The Afterlife of the Mind

Michel Foucault made it clear that he wanted his unpublished work to stay in the archives. Scott McLemee considers how it reached escape velocity.

August 12, 2015

Franz Kafka left explicit directions concerning the journals, letters and manuscripts that would be found following his death: they were to be burned -- all of them -- unread. Whether he expected Max Brod, the executor of his estate, to follow through with his instructions is a matter of some debate. In any case, Brod refused, and the first volume of Kafka’s posthumous works came out shortly after the author’s death in 1925.

The disregard for his wishes can be explained, if not justified, on a couple of grounds. For one thing, Kafka was a lawyer, and he must have known that expressing his intentions in a couple of notes wouldn’t be binding -- it takes a will to set forth a mandate in ironclad terms. And, too, Brod was both Kafka’s closest friend and the one person who recognized him as a writer of importance, even of genius. Expecting Brod not to preserve the manuscripts -- much less to leave them unread! -- hardly seems realistic.

On the other hand, Kafka himself destroyed most of his own manuscripts and did so in the same way he told Brod to do it, by setting them on fire. It is reasonable to suppose he meant what he said. If so, world literature has been enriched by an act of blatant disloyalty.

“Don’t pull the Max Brod trick on me,” Michel Foucault is said to have admonished friends. The philosopher and historian did Kafka one better by including a blunt, categorical line in his will: “No posthumous publications.”

Be that as it may, in late spring the University of Minnesota Press issued Language, Madness, and Desire: On Literature, a volume of short texts by Foucault originally published in France two years ago and translated by Robert Bonnono. The same press and translator also turned the surviving pages of an autobiographical interview from 1968 into a little book with big margins called Speech Begins After Death. The title is kind of meta, since Foucault, like Kafka, seems to be having an unusually wordy afterlife.

Foucault died in June 1984, the very month that the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality appeared. He left a fourth volume in manuscript, but given the circumstances, it was destined only for the archives. And so things stood for about a decade. There was the occasional lecture or transcript of an interview he had given permission to publish, with claims made it was the “final” or “last” Foucault. After a while this started to get kind of silly, and it only made the thinker’s absence more palpable. Daniel Defert, the administrator of his estate, had also been Foucault’s lover for many years, and he seems to have taken the ban on posthumous works to heart in a way that Max Brod never did.

But by 1994, Defert relented enough to allow a four-volume collection of Foucault’s essays and interviews to be published in France. (A few years later, the New Press brought out an abridged translation as the three-volume Essential Works of Michel Foucault.) By the 20th anniversary of the thinker’s death in 2004, the situation had changed dramatically. Six of Foucault’s 13 courses of lectures at the Collège de France had been published and the rest were on the way. In September, Palgrave Macmillan is bringing out On the Punitive Society, at which point the whole series will be available in English. That adds another shelf’s worth of stout, dense and rich volumes to the corpus of Foucault’s work -- overlapping in various ways with the books he published (e.g., the Punitive Society lectures were given as he was working on Discipline and Punish) but developing his ideas along different trajectories and in front of an audience, sometimes in response to its questions.

In a paper published last year, John Forrester, a professor of history and philosophy at the University of Cambridge, expresses a mingled appreciation and dismay at how what he calls Foucault’s “pithy and ultra-clear command, ‘Pas de publication posthume,’” has been breached in the case of the Collège de France courses. The paper appears in Foucault Now: Current Perspectives in Foucault (Polity).

“Because these were public lectures,” writes Forrester, “they had already been placed in the public domain ‘dans son vivant,’ as the French language says, in his lifetime. Their transcription and editing therefore is not the production of posthumous texts, but the translation from one already published medium -- for instance, the tape recorder -- to another, the book.” While grateful that Brod and Defert “found a way to publish what Kafka and Foucault forbade them to publish,” he says, “that doesn’t mean to say I think they were right. They did right by me and many, very many, others. But I can’t see how they obeyed the legal injunction placed on them.”

Language, Madness, and Desire consists of six items it was not difficult to squeeze through that dans son vivant loophole, since they were delivered to audiences as radio broadcasts or lectures between 1963 and 1970. Speech Begins After Death is another matter entirely. It consists of the opening exchanges from a series of interviews Foucault gave to Claude Bonnefoy, a literary critic, in 1968. The plan had been to produce a book. It never came together for some reason (1968 was a big year for getting distracted), none of it was published and most of the transcript has been lost.

In short, there’s no real wiggle room for rationalizing Speech Begins After Death as permissible under the terms of Foucault’s will. And this is where things get interesting. To be blunt about it, Language, Madness, and Desire is not going to come as much of a revelation to anyone who has read, say, the literary essays in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (the Cornell University Press anthology of Foucault’s work from the 1960s and early 1970s that’s still one of the best things out there). It would not be surprising if it turns out there are dozens of other such pieces which could slip past Foucault’s ban without adding much to the body of work he saw through the press.

By contrast, Speech Begins After Death is (1) a clear violation of the author’s wishes and (2) a pretty good example of why violating them might be a good idea. In later years Foucault was used to giving interviews but in 1968 he was uncomfortable with the whole process. Being treated as an author or a literary figure (rather than an academic) only makes him more nervous. As sometimes happens, the performance anxiety, once he gets it under control, inspires him to think out loud in a way that seems to surprise him.

One passage almost jumps off the page:

“As long as we haven’t started writing, it seems to be the most gratuitous, the most improbable thing, almost the most impossible, and one to which, in any case, we’ll never feel bound. Then, at some point -- is it the first page, the thousandth, the middle of the first book, or later? I have no idea -- we realize that we’re absolutely obligated to write. This obligation is revealed to you, indicated in various ways. For example, by the fact that we experience so much anxiety, so much tension if we haven’t finished that little page of writing, as we do each day. By writing that page, you give yourself, you give to your existence, a form of absolution. That absolution is essential for the day’s happiness.”

Like Kafka's demand for a book that “must be the ax for the frozen sea within us,” these lines are worth whatever guilt was incurred by whoever rescued them for us.


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