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Michel Foucault

PRISON TaLK: an interview
with Miehel Foueault
This interview dates from June 1975 when Michel
Foucault published Surveiller et Punir (Surveillance
and punishment), subtitled: Naissance ‘de la Prison
(Birth of the Prison). This book can be seen as
forming a trilogy with Foucault’s Madness and
Civilisation (1961) and Birth of the Clinic (1963);
each work traces the genealogy of an institution
(asylum, teaching hospital, prison) and of the human
science symbiotically linked with it (psychiatry,
clinical medicine, criminology jpenology).

Foucault has since published a further book, La
volonte de savoir (The will to knowledge), an introduction to a projected six-volume history of sexuality in the West. His other books available in English
are Psychiatry and Mental Illness. The Order of
Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge. This
interview first appeared in Le magazine litteraire;
the interviewer was J. -J. Brochier.

Q One of the concerns of your book is to criticise


blank areas in historical studies. For inyou remark that no one has ever written a
of the practice of examining: no one has
of doing it, which is incredible.

MF Historians, like philosophers and historians of
literature, are accustomed to a history which consists of great events. But today, unlike others, they
are more ready to handle ‘ignoble’ materials. The
emergence of this plebeian matter in history dates
back fifty years or more. So I have fewer difficulties in talking with historians. You will never hear
a historian say what someone (whose name doesn’t
matter) s aid in an incredible review called ‘Raison
presente’, about Buffon and Ricardo: “Foucault
only concerns himself with mediocrities” !

Q When you study prisons you seem to regret the

absence of sources, monographs on particular
prisons, for instance.

MF At the moment we are returning increasingly
to the monograph form, but in terms not so much
of studying a particular object as of bringing out the
points at which a certain type of discourse has been
produced and formed. What would it mean, today,
to study a particular prison or psychiatric hospital?

People wrote hundreds of such histories- in the 19th
century, mainly of hospitals, studying the history
of institutions, chronologies of directors, and so
forth. Today, a monograph history of a hospital
would consist in making the whole archive of written
material generated by the hospital emerge in the
movement of its formation, as a discourse in the
process of constituting itself, which is at the same
time in interaction with the development of the
hospital ana its institutions, inflecting and modifying them. What one wuuld try to reconstitute would
be the enmeshing of the discourse in the process,
the history. A bit like what Faye has done for
totalitarian discourse.

The constitution of a corpus of source data does
indeed pose a problem for my research. But this
problem is clearly different from that of linguistic
research for instance. To carry out studies in
linguistics, or of myths, it is necessary to take a


certain corpus, to define it and establish criteria
for its constitution. In the much more fluid area
where I am working, the corpus is in a sense undefined: one will never be able to constitute as a
unity the ensemble of discourses on madness, even
by restricting it to a given country or period. With
prisons, it would be senseless to restrict ones~lf
to discourses about prisons; just as important are
the discourses which arise in the prison, the decisions and regulations which are constitutive elements of the prison, part of its means of functioning; thes,e have their strategies, unformulated discourses and ruses, ruses which in the last analysis
are not played Qy anyone but are none the less
lived, and serve to ensure the functioning and
permanence of the institution. All of this has to be
retrieved and made visible by the historian. And
the task, in my view, entails making these discourses visible in their strategic connexions,
rather than constituting them to the exclusion of
other forms of discourse.

Capillary power
Q You determine one moment as central in the

history of repression – the transition from punishing to placing under surveillance.

MF That’s right – the moment in the economy of
power when it became understood that it was more
efficient and profitable to place under surveillance
than to punish. This moment corresponds to the
formation, both rapid and gradual, of a new mode
of exercising power, in the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. Everyone knows the great
upheavalS, the readjustments of institutions which
constitute a .cruinge of political regime, the way the
delegation of power, right to the top of the state
system, is modified. But when I think of the mechanics of power, I have in mind rather its capillary
form of existence, at the point where power returns
into the very grain of individuals, touches their
bodies,and comes to insert itself into their gestures and attitudes, their discourses, apprenticeships and daiiy lives. The eighteenth century discovered, so to speak, ‘a synaptic regime of power,
of its exercise in the social body. Not from above
the social body. The change of official political
power was linked to this process, but only via intervening shifts and displacements. It was, rather, a
fundamental structural change which made possible
the realisation, in a fairly coherent fashion, of this
modification of everyday forms of the exercise of
power. It was the institution of this riew local,
capillary form of power which impelled society to
eliminate certain elements such as the court and the
king. The mythology of the sovereign was no longer
possible once a certain kind of power was being
exercised within society. The sovereign then turned
into a fantastic personage, at once monstrous and

Hence there is a certain correlation between the
two processes (global and local), but not an absolute one. In England there occurred the same capillary modification of power as in France. But there,
the person of the king, for instance, was displaced
within the political system of representation, rather
than being eliminated. It cannot therefore be said
that the change, at the capillary level of power, is

tied absolutely to institutional changes at the level
of the centralised forms of the State.

Q You show that as soon as the prison was constit-

uted in its form as surveillance, it began to secrete
its own raw material, namely delinquence.’

MF My hypothesis is that the prison was linked
from the beginning to a project of the transformation of individuals. People tend to suppose that the
prison was a kind of refuse dump for criminals, a
dump whose disadvantages revealed themselves in
use, giving rise to the conviction that the prisons
must be reformed and made into a means of transforming individuals. But this is not true: the texts,
programmes and declarations of intent were there
from the beginning. The prison was destined as an
instrument, no less perfect than school or barracks
or hospital, to act with preciSion on its individual

The failure of the prison was immediate, and was
registered practically from the start of the prison
enterprise. From 1820 it was realised that prisons,
far from transforming criminals into honest people,
serve only to manufacture new criminals and to
drive existing criminals still deeper into criminality. It was then that there took place, ~s always in
the mechanics of power, a strategic utilisation of
what had been experienced as a drawback. The
prison manufactured delinquents, but delinquents
turned out to be useful, in the economic domain as
well as the political. Delinquents are worth having.

For instance, because of the profit that can be
derived from the exploitation of sexual pleasure, we
have the setting up, in the nineteenth century, of the
great prostitution business, possible only thanks to
the delinquents, who supplied the link between
everyday, paid for sexual pleasure and capitalisation.

Another example: we all know that Napoleon I I I
was able to take power thanks to a group made up,
at least on its lower levels, of common law criminals. And it is only necessary to see the fear and
hatred felt by nineteenth-century workers towards
criminals to understand that the criminals were
being used against them, in social and political
struggles, as agents of surveillance and infiltration,
for preventing and breaking strikes, etc etc.

Q So the Americans, in the twentieth century,
weren’t the first to use the Mafia for this sort of

MF Absolutely not.

Q But there was also the problem of penallabour:workers feared the prisons’ competition of a
reservoir of cheap labour?

MF Perhaps. But I wonder whether penal labour
was not organised precisely so as to constitute this
hostility between delinquents and workers which was
so important for the general workings of the system.

What the bourgeoisie was afraid of was the kind of
amiable, acceptable illegality known to the eighteenth century. One must not exaggerate: criminal
punishments in the eighteenth century were of great
ferocity. But it is none the less true that criminals,
or at least certain of them, were perfectly tolerated by the population. There was no autonomous
class of delinquents. A man like Mandrin 1 was
received wherever he went by the bourgeoisie and
aristocracy as well as the peasantry, and protected
by all. But once capitalisation had (physically) put
invested wealth in popular hands, in the form or
ra w materials and the means of production, it be-

came absolutely essential to protect this wealth.

Because industrial society requires that wealth
should be directly in the hands not of those who own
it, but those whose labour, by putting it to work,
enable a profit to be drawn from it. How was this
wealth to be protected? By a rigorous morality, of
course: hence the formidable layer of moralisation
. d~posited on the nineteenth-century population.

Look at the immense campaigns to christianise the
workers in this period. It was absolutely necessary
to constitute the populace as a moral subject and
break its commerce with delinquence, hence to
segregate the delinquents and to show them as being
dangerous not only for the rich but also for the poor,
as vide-ridden instigators of the gravest social
perils. Hence also the birth of detective literature
and the importance in the newspapers of the faits
divers, the horrible recitals of crimes.

Q You show that the principal victims of crime

were the poorer classes.

MF Yes, the more they were the victims, the more
they feared it.

Q But criminals were recruited among these


MF Yes, and the great instrument of recruitment
was the prisons. From the moment someone entered
prison a mechanism came into operation by which
he was stripped of civil status, and when he left. he
could do nothing except become a criminal again.

He fell inevitably into the hands of the system which
turned him into either a pimp, a policeman or an
informer. Prison professionalised people. Instead
of having, as in the eighteenth century, nomadic
bands of robbers (often of great ferOCity) roaming
the countryside, one had this closed milieu of delinquency, thoroughly structured by the police, an
essentially urban milieu, with a far from -negligible
political and economic value.

The ideal labourer
Q You remark, rightly, that penal labour has the

peculiarity that it is useless. One wonders then what
its role is in the general economy?

MF In its primitive conception, penal labour is not
designed as an apprenticeship in this or that trade,
but rather in the virtues of labour itself. Work in a
void, work for work’s sake, was intended to form
individuals into the image of the ideal labourer.

A chimaera, perhaps, but one which had been perfectly worked out and defined by the American
Quakers (the founding of the workhouses) and the
Dutch. Then, from 1835 to 1840, it became clear
that the aim was in reality not to retrain delinquents,
to make -them virtuous, but to regroup them within
a thoroughly defined, card-indexed milieu, which
could act as a tool for economic or political ends.

The problem thereafter was not one of teaching
prisoners something, but rather to teach them
nothing, so as to make- sure they could do nothing
on coming out of prison. The futile character of
penal labour, which was linked initially to a particular didactic plan, now came to serve a different

Q Don’t you think it’s a striking phenomenon that

today people are returning from the schema of
delinquence to that of infraction and illegality,
taking, that is, the opposite course to that of the
eighteenth century?

MF I consider that in fact the great intolerance of


the population tOWclrds the delinquent, which the
morality and politics of the nineteenth century had
set out to establish, is now being eroded. More and
more, certain forms of illegality and irregularity
are accepted: not only those which were previously
accepted or tolerated, such as fiscal and financial
irregularities, which the bourgeoisie had been able
to get along with on friendly terms, but also that
sort of irregularity, for instance Which consists in
stealing an article from a shop. ‘

Q But isn’t it because the Hrst sort of irregulari-

ties, the fiscal and financiai ones, have come to be
known about by everyone, that the general attitute to
petty cnme has cnanged? Some time ago statistics
were published in Le Monde comparing the considerable economic damage due to the former, and the
few months or years of prison by which they were
punished, and the slight degree of economic damage
due to the latter sort of crimes (including violent
offences like hold-ups) and the considerable number
of years of prison which they had been punished with.

The article expressed a sense of scandal at this

MF This is a diHicylt issue which is currently a
subject of discussion among groups of ex~prisoners.

It is true that in popular conSCiousness, but in the
present economIC system as well, a certain margin
of illegality is not a serious prot>lem, but rather
perfectly tolerable. In America people know that
hold -ups are a permanent busIness risk run by big
stores. They work out roughly what it’s costing
them and find that the cost of an effective surveillance Hnd protection system would betob great, and
hence uneconomic. They leave things as they are.

The insurance company pays, it’s all just part of
the system.

With regard to this sort of illegalism, which
seems at present to be spreading, are we dealing
with a questioning of the line of demarcation between
tolerable~ tolerated breaches of the law and serious
crime, or rather with a simple relaxation on the
part of the system, which, aware of its own solidity,
can afford to accept at its edges something which,
after all, poses absolutely no threat to it?

No doubt there has also been a change in people’s
a ttitude to wealth. The bourgeoisie no longer has
that proprietorial attachment to wealth which it had
in the nineteenth century . Wealth is no longer what
one possesses, but what one makes a profit out of.

The accelerating flow of wealth, its ever-growing
power of circulation, the abandonment of hoarding,
the practice of credit, the decrease in the importance of landed wealth … these all tend to make theft
seem no more scandalous to people than confidence
tricks or financial fraud.

Q There is another change as well: in discussions
of crime, the straightforward condemnation in the
nineteenth century (‘he steals because he is evil ‘)
today has given way to explanation (‘he steals
because he is poor’) and the idea that it is more
serious to steal when you are rich than when you are

MF That is true. If there was only that perhaps one
might feel confident and hopeful. But isn’t there,
along with that, an explanatory discourse which
carries with it a number of dangers? He steals
because he is poor, certainly, but we know that all
the poor don’t steal. So, for that individual to steal,
there must be something wrong with him. This
something is his character, his psyche, his educa …

tion, his unconSCious, his desires. And with that the


is handed over to a penal technology, that
of the prIson, and a medical technology, if not that
of the asylum, at any rate that of specialised

Q The connexion you make between penal and
medical techniques and repreSSion may upset some

MF Well, maybe fifteen years ago it was still
scandalous to say things like that. I’ve noticed that
even today the psychiatrists have never forgiven
me for Histoire de la Folie. Not a fortnight ago I
received yet another abusive letter. But I think that
today this sort of analysis is much more easily
accepted whatever offence it may still cause, above
all to the psychiatrists, who have been dragging
their bad consciences around for so long.

Q You show that the medical system has always

been auxiliary to the penal system, even’ today
when the psychiatrist collaborates with the judge,
the court and the prison. But perhaps this is unjust
to some younger doctors who have tried to free
themselves from this complicity.

MF Perhaps. In any case, I have only tried, in
Surveiller et Punir, to mark out a few paths. At
the moment I’m preparing a work on the role of
psychiatric experts in penal affairs. I intend to
publish some dOSSiers, some of which go back to
the nineteenth century, but others are more
contemporary, and which are quite stupefying.

Genres of crime
Q You distinguish two sorts of criminality: one

which ends up in the police, and another which
founders in aesthetics: Vidocq and Lacenaire.

MF I ended my analysis with these crucial years
the 18408. It was at this time that the long concubinage between the police and criminality began. The
first studies had been made of the failure of the
prison, they knew that it does not reform, but on
the contrary manufactures criminality and criminals, and this was the point at which the benefits
were discovered that are accrued from this process
of production. Criminals can be put to good use, if
only to oversee other criminals. Vidocq is very
characteristic of that. He came out of the eighteenth century, the r,evolutionary and imperial
period, in which he was a smuggler, for a while a
pimp, and a deserter. He was one of those nomads
who frequented and circulated among the towns, the
country, and the army. An Old-style criminality.

Then he was absorbed into the system. Sent to
forced labour, he came out as an informer, became
a policeman and ended up as head of a detective
force. And, symbolically, he is the first great
criminal to have been used as a criminal by the
apparatus of power. 2
As for Lacenaire, 3 he is the token of another
phenomenon, different from but related to the first
– that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only
heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and
because, they were the crimes of a king, and a
popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the
criminal hero, a hero because 4 criminal, and
neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie

produces its own criminal heroes. This is the
same moment when the’ separation is effected
between criminals and the popular classes: the
criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero,
he must be an enemy of the poor. The boul1geoisie
constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime
no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those
fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the mcxlel for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things’, but he has
been properly brought up, he has been to school, he
can read and write. This enabled him to act the
leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other
criminals is typical: they are brutal animals,
cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the
COld, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created,
displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the
detective novel, in which the criminal is always of
bourgeois origins. You never find a working class
criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

The criminal is always intelligent, he plays a sort
of game on equal terms with the police. What is
funny is that in reality Lacenaire was pathetic,
ridiculous and inept. He always dreamed of killing,
but never got as far as doing it. The one thing he
could do was blackmail the homosexuals he picked
up in the Bois de Boulogne. The only real crime he
committed was a few dirty tricks he got up to in
prison with a little old man. If Lacenaire came
within a hair of being killed by his fellow inmates
in forced labour, it was because they thought, no
doubt with good reason, that he was an informer.

Q When you say that criminals are useful, couldn’t
it be said that for many people crime is more part

of the nature of things than a politico-economic
necessity? Because it might seem that for an
industrial society criminals are a less socially
useful work force than the working class?

A technology of reform
MF Have you ever read any criminology texts?

They make you gasp. And I say that with astonishment, not aggressiveness, because I cannot comprehend how the discourse of criminology has been able
to continue at this level. One has the impression
.that the discourse of criminology has such utiiity,
is”needed so urgently and made so vital for the
working of the system, that it does not even need to
look for a theoretical justification for itself, or even
simply a coherent framework. It is entirely utilitarian. I think it is necessary to investigate why a
‘learned’ discourse became so indispensable in the
functioning of the penal system in the nineteenth
century. It was necessary to the alibi, employed
since the eighteenth century, that if you impose a
penalty on someone, this is not to punish what he
has done, but to transform what he is. From this
point a penal judgement, that is, saying to someone:

we’ll cut your head off, or put you in prison, or
just fine you because you have done such and such,
is an act which no longer has any meaning. Once
you suppress the idea of vengeance, which previously was an act of the sovereign, threatened in his
very sovereignty by the crime, punishment can only
have a meaning within a technology of reform. And
the judges themselves, without wishing to and without even taking cognizance of the fact, have gradually moved a way from a verdict which still retained
punitive connotations to a verdict which they cannot
justify in their own vocabulary, except on the condition of its being transformatory of the individual
condemned. But they know perfectly well that the
instruments available to them, the death penalty,
formerly penal colonies, today imprisonment, -do
not transform anyone; hence the necessity to call
on the people who are to conduct a discourse about
crime and criminals which will justify the measures
in question.

MF In the 1840s, unemployment and short time
were fixed economic conditions. There was a
surplus of labour power.

But to think that crime was part of the order of
things no doubt was part of the cynical intelligence
of nineteenth-century bourgeois thought. You had to
be as naive as Baudelaire to think that the bourgeoisie is stupid and prudish. Rather it is intelligent
and cynical. You only have to read what it said
about itself and, better still, what it said about

At the end of the eighteenth century people
dreamed of a society without crime. But then the
dream evaporated. Crime was too useful to dream
of anything as crazy, and ultimately as dangerous,
as a society without crime. No crime means no
police. What makes the presen’ce of police and
police control tolerable for the population, if not
fear of th~ criminal? This institution of the police,
so recent and so oppressive, is only justified by
this fear. If we accept the presence in our midst of
these men in uniforms, armed, while we do not
have the right to be armed, who demand our papers,
who come and prowl on our doorsteps – how would
that be possible if there were no criminals? And
if there weren’t articles every day in the newspapers telling us how numerous and dangerous o~r
criminals are?

Q You are very harsh towards criminology – its
‘garrulous discourse’, its ‘intermidable repetitions’.

N, Haroun-Romain, Plan for a penitentiary, 1840,
A prisoner praying in his cell, facing the central surveillance tower,

Q In short, criminological discourse is only useful
to give the judges a semblance of a good conscience?

MF Yes. Or rather it is indispensable in enabling
them to judge.

Q In your book on Pierre Riviere, 4 it is a criminal
who speaks and writes. But, unlike Lacenaire, he
carried his crime through to the end. First of all,
how did you find this amazing text?

MF By chance, while working systematically
through medico-legal statements by experts and
penal-psychiatric documents in professional
journals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Q Isn’t it extremely rare for an illiterate, or
barely literate, peasant to take the trouble to write
forty pages to explain and tell the story of his

MF It is a totally strange story. However, it can
be said, and this struck me, that in these circumstances, writing your life story, your recollections,
what had happened to you, was a practice which one
finds in a fair number of cases, and precisely in
prisons. Someone called Appert, one of the first
philanthropists to visit a lot of penal colonies and
prisons, made prisoners write their memoirs, and
later published some pregments of them. In
America one also fbids judges and” doctors doing
this. It was the first great burst of curiosity about
the individuals whom one wanted to transform, and
for the sake of whose transformation it was necessary to gain a certain knowledge, ‘a certain technique.

This curiosity about the criminal absolutely did not
exist in the eighteenth century, where it was simply
a matter of knOwing whether the accused had really
done what he was accused of; once that was established, the penalty was fixed.

The question, what is this individual who has
committed this crime?, is a new question. But it
does not suffice towards explaining the story of
Pierre Reviere; because Pierre Riviere makes it
clear that he had tried to begin writing his memoir
even before committing his crime.

In this book we did not want to conduct any kind of
psychological, psychoanalytic or linguistic analysis
of Riviere, but rather to render visible the medical
and juridical mechanisms which surround the story.

The rest we leave to the psychoanalysts and criminologists. What is astonishing is that this text, which
left them silent at the time, has left them equally
dumb today.

Q I came upon a sentence in Histoire de la Folie

where you say that we must ‘dismantle the chronologies and historical orderings of all progressivist
perspectives’ .

MF This is something I owe to the historians of
science. I adopt the precaution of method and the
radical, but unaggressive scepticism which makes
it a principle not to regard the point where we stand
now as the outcome of a teleological progression
which one would have to reconstruct historically:

that scepticism towards ourselves, our present and
what we ,are, our here and now, which prevents
assuming that what we have is better, or more, than
in the past. This doesn’t mean not trying to reconstruct generative processes, but that we must do
this without imposing on them a positivity or a

Q Even though science has long shared the postulate
than man progresses?


MF It isn’t science which says that, but rather the
history of science. And I don’t say that humanity
does not progress. I say that it is a bad method to
pose the problem as: how is it that we have progressed? The problem is: how do things happen?

And what happens now is not necessarily better and
more advanced, or better understood, than what
happened in the past.

Q Your research bears on things which are banal,

or rather have been made banal, because they are
For instance, I find it striking that
prisons are in towns, and no one sees them. Or
else, if one sees them, one wonders vaguely whether
it’s a prison, a school, a barracks or a hospital.

Your book is an event because it puts before our
eyes something that previously no one was able to
see. This applies also to certain other very detailed
studies, such as one of the peasantry and the, tax
system in the Bas Languedoc in 1880~2, as well as
that of a capital phenomenon which no one had conSidered, like the prison.


MF In a sense that is how history has always been
done. To make visible what no one had previously
seen may be the effect of using a magnifying glass.

Instead of studying monarchical institutions from
the 16th to the end of the 18th centuries, you can
study exhaustively the institution ‘of the Conseil
d ‘en Haut between the death of Henri IV and the
accession of Louis XIII. It’s still the $ame domain
of objects, but the object has been magnified.

But making visible what was unseen can also
mean a shift of level, addressing oneself to a layer
of material which had hitherto possessed no pertinance for history and which had not been accorded
any moral, aesthetic, political or historical value.

Today it’s self-evident that ways of treating mad
people form a part of the history of Reason. But it
wasn’t self -evident fifty years ago, when the history
of Reason meant Plato, Descartes, Kant, or
Archimedes, Galileo and Newton.

Knowledge Bc power
Q Even so we still have here ·(in Histoire de la
Folie) a play of mirrors, a simple antinomy between
reason and unreason, which is absent when you now
write: ‘Histories are written of the congenitally
blind, of wolf-children and of hypnosis. But who is
going to write the history of the practice of examination, a history more general, more indefinite, but
more determinate as well … ? For in this simple
technique there is involved a whole domain of knowledge and a whole species of power. ‘

MF The mechanisms of power in general have nevel
never been much studied by history. History has
studied people who held power – anecdotal histories
of kings and generals; in contrast to this there has
been the history of economic processes and infrastructures. From this again has been distinguished
the history of institutions, of what has been seen
as a superstructural level relative to the economy.

But power, in its strategies, at once general and
detailed, and its mechanisms, has never been studied. Something which has been studied even less is
the relation between power and knowledge, the articulation of each on the other. It’s a tradition for
humanism to admit that once one gains power, one
ceases to know: power makes men mad, and those
who govern are blind; only those who keep their
distance from power, who are in no way implicated
in tyranny, shut up in their stove, their room,
their meditations, only they can attain truth.

Now I have been trying to make visible the constant articulation I think there is of power on knowledge, and of knowledge on power. We should not be
content to say that power has a need for such and
such a discovery, such and such a form of knowledge, but should add that the exercise of power
itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of
knowledge and accumulates new bodies of informa- .

tion. One can understand nothing about economic
science if one does not know how power and economic power are exercised in daily life. The exercise
of power is perpetually creating knowledge and,
conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of
power. The university hierarchy is only the most
visible, the most sclerotic and the least dangerous
form of this phenomenon. You really have to be
naive to imagine that effects of power linked to
knowledge have their culmination in university
hierarchies. Diffused, entrenched and dangerous,
they operate in other places than the person of the
old professor.

Modern humanism is therefore mistaken in drawing a line between knowledge and power. Knowledge
and power are each an integral part of the other,
and there is no point in dreaming of a time when
knowledge will cease to be dependent on power; this
is just a way of reviving humanism in a utopian
guise. It is not possible for power to be exercised
without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge
not to engender power. ‘Liberate scientific research
from the demands of monopoly capitalism’: maybe
it’s a good slogan, but it will never be more than
a slogan.

Q You seem to have kept a certain distance from
Marx and Marxism; this was said against you
already about The Archaeology of Knowledge.

MF But there is also on my part a sort of game
about this. I often quote concepts, texts and phrases
from Marx, but without feeling obliged to add the
authenticating label consisting of a footnote and a
laudatory phrase to accompany the quotation.

Provided you do that, you’re regarded as someone
who knows and reveres Marx and will be suitably
honoured in (so-called) Marxist journals. But I
quote Marx without saying I am, without quotation
marks, and because people are unable to recognise
Marx’s texts I am considered to be someone who
doesn’t quote Marx. Does a physicist feel it necessary to quote Newton and Einstein when he writes
a work of physics? He uses them, but he doesn’t
need the quotation marks, the footnote and the

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eulogistic comment to prove how completely he is
being faithful to the Master’s thought. And because
other physicists know what Einstein did, what he
discovered and proved, they can recognise him in
what the physicist writes. It is impossible at the
present time to write history without using a whole
series of concepts directly or indirectly related to
Marx’s thought and situating oneself within a
horizon of thought which has been defined and
described by Marx. One might even wonder what
difference there could ultimately be between being
a historian and being a Marxist.

Q So you would call ‘Marxist historian’ a redundant
expression, as Astruc said about ‘American

MF More or less. And the debate has its beginning
within this general horizon of thought, defined and
c·oded by Marx, with those who call themselves
Marxists because they play by rules which aren’t
Marxist but communistological, that is, defined
by communist parties who decide how you must use
Marx so as to be declared by them to be a Marxist.

Q What about Nietzsche? It seems to me that his
presence, diffuse but growing in contemporary
thought for the last ten years, has come to figure
in opposition to the hegemony of Marx.

MF Nowadays I prefer to remain silent about
Nietzsche. When I was teaching, I often gave
courses on Nietzsche, but I wouldn’t do that today.

If I wanted to be pretentious, I would give ‘the
genealogy of morals’ as the general title of what I
am dOing. It was Nietzsche who specified the power
relation as the general focus, shall we say, of
philosophical discourse – whereas for Marx it was
the production relation. Nietzsche is the philosopher
who has moreover been able to think power without
having to confine himself within a political theory
in order to do so.

Nietzsche’s contemporary presence is increasingly important. But I am tired of people studying
him only in order to produce the kind of commentaries that are written on Mallarme and Hegel. For
myself, I prefer to utilise the writers I like. The
only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche’s is
precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan
and protest. And if then the commentators say that
I am being faithful or unfaithful to Nietzsche, that
is of absolutely no interest.

(translated by Colin Gordon)

1 Mandrin (1725-55), brigand in southern France:

specialised in robbing tax farmers and respected
private property. Repelled attacks by several
military expeditions.

2 Freed from prison in 1809 by a prefect of police
and put in charge of a squad of ex-convinct
detectives. His police career ended in 1832 when
he ·was accused·of theft. His exploits were fiction
alised by Balzac and appeared also in both bogus
and authentic versions of his memoirs.

3 Lacenaire’s ‘tranquil cynicism’ made a profound
effect on the romantic Parisian public. Before
his execution in 1836 he published a highly
successful volume of memoirs.

4 It Pierre Riviere . .. – see review in RP15

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