GEM: What made me want to write

In Sweden, where I was forced to speak a language that was foreign to me, I understood that I could inhabit my language, with its sudden, particular physiognomy, as the most secret but the most secure residence in that place without place that is the foreign country in which one finds oneself. Finally, the only real homeland, the only soil on which we can walk, the only house where we can stop and take shelter, is language, the one we learned from infancy. For me it was a question of reanimating that language, of constructing for myself a kind of small house of language where I would be the master and whose nooks and crannies I was familiar with. I think that’s what made me want to write.

Foucault is speaking here. It is a passage from an interview that was conducted by Claude Bonnefoy in 1968. The interview was never broadcast, but a typed manuscript stored in the archives of Foucault, was published in 2011, together with an introduction by Philippe Artières, under the title Le beau danger. In 2013, an English translation was published as Speech Begins after Death.

In the interview, Foucault seems to be surprisingly open about himself. He talks about the time he has spent in Sweden, about the loneliness that he experienced there; he even talks about his father, that is to say, about what shaped him – ‘I am the son of a surgeon’, as he confesses.

But things are never what they seem with Foucault. At the beginning of the interview, Foucault explains that he wants to use this talk to do something with himself and with his writings, that he normally refuses to do when he deals with the writings of others – so we are tended to think: to relate these writings to biographical factors and circumstances. However, even though he is open about himself, Foucault is not speaking about his work in a biographical way. Nor is he doing the opposite: speaking about himself in an anti-biographical way. And yet, at the same time, he is doing both – both, but the other way around.

First: Yes, Foucault is open about himself, but his purpose is not to explain how his writing reveals something about his life, but how his writing gave shape to his life and made his life possible (he talks about ‘constructing for [him]self a kind of small house of language’).
Second, Foucault is at the same time truly explaining how biographical factors govern his writing (in this case, how his father’s practice influenced his work). But, again, he does not do so in order to explain how his writing reveals something of his own life, but how his writing practice reveals something of the life of others. And that is because he is doing the same as his father, while simultaneously doing the exact opposite. His writing practice corresponds to his father’s surgical practice, because Foucault uses his pen to make incisions in the writings of others, like his father used the scalpel to survey different bodies (‘I am a doctor. Let’s say I am a diagnostician’). At the same time, his writing practice is the negative of his father’s practice, because where his father used his scalpel to extend someone’s life, Foucault uses his pen only in relation to dead bodies. ‘With my writing I survey the body of others, I incise it, I lift the integuments and skin, I try to find the organs and, in exposing the organs, reveal the site of the lesion, the seat of pain, that something that has characterized their life, their thought, and which, in its negativity, has finally organized everything they’ve been.’ Foucault is speaking, here, about how his writing is governed by the principle to reveal the principle that governs the writing of others (‘the immanent rule, ‘endlessly adopted and never fully applied’, as he was to put it only slightly later in in ‘Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?’).

I can highly recommend the interview to anyone who is interested in speaking and writing about the self, or in writing about the writing of others, and/or in speaking about the writing of the self … – it is a text that keeps you thinking. And it is a text that cannot remain unread by anyone studying that other published speech of Foucault, the lectures that Foucault gave at the Collège de France, especially the ones that date from the period in which he didn’t publish any ‘real’ books, between 1976 and 1984. With this interview, it seems to me that Foucault reveals precisely ‘that something’ that he speaks about in this latest work.

Michel Foucault, Le Beau danger, Seuil-EHESS, 2011
Michel Foucault, Speech Begins after Death, University of Minnesota Press, 2013