He was one of the major figures in the fight against AIDS in France. Philosopher, sociologist, companion and publisher of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), founder of the Aides association (in 1984), Daniel Defert died in Paris on Tuesday February 7, at the age of 85, according to information from the World.
He had several lives. Born September 10, 1937, he was a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Saint-Cloud (Hauts-de-Seine) before becoming an associate professor of philosophy in 1964. He could very well have been “only” a sociologist, assistant of sociology (1969-1972), then assistant professor and finally lecturer (1985-2001) at the University of Paris-VIII-Vincennes, moved to Saint-Denis (Seine-Saint-Denis) in 1980. that he was a pupil of Raymond Aron and one of the theoreticians of the notion of ethno-iconography.
This was without counting the meeting that was to mark his life, in the early 1960s, with Michel Foucault. This relationship, described as “a state of passion”, led them both to militate in the Proletarian Left (GP), an underground Maoist movement. From his past as a Maoist militant, Daniel Defert liked to remember certain phrases – “The eye of the peasant sees correctly”, “You have to walk on both legs” – which later, he said, would help him in particular to structure his action in favor of HIV-positive people and AIDS patients.
“At first it was a cough”
A Maoist, he took part in a hunger strike aimed at obtaining the status of political prisoner for the militants of the GP (group banned at the time) imprisoned. In line with this action, with Michel Foucault and other great intellectuals such as Pierre Vidal-Naquet, he participated in the creation of the Information Group on Prisons. The idea was not only to give prisoners a voice, to make them appear as such in the public space, but also to reflect on the very notion of incarceration – in 1975, Michel Foucault published on the same subject l one of his master books, Monitor and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Gallimard).
For Daniel Defert, the death of Michel Foucault, in circumstances that took him more than twenty years to describe, would change everything. “From Mourning to Struggle” : thus was the title of the fine interview he granted to Eric Favereau, journalist at Releasefor his work Our AIDS years – 25 years of intimate wars (The Discovery, 2006). In this interview, as well as in another book, A political life: interviews with Philippe Artières and Eric Favereau (Seuil, 2014), he returns at length to the circumstances, long misunderstood, of the death of the author ofHistory of sexuality (the first volume, published in 1976 by Gallimard, was entitled The Will to Know).
” At the beginninghe said, it was a cough. » In January 1984, an antibiotic treatment based on Bactrim was shown to be very effective. “At the timesaid Daniel Defert, the representation of AIDS was that of a brutal disease, very quickly fatal. However, this was not the case in our eyes. And so the hypothesis of AIDS, which we had of course both mentioned in December 1983, disappeared before the effectiveness of the treatment. Since he was recovering, that meant it wasn’t AIDS. »
Life resumes. Foucault continues his courses at the College de France. Complete two books. June 1984: relapse. Hospitalization of three weeks which will end in his death. “Doctors pretended not to know what he had, continued Daniel Defert. (…) They had legitimate reluctance to jump on the AIDS hypothesis. It was too simple, homosexuality = AIDS. They forbade themselves from thinking about it too soon, or too exclusively. » The major concern of the medical team was to maintain a certain silence in order to leave Foucault entirely at his work, “in the secret relation to his own death”, which he had described a few months earlier in the obituary of his friend Philippe Ariès.
After Foucault’s death, Daniel Defert was asked to go to the registry office at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. On a piece of paper lying on the desk – Foucault’s admission slip – he sees this: “Cause of death: AIDS. » ” What does that mean ? »he asks the doctor who was next to him. “Rest assured, it will disappear, there will be no traces of it. »
“There, violently, I discovered the reality of AIDS, Defert will say : to pretend in the social unthinkable. I discover this kind of social fear that had obscured any report of truth. » He pursues “From the moment he died without saying it, without being able or without knowing how to say it, I had the impression that I could not say it in his place, that it was contrary to medical ethics to which I adhere to. And to say nothing at all was to enter into the fear of scandal. I had to solve a problem: not to speak for him, but not to do nothing. There was the obligation to create something that was not a word about his death, but a struggle. »
And so Aides was born. Reassured about his serological status – he was negative, which, at the time, did not mean much insofar as we did not really know what this presence of antibodies implied –, Daniel Defert decided to federate around him “volunteers”as the members of Aides called themselves, determined to make public health imperatives triumph.
Daniel Defert’s fight was long, stubborn, essential, sometimes misunderstood (why didn’t he want to make Aides an association for the defense of homosexuals?). All the more difficult since the political leaders were not interested in the social issues linked to the emergence of AIDS. It was the time, remember, when the political weight of the church made it impossible to advertise the use of condoms.
Very quickly, Defert understood that the most important thing was to get the patients out – whoever they were, homosexuals, drug addicts, hemophiliacs, heterosexuals, etc. – their isolation. To put an end to the stigmatization of which they were the object. This objective was all the more complex in that certain interlocutors – starting with the gay press – shied away.
Find people to listen to
It was not until the appointment of Michèle Barzach to the health ministry of the Chirac government in 1986 that things finally changed. So that Daniel Defert finally finds, at the highest level of the State, interlocutors who listen.
In 1987, Aides experienced a split – which gave birth to Arcat-sida, the association of Jean-Florian Mettetal (1952-1992) and Frédéric Edelmann, then a journalist at the World, financed by Pierre Bergé. Two years later, it was the creation of Act Up-Paris. More than ever, the figure and work of Michel Foucault were at the heart of the debates that agitated this militant milieu.
Regarding Foucault, Daniel Defert co-edited with François Ewald the four volumes, now reissued in two, of Said and Written (Gallimard, 1994) – a posthumous collection of lectures, interviews and articles. Daniel Defert also participated, under the direction of Frédéric Gros, in the publication of works by Michel Foucault in “La Pléiade”, in 2015.
Daniel Defert appears under the first name of Stéphane in the magnificent novel by Hervé Guibert To the friend who didn’t save my life (Gallimard, 1990). In the mode of autofiction, Guibert recounted the disease (AIDS) of his friend Muzil (Michel Foucault). Daniel Defert also appears in another very beautiful book, What love means by Mathieu Lindon (POL, 2011).
All those who had the privilege of knowing Daniel Defert will never forget his elegance, his restraint, his spirit of nuances, this lucid and enlightened intelligence which meant that when he spoke, people listened to him. Better: we were learning.
Daniel Defert in a few dates
September 10, 1937 Born in Avallon (Yonne)
1969 Begins to teach sociology at the Experimental University Center of Vincennes.
1984 Aid Foundation
February 7, 2023 Death in Paris
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