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  • The Politics of Anonymity: Foucault, Feminism, and Gender Non-conforming Prisoners
  • Perry Zurn

Throughout the late twentieth century, a number of post-structuralist thinkers put out a relatively sustained call for the practice of anonymity. The idea here was to escape the confines of identity, resist the restraints of administrative bureaucracy, and to become someone new or think something else entirely. Over the years, this call has been thoroughly critiqued by feminists, critical race theorists, and others committed to a politics of difference.1 From their perspective, the call to anonymity belies the intense privilege of those unfamiliar with the inescapable visibility, coupled with deep ignorance, so well known to marginalized people. Michel Foucault is one of these espousers of anonymity. It is my aim in this essay, however, to complicate his account, showing lines of connection or sympathy with a politics of difference. I do so by analyzing his involvement in a 1970s activist cell called the Prisons Information Group. The Prisons Information Group (Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons, the GIP) aimed to “give [prisoners] the floor,” thereby publicizing information about the prison from within it. The GIP utilized anonymity as a tactic of resistance against institutionalized forms of naming. But they equally used naming as a tactical resistance against institutionalized forms of anonymity. By analyzing this group’s use of anonymity, I develop a critical account of anonymity—one sensitive to the differential politics involved in the chosen or forced renunciation of a name. I then use my analysis of the [End Page 27] GIP’s call to tactical specificity to investigate issues of anonymity peculiar to LGBT prisoners. In this way, I aim not only to reinterpret Foucault’s seemingly blanket literary call to anonymity as a tactical resistance to the authorial name, but to contribute to the critical evaluation of anonymity and naming as practices of resistance within and beyond the prison.

The Call to Anonymity

The post-structural critique of names and its correlate call to anonymity stem from a fundamental destabilization of the subject, authorship, and therefore language. Paradigms here include Derrida’s description of the “endless desertification of language” (1995, 56), Deleuze’s summons to “depersonalization” (1983, 7) or “becoming imperceptible” (2005, 279–83), and Rancière’s endorsement of “becoming-anonymous” (2005, 81–88). Foucault is also a champion of anonymity. Although traceable across his career, it is perhaps best expressed in his 1980 interview for Le Monde, “The Masked Philosopher.” Here, Foucault diagnoses French philosophy as “failing,” because it occurs exclusively under the auspices of “intellectuals,” who tout their individual theories more than they engage critically and creatively with the world. In an attempt to perform this diagnosis, Foucault insists that his name not be appended to Le Monde’s piece. Foucault explains his choice as follows: “Why did I suggest that we use anonymity? Out of nostalgia for a time when, being quite unknown, what I said had some chance of being heard” (1997a, 321). Foucault had some faith that, without his then notorious name overshadowing, clarifying, or even explaining away his words, those words might inspire his readers to think differently, and in that sense the activity might rise to the title of “philosophy.” Anonymity, for Foucault then, is a precondition of philosophy. It facilitates the sort of systematic agitation necessary to think differently so as to act diagonally across the social fabric (1997b, 138).

Overwhelmingly, Foucault’s references to anonymity are literary in nature. In every period of his work, he proposes to write anonymously. Nevertheless, Foucault’s penchant for anonymity is perhaps memorialized in the popular imagination not by his authorial desires but by his bodily practices of sex, drugs, and the baths. Citing his 1978 interview “The Gay Science” (2011), biographer David Macey notes, “[Foucault] relished the anonymity afforded by saunas and bath-houses where ‘you stop being imprisoned inside your own face, your own past, your own identity,’ where ‘it’s not the assertion of identity that’s important’” (1993, xv). Certainly, Foucault’s literary and physical experiments with anonymity must be placed within the larger context of practices of the self. In his development of these practices, Foucault...


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