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TRUTH AND POWER : an interview with Michel Foucault*

Fontana: Can you perhaps

briefly outline the



as le you from the study of madness in the classical

period to the study of criminality and delinquence?

Foucault: When I was working in the years

50-55 one of

the most serious problems of the political


functions that

which was being posed was that

of science and the ideological

The Lysenko affair

science could fulfil.

was not really at the centre of this, but I think that

around the whole appalling

long suppressed


business, which was for so

carefully hidden, all kinds of

power and knowledge.

interesting questions were thrown up. Two words seem

to encapsulate these questions:

I think that, in part, I wrote

Madness and Civilisation

in the light of these questions.







I wanted to say

was this:

between such sciences as theoretical

If one poses the question of the relation

physics or organic

and the political and economic structures of

is one not in fact asking too complicated a

Is one not

in fact expecting too much from

explanations? If on

such as psychiatry,

the other hand we take a

would this problem not in

fact be much easier to

resolve, both because of psychiatry’s

much less highly developed epistemological

because psychiatric practice

frame, but

is connected to a whole series

of institutions,

of immediate economic demands, political

exigences and social regulations? Thus through a ’dubious’


pose this

such as psychiatry

would we not be able to see

with greater clarity the interrelationships

and knowledge?

between power

I wanted in The Birth of the Clinic to

question again, this time in relation to

medicine, a science which undoubtedly

has a more specific

identified with

scientific structure than psychiatry itself has, but is

still one which is also very closely

social structures.

What in fact somewhat threw me was

the fact that the question

asking had virtually no

to whom it was addressed.

in which I was interested in

interest at all for the people

They felt that it was a question

and epistemologically

that was politically irrelevant


There are, it seems to me, three reasons for this.


first is the problem that marxist intellectuals in France

had (and in this respect they were playing the role assigned

to them


the PCF) which was to be

recognized by university

They were thus

institutions and by the Establishment.

forced to ask the same questions

selves to the

same problems


tried to be good


but we


on your


as them and address them-


same areas: &dquo;We have

of your


we are not unaware

the only ones

who can


accepted as the means by

old problems.&dquo;

Marxism wanted to be

which the liberal tradition of

* First published in LArc 70, 1977, ppl6-22.


the universities would be renewed (much the same thing

can be seen during the same period,


From this,

in which

operating at a much

wider level, in the way

presented themselves as the only ones

commun.ist party members


of re-

and reinvigorating the nationalist tradition).

in terms of the area

in which I am interested,

we can understand their interest in the most academic

and the most elevated of


problems in the history of

Medicine and psychiatry were neither very noble


were they

the structures

serious, and had none of the grandeur of

of classical rationalism.

The second reason was that

post-stalinist stalinism, by

area which was not

excluding from marxist discourse any

a timid

repetition of what had already been said, did

not allow areas which had not already been opened up to



There were no formulated concepts, no

validated vocabulary which could be used to ask questions

on the effects of power and psychiatry, or the functioning of medicine; while on the other hand the endless debates, which started with Marx, were carried on by Engels and

Lenin, and still continue

and themarxists, had nourished a whole discursive tradition


between the academics

on ’Science’

in the 19th-century sense of the term.

The marxists paid for their

fidelity to the old positivism

and the price was their radical deafness in respect of all the

questions of pavlovian psychiatry; and for some of the

doctors who were close to

and psychiatry as politics

the PCF, political psychiatry

were not worth

to do


Whet for my part I tried

in this area was received

in resounding silence by the French intellectual left.

It was only around 1968,

and despite the PCF, that



the marxist tradition

these questions took on their

political importance with an acuteness that I had not been

to predict, and which demonstrated how timid and

my previous books had in fact been. Without the



political opening-up tha.t occurred in those years I would

undoubtedly not have had the courage to take up the thread

of these problems and to pursue my investigations in the

areas of penal law, prisons, discipline.

Finally there is perhaps a third reason.

altogether sure that it did play a role.

But I am not I wonder

however if the intellectuals of the PCF (or thcse who

were close to it) did not

in fact refuse to pose the

problem of

psychiatry and in a

partitioning of society.

incarceration, the political use made of

more general way the disciplinarian

knew of

Undoubtedly only very few of

the real extent of the


aware of it and many

such as

these it was better

them, in 1955-60,

but I think that many of them were

of them felt that in matters

in all respects not to talk:

Of course

it was a danger zone, the

it is difficult to make any

lights were red.

retrospective judgements on the extent of their knowledge.

But in any case you are well aware of the ease with which

the party (which

clearly itself knows everything) could

circulate directives,

prevent others from talking of such

things and excommunicate those who do talk


An edition of the Petit Larousse which has just been



says: Foucault: a philosopher whose theory



is based on the notion of discontinuity.

leaves me speechless.

I obviously did not explain all

this adequately in The Order of Things, even though I

did discuss it quite a lot.

It seems

to me that in

various forms of empirical knowledge such as biology,

political economy, psychiatry,

of transformations did not

medicine etc, the rhythm

adhere to the gentle, continuist

schemes of development that are conventionally applied. The dominant biological image of the increasing maturity

of a science still underlies not a few historical accounts,

but it does not

seem to me to be at all historically


In a science such as medicine for example,

up to the end of the 18th century there was a certain

kind of discourse in which slow transformations - lasting

25-30 years - not only broke with the ’True’ propositions

which could up till then be formulated, but also, more

profoundly, with the ways of talking, of seeing, with all


practices which supported

medicine: they were not

simply new discoveries;

and in

it was a new order in discourse

knowledge. This happened over a few years and

once the texts had been analysed with care.


It is also

My particular problem did not at all lie in

saying: ah, here we


are, long live discontinuity - we live

discontinuity so let us stay there; rather the problem

was to pose the question: how are we to explain the fact

that there are certain moments in certain orders of

knowledge, abrupt deconstructions, dramatic transforma-

tions which

do not correspond

to the calm and continuous

picture that is produced in

normal practice? What is

important in such changes is not that they are very rapid

abrupt or widespread,

their extent are the

but rather that their rapidity and indications of something else: a

change in the rules of formation of the statements which

are accepted as scientifically true.

There is thus no

change of content (a refutation of old mistakes, the

production of new truths), nor is it a change

in the

theoretical form (a renewal of the paradigm, a change of

the systematic totality). What is in question

is what

governs the statements and the manner in

each other in order to constitute an ensemble of scientific-

which they govern


acceptable propositions which can as a result of this

be verified or rejected through scientific procedures. In

brief it is a problem of the rules, the

scientific statement.

politics of the



At this level it is


know not so much what the power is that from without, but what effects of power

the scientific statements; what is to some

on science

It was these

operate between



at certain

internal organisation of power; how and why

moments they are modified in an overall way.

different areas

that I attempted to approach and to describe

It must be

said that I was not at That had to be done

in The Order of Things.

that time attempting to explain them.

in another later work.

What was however missing was the

problem of the discursive order or the effects of power



to the stated game.

I confused this too

with the systematicness, the theoretical form, the



This contral problem of power, which still

remains one that I have not adequately isolated, can be

seen, in very different forms, at the meeting point between Madness and Civilisation and The Order of Things.

Fontana: The notion of discontinuity must therefore be returned to its proper position. There is however a

concept which is even more significant, your thinking, the concept of the


concept an entire generation has for a long time

been in an impasse because as a result of the work of

ethnographers, even the greatest of them, a dichotomy

hss been set up between on the one hand the structures

more central to

In relation to


(that which

can be thought) and on the other the event,

the area of the irrational (that which cannot be thought), that which does not and cannot enter the mechanism and the process of analysis, at least in the forms which these had taken within structuralism.

Foucault: Structuralism has undoubtedly been the most

systematic attempt to take the notion of the event not

but also out of a whole range


I don’t know many other people

only out of anthropology

ist than I am.

other sciences and even out of the limits of history.

But what

who are more antistructural-

is of considerable importance is

not to make of the event what the structuralists made of

structure. We must not reduce everythingto the same

level, the level of the event, but rather understand that there are a series of different types of events which do

not have the same weight, the same chronological signific-

ance, nor the same capacity to produce effects.

The problem is simultaneously to distinguish different

events, differentiate the networks and the levels to which they belong, reconstruct the links between them and

see in what way some grow out of the others.

this point that I reject those analyses which concern the

symbolic or the area of significant structures and instead

turn to analyses that are undertaken in reference to the

It is at

geneology of

relations of force, strategic developments,


reference is not the model of

I think that what we have to use as a point of

language or of the sign

The historic force which propels and

it is not concerned with

but war or battles.

determines us is in fact warlike;


of meaning, that is

It is

the relation of power, not the relation

important. History has no ’meaning’,

that it is absurd or incoherent.


which does not mean

is on the contrary understandable and should be


down to the last detail; but analysed in terms of the

understanding of

dialectic (as the

battles, struggles and tactics.


logic of contradiction) nor semiology

(as the structure of communication) can account for the

intrinsic intelligibility of confrontation.

This intelli-

gibility, ’the dialectic’, is a way of evading reality -

which is always risky and unprotected, by bying it down

to the hegelian skeleton; and

’semiology’ is the way of

evading its violent, bloody, mortal nature,

the calm, platonic form of language and dialogue.

by tying it to


Fontana: We could perhaps categorically state that you

the first to pose the question of power to discourse and to pose this question at the moment when the kind of analysis which worked through the concept of the text,


the object of the text with its accompanying methodology

(in other words, semiology, structuralism, etc)

was dominant.

Foucault: I don’t

question and I am

think I was the first to pose the

in fact


by the difficulty

that I had in formulating it.

When I look back over it


I wonder what

I think I was

talking about, in for

example Madness and Civilisation or The Birth if the Clinic,

if not power.

Now I am

fully aware


having virtually

never used the word, and not to have had this whole area

of analysis available, I can however say that this was

clearly an inability which was at the same time directly

linked to the political situation in which we found


I do not know from what position (whether

on the right or on

the left) it would have been possible

On the right it was only in terms

to have the question.


of the constitution, of sovereignty, etc., and thus put

in juridical terms;

from the point of view of marxism it

was posed in terms of the state apparatuses.

No one

looked for the way in which it is exercised concretely

and in detail, with its specificity, its techniques

and its tactics.

They were content to denounce the other,

the adversary, in polemical and generalised ways: power

in the Soviet Union was called totalitarian by its oppo- nents and in western capitalism the marxists denounced

it as

class domination -

the mechanism of power was never

examined. It was only possible

to begin work of this kind

after the daily struggles which

after 1968, in other words

led from the base, with those who had to battle against the finest threads in the network of power.



is at this level that the realities of power are

in fact

manifest and at the same time the real



what until then

of these analyses of power to account for

remained outside the area of

political analyses. To put

it very simply, incarceration in a psychiatric hospital

the imposition

of mental normalisation of individuals,


institutions, all obviously have very limited

importance if we look at them from a strictly economic

point of view.

But if we look at the general operations

of power they are

undoubtedly crucial.

In so

far as


asks the question about power and subordinates it to the

economic instance and to the system of interests that it

ensures, we are inevitably led to consider that these

things have very little importance.

Fontana: Has the formulation of the problematic been

impe e by the objective obstacle of a particular kind of Marxism and a particular kind of phenomenology?


Yes, if you like, to the extent that it is true

that people of my generation were brought up as students by these two kinds of analysis: one which constantly

returned to the constituting subject and the other which

sent him to the economy,

in the last instance, to



and to the interplay between the superstructures

and the infrastructures.


I would like to ask, keeping within the same

framework, how you

place yourself in


relation to

the objects

the geneological approach?

What is its about conditions

importance as a means of asking questions

of possibility,

about modalities and the constitution of

and domains that you have yourself analysed?

Foucault: I wanted to see how problems

constitution of particular objects

within a historical frame, rather

such as the

could be resolved from

than being posed in

relation to a constituting subject.

of the constituting subject,

other words undertake an the constitution of the

What I call



We have to get rid

the subject itself, in

analysis which can account for


in historical terms.

is a form of history which takes

account of the constitution of knowledge, discourses,

to refer to a

in relation to the

field of events, or which flits through history with no

domains of the object etc, without having


which is either transcendant

identity at all. Fontana: Marxist phenomenology and a certain form of

marxism can undoubtedly be seen as obstacles.

But there are also two concepts which are impediments today, ideology and repression.

Foucault: The notion of

that is difficult to

ideology seems to me to be one

The first

use for three reasons.

is that, whether one wants it or not,

it is always in

opposition to something else which is reality.

Now I

feel that the problem is not to make a division between

what in any discourse is seen as relating to reality and

another part which relates to something else, but to see historically how these effects of truth have been pro- duced within discourses which are neither true nor false.

The second problem is that I think ideology inevitably

refers to

something as the subject. Thirdly, ideology secondary position in relation to something



For these

is put in a

else which has to function as

or economic or material etc. determinant.


I think that this is a notion that one can only

use with considerable caution.

The notion of repression is itself more dangerous, or I

at any rate have had considerable problems in freeing

myself from it to the extent that it seems that it is

so identified with a whole range of


do with power.

concepts directly

When I wrote Madness and Civilisation

I implicitly used the concept of


I think that

I still felt that some kind of madness which was voluble

and anxious did exist, and that the mechanisms of power

and psychiatry came to repress it and to reduce it to


Now it seems to me that the notion of


is entirely unable to account for what power itself


When one defines the effects of power by


repression one gives a purely juridical concept to this

power, power is identified with a law that says no, it

I feel that

limited definition

of power, which has become

has above all the power of a prohibition.

this is a totally

negative, narrow,

in some odd way divided.


power has only ever been repressive,

if all it does is one would obey it?

obey it,


produces pleasure,

it has to be

to say no, do you really think that

What makes power effective, what makes one

not simply that it is felt as a power that says no, but

that in fact it produces things, it

it creates knowledge, produces

seen as a productive network which runs through the


social body, and is far more than

whose function is to punish.

just a negative instance

In Surveiller et Punir what

I wanted to show was

centuries on there was a real technological

the way that from the 17th to 18th


is shown not only

apparatuses of power

in the productivity of power. This

in the development of the vast

(army, police, fiscal administration) by the absolute

monarchies of the classical period,


saw the creation of a new


but above all this

’economy’ of power, in

other words of

power to be distributed in such a way that they were

which enabled the effects of

continuous, uninterrupted, adapted,

throughout the


entire social structure.

These new tech-


were not only much more efficient and much less

extravagent (less expensive, less delayed in their

results, less susceptible


than the techniques which had previously been used and

being avoided or resisted)

of tolerances which

which were based on a complex range


more or less enforced (from recognised privilege to

endemic criminality) and expensive ostentation (stagger-

ing interventions

and discontinuities of power whose most

violent form was ’the exemplary’ punishment, which was exemplary precisely because it was exceptional.

(translated by Felicity Edholm)