Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Posted on my site

No-one is forced to write books, or to spend years elaborating them or to claim to be doing this kind of work. There is no reason to make it obligatory to include footnotes, bibliographies and references. No reason not to choose free reflection on the work of others. It is sufficient to indicate well and clearly what relation one is establishing between one’s own work and the work of others.

Nul n’est forcé d’écrire des livres, ni de passer des années à les élaborer, ni de se réclamer de ce genre de travail. Il n’y a aucune raison d’obliger à mettre des notes, à faire des bibliographies, à poser des references. Aucune raison de ne pas choisir la libre réflexion sur le travail des autres. Il suffit de bien marquer, et clairement, quel rapport on établit entre son travail et le travail des autres.

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1983] ‘A propos des faiseurs d’histoire’. In Dits et Ecrits vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard, p. 413. This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell

Random thoughts in response
In 1983 a scandal erupted in France around the publication of a book of popular history Histoire du Temps (Paris: Fayard, 1982) by then advisor to the president François Mitterand, Jacques Attali. Attali went on to become in 1991 the first president of the European bank for reconstruction and development (BERD) which was set up to help former soviet block countries in Europe integrate into the Western European economy. He is currently founder and director of PlaNet Finance a microfinance company and president of a commission appointed by the president Nicolas Sarkozy to relaunch French economic growth. Attali has also authored large numbers of essays and novels.

The scandal revolved around the discovery that if Attali included a list of references at the end of his book, he was less than careful about putting quotation marks around certain passages in his text. As Daniel Rondeau wrote rather amusingly in Libération, ‘[Attali] works, he says, every day from 4 to 7am. Let us try to imagine what these early morning work sessions are like. In the silence of the night, the sound of scissors is more to be heard than the nib of the pen…’

Foucault, of course, as a prominent intellectual was dutifully wheeled in by journalists to comment. After giving short shrift to the centre/right wing newspaper Le Matin, Foucault gave a more considered response to Didier Eribon in Libération the left-wing newspaper he had helped to found.

What I like about Foucault’s remarks here is how liberating I find them within the context of academic writing. Working within the university one becomes weighed down by the obligations of a certain type of work and loses sight of why one might originally have wanted to spend years painstakingly collecting and verifying every detail. What Foucault is suggesting here is that why do this unless you really want to? Nobody is forcing you. But at the same time he is saying that if one is writing a popular essay for public consumption in order to raise a few interesting ideas, one should make it quite clear that you are not writing a scholarly work. One must be careful to define what one’s work is doing and what it owes to the work done by others.

One might also raise here the question of the productivity requirements of the current university. Scholarly work takes time and effort. It is a slow process. One cannot turn out work in the same quantities as can be produced by journalistic processes. A minority of scholars are able to sustain combined levels of enormous quantity and quality (Foucault is a case in point) but for most it is a slow and difficult task of research, verification and organization of ideas.

Scholarly work is essential in order to guarantee certain standards of truth and accuracy, of value to the social body. But popular books are also essential to communicate ideas to a non-specialist general public. It is a matter of two different types of work and there have long been debates over the relative status of each. Popular writers heap scorn on dusty academicism and academic writers deplore the facility of popular writers. In the case of Attali’s work, however, it would appear the author was making claims to a scholarship that had in fact been undertaken by others.

Foucault is making the point that whatever one decides to write, from an ethical point of view, one needs to make its relation to other works quite clear and not try to pretend that it is something that it is not. A book does not stand alone, it is intrinsically bound up in a social network of work done by others.

One thought on “Foucault and writing 2

  1. ancient regime says:

    Eh… yes, stating the self evident is always interesting…Ah no, joking there actually. But one sentence in the above I find highly interesting, I think Foucault would as well: “Scholarly work is essential in order to guarantee certain standards of truth and accuracy, of value to the social body.”.


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