‘When Foucault enters the amphitheater, brisk and dynamic like<
someone who plunges into the water, he steps over bodies to
reach his chair, pushes away the cassette recorders so he can put
down his papers, removes his jacket, lights a lamp and sets off at
full speed. His voice is strong and effective, amplified by the
loudspeakers that are the only concession to modernism in a hall
that is barely lit by light spread from stucco bowls. The hall has
three hundred places and there are five hundred people packed
together, filling the smallest free space . . . There is no oratorical
effect. It is clear and terribly effective. There is absolutely no
concession to improvisation. Foucault has twelve hours each year
to explain in a public course the direction taken by his research
in the year just ended. So everything is concentrated and he fills
the margins like correspondents who have too much to say for the
space available to them. At 19.15 Foucault stops. The students
rush towards his desk; not to speak to him, but to stop their cassette
recorders. There are no questions. In the pushing and shoving
Foucault is alone. Foucault remarks: “It should be possible to
discuss what I have put forward. Sometimes, when it has not
been a good lecture, it would need very little, just one question,
to put everything straight. However, this question never comes.
The group effect in France makes any genuine discussion
impossible. And as there is no feedback, the course is theatricalized.
My relationship with the people there is like that of an actor
or an acrobat. And when I have finished speaking, a sensation of
total solitude . . .’
- Gérard Petitjean, “Les Grands Prêtres de l’université française,” Le Nouvel Observateur
1983 and 1975 are a long time ago now. When Foucault was giving his last lectures before his death, I was too busy trying on ra-ra skirts and buying Howard Jones records to notice. But since I first read Foucault in the early 1990s, I have been quite overwhelmed by the clarity and incisive force of his ‘voice’. So I strongly disagree with philosopher John Searle, who, like many, describes Foucault’s writing style as ‘obtuse':
‘Philosopher John Searle once asked Foucault why his writing was so obtuse when he was easily understandable in conversation. Foucault told Searle that 25% of one’s writing needs to be incomprehensible nonsense to be taken seriously by French philosophers.’
I think these lectures show that actually Foucault’s speaking and writing styles were quite similar, and his urgency to illuminate and interact with his audience/readers was as strong in both arenas. Beginning to read the transcripts I am already reminded of Freud, and how it is quite easy to switch between his written work and representations of his speeches/lectures. I am also pleased to see that whilst I’ve struggled to find in Michel’s oeuvre, any direct challenge to or description of the function of ‘power’ in academia, the comments on Foucault’s lectures do show he had some issues with the conventions of the university, and the problems of actually having a dialogue between lecturers and students. If I’d been there I have no doubt I’d have been one of the keen young things arranging to meet Michel for coffee off campus to get down to discussing the nitty gritty of his ideas.
The journalist who wrote the evocative passage above called his article ‘Les Grands Pretres de l’universite francaise’ – The High Priests of The University of France. Now I am a critic of the ‘Great Men Theory’ of history which holds up individuals as demigods. But as my novella Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls reveals, I am guilty of embodying it too.
At the risk of completely going into religious mode, a radio four programme last night called The Voice Of God also seems relevant here. Participants in the show talk about how, despite all the texts and rituals people use to ‘find God’, the voice of God is actually pretty difficult to hear. In order to get the full benefit of God’s message, you have to put yourself somewhere very quiet and still, you have to meditate and open yourself up to what He might want to say to you.
And it’s the same with Foucault – for me, at least. I think there’s an interesting dissonance between how his work is all about the ‘modern’ (or postmodern, or post-postmodern) age, with its institutions, discourse, power relations and ‘noise’, but the only way to really ‘get it’ is to sit back and stop, to read, to listen, to think.
That’s what I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks. But as my long suffering readers/friends know, I might find it hard to keep my meditations to myself!