Interwar Instantaneism and the Second Sattelzeit: An Interview with Humberto Beck

By Jonathon Catlin

Humberto Beck is Professor at the Center for International Studies at El Colegio de México in Mexico City and author of The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought (2019), which was published in the series Intellectual History of the Modern Age by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Focusing on the writings of three German thinkers—Ernst Jünger, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin—Beck argues that “between 1914 and 1940, in response to the experiences of abrupt discontinuity and social and political rupture, a new form of historical time consciousness was born in Germany, which articulated itself around the notion of instantaneity.” These thinkers, he writes, drew upon personal and collective experiences of war, crisis, catastrophe, and revolution to produce “a constellation of concepts and figures of sudden temporality that contributed to the formation of a distinct instantaneist ‘regime of historicity’—a mode of experiencing time based on the notion of a discontinuous present.” The book’s introduction is freely available online from the publisher. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Beck about the book.

Jonathon Catlin: The Moment of Rupture defines the instant as “the shortest span in which time can be divided and experienced.” It is, then, “a moment without time…in which there is no interval or duration, no before or after, but only an atemporal present.” We find some notion of the instant already in Plato, but Aristotle’s contrary view of the continuity of time was long predominant. Chapter 1 describes “the essential discontinuity of time,” as Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Intuition of the Instant (1932), as a modern insight that you trace back to Goethe. Your book argues that instantaneity functioned as a concept from Plato to Nietzsche; as a “systematic discourse of temporal consciousness” from Goethe to the French Revolution; and finally as a full-fledged “regime of historicity” in interwar Germany that superseded the historicist temporal regime the German conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck identified as the hallmark of modernity in the Sattelzeit (1750–1850). You thus deem the era of the instant, from 1914–1940, a “second Sattelzeit,” with the first, historicist “time of transition” giving way to a counter-temporality that was ahistorical and antihistorical. Can you elaborate on this idea?

Humberto Beck: Koselleck gave the name of Sattelzeit to what he considered the “axial time” of modernity, when most of the fundamental modern temporal concepts were coined. According to Koselleck, what all these concepts had in common was their historical nature: they all entail a linear, cumulative, usually progressive vision of history, with some kind of abstract ideal or utopia as a destination point or goal. However, when one reads the Weimar and Nazi era writings of authors such as Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin—and others such as Carl Schmitt, Karl Jaspers, or Martin Heidegger—one realizes that many assumptions behind the Sattelzeit understanding of modern time did not really apply to the experience of modernity these thinkers described. This is especially the case with the notion of crisis. For Koselleck—as for Marx—the idea of crisis certainly implies a convulsion, a moment of profound change, but always within the larger frame of a historical vision of growth, continuity, evolution, or transformation. Paraphrasing Georg Lukács, one could even say that, within this historicist perspective, crises are moments when the coherence of a larger temporal entity or “whole”—History with capital “H”—is ultimately revealed. The classical Marxist interpretation of revolution is the example par excellence of this vision. But for a number of significant Weimar authors, crisis denotes not a convulsion within the flow of historical development, but a moment, as it were, “outside of history,” in which the connections to the past of tradition or the projections of the future are suspended. This description of the “absolute present” of rupture (or the “instant”) as a historical category represents what I believe is most original in the work of Jünger, Benjamin, and Bloch, because it constitutes an extrapolation of the concept of the instantaneous present to the realm of historical and political experience. The depth of their intellectual elaboration, as well as the coherence between their works despite their otherwise entirely antagonistic ideological positions, persuaded me that, taken collectively, the work of these authors could be considered as the foundation of a new, second Sattelzeit or “axial era” for the coinage of new concepts of temporality. These concepts responded to the historical conditions of a new phase of modernity and helped to formulate a distinct experience of historical time, which I call instantaneism.

JC: You characterize your protagonists as responding to a common challenge of their era: “how to name the novel experiences of rupture in historical consciousness and individual perception.” They developed the instant as a category that was simultaneously philosophical, aesthetic, and political. To what extent do you consider your book a “conceptual history” (Begriffsgeschichte)? How do you distinguish when this notion functions as a concept, a metaphor, a figure, a trope, a motif, an image, a discourse, a mode of experience, or more than one of these at the same time?

HB: Methodologically, the book combines aspects of “conceptual history” in a more orthodox sense (situating a concept or idea within larger frames of social meaning) with elements of a more traditional, “internalist” history of ideas approach. This eclectic course of research was called for by the particular conceptual and historical nature of my object of study. Instantaneity—the “time without time,” the moment of sudden rupture—is both an age-old (in a certain way, “timeless”) notion for philosophy and religion, as well as a keyword of modernity. How to make sense of this diversity of meanings and historical significations? My approach was to differentiate between three dimensions of instantaneity in intellectual history: instantaneity as a concept, as a discourse, and as a regime of historicity. A notion such as “the instant” can be pervasive in poetic or literary texts, or in philosophical or theological reflection of diverse historical epochs without necessarily permeating into the perception of a larger public or shaping general intellectual orientation. Taking this into account, my distinction between these three dimensions of the unfolding of instantaneity responds to a series of “leaps” in the social ramifications of the concept and its usages. I argue that recourse to “instantaneity” in literature and poetry (motifs of the “fleetingness of life” or the transient nature of experience) or in philosophy and theology (the brevity of intellectual insight or of mystical experience) has usually reduced the instant to a concept. Generally, this usage has not given way to larger cultural discourses, which I believe began to happen only in modern times, for example, in the French Revolution and German Romanticism. But this deployment of the “instant” as an intellectual discourse is still different from its role as a fundamental reference in the shared historical and political vocabularies of an era, a keyword suited to make sense of collective experience. The instant as a discourse and as a regime of historicity are, I argue, exclusive to modernity, and instantaneity as a chronotope is exclusive to the twentieth, and perhaps twenty-first, centuries.

JC: The German term Augenblick has obvious metaphorical qualities: It literally means the “blink of an eye,” or, more poetically in Goethe, “moments of vision.” Interestingly, you charge both Koselleck and Hans Blumenberg—among other postwar German thinkers—with the “antiradical tendency” to neglect the instant in their respective studies of concepts and of metaphors. You suggest that considering the instant as only either a concept or as a metaphor risks sacrificing its radical potential. Alternatively, you identify radical possibilities in your authors’ attempts a generation earlier “to present crisis, catastrophe, and danger as new bases of perception” that challenge historicist progress narratives. Key cases include Benjamin’s praise for the introduction of the Republican calendar during the French Revolution as a “revolutionary interruption” or “standstill” that could “make the continuum of history explode” and Vladimir Lenin’s “seizing of the moment” in the 1917 Russian Revolution. Why is it chiefly the political left that has gained from claiming “authentic instants” and the “actuality of the now”?

A revolutionary calendar. Henderson, Ernest F. (Ernest Flagg). Symbol and satire in the French Revolution. Plate 164.

HB: I believe this prominence of the left in the claiming for “authentic instants” of rupture can be explained by the centrality of the idea of revolution for this political tradition. Although in its usual interpretation the idea of revolution tends to be subsumed into a historicist vision (as I believe it happened in the case of Lenin), because of its emphasis on radical rupture revolution is also, as it were, a “step closer” to an affirmation of pure instantaneity. This is especially true if a Marxist ethos is combined with “exogenous” lineages of thought, such as Jewish or Christian messianism, or anarcho-syndicalist beliefs in a mythical suspension of time. Given conservatism’s emphasis on stability or tradition, this ideological perspective tends to find trouble in celebrating the political potential of the “actuality of the now.” However, as the cases of Jünger and Schmitt show, there is indeed an instantaneism of the right, less concerned with emancipatory or egalitarian projects, and rather more interested in the authoritarian consequences that the vitalist experiences of “decision” and “the exception” may entail.

JC: Because of its timelessness, the instant has long been associated with the religious experience of the eternal in the ephemeral. You write that the experience of the instant “creates the space for a certain ‘revelation’” and hence that instantaneity belongs to the broader “reenchantment of modern temporality,” as seen in Kierkegaard’s conception of the instant as a site of the radical freedom of faith, in Bloch’s writings on utopia and hope, in Benjamin’s famous notions of “messianic time” and “profane illumination,” and even in Jünger’s recovery of primeval pagan fate. To what extent is the modern instant a secularized religious notion?

HB: The modern instant is a secularized religious notion to the extent that the rhetorical figure it entails—the paradoxical manifestation of the eternal in the temporal—supposes a certain “theological” way of reasoning, even if only at the level of a structural analogy. In a way, this is not new: as Karl Löwith and others have argued, modern historicist visions of progress could already be interpreted as secularized versions of religious redemption and messianic hope. I believe the secularized religious element is even more prominent in instantaneism. It is difficult not to perceive that for authors from Jünger and Schmitt to Benjamin and Bloch, religious experience in the broadest sense (as mystical union, theophany, miracle, or revelation) was a major, if not the predominant model for conceptualizing human experience as such.

JC: You also argue that each of your three authors sought to fashion a new conception of experience that corresponds to avant-garde aesthetics: Jünger’s experience of “danger” relates to the image of “terror”; Bloch’s “darkness of the lived moment” corresponds to a sense of “noncontemporaneity”; and Benjamin’s interest in “shock” corresponds to his notions of “now-time” (Jetztzeit) and the “dialectical image.” Chapter 2 shows how the avant-garde genres of collage and montage—which juxtapose incoherent or disconnected fragments—contributed not only to new forms of sensory perception, but also to a new form of historical consciousness. How does your book set the history of ideas in conversation with cultural history?

HB: The instantaneist regime of historicity is deeply imbricated with the phenomenon of avant-garde aesthetics. This is, as it were, the “hinge” that connects more historical and collective experiences of instantaneity with their counterparts in the sphere of the individual, subjective psyche. This is why I attempt to trace the powerful influences of Dadaist and, above all, Surrealist aesthetics in the authors’ understandings of temporality. In the avant-garde aesthetics of surprise and shock, Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin found a conceptual frame of reference with which to make sense of analogous experiences they were encountering in politics and social life. The conversation between the intellectual history of the Augenblick and the cultural history of the avant-garde productively illustrates the existence of the instantaneist chronotope: that in interwar Europe there was a common temporal sensibility centered around suddenness as a category for making sense of contemporary experience. The extrapolation of the avant-garde principles of surprise and shock from the realm of aesthetics to the sphere of politics (not a “one-way street” at all) constitutes a core tenet of instantaneism. Hence the importance of a figure such as Hannah Höch (1889–1978), a German Dadaist collage artist who pioneered the aesthetics of juxtaposition, and whose work can be found on the book’s cover. Höch, in fact, was particularly influential in the development of Benjamin’s interpretations of modern perception and historical temporality. But montage was equally important to Bloch, as he saw in this avant-garde technique something akin to an expression of the deep historical meaning of the era.

Hannah Höch, Der Strauß (The Bouquet) (1929/1965), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.

JC: You write that the violent historical ruptures that shook Europe in the years after 1914—war, revolution, economic crisis, mass strikes—“generated an intense sensation of discontinuity, both historical and perceptual.” Jünger called himself a “seismograph” of this turbulent era, and Benjamin, in turn, called it a “state of continuous emergency.” You argue that crisis was most intense in the crucible of interwar Germany; hence it was there that instantaneism came to constitute “a crucial element of the ‘common intellectual horizon’ of an entire era.” Your book thus poses a classic question of intellectual history: “the relationship between ideas and events.” You describe “a certain correspondence” or an “‘elective affinity’ between the experiences of crisis and rupture and the instant as a conceptual device,” in which historical circumstances allowed the instant “as a notion, to posit certain questions that would remain obscure under a conventional understanding of temporality as continuous duration.” What did the experience of crisis reveal about temporality generally? Was instantaneity unthinkable outside of crisis?

HB: Your questions point to one of the great paradoxes or, rather, aporias, of instantaneous temporality. By definition, the instantaneous is sudden, unpredictable, and exceptional. But the more closely one studies the structure of instantaneity, the more one realizes its deep connection to the structure of temporality in general. One realizes that time as such, in its generality, is in fact composed of the chaining together of these exceptional moments. One could interpret the history of the philosophy of time as a pendular movement between the two poles of this aporia. Incontestably, the work of Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin is situated on the more “exceptionalist” pole of this movement. This can be explained by their shared experience of crisis, which had a powerful effect on the collective psyche of the era, not only because of its intensity, but also owing to its contrast with what had come before: the perception of a “golden age of security” (Stefan Zweig) marked by stability and the indefinite continuation of progress. For these authors, the experience of crisis in war, violence, and revolution amounted to a revelation: that of the utter failure of all visions of continuity (either Enlightened progress or Bergsonian durée) to make sense of modern temporal experience. The key moment of this realization was the two-way process of extrapolation between the personal and the historical (aesthetic and political) dimensions of instantaneity. As a poetic or mystical experience, instantaneity had, of course, been previously thinkable outside of crisis. But it was not until the modern period, and especially the 1914–1940 era of repeated crises in Europe, that instantaneity became intelligible in terms that transcended the merely individual and subjective.

JC: You call the Fronterlebnis of the First World War “a catastrophe so exceptional and profound that it shattered all points of reference and all criteria for the meaningful organization of historical experience or the anticipations of the future.” You explore this through Jünger, a German war hero and popular war chronicler who celebrated technology, nationalism, and violence but also rejected Nazism. Jünger saw that “total mobilization” led not to security but instead to “a world of permanent crisis.” The war also gave rise to the psychoanalytic notion of trauma, as Freud and others treated disturbed soldiers. Benjamin wrote that they returned with new subjectivities, “not richer but poorer in communicable experience.” He likened the war’s effect to “the frame of mankind” being “shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic.” In what ways is trauma, as interruption and repetition, the Augenblick’s dark double?

HB: There is indeed a very intricate (and perhaps disturbing) connection between Augenblick and trauma. They both point to an impenetrable and not fully intelligible kernel of experience. But these different facets have given way to different lines of interpretation. One the one hand, thinkers like Jünger have insisted on instantaneity (even its traumatic aspects) as a both terrible and irresistible irruption of “the primordial” within modern life, an irruption which, if properly channeled—to use his vitalist language—can bring about something akin to a “renewal” of authentic life. On the other hand, thinkers like Freud portray this kernel as the cause of neurosis and other disturbances in individual personality. One fascinating alternative that incorporates elements of both the Augenblick and trauma is Bloch’s interpretation of the “darkness” of the immediate present as both a disorienting experience and the place where hope manifests itself.

JC: Leading critics have characterized our current temporal regime after the “end of history” as “presentism” (François Hartog) or “the broad present” (Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht), emphasizing unchanging slowness, stagnation, paralysis, and continuity. This diagnosis precisely contradicts the instantaneist chronotope, “the irruption of an ‘event breaking into history.’” Whereas presentism is the “abolition of historical time,” you see instantaneity as “the very possibility of history,” conceived as “the irruption of ahistorical ‘now-times.’” However, in your conclusion, you suggest that the “return of the event” in the work of contemporary thinkers such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek might offer a valid notion of instantaneity for our time. Their complaint is that history has stalled—that we don’t have enough events anymore—and they yearn for the “unexpected disruption of the flow of time that seems to emerge out of nowhere—an episode of singularity that opens up the horizon of thinking and action by introducing a previously inconceivable possibility.” What is the status of the instant today?

HB: I believe the work of Badiou, Agamben, and Žižek exemplifies a certain “nostalgia for the historical,” in the eventist sense of the irruption of the unexpected that opens up emancipatory possibilities. In a way, this is a foreseeable counter-movement both to the post-1989 decades of liberal-Hegelian triumphalism and the bleaker alternatives of Huntington-esque civilizationalist conflicts. In a certain way, the “event” has already happened, but with very different outcomes. The financial crisis of 2008, for example, was such an event, but it did not bring about revolutionary changes. Perhaps the contemporary instantaneist philosophy of the event can find its best historical analogue in the Sorelian myth of the general strike. As a genuine “myth,” it doesn’t matter much whether it actually takes place or not: It operates on another, more imaginary and symbolic level, which nevertheless aspires to affect political mobilization and transform state institutions. My general argument in this respect is that, notwithstanding the remarkable heuristic power of presentism as a theory of temporality, there are many aspects of the current experience of time that are not captured by the historicist/presentist dichotomy.

JC: You currently teach in Mexico and regularly speak on contemporary social and political issues there. Do you see any connections between those engagements and this book?

HB: Mexico is currently experiencing one of the most critical moments in its modern history. The levels of social inequality and criminal violence are staggering and, so far, do not show any signs of subsiding. The arrival two years ago of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (the first democratically elected left-wing Mexican president) to power was interpreted by many as the hoped-for “event” that would mark a before and after in Mexican politics and society. But it hasn’t, at least not yet. It is too soon to tell, because the actions of his presidency have been deeply ambivalent in many respects. It is perhaps in the sphere of social movements that recent Mexican history has experienced the most genuine moments of an instantaneist historical consciousness, such as the Zapatista uprising of 1994 or the intense social mobilization after the disappearance of 43 students from the rural school of Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero, in 2014. As a country that was born out of the great event of the Mexican Revolution more than a century ago, and which has ossified its subversive potential through corruption, bureaucracy, and ritual, Mexico is once again a nation in search of an event.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Book cover (detail). Hannah Höch,


Politics, Populism, and the Life of the Mind: Sean Wilentz on Richard Hofstadter

by Daniel Wortel-London

Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970) was a prominent historian of American political culture. He taught for many years at Columbia University, was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and is remembered for works such as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and the essay collection The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). Beginning his academic career as a man of the left, by the 1950s Hofstadter had become associated with the postwar “consensus” school of historiography—a label he was never entirely comfortable with. In his many books and essays, Hofstadter paired his appreciation for historical irony and complexity with iconoclastic criticisms of both leftist shibboleths and liberal complacencies. It was, however, above all to the American conservative tradition—which he lived to see take new and virulent forms in the later 1960s, before his death of leukemia at fifty-four—that he devoted his attention and analysis.

Then as now, Hofstadter’s focus on the cultural and psychological dimensions of right-wing politics have attracted both praise and controversy—particularly as, since 2016, commentators have once again debated the political valence of populism, the purported psychological roots of partisanship, and the nature of both consensus and polarization in American politics. This has prompted the Library of America to publish a three-volume new edition of Hofstadter’s major works, reportage, and unpublished essays on American politics and culture, edited by Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz. The first volume appeared in April 2020 as Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965. Daniel Wortel-London interviewed Wilentz about Hofstadter and this new edition.

Daniel Wortel-London: Hofstadter understood himself as a political historian, but one of a particular type. While initially attracted to “orthodox political history” (“History and the Social Sciences,” 1956), he admitted that his work largely forwent its classical questions: how public institutions are formed, how political and economic power is structured and distributed, and the “who gets what, when, and how” considerations of political life. Instead, his main objective was to understand the “ideas, moods, and atmosphere” that conditioned “who perceives what public issues, in what way, and why” (Introduction, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays, 1964). Nonetheless, Hofstadter’s treatment of ideas tended to differ from the “unit-idea” approach of Arthur Lovejoy and contextual approaches later developed by Quintin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock. How would you characterize Hofstadter’s approach to the history of ideas?

Sean Wilentz: Richard Hofstadter was a political historian deeply attuned to ideas and, to some extent, an intellectual historian deeply attuned to politics. His approach arose in part from his undergraduate training in philosophy at the University of Buffalo. It also owed a great deal to his interest in literature and literary criticism. His connection to his close friend Alfred Kazin as well as his admiration for critics like Edmund Wilson were very important to his own intellectual style. Above all, his work originated in his lifelong confrontation with the Progressive historians, especially Charles A. Beard, who became something of a fixation. Whereas Beard emphasized conflict and saw material forces, or certain material forces, as determining politics, Hofstadter discerned continuities and unities, and he saw ideas, and in time ideologies and social psychology, as crucial as well. None of it directly originated in any particular school of intellectual or cultural history: it came chiefly out of his growing up in the 1930s amid the Great Depression, his early interest in Marxism, then his disillusionment with and reaction to what he beheld as the dogmatic idiocy as well as the bad faith and treachery of the Stalinist Left. I included in the Library of America volume a section from a hitherto unpublished memoir where Hofstadter laid all of this out, describing what he called his mode of “analytical” history. Later on, he became very interested in the writings of Karl Mannheim as well as the Frankfurt School—especially Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950)—which was part of the intellectual ferment in and around Columbia that was connected to the world of the New York Intellectuals. You can’t fully understand Hofstadter’s use of categories like “status anxiety” or “pseudo-conservatism” without appreciating his immersion in the foundations of what became known as Critical Theory.

One point on politics: although not so much drawn to writing about the mechanics of institutional politics, that side of things—elections, campaigns, and so forth—interested him as well, as some of the essays in this new volume show, notably one on the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928. Hofstadter knew his “orthodox” political history inside out. His abiding interest in these things shows up most clearly in what I sometimes think will be his most lasting, if not necessarily his most striking work, the undervalued The Idea of a Party System (1969). A study of how a party system based on comity as well as conflict came into existence, it brilliantly illuminates the transition from the founding era, which deemed parties evil engines of ambition, to the age of Jackson, which deemed them as absolute necessities in a popular democracy.

DWL: Hofstadter includes a surprising variety of types within the ranks of “intellectuals.” That category encompasses both “experts” (for example, postwar social scientists with their claims of nonpartisanship, pragmatism, and disinterested knowledge) and “ideologues” (Communist Party members with their outright partisanship and millenarian vision, various strands of Bohemia such as the Beatniks of the 1950s and the Greenwich Village radicals of the 1910s). How does Hofstadter define “intellectualism”—or, conversely, “anti-intellectualism”—in American life?

SW: There is a strong passage in the book, maybe my favorite, where Hofstadter distinguishes most clearly between what he calls intellectual practice and expertise: “It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.”

Notice that the definition is imbued with liberal values—compromise, shunning absolutes, sensitive to nuances—that cut across conventional politics labels of liberal and conservative but renounce perfectionism and, for want of a better term, political eschatology.

That definition is obviously of urgent importance today, amid the raucous anti-intellectualism coming chiefly from the right but also from the activist and academic left. Some of that spirit—I wouldn’t presume to speak for all of the signers—informs the recent open letter in Harper’s, which I was proud to sign. Several critics have denounced that statement as a declaration by privileged, successful people against the voice of the excluded, or the righteous, outraged masses. Thus the firing and blacklisting of people whose words violate a rigid, self-regarding orthodoxy gets justified, perversely, as a blow against elitism. Thus the hunting down and punishment of heresy becomes equated with the vindication of truth. I can think of no better current example of the clash between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism as Hofstadter described it more than fifty years ago. Remember, long before the McCarthyism of the 1950s, Hofstadter had to contend with the Stalinism of the 1930s; his idea of intellectualism saw common elements in both. So we are faced with versions of both today. Between Trumpism and the heresy hunters among the social justice warriors, it’s hard to miss how significant anti-intellectualism remains. And to be clear: by “anti-intellectual” I don’t mean opposition to writers acclaimed as intellectuals, although resentment of accomplishment certainly enters in. I mean something closer to opposition to open debate, with a presumption that one’s adversaries and their ideas are not merely mistaken but morally reprehensible.

DWL: Hofstadter argues that anti-intellectualism is partly the product of “benevolent impulses” towards equality and egalitarianism. Expertise, for example, can be equated with hierarchy, pursuit of nuance can appear synonymous with political inaction, and personal experience can be seen as more “honest” than abstract facts. As a result, he argues that anti-intellectualism can only be contained and checked “by constant and delicate acts of intellectual surgery which spare these impulses themselves” (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, p. 23). How can this surgery best take place today, particularly regarding those whose “benevolent impulses” might lead them to join progressive or radical social movements that seek to challenge several additional (and in my view, far more powerful) factors Hofstadter identified as threats to intellectual life: the influence of powerful business groups wary of criticism and an unimaginative and complacent political class?

SW: In his early writing, Hofstadter seemed more sympathetic to agitators than political leaders. The one figure in The American Political Tradition who broke with the dominant democracy of cupidity is Wendell Phillips, the “golden trumpet” of abolitionism and later a supporter of the labor movement. At one level, that portrayal allowed for a consistent radicalism in American politics but also sketched the limits of its power. Long before a younger generation of scholars began dog-earing copies of Antonio Gramsci, Hofstadter laid out what he saw as a kind of liberal capitalist hegemony in American politics. And in that respect, his work has sometimes ended up encouraging a cynical view of American mainstream politics, in which social movements do all the good, only to be coopted and ultimately defeated by more progressive liberal elements of the ruling class. Hofstadter never subscribed to that view: he still found Jefferson, Lincoln, and the others honorable and valuable. But the distinction between movement politics and party politics was certainly implied in his early work.

The McCarthyite experience helped shift that. Whereas he had previously criticized Popular Front myths by debunking their sentimentalized depictions of Jefferson, or Jackson, or Lincoln as champions of the people, he later came to criticize the sentimentalized view of popular movements themselves, above all the Populists. Along the way, he began having more sympathy for mainstream reformers. Compare, for example, how The American Political Tradition (1948) handles FDR with how The Age of Reform (1955) does. Hofstadter was still working out his critique of social movement politics in Anti-Intellectualism (1963) and The Paranoid Style (1964).

I think that toward the end of his life, he was trying to find a way to handle the kind of surgery you talk about. You see hints of that in The Idea of a Party System (1969), where professional party politics becomes more than an anti-intellectual engine of greed. You see other hints in America at 1750 (1973), a stark portrayal of the suffering among slaves and indentured servants that lay behind what he saw as an essentially middle-class society. I imagine that he intended the multi-volume history of the United States on which he had embarked at his death in part to explore when those acts of intellectual surgery in politics you’re referring to succeeded and when they failed.

DWL: Hofstadter understood postwar conservatism as fundamentally reactionary, motivated by fears of “moral laxity,” the decline of “entrepreneurial competition,” “the welfare state,” “urban disorders,” “bureaucracy”—as he puts it, the “whole modern condition” (“Goldwater & His Party,” 1964). This argument conflicts with more recent work on conservatism that emphasizes the economic self-interest of powerful private groups as a driving force for right-wing politics, as well as future-oriented ideologues bent on “liberating” the market. How well, do you believe, does Hofstadter explain the motivations and constituencies of postwar conservative and right-wing politics?

SW: It’s important to remember that between Hofstadter’s time and our own stands Reaganism, which was the outstanding political fact of the last quarter of the twentieth century into the twenty-first. The postwar conservatism Hofstadter described was engaged in a desperate fight against the New Deal and its immediate political legacy, which was still dominant—what Hofstadter referred to as “the whole modern condition.” In a sense, Hofstadter took liberal ascendancy too much for granted, although he clearly began to see things differently even as early as 1965. Reagan’s triumph hardly eradicated that liberal order, but it transformed the terms of politics: with some important interruptions, right-wing capitalism has been in the saddle for a very long time, and has hung on to its power in ever more radical ways since the 1990s.

One shortcoming of Hofstadter’s approach was to focus too much on ideology, which he ascribed to a mass of followers and a certain mass psychology. His writing was less attuned to the powerful forces and sometimes individuals who manipulated those resentments, sometimes quite cynically. McCarthyism, for example, showed a persistence of a certain conspiratorial strain, but it also had to do with a crisis inside Republican Party politics, pushed by elements that had no interest in “a conspiracy so immense” but thought they could exploit the upsurge. The same is true today, however, and not just in the United States. People expend a lot of time and ink trying to figure out the “populism” that has bred Trump, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing authoritarians on the Continent. But instead of mulling over the aggrieved factory workers who elected Trump, more attention ought to be paid to the elites who whipped up those resentful politics and thought they could exploit them. There’s still a book to be written on how the Republican establishment, including the Bush family, dug its own grave by thinking it could ride the back of the populist tiger. Anne Applebaum’s recent book on the threats to democracy makes this point very well.

DWL: Hofstadter does not let liberals off the hook in his writings. Paradoxically, he argues that the very moderateness of the Democratic Party in the 1950s and 1960s, with its “broad centrist position” (Ch. 4, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 1965), encouraged radicalism in the Republican Party by making it “all but impossible” for moderate Republicans to develop an independent identity within the G.O.P. Moreover, he argues that postwar liberals were generally reconciled with big business and the “style of contemporary economic life” (Ch. 6, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 1965), in contrast to conservatives who were eager for a restoration of small-scale competitive entrepreneurialism. How would you characterize Hofstadter’s relationship with Liberalism, both as a political philosophy and as manifested in the Democratic Party?

SW: Through the 1950s, Hofstadter was a fairly active pro-Adlai Stevenson Democrat. He saw Stevenson as the embodiment of an intelligent, even intellectual politics that could advance the post-New Deal order in a kind of reasonable progressive way. Between his renunciation of the Communist left in 1938 and his articles on Goldwater in 1964, his most public political stance came in supporting Stevenson’s candidacy in 1952, which actually got him into some hot water with the Columbia administration. He took Stevenson’s defeat by Eisenhower very hard. Indeed, I think there’s a way in which Anti-Intellectualism grew out of that disappointment. More broadly, he would fit under the now maligned category of Cold War liberal, although his own discomfort with labels, his own intellectualism, would have helped him see the contradictions as well as the fatuities in such groupings. Essentially, he was by temperament more of a private intellectual than a public intellectual—far more so, say, than his contemporary Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who reveled in party politics and power, and, to a lesser extent, another great liberal historian of the time, C. Vann Woodward. That is one reason his profusion of writing about Goldwater was so remarkable. He was truly alarmed by what he saw in Goldwater, and it roused him to action with the instrument he handled best, his typewriter.

All of that said, Hofstadter was too much the skeptic to think that post-New Deal liberalism had all of the answers, or even most of them. In the chapter you cite, for example, he notes with characteristic irony how some of the most fervent New Dealers like Thurman Arnold and A. A. Berle had become champions of big business, which they saw as now reined in by various countervailing forces, not least the federal government. A liberal, Hofstadter was always critical of liberalism, arguing from within. And so, he writes the following about the managerial class that emerged in corporate America, with its immense power, economic and political: “This class is by no means evil, or sinister in its intentions, but its human limitations often seem even more impressive than the range of its powers, and under modern conditions we have a right to ask again whether we can ever create enough checks to restrain it.” He goes on to write about how modern “urban mass society,” overseen by the liberal state, “is still not freed from widespread poverty and impresses us again and again with the deepness of its malaise, the range of its problems that remain unsolved, even in some cases pitifully untried.” This, I think, is Hofstadter at his best, seeing the danger of complacency in the face of human frailty, even (or maybe especially) in a liberal political order—a liberal Democrat who believed that liberalism and the Democratic Party could not survive without skepticism, without constantly questioning their own limitations.

DWL: Hofstadter’s writings have often served as fodder for political commentators seeking to make sense of right-wing politics in America today. His account of Goldwater’s ascent, for example, seems to mirror a number of other conservative victories in recent decades from the Tea Party to Trump. Many have invoked his arguments in discussing the political valence of populism, the purported psychological roots of partisanship, and the nature of both consensus and polarization in American politics. Nonetheless, Hofstadter’s explanations for American politics remain controversial, garnering accusations of elitism and cultural/psychological determinism. Indeed, by the late 1960s Hofstadter retreated from some of his earlier positions, stating to his editor that the arguments he had made in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) failed to explain the social and political tumult of his country in the late 1960s. Looking back from 2020 rather than 1968, what are your own thoughts on the “utility” of Hofstadter’s work as it offers both explanations and prescriptions for American life and politics today?

SW: Hofstadter’s work remains not simply relevant but essential in our approach both to politics and to history. Without nuance and seeing things in degrees, without an aversion to sentimental or sensational seduction, without a certain humility as well as humanity, we are lost—and I don’t exactly see a surfeit of any of these either in our politics or in our writing of history. At times current historical work has become so strident, so polemical, disguising dubious claims in a kind of accusatory indignation, that it has reached the point of utter dullness and predictability.

Hofstadter’s impatience with sentimentalism, especially of the Popular Front variety, did lead him at times to be overly suspicious of popular movements; he would sometimes slight their rational political demands in a way that could sound elitist—more elitist than I think he intended. His close friend Woodward, for example, politely but forcefully took him to task for going overboard in his portrayal of the Populists as cranks tinctured by antisemitism. Likewise, his effort to link McCarthyism to the Populist tradition simply did not hold up. And there is some of that in Anti-Intellectualism. His dismissal, for example, of the beats, whom he derides as “beatniks,” and casts as merely destructive, anti-intellectual juveniles—the snooty attitude prevalent on Morningside Heights—shows how unprepared he was, even in 1963, for what we’ve come to think of as the genuinely creative forces of the 1960s. Still, by bringing front and center the darker side of popular movements, his was a necessary antidote to Manichean simplification and idealization.

I do think that Hofstadter, like many of his generation, came to take liberalism too much for granted, which was easy enough to do, say, in November 1964, when Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in a historic landslide. But he still believed that, even if defeated for the moment, the paranoid style had entrenched itself more than ever in our mainstream political life. And you’re correct, he came to have second thoughts about Anti-Intellectualism, a book with which he was never entirely satisfied. Hofstadter’s later work also deserves closer appreciation. His last complete book, on the Progressive Historians (1968), contains a critique of what had come to be known as “consensus” history, a term he always rejected. His compilation American Violence: A Documentary History (1970), edited with Michael Wallace, shows a renewed interest in the terms and techniques of American conflict. The chapters from what was going to be his grand history of the United States, published posthumously as America at 1750 (1973), contain passages about America’s origins as dark and visceral as anything out there today. Yet throughout he championed his idea of intellectualism, notably in his commencement address at Columbia in 1968. Coming as it did, after the University had let the campus revolt that spring get violently out of hand, that speech got quickly pigeonholed as some sort of “conservative” defense of the status quo. Read it again; I expect to include it in a subsequent volume. It is, in many ways, a fitting coda to Anti-Intellectualism and The Paranoid Style: “The possibility of modern democracy rests upon the willingness of governments to accept the existence of a loyal opposition, organized to reverse some of their policies and to replace them in office. Similarly, the possibility of the modern free university rests upon the willingness of society to support and sustain institutions part of whose business it is to examine, critically and without stint, the assumptions that prevail in that society.”

Daniel Wortel-London, Ph.D., (@dlondonnyu) is a historian of economic and political thought based in New York City. His dissertation, In Debt to Growth: Real Estate and the Political Economy of Public Finance in New York City, 1880–1973, examines how changing theories of urban economic development transformed American politics between the Gilded Age and the postwar era. His research, links to which can be found on his website, has been published in The Journal of Urban History, The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and Dissent.

Featured Image: Featured Image: Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965. Cover.


Feminism and Friendship in the Academy: An Interview with Maggie Doherty

Maggie Doherty earned her Ph.D. in English at Harvard University, where she currently teaches first-year writing. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, n+1, and The Nation, amongst others. Her first book, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, was published by Knopf in May 2020.

Lotte Houwink ten Cate is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University. Her dissertation is an intellectual history of the classification and criminalization of domestic and sexual violence across western Europe between 1970 and 2000. Her work on Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem has appeared in New German Critique.

Lotte Houwink ten Cate: As an undergraduate in 1956, Sylvia Plath described to a boyfriend an imagined future life with “babies and bed and brilliant friends and a magnificent stimulating home where geniuses drink gin in the kitchen after a delectable dinner and read their own novels.” [1] Married life rarely worked out this way. In the Fall of 1960, Radcliffe College announced a new fellowship which would combat the “climate of unexpectation” that women faced by offering support to women with a doctorate or its “equivalent” in artistic accomplishment. You write that when The New York Times announced the fellowship, “Almost immediately, the phone rang nonstop.” In the Fall of 1961, the inaugural cohort, which included psychologists, poets, scientists, composers, painters and historians, arrived in Cambridge. Each fellow received a stipend of up to $3,000 (roughly $26,000 today). In your wonderful book, you follow a coterie of five women who were a part of the first two cohorts, and described themselves as “the Equivalents”: the poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, the sculptor Marianna Pineda, the writer Tillie Olsen and the visual artist Barbara Swan. I would like to start by asking when and how you first came across these women?

Maggie Doherty: I’m going to sound like a typical historian here—and I didn’t even do a PhD in history!—but the book started with a serendipitous discovery in an archive. Sometime in 2010 or 2011, I was researching the first chapter of my dissertation, which was about the writer Tillie Olsen. I’d read in Panthea Reid’s biography that Olsen had spent time at Radcliffe, in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s, and since I was local, I decided to walk over to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe and see what I could learn about Olsen’s years in Cambridge. I pulled out the files from the early years of the Institute, and I realized I hadn’t understood what this earlier version of the Institute represented: it was a pretty bold project, a “messy experiment,” founded by Mary Ingraham Bunting. It was designed to help female academics and artists who had put their careers on pause, usually to marry and raise children, get back on track. This origin story intrigued me—I was surprised I hadn’t heard it before—and I was even more intrigued by the names I saw on the list of fellows: the poets Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, and Anne Sexton; the writers Kay Boyle, Tillie Olsen, and Alice Walker; the psychologist Carol Gilligan; and other familiar names. I couldn’t believe that all these women I admired had overlapped here in Cambridge, where I was now, years and years ago. I started wondering what it had been like for these women to encounter other likeminded women at the Institute, particularly in the early 1960s, when so few spaces like it existed. Did they socialize, collaborate, compete? How did the relationships they forged at the Institute shape their writing and art? How did they relate to the women’s liberation movement?

These weren’t exactly the kinds of questions I was prepared to ask as a graduate student in English. Or rather, they were the kinds of questions my adviser, Luke Menand, was trying to teach me how to ask, but I was a very slow learner and it would take me a long time to figure out how to deploy his methodology in my own work. It takes the form it does, which I guess we could call narrative history or group biography or some combination of both, for a few different reasons. First, I was really interested in the lives of the women at the Institute, not just in their work. How did they navigate the competing pressures upon them, as women and artists and mothers? What was their experience of community? How do these experiences manifest in their art? I also soon found that one of the main points I wanted to make was the importance of community—for all artists, and particularly for women artists at this historical moment. I needed a form that could illustrate their interconnectedness. That’s why the book is organized as a linear narrative, one that intertwines the lives of these five people, rather than as separate chapters, or sections, each focusing on one woman. Also, and this is a more practical reason, at the time I conceived of the book I’d started to write more journalism and criticism, which right away felt more intuitive to me than scholarship ever had, and I didn’t think I was going to stay on an academic “track” (though I loved teaching and still do). Pitching the book for a general audience felt both like the right move career-wise and like the best way to get this story to reach as many readers as possible.

Anne Sexton. Photograph: Virago.

LHtC: You note that the painter Barbara Swan has explained that “The scholar with a Ph.D. can study this world, analyze it, criticize it, even try to recreate it in biography, but the scholar can never really know the crazy, intuitive nonsense that whirls around in the mind of an artist.” Barring a satisfying supporting role for the Greek historian Lily Macrakis, your focus has been on the artists much more than on the academics in the Institute. I wonder why you’ve made that decision as well as what it’s been like to write about the creative work done by these women across disciplines?

MD: I had the luck to come across a kind of pre-formed group that gave me a clear structure, or focus, for the book. Middlebrook writes of “The Equivalents” in her biography of Sexton, and it seemed to me that this group would be an ideal way to focus the book: it was limited enough for me to dig relatively deep into the backstory of each woman, but it had enough internal variety and diversity to allow me to investigate different dimensions of the Institute experience—for example, Olsen’s class background allowed me to talk about money and class and privilege, as well as politics in a more overt way. The fact that these were all artists appealed to my critic’s sensibility: I felt much more confident analyzing and discussing a piece of visual art than I do, say, a scientific paper. Although as you suggest, it was definitely a challenge to discuss art across different media! I read up on German Expressionism in order to understand Barbara Swan’s influences, and I learned how sculptors make the kind of life-size pieces that Pineda made (it’s an incredibly long and hard process!). I felt most at home writing about fiction and poetry, though even poetry was a challenge for me, since I review far more prose than poetry. (Helen Vendler once said that poetry is organized radially, and narrative is organized linearly, and my linear mind far prefers narrative.) I especially enjoyed writing about the collaborations among the artists, particularly between Swan and Sexton. I hadn’t encountered anything like it before and was thrilled to see how these two artists found inspiration in each other’s work. I also liked that these artists were a bit unusual at the Institute. Many of the first class of fellows were academics married to Harvard professors, so they were more at home in elite academic spaces. The Equivalents had different relationships to academic life: three of them hadn’t graduated from college and one of the other two (Swan) had been disenchanted with her liberal arts education and far preferred her vocational training. In focusing on the artists, I wanted to push back on some of the ways that universities shape and communicate value. Olsen was helpful to me in this regard: she accepted teaching posts at various universities, but she often used her position to work against traditional ways of teaching and studying literature. She crafted a syllabus on the literature of poverty—this was a radical class then and would still be a radical class now. She encouraged her students to respond affectively to literature, to think about how it communicates what she would call the human experience, rather than to study it critically and dispassionately. I think it’s important to recognize that though artists and writers may depend on universities for resources and infrastructure and support, they also usually counterbalance or even oppose a university’s mission in important ways.

LHtC: Bunting collaborated with Betty Friedan on the first ideas for The Feminine Mystique. In her eulogy for Sexton, Adrienne Rich described her poetry as a “guide to the ruins.” “Her head was often patriarchal, but in her blood and her bones, Anne Sexton knew.”[2] It strikes me that an underlying argument of your book is a warranted critique of the periodization that clasps the history of feminism, as defined in “waves” bookended by classic texts or legal and political developments. Your book makes a fabulous case for the stirrings of thought about female experience and structural inequality as unbeholden to both genre and period. How has this impacted your design of its structure?

MD: I think I am maybe less resistant to the “waves” periodization than some! Or rather, I think there can be something useful about periodizing a movement, even if it inevitably oversimplifies its development and risks presenting a movement as a monolith. One of the valuable things about doing historical research is that it reveals variety and heterogeneity and complexity—at any given moment in feminist history, thinkers and writers and activists existed in a space of contestation. There were working-class women and labor activists present throughout the long history of feminist organizing. There were women of color involved in the feminist movement at all points in its history, doing anti-racist organizing and pushing back on women who didn’t work to combat racism. I know it can be tempting to point out the failures and blind spots of past feminists or feminist cohorts, but if we paint with too broad of a brush, if we conclude, “second-wave feminism was for heterosexual middle-class white women” or something like that, we erase the contributions of working-class women and queer women and women of color.

One of the fortuitous features of The Equivalents is that the group contained some internal diversity and divergent experiences, mostly along the axis of class. (The Institute didn’t diversify racially until several years after its founding, which I discuss in a chapter on the work Alice Walker did while on an Institute fellowship in the early 1970s.) This allowed debates about the demographics of the Institute and the class politics of second-wave feminism to arise organically, often through critiques made by Olsen. I could talk about conflicts and blind spots without imposing them on the past, from a contemporary perspective. This also allowed me to write the book as an immersive narrative and stay within the story, rather than inserting my own commentary or critiques. 

LHtC: You quote Anne Roiphe, who described women in the New York literary scene as a “Greek chorus, mopping up after the battle was over, emptying ashtrays, carrying the glasses to the sink. The main event was man to man.” In your recent essay on communities of writers, you stated that “when Sexton and Swan displayed their collaborations at a seminar, someone in the audience whispered, ‘it’s like incest.”’ Their display of female intimacy was unusual in a mid-century milieu which revolved around the male genius and was rife with misogyny, heightening competition among women. The friendship between Sexton and Kumin was especially close and involved nearly daily feedback on each other’s poems over the phone. Collaboration remains an anomaly rather than the norm. I wonder what your thoughts are about the academic institution as a fundamentally competitive environment, and the experience of the women at Radcliffe?

Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin
at a creative writing workshop. Photograph: credited to Doris Holmes Eyges.

MD: I’m so glad you asked about this because it was one of the main things that drove my research. I started writing this book while I was 1) in a PhD program and 2) living in a house with three other women writers. The contrast between these two different communal environments was striking to me: in grad school, I felt like there was a reluctance to talk about work or ideas because of the competitive nature of the academic market. (“Competitive market” isn’t even the right way to put it: maybe we should call it the “jobs lottery masquerading as a competitive marketplace in order to redirect our collective anger about the adjunctification of higher education and transform it into anxiety about our individual fates.”) At home, by contrast, my roommates and I did nothing but talk about our work. I don’t think I would have written half the things I wrote, or that they would have been half as good, if I’d not had my roommates. I also don’t think I would have been confident in pursuing writing as a career if I weren’t among women who were trying to do the same thing. So I was interested to discover that there had been a version of this kind of collaborative environment—one created more deliberately and in an institutional setting—at Radcliffe in the 1960s.

I’d long had an interest in creative coteries, but I was particularly intrigued by the women at the Institute, because they combined creative collaboration and feminist consciousness-raising, although they might not have used that term. As one of the inaugural members explained to me in an interview, ambitious and creative women often felt alienated in midcentury America, and after college (if they even attended college), they usually didn’t have too many opportunities to meet women who shared their frustrations or their dreams. The Institute brought together women who might not have met otherwise, and it allowed them to see that they weren’t alone in their experiences. This is what radical feminists would later call the “click” of recognition—a new way of thinking about your personal experience in relation to a collective struggle. I don’t think the Institute was necessarily designed to foment this kind of feminist or proto-feminist organizing—that wasn’t quite Bunting’s intention—but I think gathering women together in this way, at this particular historical moment, couldn’t help but generate radical or potentially radical connections.

Tillie Olsen (second from left) at a Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study meeting. Photograph: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

LHtC: Olsen’s Radcliffe talk, “Death of the Creative Process,” served as the basis for her 1978 book Silences, a scrapbook which in argument and form attends to the blank pages of lives that never came to writing. Olsen argued, drawing on Paul Valéry, for the need of a “receptive waiting.” You write that being considered “a woman of talent” meant being able to hire domestic work. (It still does.) Fascinating is how differently the stipend was spent. Sexton, who in a letter to her analyst described herself as a “caged tiger,” had a swimming pool installed. Mackrakis, meanwhile, used part of her institute stipend to pay the parking tickets she accrued while working in Widener Library. Could you elaborate on the interplay between privilege and creative and intellectual labor?

MD: Sexton’s pool is such a great example because it was understood quite differently by different people. (I should note that she also used the stipend to build her study and to hire additional childcare; in this way, she was similar to many of the Institute fellows.) To some, the pool was a luxury and thus a scandal; I learned that Polly Bunting in particular was disappointed in this use of funds. But to others who knew Sexton and who understood her struggles with mental illness and her intense social anxiety, the pool seemed like a therapeutic aid. Of course, as you suggest, some things are basic material necessities, and these resources are unevenly distributed, and achievement—scholastic or creative or professional—is often an expression of material advantage. Olsen knew this, both from her research and from her own life, and her articulation of the relationship between inequality and creativity was groundbreaking. I think there’s something ironic about her generating this theory in an institutional setting that built itself on a different theory of creativity and intellectual capacity, or “talent” as Bunting put it. Bunting was expressly interested in high-achieving women who had already demonstrated their talent in an academic or professional setting; she thought these were the women most worthy of assistance because they were the most likely to make some kind of groundbreaking discovery or write a lasting book. It’s fitting, then, that one of the lasting books her Institute enabled was Silences, which is a book that argues for a different conception of talent, that locates it in all people and that argues that it should be nurtured more equally and deliberately. The relationship between Bunting’s ideas and Olsen’s is one of my favorite parts of this book.

The Bunting fellows in conversation. Photograph: Olive Pierce.

LHtC: You write that “Educated women were up against walls of self-assured men.” In your book, a number of these men constitute the wallpaper. Wallace Stegner discouraged Kumin from writing fiction when she was seventeen years old. She later called the poet John Holmes, who had helped secure her first teaching position, her “academic daddy.” In your contribution to a 2018 forum of The Chronicle Review, you argued that women have no power in the academy. How do you understand the politics of the relationship of women in the academy to their work as being mediated by men?

MD: If I were to write that CHE contribution again today, I think I would put things differently. That forum was organized at a moment of great anger and excitement, as what we’ve called the MeToo movement began changing the way we talked about gender and power and harassment in various industries. In that piece, I was pretty ambitious and also pretty vague about what needed to change. It’s not that I don’t think broad change is needed in academia—I do—but I think it’s probably more helpful to approach problems of inequality through specific and concrete interventions. A few that come to mind as I write now:

-Universities could do more to help counterbalance the burden of childcare and other reproductive labor, which usually falls on women. At the university where I teach, childcare subsidies are inadequate and childcare offered by the university itself is limited and incredibly expensive. This put those without childcare responsibilities at a distinct advantage in the workplace. And as I noted, childcare isn’t the only form of care work that usually falls to women: while I was in graduate school, I had to take a semester off to care for my younger sister as she recovered from a traumatic event. I was lucky to have some faculty members help me arrange a leave and keep my funding, but I think transparent policies and accommodations, as well as financial assistance for family care, could go a long way to empowering women in the university.

-Job security and financial security for contingent faculty: About three-quarters of college instructors today are off the tenure-track; many of them are adjuncts who are paid by the course. According to the New Faculty Majority, the majority of contingent faculty are women. There are several reasons for this: one is the implicit bias that favors male scholars at the tenure-track and tenure levels. Another is the domestic responsibilities that force many women to look for “flexible” working conditions (which are usually underpaid or precarious). In addition to opening more tenure lines, universities could offer job security and a living wage to their non-tenure-track faculty. This would address an inconsistency between much university rhetoric, which often values teaching and learning, and university policy, which systematically devalues it.

-Recognize graduate student unions and negotiate with them in good faith: Graduate student organizing at both public and private universities has surged in recent years. These unions have been instrumental in winning protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as healthcare benefits and parental leave for graduate students. These gains can be important for young female scholars, whose childbearing years often overlap with their years in a PhD program. Intervening early in a young scholar’s career to offer her material support and workplace protection can empower her to keep pursuing her academic work.

There are more changes needed—and I hope this conversation continues! If writing this book taught me anything, it’s that educational institutions can and should try different things to combat inequality. Not every institute or intervention will work forever, but that’s no reason not to experiment.

[1] Sylvia Plath in Karen V. Kukil (ed). The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. p. 221

[2] Adrienne Rich. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1995. pp. 122-123



What Is Continental Philosophy? An Interview with Edward Baring

Edward Baring is Associate Professor of Modern European History at Drew University and the author of the new book Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy (Harvard, 2019). Chapter 1 incorporates discussions from Baring’s article “Ideas on the Move: Context in Transnational Intellectual History,” which was published in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 2016. An excerpt from the book is freely accessible in Church Life Journal. Baring is also author of The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968 (Cambridge, 2011), which won the Morris D. Forkosch Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed him about his latest book.

Jonathon Catlin: I want to start with a central question animating Converts to the Real: What is “continental philosophy”? As you show, this term began as a pejorative and is plagued by contradictions, notably that many key “analytic” philosophers—Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap—were born and trained in central Europe. Contemporary philosophers often try to deconstruct this analytic/continental binary. Simon Critchley, for example, writes that these categories are “to a great extent, sectarian self-descriptions that are the consequence of the professionalization of the discipline” in recent decades. Your intellectual history shows that these categories are not so much wrong as they are historical; as that continental hero Nietzsche once wrote about concepts, “only that which has no history can be defined.” Your book answers this question not with a definition but by telling the story of how a provincial school of phenomenology in southwest Germany grew into a major intellectual force. “We can speak of ‘continental philosophy,’” you conclude, insofar as the networks that disseminated phenomenological thought really did span the European continent. How do you approach this term?

Edward Baring, Converts to the Real
(Harvard University Press, 2019).

Edward Baring: I’m not interested in the term “continental philosophy” per se, which as you rightly say is quite problematic and was not used by the authors I study. I start with it, nonetheless, because of the way it points to one of the most fascinating characteristics of European philosophy in the twentieth century: the rapidity with which phenomenology, especially that of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, spread and dramatically reshaped intellectual traditions across the continent. In the postwar period we find phenomenologists everywhere: Jan Patočka in Czechoslovakia, Roman Ingarden in Poland, Enzo Paci in Italy, as well as of course Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in France. And this success is surprising, not only because Europe was sharply divided politically, linguistically, and in terms of its academic institutions, but also because the main proponents of Germany phenomenology did little to promote its international reception. Though he lived eight miles from the French border, Husserl only lectured in France once in his life. And Martin Heidegger was widely known in the 1930s and ’40s to be a member of the Nazi party. We should grapple with the conundrum that of all the philosophical traditions that could have gained traction across Europe following World War II, it was a German one, and one whose political leanings were at the very least suspect. As I say in the book, the term “continental philosophy” hides an historical enigma in plain sight.

JC: Your book is impressively transnational, including thinkers and sources from Spain, Italy, and Poland as well as France, Germany, and Belgium, which, crucially, are all countries with strong Catholic traditions. Herman Van Breda alone left behind letters written in six languages, and the location of the Husserl Archives he founded in the small but central country of Belgium facilitated international connections in French, Dutch, and German. Yet European philosophy around the turn of the twentieth century, when your book begins, was quite provincial and national. The Latin-language Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had fragmented into vernacular languages, and national universities remained resistant to new currents of thought. Against these obstacles, how did phenomenology become so widespread?

EB: This is my guiding question and it is one that I think requires a shift away from standard approaches to transnational history. For a variety of reasons, intellectual historians interested in the transnational have tended to examine one-to-one transfers, how a set of ideas crossed a particular border and took root in a particular country. This approach encourages scholars to focus on those aspects of local intellectual traditions that allowed and shaped this reception. And thus we get stories about what was distinctive about say “French” phenomenology or “Italian” phenomenology. But what is interesting about phenomenology is not that it travelled to France or Italy, but that it travelled to France and Italy, as well as to Poland, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. To explain its international success, we need an approach that doesn’t assume that the most significant differences were those between individual national receptions. Sometimes the connections between thinkers across borders are much more robust than those within them.

Given the fragmentation of academic life in Europe, especially in philosophy, I wasn’t going to find this sort of robust transnational connection in the usual places. Rather, I came increasingly to focus on Catholics. They crop up all across Europe and early on, writing articles and books on phenomenology, teaching it in their classes, and translating texts. Their importance made sense to me, because they already participated in a transnational community. Scholars circulated between Catholic universities, read each other’s work, and contributed to debates occurring in Catholic circles across the continent. Here was an intellectual community that could overcome the philosophical parochialism of the modern age.

JC: My own academic trajectory reflects part of the story told in your book. Seeking a place to study continental philosophy—and despite my focus on Jewish thought—I found myself considering a number of Catholic institutions you mention, including Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. I ended up doing my masters at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), in Belgium, which houses the Husserl Archives. For centuries, Leuven had been a center for Catholic thought, especially for the study of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But in the late 1930s, as Chapter 9 recounts, Leuven also became the home of the papers and library of the German philosopher and father of phenomenology Edmund Husserl, a former professor at Freiburg who was expelled from the university community in 1933 due to his Jewish origins. Husserl’s materials were rescued from potential destruction by the Nazis by the Flemish scholar Herman Van Breda, who was also a Franciscan priest (which you show he downplayed in his role establishing the Archives). Combining phenomenology with philosophy of religion helped make Leuven a major continental department. In what ways does Leuven exemplify your argument about the remarkable alliance of Catholic thought and phenomenology?

Husserl and Heidegger,  St. Märgen 1921

EB: The Higher Institute of Philosophy (ISP) in Leuven plays a central role in my project, because after its foundation in 1889, it became the epicenter for a new type of Catholic intellectual project. The inaugural President, Désiré Mercier, chose “Nova et Vetera” [the new and the old] as its motto, in order to highlight how scholars working at the Institute would combine study of Medieval texts with an engagement with modern philosophy and science. For Mercier, Catholicism needed to update itself, to engage with the modern world, not retreat from it. That is why Leuven scholars set up scientific laboratories, sought to participate in contemporary debates, and encouraged students to study cutting-edge ideas. It is also why they embraced phenomenology. It seemed a modern form of thought that was compatible with Catholic ideas, without being Catholic itself.

Because philosophers at Leuven wanted to engage with the non-Catholic world, their embrace of phenomenology had broader resonance and influence. In the 1920s and ’30s phenomenology became a means for debating with Protestants as well as secular and atheistic thinkers. That is why, I argue, we can’t treat the Catholic reception in isolation. It was intimately connected to the receptions in other religious and non-religious contexts. In fact, phenomenology became a privileged language for articulating religious difference, what made a form of thought Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or atheistic.

JC: Can you spell out more explicitly which dimensions of phenomenology made it appealing to Catholic thinkers? I found the case of Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II, particularly interesting. He wrote his habilitation on the German phenomenologist Max Scheler, arguing that Scheler’s work could “aid us in the analysis of ethical facts on the phenomenological and experiential plane.” You write at another point, “For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” It seems phenomenology’s “appeal to the concrete subject”—or to “the real” in your book’s title—offered an alternative and corrective to the neo-Kantian transcendental idealism more favored by Protestant thinkers.

EB: By and large, Catholic scholars associated the transcendental subject of the Kantian and post-Kantian traditions with Protestantism and, by extension, modern secular individualism. That is why they found Husserl’s phenomenology so attractive. Husserl’s injunction to go zu den Sachen selbst [to the things themselves]” seemed to imply that we had access to the mind-independent real, and thus could recognize our inherence in a social and a natural order that pointed ultimately to the existence of God. But as I argue in the book, there were many conflicting ways to get to the real (and multiple understandings of what the word “real” meant), especially after 1913, when Husserl seemed to retreat from his earlier position and embrace a transcendental idealism. Some Catholics argued that Husserl’s trajectory showed that they needed to reject the modern “starting point” of philosophy, the subject, in order to affirm a metaphysical realism. Others thought realism required reevaluating how we understood that subject, most commonly by emphasizing its embodiment. These were not minor points of philosophical interpretation, but major difference that often mapped onto the longstanding division in Catholic philosophy represented by Thomas Aquinas and Augustine.

Edmund Husserl’s annotated personal copy of his former student Martin Heidegger’s 1927 book Sein und Zeit (1927) [Being and Time], which was dedicated to Husserl “in friendship and admiration.” Housed at the Husserl Archives at KU Leuven, Belgium

JC: While there are many works on the “greats” of the continental tradition, you bring attention to lesser-known figures—many of them Catholic—who did the intellectual footwork of disseminating their approaches by producing “the textual resources (introductory books and articles) that facilitated the spread of phenomenology and existentialism, especially where translations were thin on the ground.” These figures “set the terms of the debate” as intellectual distributors and intermediaries. What are some examples that made it into your book?

EB: The history of philosophy has for perhaps obvious reasons remained wedded to the “great man theory of history” for far longer than other fields. And this is nowhere more apparent than in the history of phenomenology. An oft-repeated anecdote recounts a meeting between Sartre, de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron in 1932. Aron had just returned from study in Berlin, and he spoke excitedly to his friends about phenomenology, arguing that it allowed one to do philosophy about the everyday, even about the apricot cocktails they were drinking. Scholars have latched onto the anecdote, on the assumption that once we know how Sartre came across phenomenological ideas we have explained the origins of the French tradition. But of course if he had been the only person in France interested in phenomenology, if his ideas didn’t draw upon and feed into a preexisting interest, despite his philosophical brilliance, Sartre wouldn’t have been able to make a career for himself. He would have been a lone voice, and wouldn’t have become “Sartre” the famous and influential thinker.

This broader context is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it encompasses a more diverse set of philosophers than that normally associated with phenomenology. Though mid-century philosophy was hardly exempt from prejudice, the process of canonization blinds us to the large number of women working in the field, not just famous figures like Edith Stein, but also others like Hedwig Conrad Martius and Sofia Vanni Rovighi. Second, these thinkers helped shape the philosophical discussion. One interesting case is that of “ontology.” In the 1940s, it was widely assumed that an ontological reading would dampen the religious resonances of existential phenomenology. This idea animates Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy of the other, Jean Wahl’s reading of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, and Sartre’s own project. Recall that the subtitle of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is “an essay on phenomenological ontology.” At first glance, the claim seems quite strange, especially since ontology was central to the Thomist reading of phenomenology. But we can understand it by tracing it back to the Friday-evening soirées of the Catholic existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, which welcomed all of Levinas, Wahl, and Sartre in the 1930s. There, in seeking to justify a heterodox Christian philosophy, Marcel and his guests argued that Thomist ontology was, ironically, a danger to religious belief, because it overestimated human rational capacities, and shut out the personal side of faith.

JC: I want to pick up on a similarity between your two monographs: the receptions of phenomenology, existentialism, and deconstruction have all demonstrated robust “compatibility with Catholicism” despite widely being considered atheistic philosophies. Hence you write: “The supposition that religious ideas might slip into secular philosophy unannounced…is crucial for my argument.” This relates to what you call “the ambiguity of conversion,” how phenomenology led various thinkers both toward (Edith Stein) and away from (Maurice Merleau-Ponty) Catholic thought. As you described this affinity, I couldn’t help but think of the embrace of the Algerian-born French-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida’s work by Catholic thinkers you mention in your conclusion, such as John D. Caputo and Richard Kearney. As I understand it, Derrida was quite open to Catholic readings of his work, Husserl much less so. Yet you reject the view that phenomenologists are somehow “crypto-Catholics.” So where do you draw the line between affinity, resonance, and distortion in religious receptions of phenomenology?

EB:  I want to distinguish between the claim that we can trace the genealogy of a set of ideas back to Catholic thinkers, and the claim that this genealogy makes those ideas “Catholic,” which is a version of the genetic fallacy. Intellectuals draw ideas from a range of sources. They engage with those ideas, adapt and transform them at both superficial and fundamental levels, so one cannot simply assume that any label that had once been attached to those ideas remains valid.

But even if we reject such reductive readings, genealogies of this sort can be really helpful. The example you give is a good one. Despite Derrida’s famous claim that he “rightly pass[ed] as an atheist” [see Baring’s co-edited volume The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion], his ideas have been embraced by a number of Catholic thinkers. And we can begin to understand that embrace through the ways in which Derrida himself drew on Catholic ideas. In fact, we can suggest that there is a privileged relationship, a sort of tried and tested compatibility, between the two, even if that privilege does not define those ideas or prevent others from developing them in a very different direction. I think that the same could be said about other forms of secularization. The fact that we can identify religious antecedents to a particular secular ideology doesn’t make it a crypto-theology. But it does help explain why its impact might be felt unevenly by different religious traditions. The history of laïcité in France is a good example.

JC: In recent years we have seen a “turn to religion” in twentieth-century European intellectual history, for example, in works by Samuel Moyn, Piotr Kosicki, and James Chappel. Has this turn run its course, or does the field as a whole still underestimate the importance of religion?

EB: Though it is by no means the only game in town, I do think that there is more work to be done. For many years, modern European intellectual historians overlooked religious thought, assuming that it was a relic from a previous era, and so couldn’t have a significant impact on the intellectual developments they were studying. I shared these assumptions myself. When I went to the Derrida archives for my first project, I ignored all of Derrida’s early essays on religious topics, thinking that they weren’t relevant to my research. It was only later as I was trying to make sense of what Derrida had written elsewhere that I realized that his engagement with Christian scholars in his twenties might be important; indeed, it came to inform one of the central arguments of that book. The impact of religious ideas and institutions has become even clearer thanks to the heightened interest in transnational phenomena. Because of the international nature of many religious organizations, most obviously the Catholic Church, the influence of religion tends to come into sharper focus when historians expand their scope beyond national boundaries.

The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion,
eds. Edward Baring and Peter Gordon
(Fordham University Press, 2014).

JC: You contend in a methodological note that while your book is highly contextualist, as a study of networks in which ideas are produced, contextualism needs de-contextualist readings (here you invoke Derrida) to illuminate what your source texts aim to do, which you call “philosophical conversion.” Could you elaborate on this idea?

EB: As intellectual historians, we spend a considerable amount of time placing ideas into their various contexts, and this approach has transformed the way we understand multiple authors and ideas. Given this success, it is tempting to slip from the claim that a certain piece of context helps us elucidate or reread a particular text to the claim that its arguments lose validity outside of that context. But this is clearly wrong; all our ideas have a history, and that doesn’t prevent them from playing meaningful roles in contemporary debates.

To address this problem, I think that intellectual historians should pay as much attention to processes of decontextualization—that is how ideas and texts leave particular contexts and shed the markers of their origins—as they do to contextualization. In the book I do this by using the concept of conversion. The concept clearly derives from the subject matter of the book, but I think it is more broadly applicable, for it draws attention to the ways in which scholars attempt to win over those who disagree with them by adopting reasoning and arguments that their interlocutors might find convincing. That means that most scholarly texts are already divided and contested, with one foot in at least two opposing camps. They are never, even to begin with, confined to their context of origin.

JC: What’s your next project?

EB: I’m getting started on a project on “vulgar Marxism,” which is my attempt to think through the Marxist tradition in the twentieth century. Readers of the blog are probably familiar with “vulgar Marxism” as an insult. What fascinates me is that, though rarely scrutinized, the insult is virtually ubiquitous, appearing in texts by authors in Europe and beyond throughout the twentieth century. In fact, I would go so far as to claim that “vulgar Marxism” is the constitutive other of the Marxist tradition, especially what is often called “Western Marxism.” It is the set of ideas in opposition to which theorists crafted their positive projects, whether that meant reasserting the autonomy of culture and ideas in opposition to a “vulgar” base-superstructure reductionism, reintroducing forms of voluntarism against a “vulgar” fatalism, or being attentive to the dialectic unlike “vulgar” positivism. Because it was also a fraught concept, especially for thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, and the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui, who devoted considerable time and effort to educative projects, leading study circles, writing popular manuals, organizing correspondence courses and the like, they confronted the problem of how one could popularize Marxism without vulgarizing it. Marxists thought a lot about the way ideas function when they leave the realm of academic study and become subject to popular debate. And it seems to me that, at a time when we face most acutely the promise and perils of the democratization of information, their reflections are more important than ever.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.

Featured Image: Edmund Husserl’s desk and library at the Husserl Archives, KU Leuven, Belgium


“Foucault Was Always Much More Circumspect”: Stuart Elden on Foucault’s Politics and the Rediscovery of His Early Years

This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Stuart Elden about his work on Michel Foucault. You can read the first part here.

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at University of Warwick. His publication series on Foucault includes Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity, 2016), Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity, 2017),The Early Foucault (Polity, forthcoming), and The Archaeology of Foucault (Polity, forthcoming). Beyond Foucault, he most recently authored Shakespearean Territories (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and Canguilhem (Polity, 2019). He runs a blog at

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Jonas Knatz / Anne Schult: In both Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade, you draw attention to Foucault’s own understanding of his work and argue that he wanted his books to function as tools and serve a purpose. You quote him saying that, “I make something that ultimately serves a siege, a war, a destruction. I am not for destruction, but only so we can pass, so we can advance, so we can tear down the walls.” (The Birth of Power, 187) The political effect of Foucault’s scholarship outside of academia is perhaps especially evident in the early 1970s through his involvement with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (GIP) and Groupe d’information santé (GIS). In his lectures in 1982, Foucault further argued that the relationship to oneself is the final point to build resistance to power. How would you describe the trajectory of Foucault’s thought in relation to his political activism?

Stuart Elden: I think it depends on the period we are discussing. There is no doubt that the early-mid 1970s are the most political period of Foucault’s work – both in terms of the activism but also the focus of his teaching. There is little obviously political in this sense in his work in the 1950s or 1960s, and the later 1970s and 1980s is again distinct. The Prisons group has been widely discussed, and it’s great that Kevin Thompson and Perry Zurn are editing a set of translations of this work for University of Minnesota Press. That’s been the main focus of Anglophone scholarship. But the Health group seemed to me to be very interesting and less discussed, so I worked on that quite extensively for The Birth of Power. And there was more peripheral connection with another group on asylums, and various other political campaigns. Some of this work was archival, but there were a lot of published traces in sometimes obscure places – newspaper reports, some anonymous texts, some reports or brochures that hadn’t always been noted in bibliographies and so on. So, I set about tracking these down and trying to tell that story.

For me the two things that were most interesting about writing The Birth of Power was to treat this political activism in relation to the more obviously academic work, and to discuss the lecture courses from this period. I found it striking that Foucault could give a lecture at the Collège de France one day and later that same day, or week, speak at a press conference on prisoners or another contemporary theme. Defert provides a detailed Chronology of Foucault’s life and I used that as the basis for my own work, but I added in the dates of every lecture, every news report that specified what Foucault was doing, and made use of other sources like Claude Mauriac’s diaries. This helped me to read across these different registers of work – activism, lecturing, writing, and so on – and see some connections which I’d previously missed.

Collège de France, WikiCommons

The more obviously political material appears in Foucault’s work quite abruptly. Foucault’s chair at the Collège de France was in the ‘history of systems of thought’ – it was effectively the history of philosophy chair, previously held by Jean Hyppolite, the Hegel scholar, and before him Martial Gueroult and Étienne Gilson. If you look at Foucault’s work before his election, it’s a series of historical studies – of madness, medicine and economy, biology and linguistics – along with The Archaeology of Knowledge and some other themes like literature and art. His first Collège de France course, published as Lectures on the Will to Know, makes sense as a continuation of that work. Now there are political elements in all that earlier work, and the founding of the Prisons group is during the first course at the Collège. But the 1971-72 course must have been quite a shock. Penal Theories and Institutions looks at a popular insurrection and its forcible suppression in the seventeenth century, and on the development of political and administrative structures in the Middle Ages. It’s really quite a contrast. In retrospect, when I wrote The Birth of Power I was perhaps reading that course and the subsequent one, The Punitive Society, with an eye more on what they led to, rather than where they came from. Now that I’m working on the 1950s and the 1960s in more detail, the contrast strikes me even more strongly. Yet again, though, there are continuities as well as contrasts.

JK / AS: In a 1984 interview with City Paper, Foucault said that “in the absence of anything better, I shall support the programme of the Socialists. I recall something (Roland) Barthes once said about having political opinions ‘lightly held.’ Politics should not subsume your whole life as if you were a hot rabbit.” Yet, the debate about Foucault’s political leanings and especially his stance towards neoliberalism and the welfare state has gained new momentum over the past few years. In an exemplary move, Daniel Zamora Vargas argued in an interview for Le Comptoir in 2019, reproduced in English by Jacobin, that in his later writings, Foucault “implicitly embraced their [Friedrich Hayek’s and Milton Friedman’s] representation of the market: that of a less normative, less coercive, and more tolerant space for minoritarian experiments than the welfare state, subject as it is to majority rule.” How would you describe Foucault’s take on neoliberalism and the welfare state?

SE: First, I want to say something very briefly about that City Paper interview. It’s a short text that wasn’t included in Dits et écrits, because it was published posthumously. The interview is brief – it was apparently reconstructed from notes, since Foucault didn’t want to be recorded. Foucault would have either refused its publication or edited it himself had he lived. It took me a long time to locate a copy. I was in touch with the interviewer, and he said he didn’t even have one himself. It’s not clear whether Foucault spoke in French and was translated, or in English – quite possibly a bit of both. And that line about a ‘hot rabbit’… Foucault obviously means a chaud lapin, which is of course literally a ‘hot rabbit’, but is more a rabbit in heat, a horndog or something of that kind. But we don’t have the ability to either see a French original or know what Foucault said – whether in his own English expression of a French term, or a too-literal translation. This is a minor example of something I found really frustrating when doing this work – how much had been lost. Transcriptions of recordings, tapes, original manuscripts and so on. And this is for the 1980s, when Foucault was already very famous. It’s much more the case for earlier material when there was no obvious reason to keep things.

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, Palgrave Macmillan

But to turn to the question. I have found the whole recent neoliberalism debate about Foucault very frustrating. There are obviously things to be said about how in 1978-79 he gave the course The Birth of Biopolitics which discusses this work. But it’s a historical study for the most part, even though it is Foucault’s most contemporary course. In the story I try to tell, Foucault turned to this period as a continuation of the historical work in the preceding course, Security, Territory, Population. He’s interested in this question of government in a broad sense – of people, groups of people like a flock in the Christian pastorate, or of a family and so on. And the more narrowly political sense of government relates to and emerges from that. And then in this course, Foucault connects it to a much more contemporary set of practices. My reading is that he is trying to understand these trends, their internal logic and core assumptions, rather than to come down in favour or against. In a sense it’s only because it’s so contemporary that Foucault is seen in this way in relation to neoliberalism. I’ve made the point before that in the previous year he was analyzing the raison d’état theorists and in the next the early Church Fathers, and with those bodies of work there isn’t the rush to suggest he was in favour or against. So, I don’t really see Foucault either as a fellow traveler of neoliberalism, or as its more prescient critic. Obviously where things were in early 1979 isn’t where they went – Foucault was lecturing before Thatcher or Reagan were elected, and French context was quite different.

The other thing I’ve found frustrating is that much of this work has simply reread the available material, rather than dug into the archives for other related materials. There seems to be much more that could be done interrogating Foucault’s interest in this – what happened in his Collège de France seminars around this time, which were around liberalism and government, what were the people who presented in those doing, how does this connect to manuscripts he wrote at the time, and so on. But for the most part I’ve avoided engaging with the debates about this topic, since I think in large part they are beginning from a too-easy elision between his historical approach and a contemporary political problem. Foucault was always much more circumspect.

JK / AS: In both published books, you heavily draw from Foucault’s less formal output, such as the materials he produced in preparation for and aside his lectures and seminars at the Collège de France. What does this focus on unpublished notes allow you to see that otherwise has stayed hidden? To what extent does this information reframe well-known tomes such as Discipline and Punish and the History of Sexuality as thought-in-progress? And how do you see your work relating to Foucault’s lectures themselves, which have been published in book form by Gallimard since the 2010s under the general editorship of François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana?

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Penguin

SE: Foucault’s lecture courses have been invaluable to my work. I wrote my PhD on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault, and the first lecture course to be published, Society Must Be Defended, appeared in French in 1997, towards the end of that period. Dits et écrits appeared in 1994, right as I began working on the thesis. Dits et écrits was the initial spur to do something that looked at Foucault beyond the books, since as well as collecting hard-to-find sources in French, it also translated texts from Japanese, English, German, Portuguese, and so on. It then took 18 years from Society must be Defended until Penal Theories and Institutions, the last of the Collège courses to be edited in French in 2015. I wrote essays, reviews or gave talks on many of the lecture courses as they came out – Paul Bové at boundary 2 was an initial supporter of this work – and so when most of them were out I had a good sense of the material and thought this could be the basis for a study that used them to fill in the details of his work.

Alongside the lecture courses, more and more other material became available – we’ve already discussed some of it. I try very hard to respect the differences in genre between a published book, an interview edited and approved by Foucault, a lecture edited from a recording, student notes, archival traces and so on. But reading these different types of work together can, I think, be revealing. Among other things it shows the paths not taken – projects planned and abandoned, initial formulations which were later reworked as he found new sources or inspirations and so on. The reading notes he took when he was doing his work were valuable in writing The Birth of Power, and more so for the work on the 1950s. They show something of how he worked – of notes or excerpts from what he was reading, thematically organized – and then used as the source material for his books. There are not that many early drafts of his published books – I’ve mentioned the ones of the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality, and there is a complete and a partial draft of The Archaeology of Knowledge. But while Foucault may well have destroyed some draft materials, he also reused them. There are quite a lot of pages of notes which are written on the reverse of a text with a diagonal line through it, and often those are fragments of well-known texts. He reuses other things in his folders too – sometimes folding a letter or a flyer to group notes on a theme. Given Foucault dates almost nothing, these scraps can sometimes help to indicate a period when notes were taken. Foucault’s use of scrap paper is a project in itself.

So, I think the reading notes, and other preparatory materials give some sense of how Foucault worked, and of things that might have been pursued and, for whatever reason, were not. I try to discuss all of that in the books I’ve written. Ultimately the books outweigh them, of course, but treated appropriately the lectures and other sources can be valuable supplements.

JK / AS: Emphasizing the collaborative nature of some of his projects in the context of his seminars at the Collège de France, especially in the lead-up to Discipline and Punish, or his work with the Centre d’études, de recherches et de formation institutionnelles (CERFI), you appear to argue that Foucault was significantly shaped by and indeed sought the interaction with other like-minded scholars. Which of his myriad collaborators do you see as most significantly influencing the Foucauldian project, and does the allowance for a more collaborative background in any way reframe some of Foucault’s oeuvre?

SE: Yes, I think the collaborative nature of Foucault’s working practice has been underappreciated. He really seems to have enjoyed the collaborative process, though he found some of the restrictions frustrating. At the Collège de France he wanted to restrict his seminar to those who were genuinely going to do work, rather than just consume it. But the authorities didn’t allow this, and apparently tape recordings were made of discussions and pirate texts were circulated. Eventually he got so fed up he cancelled his seminar and gave more lectures to meet his quota of hours. That said, one of the frustrations I found in working on this period was how little there was as a record of what happened in the seminars. The I, Pierre Rivière collection was one output from Foucault’s seminar, and some other papers first presented there were included in The Foucault Effect. But Foucault usually said what the seminar did in his course summaries each year, and some of that fed into the CERFI research. The first archival work I ever did on Foucault was looking into that research around 2004, using the archives at IMEC – at the time in Paris, but now in Normandy. There were various reports published, some of which are quite hard to find these days, and some texts in the journal Recherches. There are later collaborative seminars, some of which have been published – the ones at Vermont and Louvain ran in parallel to lecture courses, and there was the beginning of a project at Berkeley cut short by Foucault’s death. But other people in those seminars did publish their parts of the work. I tried to speak to some people involved in this work, and find what traces there were – this led to the publication of a discussion between Foucault and Jonathan Simon, for example. There are other important reports in the History of the Present newsletter that Paul Rabinow edited. Foucault didn’t co-author many published texts – the book with Arlette Farge is perhaps the key exception – but he worked with people quite a lot, and not just in his activism. I try to tell these stories in the books I’ve written.

Press Conference about the Jaubert Affair, 1971. From left to right: Pierre Laville, Michel Foucault, Claude Mauriac, Denis Langlois and Gilles Deleuze. WikiCommons.

Some of those he worked with are well known as thinkers in their own right – Deleuze and especially Guattari for the CERFI work, for instance. Foucault’s work with Deleuze and Pierre Klossowski on the Nietzsche translation project is a story I want to research, as is his involvement in the Georges Bataille Oeuvres complètes. In an earlier period, his work with Jacqueline Verdeaux is very important. Farge is a major figure in French history, but was of a later generation to Foucault when they worked together. Foucault seems to have appreciated the work of some of his Collège de France colleagues like Pierre Hadot and Paul Veyne, though they didn’t collaborate in the traditional way. And the group of students Rabinow introduced him to at Berkeley would, I think, have been key interlocutors had that work not been cut short.

JK / AS: Similar to Foucault, you often invite commentary on your current work through your blog, Progressive Geographies. Here, you discuss your research process in detail and share insights on sources and tentative analyses. How do your book projects benefit from this openness and the interaction with your readers? Does this approach ultimately serve as an attempt to “demystify” intellectual history, which is often assumed to be a solemn enterprise?

SE: As with much of what I’ve done on the blog it’s been something of a trial and error process. I never imagined the blog would get the audience it has – still small certainly, but relatively large for an individual academic blog. And so, some of the things I’ve done on the blog began as things I thought would be interesting for me to do, rather than with an expectation of a large audience. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed doing is these posts on the process of writing these books. I’d stress that part – I write about the process of doing the research, rather than sharing draft material. Other people share work in progress, and I follow some of them and find that fascinating too. But I think what I do is different. I have been writing updates on the work since I began these Foucault books, though I began this a bit earlier in the late stages of writing The Birth of Territory in late 2010 and early 2011.

So, I write posts saying – this is what I’ve been reading, this is how I’ve tried to make sense of it, this is what I found in the archives, libraries and so on. I don’t get a great deal of feedback this way, actually, though there is, I think, sufficient interest in the work to make it something I have continued. I’ve also shared quite a few ‘resources’ as webpages on the blog – things I’ve produced as research tools for myself in doing this work, but which end up only being explicit in the finished book in a very minor way. So, I’ve done textual comparisons, for example, where I’ve compared two versions of the same text to see what the changes were. That’s slow work, but often I found it necessary to what I was doing, and yet in the finished book it perhaps only informs a couple of notes. Or I’d translate a short text or excerpt and then only quote a sentence or two. So, I’ve shared those on the blog in a hope that perhaps someone else might find them useful. Or I’ve made a chronological list of links to all the Foucault audio and video sources I could find online and shared that. Most of these are things that couldn’t be published in a normal way – though I did publish one bibliography of short texts by Foucault that were not in Dits et écrits – so I thought using the blog would be one way to make this material available. The blog or website format works well – I can post it immediately, and edit if new sources come to light. Again, I’ve not had a huge amount of feedback, but a couple of people have got in touch to share something they know – one former student transcribed his notes from a lecture he attended, and alerted me to a variant form of a well-known text that I’d missed. A couple of other people gave me access to recordings they had, one of which was not previously widely known so I shared it with the editors of Foucault’s work. So, I think this work has been useful to me in part through my becoming a minor point of connection in the circulation of texts. One of the editors got in touch with me as they thought I could answer a quite specific question, which I was able to do, and that led to some other meetings and sharing of material. In my research I have been continually pleased by how helpful people are when I ask for things – not always, but certainly most of the time. Perhaps what I do on the blog is one way of paying that back.

I’m in a Politics and International Studies department, and yet I find the debates I’m most interested in are happening in other circles, philosophy naturally, but also in history and other fields. The blog is one way of connecting to them, as indeed are invitations to speak in different places. I often share those talks too on the blog – partly as a way of building up a personal archive, but also in the hope someone will find them interesting. It’s so easy to record a talk on a phone, and I use an open source audio editor to tidy up the start and finish, normalise the volume, cut out any extraneous noise and so on. If I didn’t share them, then I probably wouldn’t have the discipline to do that.

Michel Foucault in Uppsala in the late 1950s. See also the cover of Lynne Huffer’s Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory.

That’s a long way of saying that the blog is a way of sharing what I’m doing, but not yet the final or even draft form. I hope that when The Early Foucault comes out there will be plenty of surprises to people who’ve been following the blog updates. I reread something I wrote just a couple of years ago the other day, and I found myself disagreeing with quite a lot. That’s simply a measure of how much I’ve learned in exploring this period, and how much previously I was relying on the standard story. But yes, perhaps I have demystified the process of writing these books. It’s also a way of connecting to a wider audience, and to people in different parts of the world, some of whom I know but rarely see.

JK / AS: Out of the many potential surprises The Early Foucault holds in store, are there some that you would be willing to share or hint at?

SE: In the 1950s Foucault doesn’t publish very much – the short book Maladie mentale et personnalité, a long introduction to a translation by Ludwig Binswanger, two book chapters and a brief book note. But he writes a lot more than this. His diploma thesis on Hegel from 1949, supervised by Jean Hyppolite and long thought lost, has recently been found. There are three substantial manuscripts preserved in Paris, as well as a number of shorter texts. The three major manuscripts, all of which are due to be published in the next few years, are on philosophical anthropology, Binswanger and existential analysis, and phenomenology and psychology. The first of these is a lecture course, probably first given in Lille and then later at the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS). It discusses anthropology as the science of man, including figures such as Kant, Hegel, Dilthey and Nietzsche. The other two may have had their origin in teaching, but are fully written out manuscripts with notes, and seem to have been intended for other purposes, perhaps as theses. The Binswanger text is much more substantial than the published Introduction; the phenomenology course shows Foucault had a really detailed knowledge of Husserl, who is the main focus. I discuss all of these texts in the book, and try to build up a picture of his wider teaching from the extant materials in Foucault’s own archive, along with the notes preserved in other places by a couple of his students.

Foucault’s role introducing Binswanger translation is quite well known, but while he wasn’t credited as a co-translator, he did work closely with Jacqueline Verdeaux on the text. So, I provide a detailed discussion of the choices they made to render the German into French, which I also do for the translation Foucault did with Daniel Rocher of Victor von Weizsäcker’s book Der Gestaltkreis. And in a later chapter I do the same thing for Foucault’s translation of Kant’s Anthropology, which was his secondary thesis in 1961, along with a long introduction. In the first chapter I discuss Foucault as a student, looking at the courses he attended by people like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Wahl and others, and his preparation work for the agrégation examination. He worked closely with Louis Althusser for this at the ENS, and Althusser’s papers include some notes on practice presentations Foucault gave. Foucault’s reading notes on psychology, philosophy and other themes are also preserved – some very clearly preparatory for publications including the History of Madness; others are more general including the extensive notes on Nietzsche and Heidegger he talks about in a late interview. Reading these helps to make sense of how Foucault engaged with these thinkers, as well as something of how he composed his texts.

From a report on the Institut Français in Uppsala. Image courtesy of Stuart Elden.

I also went back through Swedish newspapers to reconstruct the titles of public lectures that Foucault gave in Stockholm in the mid-1950s. The lectures themselves have not been preserved, but the titles at least give an indication of their content on French theatre and literature. The topic of his teaching in Uppsala can be found in the University course catalogues, but again, nothing seems to be preserved. One text that does exist from this period was given as a radio lecture in Berlin, and the German translation of that text is in the Swiss literary archive in Berne. It’s on anthropology, with a discussion of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Claude Lévi-Strauss, but also of Georges Dumézil, whose work Foucault was beginning to read in detail.  

The main source for this book is the BnF archive, which as I said contains not just the papers left in Foucault’s apartment when he died, but also materials he left at his mother’s house, probably before he moved to Uppsala in 1955. I try to integrate the study of all these largely unknown materials with the things he published in this period, and to fill in details that the biographies were sometimes only able to survey. But I’ve also used quite a few other archives to track down other sources that might shed light on this period – from the papers of Foucault’s teachers like Althusser and Wahl, to his doctoral rapporteurs Canguilhem and Hyppolite, and of Binswanger and Roland Kuhn. I try to say something about the intellectual side of Foucault’s relationship with the modernist composer Jean Barraqué. Books given to Foucault are at Yale, and there is some correspondence in other places. There are some papers in Uppsala relating to his time there, and Melissa Pawelski did some valuable work for me on his time in Hamburg, which has been extensively discussed by Rainer Nicolaysen. These cultural and teaching postings, along with his time in Warsaw, are important parts of the story I try to tell. So, it’s a book that begins when Foucault moves to Paris as a student, and ends with the History of Madness – a period that many books on Foucault see merely as a prelude.


Historicizing Foucault: Stuart Elden on Tracing Foucault’s Ideas from Discipline and Punish to the History of Sexuality

This is the first installment of a two-part interview with Stuart Elden about his work on Michel Foucault.

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at University of Warwick. His publication series on Foucault includes Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity, 2016), Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity, 2017),The Early Foucault (Polity, forthcoming), and The Archaeology of Foucault (Polity, forthcoming). Beyond Foucault, he most recently authored Shakespearean Territories (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and Canguilhem (Polity, 2019). He runs a blog at

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Jonas Knatz / Anne Schult: The current Corona pandemic has engendered a heated debate about Michel Foucault’s oeuvre and its contemporary relevance. In late February, Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy publicly debated the Italian declaration of a state of exception. Commenting on this debate, Roberto Esposito turned the discussion of government authority in times of crisis into a reexamination of the Foucauldian “paradigm of biopolitics.” In a similar vein, Bruno Latour saw us “collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture”, for which he was criticized by Joshua Clover. Panagiotis Sotiris took this one step further and reflected upon the possibilities of a democratic or even communist biopolitics. Philipp Sarasin, meanwhile, suggested that Foucault’s three-tiered model of governing approaches to combating pandemics, which he developed out of the historical cases of leprosy, plague, and smallpox, offers a more relevant tool of analysis than biopolitics, which was a term only fleetingly used by Foucault himself. Do you find Foucault’s writings a useful starting point for understanding the contemporary moment?

Stuart Elden: I’m very grateful for the interest in doing this interview, so I’m sorry to start off with a refusal to answer the question! I have been collating various pieces by philosophers, geographers, sociologists and others on my blog Progressive Geographies, but I really don’t have anything of my own to say. Like everyone else I’ve been fascinated and horrified by what is happening, and obsessively checking news and social media feeds. Putting together a few links on the blog quickly grew into something more, as I found more pieces, or was sent links. But I think there is something of a tendency to rush to have something to say, and much of what I’ve seen has been hurried and sometimes with a quick application of an existing theoretical position, often without much detailed knowledge of the specific moment. I’ve just turned down a request to write a chapter in an edited collection on this topic. At the moment I think it is public health voices we need to hear, epidemiologists and others. The time for more humanities and social science reflections will come, but I don’t think that is now – at least for me.

Foucault’s work is naturally seen as relevant and here it is not simply the case of connecting his work in a tangential way. As you indicate, he really did write about clinical medicine, what went on in hospitals, different approaches to diseases and public health. There is the well-known beginning of the ‘Panopticism’ chapter of Discipline and Punish, when he discusses the spatial and political order of a plague city. There are some remarkable lectures he gave in Rio in 1974 on public health and medicine, developing from some collaborative work on hospitals as ‘curing machines’, which is where his essay ‘The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century’ was first published. My Warwick colleague Daniele Lorenzini has just written a really good piece about all this. There is the work on leprosy, smallpox and so on in other lectures, in Paris and elsewhere. But most of this work was historical, looking back at periods with a view to discerning trends and patterns. And Foucault was always very cautious about seeing too easy parallels between the past and the present. There is also something of a general wish to ‘use’ Foucault’s ideas in an instrumental way, when most of his concepts and tools were developed to make sense of quite specific times and places, and when he turned to different histories and geographies he developed new ones. Part of what I’ve been trying to do with Foucault the past several years has been to resituate his ideas in their contexts, rather than see them as approaches that can be easily used in other settings.

JK / AS: In 2016, you published Foucault’s Last Decade, in which you trace Foucault’s development from 1974 to 1984. Foucault: The Birth of Power, which came out in 2017, complements this study by examining the years from 1969 to 1974. In addition, you are currently working on a third volume in this series, which offers an analysis of Foucault’s work from 1949 to 1961, and you recently announced that you agreed to publish a fourth, final book about Foucault’s intellectual activities in the 1960s with Polity Press. Do you consider this series an intellectual biography—or rather, as you suggested on your blog regarding the first volume, an observation of the genesis of Foucault’s intellectual milestones? In what ways would you describe your undertaking as different, especially with regard to methodology, from the more “traditional” portraits of Foucault offered by Didier Eribon and David Macey?

SE: I am full of admiration for the work Eribon and Macey did. I read those books first when I was writing my PhD, in the mid-late 1990s, and thought they were both really useful studies. As I’ve continued work on Foucault I’ve found more and more ways to recognise and appreciate them. They often capture in a few lines or pages what we can now reconstruct in great detail given what is now accessible, but to which they didn’t have access. Eribon in particular established the broad contours of the Foucault story, and Macey was indebted to his work. Both made use of extensive interviews with people who knew Foucault at all stages of his life, and Eribon in particular did some valuable work with archival sources and other unpublished documents. It’s less known in English, since the translation is of the early edition, but Eribon’s book is expanded in its present 2011 French edition with some valuable new material. But both books were written before the lecture courses at the Collège de France were published, and lots of new material has come to light since. I wrote an afterword to the recent reedition of Macey’s biography with Verso that tries to survey some of this, and have been trying to persuade publishers to translate the third edition of Eribon’s text and his 1994 book Michel Foucault et ses contemporains, both of which are invaluable sources.

Stuart Elden, Foucault: The Birth of Power, Polity

I have been asked by a couple of publishers if I’d write a new biography of Foucault, given the new material that has become available. But I’ve declined to do this for the simple reason that I don’t think I could do it better than Eribon and Macey. There are huge new resources for writing about Foucault’s work – the Collège de France courses and some other teaching materials, transcripts of radio programmes, the fourth volume of the History of Sexuality and so on. There is a lot more to come, much based on the archives now available to researchers at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. But there are not that many new sources for understanding Foucault’s life. His correspondence is largely unavailable, and much seems not to have been kept – I’ve seen some letters mainly from the early 1950s, but family correspondence is restricted until 2050. And Daniel Defert told me that Foucault usually threw away letters that he received after reading them.

Eribon and Macey had access to a large number of people that Foucault knew – family, teachers, colleagues, students. Foucault was only 57 when he died, and so not only were many of his contemporaries still alive, so too were people of an earlier generation who had taught or mentored him. Foucault would be over 90 now had he lived, and so the majority of people who still remember him knew him in his later years. And memory is fallible – Eribon and Macey were interviewing people within a few years of Foucault’s death. Unless and until the correspondence becomes available, I can’t see how Foucault’s life could be discussed better. But his work – that I think we can say something useful about in the light of these new materials. So, I’ve tried to resist the idea that I’m writing biography, but rather describe it as intellectual history. Though I recognize that there isn’t a clear distinction, and that especially with the earlier periods I’m working with many more biographical materials. This is partly because the resources for this period are more limited – far fewer publications, interviews, records of lectures, etc. – and so I’m making use of whatever materials I can find to tell the story.

JK / AS: Your Foucault series follows a somewhat unusual sequence: rather than telling the story of his intellectual development chronologically, you have consecutively offered “prequels” and analyzed Foucault’s thought process by going backwards in time. To add to this unusual approach, the fourth volume in your series will cover Foucault’s work and intellectual development from The Birth of the Clinic (1963) to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), and thus sits between volume two and three of your series both thematically and chronologically. Why did you decide to hold this book on Foucault in the 1960s until now?

SE: Well it’s in large part because I didn’t intend to write all these books. I really did initially intend to write a single book for Polity – a history of the History of Sexuality was the initial idea. I had this thought of using the Collège de France courses to tell the story of how he’d initially planned the series and then what he ended up writing. I had an opening chapter on the first three Collège courses, as a kind of prelude to that study. But the manuscript as a whole grew, and the opening chapter split into two. Overall it was far too long. So, I discussed it with Polity and said I thought there were two options – either one, substantially longer book, or I take out the material in the opening chapters and develop that into a second book. After some discussion we went with the second option. Foucault’s Last Decade became the book on just that decade – 1974-84 – and Foucault: The Birth of Power on the immediately preceding period, roughly 1969-74 and the process that led to Discipline and Punish.

Stuart Elden, Foucault’s Last Decade, Polity

I then thought I would turn to other things, and indeed the next thing I did was to finish work on a book called Shakespearean Territories, which I’d been working on in parallel to this Foucault work – mainly in a series of lectures on different plays and their connection to territory. I had an idea that then I would write one more book on Foucault, the plan being it would be on the 1960s, and that these three books would cover Foucault’s career. But I remember clearly a conversation with Mark Kelly in Melbourne where I said that I’d be writing a book on Foucault in the 1960s, and Mark said: Foucault in the 1950s would be the really interesting book. My initial reaction was that it couldn’t be done – that there wasn’t nearly enough material to sustain a study of that period. But the more I thought about it, and the more the archives opened up, the more it became possible. I’m now nearly done with this work, and it’s actually been a case of more material than I can cover in the depth I’d like. There are some fascinating lectures and manuscripts, and some of the long-available sources seemed worth revisiting, especially Foucault’s work as a translator. And of course, shifting to the book on the 1950s has left a gap between this book and The Birth of Power.

So, the final book will be on the 1960s – the working title is The Archaeology of Foucault. The order I’ve written these books has been in large part a product of the availability of the material. When I began Foucault’s Last Decade they had published most of the mid-1970s and 1980s courses, and there were indicative dates for the remaining volumes. The courses from the early 1970s were some of the last to be published, in part because there were no tape recordings extant and so they had to use the course manuscripts. The papers left in Foucault’s apartment when he died were sold to the BnF in 2013, and have become available to researchers over the past several years. But the material on the early years is part of another collection of material, left in Foucault’s mother’s house, and that has been made available only recently. There isn’t an inventory of this material, so I worked through the boxes in sequence and there were lots of surprises. The courses and other manuscripts from the pre-Collège de France material are now being edited and published – one volume is out, and another should be out soon, though has been delayed by the current pandemic. So, my studies have been partly written in this order because of availability of sources. Until recently, there was very little material from the 1960s that hadn’t been published by Foucault himself. Now we have some courses from Clermont-Ferrand and Vincennes published, there are others in the archives being edited for publication from those places and Tunisia, there are drafts of books and so on. So, I now think the 1960s story can be retold in what I hope is an interesting and worthwhile way in the light of this material.

JK / AS: In The Birth of Power, you situate Foucault’s methodological development alongside his increasingly sophisticated theory on the relation between power and knowledge. Specifically, you argue that while established scholarship has long suggested that Foucault abandoned archaeology for genealogy as a method to “get at” power over the course of the 1970s, he actually thought of the two as distinct but not necessarily unrelated or contradictory approaches. Can you explain the difference between archaeology and genealogy in Foucault’s eyes and in how far he thought them complimentary? How does this revision help us see broader continuities in Foucault’s work?

SE: I think if we just read Foucault’s books the changes between them can seem quite abrupt. There is a quite dramatic change in content and style between History of Sexuality Volume I and then II and III, for example; or between The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. I have sometimes started my books by marking what appears to be a stark discontinuity between Foucault’s books, and then tried to show how if we use other sources – shorter writings, interviews, lectures and so on – that we can see that there is actually quite a lot of continuity, or at least a much more gradual shift of focus.

I think the relation between archaeology and genealogy is one such apparent discontinuity, and it’s certainly true that Foucault doesn’t really use the term genealogy until the early 1970s. His essay ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ is often seen as a key marker, though there are traces of this in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1970, and his first course there, Lectures on the Will to Know, from 1970-71. But for me at least, I think it makes sense to see that Foucault introduced this term genealogy to capture something which he felt archaeology did not, but as a supplement, an addition, a different perspective, not a wholesale replacement. I think it’s striking that initially on using the term Foucault’s isn’t absolutely wedded to it – he talks of a dynastics as a complementary approach, for example. And the genealogy he initially proposes is not of power, but of knowledge – it’s a new way to rethink the questions he was exploring just a few years before. Indeed, he talks of both a dynastic of forces and a dynastic of knowledge as an approach that develops from his work on archaeology. So, I think the archaeology of knowledge versus the genealogy of power contrast is overdrawn. Archaeology remains important to Foucault in later periods, and there are traces in his lectures but also in the different volumes of the History of Sexuality. And while power obviously becomes an explicit focus in the 1970s in a way it wasn’t before, this is hardly at the expense of an attention to the question of knowledge. So, some of the early secondary literature maybe drew too stark a contrast.

There is a moment in a discussion in Berkeley in the 1980s where Foucault says to his audience that he never stopped doing archaeologies, he never stopped doing genealogies. I think that’s broadly correct, though that doesn’t mean that he always meant the same thing or that there were no shifts. But I think the now available materials show that this is much more complicated and nuanced set of developments. I’m hardly alone in this way of reading him, but it seems to me that the material now published makes it hard to hold to crude periodisations of his work. I’m aware of a tension here, in that my works on Foucault have followed a broadly chronological order, that the splits between volumes have followed some of the traditional ones, and that one book is called The Birth of Power and another has the working title of The Archaeology of Foucault. I’d just say that lines need to be drawn somewhere given I’ve written several volumes, and that within these books there is an attempt to show the slow transitions rather than the abrupt ones. With Foucault’s Last Decade, for example, I was trying to show that the work of the 1980s was not some new, ‘ethical’ period, or a turn to antiquity, but that there was an important shared focus back into the mid-1970s and still earlier.

JK / AS: In Foucault’s Last Decade, you trace his intellectual activities from the day he started writing the first volume of the History of Sexuality in 1974 to his death in 1984, the year in which the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality were published. Over the course of these ten years, Foucault abandoned his initial plan to write six volumes that would heavily draw from his lectures from the early to mid 1970s and directed increasing attention towards a hermeneutic of the self and ideas of governmentality. Yet, instead of emphasizing this abandonment of the original plan, you argue that long-standing interests of Foucault’s were combined with new insights and that his interest in the Christian practice of confession emerged as a major continuum. Can you elaborate on how exactly this interest in confession connects the work of Foucault from the early 1970s to his writings in the early 1980s, shortly before his death?

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, Penguin

SE: It’s a long story and it’s really the puzzle that motivated the book I wrote. Early editions of Volume I announced the titles of the next five volumes, and there are indications in Volume I of how Foucault envisioned it would all fit together. The four constituent subjects of sexuality were the masturbating child, the perverse adult, the hysterical woman and the Malthusian couple, and Foucault anticipated books on all four. And there would be one on The Flesh and the Body as Volume II. To varying degrees, there are traces of work on each in the lecture courses, particularly The Abnormals, and Foucault talks a bit about these themes in the first volume and interviews around this time. Defert had been saying for years that the draft materials for these books had been completely destroyed. We now know that this isn’t entirely the case – while I don’t doubt some material was destroyed, there are sizable fragments of some of these volumes in the archive. These were not available when I wrote Foucault’s Last Decade, but there were some indications of what was there. So, I largely used the lecture courses to discuss this material. It seems Foucault drew on his drafts in preparing the lectures. I was intrigued by what Foucault intended to do, and then why it didn’t happen.

The second planned volume was this one on confession. And from the indications in the first volume, and in lectures at this time, it seems it was to be on the late Medieval church and particularly the Council of Trent. When did confession, especially but not exclusively about sexual desire, become such a focus? The longest discussion by Foucault in this period is in The Abnormals course. And it seems that The Flesh and the Body would have expanded that argument, obviously with a lot more historical and analytical detail. But as he says in various places, this argument didn’t work for him. He began to realize that the trends he was identifying around the sixteenth century could be traced back much further, and so he worked backwards historically to analyse this. I think the material on the Christian pastorate in the Security, Territory, Population course from 1977-78 is related to this reading back through the Christian tradition. And the discussion of the government of souls also relates to this focus. The most obviously Christian lecture course in Paris was On the Government of the Living from 1979-80. And it seems it was around that time that Foucault drafted a new study of Christianity for the History of Sexuality series, now under the title of Les aveux de la chair – confessions or avowals of the flesh.

JK / AS: In 2018, Les aveux de la chair was published as the fourth and final volume of the History of Sexuality series. In Foucault’s Last Decade, you speculated that this volume is “perhaps the key to the whole sexuality series” (133). Has this come true?

SE: Yes, I think it probably is the key. Although it has appeared as Volume IV, and that was the last place Foucault situated it in his plans, it was actually mostly written before volumes II and III. Foucault says that the text as initially written had a long Introduction on pagan antiquity as a prelude to the material on the early Church, but again that he was dissatisfied with it, and that he felt it made uncritical use of the secondary literature. So, he put the material to one side, and worked back through the earlier period himself. At one point Volumes II and III were a single volume, so in different plans what became Volume IV appears as Volume II or III. The first key indications of pagan antiquity in his teaching are in the 1980-81 course Subjectivity and Truth, but it becomes the major focus of all his remaining teaching. There are other, parallel and intersecting projects in this period too, and Foucault changes his mind about how to present the material – there are several, not always consistent reports that I try to disentangle. But I think a key focus is this question of confession – was it in the sixteenth century or earlier, and how did pagan sources anticipate or contrast with the early Church – that can be seen as at least one guiding thread. He then wrote a new introduction to Volume II which would stand as an Introduction to the three new volumes. That Introduction went through various versions, some of which are published, before taking on its final form in 1984.

Foucault was close to completing the work on Volume IV. Volumes II and III came out shortly before his June 1984 death. Earlier that year he’d anticipated Volume IV would be out in October. One thing I’ve learned in this work is that French publishing schedules, at least for Foucault, were much quicker than is usual now. He could deliver a final manuscript around four months before it appeared in the bookstores. Of course, his illness prevented him from working on this text as planned, and then he died before completing the work. But it was very close to being finished. However, I think Frédéric Gros has done a great job with editing the text. I worked with the manuscripts and typescripts of Volumes II and III, and I know how challenging this can be. Foucault’s handwriting is difficult, with even his own typists struggling at times, and there are multiple versions of chapters. So, I can imagine it was a challenge for Gros to work out what Foucault intended especially since his work had been interrupted.

Michel Foucault, Les aveux de la chair, Gallimard

Les aveux de la chair wasn’t available when I wrote Foucault’s Last Decade, and I was under the impression at that time that while it would be published, it might not be for some time. I thought they would publish the pre-Collège de France materials and that this book, the closest thing to a completed book by Foucault in the archives, would be the final text – the crowning glory as it were. At the time I finished Foucault’s Last Decade in 2015 it wasn’t available in the archives, at least not to me, but the manuscript and typescript have since become accessible. And as we now know, it was published in early 2018. I wrote a long review essay on the text very soon after it came out, as I was excited by the prospect and wanted to see how it delivered on the various promises Foucault made about it. I suppose that in time I might revisit Foucault’s Last Decade in order to take account of it. It would add a lot of detail though I don’t think it would radically change my overall argument of how it came to be written or how it fitted into the overall work in this decade.

Featured Image: Press conference about the Jaubert Affair, 1971. From left to right: Pierre Laville, Michel Foucault, Claude Mauriac, Denis Langlois and Gilles Deleuze. WikiCommons.