Watch a “Lost Interview” With Michel Foucault: Missing for 30 Years But Now Recovered

An intro­duc­to­ry shot that might be an out­take from A Clock­work Orange opens this inter­view with Michel Fou­cault, “lost,” we’re told by Crit­i­cal The­o­ry, “for near­ly 30 years” before it appeared on Youtube last week. In it, Fou­cault dis­cuss­es mad­ness and his inter­est in psy­chol­o­gy and psy­chopathol­o­gy, repeat­ing in brief the argu­ment he made in Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion, his 1961 work in which—through impres­sive feats of archival research and leaps of the imagination—Foucault attempt­ed, as he wrote in his pref­ace, “to return, in his­to­ry, to that zero point in the course of mad­ness at which mad­ness is an undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed expe­ri­ence, a not yet divid­ed expe­ri­ence of divi­sion itself.”

Fou­cault explains this the­sis more clear­ly above, point­ing out that until the 17th cen­tu­ry, so-called “mad” peo­ple lived and moved freely in Euro­pean soci­ety. Dur­ing the age of Enlight­en­ment, how­ev­er, they began to be shut up in asy­lums and hid­den away. And not only the dan­ger­ous­ly insane. “All social­ly worth­less peo­ple, the trou­ble­mak­ers,” says Fou­cault, “were impris­oned.” In the 19th cen­tu­ry, this phe­nom­e­non gave rise to the sci­en­tif­ic dis­course of psy­chi­a­try, and a rise in hos­pi­tals, san­i­tar­i­ums, work­hous­es, and vir­tu­al pris­ons for those under­stood to be men­tal­ly ill. “My the­sis is this, “says Fou­cault: “the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of our knowl­edge, has been acquired at the cost of exclu­sions, bans, denials, rejec­tions, at the price of a kind of cru­el­ty with regard to real­i­ty.”

Fou­cault gave the inter­view to artist and philoso­pher Fons Elders on Dutch TV in 1971 (the voice-over com­men­tary is in Dutch and untrans­lat­ed). Elders, you may recall, mod­er­at­ed a debate between Fou­cault and Noam Chom­sky short­ly after (and appar­ent­ly paid Fou­cault part­ly in hashish). He is rebuffed here for seek­ing per­son­al infor­ma­tion from his sub­ject: “Struc­tural­ists,” says Foucault—who along with Roland Barthes is cred­it­ed, crude­ly, with the “death of the author” thesis—“are peo­ple for whom what counts in essence are sys­tems of rela­tions and thus not at all the lived indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence of peo­ple.” Nev­er­the­less, Fou­cault says, “I don’t see what I’ve been talk­ing about for the past half an hour if not my per­son­al life.” He does so with­out reveal­ing any details, and there would be no need. In fact, Fou­cault agreed to the inter­view in a let­ter with the fol­low­ing stip­u­la­tions, which Elders reads after the intro­duc­tion.

Sir, I do not wish that dur­ing the tele­vi­sion broad­cast you want to devote to me, any bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion be giv­en any place. I con­sid­er indeed such infor­ma­tion to have no impor­tance for the sub­ject mat­ter at hand.

“Some have argued,” writes Crit­i­cal The­o­ry, “that Foucault’s work was, in a way, bio­graph­i­cal.” His depres­sion and homo­sex­u­al­i­ty marked him to doc­tors at the time as men­tal­ly ill and one of the exclud­ed. In many ways Foucault’s own life served as an exper­i­ment in rad­i­cal rejec­tion of the cat­e­gories assigned him and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple, even in a soci­ety that thinks itself, he says, “very tol­er­ant.” After their debate that year, Chom­sky described Fou­cault as “total­ly amoral.” And yet, all of his work was pred­i­cat­ed on a refusal to accept cru­el­ty, sup­pres­sion, vio­lence, con­quest, and mass impris­on­ment as the cost of Euro­pean knowl­edge and pow­er. If that isn’t a moral posi­tion, I don’t know what is.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chom­sky & Michel Fou­cault Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV, 1971

Michel Foucault’s Con­tro­ver­sial Life and Phi­los­o­phy Explored in a Reveal­ing 1993 Doc­u­men­tary

Michel Fou­cault and Alain Badiou Dis­cuss “Phi­los­o­phy and Psy­chol­o­gy” on French TV (1965)

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Piet Vollaard says:

    Nice that this inter­view is on Youtube, but it was not ‘lost’ at all, it has always been present in the archives of Dutch tele­vi­sion, and has been shown on Dutch TV sev­er­al times. It seems ‘Crit­i­cal The­o­ry’ only search­es on Youtube. Once it’s on Youtube ‘it has been dis­cov­ered after 30 years’.
    So much for crit­i­cal research.

  • Claudia says:

    Dutch is hard­ly a lan­guage of inter­na­tion­al cir­cu­la­tion. From the point of view of the anglo­phone audi­ence, the inter­view was lost to the worlf since it was sit­ting there, nice­ly con­cealed under­neath Dutch lan­guage in Dutch tele­vi­sion archives. Glad we can see it today.

  • Oulu says:

    Hi Jones. How do I cite this video and the link in a sci­en­tif­ic paper am writ­ing? Thanks.

  • Neon says:

    Most of this inter­view is in French, which is in fact a lan­guage of inter­na­tion­al cir­cu­la­tion. And I want to sec­ond Piet on the notion that the expres­sion of being lost and/or miss­ing is a litte bit exag­ger­at­ed. Why not redis­cov­ered?
    But any­way thanks very much for this inter­est­ing inter­view!
    And thank you Piet for the clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

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