Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group – Attacking Prison Society
The Anarchist Library
Title: Attacking Prison Society
Notes: Translated by Perry Zurn and Erik Beranek Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group is now available from University of Minnesota Press.
Source: Retrieved on 2022-06-29 from illwill.com/attacking-prison-society
The following two texts are taken from the recently released anthology, Intolerable: Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group, which collects writings related to the group’s anti-carceral activity in the early 1970s.
“The Great Confinement” was first published in March 1972, at a time when Michel Foucault was steeped in activities on behalf of the Prisons Information Group (GIP). The interview appeared just two weeks after the completion of his Collège de France course Penal Theories and Institutions, which traced the constitution of a new system of repression defined by a state apparatus in the royal justice of seventeenth-century France. A marxisant moment marked Foucault’s intellectual and political contributions at the time. This moment is evident in his references to confinement as a response to the problems of unemployment and popular insurrections in nascent capitalism, in his treatment of the threat of incarceration as a way of putting downward pressure on wages, in his emphasis on the interiorization (up to a point) of bourgeois ideology in the nineteenth-century proletariat, and his affirmation of the necessity of changes in class relations as a condition for transformations in imprisonment. The same is no less true of the preface below to the very first report of the newly-formed GIP, “Investigation into Twenty Prisons.” Penned by Foucault, but published under the collective name of the GIP, the preface announced the reactivation of a form of militant investigation that had a long and rich history in Marxism.
When asked about the relationship between his philosophical work and his engagement in the GIP, Foucault responds evasively. “I would really like us,” he tells Niklaus Meienberg, “to establish no relationship between my theoretical work and my work in the GIP.” Note the careful wording: Foucault does not deny a relationship between his theoretical and political practices. He simply asks that his interviewer and readers not form any such relationship. Despite refusing, in this moment, to connect his intellectual work with his political activity, Foucault concedes “that there probably is a relationship.” Yet he muddies the waters further when he reproaches Meienberg later with the following comment: “It bothers me when you suggest that there is no relationship between History of Madness and my work in the GIP.” Does this complaint not contradict Foucault’s initial request to Meienberg to keep his theoretical and practical registers separate? The reproach is baffling for still another reason: although a recording or transcript of the interview may tell a different story, in the published version of the interview Meienberg does not even hint at disconnecting History of Madness and Foucault’s engagement with the GIP.
What is going on here? Why all this evasive maneuvering and back and forth, as if Foucault had lost sight of his starting point? He knew that there was a profound connection between his theory and practice, as indicated by his ultimate frustration with Meienberg for supposedly disconnecting these domains. Yet Foucault downplayed that connection out of a tacit anxiety about how it might be interpreted. To encourage a connection between his theoretical production and his political practices in a militant collective risked decentering prisoners and the collective practices of the GIP for the sake of spotlighting his own intellectual endeavors. Foucault also did not want to be seen as instrumentally using the GIP and, by extension, prisoners for his own narrow research purposes. He did not want to invite the charge of treating prisoners as mere objects of academic inquiry, as if his participation in the GIP amounted to nothing more than an opportunity to test out hypotheses. This charge would have inscribed Foucault’s activities within a division of labor between intellectuals and prisoners that privileged his theoretical production and shifted the focus away from the political goals of the GIP. It would have missed, as well, the intensity of Foucault’s adherence to the GIP’s political goal of giving the floor to prisoners so as to render the prison system intolerable. Foucault seems determined to preempt these problems when he declares — later in the same interview — that he prefers political activities over politically ineffective forms of academic inquiry. In his provocative words, “If I occupy myself with the GIP, it is only because I prefer effective work to university yakking and book scribbling.”
“The Great Confinement” would be far from Foucault’s final word on the relationship between his theory and practice but it stands out for disclosing the highly vexed manner in which he publicly connected his theoretical endeavors and political activities at the very peak of his political militancy in the early 1970s.
—Marcelo Hoffman, June 2022
Courts, prisons, hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, occupational medicine, universities, press organizations, and information centers: through all these institutions and beneath different masks, an oppression is exercised that is, at its root, a political oppression.