Therefore, if you like, I never stop getting into the issue of law and rights without taking it as a particular object. And if God grant me life, after madness, illness, crime, sexuality, the last thing I would like to study would be the problem of war and the institution of war in what one could call the military dimension of society. There again, I would have to cross into the problem of law, the rights of people and international law, etc… as well as the question of military justice: what makes a Nation entitled to ask someone to die for it.

☛ “What Our Present Is?” an interview with Michel Foucault by André Berten, tr. by Lysa Hochroth, Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, New York: Semiotext(e), 1997, pp. 167-168. For more detail about the source of this interview, see below.

By the time he did this interview, Michel Foucault had already explored the problem of war in two of his lectures at the Collège de France. First in a discussion of civil war during the 1973 course La Société punitive. Second, in a more exhaustive analysis of the concept of war in his 1975-76 course Il faut défendre la société (translated as Society Must Be Defended, 2003).

In an entry he wrote for The Foucault Lexicon (forthcoming April 2014), John Protevi provides an excellent synthesis of Foucault’s views on war, especially in the 70s:

In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault uses “war” (or at least “battle”) as a “model” for understanding social relations. But this epistemological use of “war” did not last. In consulting the Collège de France lecture courses, we see him conduct a genealogy of the war model in “Society Must be Defended” (1975-76). As a result of this investigation, the use of “war” in History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1976) is no longer epistemological, but practical: “war” is seen as a “strategy” for integrating a differential field of power relations. Then, toward the end of the 1970s, perhaps in dismay at discovering in his genealogical investigation a deep relation of the war model and state racism, in Security, Territory, Population (1977-78) Foucault drops “war” to move to “governmentality” as the “grid of intelligibility” of social relations. (“War” in The Foucault Lexicon, ed. Leonard Lawlor and John Nale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2014; PDF, cited with permission)

In the second volume Dits et écrits (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), war is hardly mentioned by Michel Foucault after 1976, especially has the main topic of his research. In 1977, when he mentions it in interviews, it is in relation to the problem of the meaning of “struggle” and “class struggle” (item 195, p. 206; item 206, p. 311; item 215, p. 391). In 1980, it is in relation with his dislike for polemics (item 281, p. 914), and in 1983 with his childhood and also in relation with pacifism (item 336, p. 1347; item 337, p. 1357). Finally, in 1984, he commented again on why he was not fond of polemics (item 342, p. 1410-1411). This brief list is based on the edition’s index, which I know not to be perfectly reliable (few are).

And yet, as the excerpt quoted above suggests, Foucault was still very much interested by the topic of war in the beginning of the 80s. This would have been, he tells his interviewer, his last major topic of research. One is left wondering what happened with this research, and if any unpublished material exist that would provide some insight about it. Hopefully, Stuart Elden’s ongoing project about Foucault’s Last Decade may soon bring some answers to those questions.

• • •

In 1981, Michel Foucault was invited by the School of Criminology (l’École de criminologie) at the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium. There, he gave a series of seminars titled “Mal faire, dire vrai. Fonction de l’aveu en justice”. It was during this time that he was interviewed by Professor André Berten. The interview was filmed by the university’s audiovisual services. The complete video recording is available online at various location (the video is also embedded below).

The French transcription was first published in 1988, in Les Cahiers du GRIF (Volume 37, Issue 37-38, pp. 8-20). The PDF of this transcription is made available online under a Creative Commons license by the Persée program: see “Entretien avec Michel Foucault”. This interview is not included in the Dits et écrits, but it is listed as a posthumous work (see Paris: Gallimard, 2001, tome II, p. 1662).

The text of the seminar was published in 2012, in French, under the title Mal faire, dire vrai: fonction de l’aveu en justice : cours de Louvain, 1981 (ed. by Fabienne Brion and Bernard H. Harcourt, Presses universitaires de Louvain/University of Chicago Press, Google Books with preview). The English translation is said to be on its way: for more information see “Quand Michel Foucault donnait cours à Louvain”.

The text of the French transcription as it appears in Les Cahiers du GRIF was translated to English by Lysa Hochroth and included in Foucault Live Collected Interviews, 1961–1984, ed. by Sylvère Lotringer: see “What Our Present Is” (pp. 407-415). It was first published in 1989 by Semiotext(e), and reprinted in 1996 (Amazon, MIT Press). Semiotext(e) gives 1983 as the date Foucault was at the Université Catholique de Louvain (see p. 478): this is a mistake.

The same English translation was also included in The Politics of Truth, another collection of texts by Michel Foucault edited in 1997 by Sylvère Lotringer for Semiotext(e) (Amazon, MIT Press). This is the edition I quote in the beginning of this post.


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