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In the late 1960s, a sociologist described French theorist ­Michel Foucault (1926–1984) as “a sort of frail, gnarled samurai who was dry and hieratic, who had the eyebrows of an albino and a somewhat sulfurous charm, and whose avid and affable curiosity intrigued everyone.” Claude Mauriac, son of the Catholic novelist François Mauriac and a close friend, displayed some ambivalence about Foucault when he called his smile “carnivorous.” For his part, Mauriac père complained that Foucault’s thesis of the death of man made the secular Sartre look like a brother.

These comments were made in the 1960s, around the time when Foucault, in his forties, had begun to shave his head, adding to his immediately recognizable radical chic. He was then a few years past the publication of his best-selling book, The Order of Things, and at the cusp of becoming the most celebrated and often reviled philosopher of France. By the first decade of this century, he would be the most-cited author in the humanities.

Like most of his French colleagues, Foucault was not a believer, in part because of his homosexual lifestyle. At the elite École Normale Supérieure, which Foucault attended in the late 1940s, students who went to Mass were unusual enough to bear a scornful nickname, “talas,” from the middle sounds of the phrase “ceux qui vont à la messe” (“those who go to Mass”).

Foucault, however, was never militant about his rejection of faith. At the very end of his life, he researched almost exclusively in the library of the Dominican school Saulchoir. His longtime companion, Daniel Defert, learned only after Foucault’s death of the handsome donations he had made to Saulchoir in gratitude. And Foucault left Christians another legacy, an intellectual one. It’s a vexed inheritance. On the one hand, Foucault’s philosophy is shot through with assumptions that we cannot accept. On the other, he provides us with insights that are invaluable to understanding the culture of death.

The key concept in Foucault’s thought is power. His work can be read as an elaboration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement: “This world is the Will to Power—and nothing else! And even you yourselves are this will to power—and nothing besides!” He agreed with Nietzsche that “the omnipresence of power” does not imply some deity-like personage running the show. We are not controlled by a puppet master. Rather, we live in a vast network of demands, commandments, inducements, sorting mechanisms, disciplines, and more. “Power” has no center. It is the aggregate of multiple, shifting relationships.

Foucault captured the imagination of late-twentieth-­century intellectuals because he saw that power is not found only on the macro-level, in political sovereignty or legal codes. It operates even more potently on the micro-level. “Power comes from ­below,” from interpersonal relationships, institutions, and “discourses” of ideas. In his research, Foucault combed through archives to find detailed examples of such micro-relations of power: ­medieval confessional manuals, Enlightenment-era hospital records, and so forth. In these archival sources, he tried, like a chemist, to isolate and identify the mechanisms of power.

In Madness and Civilization, he details the emergence of psychiatry, which eventually apportioned to itself the right to define madness over against sanity. In a similar way, Discipline and Punish traces the development of penal law from the brutal public punishments of early ages to more refined but more controlling methods in the modern era. These methods “constitute a new economy and a new technology of the power to punish.” The Order of Things describes modernity’s “positive unconscious of knowledge,” that is, the unconscious conditions that make modern ways of thinking possible and credible.

All of these works exhibit two features. First, they reinforce a historical relativism concerning ways of thinking and acting that are never “natural” but always historically conditioned. Second, they emphasize how power forms individuals, in part by making them think in a certain way. Foucault’s major works demonstrate his genius for telling detail; no reader of his account of the execution of the assassin Robert-­François Damiens in Discipline and Punish can forget the gory specifics of torn flesh, molten lead, and burning pitch. But amid these striking passages, Foucault’s method is consistent and can be characterized in a general way.

Consider the fact that many museums display eighteenth-century American furniture. In such a museum, the Foucault-inspired analyst does not note elements of design or highlight well-known craftsmen such as Chippendale and Hepplewhite. Instead, he reads the furniture in terms of what it reveals about the power structures of the time. How did the chairs “discipline” the body? How did their arrangements in sitting rooms structure the ways people related to each other? And then the key question: How did all this shape and mold the consciousness of eighteenth-century Americans?

We might derive from the straight-backed chairs the importance then placed upon uprightness—­physical, of course, but also moral. In contrast to contemporary La-Z-Boys, which privilege comfort, the right angles and insubstantial cushioning of the older chairs habituate the body and soul to rectitude. The seating arrangements impose an order on those in a room, commanding them, as it were, to see each other in accord with an established hierarchy. Thus, the very furniture of an ordinary eighteenth-century home has a “disciplinary” function.

This way of thinking regards culture as the form-imposing power that shapes human beings, who are essentially malleable. We might naively imagine that “man” has a distinct and fixed character as a rational animal. This, Foucault argued, is not a timeless truth. It is the result of culturally specific Enlightenment ideals, not anything derived from a universal “human nature.” Thus, The Order of Things famously ends with the claim that so irritated François Mauriac: “As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. . . . One can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

In itself, noting the shaping power of culture does not make for a revolutionary insight. In antiquity, Aristotle advanced a hylomorphic view of the human person. We are matter (hyle) given form (morphe) by our souls. Our souls have certain innate potencies, such as the capacity for reason. But these potencies require cultivation and discipline in order to take stable form. In that respect, Aristotle recognized that the human person is malleable and that the cultural patterns that shape us matter a great deal. He argued that we attain nobility and freedom only insofar as we are educated well and have the good fortune to live in a civilized society. But, as gender theorist J­udith Butler observes, Foucault takes Aristotle’s theory of form and matter and turns it inside out.

Important as education and discipline were for ­Aristotle, they cultivate the potential for human excellence already present within the soul. Like water on a seed buried in parched soil, a good teacher and well-ordered society unlock this innate potential, which is the real engine of human personality. The person’s soul develops from within, as it were.

Butler shows that Foucault replaces the inner soul with external power. What results is a distinctively Nietzschean hylomorphism. “What I want to show,” Foucault stated, “is how power relations can materially penetrate the body in depth, without depending even on the mediation of the subject’s own representations.” In other words, we—down to our bodies—are “made” by power in the way that heated iron is shaped by the blacksmith’s blows. Our morphe is imposed from the outside, given by the power-relations in which we are enmeshed. Metaphysically speaking, we are crustaceans, animals whose “souls” are on the outside.

This seems like a strange claim. Let’s return to American furniture for help. Whereas the Foucault-inspired cultural critic reads relations of power in its ­features and arrangements, an Aristotelian philosopher views furniture in terms of what is natural to the human being. It is natural for us to want to rest rather than stand when we eat. We also want to use our minds as well as our bodies, so we require places of repose to support us as we read or contemplate. It is also natural for us to be social, so we need to ­arrange our furniture for shared meals or family gatherings. These aspects of the human person are constant through history and across cultures. They are, that is, natural to us as human beings, and cultural forms, though they certainly differ, help us realize these natural i­mpulses.

The language of potency and act provides metaphysical terminology to describe the relation between who we are as human beings and what well-designed furniture does to us. Human beings are in potency of being upright and at attention or slack and relaxed (both physically and morally). This is because rectitude and slackness are possibilities allowed for by our nature. If a person is actually upright, that potency is actualized (“in act”). We are indeed disciplined by the world around us, but this fact does not change our humanity. Rather, it makes us certain kinds of humans, by actualizing certain potencies in certain ways. Boot camp may lack soft chairs precisely because it aims to accentuate and develop a recruit’s potency for being at attention. A library has them because it wants to encourage the relaxation of the body that allows for intellectual focus.

The classical terminology of potency and act is relevant because Foucault is riding on its coattails with his language of “power.” He believed that the entire theory of the metaphysical structure of things—­matter and form, potency and act, natures—is itself an artifact of cultural conditioning, given shape by power-relations in the Greco-Roman world and, later, in Christian societies. Foucault insists that there is nothing deeper than power. Nothing resides within us as an innate potency; there is only that which acts upon us from the outside, like the blacksmith’s hammer blows, which give form to the iron ingot. Thus, for Foucault, external power is the real and sole metaphysical structure, which replaces the potency of nature and its innate capacity to be actualized.

In a word, Foucault exchanges nature for artifice. The metaphysical interiority of the person is traded out for the actions of power in shaping the person. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a friend of Foucault, puts it this way: “The inside is an outside operation.”

Moderns, especially Americans, are intoxicated by promises of greater freedom. At American universities, Foucault’s elimination of human nature and his account of our human form as imposed by power has been celebrated as a liberation. No longer constrained by talk of “innate” potencies, Americans read Foucault as giving us the freedom to shape ourselves in any way we please. We can be our own blacksmiths, as it were.

Yet, while promising to give us much, Foucault’s metaphysical logic in fact steals what we already have. If the inside is an outside operation, then the inside is empty without the outside. Rather than beginning rich with a particular human nature, containing finite but innate potencies, we begin bankrupt. Rather than containing wealth within, we are only what power makes of us. In this respect, Foucault is a prophet of submission, not of freedom. We are who we are only insofar as we are acted upon. Foucault robs us of our ontological birthright, that abundant potency deriving from our nature.

To a great extent, the fascination of Foucault’s life stems from his efforts to escape from this dark view of human life as passive reception of power’s shaping blows. He attempted this escape in ­reflecting upon and engaging in sex. The first volume of his History of Sexuality (1976) was famous for rejecting the “repression hypothesis.” Foucault argued, against Freudians, that the nineteenth and twentieth ­centuries were not marked by repression of our innate erotic potency. To the contrary, we had been “made” erotic by an explosion of discourse about sex. As an enthusiastic Catholic supporter of Foucault, Maurice Clavel, revealed before the book’s publication, the volume “changes everything, once again! It shows—hold on tight—that for the last three hundred years . . . in the dynamism that constitutes our society, ­sexuality has not been repressed! On the contrary: it has been incited.” His interviewer could only exclaim, “Fichtre!” (“Gosh!”).

Foucault explained this incitement of certain normative forms of sexuality by using a new term, “biopolitics.” This form of power did not discipline the body through micro-­powers such as furniture (now called “anatomo-politics”). It changed populations through the application of sciences such as demography and sexology. An entire discourse on reproduction emerged, often freighted with anxiety about too few or too many children. Sexual desires, habits, and acts were described, categorized, and diagnosed in great detail. Interventions, therapies, and public campaigns were designed and executed. All of this and more did not arouse erotic potencies in modern men and ­women; it manufactured them.

It is no accident that Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics and biopower emerges in a history of the idea of “sexuality.” Though he elsewhere had plenty to say about sexual practices, often in explicit detail, sex itself was not his project in the History of ­Sexuality books. Rather, his aim was to “analyze a certain form of knowledge regarding sex, not in terms of repression or law, but in terms of power.” By his reckoning, the sexual revolutionary who sought to liberate desire was deeply misguided. “We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power,” Foucault argued. “On the contrary, one tracks along the course laid out by the general deployment of sexuality.”

If one cannot say no to power by saying yes to sex, then what is the answer? Foucault sought escape from power’s dominion through non-normative “bodies and pleasures.” Instead of sexual roles or “normal” desires, we can “counter the grips of powers with the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledge, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance.” Pleasure, he believed, had no normative overtones; it “is virgin territory, almost devoid of meaning. There is no pathology of pleasure, no ‘abnormal’ pleasure.” It simply is.

If this sounds suspiciously like sex under a different name, it is, but it also is not. Foucault’s participation in gay S&M clubs in California and New York convinced him that the gay life offers pleasures that are not genital. Drugs helped, of course. Foucault considered “poppers” (amyl nitrite) to be basic tools for the gay lifestyle. The drug creates feelings of euphoria and increases sexual desire and skin sensitivity. In sadomasochistic practice, the drug can make pleasurable a “sexuality” that has (at best) a remote connection to sex. The effect, argues Foucault, is to “deanatomize the localization of pleasure” away from the genital organs. It is not so much a sexual act as a “way of being” that allows one to be given over entirely to the surd of pleasure—and thus beyond the reach of power, which always seeks to give us form.

Given Foucault’s paeons to pleasure, it is surprising to hear him confess in an interview, “I think I have real difficulty in experiencing pleasure. . . . For me, it’s related to death.” But linking pleasure and death is entirely fitting, given Foucault’s ­assumptions.

Sex is relevant to biopolitics because sex is “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power.” It is a matter both of the body (anatomo-politics) and of the creation of life (biopolitics). To make pleasure our singular aim is to attempt to escape from the regimes of biopower, which work through normative sexuality and its connections to reproduction. In this respect, Foucault’s thinking parallels traditional moral systems, which also connect normative sex to reproduction. But that means that an escape from power into pure pleasure is simultaneously an attempt to escape from life.

“The kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn’t survive it,” Foucault continued in his interview. “I would die.” He reports that this insight came out of his own experience:

Once I was struck by a car in the street. I was walking. And for maybe two seconds I had the impression that I was dying and it was really a very, very intense pleasure. The weather was wonderful. It was 7 o’clock during the summer. The sun was descending. The sky was very wonderful and blue and so on. It was, it still is now, one of my best memories [Laughter].

In his lectures of 1975–76, just before the first volume of The History of Sexuality was published, he called attention to a shift: In modernity, death is no longer omnipresent and public, as in the Middle Ages, but rather is privatized. Death “has become the most private and shameful thing of all (and ultimately, it is now not so much sex as death that is the object of a taboo).”

For Foucault, the love that dare not speak its name was not homosexuality but the love of death—although homosexuality and death remained connected in his mind. In an essay in the first issue of a French gay magazine, Foucault wrote an essay on suicide, titled “A Pleasure So Simple.” He notes that psychological treatises point out that homosexuals are more likely to commit suicide. After painting a picture of suicidal “slim boys with pale cheeks,” he theorizes: “Instead of a wedding with the right sex, they marry death.” And why not? Suicide has “the form-without-form [la forme sans forme] of pleasure, absolutely simple.”

In Foucault’s metaphysics, we can have form—a soul—only insofar as we submit ourselves to the hammer-blows of power-relations. Freedom from power comes only in an embrace of formlessness. For Foucault, both the diffuse pleasures he experienced with S&M and, more permanently, death, escape the formative action of power. They are paragons of formlessness. Their formless and purposeless movement is ordered toward nothing—no possibility of new life on the one hand, nothing at all on the other. So, instead of “a wedding with the right sex”—a marriage that would naturally lead to children—­Foucault’s slim, pale boys unite themselves to the pleasure of nothingness. In this account, both suicide and the gay lifestyle function as rebellions against the primordial gift of life, which Foucault could only interpret as power’s progeny.

“Death is beyond the reach of power,” he reasoned. Death stands as “the moment when the individual escapes all power, falls back on himself and retreats, so to speak, into his own privacy.” It is the only reliable liberation.

In a transcendent framework, life is a gift and a reflection of the living God. The capacity for fullness of life is very real, an innate potency we possess. As St. Augustine says, “My heart is restless, until it finds its rest in thee.” This framework is not blind to power and its abuses. It recognizes that we are often in bondage, not just to our disordered desires, but to what St. Paul describes as “the principalities and powers” that rule our lives. These “regimes” of power are often well-described by Foucault.

Pope St. John Paul II pursued an analysis of these regimes. His introduction of the notion of “culture” into what are often treated as purely ethical matters resonates with the biopolitical analyses offered by scholars inspired by Foucault. In Evangelium ­Vitae, John Paul II insists that abortion and euthanasia are not strictly individual evils. Rather, they arise within the context of a “veritable structure of sin,” a “veritable ‘culture of death.’” There is a regime of death that isactively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.”

Yet the Polish pontiff’s analysis of power is not tempted by the Nietzschean nihilism that Foucault embraced. In the English translation of the encyclical, the word “power” and its variants are used forty-two times, but only eleven of these designate the threatening, dehumanizing power of the libido dominandi, the lust to dominate others. Most of the uses of “power” refer to God’s power, which is synonymous with his knowledge and love. In Christianity, as in Foucault’s thought, power gives form. But it does so for the sake of life, as the opening verses of Genesis testify so eloquently. God’s power confers potency, which in the human person includes a capacity for self-possession, freedom. We do not need to retreat into death in order to escape God’s power. On the contrary, his power gives not just life, but the possibility of eternal life.

Rumors circulate that Foucault asked for a Catholic burial, and his family certainly wanted it, though his partner, Defert, objected. What is known is that he was buried by the librarian of Saulchoir, Fr. Michel Albaric, in a minimally religious ceremony. Foucault’s admiring yet ironic attitude toward Catholicism is summed up by his declaration that the Church is “a superb instrument of power . . . completely woven from imaginary erotic, carnal and sensual elements. It’s superb.” Though Foucault never allowed for the Church’s divine origins, he captures something true here. The Church, through word and sacrament, is indeed a “superb instrument.” She channels the formative power of God to us, who are formed thereby more and more into his likeness. This new life is the true liberation. 

Angela Franks is professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston.