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  • The Secret Subject: Michel Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, and the Interview as Genre
  • Whitney Arnold (bio)

My relationship to my book on Roussel, and to Roussel’s work, is something very personal. . . . I would go so far as to say that it doesn’t have a place in the sequence of my books.

—Michel Foucault, “An Interview with Michel Foucault”1

In this 1983 interview with Charles Ruas, Michel Foucault reflects on his 1963 work Raymond Roussel (translated into English as Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel).2 While Foucault often uses his interviews to paint trajectories of his thought—even characterizing his interviews as “scaffolding” holding together and plotting a course between his works—in this particular interview he insists on the differences between Death and the Labyrinth and the rest of his oeuvre. In Death and the Labyrinth—a text that has received a marked lack of critical attention—Foucault examines Roussel’s Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres (How I Wrote Certain of My Books),3 in which Roussel describes the methods he employed for structuring certain of his works.4 Foucault’s efforts to clarify Death and the Labyrinth through his interview about the text parallel Roussel’s problematic efforts to explain his texts with How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Much as Roussel veils while unveiling in his explanatory text, revealing the presence of an undisclosed “secret,” Foucault clarifies Death and the Labyrinth in the interview by pointing to what he does not reveal. He presents Death and the Labyrinth as a personal text intricately connected to his private thoughts, desires, and experiences, yet he declines to elaborate on these connections.

This essay analyzes Foucault’s interview about Death and the Labyrinth while examining his many interviews themselves as a particular body of [End Page 567] work. It explores the processes and practices of the Foucauldian interview while interrogating its disclosures. In the later interviews Foucault responds to questions concerning a turn to the subject—an issue of continued critical debate—by insisting that he has always been interested in the subject.5 He recasts earlier works in terms of current preoccupations, painting Death and the Labyrinth in light of his later work on aesthetics.6 Throughout the interviews he suggests that his texts are intricately tied to his subjectivity, yet in the Death and the Labyrinth interview, in particular, he portrays his early text as a concerted, unique work of aesthetic self-fashioning. Much as Foucault analyzes Roussel’s laborious efforts to create beauty in Death and the Labyrinth, in the interview about Death and the Labyrinth he claims that his early text incorporates and reveals his own efforts to create a beautiful life. While he puts forth a history of aesthetic practices in many of his later texts, in the Death and the Labyrinth interview he points to a personal practice of aestheticism. Mirroring the same tensions and nonrevealing revelations that he examines in Death and the Labyrinth, Foucault portrays his own subjectivity and aesthetic transformation as the veiled core and foundation of the early work.

The Foucauldian Interview

Although Foucault’s interviews often appear in scholarly analyses, little work has been done on the Foucauldian interview itself.7 However, critics, as well as Foucault, assert the significance of the interview in Foucault’s body of work. Paul A. Bové observes that “many of Foucault’s most telling statements” appear in his interviews, and Gilles Deleuze declares, “If Foucault’s interviews form an integral part of his work, it is because they extend the historical problematization of each of his books into the construction of the present problem.”8 The interviews work to tie together his earlier and current texts. Foucault himself states of his interviews, “[They] tend to be reflections on a finished book that may help me to define another possible project. They are something like a scaffolding that serves as a link between a work that is coming to an end and another one that’s about to begin.”9

The interviews speak to prominent critical debates about Foucault’s thought: while scholars have disputed the methodological soundness of using a biographical lens...


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