David Garland, Bars and stripes. Review of The Punitive Society. The Times Literary Supplement, 27 January 2016.
The thinking and rethinking that led Michel Foucault to write his finest book.
Le Collège de France, founded in 1530 and located in Paris’s Latin Quarter, is one of France’s elite institutions. It is a public institution of higher education but it enrols no students and grants no degrees. Instead, it requires its professors to give an annual course of lectures – free of charge and open to all – reporting on their ongoing research. Michel Foucault, who was admitted to the Collège in 1970 as professor of “The History of Systems of Thought”, took this obligation very seriously, preparing his lectures with exquisite care and presenting them to a packed amphitheatre at 5:45 pm each Wednesday from January to March. His lectures were intense, austere performances. Reading aloud from his prepared text, he made little concession to the oral form, refraining from informality and permitting himself a minimum of levity or improvisation. For ninety minutes at a time, he would set out historico-philosophical questions, summarize his archival findings, and outline explanatory hypotheses, speaking to his hundreds of auditors – many of whom were academic tourists come to hear the famous maître penseur – as if he were addressing a small group of fellow specialists. He evidently regarded these lectures as a specific kind of production: not working drafts, not thinking aloud but a completed scholarly performance of a certain kind. And indeed, mimeographed transcripts of lecture recordings soon circulated, samizdat-style, bringing the first results of Foucault’s new thinking to eager audiences in France and abroad.