Thinking about life: Michel Foucault

By ROGER KIMBALL  |  Aug. 12, 2002 at 1:37 PM
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NEW YORK, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- You do not have to be a student of philosophy to have heard the name Michel Foucault.

By the 1970s, the French philosopher, who died from an AIDS-related illness in 1984 at the age of 57, had achieved a celebrity that reached far beyond the walls of the university.

One of Foucault's biographers did not exaggerate when he speculated that by the time of his death Foucault was "perhaps the single most famous intellectual in the world."

If Foucault did not quite equal the celebrity of his compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre, he certainly rivaled it.

And Foucault was famous for the same reasons that Sartre was famous: ex officio for his "brilliance" -- philosophers are never anything but brilliant, of course -- but above all for his radical persona, his aura of existential daring, outre opinions, and apparently daring philosophy of life.

In Foucault, the taboo became flesh and was presiding over graduate seminars.

Foucault's radicalism had two dimensions. One was personal.

Foucault came into his own in the 1960s, and gleefully took part in the violent student demonstrations at the University of Vincennes outside Paris where he was a professor.

In January 1969, he followed students to the roof of a building and joined them in hurling stones at police. (But he was nonetheless careful, his biographer tells us, "not to dirty his beautiful black velour suit.")

Like Sartre, Foucault never met a revolutionary piety he didn't like.

He championed various extreme forms of Marxism, including Maoism; he supported the Ayatollah Khomeini, even when the Ayatollah's fundamentalist cadres set about murdering thousands of Iranian citizens.

In 1978, looking back to the postwar period, Foucault asked: "What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin's USSR and Truman's America?"

But Foucault's personal radicalism was not only political, it was also sexual.

Or rather, his political radicalism -- ostentatiously anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, anti-"the West" -- was inextricably intertwined with an addiction to sadomasochistic homosexuality. (Foucault explicitly celebrated the Marquis de Sade, though he felt that Sade "had not gone far enough.")

When Foucault was introduced to the sexual underground of San Francisco, he found it "a place of dumbfounding excess that left him happily speechless."

Foucault came to enjoy imagining "suicide festivals" or "orgies" in which sex and death would mingle in the ultimate anonymous encounter. Those planning suicide, he mused, could look "for partners without names, for occasions to die liberated from every identity."

Identity and its obliteration loomed large on Foucault's agenda.

Explaining his fondness for the bath houses and nightclubs he frequented -- and where he most likely contracted AIDS -- Foucault noted: "You meet men (in the clubs) who are to you as you are to them: nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible. You cease to be imprisoned in your own face, in your own past, in your own identity."

The static of philosophical rhetoric in Foucault's meditation about the advantages S&M clubs is not an accident.

Like his followers, Foucault had great difficulty separating his sex life from his philosophical theories. For him sadomasochism was not simply a personal preference; it was a form of philosophical inquiry.

Indeed, Foucault put sex at the center of his philosophical program. He wrote a multi-volume history of sexuality, which turned out to be a reflection mostly on power relations.

By the same token, his other work -- which dealt largely with such topics as the history of madness and the evolution of prisons and judicial punishment -- returned again and again to the question of power.

Foucault's personal radicalism was deeply implicated in philosophical radicalism.

He came bearing the bad news that every institution, no matter how benign it seemed, is "really" a scene of unspeakable domination and subjugation.

According to Foucault, efforts at enlightened reform -- of asylums, of prisons, of society at large -- have been little more than alibis for extending state power.

In his view, all human relationships are, at bottom, deadly struggles for mastery.

At the center of Foucault's teaching is the proposition that truth itself is merely a coefficient of coercion.

What should we think of Foucault's philosophy?

One prominent academic assured his readers that "Foucault extended the limits of what could count as an admirable human life."

Another declared that Foucault "expanded modern knowledge in profoundly important and original ways."

The historian Paul Veyne, Foucault's colleague at the College de France, described him as "the most important event in the thought of our century."

Fortunately, we need not agree with these commendations.

Foucault is admired above all for practicing an exemplary suspicion about the topics he investigated.

He is supposed to have been a supreme intellectual anatomist, ruthlessly laying bare the hidden power relations, dark motives and ideological secrets that infect bourgeois society and that fester unacknowledged in the hearts and minds of everyone.

It is curious, though, that Foucault's acolytes bring so little suspicion to the master's own claims.

Consider the central Foucauldian contention that objective truth is a "chimera," that truth is always and everywhere a function of power, of "multiple forms of constraint."

Some version of this claim is propagated as gospel by academics across the country.

But wait: is this startling contention true?

Is it in fact the case that truth is always relative to a "regime of truth," i.e., to politics?

If you say: "Yes, it is true," then you plunge directly into contradiction -- for haven't we just dispensed with this "naive" idea of truth? -- and the logical cornerstone of Foucault's epistemology crumbles.

Or consider the proposition that Michel Foucault is a kind of latter-day avatar of Friedrich Nietzsche.

It is not so much argued as taken for granted that Foucault, like Nietzsche, was the very epitome of the lonely but profound philosophical hero, thinking thoughts too deep -- and too dangerous --for most of us.

Foucault himself assiduously promoted the idea that he was a modern-day Nietzsche.

In fact, the comparison between Foucault and Nietzsche is a calumny upon Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche has a lot to answer for, including the popularity of figures like Foucault.

But whatever one thinks of Nietzsche's philosophy and influence, it is difficult not to admire his courage and single-minded commitment to the philosophical life.

Wracked by ill health -- migraines, vertigo, and severe digestive complaints -- Nietzsche had to quit his teaching position at the University of Basel when he was in his mid-30s.

From then on he led an isolated, impoverished, celibate life, subsisting in various cheap pensioni in Italy and Switzerland.

He had but few friends. His work was almost totally ignored. "Beyond Good and Evil," one of his most important books, sold a total of 114 copies in a year. Yet he quietly persevered.

And Foucault? After attending the most elite French schools -- the Lycee Henri IV, the Ecole Normale Superieure, the Sorbonne -- he held a series of academic appointments in France, Poland, Germany, Sweden and Tunisia.

The jobs were low-paying, but the budding philosopher was aided in his program of resistance by generous subsidies from his parents.

In the 1950s, when he was a lowly instructor at the University of Uppsala, he acquired a Jaguar and proceeded to drive "like a madman" around town, shocking staid Uppsalian society. Talk about challenging convention!

Foucault also enjoyed the esteem of gullible intellectuals everywhere. His book "Les Mots et Les Choses" (The Order of Things) became a best-seller in 1966, catapulting him to international fame.

The crowning recognition came in 1970 when, at the unusually young age of 44, Foucault was elected to the College de France, the very pinnacle of French academic culture.

But Foucault differed from Nietzsche in more than such outward trappings. The fundamental world outlooks of the two men were radically different.

Basically, Foucault was Nietzsche's ape. He adopted some of Nietzsche's rhetoric about power and imitated some of his verbal histrionics. But Foucault never achieved anything like Nietzsche's insight or originality.

Nietzsche may have been seriously wrong in his understanding of modernity: he may have mistaken one part of the story -- the rise of secularism -- for the whole tale; but few men have struggled as passionately with the problem of nihilism as did Nietzsche.

Foucault simply flirted with nihilism as one more "experience."

Foucault was addicted to extremity.

He epitomized to perfection a certain type of decadent Romantic, a type that Nietzsche warned against when he spoke of "those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness."

Foucault's insatiable craving for new, ever more thrilling "experiences" was a sign of weakness, not daring.

Here, too, Nietzsche is a far better guide than Foucault. "All men now live through too much and think through too little," Nietzsche wrote in 1880. "They suffer at the same time from extreme hunger and from colic, and therefore become thinner and thinner, no matter how much they eat -- Whoever says now, ``I have not lived through anything' -- is an ass."

Foucault once described his writing as a "labyrinth." He was right. The question is: why should we wish to enter it?

Foucault's personal perversions involved him in private tragedy. The celebration of his intellectual perversions by academics continues to be a public scandal.

The career of this "representative man" of the 20th century really represents one of the biggest con jobs in recent intellectual history.

(Roger Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion)

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