Michel Foucault: An expanding “territory” – Plaza de Armas

Michel Foucault: An expanding “territory” – Plaza de Armas
Michel Foucault: An expanding “territory” – Plaza de Armas

Israel Sanchezz
Four decades after the death of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), one of the most notable philosophers in the Western canon, it is still difficult to understand everything that his thought encompassed.

“If anyone thinks they already know what Foucault’s philosophy is, well, I’m sorry to tell you that’s not the case,” says Edgardo Castro, PhD in Philosophy, a specialist in the work and ideas of the French philosopher whose 40th death anniversary is being commemorated.

The reason for this is the continuous appearance of posthumous editions, new titles that in recent years have been added to a classic bibliography made up of emblematic works such as Words and Things, Discipline and Punish or The History of Sexuality.

All this forced the reworking of the Introduction to Foucault (Siglo XXI Editores), a book that Castro originally published a decade ago.

“Many things have happened with Foucault in 10 years,” said the Argentine academic in an interview. He was visiting the country to present this new edition of his “map of the current state of Foucaultian territory,” as he defines it, and also to participate in El Aleph. Festival of Art and Science, at UNAM.

Castro says that, although the French philosopher had established in his will that he did not want posthumous publications, since 1997 the courses he gave at the Collège de France between 1971 and 1984 began to be published, which were then circulated in video form; “the idea was that it was not unpublished material, and in essence it was true,” the Argentine emphasizes.

This was followed later, around 2014, by the National Library of France’s acquisition of the copious collection that the French sociologist and activist Daniel Defert, Foucault’s partner who died last year, had kept in bank vaults.

“The National Library of France bought this material for something like a little less than 6 million dollars, and it is about 37 thousand pages,” says Castro. “With the publication of these manuscripts, a third stage (of the Foucaultian corpus) begins, and this third stage changes many things.”

This is the origin of new titles such as Sexuality, followed by The Discourse of Sexuality, which is a sort of volume zero of History of Sexuality, or the volume entirely dedicated to the Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger and his “existential analysis,” which in the therapeutic order constituted an alternative to orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis.

“So, the Introduction had to be rewritten…, and this 2023 edition is very different from the 2014 edition. Chapter 1 is completely new, and all the chapters have been reformulated in light of the material published so far,” explains Castro, who has now been able to incorporate information regarding Foucault’s relationship with Binswanger and the French philosopher’s own forays into psychology.

“I wonder how I have been able to play the psychologist for so many years,” wrote Foucault in a letter from 1954, at the dawn of the decisive reorientation of his thought, as recovered by Castro in the “corrected and augmented” edition of his book, not necessarily aimed at a specialized reader.

Among the things Defert kept in storage would also emerge The Anthropological Question: A History of the Question Concerning Man, which is Foucault’s reading of philosophy from the 17th century to Nietzsche, a figure who emerged in the Frenchman’s life “as the need to question the task of philosophy,” explains Castro.

“And soon there will be El discurso filosófico, a book whose existence we were unaware of until recently,” adds the Argentine, who is certain that “we still do not know everything that Foucault said, and we still have a lot to discover about what he can tell us.”

Just think of his Intellectual Diary, made up of thirty notebooks in which the philosopher recorded his concerns, readings and projects, of which only a few pages have been published so far.

“So one has to imagine, as the subtitle of the text says – not my choice, but the publisher’s – that this is a work in motion,” Castro points out, who does not rule out the possibility of a third version of his Introduction… in the future. “The image could be this: Foucault’s territory is now much more inhabited, and the horizon is different.”

‘He is our contemporary’

Although deceased and absent from this world for the last 40 years, Michel Foucault, whose philosophy stands out for its diagnosis of the present, has not lost its relevance.

“Diagnosing consists in showing how we have come to be what we are, but in order to see how we can be and think in another way. Foucauldian diagnosis becomes, ultimately, an ethic, that is, a reflexive exercise of freedom,” writes Edgardo Castro in his Introduction to Foucault.

For the Argentine academic, the validity of Foucaultian thought depends on the fact that the present whose diagnosis we find in his writings is still our own.

Proof of this is that the major themes that motivated his research – the relationship between reason and madness, between sexuality and subjectivity, between freedom and security; the government of populations; the deployment of neoliberal governmentality, etc. – are far from having been overcome.

“I believe that in many areas of our Western culture we are still moving within the political and social horizon that crystallized after 1968, we have not gone much beyond that; that is, the relationship between politics, utopia and imagination continues to be the horizon of discussion. And that explains, in a certain sense, why Foucault’s analyses are still valid, because they have been a problematization of the core of that social and political horizon.

“So, for example, if one takes the question of power, Foucault insisted in dialogue with 1968 and post-1968 that ultimately at the centre of power was not ideology but the body. And we have experienced this more and more clearly,” continues Castro, who sees a typical Foucauldian thesis in what we have experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, since “at the centre of Western politics is the biological life of the population.”

In other words, the 40-year chronological distance from Foucault does not actually imply a conceptual distance; “we are still in that horizon of Foucauldian problematization, he is our contemporary,” Castro insists, highlighting the French philosopher’s questioning of neoliberalism or his analysis of power and the disciplinary devices used to create docile and obedient bodies.

“Among other things, what the pandemic has shown us is that societies want biopolitics, that is, that a policy of the biological life of the population is needed. Which one? That is another problem,” he adds.

“And it is not just the biological question, clearly at the centre of Western politics is the biological life of the population; but the other fundamental concept is the concept of freedom, and the idea that Foucault himself ultimately develops about government. It seems to me that there is still much that he has to tell us,” he concludes.

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