Pity the poor biographer who must spend the first page of his text persuading serious readers that his subject, Michel Foucault, was in fact, despite having theorized for decades to the contrary, both a distinct human being and a genuine “author.”[1] Apparently, today’s fashionable audience, much influenced by Foucault himself, would prefer to regard the writer in terms of an impersonal “circulation of discourses” somehow flowing through but not truly generated by a discrete living being with a particular character, personal history, sensibility—or even (perhaps especially) a singular corporeal body. This substitution of systemic “functions” for individual personality, and thus for individual responsibility, effectually denies the very idea—or should I say “construct”?—of selfhood. For Didier Eribon, an editor at the Nouvel Observateur, this is only the first of many absurdities to be overcome in recounting the life of the man who, through more than fifteen volumes in thirty years, struggled to establish as academic doctrine the topsy-turvy notion that thought precedes thinkers and that human minds are hopelessly captive to historically specific paradigms conditioning all action and all possible conceptualizaton: “Before any human existence, there would already be a discursive knowledge, a system that we will rediscover.” This fatalism gave rise to the conviction that one can only expose, and practice, purely rhetorical “games of ‘truth’” —a bit of neo-sophistry that would be laughable, did a two-decade dominion over the younger American professoriat not supply it a self-fulfilling and frightening credibility.

Who was this impressively bald magus in signature turtleneck, famous worldwide for bringing the Promethean fire of discourse to those—the mad, the criminal, and the sexually oppressed—who were, he alleged, previously voiceless? Certainly one thing revealed in this not otherwise enchanting rehearsal of a highly formalized academic career—a dutiful chronicle which tends to ignore the subject’s evident internal turmoil—is that the ne plus ultra critic of Power was himself a coolly accomplished operator: a political chameleon and old-fashioned university careerist of consummate skill. Georges Dumézil, the eminent mythologist who helped campaign behind the scenes for Foucault’s election to the Collège de France, put it best: “He wore masks, and he was always changing them.” Communist as a student under the spell of his teacher Louis Althusser, virulent anti-Communist after his disillusionment with Stalin’s “doctors’ plot”; junior advisor to the Gaullist ministries of education in the early days of his career, later director of the philosophy department at the constantly embattled ultra-left University of Vincennes; celebrant of the Socialist victory of François Mitterrand in 1981, bitter assailant of the government’s passivity when, seven months later, Poland was invaded by Soviet tanks in a last-ditch attempt to preserve late socialism from the reforms of Solidarity; excoriator of the penal system, appalled to learn that modern Western prisons actually curtail the liberties of their inmates, but who nevertheless defended the Muslim fundamentalist regime of Iran’s noted libertarian, the Ayatollah Khomeini; beloved and accessible prof, solicitous friend to Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, and others, yet one quick to rise in ferocious how-dare-they rages at anyone who disagreed with his opinions.

What, the great unmasker himself a devotee of metamorphosis and disguises, a bureaucratic schemer preparing a face to meet the faces that he meets? We should not be surprised, for dissembling and theatricality—and Foucault’s writing is rife with both—are typical strategies of those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have some personal stigma to conceal. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.” Among the sage’s disciples, over-glorification of the most basic fact of his psychological life, a low-grade paranoia (“we live in a state of ‘custody,’” etc.), has become tantamount to a suppression of the most fundamental truth about his studiously ambiguous—and immensely influential— philosophical work. For Foucault himself seems to have regarded homosexuality as the defining trauma of his existence.

The facts of the life go a long way toward correcting the myth of a pure disinterested mind, even though Eribon in his determination to get the legend-clouded story straight (and perhaps to protect the intellectual reputation which alone justifies the existence of this narratively pedestrian book) tends to gloss over some of the most resonant biographical data. For example, he makes virtually nothing of the information that Foucault, born in 1926 in Poitiers, was the son of a surgeon and professor of anatomy, and the grandson of still more surgeon-teachers on both sides of his family. Or that the dropped first half of his true hyphenated name, Paul-Michel, was the name of his father and paternal grandfather. Or that he grew up Catholic, a choirboy and acolyte, schooled from the age of fourteen by Christian brothers. Or that the Poitiers of his youth was Vichy territory, German- occupied and grimly awash with refugees and intrigue. We might consider all this mere esoterica and be grateful that, in an age of rampant psychobiography, we have been spared wild speculations on tiresome oedipal themes. We might—were Foucault not the man who went on to compose such books as The Birth of the Clinic and to elaborate intricate, darkly compelling theories about the Kafkaesque perniciousness of medical scrutiny.

Consider, too, what a biographer of proper instinct might have made of the observation that throughout his long academic preparation Foucault, first-born son of a provincially prominent family, suffered “no lack of money.” Happy as we might be for him in this regard, it is a state of affairs ill-suited to prepare anyone—let alone an habitué of archives and libraries who, as a lowly instructor, could tool around in a beige Jaguar—to plumb the real thought processes, the visceral desires and aversions, of the earth’s laboring majority, or to interpret the “discourse,” subterranean or otherwise, of the truly dispossessed. Foucault, for instance, later explained his youthful membership in the Communist Party with chilling hauteur: “What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin’s USSR and Truman’s America … ? Many young intellectuals, of whom I was one, considered a bourgeois-type professional future—professor, journalist, writer, whatever—to be intolerable. Experience itself had demonstrated the necessity and urgency of creating a radically different society from the one we knew.” Well, apart from the snobbish dismissal of a “bourgeois-type professional future” which is in fact the dream of the poor and working-class everywhere, this rationalization is breathtaking in its absolute failure of moral and political discrimination. Blandly to equate the America of Truman—the America, that is, of the $12-billion Marshall Plan reconstruction of Europe—with the slave empire of Joseph Stalin would be a catastrophe in any thinker, but particularly in one whose special province is the preservation of a radical freedom against insidious threats and “whose entire oeuvre,” according to Eribon, “can be read as a revolt against the powers of ‘normalization.’” What is actually revealed in these pages is the story of a pampered boy becoming a self-important, if haunted, young man who eventually produces a very substantial body of provocative, though methodologically suspect, new scholarship while engaging with radical causes vigorously enough to satisfy the contrarian temper of his milieu (intellectual Paris of the Sixties and Seventies) but not so egregiously as to scotch his extremely comfortable position at the very pinnacle of a meticulously stratified French academic hierarchy. Foucault was, if such is possible, a cautious radical—his Communist phase having occurred, for example, in that seething caldron of the oppressed masses, the Ecole Normale Supérieure.

We probably need look no farther than the almost sadistic rigors of the elite French educational system in order to fathom our subject’s eventual loathing of surveillance, hierarchy, and judgment. No namby-pamby A-F standard applied in this domain, but a strict and public numerical designation of one’s standing—always within a given class and sometimes in regional and national tallies, often complemented by witheringly detailed oral critiques before one’s assembled classmates. Such was the system that could subject even Foucault, whom one job recommender called “l’être le plus intelligent qu’il eût connu,” to the humiliation of having to make two tries at the entrance exams for the Ecole Normale and, later, two tries at the agrégation (a particularly brutal rite of passage involving twenty hours of written exams, a “little oral” in the form of a lecture on a randomly assigned topic, and a “big oral” requiring four tests, another lecture, and colloquy on texts in French, Latin, and Greek.)

Nevertheless, in 1946 Foucault, about to turn twenty, was one of thirty-eight young men admitted to that sanctum sanctorum, the ENS faculty on the rue d’Ulm, the nation’s supreme institution of higher education in the humanities, from which its academic and political aristocracy are to this day drawn with unapologetic clubbishness. Here tradition dictated that vaunting peculiarity of character, or anyhow of behavior, should accompany individualistic brilliance. But Foucault seems to have exceeded even the perverse normalien standard, becoming widely despised for his solitary, dismissive arrogance and his proclivity for melodrama: chasing a fellow student through the night with a dagger and making several suicide attempts, one of which involved slicing his chest with a razor. These desperate gestures the school doctor attributed to “an extreme difficulty in experiencing and accepting his homosexuality”—a conclusion Eribon supplements with the image of a young Foucault repeatedly ill, literally prostrate with shame, after returning from a night of cruising. For Foucault, the transition from hiding to exposure, from deep inner conflict to semipublic confession and “therapy,” was bridged when his father, whose wish that he follow a medical career Foucault had rejected, came to escort him to the office of a famous psychiatrist at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne. Ironically, Sainte-Anne was one of several facilities (including the prison hospital in Fresnes) where Foucault, taking certification in psychology from the Sorbonne and the Institut de Psychologie, would himself clinically observe patients and hear expert evaluations from specialists.

During these formative years, Foucault’s major intellectual influences were Hegel and to a much lesser degree Marx, viewed as champions of unconditional Freedom, their historical comprehensiveness seasoned with the racy iconoclasm of Nietzsche (the supreme example of a “literary” historian and philosopher, not one of whose major tenets will stand up to objective examination), reinforced by the lyricism-disguised-as-hypotheses of Georges Bataille, valued for contending that mankind is always more and other than any formulation applied to it—a thrilling assertion, until we pause to ask, what isn’t?—and the murky ruminations of the metaphysician of Being and Nazi collaborator, Martin Heidegger. After five years of classwork, Foucault undertook his first appointments as an agrégé at the ENS (where his students included Jacques Derrida), the University of Lille, the University of Uppsala in Sweden (where he went in the vain hope of finding greater homosexual tolerance), Warsaw (where official reaction to a romantic misadventure precipitated a quick departure), and Hamburg (where he completed that last of his thesis-writing). By the time he returned to Paris to defend his minor thesis (an annotated translation of Kant’s Anthropology) and his major thesis (the 943-page original of Madness and Civilization), he was thirty-four years old and ready to produce the monumental studies of manipulative interrogation, direct and indirect, inflicted upon all Westerners, especially the marginal—the societally and, by internalization, personally shamed. “Expressed through courts, prisons, hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, occupational medicine, universities, the press, and informational organs—through all these institutions under different disguises, exists a form of oppression that is deeply rooted in the political.” Foucault himself went on serving time, as it were—teaching at Clermont-Ferrand, Tunis, and the new and outlying Vincennes before being elected to the Collège de France at the remarkably young age of forty-four. Finally he could enjoy the kind of latitude any academic foot soldier longs for: a load of twenty-four teaching hours per year—twelve in public lectures, twelve in a classroom setting—typically condensed into a three-month residency. The only catch was that the presentations were to be on one’s current, professionally cutting-edge research —a proviso about which Foucault complained bitterly and often: “I started writing by chance. And once one has begun, one is a prisoner of this activity; it is impossible to escape.” We can only imagine how he would have felt about putting in forty-five years on an assembly line for Peugot.

Given the unrelenting discipline and monitoring Foucault endured during the first four decades of his life, it may be only natural that his works manifest that quality noted by early examiners who found the candidate “more concerned with demonstrating his erudition than with treating the subject proposed.” Arguably, it is to be expected that the afflicted Foucault would cultivate a prose style and a recursive compositional structure consonant with his own tortuous writing process—forcing the reader, too, “to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next … to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension… .” The resultant prose—more psychic discharge than honest investigation—is, for all the beauty and stylistic finesse that Eribon finds in it, an instrument of annoying prolixity, its deliberately mystifying effects created by passages that begin in jolting specificity only to slide, with majestic periodicity, into utter ambiguity and evasiveness. “What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing—with a rather shaky hand—a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again? I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.”

Less forgivable, however, is Foucault’s tendency to misrepresent historical reality, to distort the lived experience of previous ages for the sake of righting putative psychological wrongs in our own. How implicitly can we trust a study of imprisonment written by a man who took up the cause of the recidivist stick-up man Roger Knobelspiess in a manner reminiscent of Norman Mailer’s misbegotten freedom campaign for the killer Jack Abbott, and who, beginning two months after his election to the Collège de France, produced pamphlets containing sentiments such as “These are intolerable: courts, cops, hospitals, asylums, school, military service, the press, television, the State”? Nowhere is special pleading more obvious than in Foucault’s four-volume, purportedly definitive History of Sexuality— a treatment which largely ignores actual sexual practices and the erotic mentalities of most individuals in order to argue, from a very few selective sources, that the primary dynamics of Western sexuality have been an authoritarian nosiness among heterosexuals, coupled with “the disappearance of friendship as a social relation and the declaration of homosexuality as a social-political-medical problem.” If this sounds just a bit askew—neglectful of such incidental concerns as, oh, the family, say—bear in mind that the author believed that “there will be no civilization as long as marriage between men is not accepted.”

Today, of course, virtual marriage between men, along with much else on Foucault’s agenda, is well established— yielding no discernible elevation in the general level of culture. Is it not time for someone to suggest that, just maybe, Foucault based his theory of civilization on an irrelevancy—the sexual orientation and adventurousness of the citizenry rather than their personal integrity and collective public-spiritedness; society’s degree of condoned licentiousness rather than its equity and adamant justness? Foucault was explicit about the villainous role any coherent system would play in his universe: “this is the discovery of ‘there is.’ There is one … not setting man, but anonymous thought, knowledge without a subject, theory with no identity, in God’s place.”

Yes, no denying it, societal sanctions do function, particularly for the misfit, in a manner not unlike the Greek mechanism of fate and cosmic equilibrium, or the unanswerable Judeo-Christian “I am that I am.” Clearly, this is not the age of Saint Augustine; one does not become a culture hero of Foucault’s stature by saying, in effect, “I, too, have sinned and come short of the glory”—and then getting on with the business of reconciliation and living. No, it will not do to be a penitent; one must be nothing less than a metaphysical Rebel— hence, all mournful protestation to the contrary, the deep response of so many cossetted academics to the lure of the clandestine, the diabolic, the Sadean. The heroic paranoid, loath above all to be simply ignored by an indifferent “order of things,” posits a cosmological conspiracy against himself, communicated in the most innocuous interactions of everyday life.

Homosexuality lends itself to just such an argument against the facts of life, for ultimately “there is” a division of the human species into sexes as a means of procreation, and it is precisely there, whether in consent or opposition, that sexuality and its genuine history begin. Foucault, with his tremendous intellectual prowess, could carry his sublimated defiance to inordinate lengths. Indeed, it was not until he began frequenting the United States, especially San Francisco and New York, in the Seventies and early Eighties, that his homosexuality was made fully and at last joyfully public. Here he gave interviews to gay publications, participated in gay political actions, and enthusiastically patronized gay hangouts. The sadomasochistic themes of those most-favored clubs, along with their labyrinthine physical and experiential structures, so akin to the central metaphor of Foucault’s work, Eribon passes over in silence—not one to contemplate their lyrical appositeness for the author of The History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish.

Foucault himself might have been a little more forthright in making connections among the availability of these hedonistic indulgences, the prevalence of civic liberties in the U.S., and the inventiveness of the capitalist entrepreneurial system. But quite the opposite tended to occur: Americans, who did not grow up with the class-bound or traditionalist or religious contingencies Foucault found so insufferable, adopted his analysis as if it legitimately applied to the U.S., where, though not perfectly eliminated, those strictures are—in historically and geo-culturally relative terms—astonishingly minimal. Exasperations of this sort are legion when dealing with Foucault’s legacy among Americans, so taken with European intellectual dandyism, so infatuated with the mystic Continent, where a good mind is groomed and ever-so-discreetly paraded like a good lineage, a chic wardrobe, and an elegant paramour—forgetting that the point is not to be intelligent but to perform intelligently, the final test of which, with or without maudit posturing and formal chinoiserie, lies in the validity of one’s conclusions. There, of course, is exactly where the intellectual boulevardier—the Nietzsche or Bataille—so often goes astray, having based his pronouncements not on empirical data and stringent positivist logic but on poetically solipsistic Theory. “Do you know why one writes?” Foucault once asked a friend. “To be loved.” Perhaps, contrary to his model of involution and aleatory encounters, civilization begins the moment we accept that, sooner or later, we do meet those eyes again, we do have to face each other in the morning, and assume an identity that sticks. Perhaps the secret is to write not for love—or, as one suspects in this case, the awed esteem of one’s readers and peers—but with love… . Or so some other literary philosopher might contend.

What can we say about Foucault’s conclusions, inseparable from his long anti-Enlightenment campaign? We know very well what alternatives are left by the dismissal of representative democracy and investigative science. They abound in the history of suf- ferings that Foucault chose either to overlook or blithely to prefer, for others, to the horrors of positivist regulation. Should our medical establishment revert, then, to the methods of a Swaziland “healer”—practices that are, in context, probably no less intrusive than our own? The wrenching tragedy is that Foucault, a probing and compendious intellect both inevitable and necessary in the postmodern debate, saw his own productivity cut short, his life ended in 1984 at the age of fifty-seven, by a virus which will be conquered only through the very procedures he most despised. Patient interviews, blood tests, prophylactic measures, laboratory experimentation, drug trials, contagion studies, sexual continence—these are the, on balance, not so terrible price we must now pay for public safety and personal health. No shaman’s chant, no casting of bones will cure AIDS.

“The eighteenth century invented freedoms, no doubt, but it provided them with a deep, solid substratum—the disciplinary society from which we still derive.” Foucault wrote that sentence as a severe opprobrium. Yet much in our current situation, and his own life and death, would give us ample reason to reconsider it in a far different light.


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  1. Michel Foucault, by Didier Eribon, translated from the French by Betsy Wing; Harvard University Press, 374 pages, $27.95. Go back to the text.