Foucault in the Panopticon
In 1958, the 32-year-old philosopher Michel Foucault arrived in Poland to assume the directorship of the Centre Français in Warsaw. Less than a year later, he abruptly left the country. According to a rumor that circulated for years, this rapid exit was precipitated by a sexual liaison with a young man who turned out to be on the payroll of the communist state’s secret police. Amid the minor scandal that ensued, the French embassy requested Foucault’s resignation and departure from Poland. His biographers have treated this Polish sojourn and the incident that brought it to an end as a footnote to his early career, covering it in a few pages.
In Foucault in Warsaw, first published in Polish in 2017 and now available in an English translation by Sean Gasper Bye, the philosopher Remigiusz Ryziński reconstructs this brief phase of Foucault’s life on the basis of interviews, research in the copious files of the communist-era secret police, and speculation. The result is a hybrid work of literary reportage: part oral history, part archival detective story, part spy narrative, and part intellectual biography. The book is both the fragmentary story of Foucault’s time in Warsaw and the story of Ryziński’s effort to make sense of what really happened.
Ryziński elevates this narrative beyond mere biographical curiosity by using Foucault’s experiences as a window into the secret history of gay life behind the Iron Curtain. Foucault had little to say about his time in Poland, so Ryziński’s reconstruction relies heavily on the recollections of several men the French philosopher came into contact with while there. In the process of narrating their lives, he also makes the case that Foucault’s thinking was shaped by his contact with these young men and the clandestine subculture they inhabited.
Foucault is perhaps best known for his account of the panopticon, a model prison first devised by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The panopticon was a circular multi-level building in which cells were arranged around a central observation tower. Since the inhabitants of the cells never know when a guard might be observing them, they must assume they are always being watched and act accordingly. For Foucault, the panopticon illustrated the functioning of the “disciplinary apparatuses” characteristic of modern societies—a category in which he included not only prisons, asylums, and military barracks but also
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