jailed for po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency, and that in­flu­enced me.

Q. The clas­si­cal age is piv­otal in all your writ­ings. Do you feel nos­tal­gia for the clar­ity of that age or for the visibility” of the Renaissance when every­thing was uni­fied and dis­played?

A. All of this beauty of old times is an ef­fect of and not a rea­son for nos­tal­gia. I know very well that it is our own in­ven­tion. But it’s quite good to have this kind of nos­tal­gia, just as it’s good to have a good re­la­tion­ship with your own child­hood if you have chil­dren. It’s a good thing to have nos­tal­gia to­ward some pe­ri­ods on the con­di­tion that it’s a way to have a thought­ful and pos­i­tive re­la­tion to your own pre­sent. But if nos­tal­gia is a rea­son to be ag­gres­sive and un­com­pre­hend­ing to­ward the pre­sent, it has to be ex­cluded.

Q. What do you read for plea­sure?

A. The books which pro­duce in me the most emo­tion: Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

Q. What were the in­tel­lec­tual in­flu­ences upon your thought?

A. I was sur­prised when two of my friends in Berkeley wrote some­thing about me and said that Heidegger was in­flu­en­tial [Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1982)]. Of course it was quite true, but no one in France has ever per­ceived it. When I was a stu­dent in the 1950s, I read Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty. When you feel an over­whelm­ing in­flu­ence, you try to open a win­dow. Paradoxically enough, Heidegger is not very dif­fi­cult for a Frenchman to un­der­stand. When every word is an enigma, you are in a not-too-bad po­si­tion to un­der­stand Heidegger. Being and Time is dif­fi­cult, but the more re­cent works are clearer. Nietzsche was a rev­e­la­tion to me. I felt that there was some­one quite dif­fer­ent from what I had been taught. I read him with a great pas­sion and broke with my life, left my job in the asy­lum, left France: I had the feel­ing I had been trapped. Through Nietzsche, I had be­come a stranger to all that. I’m still not quite in­te­grated within French so­cial and in­tel­lec­tual life. If I were younger, I would have im­mi­grated to the United States.

Q. Why?

A. I see pos­si­bil­i­ties. You don’t have a ho­moge­nous in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural life. As a for­eigner, I don’t have to be in­te­grated. There is no pres­sure upon me. There are a lot of great uni­ver­si­ties, all with very dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests. But of course I might have been fired out of them in the most out­ra­geous way.

Q. Why do you think you might have been fired?

A. I’m very proud that some peo­ple think that I’m a dan­ger for the in­tel­lec­tual health of stu­dents. When peo­ple start think­ing of health in in­tel­lec­tual ac­tiv­i­ties, I think there is some­thing wrong. In their opin­ion I am a dan­ger­ous man, since I am a crypto-Marx­ist, an ir­ra­tional­ist, a ni­hilist.

Q. From read­ing The Order of Things, one might con­clude that in­di­vid­ual ef­forts to re­form are im­pos­si­ble be­cause new dis­cov­er­ies have all sorts of mean­ings and im­pli­ca­tions their cre­ators never could have un­der­stood. In Discipline and Punish, for in­stance, you show that there was a sud­den change from the chain gang to the closed po­lice car­riage, from the spec­ta­cle of pun­ish­ment to dis­ci­plined in­sti­tu­tional pun­ish­ment. But you also point out that this change, which seemed at the time a reform”, was ac­tu­ally only the nor­mal­iz­ing of so­ci­ety’s abil­ity to pun­ish. So how is con­scious change pos­si­ble?

A. How can you imag­ine that I think change is im­pos­si­ble since what I have an­a­lyzed was al­ways re­lated to po­lit­i­cal ac­tion? All of Discipline and Punish is an at­tempt to an­swer this ques­tion and to show how a new way of think­ing took place. All of us are liv­ing and think­ing sub­jects. What I re­act against is the fact that there is a breach be­tween so­cial his­tory and the his­tory of ideas. Social his­to­ri­ans are sup­posed to de­scribe how peo­ple act with­out think­ing, and his­to­ri­ans of ideas are sup­posed to de­scribe how peo­ple think with­out act­ing. Everybody both acts and thinks. The way peo­ple acts or re­act is linked to a way of think­ing, and of course think­ing is re­lated to tra­di­tion. What I have tried to an­a­lyze is this very com­plex phe­nom­e­non that made peo­ple re­act in an­other way to crimes and crim­i­nals in a rather short pe­riod of time. I have writ­ten two kinds of books. One, The Order of Things, is con­cerned only with sci­en­tific thought: the other, Discipline and Punish, is con­cerned with so­cial prin­ci­ples and in­sti­tu­tions. History of sci­ence does­n’t de­velop in the same way as so­cial sen­si­bil­ity. In or­der to be rec­og­nized as sci­en­tific dis­course, thought must obey cer­tain cri­te­ria. In Discipline and Punish, texts, prac­tices, and peo­ple strug­gle against each other. In my books I have re­ally tried to an­a­lyze changes, not in or­der to find the ma­te­r­ial causes but to show all the fac­tors that in­ter­acted and the re­ac­tions of peo­ple. I be­lieve in the free­dom of peo­ple. To the same sit­u­a­tion, peo­ple re­act in very dif­fer­ent ways.

Q. You con­clude Discipline and Punish by say­ing that it will serve as a back­ground for var­i­ous stud­ies of nor­mal­iza­tion and the power of knowl­edge in mod­ern so­ci­ety.” What is the re­la­tion­ship of nor­mal­iza­tion and the con­cept of man as the cen­ter of knowl­edge?

A. Through these dif­fer­ent prac­tices — psy­cho­log­i­cal, med­ical, pen­i­ten­tial, ed­u­ca­tional — a cer­tain idea or model of hu­man­ity was de­vel­oped, and now this idea of man has be­come nor­ma­tive, self-ev­i­dent, and is sup­posed to be uni­ver­sal. Humanism may not be uni­ver­sal but may be quite rel­a­tive to a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion. What we call hu­man­ism has been used by Marxists, lib­er­als, Nazis, Catholics. This does not mean that we have to get rid of what we call hu­man rights or free­dom, but that we can’t say that free­dom or hu­man rights has to be lim­ited at cer­tain fron­tiers. For in­stance, if you asked eighty years ago if fem­i­nine virtue was part of uni­ver­sal hu­man­ism, every­one would have an­swered yes. What I am afraid of about hu­man­ism is that it pre­sents a cer­tain form of our ethics as a uni­ver­sal model for any kind of free­dom. I think that there are more se­crets, more pos­si­ble free­doms, and more in­ven­tions in our fu­ture than we can imag­ine in hu­man­ism as it is dog­mat­i­cally rep­re­sented on every side of the po­lit­i­cal rain­bow: the Left, the Center, the Right.

Q. And this is what is sug­gested by Technologies of the Self”?

A. Yes. You said be­fore that you have the feel­ing that I am un­pre­dictable. That’s true. But I some­times ap­pear to my­self much too sys­tem­atic and rigid. What I have stud­ied are the three tra­di­tional prob­lems: (1) What are the re­la­tions we have to truth through sci­en­tific knowl­edge, to those truth games” which are so im­por­tant in civ­i­liza­tion and in which we are both sub­ject and ob­jects? (2) What are the re­la­tion­ships we have to oth­ers through those strange strate­gies and power re­la­tion­ships? And (3) what are the re­la­tion­ships be­tween truth, power, and self?

I would like to fin­ish with a ques­tion: What could be more clas­sic than these ques­tions and more sys­tem­atic than the evo­lu­tion through ques­tions one, two, and three and back to the first? I am just at this point.