"A Case, an Affair, an Event" (the Dossier by Michel Foucault)

Article excerpt

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. …