Theses Doctoral

The “Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons”: French Intellectuals and Activism Post May ’68

Courtois, Kalinka

My dissertation brings a new historical perspective and a theoretical reflection on 1970s French intellectuals’ activism and relationship to power and politics through the history of the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP), a group of activists who decided to make the hermetic border between the societal space and the prisons more porous.

The GIP, founded in 1970 by Michel Foucault, Jean-Marie Domenach, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and including thinkers and writers like Hélène Cixous, Daniel Defert, Gilles Deleuze, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet, aimed at providing information on carceral conditions in France and in the United States. These intellectuals interviewed prisoners, family members, guards, and published their findings in pamphlets to spread awareness about the inhumane conditions prisoners were forced to live in.

Thanks to the work of Artières, Zancarini-Fournel, Harcourt, Zurn and Dilts's work, the GIP slowly emerges from the shadows. However, very few of the Anglophone articles and books dedicated to the group look at the GIP from a French and European historical and philological perspective, underlining the specificity of this group and activism in French intellectual history.

My dissertation thus aspires to highlight and better understand the place of the GIP in contemporary French history, history of French activism, prison history as well as in French intellectual history. As the GIP archives are currently being translated into English, my work reveals the historical intricacies of this group with French contemporary events (such as the events of May '68), and its relationship to other forms of activism in the 1970s: feminist activism, legal activism, psychoanalytic activism and global prison activism.

In my dissertation, I argue that these overlapping types of activism displaced the main lines between two conceptions of the intellectual in twentieth-century France: l’intellectuel universel and l’intellectuel spécifique. According to me, the GIP, by rejecting the figure of the universal intellectual yet showing the failure of the specific intellectual, discloses a crisis in the mid-70s French intelligentsia, leading on the one side to a new definition of l’intellectuel engagé.

My research on the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP) draws on a three-tiered methodological approach: close textual analysis of primary source material; interpretation of primary texts through theoretical frameworks; and historical contextualization of both primary documents and broader socio-cultural framework through archival research and testimonies.

My original and translation constitute a new perspective on the role of intellectuels engagés— particularly philosophers and key figures of the “French Theory” movement. By reflecting on the concept of engaged intellectual from the 1894 Dreyfus affair to the debates about the Nouveaux Philosophes, my project also brings about a fundamental investigation about the genealogy of the intellectuals —particularly philosophers and the so-called “French Theory”— and their roles in French politics.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Compagnon, Antoine Marcel
Harcourt, Bernard E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 28, 2020