"A Case, an Affair, an Event" (the Dossier by Michel Foucault)
Chrostowska, S. D., CLIO
Throughout the 1970s, Michel Foucault compiled numerous archival documents as dossiers. He incorporated many of these into his lectures and prepared some for publication. (1) Likewise, his long-term collaborative projects with historians resulted in several annotated archival anthologies. (2) Two such dossiers published in book form--I, Pierre Riviere ... and Herculine Barbin--revolve around a mysterious, "masked" individual whose unmasking was once imperative from medical, legal, and moral standpoints. Foucault's use of dossiers in his historical research, however, raises a number of epistemological and methodological questions. What is the knowledge engendered by dossiers concerning individuals? Can one reconcile their institutional lineage and continued role in producing cases with their part in the writing of history?
Although Foucault did not theorize the dossier as a historiographic genre, his continued interest in collecting and publishing material as dossiers evinces an implicit trust in the power of this form to establish an alternative discursive order. The ordering or reordering of documents representing different discourses was meant to facilitate another understanding of discursive relations without leading to definitive conclusions. Dossiers could effectively demonstrate Foucault's ideas about the ways various discourses were deployed, worked, and interacted. His association of texts within dossiers became the provision of primary sources for genealogy--which, as Jan Goldstein points out, "was, after all, Foucault's 'substitute' for history in its traditional guise." (3) This purpose is expressed in his foreword to the Riviere dossier:
I think that what committed us to the work, despite our differences of interests and approaches, was that it was a "dossier," that is to say, a case, an affair, an event that provided the intersection of discourses that differed in origin, form, organization and function ... But in their totality and their variety they form neither a composite work nor an exemplary text, but rather a strange contest, a confrontation, a power relation, a battle among discourses and through discourses.... I think the reason we decided to publish these documents was to draw a map, so to speak, of those combats, to reconstruct these confrontations and battles, to rediscover the interaction of those discourses as weapons of attack and defence in the relations of power and knowledge. (4)
These expectations, voiced more strongly in the instance of the Riviere dossier but equally applicable to that of Barbin, make Foucault's published use of the dossier genre a topic worthy of reflection.
Foucault's 1974-1975 lecture course at the College de France focused on human abnormality, especially its three types prevalent in the nineteenth century: individual monstrosity (physical or moral/psychological), masturbation, and undiscipline. The lectures offered "a very clear trace" of several dossiers (on medico-legal expert opinion, on the human monster, on onanism) and of two manuscripts. (5) The first of these manuscripts concerned the practices of confession and spiritual direction; the second addressed the question of hermaphroditism in medico-legal literature and appeared to be an "extension of the dossier on monsters" (but intended either for a projected volume of the History of Sexuality or as part of a volume on the Perverse [333-44]). The editors of Foucault's lecture series make a point of qualifying that "dossiers" refers to "the collections of notes classified by Foucault and preserved by Daniel Defert," and "manuscripts," to the '"dossiers' in which the notes and commentaries by Foucault appear, no doubt in preparation for future publication" (334, 339). One may infer from the glosses and description of these works-in-progress that, if published, the texts would closely resemble in aim the dossiers of Riviere and Barbin: minimally annotated examples of discourses and their function, as well as of the quality of archival material available to historians. More importantly, dossier-making emerges as a supplement to Foucault's research, and the liaisons he forged with historians for this purpose demanded substantial firsthand involvement.
In his preamble to the dossier of Herculine Barbin, Foucault makes reference to his earlier project: "An exhaustive documentation, like the one that was made for Pierre Riviere, will not be found here." (6) The dossier of the French hermaphrodite (1838-1868) consists solely of "some of the principal documents"; while that of the French parricide (1815-1840) contains "all the material evidence in the case ... we could find written by or about Pierre Riviere, whether in print or in manuscript" (Herculine Barbin, 119; Pierre Riviere, xii). The comparison and evident disparity are noteworthy, since they draw attention to the makeup of both publications: as products of archival research they were drawn from and drew on archival sources; their contents were culled and ordered in keeping with a set of specific criteria; the individual texts comprising them were not initially intended for "re-issue" for a lay audience, published not side-by-side but separately (both geographically and historically) and compiled only later, or published in another order than they are now; and, lastly, they are the result of a series of (re)constructions.
Foucault comments on the original publication of the assorted documents pertaining to both cases as follows. The report on the Riviere case, published in the Annales d'hygiene publique et de medicine legale (Annals of public hygiene and legal medicine) in 1836, "comprised a summary of the facts and the medico-legal experts' reports. There were, however, a number of unusual features about it," notably three divergent medical reports--"each with a different status within the medical institution"--a "fairly large collection of court exhibits including statements by witnesses," and Riviere's memoir ("but published there only in part and with some errors") (Pierre Riviere, vii, xiv). The memoir was first published as a pamphlet in 1835, the year of the trial. The pamphlet contained the version printed later in the Annales (xiv). Auguste Tardieu's report on Barbin--also the first part of his Question medico-legale de l'identite dans ses rapports avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuels (Medico-legal question of identity in relation to the structural defects of the sexual organs)--appeared in the Annales in 1872. Barbin's memoirs appeared in a much abbreviated form in the second part of the Question (Herculine Barbin, 119).
The construction and historicity of the two dossiers raise, in turn, specific questions about the status and function of such official, institution-bound ensembles of texts centered on a (human) subject--dossiers, but also case studies, case histories, case files. Moreover, if the material in each dossier is framed by Foucault as a historical study--an act which overwrites its meaning to its legitimating institutions--what category of inquiry does such manipulation constitute? What problems or possibilities attach to dossiers as sets of historical evidence? In other words: what are their uses, what their misuses? These are undoubtedly important questions at a time consecrated to the massive gathering of personal data. I will …
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Publication information: Article title: "A Case, an Affair, an Event" (the Dossier by Michel Foucault). Contributors: Chrostowska, S. D. - Author. Journal title: CLIO. Volume: 35. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2006. Page number: 329+. © 1998 Indiana University, Purdue University of Fort Wayne. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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