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Michel Foucault on the Right to Keep Secrets


In 1971, Michel Foucault gave an interview for German television, with the anarchist Fons Elders, who would later moderate the debate between Foucault and Chomsky, —for which, it is important to mention, Foucault obtained part of his payment in hashish—. The recent reappearance of the interview on Youtube, believed to have been lost for over thirty years, summarizes the foundations of Foucaultian thought. In the 15 minutes that have been recovered (the original interview lasted more than two hours), Foucault speaks about his interest in psychology and psychopathology, and explains how until the eighteenth century “crazy” people were able to move freely throughout Europe, being portrayed in literature and art, but without being noticed by medicine. It was not until illustrated thought was spread that sanatoriums were filled with the “mentally ill”, whether or not they posed a threat to society, which brought about the emergence of psychiatric hospitals. The universality of human knowledge, according to Foucault, has been reached because of exclusion, rejection and denial:

I was wondering whether we, as Westerners, are fooling ourselves to a great extent. We are willing to imagine that we are a tolerating society, that we have welcomed all the forms of the past, all the cultural forms that are foreign to us, that we welcome behavior, language and sexual deviances. I wonder if this is an illusion… in other words, if with the purpose of knowing insanity we must first exclude the insane. Perhaps we could say that with the purpose of knowing other cultures […] undoubtedly, we have had to not only marginalize them, not just look down on them over our shoulder, but also exploit them, conquer them and in a way, through violence, keep them silenced.

After developing his criticism of nineteenth-century psychiatry, to which, even in the midst of the twenty-first century, we are still subjected to, Foucault speaks of his understanding of drugs: “The finality of drugs is that of questioning the place of knowledge in the world”, he asserts. It is well known that the philosopher experimented with several kinds of drugs throughout his life and he was harshly criticized for it. In this interview, far from justifying recreational consumption, he proposes them as the dilatant of consciousness that enables philosophical reflection.

The sole condition which Foucault set in order to give this interview, Foucault asked Elders to not discuss his private life and avoid all sorts of biographical details. When he was asked about this decision, he answered: “You are asking me why I do not want to talk about my private life, however, I’ve been talking about my private life for two hours”. And that is because if freedom, equality, dignity and awareness of the other are not profoundly personal subjects, then we should truly reassess what intimacy means to us.

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