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. He abruptly fled the country less than one year later. According to long-standing rumors, his sudden departure was caused by an affair with a young man on the payroll at the communist state’s sec police. The French Embassy demanded Foucault’s resignation amid the small scandal. This Polish stay and the events that led to it were a mere footnote in Foucault’s early career. His biographers only covered it for a couple of pages.

 Foucault at 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. It is part literary reportage, part spy story, part oral history and part detective story in archival files. 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. As he recounts their stories, Ryzinski also points out that Foucault’s thought was formed by his interaction with the young men of the clandestine subculture.

Foucault may be best remembered for his description of the panopticon. This model prison was first designed by Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian philosopher. Panopticon was an open-air, circular building with multiple levels in which cells were placed around an observation tower. The cells’ inhabitants do not know when guards might be watching them so they assume that they will always be being observed and take the appropriate actions. 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 schools, factories, and hospitals. He argued these institutions do not monitor their subjects at all but rather by leading them into the eyes of authority.

Ryziński pored over the archives of Communist Poland’s most notable surveillance apparatus—the secret police—for more than a year, searching for traces of Foucault’s time in the country. His investigations eventually led him to documents about the man who had an affair with Foucault, which resulted in the former’s expulsion. The man’s name, he determined, was Jurek, and he was indeed a police informant—and not the only one operating amid the circles of gay men the philosopher encountered.

While homosexuality was not strictly forbidden in Communist Poland’s Communist Party, the state maintained extensive files on all those who were involved. The motive of the state was not moral condemnation but concern for their potential subversive effect. Ryziński quotes a secret police document that states: “Like Freemasonry in former times, homosexuality remains an underground activity in all societies….Persecuted from the outside, homosexuals feel solidarity with one another (like every persecuted minority). People with opposing worldviews are connected by the community of perversion. According to the document, gays can recognize each other using signs, behavior, and expressions that are not obvious to others. The danger of homosexuality was not the actual act, but its consequences: close in-group solidarity and creation of an indecipherable argot. As Ryziński observes, “compiling a list of homosexuals could be the same as compiling a list of ‘enemies of the nation.'”

Foucault, contrary to popular belief, argued that the goal of panoptic surveillance is not to eradicate transgressions. Because the expansion and perpetuation of power is a constant source of resistance, this is why it can be so difficult to eliminate transgressions. Similarly, Ryziński suggests that the systematic police infiltration of Warsaw’s gay male demimonde did not entail an effort to stamp out homosexuality. Authorities could use a subversive culture to their advantage. They could, in the words of one document that Ryziński quotes, “be taken advantage of operationally.” One example is the apparent use of young informants in expulsion of an intellectually-problematic French academic. This illustrates how power was cultivated.

Ryziński argues that Foucault’s experiences in Poland directly influenced the elaboration of this and other notable theories. Foucault only had one book published when he arrived. Mental Illness and PsychologyHe later disavowed this belief. He completed his major work in Warsaw that would define his future as an adult thinker. History of MadnessHe published his first French edition of, two years after leaving Poland. “Madness,” Ryziński notes, “was a category of social exclusion in the same way as homosexuality.” Ryzinski argues that this is the case.History of Madness was Foucault’s attempt to understand himself.”

According to Ryziński, Foucault’s encounters with Poland’s heavily policed gay community informed his scholarly examination of the treatment of the insane. “Madness and homosexuality are similar to one another,” Ryziński writes, because as “long as there is no knowledge about them—medical, statistical, political—they do not exist. They are simply left alone. In contrast, “the secret police agents collected material about gay people to find a pathology which would allow them to be certain that everything was under their control.” You are not. [History of Madness]Foucault referred to the same mechanism when he was describing madness. Foucault believes that power and knowledge are not mutually exclusive. Foucault argued that social exclusion and medical classification have been a part of human history for a long time.

These key ideas are not only a suggestive description of Foucault’s genesis, but also this. Foucault at Warsaw offers new insights into the evolution of the philosopher’s politics. Foucault has been referred to by right-leaning people as one among a group of European leftists who led intellectuals wrongly in the 60s. Foucault had more complicated political views. Foucault was briefly an associate of the French Communist Party years before his move to Warsaw. But throughout his adulthood, he was critical “really existing socialistism” as well as its Western defenders. He petitioned for the Solidarity independent Polish labor union in the 1980s. After more than twenty years, he was part of humanitarian assistance mission to Poland. Ryziński’s account suggests that his early run-in with a communist state helped infuse him with a skepticism of Marxism not shared by most of his French intellectual contemporaries.

For Ryziński, though, the hero of Foucault at Warsaw is less the philosopher than the otherwise unknown young Polish men Foucault met in the late ’50s. In his research for the book, Ryziński managed to track down several of them. It seems that they had not given much thought to the French student who once lived in their circle. These men persevered through decades of oppression, marginality and surveillance and eventually found love and friendship amongst each other. Their quiet perseverance, Ryziński implies, evokes an enigmatic phrase from Foucault’s History of MadnessThis serves as his epigraph: “The stubborn, bright Sun of Polish liberty.”

Foucault in Warsaw, by Remigiusz Ryziński, translated by Sean Gasper Bye, Open Letter, 220 pages, $15.95