At his death in 1984, Michel Foucault left a letter stating that he wanted no posthumous publication of his work. He should have known better: The hunger for further clarification and elaboration of the master’s positions would prove irresistible. So too has been the flow of posthumous publications, the most eagerly awaited of which have been the dozen or so book-length compilations of his annual lectures at the Collège de France, which began to appear in English translation in 2003.
The shape of Foucault’s intellectual trajectory was already controversial during his lifetime. Readers asked, for example, whether his late turn to the ethics of self-care was a betrayal of his earlier Nietzschean prophecy that the concept of “man” was destined to disappear. How could he distinguish between right and wrong in human actions without a commitment to the self and the human? Had Foucault finally renounced Nietzsche, and if so, was that a good or bad thing?
The lectures, diverging as they often do from the books that made Foucault famous, only added to the controversy. They are—along with various manifestos, unpublished drafts, interviews, and other miscellaneous writings—now also the subject of two fascinating new books by Stuart Elden: Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade. In the former, Elden tries to soothe some of the long-standing tensions between Foucault and Marx, in part by displaying hidden continuities between Foucault’s early work on madness and knowledge and his later work on power. In the latter, Elden deals with the 10 years after Foucault finished the manuscript of Discipline and Punish and began (on the same day!) The History of Sexuality. He shows how much of Foucault’s interest in sexuality was actually an interest in governmentality, or technologies of rule. When Foucault talked about subjectivity, Elden argues, he was also talking about the formation of subjects in the political sense, or how human beings become subjected to power.
Elden doesn’t claim that his answers are definitive. He notes that more than half of the 110 boxes of Foucault’s papers, classified by France as a national treasure and held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, remain closed to researchers, thus leaving all interpretations provisional. But one collateral payoff of his close look at Foucault’s career is what he reveals of Foucault’s own confusions and uncertainties about his project and what he was really trying to do.
Reading Elden, one gets to watch one of the last century’s most celebrated thinkers in the unfamiliar role of a stumbling dissertation writer, hesitantly trying out different answers to that dreaded question: “What is your basic idea?”
Thanks to Foucault, generations of students have been instructed that power is not what or where you might expect it to be. It should not be imagined sitting grandly at the top of a pyramid where the sovereign alone has the final say. The French Revolution having come and gone, it was finally time, Foucault declared, to cut off the king’s head in political theory. Power should no longer be imagined as residing only within institutions like the state and its police force. Power does not need to send tanks rumbling down the main arteries of the capital; rather, it flushes quietly and continuously through society’s capillaries, where it tends to pass unnoticed. Power can also be gentle and relatable. It doesn’t always tell you no; often it encourages you to pursue your desires. It doesn’t always shut you up; often it encourages you to talk, especially about yourself.