Conversation with Didier Eribon Le Nouvel Observateur,August 23, 1986
You've already written a lot about Foucault's work. Why this book, two years after his death?
It marks an inner need of mine, my admiration for him, how I was moved by his death, by that unfinished work. Yes,earlier I'd done articles on particular points (utterances, power). But here I'm trying to find the logic of this thought, which I see as one of the greatest of modern philosophies. A thought's logic isn't a stable rational system. Foucault, unlike the linguists, thought that even language was a highly unstable system. A thought's logic is like a wind blowing us on, a series of gusts and jolts. You think you've got to port, but then find yourself thrown back out onto the open sea, as Leibniz put it. That's particularly true in Foucault's case. His thought's constantly developing new dimensions that are never contained in what came before. So what is it that drives him to launch off in some direction, to trace out some-always unexpected-path? Any great thinker goes through crises; they set the rhythm of his thought.
You consider him above all a philosopher, while many people place the emphasis on his historical researches.
History's certainly part of his method. But Foucault never became a historian. Foucault's a philosopher who invents a completely different relation to history than what you find in philosophers of history. History, according to Foucault, circumscribes us and sets limits, it doesn't determine what we are, but what we're in the process of differing from; it doesn't fix our identity, but disperses it into our essential otherness. That's why Foucault deals with recent short historical series (from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). And even when, in his last books, he deals with a long-term series, down from the Greeks and Christians, it's in order to find in what way we're not Greeks, not Christians, but becoming something else. History, in short, is what separates us from ourselves and what we have to go through and beyond in order to think what we are. As Paul Veyne says, our actuality's something distinct from both time and eternity. Foucault is the most "actual" of contemporary philosophers, the one who's most radically broken away from the nineteenth century (which is why he's able to think the twentieth century). Actuality is what interests Foucault, though it's what Nietzsche called the inactual or the untimely; it's what is in actu, philosophy as the act of thinking.
Is this what leads you to say that what's basicfor Foucault is the question: What is it to think?
Yes, thinking-as a perilous act, he says.It's definitely Foucault, along with Heidegger but in a quite different way,who's most profoundly transformed the image of thought. And this image has various levels, corresponding to the successive layers or areas of Foucault's philosophy. Thinking is in the first place seeing and talking, but only once the eye goes beyond things to "visibilities," and language goes beyond words or sentences to utterances. That's thought as archive. And then thinking's a capacity, a capacity to set forces in play, once one understands that the play of forces doesn't just come down to violence but is to do with acting upon actions, with acts, like "inciting, inducing, preventing, facilitating or obstructing, extending or restricting, making more or less likely. . . "That's thought as strategy. Finally, in the last books, there's the discovery of thought as a "process of subjectification": it's stupid to see this as a return to the subject; it's to do with establishing waysof existing or, as Nietzsche put it, inventing new possibilities oflife. Existing not as a subject but as a work of art-and this last phase presents thought as artistry. The key thing, obviously, is to show how one's forced to pass from one of these determinations to the next: the transitions aren't there ready and waiting, they correspond to the paths Foucault traces out, and the areas he reaches that weren't there before he reached them, and the jolts he himself precipitates as well as experiences.
Let's take these areas in order. What's the "archive"? You say that for Foucault the archive is "audiovisual"?
Archaeology, genealogy, is also a geology. Archaeology doesn't have to dig into the past, there's an archaeology of the present-in a way it's always working in the present. Archaeology is to do with archives, and an archive has two aspects, it's audio-visual. A language lesson and an object lesson. It's not a matter of words and things (the title of Foucault's book5 is meant ironically). We have to take things and find visibilities in them. And what is visible at a given period corresponds to its system of lighting and the scintillations, mirrorings, flashes produced by the contact oflight and things. We have to break open words or sentences, too, and find what's uttered in them. And what can be uttered at a given period corresponds to its system oflanguage and the inherent variations it's constantly undergoing, jumping from one homogeneous scheme to another (language is always unstable). Foucault's key historical principle is that any historical formation saysall it can say and sees all it can see. Take madness in the seventeenth century, for instance: in what light can it be seen, and in what utterances can it be talked of? And take us today: what are we able to say today, what are we able to see? For most philosophers, their philosophy's like a personality they haven't chosen, a third person. What struck people who met Foucault were his eyes, his voice, and an erect bearing that went with them. Flashes, scintillations, utterances wresting themselves from his words-even Foucault's laugh was an utterance. And if there's a dislocation between seeing and saying, if there's a gap between them, an irreducible distance, it only means you can't solve the problem of knowledge (or rather, of "knowledges") by invoking a correspondence or conformity of terms. You have to look elsewhere for what links and weaves them together. It's as though the archive's riven by a great fault dividing visible form on one side from the form of what can be uttered ... other, each irreducible to the other. And the thread that knits them together and runs between them lies outside these forms, in another dimension.
Aren't there some similarities to Maurice Blanchot here, an influence even?
Foucault always acknowledged a debt to Blanchot. This, perhaps, in three respects. First of all, "talking isn't seeing. . . ," a difference that means that by saying what one can't see, one's taking language to its ultimate limit, raising it to the power of the unspeakable. Then there's the primacy of the third person, the "he" or neuter, the impersonal "one," relative to the first two persons-there's the refusal of any linguistic personology. Lastly, there's the theme of the Outside: the relation, and indeed "nonrelation," to an Outside that's further from us than any external world, and thereby closer than any inner world. And it doesn't diminish the importance of these links to emphasize how Foucault takes the themes and develops them independently of Blanchot: the dislocation between seeing and talking, most fully developed in the book on Raymond Roussel and the piece on Magritte, leads him to a new determination of the visible and the utterable; the "one speaks" organizes his theory of utterance; the interplay of near and far along the line Outside, as a life-and-death experiment, leads to specifically Foucaldian acts of thought, to folding and unfolding (which take him a long way from Heidegger too), and eventually becomes the basis of the process of subjectification.
After the archive or the analysis of knowledge, Foucault discovers power, and then subjectivity. What's the relation between knowledge and power, and between power and subjectivity?
Power's precisely the nonformal element running between or beneath different forms of knowledge. That's why one talks about a microphysics of power. It's force, and the play of forces, not form. And the way Foucault conceives the play of forces, developing Nietzsche's approach, is one of the most important aspects of his thought.
It's a different dimension from that of knowledge, although power and knowledge form concretely indivisible composites. But the fundamental question iswhy Foucault needs yet another dimension, why he goes on to discover subjectification as distinct from both knowledge and power. And people say: Foucault's going back to the subject, rediscovering the notion of subject that he'd alwaysrejected. It's not that at all. His thought underwent a crisis in all sorts of ways, but it was a creative crisis, not a recantation. What Foucault felt more and more, after the first volume of The History of Sexuality, was that he wasgetting locked in power relations. And it was all very well to invoke points of resistance as "counterparts" of foci of power, but where was such resistance to come from? Foucault wonders how he can cross the line, go beyond the play of forces in its turn. Or are we condemned to conversing with Power, irrespective of whether we're wielding it or being subjected to it? He confronts the question in one of his most violent texts, one of the funniest too, on "infamous men." And it takes him a long time to come up with an answer. Crossing the line offorce, going beyond power, involves as it were bending force, making it impinge on itself rather than on other forces: a "fold," in Foucault's terms, force playing on itself. It's a question of "doubling" the play of forces, of a self-relations that allows us to resist, to elude power, to turn life or death against power. This, according to Foucault, is something the Greeks invented. It's no longer a matter of determinate forms, as with knowledge, or of constraining rules, as with power: it's a matter of optional rules that make existence a work of art, rules at once ethical and aesthetic that constitute waysof existing or styles of life (including even suicide). It's what Nietzsche discovered as the will to power operating artistically, inventing new "possibilities oflife." One should, for all sorts of reasons, avoid all talk of a return to the subject, because these processes of subjectification vary enormously from one period to another and operate through very disparate rules. What increases their variability is that power's always taking over any new process and subordinating it to the play of forces, although it can always then recover by inventing new ways of existing, and this can go on indefinitely. So there's no return to the Greeks, either. A process of subjectification, that is, the production of a way of existing, can't be equated with a subject, unless we divest the subject of any interiority and even any identity. Subjectification isn't even anything to do with a "person": it's a specific or collective individuation relating to an event (a time of day, a river, a wind, a life. . . ). It's a mode of intensity, not a personal subject. It's a specific dimension without which we can't go beyond knowledge or resist power. Foucault goes on to analyze Greek and Christian ways of existing, how they enter into forms of knowledge, how they make compromises with power. But they are themselves different in nature from knowledge and power. For example, the Church as pastoral power was constantly trying to take control of Christian ways of existing, but these were constantly bringing into question the power of the Church, even before the Reformation. And Foucault, true to his method, isn't basically interested in returning to the Greeks, but in us today :what are our ways of existing, our possibilities oflife or our processes of subjectification; are there waysfor us to constitute ourselves as a "self," and (as Nietzsche would put it) sufficiently "artistic" ways, beyond knowledge and power? And are we up to it, because in a way it's a matter oflife and death?
Foucault had earlier developed the theme of the death of man, which caused such a stir. Is it compatible with the idea of creative human existence?
The "death of man" is even worse than all the fuss about the subject; misinterpretations of Foucault's thought really thrived on it. But misinterpretations are never innocent, they're mixtures of stupidity and malevolence; people would rather find contradictions in a thinker than understand him. So they wonder how Foucault could get involved in political struggles when he didn't believe in man and therefore in human rights. . . The death of man is in fact a very simple and precise theme, which Foucault takes over from Nietzsche but develops in a very original way. It's a question of form and forces. Forces are alwaysinteracting with other forces. Given human forces (like having an understanding, a will . . . ), what other forces do they come into play with, and what's the resulting "composite" form? In The Orderof Things, Foucault shows that man, in the classic period, isn't thought of as man, but "in the image" of God, precisely because his forces enter into combination with infinitary forces. It's in the nineteenth century, rather, that human forces confront purely finitary forces-life, production, language-in such a way that the resulting composite is a form of Man. And, just as this form wasn't there previously, there's no reason it should survive once human forces come into play with new forces: the new composite will be a new kind of form, neither God nor man. Nineteenth-century man, for example, confronts life and combines with it as the force of carbon. But what happens when human forces combine with those of silicon, and what new forms begin to appear? Foucault has two models here, Nietzsche and Rimbaud, and adds his own brilliant analysis to theirs: What new relations do we have with life, with language? What new struggles with Power? When he comes to consider modes of subjectification, it's a way of pursuing the same problem.
In what you call "ways of existing" and Foucault called "styles of life" there is, as you've pointed out, an aesthetics of life: life as a work of art. But there's an ethics too!
Yes, establishing ways of existing or styles of life isn't just an aesthetic matter, it's what Foucault called ethics, as opposed to morality. The difference is that morality presents us with a set of constraining rules of a special sort, ones that judge actions and intentions by considering them in relation to transcendent values (this is good, that's bad . .. ); ethics is a set of optional rules that assess what we do, what we say, in relation to the ways of existing involved. We say this, do that: what wayof existing does it involve? There are things one can only do or saythrough mean-spiritedness, a life based on hatred, or bitterness toward life. Sometimes it takesjust one gesture or word. It's the styles of life involved in everything that make us this or that. You get this already in Spinoza's idea of "modes." And is it not present in Foucault's philosophy from the outset: What are we "capable" of seeing, and saying (in the sense of uttering)? But if there's a whole ethics in this, there's an aesthetics too. Style, in a great writer, is alwaysa style of life too, not anything at all personal, but inventing a possibility of life, a way of existing. It's strange how people sometimes say that philosophers have no style, or that they write badly. It can only be because they don't read them. In France alone, Descartes, Malebranche, Maine de Biran, Bergson, even Auguste Comte in his Balzacian aspect, are stylists. And Foucault also belongs to this tradition, he's a great stylist. Concepts take on with him a rhythmic quality, or, as in the strange dialogues with himself with which he closes some of his books, a contrapuntal one. His syntax accumulates the mirrorings and scintillations of the visible but also twists like a whip, folding up and unfolding, or cracking to the rhythm of its utterances. And then, in his last books, the style tends toward a kind of calm, seeking an ever more austere, an ever purer line. . .