OK, this announcement probably won’t end up in your "News You Can Use" file, but Richard Wolin has recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Michel Foucault died a humanist! (Who knew?) Perhaps I am only dating myself by attaching any significance to such news. So for those who have forgotten the man, Foucault was perhaps the most popular and accessible of those French postmodern thinkers who had such an influence on the humanities departments in the elite universities of the United States in the 1980s. Back when I was a doctoral student in that same decade, one could hardly read a sentence in a scholarly article, or attend an academic conference for more than an hour, without hearing the word discourse spoken like an incantation, a verbal tic that immediately alerted me to Foucault’s influence, even if the speaker or writer had never read a word of the man. I suppose if postmodern thinkers share anything in common, it must be their revulsion against what they like to call metanarratives, that is, the idea that there is some overarching common story of humanity inside which all our little private dramas belong and derive their meaning. With an obvious debt to Nietzsche, Foucault rejected this assumption and tried to expose its fallacies through a genealogical account of how that obeisance to a single overarching narrative first arose and then eventually took hold of the European mind. And like Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals , Foucault’s two most famous books, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality , saw human relationships entirely in terms of power: Who controls whom, and how? Of course, if that were all he had to say, Foucault would today only be known as an epigone of Nietzsche (like Princeton’s Walter Kaufmann, a now entirely forgotten figure). But he added a special twist to Nietzsche’s analysis, and Wolin’s summary of that Nietzschean variant not only deftly summarizes Foucault’s central thesis but also brought me back to that strange world of academic "discourse" over two decades ago. Prior to Foucault, everyone¯even diehard egalitarians¯thought of power as a top-down affair, from sovereign to subject. Furthermore, that vertical model saw power largely in terms of its powers to forbid or constrain. But Foucault wanted us to see power horizontally, which meant defining power by its productive rather than its inhibiting force. As Foucault once dryly put it, "In political and social analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king." But that did not mean that Foucault saw horizontal power as in any way less oppressive than that exercised by the ancien régime. No, "power’s uniqueness [lies] in its ability to shape, fashion, and mold the parameters of the self, potentially down to the infinitesimal or corpuscular level," Wolin writes, leading to "modern society’s well-nigh totalitarian capacity to institutionally regulate and subjugate individual behavior ¯via statistics, public-health guidelines, and conformist sexual norms ¯down to the most elementary, ‘corpuscular’ level." As I said, I lived through that period and found Foucault simply inescapable. I always knew something was amiss with his theses, but I could also recognize their mesmerizing plausibility well enough to realize that his ideas would have to run their course before their essential poverty and incoherence would become manifest. In at least that regard, Foucault’s ideas resemble Karl Marx’s, both in their plausible longevity and in their ultimately destructive import (although one would be hard put to find a more "hegemonic" and "totalizing" metanarrative than The Communist Manifesto ). At any rate, if you want to know why the word discourse became the great buzzword of the time, you need only look to Foucault, again as Wolin nicely explains:
The reign of biopower is buttressed and facilitated by the scientific disciplines of criminology, medicine, public administration, and so forth. In Foucault’s view, moreover, the Enlightenment-inspired discourse of the human sciences is a prime offender. The so-called sciences of man function as the handmaidens of a nefarious "disciplinary society," . . . the Orwellian technique of turning citizens into pliable and cooperative "docile bodies." Little wonder that . . . Foucault unabashedly celebrates the "death of man" and implies that, in the aftermath of his disappearance, the world will be much better off.
One of Plato’s more lapidary formulations runs, in Greek, sōma sēma : "The body is a prison." In terms of Platonic anthropology, that makes perfect sense. Foucault’s variation on that line holds that society, all of it, is a prison, capitalist society just as much as the Soviet model, the corporate boardroom just as much as Sing Sing¯indeed, the college seminar room and the scientist’s laboratory as much as the Gulag Archipelago¯"All knowledge rests upon injustice. . . . [The] instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind)." The influence of these ideas¯I presume it can go without saying¯was huge. This was the decade when a feminist scholar would claim that Isaac Newton’s Principia was a "rape manual" for nature, when prisons were seen as but the intensification of what everyone else has to go through, especially in the classroom, as in Pink Floyd’s famous line "We don’t need no education" in their hit rock album The Wall : "Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!" On and on. But according to Wolin, basing himself on the research published in a book by Eric Paras called Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge , Foucault slammed into a different kind of wall than the one so bitterly attacked by Pink Floyd, a collision that awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers: He read Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago . Prior to that epochal book, the heroes of the French left were, almost without exception, some of the nastiest men ever thrown up by human history: Mao, Pol Pot, and Ho Chi Minh above all, but also such lesser thugs like Fidel and Che. Although Stalin had lost some of his luster after Nikita Khrushchev denounced him at a famous assembly of the Communist party in 1956, that denunciation did not lead to a reconsideration of the historical inevitability of socialism by the mandarins of the French left but only to a transfer of allegiance from Stalin to figures whose iniquity (if such be possible) perhaps exceeded even Stalin’s. (Jean Paul Sartre, though, stuck to his Stalinist guns until his death.) In one of his essays from this post- Solzhenitsyn time, ironically called "The Rage of Facts" ( facts! ), Foucault applied his previous critique of metanarratives to the worst metanarrative that history has (so far) ever known: the idea that historical necessity must be allowed to win out over the human rights of individuals, trumping the morality that flows from human nature. For reasons already adduced above, Foucault had never been drawn to metanarratives to begin with, and certainly not to the Marxian one. Perhaps for that reason, his contribution to the anti-Stalinist about-face of the French left did not garner the attention, at least in North America, that came to other thinkers like André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy, who started in the Marxist camp and then loudly, very loudly, denounced their past. But his contribution was important nonetheless:
[When] Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland, brutally suppressing Solidarity, Eastern Europe’s first independent trade union, the response by most Western European statesmen was a deafening silence. They judged the matter to be a purely "internal" Polish affair. They feared fanning the flames of the cold war. (Ronald Reagan’s presidency had begun earlier that year.) So much for international solidarity. Better that the civilian populations of Eastern Europe passively endure the yoke of authoritarian rule. The recently elected French Socialist government had an additional, domestic political motivation to look the other way. It had come to power in an alliance with the French Communists. A rift over the "Polish question" risked fracturing the alliance. At the behest of Pierre Bourdieu, Foucault . . . sprang into action. The two intellectual luminaries jointly drafted an impassioned statement . . . [which] was broadcast on French radio. . . . Thereafter, the French government enacted a sudden volte-face, vigorously protesting the declaration of martial law. . . . Led by Foucault, French intellectuals had risen to the occasion. It was not quite the Dreyfus affair. But it was a worthy performance nevertheless.
Yes, it was. Foucault’s influence also lives on in another area, too, for he became friends with a French jurist by the name of Robert Badinter, who had long admired Foucault’s work on prisons and punishments. When he became Mitterrand’s minister of justice, as one of his first official acts, he abolished the death penalty in 1981. (Given Western Europe’s generally huffy-puffy attitude toward capital punishment in the United States, one easily forgets how recently capital punishment was abolished in Europe.) Badinter also engineered the abrogation of France’s anti-riot laws (several thousand Algerian immigrants were killed during a riot in Paris in 1960, a long-forgotten event that became the subject of the recent French film Caché ), and the worst of France’s maximum-security prisons were shut down (where the suicide rate, by the way, far exceeds the number of executed American prisoners). Leaving aside for a moment what one thinks of prison reform, capital punishment, and the rest, most old-style liberals and their erstwhile neoconservative brethren (as well as those paleoconservatives who take their nourishment from Edmund Burke) will surely salute Foucault’s philosophical shift to humanism, which again Wolin admirably summarizes here:
[Foucault’s] re-evaluation of humanism redounds to his credit as a thinker. It stems from a profound and undeniable moral insight: If one wishes to become an effective critic of totalitarianism, as Foucault certainly did, the paradigm of "man" remains an indispensable ally. After all, it is the totalitarians themselves who seek to quash or eliminate man. As antitotalitarian political analysts and actors, our responsibility is to spare him that fate. It would not be a misnomer to suggest that in fact the later Foucault became a human-rights activist, a political posture that stands in stark contrast with his North American canonization as the progenitor of "identity politics."
Again, as I say, so far, so good. But Foucault’s lifelong aversion to metanarratives as inherently totalizing would, at least as I read his final years, prove to be his undoing. Granted, the internal contradictions of humanism cannot be attributed to Foucault without further ado. Think, for example, of this problem that dominates the world’s headlines: How should "humanistic" nations like a Foucault-influenced France react to evils that occur in nations not their own? Do "we" (meaning we neo-humanists who agree with the later Foucault) just sit back, deplore, sign petitions to be published in Le Monde and the New York Review of Books, and donate to Amnesty International? Or do "we" intervene? The latter answer now goes under the dread name of "neoconservatism," that nefarious ideology that, in the groupthink of the hard left, has supposedly been concocted by Pentagon-funded think tanks staffed by people with suspiciously Jewish surnames. But in 1981, Foucault addressed a major conference held at UN headquarters in Geneva and advocated what he called droit d’ingérance , which Wolin defines as "the moral imperative to intervene in the domestic affairs of a nation where human rights are being systematically violated." Sound familiar? President Bush as a disciple of Foucault¯now there’s a genealogy for you! Unfortunately, the French word ingérance means not just "intervention" but "meddling," too. I tell no secrets here, I’m sure, when I point out how far we have come from Foucault’s speech in 1981. Unlike his undoubted influence on French penal reform, he can hardly be said to have won over many Europeans to his idea of a right to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, no matter how nasty, as the fiasco in the Balkans in the early 1990s proved. (For one thing, France, with Russia, supported Serbia, where I feel sure Foucault would have supported NATO had he still been alive during that conflict in the early 1990s). Indeed, division on this issue of droit d’ingérance in the wake of the war in Iraq has virtually split the Western alliance in two and perhaps destroyed it for good. Largely because of the war in Iraq, but also because of the different approach to "identity politics" in Western Europe and the United States, there has been an almost complete role-reversal in politics. During the Clinton administration, it was largely the human-rights community that lobbied for NATO’s intervention in the Balkans (despite the UN’s refusal to validate it because of a threatened Russian veto!), while conservatives objected to "nation-building," as George Bush famously sneered in his 2000 election campaign. But when bien-pensant thought (often for good reasons, let it be said) nearly unanimously opposed the war in Iraq (with the exception of Christopher Hitchens and a few others), Foucault’s insistence on the right of Western nations to intervene anywhere , including such appalling scenes as Darfur, lost nearly all purchase on elite left-wing opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. And speaking of role-reversals, left-wing politics has also witnessed a resurgence of anti-Semitism in its ranks, the mildest forms of which are the knowing sneers at "Jewish" neoconservatism. Postmodernists claim to have given up on metanarratives. But, however unawares, they still cling to one feature of the Enlightenment metanarrative: Progress is good, rearguard reaction is bad; the Left is virtuous, the Right is selfish, and so forth. And in that regard, the fascist romance with anti-Semitism fits perfectly into that schema. But as soon as some Jews, however few in number, identified themselves with the always-nefarious "conservatives," anti-Semitism once again became an acceptable prejudice among the Left. Identity politics indeed. But again, as I say, these inherent dilemmas of international politics can hardly be laid at Foucault’s door, since our current system of national sovereignty (an ineluctable feature of human nature, in my opinion) will always leave statesmen in a quandary, especially among those rare ones who lack the Machiavellian mendacity of most other national leaders. My interest in Wolin’s article, however, was more piqued by the kind of humanism to which Foucault turned as an alternative to his previous poststructuralist abolition of man, and that was none other than the humanism of the pagan. Especially in his books The Use of Pleasure and The Care of Self , Foucault had long been fascinated by Greco-Roman antiquity, especially by what he called the Stoic ideal of self-mastery. Indeed these books, especially the second one, are far from the apology for libertinism that some people think (no doubt without having read them). For there Foucault insists that sexuality is so key to human development that society is ineluctably required to place all kinds of restrictions on sexual behavior, and this can be found everywhere. He even claims to detect something like moral behavior following sexual intercourse in the animal world. ( Omne animal post coitum triste , as the Romans observed.) But Foucault’s later change of mind, post-Geneva, meant that he had added a new element to what he learned from Stoicism. As he said in a late interview: "[S]ubjectivity has the right to assert itself, and to say . . . ‘that I cannot accept,’ ‘that I don’t want,’ or ‘that I desire.’" Only a Frenchman, I suppose, could say something so self-evidently obvious and regard it as news. But obvious as it sounds, this new assertion of the prerogatives of the self proved to be Foucault’s undoing, for he then began to advocate what he called an "aesthetic asceticism." It is at this point in his analysis that I think Wolin goes astray, or at least he averts the reader’s eyes from the tragedy of Foucault’s last years. Here, at any rate, is his entirely sympathetic view of the late Foucault:
According to Foucault (here, closely following Nietzsche), the Christian idea of self-mastery culminated in self-renunciation or self-abnegation. Hence, it was disturbingly life-negating. Conversely, in the ancient world, care of the self focused on "the choice of a beautiful life." Here, the goal of self-rule or autonomy was primarily aesthetic¯hence, it was profoundly life-affirming. . . . Thereby, Foucault’s work seems to have come full circle. Under the sign of aesthetic self-realization, Foucault rehabilitates and vindicates the rights of subjectivity.
Well, you can call this ideal what you will, but "aesthetic asceticism" does not in the least resemble Stoicism¯or even Epicureanism, for that matter, despite the modern connotations of that unhappy word. The great irony of Foucault’s life is that in his last years he led the very kind of life that had been the object of his scorn earlier. Because of his fame, he was invited in 1983 to become a visiting professor at the University of California in Berkeley, which gave him the opportunity to throw himself full-throttle into the gay subculture of San Francisco. In his earlier days, Foucault had asked whether autonomy was not in fact an illusion, and whether the alleged self was not just a biological robot operating out of potent, sophisticated mechanisms of domination. And then late in life, via his privately minted "aesthetic asceticism," he turned to a culture of sex and shopping that proved to be the ultimate example of what he called, in one of his pre-humanist coinages, "domination down to the corpuscular level." Corpuscles indeed. Michel Foucault died of AIDS in Paris on June 25, 1984.

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Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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