venerdì 23 dicembre 2011

Foucault Recalled: an unpublished interview with Michel Foucault by Frank Mort and Roy Peters (New Formations, June 2005)

Frank Mort and Roy Peters 

This hitherto unpublished interview with Michel Foucault was conducted 
on 29 May 1979 at Foucault’s home in the Rue de Vaugirard, Paris. The 
circumstances surrounding the conversation deserve some comment, as they 
point to one of the routes that ‘advanced’ ideas from France crossed to Britain 
in the late twentieth century. In the 1970s we were both postgraduate 
students, based at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at 
the University of Birmingham, where Foucault’s work on discursive power 
was beginning to achieve considerable impact. Foucault’s project was 
interpreted at CCCS as part of a broader debate about the importance of 
poststructuralist theory, especially the work of Barthes, Saussure and Derrida, 
for cultural analysis. It was also read in conjunction with a burgeoning body 
of feminist theory that was beginning to problematise unitary and stable 
categories of sexual difference and discussions within the gay movement 
about ‘coming out’ and identity politics.1 At Birmingham, this body of work 
was inserted very uneasily into a pre-existing problematic focused on cultural 
interpretations of western Marxism, as that tradition was as represented by 
the figures of Gramsci and Althusser.2 The shadow of that marxisante debate 
intrudes into our interview with Foucault, especially in our persistent 
interrogation of his theory of power and its relationship to the Marxist 
paradigm of class and culture. Foucault’s patient responses are very much 
those of the middle period of his writing, and this interview should be read 
in conjunction with Histoire de la Sexualité: La Volonté de Savoir (1976) and 
Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison (1975), texts that he repeatedly refers 
to, rather than the two final volumes of his large-scale history of sexuality, 
The Care of the Self and The Use of Pleasure..3 On a more personal note Foucault 
displayed immense charm and personal kindness to two young men who 
came to interview him apparently from nowhere, with little recognisable 
cultural capital. He devoted three hours of his time to us, chatting 
apocryphally along the way about why he didn’t like the Parisians, and giving 
us his own views about which bars to visit in the city centre. It was intellectual 
and personal magic! Given the continual outpouring of commentaries and critical 
assessments of Foucault’s contribution to the methodologies of cultural history and to 
the history of sexuality, it is worth briefly reviewing those aspects of his work 
that appeared most significant to us at the time. Quite as important as 
Foucault’s critique of the whiggish narrative of sexual and cultural modernism 
was his problematisation of the meaning and status of sexuality itself. 

1. For these discussions within 1970s feminism see the work of the journal m/f. For the 
emerging debate about sexual identity within the gay movement see the journal Gay Left and 
Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to 
the Present, London, Quartet, 1977.
2. For accounts of these intellectual current at CCCS see Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Studies 
and the Centre,’ in Stuart Hall et al (eds), Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural 
Studies 1972-1979, London, Hutchinson, 1980, pp15-47. For their impact on the culture of the New 
Left see Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left and the Origins of Cultural 
Studies, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1997.
3. Originally published as Le Souci de soi and L’Usage des plaisirs both Paris, Gallimard, 1984. 
Translated as: The Use of Pleasure: the History of Sexuality Volume 2, R. Hurley (trans), 
Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987; The Care of the Self: the History of Sexuality Volume 3, R. Hurley 
(trans), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990.

This denaturalisation of the object of research was at the heart of Foucault’s 
interrogation of all forms of disciplinary power. The central issue was not 
whether societies said yes or no to sex, whether they permit or prohibit, but 
that both of these positions were part of the way in which sex was put into 
discourse. What mattered in consequence was how sexuality was represented; 
who speaks, writes and practices and from what subject positions. This 
accentuated relativisation of modern cultural phenomena paralleled adjacent 
research in the sociology of knowledge and the human sciences. In the field 
of sexuality, in particular, Foucault’s insights were partly anticipated by the 
post-war, Anglo-American traditions of labelling and role theory, with their 
emphasis on the constructed nature of sexual acts and values.4 But in the 
1970s and early 1980s Foucault’s agenda was read in conjunction with 
poststructuralist linguistics, in order to effect a profound re-interrogation 
of the classic terrain of ‘the social’. This field of course not only shaped 
modern strategies of government and policy, it also underpinned the 
protocols of academic disciplines such as sociology and social history.5 
Foucault’s discursive approach raised productive doubts for us about 
established historiographical and cultural procedures. Above all, it was his 
discursive emphasis which destabilised more conventional methodologies. 
As two young men who were already well versed in the methods and practices 
of cultural and sexual relativism, this was what we appropriated most 
thoroughly from Foucault’s writing. After Foucault and the other 
poststructuralists, the representational quality of all forms of historical 
knowledge became a key concern. Consequently, Foucault’s method disturbed 
commonsense understandings of what a history of sexuality could be about. 
It uncovered sex in unlikely places, as well as in more familiar areas: within 
sanitary science, household manuals, statistical tables, medical dossiers, 
and census returns. 
Sex intruded into the circuits of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social 
government, in addition to signifying bodily acts, identities and desires. 
Modern sexuality was a dispersed and decentred field, and it was organised 
around multiple points of reference. In La Volonté de Savoir Foucault 
highlighted a number of nodal points which increasingly classified and 
regulated sex around the principles of reproductive and biological strength 
and around the perverse implantations. The significance of these particular 
mechanisms of power nomination has been much argued over, but Foucault’s 
basic insistence is worth reiterating; that sexuality is plural, rather than 
articulated around any single point of reference. One important cultural 
consequence of this emphasis for research was that it opened up the space 
for an extremely productive exploration of the representational quality of 
sexuality, especially from cultural historians working on the construction of 
sexual knowledges and identities, in both their formal and informal registers. 
For example, rather than seeing visual or literary discourses as expressive 
of a sexuality that was assumed to be ‘already there’, these practices were 
now assigned a much more active role in the representation of sexual

4. See for example, Mary McIntosh, ‘The Homosexual Role’, Social Problems, 
16, 2 (1968) 182-92; John Gagnon and William Simon, Sexual Conduct: The 
Social Sources of Human Sexuality, London, Hutchinson, 1974; Kenneth Plummer, 
Sexual Stigma: An Interactionist Account, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

5. For analysis of the social as a domain of governance and intellectual rationality see 
Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in 
Governmentality with Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault, London, Harvester 
Wheatsheaf, 1991; Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, Free 
Association Press, London, 1999; Patrick Joyce, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the 
Modern City, London, Verso, 2003. For the implications for social history see: Patrick Joyce, ‘The 
End of Social History’, Social History, 20, 1, (1995) 73-91.

meanings and experiences.6 In a related sense, the erotic impact of modern 
consumerism, with its elaborate scopic and aesthetic rituals has also been 
readdressed discursively.7 If one implication of Foucault’s analysis was to 
suggest that sex is everywhere, the other was to identify the very particular 
networks through which the sexual is produced. 
There have been numerous critiques and reassessments of Foucault’s 
project, concentrating on among other things his highly particular reading 
of the archive, his recourse to the body as an undertheorised arbiter of 
power and desire, and his relative disinterest in the realm of the extra- 
discursive. Some of the most productive reappraisals have come from 
feminist and post-colonial scholars, who have expressed dissatisfaction with 
Foucault’s relative gender-blindness and his unreflective Eurocentrism, 
but who have nonetheless recognised the importance of a discursive history 
for delivering a more sophisticated account of cultural and sexual 
difference. Yet Foucault’s overall project for sexuality remains as pertinent 
as it was a quarter of a century ago. He insisted that the domain of the 
sexual is not simply an interesting but insignificant byway in the grander 
histories of modern life. Since at least the eighteenth century this field 
has been constituted as a component of the social project of modernity 
itself. Mapping the ways in which sexuality enters the social forces the 
historian has to confront a more general set of questions, some of which 
Foucault touches on in this interview - about language and the 
representation of the self, about emotion, affect, and fantasy and about 
the local and international geopolitics of place and environment. These 
social phenomena are a formative part of the experience of being and 
becoming modern. Writing these things into history, in a way that conceives 
of them as more than simply epiphenomenal, demands not only a different 
set of historical narratives but a new language of the historical itself. 

Roy Peters: On a personal note I am full of regrets following the encounter 
with Foucault. As a photographer, my biggest regret is that I didn’t ask Michel 
if I could take his picture. I didn’t have an idea which could encapsulate the 
man in visual terms, and I dared not ask for a snap. The snap is a vastly 
underrated cultural form, yet I felt that to ask him to do a picture in this 
way was somehow sullied and base - certainly inferior to the more worthwhile 
business of exchanging intellectual ideas. I had, and probably still have, I’m 
ashamed to admit, a binary and hierarchical view of photography as 
secondary to intellectual endeavour - even though I spend much time and 
professional energy championing the importance of visual representation. 
There was also a further potential embarrassment I wished to dissociate 
myself from; that it might have appeared that I was using the interview only 
as an excuse or a front to get his picture. 
Foucault used to ring me in Orange (Vaucluse) where I was living at the 
time, at around eight in the morning. He wanted to discuss the article 
and how to proceed. He was excited by the prospect of publishing something 
new, but also highly cautious. He didn’t want it published immediately without 
some further work on it. 
We accepted his concerns and the piece has been left dormant since that time. 
In 1994 I made minor modifications to the original text and translation. 
I corrected typographical and spelling errors in the original, as seen by Foucault, 
and tightened up grammatical inconsistencies. These revisions seemed appropriate 
to the presentation of the written text as opposed to the spoken word. I felt that 
the translation amendments facilitated the intellectual flow, and I was mindful 
that Michel saw the end product ensuing from the interview as a written document 
rather than simply as a record of what was said at the time. His intention was to 
revise the transcript and compose it as a written piece, with the interview functioning 
as a formalised intellectual response. The spoken word being less controlled, and 
having touched on certain things for the first time, he was cautious about 
how his verbatim flow might appear. 
He was not yet ‘out’ about a number of the issues raised here, and he felt 
perhaps that he owed it to a French audience to air them in French for the 
first time. This was the root of his dilemma which led to his prevarication 
over publication. It is indeed a pity that we didn’t get any further along with 
the project and with him because he clearly had more to say.

6. For historical work on visual and literary cultures that is influenced by Foucault see among 
very many: Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain, Oxford, 
Blackwell 1998; Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between 
the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, London, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989; Jonathan Dollimore, 
Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault, Oxford, Clarendon 1991. 

7. For Foucault’s influence on the cultural analysis of modern consumption see, Frank Mort, Cultures 
of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space in late Twentieth-Century Britain, London, Routledge, 1996; 
Sean Nixon, Hard Looks: Masculinities Spectatorship and Contemporary Consumption, London, UCL Press, 
1996; Erica Carter, How German IS She? Postwar West German Reconstruction and the Consuming Woman, 
Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997.


Frank Mort (FM) and Roy Peters (RP)  Firstly, could we turn to your work on 
sexuality. Is the overall project which you outline in La Volonté de Savoir still 
Michel Foucault (MF)  Well, you see, I don’t want to write those five or six 
books. Just now I am writing the second one about the Catholic Christian 
confessional, and also the third one on hermaphroditism. (...)

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