Foucault: ‘What Could Be Otherwise’
Lynne Huffer

A noteworthy conversation that took place in September 1971 between Michel Foucault and Dutch philosopher Fons Elders is to be published for the first time later this year. It reiterates some of the best-known Foucauldian positions on the Enlightenment idea of reason, madness, foreign cultures, and sexuality, while reminding us what Foucault’s rare practice of knowing has to offer today.

1 The Vicious Circle he following reflections were triggered by a remarkable conversation between Michel Foucault and Dutch philosopher Fons Elders. In this September 1971 interview, slated to be published for the first time later this year, Elders spoke with Foucault in preparation for his televised debate with Noam Chomsky in November the same year. Foucault participated in the conversation with Elders at the height of his anti-prison activism as a member of GIP (Groupe d’information sur les prisons, or the Prison Information Group), in the same month as the Attica revolt and the hostage crisis in the French Clairvaux prison. Given Foucault’s lifelong interrogation of what he calls the “merciless” language of reason, it is fitting that the interview begins with madness. Like Foucault’s earlier book, History of Madness (1961), the 1971 interview brings into focus Foucault’s true target – the Enlightenment ideal of reason. Throughout the interview Foucault challenges a received assumption about the necessary relation between knowledge and freedom – the more we know, the more free we will be. Conversely, the more free we are, the more we will know.


According to this assumption, reason finds its completion in universal knowledge and absolute freedom. This is the “paradise”, as Elders puts it, of the Western Enlightenment dream. But Foucault uncovers “cruelty” lurking in paradise in the form of a chiasmus, a reversal in word order that can be marked with an x – If man frees himself, man will know everything; when man knows everything, he will be free. The logic here is as inescapable as it is definitive in the future it promises. The x of the chiasmus binds man to himself in the vice versa necessity of freedom-for-knowledge and knowledge-for-freedom. But the chiasmus also effaces, as an x-ing out, the cruelty of the exclusions that bind man to his necessity. Madness is the exclusion that exposes paradise as an illusion. Elders asks Foucault if reason, in knowing madness, can find its completion in universal knowledge. Foucault’s response is consistent with his later critique, in the debate with Chomsky, of rational ideals such as justice. “Ideal justice”, Foucault will say later to Chomsky, “that’s my problem”. In the September interview, Foucault uses madness to demonstrate the stakes of this philosophical disagreement.
In order to know madness it first had to be excluded. … We suppressed madness, and as a result came to know it. … My hypothesis is this: 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 any reality.

Lynne Huffer ( is at the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory University, and is the author of Mad for Foucault (2010).
Economic & Political Weekly EPW

This is how cruelty enters paradise. Or better, this is how the idea of paradise

may 4, 2013

vol xlviiI no 18

in fact. “By living in Tunisia”. and the antiprison militancy of Foucault and his friends constitute the immediate political context of the 1971 interview. from our cultural system in spite of many similarities. “we must reverse the terms” of the chiasmus – “We can’t know everything” and “to know everything” is to be unfree. Indeed. Foucault says. the Attica riots. Further. man will know everything. Foucault. The conclusion Foucault draws here is a radical one – we must “abandon” the chiastic. The chiasmus marks with an x the tension of many Foucault interviews. and was living there when the student revolts in Paris occurred. We must face the fact that we live in a time when we “will have to abandon knowledge if it wants to be truly free”.COMMENTARY produces cruelty. not only to look down upon them. We suppressed foreign cultures. he will be free.1 “If man frees himself. and Chinese cultures – in order to know these cultures. we are trapped in our own heartlessness – a circle of viciousness. In the 1961 Preface to the History of Madness.” the same cruelty that authorises locking up prisoners in the name of justice. In the 1961 Preface. The chiastic binding of freedom to knowledge as an Enlightenment ideal both effaces and perpetuates. African. the stakes could not be higher. Foucault reminds Elders that he was away during the events of May 1968. Foucault said “there is no comparison between the barricades of the Latin Quarter and the real risk of doing 15 years in prison. thought of as the origin. Foucault clarifies what is at stake.3 “In order to know madness it first had to be excluded”. but indefinitely inaccessible. to conquer them and in some ways through violence to keep them silent? We suppressed madness.2 And so.4 Three years later. Elders asks Foucault about the impact of May 1968 on his life. The cost of the illusion that we can know it all – the exclusion of the other – is too high. when man knows everything. The Orient functions as the “indefinitely inaccessible” limit against which “the Occident [is] formed”. Foucault insists that with the pursuit of absolutes we perpetuate cruelty. coloniser and colony. Bound by the chiasmus. I felt with the young people I knew there the problem of exclusion and of universality. at one point Foucault was stopped in his car and beaten. helped with the printing of anti-government leaflets and donated part of his salary to the defence fund for those who were arrested. for it always remains the limit: the night of the beginning. the “vicious circle” whose “viciousness” is the cruelty of knowledge. who had been teaching these students as a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Tunisia. “the Orient is for the Occident everything may 4. Following the success of The Order of Things in 1966. the origin of its own divisions – between reason and unreason. Police responded by entering the university. but also to exploit them. ethically and politically. Foucault wrote. there is this division which is the Orient: the Orient. and throwing them into jail. a “viciousness” that excludes. as in Tunisia”. Could we also say that in order to know other cultures – non-Western cultures. while remaining the place in which its primitive truth must be sought (2006: xxx). The September interview also marks a moment of intense sexual activism – what Foucault will later call “the putting into discourse of sex” – in the name of women and sexual minorities. most saliently. West and East. as “the secret of our knowledge”. Foucault picks up the hammer where Nietzsche dropped it when. By October 1968 he was forced to leave Tunisia. In the universality of the Western ratio. We imagine ourselves as tolerant when in fact we are merciless. in the 1971 interview. the Orient is for the Occident everything that it is not. But. or American. Here Foucault names the edifice Friedrich Nietzsche tried to demolish by hammering away at those Enlightenment foundations. slinging his arms around the neck of a horse that had been beaten. Foucault tells Elders. itself and “everything that it is not”. As the events unfolded. On the heels of a discussion of Marxism. but rather an exposure of the limits of ourselves in relation to what we are not. Here Foucault’s challenge to the despotism of Enlightenment reason is also a challenge to western knowledge’s complicity with colonial power. In the logic that binds East to West. we must no doubt have had not only to marginalise them. as in the interview. and as result came to know it. “that is to say in an African country that is culturally Muslim. But it is the false “universality of the Western ratio” that is. this one by the National Union of Students against the authoritarian Habib Bourguiba government in Tunisia.” Here we find Foucault redescribing the x as a circle. the remark echoes Foucault’s earlier written reflections on universal knowledge as a function of a “colonising reason” (2006: xxx). where we find Foucault pulling in one direction and his interlocutor pulling in the other. a village a few kilometres outside Tunis. We imagine ourselves as kind when in fact we are vicious. a Mediterranean village whose Arab cafés and Turkish-style minarets delighted the Europeans who flocked vol xlviiI no 18 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . dreamt of as the vertiginous point from which nostalgia and promises of return are born. and as a result came to know them. Foucault had moved to Sidi Bou Saïd. but in which it traced a dividing line. But another student revolt was also taking place. in which the Occident was formed. when he launches his critique of the vicious circle that binds absolute freedom to universal knowledge. Later. That cruelty authorises “the gesture of sovereign reason that locks up their neighbour. as the bloody dénouement of the Attica revolt on the same day as the interview attests. he continues. illusory necessity that binds freedom to knowledge. Where Foucault’s interlocutor seeks the perfection of the Enlightenment ideal. rejected from our culture.” Having lived in Sidi Bou Saïd. Foucault links these Tunisian events to the theme of universal knowledge and repression. 2013 it is not”. attacking the students. But GIP and the larger movement of which Foucault was a part is connected to other late 20th century movements including. Foucault says. 22 2 A Divided Ratio Madness. anti-colonial struggles for independence from France and other European empires in Africa and Asia. he slumped into madness and silence. the vicious circle. socalled primitive cultures. This is not a call for stupidity. Foucault’s comments about his own life later in the interview bring home this point about the western ratio. the Orient offered to the colonising reason of the Occident. Foucault became convinced that his telephone was being tapped.

In preparation for the televised debate with Chomsky. as Foucault put it in History of Madness. Elders by his side. “in that case. once again. trans Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (London: Routledge). and as a result came to know them. Elders says. Volume One. impasse. then collapsing to the ground. Michel Foucault (1990): The History of Sexuality. see Didier Eribon (1991): Michel Foucault (Paris: Flammarion). Elders has told Foucault it is time to leave the café. When Foucault changes his mind – when he gives in to Elders’ demands – it is not fame but rarity that draws him. We suppressed madness. Elders describes with humour how being out of sync with Foucault generated scenes we might characterise as uncomfortable moments of thinking otherwise. and transformation. An incident that occurred in January 1889 has achieved the status of a legend as one of the first signs of Nietzsche’s illness. leaves us to reflect on what might be done with such singular lives and such rare practices of knowing. the one who wrote the book suddenly gets up and leaves the café. Scene Three: An Amsterdam café. driving him to Bordeaux. Nietzsche caused a public disturbance by running to the horse. Scene Two: Foucault is resistant to Elders’ proposal that he appear on TV Economic & Political Weekly EPW with Chomsky. In that agreement. Volume One: An Introduction (1990). “They are not ensconced in the plenitude of reason. wearing only a pair of red boots. Or rather. Michel Foucault (2000): “Lives of Infamous Men. Foucault also anticipates the arguments about sexuality he will develop in History of Sexuality. emphasis added). 5 This is not the rarity of a precious object to be hoarded or consumed. and probably out of desperation. the talking head. We suppressed foreign cultures. This 1971 interview. Michel Foucault (2006): History of Madness. today. do it for me”). turning to walk away from the cab that is waiting to take him to the plane and the film shoot. “through knowing it too much. or about sexuality the less free we will be. trans Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books). In a separate commentary. picks up his copy of History of Madness and begins to read. or exclude. what is could be otherwise”. Then Elders tells Foucault about the time he. is an “empty space”.” says Foucault.COMMENTARY there. I want to be nude on television with you and Chomsky!” We might read these moments. with humour. Elders hails Foucault with a grammar of intimacy he and Foucault had not used with each other before. For reflections on Nietzsche’s madness in the context of his philosophy.” This moment. Foucault’s Tunisian experience was a dramatic lesson about very real cruelties in the postcolonial paradises of the western ratio. As Foucault puts it. James Faubion (New York: New Press). an untimely. Elders. about other cultures. 2013 vol xlviiI no 18 23 . fais-le pour moi” (“Michel. sexuality is silenced by the western ratio. In David Macey (1993): The Lives of Michel Foucault (London: Hutchinson). passes it over” (2006: xxxiv. one man reading a book about madness written by the other. or experienced. Veyne writes. “I don’t like television”. “Human phenomena are exceptional”. soon to be published four decades after its time. we might infer from these examples that the more we know about madness. but the rarity of an other who punctures him with “a light coming from elsewhere” and thereby transforms him. Rarity: raritas. Let me explain. Foucault writes that “it is rarity and not prolixity” that matters. where awkwardness or irritation gives way to openings that had been previously blocked. empty space for thinking and practising what could be otherwise. like the experience of madness. Foucault says. 204-8. An hour later we find Foucault at the wheel of his white sports car. see Ronald Hayman (1980). Like madness and other cultures. By 1971 Foucault was a celebrity. Foucault greets Elders with a curt “you have 25 minutes left”. the philosopher Paul Veyne. the rarity of the only in the intimacy of the tu marks the transformation of the “empty space” into an “otherwise”. wrested from a refusal. “Je le fais seulement pour toi” (“I will do it only for you”). there is empty space around them for other phenomena that we in our wisdom do not grasp. It is a reminder. echoing the tu of his interlocutor. “Michel. Elders says. This detail changes Foucault’s mind. Nietzsche: A Critical Life (New York: Oxford University Press). After sitting in silence.). disappears behind “the calm of a knowledge which”. And Foucault responds. throwing his arms around its neck.” in Essential Works of Foucault: 19541984. In “Lives of Infamous Men” (1977). used. 2 3 4 5 may 4. Volume Three (ed. For a more detailed account of Foucault’s political activities in Tunisia. that “we can’t know everything” and that to try “to know everything” has a cost. With raritas. as parables of transformation. In modernity. Abandoning professional protocol. they must take a cab and then a plane to a private island where the filming of a biographical portrait of Foucault has been scheduled. After witnessing the whipping of a horse in a piazza in Turin. The experience of sexuality. and his resistance to Elders may well signal his desire for anonymity and his reluctance to being swept into the role of the grande vedette. Rarity names the singularity of the intimate – that which is not widely known. It is the singularity of the intimate – something other than fame – that compels Foucault to give in to Elders and to turn towards the cab and the plane. Outside a cab and a plane are waiting. Foucault offers us. falling silent. Rarity cannot be captured within the universally known – it is the something precious that Enlightenment knowledge can only reject. 205-6. appeared nude on Dutch TV. Remembering the chiasmus. Elders. Scene One: Annoyed with Elders for arriving five minutes late for his first meeting with him in 1970. “was a Beckett play: two men sitting silently at a small table while one of them reads a book written by the other. It is a reminder that we must abandon the western ratio. “Well. xxvii. the public intellectual of his age. Notes 1 In late 1888 or early 1889 Nietzsche went mad. … And perhaps we might also say that it is not until the great Puritanism of the 19th century that sexuality was first suppressed and was then known finally in psychoanalysis or psychology or in psychopathology. that silencing of sexuality is paradoxical – the age of sexual repression also marks the birth of a garrulous science whose primum mobile is sex. a phrase he borrows from Foucault’s friend. he says he was almost nude. 3 Raritas The dialogue between Foucault and Elders unfolds in a syncopated rhythm that taps out the halting beat of disconnection. 12. Foucault makes it clear he is unhappy. disavow. The result. and as result came to know it. 161.