Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Description: An interview of the American anthropologist Paul Rabinow about his life and work in Morocco and in the philosophy of anthropology and science studies. Filmed by Alan Macfarlane on 31st October 2008. Edited by Sarah Harrison. Generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust. Includes a transcript.
Created: 2011-04-12 14:55
Collection: Film Interviews with Leading Thinkers
Publisher: University of Cambridge
Copyright: Professor Alan Macfarlane

Here is the section from the transcript on Foucault:

10:12:12 When I went to California as a professor in 1978, I had heard of Foucault before but had never been very interested in his work; Dreyfus, John Searle and I talked a lot and in my first year at Berkeley, Dreyfus and Searle were giving a seminar on Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida; Dreyfus and Searle interpreted Foucault as a structuralist which I didn’t think was correct; Dreyfus and I discussed the issue at length and decided to write an article together, I began to convince him that what he said should be nuanced; at that point someone mentioned that Foucault was coming to Stanford (near Berkeley) to give a lecture;

I suggested calling him and asking him to talk with us; Foucault agreed and we went to fetch him; Dreyfus tape records everything that he does as he claims not to have a memory; we talked for eight hours that first day; basically, Foucault felt isolated in Paris; this is very common in France where the boundaries of who you can talk to and confide in are rigorously policed, isolating people more the higher they go; Foucault was suffering from this half-voluntary half-involuntary control; so there we were, neither Dreyfus nor I were particularly interested in Foucault’s work or had any stakes in the matter, but we thought he was confused about some things and needed to clarify his method, Foucault responded extraordinarily well; it was a gift for him to actually engage in discussion without being so guarded;

he said once that if in Paris you said that you were talking about the Enlightenment, the one thing that everyone would be sure of was the Enlightenment was not the real subject; in Berkeley and in the US more generally he found the opposite is the case; the lack of Parisian sophistication pleased him, we developed a strong intellectual connection; my then wife and I became friends with Foucault and his partner, Daniel Defert, and spent a year and a half in Paris (1980-81);

during this period Foucault was returning to Berkeley regularly, this lasted until his untimely death (1984); during the course of our discussions the structuralism issue fell away, and another way of putting together rigorous concept work with detailed empirical work began to be exciting to me; that is what I like about anthropology and why I am an anthropologist with philosophic interests, but very few if any philosophers combine the two; since what he and I were doing was never the same, it was possible to work alongside him and also to be independent at the same time; This was a tremendously important turning point for me; I didn’t want to go back to Morocco, I was exploring the possibility of working in Vietnam; through discussions with Foucault, I began to formulate a conceptual framework which would be a kind of archaeological history of the present; I continue to think he was a great thinker but also that what he did had its limits;

much of the Foucault literature I find wrong or boring, especially the British governmentality work; as the gradual publication of his lectures indicate many unexpected things continue to be opened up by Foucault; like McKeon, he was a great influence but it was always impossible for me to be a disciple, and that is the position that I want; Foucault also wanted people to govern themselves; Bourdieu wanted you to be part of his state and his party, Foucault hated that; that suited me so I have continued with that as one of the things that I do; personally, Foucault was a very unhappy, deeply private man; he was extremely kind, and very attentive to small human things; at that level he was comfortable to be around; on the other hand you always had the sense that he was somewhere else; he was quasi-suicidal during these years, deeply in the process of changing his thought, and his relationship with Daniel was not good;

if you buy the argument that with Heidegger and Wittgenstein traditional Western metaphysics was over, then those people who wanted to continue to do philosophy or to lead a philosophic life had to figure out a different form; Richard Rorty tried and didn’t know how to do it because most philosophers can only do traditional philosophy even though they know that that tradition is over; Foucault figured out a different way of leading the philosophic life which included a Nietzschean, but also anthropological, attention to detail; in his case art and historical archaeological detail, but he spent his life not arguing concepts with people but working through material;

reading Foucault’s books and some of the lectures, their engagement with detailed historical context, with options and constraints, with settings and milieu, that combination of attention to detail combined with a passion for conceptual clarification, seems to me unique; with Dumont, you knew what his theory was, similarly with Bourdieu, theory and examples; Foucault developed a very different relation between theory and examples; I know he didn’t have any theory; this is in the tradition of concepts, experiments and results which then become problems; for me his was a philosophic life and, in many ways, a deeply anthropological life, always engaged outwards while thinking all the time; hence one needs to read his books, and particularly the recent lectures, as examples of experiences and experiments rather than theory or doctrine.

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