Foucault published posthumously

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Amy Federer studies with Michel Foucault’s “A History of Sexuality.” Photo by Marquel Plavan.

Recently, the New York Times reported that Michel Foucault’s final, unfinished book, “Confessions of the Flesh,” was recently published in France.

The French historian’s work on power, history, sexuality and the caustic entangle-
ments of the three has taken an almost scriptural position in the postmodern canon.
He was — along with Deleuze and Derrida — one of the high priests of 20th century French thought, and his work seems unceasingly relevant to anyone who takes postmodernism seriously. Love him or hate him, he must be dealt with.

And so the publication of “Confessions of the Flesh” is, unsurprisingly, a scholarly event. Complicating the publication, however, were Foucault’s own instructions that the work never be published. According to The New York Times, “What [Foucault] left behind instead [of a proper will] was a letter that prohibited the publication of any of his writing after his death. This letter also made it clear that he intended to bequeath his apartment and everything within it, including the material related to his unfinished book, to [his partner] Mr. [Daniel] Defert.” It was the decision of Mr. Defert and Foucault’s family that the book should be published.

The question therefore poses itself: should a book be published after its author’s death if that author stated explicitly that the work be kept private?

In this quandary, Foucault joins a long and esteemed tradition of writers who asked that their unfinished masterpieces be expunged from the pages of history: Virgil, before dying of fever, instructed Augustus to destroy his “Aeneid”; and Kafka, before dying of tuberculosis, told his friend and literary executor Max Brod that his unfinished works should be consigned to the flames. Of course both Augustus and Brod blithely ignored the author’s instructions, and we have all benefited from their abdication. Can we imagine a world without the “Aeneid,” without Kafka’s novels? But the more pertinent question, it seems to
me, is this: not, Should we publish it? but, How should we publish it?

This question, too, has precedent. After Nietzsche’s death in 1900, his works — finished and unfinished — were left in the care of his sister, Elisabeth För ster-Nietzsche.
While Nietzsche himself explicitly abhorred antisemitism and nationalism, Elisabeth, a member of the Nazi party, reworked his writings to fit her ideology. And it was her reworking, and not his own writing, that made Nietzsche into the philosopher of the Nazis.

Clearly, this is one of the more extreme cases of editorial malfeasance, but there is no reason to suspect that Foucault’s post-humous work will suffer a similar fate. If anything, the circulation of Foucault’s final work will bring more, not less, clarity to his historical project. Or as Mr. Defert himself has said, “What is this privilege given to Ph.D. students? I have adopted this principle: It is either everybody or nobody.”

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