His Last Decade


Illustration by Arturo Espinosa

by Stuart Elden

Foucault’s Last Decade is a study of Foucault’s work between 1974 and his death in 1984. In 1974, Foucault began writing the first volume of his History of Sexuality, developing work he had already begun to present in his Collège de France lecture courses. In that first volume, published in late 1976, Foucault promised five further volumes, and indicated some other studies he intended to write. But none of those books actually appeared, and Foucault’s work went in very different directions. At the very end of his life, two further volumes of the History of Sexuality were published, and a fourth was close to completion. In contrast to the originally planned thematic treatment, the final version was a much more historical study, returning to antiquity and early Christianity. In this book, I trace these developments, and try to explain why the transition happened.

Foucault’s Last Decade has its roots as far back as the late 1990s. I had just finished a PhD thesis on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault. Right at the end of that process Foucault’s courses from the Collège de France began to be published – the first in 1997, the second in 1999. I already knew how much Heidegger scholarship had been changed by the insights of his lecture courses and thought that the same would be true for Foucault. (Of course, with Heidegger, much more and much worse was to come with his notebooks.) I wrote a review essay on the second published Foucault course – The Abnormals – for the journal boundary 2, on the invitation of Paul Bové, and then Paul invited me to the University of Pittsburgh when I spoke about ‘Society Must Be Defended’, a text which was also published in boundary 2. I thought then that if I wrote something about each course as they came out, then in time there might be the raw materials for a book.

And so, on and off, in and around other projects, I read, spoke and sometimes wrote about most of Foucault’s courses as they appeared. Some of these were published here at Berfrois. Foucault taught at the Collège de France from late 1970 until his death in 1984. There were thirteen courses in total, but they were published in non-chronological order – the earliest courses presented the greatest editorial difficulties, and so were among the last to appear. The last of the Collège de France ones was published in 2015. Some courses from elsewhere and other material has also been published in the intervening years, and we now have far more material published since Foucault’s death than appeared in his lifetime. This, despite, his wish for ‘no posthumous publications’ – a request that was once followed scrupulously, then generously interpreted and is now largely ignored.

The lecture courses provided insights into all sorts of aspects of Foucault’s work. They filled in detail relating to his major publications, but they also addressed issues that could not be found elsewhere in his writing. They show a thinker in action, relating ideas to each other, trying out hypotheses, and sometimes connecting historical material directly to contemporary concerns. Sometimes he is reading carefully crafted text, other times improvising from skeletal notes. For me, above all, they helped to understand a crucial issue. Why did Foucault abandon the initial plan of the thematic History of Sexuality, and what was he trying to complete, in quite a different style, at the end of his life? Could the lectures, and other material that was available, help us to understand why this was? My book was thus an exercise in intellectual history, a history of a project, an attempt to write a history of the History of Sexuality.

One of the things I try to show is that the standard periodizations of Foucault’s career collapse when we read the lecture courses. There is a long standing reading of Foucault as concerned with archaeology as a method and knowledge as a topic in the 1960s; genealogy and power in the 1970s; with a supposed turn to ethics in the 1980s. This reading was long problematic, but the lectures clearly shown the much more gradual transitions between works, and the development of new theoretical tools in relation to emergent inquiries, rather than the abandonment of previous positions. I wanted to get away from the idea of a ‘late’ or ‘final’ Foucault, and to show the transition between the 1970s work on sexuality, especially in Volume I, and the 1980s books. Equally, I wanted to show how his studies of, for example, governmentality and technologies of the self, were related, in important ways, to his attempt to complete the History of Sexuality, albeit in quite different form.

The ‘last decade’ of the book’s title is therefore the period 1974 to 1984. We know that Foucault began to work seriously on the sexuality project in 1974, and it was left, almost complete but missing one crucial final volume on the early Church at his death. That fourth volume, complete in annotated manuscript, has still not been published, and remains locked in the archive. While likely to be published one day, it still requires editorial work of the highest quality to be intelligible, and may not appear for some time. Neither I, nor other researchers, have been granted access. As such, I wrote about what we knew from other sources, including the courses, in a sense to provide one contextual way in which it could be read, if and when it eventually does appear.

Much of the argument of the book is based on quite fine-grained textual analysis, and I spent some time working on variant versions of texts, tracking down things Foucault had read, comparing translations but generally working with the original French. I built a detailed timeline of Foucault’s work in the period I was interested in, using Daniel Defert’s ‘Chronology’ as a basis, but adding dates of interviews, lectures and other other events, and then using this to relate different aspects of Foucault’s work. I shared some of my working notes and resources on my Progressive Geographies blog, thinking that some of the tools I developed for my work might be of use for others. Along the way I compiled a bibliography of ‘The Uncollected Foucault’ which was published by Foucault Studies (open access).

As this last resource indicates, I did not just use the lecture courses, works published in Foucault’s lifetime, and the posthumous Dits et écrits collection – part-translated in the Essential Works. There is a common misconception that ‘everything is available online these days’. Well, that’s not the case with the historical work I conducted here. If you search long enough, you can probably find most of Foucault’s published works in English on one or other pirate site; French being a bit harder to locate. Some of the original outlets for his publications were much harder to track down. These often included crucial contextualising information that was sometimes lost when they were collected into more formal editions. I made several trips to libraries just to consult one or two things – helped immeasurably by being based in Durham, Coventry, London, New York and Melbourne for different periods while writing this work. Many printed sources taxed the patience of inter-library loan staff on three continents. Many of the news reports on his political activism I ended up consulting on microfilm in the British library newsroom or at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; some I requested direct from publisher archives; others were provided by the kindness of friends and sometimes strangers who responded to requests for help on my blog. The reports he produced when working with Félix Guattari’s CERFI group, or the CORDA institute were hard to track down, though I did eventually find copies of all these in second-hand bookstores. Much more material relating to that collaborative work was only available in the wonderful IMEC reading room in a restored and converted abbey outside of Caen in Normandy.

While based in New York, I made a side-trip to Berkeley, California, where I had a fascinating few days working in the Bancroft library with the small archive of Foucault’s papers and quite extensive collection of audio recordings. While quite a few recordings are available online, many remain on tape or cd, some shared between different collections – there is quite an overlap between IMEC and the Bancroft collection. Bancroft has some texts that Foucault gave to Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow when they were writing one of the first major studies on his work, and more he gave Rabinow for The Foucault Reader. Many of these texts, in French and/or English, are preserved in the Bancroft collection, and I discovered some useful things while consulting the collection. One concerned the 1975 lecture Foucault gave in Berkeley, his first there, to the French department, which was a very early version of parts of the History of Sexuality, Volume I. Foucault gave that lecture in French. He then had a translator read an English version in New York at the Semiotext(e) ‘Schizo-culture’ conference later that year, in his presence. That text was published, without Foucault’s permission and after his death, in Foucault: Live. But the Bancroft text clearly showed that later parts of the English text were only excerpts from the French original, and that the very last part was the translator’s summary of the text, not Foucault’s own words. And yet the published version made no reference to this. As chance would have it, the Semiotext(e) archive was housed at New York University, so on my return there I was able to work through the relevant boxes at the Fales library. I discovered that the translator’s notes about the excerpts and summary had partly appeared in the source text for Foucault: Live, but had been deleted from the published version.

In Berkeley there are also many recordings of discussions from Foucault’s time there, only some of which, and often in heavily edited form, have been published. The discussions with Rabinow, Dreyfus and colleagues are well-known in those edited forms, but much remains unpublished. I also found a fascinating discussion between Foucault and Jonathan Simon, then a student and now a Professor at Berkeley. I had this transcribed, edited the text and wrote an introduction. Simon added a commentary recounting how he and Foucault met and the context of their conversation. This is now forthcoming in Theory, Culture and Society.

I also spoke to other people that knew Foucault, most importantly his partner Daniel Defert, who afforded me the kindness of a long conversation in Foucault’s old apartment in Paris. I had met Defert several times before at conferences, but this was the first one-to-one conversation, and he was very helpful on several issues. I spoke to many of the people in his final seminar at Berkeley, where Foucault initiated a research project which he sadly did not live to complete. I was clear I was not writing a biography, so my focus was always on the work and the writing, though it was a privilege to talk to people who had known the man.

Right at the end of the research for the book, I began work in the Bibliothèque Nationale manuscripts room, with their collection of Foucault’s papers. My primary focus, for this book, was the draft material for the History of Sexuality Volumes II and III, which had been given to the library by Defert after Foucault’s death. The material provided a fascinating insight into Foucault’s working practices, because there were multiple drafts of chapters, at first hand-written, and heavily edited, then typed by Collège de France staff, amendments to those typescripts, and then further versions. The material traces were a wonderful glimpse of how Foucault worked, with literal ‘cut and paste’ of sections glued onto new sheets, with handwritten linkages. At one point, in early 1983, Volumes II and III had been a single large manuscript, and the material was invaluable in seeing how that text became the actually published versions.

As I was working at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and bringing Foucault’s Last Decade to a close, more archival material became available there. This is about 40 boxes of a total of 110 boxes of archival material, including Foucault’s reading notes, lecture material, drafts of book materials, photocopies, and some correspondence. To date, almost all the material available is his reading notes. I have used these extensively for the second book on Foucault that developed out of this research, Foucault: The Birth of Power.

When I initially planned Foucault’s Last Decade, there was to be an opening chapter that discussed his first three courses at the Collège de France, from the early 1970s, to provide a background to the project of sexuality which became his key concern around 1974. In writing that chapter I produced far too much material, and it eventually became two chapters. When I got close to completing the manuscript of Foucault’s Last Decade it was clear that it was far too long, and I had to go back to the publisher to try to negotiate an increased word limit. Quite rightly, I now realise, they resisted a book of 50% over length. So my second proposal was that I remove those chapters, write a shorter introduction to this book, and then take the cut material as the basis for a second book, where I could explore the early 1970s in much more detail. This met with greater enthusiasm. A second book was, at the time, very much my second choice, but I have come to realise it was the best one. So, once Foucault’s Last Decade was into production, I went back to the excised material and began reorganising it.

Foucault: The Birth of Power is now projected for publication in early 2017, and it treats not only the early Collège de France lectures, but also Foucault’s activism and collaborative research in this period. Essentially it tries to show how Foucault moved from The Archaeology of Knowledge to Discipline and Punish. It therefore analyses the lecture material in some detail, but also looks at his work with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons and the lesser-known Groupe Information Santé – the prison and health information groups, the second of which worked on industrial medicine, immigrant health and, especially, the abortion rights campaign. The book also uses what is currently available from the Bibliothèque Nationale collection, which resulted in multiple trips to Paris, and took me back to IMEC for another week of research.

So, out of this work, two books have been produced. It’s clear to me now that one day I would like to complete the story, again working in reverse, and write about Foucault in the 1950s and 1960s, with the development of his first great work the History of Madness, and the other works leading up to The Archaeology of Knowledge. But at the moment, we have very little ‘new’ material from that period available. While our understanding of Foucault’s work in the 1970s and 1980s has, I think, been transformed by the publication of his lectures, at present the 1960s material is largely what he published in his lifetime, and the 1950s remains largely unknown. Yet this is likely to change: there are plans for publication of several pre-Collège de France courses, and possibly other material. It may take some time before these appear, so I hope to continue work on Foucault as and when more material becomes available and perhaps, in time, to write a book on that early period of his career.

In the meantime, though, Foucault’s Last Decade is now available, and it was written as a stand-alone study of this fascinating period of his career, which saw the initiation of a major project, its rethinking and reworking, which was then cut short by his untimely death.

About the Author:


Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, UK and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Australia. He is the author of five books, including Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty(University of Minnesota Press, 2009); and The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013). His next book is Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity Press, forthcoming 2016) and he is now turning his attention to the previous period of Foucault’s work. He runs a blog which has regular updates on the writing of his books on Foucault.