Posted on my site michel-foucault.com
The dual Poland-Tunisia experience balanced my political experience, and also referred me on to things which basically I hadn’t sufficiently suspected in my pure speculations: the importance of the exercise of power, the lines of contact between the body, life, discourse and political power. In the silences and everyday gestures of a Pole who knew he was being watched, who waited to be out in the street before telling you something, because he knew quite well that there were microphones everywhere in a foreigner’s apartment. In the way voices were lowered when you were at a restaurant, in the way letters were burnt, finally in all these tiny suffocating gestures as well as in the savage and raw violence of the Tunisian police beating down on a university, I went through a kind of physical experience of power, of the relations between the body and power.
Michel Foucault, (2004). ‘Je suis un artificier’. In Roger-Pol Droit (ed.), Michel Foucault, entretiens. Paris: Odile Jacob, pp. 120-1. (Interview conducted in 1975. This passage trans. Clare O’Farrell).
Random thoughts in response
It is worth providing a few background details concerning these interesting remarks offered by Foucault in an interview with Roger-Pol Droit. The interview was not published at the time it was conducted in 1975, mainly due to Foucault’s well-known reticence in relation to making autobiographical statements in a public forum.
In 1958, Foucault was appointed head of a new Centre for French civilisation in Warsaw. He lasted only a year before being caught in a classic Cold War honey trap with a young man and was asked to leave the country. His connections with Poland did not end there however, and in the early 1980s after a State of Emergency was declared in Poland, he worked on a committee with exiled members of the Trade Union Solidarity, a committee which had been set up to provide assistance to those still in the country and to activate for international support.
Foucault spent a longer period of time in Tunisia than he did in Poland. In 1966, he was appointed to a chair of philosophy in Tunisia and remained there until the end of 1968, when it became clear that he was persona non grata with the existing regime. Towards the end of his tenure at considerable risk to himself, he helped students hide their printing presses during the Tunisian student protests of 1968, although he was of course protected to some degree by his professorial status. He saw his students being beaten violently and thrown into prison and some 14 years later he remarked that some of them still remained in prison. Foucault also used his own money to pay for legal defence for these students.
This experience was formative for Foucault. Like many other French intellectuals, he was politicised by the events of 1968. Foucault was no mere ‘armchair philosopher’, he was prepared to take his ideas beyond the library. After being subjected to the standard and usually accusatory question posed by the Left to all comers during the 1970s: ‘where were you in May ’68?’ – given his absence from the Parisian barricades – he pointed out that in Tunisia the situation had been one with far higher stakes, with people’s lives and freedom quite dramatically on the line.
What is also interesting about Foucault’s remarks is his emphasis on the miniscule actions and gestures of the everyday: mechanisms of power are not just grand external abstractions, they operate at the physical level of day-to-day existence at the most humdrum level. Also of note here in Foucault’s account is the capacity of any person, not just a few blessed with political will (Arendt), to resist mechanisms of power and change the balance. The costs can be terribly high of course, as many of those involved in the Arab spring and in Burma know, but they are costs that many are prepared to assume.