Book Review: Foucault’s ‘Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling’

by Rosie Smith

Book Review: ‘Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling’ by Michel Foucault (2014).


Michel Foucault’s 1981 Louvain lecture series ‘Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling’ is a wonderfully insightful book. It provides a detailed examination of the role of truth-telling throughout antiquity and its development into a key stone of contemporary European juridical proceedings. Specifically, Foucault investigates, within the discourse of criminal law and criminal justice, the use of ‘avowal’ as a particular form of truth-telling; the process through which an individual identifies themselves as the criminal subject, rather than merely as the author of a crime. Foucault guides the reader through the history of truth-telling within society, how it is constructed and how it affects power, knowledge, and the subject. Using vivid historical, philosophical and literary examples, Foucault constructs a coherent genealogy of the subject (Brion and Bernard, 1981: 271), and how truth-telling aids individuals’ development of a sense of self. The lectures are delivered with great zeal and open a window onto Foucault’s own politicization, particularly his involvement with the French Maoist political party, Gauche Prolétarienne, during the early 1970s. In culmination the reader is provided with an impassioned analysis of “the points where the techniques of the self are integrated into structures of coercion or domination” (1981: 300).

The inaugural lecture (April 2, 1981) introduces the theme of avowal in the context of a doctor-patient relationship during the mid-nineteenth century. The French psychiatrist, Doctor Leuret, subjected his patient to a series of ice-cold showers in the interest of producing an avowal of madness. Foucault introduces two core issues with this case; firstly the antiquity of the truth-telling/purity duality, and secondly the notion that an avowal can only exist within a power relationship. The post-enlightenment rhetoric employed here is reminiscent of ‘Discipline and Punish’ (1975) and the panopticisation of discipline, however by introducing the notion of the ‘avowal’ and the avowing subject, Foucault shows how power is created within discourses. The avowal acts as a tool for the admission of the untold and a submission to one’s superior (2014: 17). The inaugural lecture emphasises the role of the subject in their own domination, and how truth-telling in judicial and medical discourses leads to the construction of a distinct ‘self’ for the avowing subject. Avowal not only changes the reality of a given situation, it changes the understanding of oneself.

The first lecture (April 22, 1981) strengthens the argument for avowal as an altering force in professional power relationships. It uses the chariot race between Antilochus and Menelaus in Homer’s Iliad, to illustrate truth-telling as a social practice which modifies relations of power and institutional structures. Foucault interprets the race as a demonstration of truth; the competitors vary greatly in their ability and thus, in essence, it is not a fair race. Herein, it serves only as a dramatization of an order of truth that is predetermined by the gods. Alas, when Antilochus fails to slow down and allow Menelaus, the anticipated victor, to win, the truth is not revealed. To redress the unexpected altercation Antilochus must issue a truth statement; from a struggle (the agōn), a judicial procedure is born. Nevertheless, Antilochus refuses to take the oath, as it would mean the agōn would remain a dispute, and “transfer the agonistic structure from man to the gods” (2014: 41); from Menelaus to Zeus. In doing so, Antilochus enacts a quasi-avowal; he renounces the struggle rather than admits a fault to a judicial body. This subtle variation gives Foucault the opportunity to demonstrate how an avowal, and truth-telling more generally, do not need to be verbalised (as an admission of fault), but can be an action which allows the truth manifest itself. Applying the avowal to the competition detaches the concept from institutional discourses in such a way that clarifies the exact role and purpose of truth telling in society; a bridge between the subject and power (2014: 283).

The second lecture (April 28, 1981) brings in a new component. It reflects on Sophocles’s ‘Oedipus Rex’, to present evidence for the mechanism of recognition (anagnorisis) in truth-telling, that is, individual recognition; the emergence of truth in the subject, and chorus recognition; the emergence of the truth in citizens. Despite its historicity, one can draw strong correlations between Oedipus’s (subject) recognition, and the chorus’s (societal) recognition, to techniques employed by the mass media to invoke public opinion on issues including crime, culture, and politics. Indeed the value of lecture two is how it brings the theory into the contemporary; the ease with which parallels can be drawn validates a theory which could otherwise be accused of being obsolete.

The third (April 29), fourth (May 6), and fifth (May 13) lectures all concern the religiosity-avowal binary, and will therefore be discussed collectively. This section raises some fascinating questions about avowal as an expressive and symbolic manifestation of the self and how religion became juridified. These issues are situated firstly in early Christianity; Foucault identifies avowal as a means of penance after sinning to cleanse the soul. Similarly in the monastic cultures of the fourth and fifth centuries, individuals sought guidance and knowledge from a master, a sentiment clarified in the proverb “he who has no director- he who is not directed, falls like a dead leaf” (2014: 134). Thus, in both cases truth-telling about oneself became an indispensable condition for subjection to a relationship of power with another. Through the verbalization of the truth, one destroys oneself as a self, and projects oneself onto, and at, the mercy of another.

The sixth lecture (May 20, 1981) converges upon the increasing role of the avowal in judicial institutions after the twelfth century. Avowal became intricately linked to legal proof, and held the largest relative weight of any element of evidence in a case. Foucault alludes to the cementation of avowal within legal discourses during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It became an explicit tool in the regime of truth, and was employed as a means of getting the subject to recognise the principles and authority of penal law and sovereignty. To acknowledge the rule of the state is a prerequisite for acknowledging oneself as the subject of a criminal. Foucault uses rhetoric of avowal and truth-telling to cleanly identify the point at which criminal culpability and subjectivity became an integral part of criminal proceedings; the subject and their life were made accountable, and in turn, crime was made rational. Truth-telling facilitated the amalgamation of the archetypal, interpersonal accusatory procedure in law, and the sovereign, hermeneutic, inquisitorial procedure, from which the judge began to ask “Don’t just tell me what you did, without telling me, at the same time…who you are” (2014: 214).

To conclude, ‘Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling’ is truly a satisfying, and illuminating read and deserves all the praise it receives. As an orator Foucault is captivating; he draws upon unique historical examples to construct a theory that is rich in knowledge and has a breadth of study that does not fail to impress. A great sense of passion and enthusiasm emanates from the book, and at the heart of this, is the centrality with which Foucault places the subject. In doing so there is a considerable personal element to the lectures; one is invited into Foucault’s politicized, historical world view, whilst simultaneously one empathises with the plight of the avowing subject. One of its greatest strengths comes from its accessibility; the direct translation of Foucault’s vernacular speech opens up his theories in a way that transports the reader into the audience to which Foucault was speaking.

In his interview with André Berton, Foucault describes how “within human practices, there is a moment when, in one sense, what is obvious becomes muddied, the lights go out, evening comes, and…as a result, a new light is necessary” (2014: 244). This imagery encompasses the effect of ‘Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling’ on the historical role of truth-telling and its influence on the self. The lectures are a new light within the fields of critical philosophy, criminal law, and criminal justice.


Rosie Smith is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of York. Her research looks at ‘spectacular justice’ and challenges the Foucauldian panoptic privatisation theory of justice. She is interested primarily in crime, justice, media, and Foucauldian theory.

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