The Gay Panopticon: On Remigiusz Ryziński’s “Foucault in Warsaw”

September 5, 2021   •   By Thomas Sliwowski

Foucault in Warsaw

Remigiusz Ryziński

AT FIRST GLANCE, Remigiusz Ryziński’s Foucault in Warsaw, published in Polish in 2017 and now available from Open Letter Books in an English translation by Sean Gasper Bye, recounts the author’s journey into the archives of the Polish secret police to locate records of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s stay in Warsaw during the years 1958 and 1959. This archival deep dive is narrated for maximum dramatic effect, the repeated failures of keyword searches finally opening up like a cloud break once the author locates the correct search term. (It’s only on the book’s final page that we learn what this term is.) At second glance, the book refurbishes this snippet of biographical history — Foucault’s legendary stay in Warsaw — into something like an origin story for the postwar Polish gay community.

The book opens with an extended epigraph that reads as if it were the opening crawl to a film, recounting the legend that forms Ryziński’s starting point. The calculated suspense, characteristic of investigative reporting (a genre in which this book ostensibly participates), is admittedly a little cheesy, but it’s not unconvincing: the book, we are told, will finally tell us the truth about this visit. But it also does a good deal more than that. Indeed, what’s most compelling is the sheer breadth of literary devices marshaled to tell the interlocking tales that make up Ryziński’s story, and how these might point to a new way of thinking about historical narration when it turns its attention to queer history and collective subjects seldom considered historically significant in their own right.

This isn’t the first time somebody has gone searching in the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance for any files pertaining to the French philosopher. In an article that appeared in the journal Diacritics in 2020, Anna Krakus and Cristina Vatulescu recount their decade-long search for Foucault in the Polish archives. They ultimately follow a different tack than Ryziński does, focusing on other French consular employees, all of whom, like any foreigners in Poland at the time, were amply surveilled by the Służba Bezpieczeństwa (the “Security Service,” henceforth the SB). Krakus and Vatulescu refine their lengthy search into an argument about archival silences, which moonlights quite deftly as a guide for what to do when your archival searches turn up nothing of note, showing how to write around, and about, such an absence. Ryziński was perhaps only marginally more successful in his own search, but what makes his approach worthwhile — and what allowed him to produce an entire book out of its results — are the stories he encountered surrounding Foucault’s presence in Thaw-era socialist Warsaw. These are stories from the gay milieu in the capital city, the living members of which Ryziński interviewed for their tales of the 1950s scene and their experience of surveillance by the SB.

All of these stories orbit, at higher or lower altitudes, around Foucault and his stay, which made waves even then. It’s no secret that Foucault was a handsome and affable man, with a vivid presence and a friendly, open disposition. In Warsaw, he had the additional charm of being something of a midcentury dandy. While he was finishing his dissertation, which would soon be published as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), Foucault was invited by the French embassy to serve as the first director of the University of Warsaw’s recently founded Center for French Culture. The position Foucault held was certainly quite cushy for a doctoral candidate: it provided him with a spacious apartment in Warsaw, as well as a hefty salary paid out in Polish złoty, which he was not allowed to take out of the country.

Detailing how Foucault spent this money — in the most sumptuous restaurants and bars of the capital city of the newly formed People’s Republic, and in donations given to anyone who might need them — makes up some of the most delightful passages in Ryziński’s account. Awash in cash, Foucault is remembered as having been quite the high roller. His expenditures form something like a synecdoche for the place of this legendary stay in Foucault’s biography: as Ryziński observes, “today his home in Paris does not contain a single object, book, or even the tiniest napkin that might have been brought from Poland. Nothing he purchased could be taken out of the country.” Nevertheless, Ryziński’s hard-won visit to Foucault’s apartment in Paris, where his longtime partner Daniel Defert still lives, was not in vain. In a key moment in the book, Ryziński recounts how Defert surmised that, despite the complete lack of material evidence, the experience in Poland is, like that of Tunisia, “all over Foucault’s work.” From then on, Ryziński’s task lay in tracing the impressions left by this material absence. In large part, he seeks to accomplish this by reading the postwar history of Polish gay culture according to precepts gleaned from Foucault’s writing. This solution is at least somewhat successful.

But before moving to that topic, let us summarize the legend itself. In 1959, just a year and a half after arriving, Foucault had to abruptly leave Poland after being caught in a honeypot operation set up by the secret police, who had evidently been monitoring him. A young man who had been flirting very earnestly with him for a couple of weeks turned out to be an informant, and Foucault, after inviting the man back to his apartment, was effectively expelled from the country for this gay liaison. This expulsion occurred even though homosexuality was not criminalized in Poland at the time — and despite the fact that subsequent directors of the Center for French Culture, who were surveilled just as heavily, engaged in much more lurid (but safely heterosexual) flings and affairs. So why was Foucault expelled when he was? Of what interest was he to the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic, and what kind of danger did the SB apparatus sense in him? Therein lies the mystery at the heart of this story.

And he really was an intellectual of interest: we learn that, in 1965, the SB even sent one of their spies — Rudolf, codename Henryk — to Paris to meet with Foucault again and gather more intelligence on him. This narrative strand, which adds another layer of intrigue to Cold War spy stories by featuring gay spies collecting intelligence on gay intellectuals, makes for enthralling reading. Once in Paris, Rudolf produced a report on Foucault, and also met with Roland Barthes, informing Polish intelligence that Barthes was planning to travel to Poland to hold a “sociology colloquium in Warsaw.” Instructed by his superiors to enroll at the Translation Institute of the University of Paris, Rudolf became for a brief period something like the SB’s point-man for gay French intellectuals. Unlike some of their other informants, he was genuinely homosexual. But he was also simply too nice to be an effective spy: “gullible and softhearted,” he complained to his superior officer repeatedly that he wasn’t cut out for the spy game, before finally being granted a release from duty in 1967. But the burning question remains: why was the Polish security apparatus so interested in trailing gay intellectuals?

Ryziński could have done more to answer tantalizing questions like these, even if only to suggest some possible explanations. What we have instead — and this is admittedly not insignificant — is a fragmentary biography of Foucault focusing on his 1958–’59 stay in Warsaw and then again on his 1981 visit to Poland; the record of an interview carried out with Daniel Defert on the subject of Poland in Foucault’s work; numerous hypothetical possibilities about how Foucault might have entered Poland, where he might have lunched, and which cruising spots he might have checked out; and perhaps most significant of all, a compendium of files and oral accounts of the gay world of 1950s Warsaw. Less a historical narration than a vast and disjointed landscape painting, this panorama makes up the heart of the book, with the gay community’s close observation by the police apparatus forming the distinctly Polish aspect of this chapter of global queer history. Ryziński is clearly at his most confident when assembling vignettes and laying out detailed scenes gleaned during his archival digs and interviews. We get from these, among other gems, a series of character portraits of persons of interest to the state.

One is of Józef Ż., who is

queer/married […] maintains a good relationship with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and “knows the ins and outs of his bustling trade in sweaters made from cotton unpicked from socks at a price of less than twenty złotys.” Apart from this he is “active in sleeping with men, and sentimental.” At times he “is driven to tears by being too unsure of someone’s feelings.”

The experience of reading these character portraits, assembled by anonymous spies, is a voyeuristic delight, though not without a small dose of guilt: nobody deserves to have their privacy violated in this way, yet who could help feeling a little for the sentimental Józef? Stanisław from Wołomin is less sympathetic. Ryziński tells us that, “[i]n the informer’s opinion, Stanisław is ‘a graveyard jackal, a common queer, a bum who lives off of stealing flowers in the cemetery and selling them to his florist grandmother, Czesława.’” Of special note here are the surprising, and often simply ludicrous, ways these men managed to survive on the margins of society. Were their positions in various half-legal informal economies a function of their being queer men, or simply coincidental? It’s hard not to read a police informant’s poetic conceit into the coincidence of Józef’s liberally shed tears and his carefully harvested sock-cotton. Ryziński selects these portraits for their comic effect, to be sure, but also significant is the breadth of social position to be found among the files: from a priest known on the national stage to a sex worker named Anna who runs a high-end brothel in Kraków out of the apartment of her “fat and remarkably lecherous” husband. All professions and dispositions were caught up in the comb of the security apparatus, and the result is a truly Balzacian ecosystem of queer characters: rare birds all, but only for those who know how to look.

Though Ryziński makes only a few passing references to it, this surveillance practice is a shadowy antecedent of “Operation Hyacinth,” the systematic database of all homosexuals, queers, trans persons, and other “deviants” put together by the Polish police in the years 1985–’87. Made up of at least 11,000 individual files, this operation was ostensibly undertaken in order to mitigate the risk of HIV spreading throughout the country. Unlike the files Ryziński reads, which were assembled by the SB, Operation Hyacinth was carried out by the Milicja Obywatelska, the ordinary, everyday police. Identified homosexuals were visited by police officers and taken to local commissariats, where they had to sign a paper acknowledging that they were homosexual, that they had had several partners in their lives, that all of these partners were of legal age, and that they had no interest in underage sexual partners. Fingerprints were also taken. This surveillance and intimidation campaign served, in turn, as the catalyst for the first gay activist movement in People’s Poland: Warszawski Ruch Homoseksualny, the Varsovian Homosexual Movement, founded in 1987. In 1990, now in the Third Polish Republic, the group was able to finally achieve official recognition as the Stowarzyszenie Grup Lambda, the Lambda Association of [Regional] Groups.

In true post-socialist conspiratorial fashion, the “pink files” comprising the records of Operation Hyacinth have since disappeared from the archives. When in 2003 the Kampania Przeciw Homofobii [Campaign Against Homophobia] appealed to the Institute of National Remembrance for the liquidation of the files, in order to protect the privacy of the persons surveilled, they were informed that no such files could be found. Three years later, the president of the IPN surmised that the files must be located instead in the police archives, but attempts to find them have since been uniformly unsuccessful. This has led more paranoid types to conjecture that someone shrewdly seized them in order to blackmail the Polish political elite, but this remains merely a rumor.

What Ryziński’s book leaves us with is a strange knot tying together homosexuality in People’s Poland and the surveillance practices of the secret police, including the cruising spots and coded lingo of gay Varsovians and the reams of documentation produced about them by informants of the SB. Ryziński’s ingenious move is to read surveillance reports as amateur sociological observations: we couldn’t even call this reading “against the grain” since, as it quickly becomes clear, amateur sociology is precisely what these informants were doing when they engaged in participant observation of the gay community in order to gather intelligence about them. While some reports are marked by deep homophobia and make pains to signal their disgust, others arrive at rather remarkable analyses given their historical context.

Ryziński provides the example of two secret police informants whose reports turn out to be intricate and well reasoned: Gustaw surmises that “the pederast is the same type of deviant from the general norm as the hunchback, the stutterer, or the freckle-faced. Yet while those deviances are visible, this one is hidden.” He goes on to suggest that, while “society’s views have remained at the medieval level” with regards to homosexuality, this would likely eventually change, just as it had for the other “deviances” mentioned. Curiously, he compares homosexuality to Freemasonry insofar as gays “recognize each other by signs, behaviors, and means of expression that are imperceptible to normal people.” Of note as well are informant Leon’s detailed descriptions of gay sex practices, which he continually compares to what he perceived to be normal sexual relations. Amateur sociologists and part-time field sexologists, these informants were producing immensely important historical records wholly unbeknownst to themselves. While many informants pretended to be homosexual in order to gain access to these spaces, others found their sexuality to be rather more fluid and situational than codified labels of identity might have suggested. Men playing part-time gays in the service of the surveillance apparatus — this is a detail Foucault himself would have relished.

But Ryziński goes much further, retrofitting a version of Foucault’s arguments into a framework for his history (which he might have, but did not, call an archaeology). It’s the actual place of Foucault in this book that is most puzzling of all: at times, he is the ostensible subject of documents that mention him, or elderly gay men who reminisce about him, or hypothetical scenarios that Ryziński constructs about him (all marked as fictional departures from the record, and all quite well reasoned). At other times, Foucault appears like a patron saint hovering over the heads of the story’s dozens of minor characters. Every chapter opens with an epigraph, some witty, others cryptic, from Madness and Civilization, and by the end of the book it becomes clear that part of Ryziński’s project involves making Foucault’s visit to Poland and the milieu he encountered in Warsaw into a kind of origin story for Polish gay male subjectivity. There’s something forced about this mythopoetic project, but given the fact that Poland remains a deeply homophobic country, he can be forgiven the heavy-handedness of this activist take. This is a hugely important story to be told, and one that holds clear value for global queer history, and for audiences outside of Poland and East-Central Europe.

As Ryziński (as well as Krakus and Vatulescu) eventually figured out, nearly all official evidence of Foucault’s stay was in the end destroyed as part of routine bureaucratic streamlining practices, which shredded any surveillance files deemed no longer pertinent to operations of the SB. Of note, then, are the kinds of rhetorical practices Ryziński deployed to make this fragmentary record into a coherent story — from heterogeneous sources and polyphonic accounts, with interview subjects sometimes contradicting one another’s reminiscences, to narrations of probabilities, including an imagined conversation between Foucault and one Jurek (a rewriting of a scene from Leopold Tyrmand’s 1955 thriller novel Zły). We can compare this use of fictional devices, probabilistic accounts, even a chorus of queers, to Saidiya Hartman’s 2019 book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, a groundbreaking work of queer Black women’s history that finds innovative ways to write around fragmentary archives. Ryziński’s book, like Hartman’s, reformulates the nature of documentary writing about marginal, queer persons, who were historical actors primarily by virtue of the radical experiments they carried out in how they lived their lives, formed their communities, and sought each other out as kindred spirits.

One can imagine a puerile criticism to be made here: that these stories are only being told by virtue of the currency that LGBTQ sexualities currently hold in popular culture. But this criticism misunderstands historical causation and its uncanny logics. Establishing historical causes always involves a kind of retroactivity: a search for earlier antecedents of a later effect, for the first glimmers of something we now recognize to be significant. It’s perhaps all the more significant, then, that the modes of writing used to narrate recent queer and LGBT histories seem to rely heavily on the epistemologies of our data-driven present. Whether it’s Hartman’s composing fictionalized scenes in a Black tenement house overseen by a pair of white woman who may be a lesbian couple or Ryziński narrating extended probabilities for Foucault’s having visited one or another gay cruising spot, both books consider historical actors less as individuals and more as data sets: demographic clusters that appear just above the horizon of historicity, indexing pasts that seem to suddenly emerge as antecedents to contemporary political movements.

Neither the use of fictional devices for history-writing nor the construction of typical figures as historical subjects is especially new. What is significant here are the challenges and possibilities that come into view for queer history in particular. If the conditions of police surveillance inadvertently produced a discourse of homosexuality that functions as a kind of sociological knowledge about the postwar gay community in Poland, then to what extent do our contemporary algorithmic modes of thinking serve to stake out demographic subjects that can be imagined as historical actors and mark out new forms of action that we can, now, see to be historically significant? This is not to suggest some simplistic parallel between the 20th-century surveillance state and 21st-century algorithmic surveillance, but rather to ask: what makes these queer histories possible now, and what kinds of historical subjects are conjured into existence by forms of writing that focus on archival absences?

In the case of Ryziński’s book, it’s clear that the “Foucault” of the title not only references the French philosopher whose visit to Warsaw serves as the book’s occasion but also encompasses Warsaw’s secret gay geography, the milieu in which he found himself in 1958. As the book’s epigraph assures us, the city and these young men are just as much the heroes of the story as is Foucault himself.


Thomas Sliwowski is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. He writes about Eastern European history.