The Passion of Michel Foucault
by James E. Miller
Simon & Schuster, 491 pages, $27.50
By 1971, when Dutch TV in the U.S. staged a discussion between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, both were stars in the firmament of new left politics. Arthur Schlesinger, spokesman for the old left, after an ironic “rah, rah, rah for Professor-Doctor Chomsky,” acidly commented that “in linguistics he may be a genius, but in politics he's a hysteric.”
By the time of his meeting with Foucault, Chomsky had settled easily into his role of resident extremist; so he was appropriately stunned at being far outflanked on the left. Later he commented, “I'd never met anyone so totally amoral.” The utopian anarchist with the furrowed brow had been treated to a dose of Foucault's considered views: no human nature, no social models, no justice, no law, no responsible human subjects. “One makes war to win, not because it's just,” Foucault explained. And if the winners exercise bloody violence on the losers, “I can't see what objection one could make to that.”
“Justice versus Power” was the title given the revised text of the program by the Dutch editor, an anarchist who paid Foucault partly in hasheesh (later referred to among Foucault's Paris pals as “the Chomsky hash”).
To say that this episode belonged to Foucault's Maoist period (1968 to 1975) is true but perhaps misleading. At no time did Foucault affirm the responsible self or a valid moral order. When in 1975 the French “new philosopher” André Glucksmann acknowledged that the left could be as vicious as the right, and spoke of the “the fascism within us all,” Foucault agreed. This modified his view of power, but did not diminish his disdain for morality, humanism, and the like. These were among the concerns he had always held against the man who was the left's cultural arbiter, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Born in 1926 to a bourgeois family in Poitiers and educated there until near the end of the war, Foucault moved to Paris in 1945 to prep for the Ecole Normale Superieure, which he entered in 1946. Tortured by guilt and shame rooted in his homosexuality, he attempted suicide in 1948. More attempts followed. From this time until the events and publications that made him a public figure in the 1960s, Foucault served a hard, often unhappy apprenticeship: Communist Party membership (1950–53); a failed first try for the agrégation (competition for the recruitment of academics in lycées and universities), but a high-scoring second try; 1952–55 as assistant at the University of Lille; self-exile to Uppsala and other foreign parts in the middle 1950s.
Foucault was ambitious and industrious. His first work (on mental illness and personality, 1954) was timid and had not drawn much attention. He sounded a more independent note during that same year with his introduction to the translation of an essay by Ludwig Binswanger. In Uppsala, Foucault drew on archival research to produce his first success, Madness and Civilization (1960; English translation 1965). After the generation dominated by Sartre, this book—and even more its follow-up The Order of Things (1966; ET 1970)—signaled the arrival of a new generation of French intellectuals, some older than Foucault (Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes), and a few younger (including Jacques Derrida). This changing of the guard was stabilized by the students' carnival-revolt of May ‘68.
In the wake of the latter event, Foucault, together with an unlikely set of leftist colleagues, found himself called on by the Minister of Education to help build the new university of Vincennes, designed to attract and satisfy the rebels. Foucault put men of imagination and interdisciplinary pursuits in the senior positions in philosophy and filled the junior faculty with Maoists. In 1970, with crucial help from Georges Dumezil, a historian of ancient religions who had befriended him in the fifties at Uppsala, he was elected to the faculty of the College de France. Foucault had arrived.
Under the influence of a companion with whom he shared the last quarter-century of his life, he also began a partly secret fun-career as Maoist activist: engaging in a movement for prison reform (essentially for the Maoists in prison), with the usual strategy sessions and publicity stunts, sharing the excitement of the famous riot in Attica followed by prison riots in France. As it turned out, however, all this quasi-secret Maoism was—like the structuralism that he along with the likes of Lacan, Barthes, and Althusser had energetically promoted for a few years—just a game. After the famous turning against the pro-Soviet Sartrean left by Glucksmann and others, he seemed to reach some kind of turning point of his own. In May of 1975, he dropped Maoism without regret.
For him the turning point was an LSD epiphany in Death Valley, California, which changed his thinking on the central subject of his life, namely, identity and sexuality. Something in drug-induced states seems to produce the conviction of having experienced deep thought and arrived at deep truth. “So this is how things really are!” Aldous Huxley had marveled repeatedly during a mescaline session a generation earlier. Malcolm Lowry claimed to see visions of a new life. Foucault's experience, too, was intense. Tears streamed from his eyes. You can't go home again? “We must go home again.”
The nearest parallel to this Death Valley event, he said, was another “limit-experience”: sex with a stranger, as in the bathhouses of San Francisco. One element of the impact of Death Valley was that Foucault abandoned hundreds of pages of rough drafts of his history of sexuality and started from scratch. He had promised a major work; he now worked hard on it, without announcing that he was starting over. As the years passed, the unfinished book, and Paris itself, became a burden. He was more and more drawn to the gay community and its sadomasochist subculture in San Francisco. He thought of moving to California, and arranged to spend at least two months each year in Berkeley.
AIDS appeared in 1980, was named in 1982, and elicited the watchword “safe sex” among San Francisco gays in 1983. Foucault was at first unimpressed, then drawn to think of the danger of AIDS as a “limit-experience.” Driv ing hard to finish his history of sexuality, yet thinking, reading, and writing with rare Stoic calm (Seneca had become his favorite reading), he died of the disease in Paris, in late June 1984, just as volumes two and three of his History, The Care of the Self and The Use of Pleasure, came out in French.
James E. Miller's book is a reconstruction and interpretation of Foucault, with special emphasis on his “quest,” or drive to invent a new kind of self in the Nietzschean manner. The reconstruction is concrete, detailed, exigent. Three years more recent than Didier Eribon's French biography, Miller's reconstruction draws on a voluminous documentation as well as on extensive interviews he conducted in France, Canada, and the U.S. The investigation of rumors about the end of Foucault's life led Miller finally to focus on how Foucault thought of and lived “the philosophical life.” The result has every appearance of solid probability: Foucault integrated his life, the San Francisco experiments prominently included, into an obsessive quest by means of limit-experiences to change himself, to shake free (se deprendre) of the self that had agitated and burdened him all his life.
As reconstruction—and this is the author's main purpose—the book is a clear success. At the same time, Miller (for whom Nietzschean philosophy is a puzzle and provocation “which I have yet to see refuted”) offers mild, low-key, painfully inadequate evaluative comment. The most anti-social of Foucault's ideas—e.g., that rape, incest, sex with children should all be decriminalized—he presents without comment, apart from a half-effort to show the Nietzschean rationale of this thinking. On psychological, cultural, and moral matters, among them the unobjectionable character of “consensual sadomasochist” games, he lines up with Foucault. In a word, the book is impenetrably simple-minded on moral issues, tone-deaf to the resonances of “person, personal worth, and dignity” that have defined the West.
Foucault did not claim that what he did was philosophy. He claimed rather that his goal was to live the philosophic life. This had to do with a number of recurrent motifs, some of them from Nietzsche and Heidegger: finding at the bottom of oneself, “deep down,” that “granite of spiritual fatum” that is one's “higher necessity” (Nietzsche); transcendence, that singular spark and power within (Heidegger); the “unthought” with its promise of all things new (Heidegger); the sloughing off of identity and becoming “other” than who one is; a voluntary obliteration that takes place “in one's own existence.” This was the point of living, thinking, writing, summed up in the phrase se deprendre de soi-même: getting rid of oneself.
Indeterminacy is a contemporary cult and there is plenty of it in Foucault's many ways of expressing what he was after. What exactly did he want? He wanted to be other. The language, tinged with Gnosticism, oscillates between signifying transformation and oblivion. Self-lacerating madness beckoned as a way out of the self. Hence Foucault's attraction to the erotic “ascesis” of sadomasochism.
But the Nietzschean and Heideggerian oracles that Foucault cherished as clues to this anguished quest led nowhere. The limit—experiences of anonymous erotic games, drugs, and madness have no verifiable role in self-transcendence. The whole effort was futile, as Heidegger's adventures with “the unthought” had been. The San Francisco experiments—“each of us knows exactly why he is there,” said Foucault—were as philosophically futile as Nazi medical experiments were scientifically useless. The strategy of heroically risky experiment, the discovery of “positive truth” in its “downward fall,” was self-delusive. (What we really do know is what became of Heidegger's dream. In thought, it was the unprecedented, “hurling the human being through a breach” in which “suddenly the unbound powers of being” come forth and “are accomplished as history.” In fact, it was that dreadful nightmare from which the world was delivered, at terrible cost, in 1945.
Selfhood and its dissolution dominated Foucault's thinking in the last years of his life. Though he never entirely gave up the dream of techniques that might make selfhood vanish from the world, he seemed to know, without admitting, that this dream was unreal. Like Nietzsche, he saw the self as something scripted by the immemorial past and inflicted on him. At the same time, he knew that there was more to this “him” than an inherited script. What about that “more,” that intimate, inner part of him that scripted himself?
This was indeed the quintessential self, the most Foucaultian part of Michel Foucault, precisely the self that Søren Kierkegaard explored in terms that are, superficially speaking, strikingly coincident with the anguish of Foucault. For Kierkegaard envisaged the condition of “not willing to be one's own self, of willing to get rid of oneself.” (He also grasped the illusory aspects of this condition.)
We are still far from a rounded view of Foucault, who remains a cult figure. A key virtue of Miller's book meantime is its point of departure: grasping and evaluating Foucault's work will turn in significant measure on how one grasps and evaluates his quest.
Ben F. Meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Canada and author, most recently, of Christus Faber: The Master-Builder and the House of God (Pickwick).