Michel Foucault as an activist intellectual

Foucault's 1982 - 3 lectures presented his thoughts on the subject of parrhesia, or the truth-telling subject. He found himself confronting governments through speech acts in ways that we have yet to understand.

Engin Isin
13 November 2015
Foucault portrait. Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.

Foucault portrait. Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was one of the most influential intellectuals of our era. His work on sites of power-knowledge such as asylums, schools, hospitals, prisons, and factories continue to resonate and inspire empirical-political work in sociology, politics, geography, anthropology, as well as gender studies, international studies, urban studies, citizenship studies, postcolonial studies, and, cultural studies.

Until recently, perhaps with support from how Foucault occasionally portrayed himself as an archivist, a bookish image of him prevailed. With the publication of his many lectures and speeches in Dits et Ecrits (1994) a rather different image of Foucault emerged. We have yet to name this image – I would be inclined to call it ‘activist intellectual’ as opposed to ‘public intellectual’ – but it involves performing as a speaking subject in interviews, press conferences, meetings, gatherings, and other sites where the task is ‘confronting governments’.

In these performances ‘government’ is neither an addressee as such nor an object of analysis but something that the speaking subject confronts as a political subject.

Foucault became quite concerned about the relationship between the governed and governments. The distinction for him would not have been analytical but a strategic one. For it was he who taught us that whether in ancient Greece or modern France the exercise of power required political subjects to be both governed and governing.

Foucault taught us that the activity of governing involved both governments and the governed if not symmetrically, at least in a contesting manner. To some extent, the main analytical point he made repeatedly in different writings was that power relations traversed political subjects as transmission points rather than fixed nodes and these relations involved both governments and the governed.

But strategically, if not performatively, Foucault increasingly found himself problematizing the relationship between the governed and governments as a confrontation. And when I say he ‘found’ himself I really mean sites of power where he found himself confronting governments through speech acts. All the occasions Colin Gordon mentions in his introductory piece on these speeches involves such sites of power. And as Gordon makes it clear, there were many other such occasions.

It is important to emphasise though where Foucault seems to have developed a nuanced understanding of himself as an activist intellectual, he also seems to have consistently avoided Sermons from the Mount as an expert.

This did not mean that he would remain silent. On the contrary, he seems to have found a space where as a truth-telling subject he was indeed speaking truth to power by confronting governments, but his truth-telling seems to have avoided authorizing himself as an expert truth-telling subject.

The deliberate avoidance of any reference to his published work seems to have enabled him to practice freedom as a speaking political subject, in fact, a citizen, perhaps even a citizen to come – not only exercising his rights and duties as a political subject but also calling upon new ones by exercising them.

This is precisely why I emphasize that Foucault was practicing a nuanced performative politics as a political truth-telling subject rather than exercising judgement as an expert.

I don’t mean to suggest that Foucault somehow separated his work and speech and that his speech acts were not motivated by his work. It is just that he refused to authorise his speech acts by his expert knowledge as it might have been received. This raises the question why many of his speech acts came to light only later, so that we have begun to understand Foucault as a speaking subject relatively recently, as Philippe Artières has argued [1].

This is also why I think of his speech acts bringing into being an activist intellectual rather than a public intellectual. While the latter is authorised to bring knowledge to bear on public issues as an expert, the former engages with political events as a citizen with rights and duties.

So then reading these speech acts and Gordon’s excellent introduction to them I get the feeling that just when Foucault was indeed working in the archives on parrhesia, he was actually performing it outside. His 1982 course of lectures at the Catholic University of Louvain and 1982-1983 Lectures in Collège de France presented his thoughts on the subject of parrhesia, or the truth-telling subject [2]. To me his speech acts and his work on parrhesia are intimately related in ways that we have yet to understand.

I have written about his speech in Geneva and I consider it a significant text. In Citizens Without Frontiers I drew on the three principles that Foucault outlines in this speech [3]. I especially focused on his point that organizations such as Amnesty International and Medécins du Monde have created new rights to act across borders. I thought Foucault would have been intrigued by the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by James Orbinsky, then director of Médecins Sans Frontières, when he said ‘. . . we push the political to assume its inescapable responsibility’ [4]. Arguably, as I more recently argued, this speech had a significant performative force [5].

I consider the two speech acts that Colin Gordon has beautifully rendered into English here are two examples of Foucault’s parrhesia. The speech in Geneva is an illustration of how Foucault makes connections between here and there and then and now by crossing these boundaries, and by bringing a political subject into being through the solidarity of the governed. The interview affirms the solidarity that the speech urges: it places it in a context that grounds it.



[1] Foucault, Michel. Speech Begins after Death: In Conversation with Claude Bonnefoy ed. Philippe Artières, trans. Robert Bononno (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[2] Foucault, Michel. Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice ed. Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt, trans. Stephen W. Sawyer (University of Chicago Press, 2014); Foucault, Michel. The Courage of the Truth (The Government of Self and Others II): Lectures at the Collège De France, 1983-1984 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[3] Isin, Engin F. 2012. Citizens without Frontiers. London: Bloomsbury. Also see Golder, Ben. ‟Foucault and the Unfinished Human of Rights.” Law, Culture and the Humanities 6, 3 (2010): 354-74 and Whyte, Jessica. 2012. “Human Rights: Confronting Governments?: Michel Foucault and the Right to Intervene.” In New Critical Legal Thinking, edited by Matthew Stone, Illan rua Wall and Costas Douzinas, 11-31. London: Routledge 

[4] Orbinski, J. 1999. Oslo Nobel Lecture: Médecins Sans Frontières, 10 December 1999 [cited 6 November 2015]. Source: http://goo.gl/9XzR6.

[5] Isin, Engin F. 2016. “Enacting International Citizenship.” In Transversal Lines in IR: Perspectives from IPS, edited by Didier Bigo, RBJ Walker, Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet and Tugba Basaran. London: Routledge.



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