Confession, Flesh, Power and Truth


Legend of St Francis: 27. Confession of a Woman Raised from the Dead, Master of Saint Cecilia, 1300

by Stuart Elden

Du gouvernement du vivants: Cours au Collège de France 1979-80,
edited by Michel Sennelart, Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2012; translated by Graham Burchell as On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France 1979-80,
London: Palgrave, 448 pp.

Mal faire, dire vrai: Le function de l’aveu en justice,
edited by Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2012; translated by Stephen W. Sawyer as Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Foucault promised various books on the relation between power, subjectivity and truth in his career. In the first volume of the History of Sexuality, published in 1976, he said that it would be followed by a series of five books, of which the first was under the title La chair et le corps (The Flesh and the Body), looking at the question of confession since the late Middle Ages. In that same book, he promised a separate study under the title of Pouvoir de la vérité (The Power of Truth). The latter may have been a more worked-through version of a suggestion he made in 1973, in a lecture in Brazil, that “one could write an entire history of torture, as situated between the procedure of the ordeal and inquiry”. As is well known, Foucault did not publish any of the books promised in 1976, but instead took his work in different directions. By 1981, writing the summary for his Collège de France course, Subjectivité et vérité (Subjectivity and Truth), he said he could dispense with a long discussion since it would be the foundation of a “forthcoming publication”. The closest we had to this, until the publication of these lectures in French earlier this year, was the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality, which share much thematic and historical material with the course, although take a very different form in their presentation. These subsequent volumes, published in 1984, were intended to be parts two and three of a revised four-part plan, and the fourth volume, treating the early Church, under the title of Les aveux de la chair (The Confession of the Flesh) was listed as forthcoming. Foucault’s untimely death in June 1984 stopped his work on its final form, and the book has never been published.

On the Government of the Living and Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, comprising his Collège de France lectures from 1980 and a Louvain lecture course of 1981 respectively, go a long way to filling in those gaps, though neither can be seen as a substitute for abandoned, reworked or uncompleted books. It is perhaps too little noted that what we have in these and other publications, expertly edited and translated though they are, are transcribed lecture courses, supplemented by material from manuscripts. The references are, for the most part, the work of the editors, rather than Foucault’s own, and they bear many marks of their verbal delivery. To see these as ‘books’, on an equal standing with Discipline and Punish or the History of Sexuality is to do Foucault a disservice. Had he lived to complete his projects, or to oversee the publication of his lectures, they would undoubtedly appear in a very different form. What we have are, instead, fascinating glimpses into his working practices, of how he could work through material with a large Parisian audience at almost the very time he was encountering it himself; or the re-presentation of previously-delivered material within a new framework, as he did at Louvain. This is a point also worth stressing: while most of On the Government of the Living comprises new material, most of Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling can be linked back to previous lecture courses. On the Government of the Living is thus somewhat schematic, at times disconnected and provisional. Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling – which, in part, uses some of the other course’s material – is more polished, cohesive, and perhaps something that could be seen as a genuine stage towards a book manuscript delivered in working form.

On the Government of the Living can be seen as pointing forwards and linking back. It is Foucault’s first full course to treat antiquity in depth since his inaugural course Lectures on the Will to Know (previously reviewed in Berfrois). He returns in some detail to the figure of Oedipus, but mainly focuses on the early Church Fathers, with some discussion of pagan figures such as Seneca. All of Foucault’s subsequent Collège courses – Subjectivité et vérité, The Hermeneutic of the Subject, The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of Truth –discuss these and earlier periods. As such, On the Government of the Living shows the considerable deepening of Foucault’s interest in a period he had rarely addressed before. However, the course can also be read as the third in a sequence of courses on the question of government, or, as he sometimes calls it, ‘governmentality’. Foucault had earlier investigated the question of government in the 1978 course Security, Territory, Population and 1979’s The Birth of Biopolitics, analyzing Western practices of rule through their roots in the Christian pastoral, practices of police and diplomacy, and taking the analysis up to the twentieth-century roots of neoliberalism. On the Government of the Living shares several continuities with these concerns.

After some preliminary discussions including an account of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, it moves to the extended discussion of Oedipus. The focus here is on the question of truth, of the revealing of his past and the consequences of his actions. Some of the initial discussions are somewhat scattered and unstructured, with a wide range of examples and links to previous material. Above all, Foucault is interested in the relation between the “ritual of the manifestation of truth and the exercise of power” (pp. 7/6). He transliterates a Greek term into the neologism alethurgia to capture this notion of the power of truth. His guiding theme is the relation between government, which here he specifically analyses as spiritual direction or the direction of souls, and the manifestation of truth in alethurgia. As he notes: “what I would like to do and know that I will not be able to do is write a history of the force of truth, a history of the power of truth, a history, therefore, to take the same idea from a different angle, of the will to know” (pp. 98-9/101).

Foucault’s interest in the government or direction of souls is most explicit in his treatment of the early Church. He is interested in a wide range of texts and practices, from the writings of the Desert Fathers to monastic orders; regimes of faith and procedures of confession or avowal. He reads widely, deepening an analysis of Christianity that can be traced back to the 1975 course The Abnormals and Security, Territory, Population, as well as the abandoned, and partly destroyed, manuscript of La chair et le corps. Confession is not Foucault’s only focus, and there is a lot of discussion of baptism and other Christian practices. But it is in confession that perhaps the key importance of this material lies, especially for how it links to a range of other texts and projects. Foucault here uses two terms that we might translate as ‘confession’ – l’aveu and la confession. Foucault is not always consistent in his separation of the terms, which has meant many previous translations have rendered both in the same way. In the translation On the Government of the Living there is a real respect for terminological precision, but both words remain as ‘confession’, sometimes with the French noted. A different choice is made in Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling,where we are presented with ‘avowal’ and ‘confession’. This is undoubtedly helpful in pointing to differences in the French text, but translator Graham Burchell’s telling point is that Foucault gave related lectures directly in English, in which he himself did not draw this distinction.

Foucault’s contrast between and relation of Latin and Greek terms is also intriguing. He is working with authors who wrote in both languages, as well as others, and he is interested in practices of translation as productive interpretation. Foucault suggests there is a distinction between metanoia as paenitentia and exomologesis as confessio. But ‘penitence’ – the act of attrition – and ‘confession’ – the verbal statement that leads to it – are only partly accurate renderings. Paenitentia at this time, Foucault argues, should be understood more as conversion. There are therefore considerable complications in Foucault’s terminology – of French words used to translate Latin renderings of Greek concepts; a set of difficulties which are compounded when we try to carry this over into English. In this course, for example, Foucault generally uses the French l’aveu to translate exomologesis, which is the Latin notion of confessio, a term we would ordinarily render in English as ‘confession’.

Strikingly, towards the end of the course Foucault makes the contrast between exagoreusis and exomologesis. Exomologesis had been discussed extensively in previous lectures, but exagoreusis is new: it is “putting oneself into discourse, the perpetual putting of oneself into discourse” (pp. 301/307). Exomologesis is the “manifestation in the truth of being a sinner”, and thus marks a singular moment or performance. Exagoreusis, in contrast, is a relation we have to ourselves, a continual, permanent, analytic, detailed self-examination. Exomologesis is a specific event, but exagoreusis is closer to a way of life. While introduced only at the end of the course, it structures Foucault’s retrospective ‘Course Summary’, and would be further developed in talks Foucault gave in late 1980 in the United States. These were the often-reprinted ‘About the Beginning of the Hermeneutic of the Subject’ lectures from Dartmouth, which were also given at Berkeley and in New York.

The course also makes some important gestures towards pagan antiquity, often as a contrast to the material on Christianity which is discussed here in much detail. Foucault’s course thus ends as loosely connected set of themes. Although he tries to bring the disparate analyses together in its final moments – from Septimus Severus through Oedipus to different models of government of individuals in Christianity and antiquity – he struggles to articulate a clear overall purpose. The key theme becomes the relation between truth and subjectivity, a question which is substantially deepened in Foucault’s next course at the Collège, Subjectivité et vérité. Somewhat surprisingly then, given that development of his line of inquiry, Foucault chose to give his Louvain lectures by turning back to a previous focus. The proximity of dates is striking: Foucault gave the inaugural lecture of the Louvain course on 2nd April 1981, the day after he finished Subjectivité et vérité at the Collège. It is almost as if, realising he had now embarked on a new historical period that would take his work in new and challenging directions, he wanted to have one last chance at providing the history of confession he had promised for so long. The invitation from the School of Criminology within the Faculty of Law at Louvain undoubtedly shaped his decision to frame his inquiry in relation to law and justice. Although he does discuss antiquity here, much of this is in relation to much earlier courses, and he quite quickly moves over his more recent analyses (see WDTT 91/93). While much of Wrong Doing, Truth Telling would be familiar to his long-standing Collège de France auditors, and is now to those of us who have read the published courses, the synthesis and overall presentation is novel. And we must remember that few in his Louvain audience would have had much idea of how this traded on extensive work over several years. In this, and other respects, including the legal focus, this course is not dissimilar to the five ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’ lectures given in Brazil almost a decade before.

The course moves through a number of stages in its treatment. In the first lecture, Foucault provides a reading of Homer’s Iliad and of Hesiod – material that links back to his first Collège course. The second lecture also makes use of that course in yet another discussion of Oedipus, filtered through the reading in On the Government of the Living. In the third to fifth lecture, Foucault also makes extensive use of the 1980 course, and the late 1980 lectures in the United States, as the discussion moves through Seneca, Christianity, monasticism (with special emphasis on John Cassian), some allusions to antiquity, and the question of exagoreusis and exomologēsis. Much of this discussion is cast in the general light of the technē technēs, the art of arts or technique of techniques, which he explains is not simply government in the “general collective sense of a political art” but additionally “the government of individuals by one another, the government of souls” (pp. 63/72).In the final lecture, he brings this analysis to bear on medieval and modern material, with a discussion of torture and the inquiry that seems to owe much to the (as-yet-unpublished) 1972 course Théories et institutions penales, and then turns to some of the cases studied in The Abnormals and “About the Concept of the ‘Dangerous Individual’”. If nothing else, the course clearly demonstrates the enormous breadth of his interests and the substantial resources in unpublished work he had to hand by this stage of his career. Holding these potential disparate examples together is a continual focus on the questions of truth and subjectivity, of how modes of ‘veridiction’, truth-telling, constitute and mold the self, which he at one point calls “the obligation to tell truth about oneself” (pp. 91/93).

There is much more here, of course, as in all of Foucault’s lecture courses, which precludes an exhaustive summary. The exagoreusis and exomologesis contrast in the Louvain lectures is deeper than it is in On the Government of the Living, and some of the discussion of antiquity demonstrates Foucault’s deepening knowledge of that period. In addition, it is worth noting that even though Foucault had cancelled his Collège seminars in 1981, and never resumed them in Paris, he conducted a seminar at Louvain that ran alongside these lectures. This was on the idea of ‘social defence’ in Belgium at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Foucault’s own contributions to the seminar are unclear, though its topic and mode of inquiry was clearly influenced by him. Papers from the seminar were finally published in 1988, after Foucault’s death and without any piece from him, in the volume Génealogie de la défense sociale en Belgique (1880-1914), edited by the lawyer Françoise Tulkens.

Both the course under review here are completed by editorial material, from the detailed notes to the ‘Course Context’. Michel Senellart, Fabienne Brion and Bernard Harcourt are to be congratulated for their invaluable work. As well as the lectures, the Louvain volume is additionally supplemented by three interviews Foucault gave on this trip, reconstructed from extant recordings and typescripts. Only two of these are in the French version of the text: two had been previously published in French, but one of those appears here in an improved version (the previous publication was a retranslation into French from a Dutch translation). Only one of the interviews had previously been available in English. It is good to have these related materials available in one place. The production values of the translations are of the standard we expect from Palgrave – this is one of their series of translations of Foucault’s lecture courses, all made by Burchell – and University of Chicago Press, though I found more to quibble with in the translation by Stephen W. Sawyer. (The first of Foucault’s lecture courses appeared with Allen Lane, translated by the late David Macey.)

With the publication of Subjectivité et vérité in May 2014, only one of Foucault’s Collège de France courses remains to be published: his second course Théories et institutions penales. This is projected for publication in 2015. From the indications of the material in that course that we have – from Foucault’s own course summary, a lecture given in Brazil in 1973, and Harcourt’s editorial notes to La société punitive (reviewed in Berfrois) – there are going to be some fascinating analyses there. It promises to include material on popular resistance, feudal and Germanic law, medieval practices of inquisition, confession, ordeal and torture, and to be the missing piece in the threefold analysis of measure, inquiry and examination which structure Foucault’s first three courses at the Collège. As he suggests in the course summary, “in their historical formulation, measure, inquiry, and examination were all means of exercising power and, at the same time, rules for establishing knowledge [savoir]”. While by the late 1970s and early 1980s Foucault was seeing his work in terms of government and truth rather than power and knowledge, the links of that material to the two courses discussed here indicates some of the breath and interconnected nature of his ongoing inquiries. Rather than neatly demarcating Foucault’s career into distinct periods, as was frequently attempted before, these lecture courses have filled in so many details that clear breaks are now impossible to discern. We have, instead, a rich tapestry of concerns, in which thematic threads are woven through vast areas of Western thought. These publications do not constitute, let alone replace, missing ‘books’ by Foucault. But they are all the more powerful for showing us, instead, thought in process.

About the Author:


Stuart Elden is a Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, and one of the editors of the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. He is the author of five books, including most recently, The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013). He is currently writing a book for Polity Press entitled Foucault’s Last Decade, and runs the Progressive Geographies blog, which has regular updates on the writing of that book.