The GIP: “information gathering” and active intolerance as a political strategy

At a press conference in Paris on 8th February 1971, Michel Foucault announced the formation of the Information Group on Prisons (GIP). The radical nature of GIP “information gathering” and information distribution encapsulated the organisation’s political strategy of active intolerance; a strategy that transcended the established gulf between prisoners and those on the outside.

The GIP arose in a politically turbulent France, following the volatile period of protests, strikes and demonstration in May 1968. In the resulting government crackdown, several intellectuals, students, members and former members of the Maoist Proletarian Left were incarcerated. They carried out two hunger strikes in September 1970 and January 1971, appealing for their right to be treated as political prisoners and granted political status accordingly. It was during the highly-publicised second wave of strikes that Michel Foucault began taking an interest[1], and on the final day of strikes, the GIP was formed.

Signed by Jean-Marie Domenach, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Michel Foucault, the document read out by Foucault on 8th February 1971 was later dubbed the Manifesto of the GIP. The organisation was presented as one attending to the voices of prisoners that had otherwise been silenced. Their purpose was to collect and distribute descriptions of the intolerable prison conditions, given by the prisoners themselves[2]. The GIP appealed to the public to become actively intolerant, specifically of the intolerable condition in prisons – but also more broadly of disciplinary society – to the same degree that the prisons were intolerable for those inside them.

a)

The unique element of this was the organisation’s desire to provide a space for the prisoners to speak for themselves, rather than to make information about conditions in the prisons available to the public purely through the lens of detached, expert discourse. This demonstrated a radical reconceptualization of the role and parameters of the intellectual within the public sphere. In an interview with Gilles Deleuze in 1972, Foucault discusses the indignity of speaking for other people and confronts the intellectual’s tendency to theorize from a distance on what people can say very well themselves when given a platform[3]. Rather than existing in separateness, the intellectual should become an “accomplice”[4] within the structures of power inherent in disciplinary society, most clearly represented by the prison, though also – according to Foucault – at work in other institutions with surveillance needs outside the prison system[5]. For the GIP, this began through the illegal distribution of questionnaires – written by the prisoners themselves – to the prisoners, by means of family members, lawyers, social workers and other former prisoners[6], and through active intolerance in GIP scholarship and action.

        b)

These are two example pages of one of the only questionnaires conserved. It was published in the review Esprit – increasingly a platform for the Second Left – in June 1971. Jean-Marie Domenach – one of the co-signatories of the GIP Manifesto – was the editor of Esprit between 1957 and 1976. The questionnaires tackled a range of topics, such as visits, rights, work and exercise. The questions are not leading, which was crucial for attaining responses that were as truthful as possible. The format taken by the questionnaire is clearly carefully considered; commencing with topics such as visits and letters and ending with questions regarding punishment and the fight for prison rights by those on the exterior. This strategy permitted the prisoner to have critically reflected on their experiences inside before coming to consider what should be fought for on the outside.

It is important to emphasise the radicality of this “information gathering” as done by the GIP. People ran huge risks by taking in and circulating questionnaires. In responding to the questions, the prisoners themselves – as incarcerated, separated individuals – were engaging in a radical, collaborative action of solidarity. Given the strict prison regulations regarding contact with other prisoners, separation and contact with the world on the exterior[7], the questionnaires should be regarded as a political act and a struggle from within, with the aim to upset the regulations on information sharing inherent in the carceral system. In her critique of the methods behind the GIP questionnaires, Cecile Brich argues that the privileging of the written medium invariably excluded those who were illiterate or non-native French speakers[8]. To avoid this charge, however, members of the GIP would have themselves had to go into the prisons to ask the questions, which would have raised a spectrum of issues: trust, the problem of anonymity and a betrayal of the GIP’s own alleged purpose as purely a facilitating group for circulating information.

   c)

The responses formed the basis for Intolérable (1971-1973): a series of four important booklets that must be considered together with the questionnaires to understand the GIP’s strategic manipulation of the mass media. Above is an excerpt from the second, Le GIP enquête dans une prison-modèle: Fleury-Mérogis. It was published in La Cause du peuple – a press organ for the Proletarian Left – on 7th June 1971. The intimate tone of address establishes a proximity between the reader and the prisoners. This licenses the reader to transcend the physical walls – shown in the pictures –and to think with prisoners, rather than about them, blurring the us and them dichotomy so previously entrenched in conversation about the prison system. Regarding the spacing, both the written account and the dramatic photographs of the prison walls from the exterior are hierarchically important. This forces the reader to consider them simultaneously, and the interrelationship of text and image brings them to a conceptual understanding that there are humans trapped within those walls, and to consider the degree to which they lack basic freedoms.

The bold title “LA PRISON MODELE: SEUL 23H SUR 24” builds on this newly established conceptual understanding, and calls to the inherently social nature of human beings to quickly elucidate the intolerability of prison conditions and move the reader to action. This statement appears three times on the same page in different sizes, forcing the reader to confront the issue over and over as opposed to leaving it to occur unexposed behind the prison walls. Brich argues that the resulting publications were heavily framed by the GIP political agenda, rather than a neutral reflection of the experiences reported by the prisoners[9]. However, this analysis fails to emphasise the GIP’s intention to use the experiences of prisoners as a means to generate mass intolerance towards the prison system as a whole, and to transform this into active intolerance. Thus, it is a mistake to expect neutrality from the GIP as an organisation, and it should rather be viewed in the context of political activism.

Key to the success of the GIP was their strategic utilisation of questionnaires to unsettle the structures of information sharing within the prison itself, and the channelling of these responses through mediums that gave the organisation the chance to put forward their political agenda to the public. Within a year of the creation of the GIP, the prison issue had firmly become a matter of public concern and revolts erupted throughout the French prison system; supported on the outside through the organisation’s cultivation of active intolerance as a political strategy.

 

References:

  1. Macey, D., The Lives of Michel Foucault, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), pp.262
  2. Artières, P., Quéro, L., Zancarini-Fournel, M., Le Groupe d’Information sur les prisons. Archives d’une lutte, 1970-1972, (Paris : Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, 2003) p.43-44
  3. Deleuze, G., Foucault, M., ‘Les intellectuels et le pouvoir’ in L’Arc, no.49 (Aix-En-Provence : Au Bureau, 1972)
  4. Dilts, A., Zurn, P., Active Intolerance, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) pp.8
  5. Foucault, M., Surveiller et punir : la naissance de la prison (le panopticism), (Paris : Gallimard, 1975) pp.197-229
  6. Hoffman, M., ‘Foucault and the “Lesson” of the Prisoner Support Movement ‘in New Political Science, Vol.34, No.1, (Oxford: Taylor and Francis, 2012) pp.26
  7. Dilts, A., Zurn, P., Active Intolerance, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) pp.8
  8. Brich, C., ‘Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons: The Voice of Prisoners? Or Foucault’s?’ in Foucault Studies, No.5 (Open Journal Systems 2.4.8.1, 2008) pp.30-41
  9. Brich, C., ‘Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons: The Voice of Prisoners? Or Foucault’s?’ in Foucault Studies, No.5 (Open Journal Systems 2.4.8.1, 2008) pp.30-41

Figures:

a) Elie Kagan, ‘Michel Foucault, 17 January 1972’, [photograph] http://www.bdic.fr/collections/quels-documents/photographies?com_content=&id=99 (accessed 9th November, 2018

b) Artières, P., Quéro, L., Zancarini-Fournel, M., Le Groupe d’Information sur les prisons. Archives d’une lutte, 1970-1972, (Paris : Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, 2003) pp.55-62

c) Artières, P., Quéro, L., Zancarini-Fournel, M., Le Groupe d’Information sur les prisons. Archives d’une lutte, 1970-1972, (Paris : Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, 2003) pp.85-86

 

Further Reading :

Artières, P., Quéro, L., Zancarini-Fournel, M., Le Groupe d’Information sur les prisons. Archives d’une lutte, 1970-1972, (Paris : Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, 2003

Brich, C., ‘Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons : The Voice of Prisoners? Or Foucault’s?’ in Foucault Studies, No.5 (Open Journal Systems 2.4.8.1, 2008

Deleuze, G., Foucault, M., ‘Les intellectuels et le pouvoir’ in L’Arc, no.49 (Aix-En-Provence : Au Bureau, 1972)

Dilts, A., Zurn, P., Active Intolerance, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Foucault, M., Surveiller et punir : la naissance de la prison, (Paris : Gallimard, 1975)

Hoffman, M., ‘Foucault and the “Lesson” of the Prisoner Support Movement ‘in New Political Science, Vol.34, No.1, (Oxford: Taylor and Francis, 2012)

Macey, D., The Lives of Michel Foucault, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)

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