chapter  3
27 Pages

Pierre Rivière – a postmodern case study

In his famous 1975 interview, ‘Prison Talk’ – the one in which he expressed astonishment at the staggering inanity of criminological texts1 – Foucault was asked about his latest book, I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother. The book, an edited collection of historical documents and commentaries by Foucault and his research team, brought to light the case of a nineteenth-century French peasant who killed three members of his family in a Normandy village and then, while imprisoned awaiting his trial, wrote a memoir explaining his actions. Asked why a barely literate peasant would write such a memoir, Foucault replied that it was a ‘totally strange story’. Getting prisoners to write their memoirs was, he said, indicative of ‘the first great burst of curiosity’ about the criminal mind, a curiosity that took the form of an emergent medical and criminological obsession with a new question: ‘What is this individual who has committed this crime?’. The new impetus to encourage offenders to speak about themselves could not, however, explain how Rivière had come to write his memoir as he had planned to write it before he committed his crimes. In any event, Foucault and his research team were not really interested in the killer or his memoir. Declining to conduct ‘any kind of analysis of Rivière, whether psychological, psychoanalytical or linguistic’ – a task left to psychoanalysts and criminologists – they focused instead on exposing ‘the medical and juridical mechanisms that surround the story’. Not that this was a respectful division of intellectual labour – Foucault was contemptuous of criminological and psychiatric analyses of offenders. He was therefore pleasantly surprised that Rivière’s memoir, which had left the experts ‘silent at the time’, had ‘struck them equally dumb’ when it was published 140 years later.2