Michel Foucault 
by Didier Eribon, translated by Betsy Wing.
Faber, 374 pp., £25, August 1992, 0 571 14474 8
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Dryden’s gibe at the brilliant but wayward second Duke of Buckingham could be applied, with reservations, to Foucault:

A man so various, that he seemed to be

Not one, but all Mankind’s Epitome.

Stiff in Opinions, always in the wrong;

Was everything by starts, and nothing long.

He was certainly just as volatile. In his twenties a Stalin-quoting Communist, he later blamed the CP for blinding French intellectuals to the merits of his own work. In the Sixties a sharp critic and opponent of Jean-Paul Sartre, in the Seventies he joined him in public demonstrations. A compulsive reviser and re-writer, he several times promised books that never appeared. While often labelled a ‘structuralist’, he preferred the term ‘systems’ to structures’, and was cross when people asked what the difference was. Although a lifelong student of what society called ‘madness’ and an advocate of what he saw as its merits, when he left the anarchic new University of Vincennes he told a friend: ‘I had had enough of being surrounded by half-madmen.’ ‘He wore masks, and he was always changing them,’ said his mentor Georges Dumézil, the great specialist in Indo-European mythology. But it was more than a matter of masks. ‘No doubt,’ writes Didier Eribon, ‘there are several Foucaults – a thousand Foucaults, as Dumézil said.’ At all events, Eribon’s biography is a masterly effort to fuse them into one.

‘Writing a biography of Michel Foucault,’ he confesses, ‘may seem paradoxical. Did he not, on numerous occasions, challenge the notion of the author, thereby dismissing the very possibility of a biographical study?’ These are Eribon’s first two sentences: but nowhere in the book does he explore, let alone dismantle, Foucault’s telling but ultimately self-destructive rhetorical trope. Literary specialists may therefore be disappointed. Historians and philosophers will be much better pleased.

General readers (if they still exist) may marvel yet again at the public interest aroused in France by essentially academic debates. Where else could a challenging TV book programme like Apostrophes have held so large an audience for so long? Where else could Foucault’s Les mots et les choses have sold some 110,000 copies? Where else would a difficult professional philosopher be the subject of a biography within five years of his death? Bertrand Russell and A.J. Aycr wrote their own memoirs: but they were exceptional figures. Foucault was not of their stature; nor did he have the protean appeal of Sartre. But France is a country where shades of the classroom and the lecture-theatre can linger for a lifetime, and where many practising teachers, already equipped with their licences and their maîtrises, may still be studying at night for the Agrégation, perhaps a second or third time. Higher education is news, and academics are almost expected to become celebrities. In this propitious climate, Foucault gladly lived up to the image of the ‘committed’ intellectual – though his ‘commitments’ were always individual and sometimes a surprise.

He was born in Poitiers in 1926, and christened Paul-Michel. The ‘Paul’, which he later dropped, came from his father, a prosperous surgeon, whom Foucault disliked. This may have contributed to his sexual orientation: as a teenager, he began to realise that he was gay. In wartime and post-war France, that was a predicament: it harrowed Foucault to the point of attempted suicide until he met his lifelong lover Daniel Defert. In 1959, it even got him expelled from a teaching post in Poland after meeting a boy who turned out to be a Communist police spy. In later years, happy in his relationship with Defert, Foucault remarked to the psychiatrist Jacques Lacan: ‘There will be no civilisation as long as marriage between men is not accepted.’ ‘Later still, visiting New York and San Francisco, he enjoyed the sexual freedom that their gay communities offered, and he also experimented with drugs. ‘The joy of America for Foucault,’ writes Eribon,

was that he had finally achieved a reconciliation with himself. He was happy in his work. He was happy in the pleasure of the flesh. Starting in the early 1980s he gave very serious thought to leaving France – it was harder and harder for him to deal with Paris – and moving to the United States. He dreamed aloud of living in the Californian paradise. Sunny, magnificent

  But that was precisely where the new plague began to spread its agonising devastation.

Foucault died of Aids on 25 June 1984.

He had made good use of the 58 years allotted to him – at times against considerable odds. War had disrupted his schooling: at the age of 14, after a bad year in the Poitiers Lycée Henri IV, he had been moved to a Jesuit college, which he detested. His father had wanted him to be a doctor: but Foucault had been intent on the École Normale Supérieure, alma mater of Sartre, Aron and Merleau-Ponty, so he had enrolled for two more years at an austere public lycée in Poitiers. Paris, in wartime, had seemed out of the question. At his first attempt, Foucault failed the École Normale entrance examination: so in 1945, with the war over, he went to the Paris Lycée Henri IV to prepare a second try. This time he succeeded – but he disliked the communal life at the École Normale, and in 1950 he failed his Agrégation. When he took it again he tied for third place.

Setbacks and criticisms recurred at intervals throughout his career. When he presented his thesis – successfully – for a doctorat d’etat in 1961, the official report mentioned ‘a certain indifference to the drudgery that always accompanies the most elevated work’ and ‘a spontaneous tendency to go beyond the facts’. Even Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1967 film La Chinoise made fun of the fashion for being seen with Foucault’s Les mots et les choses (if not actually reading it), told an interviewer: ‘If I don’t particularly like Foucault, it’s because of his saying “At such and such a period they thought...” That’s fine with me, but how can we be so sure?’ And in 1970, when Foucault was admitted to the Collège de France, not one of the voting members of the Académie des Sciences Morales supported him.

One reason for such reactions may have been his sweeping, flamboyant, sometimes impenetrable prose. ‘Do you know why one writes?’ he once asked an assistant. ‘To be loved.’ But he also spoke of ‘this mania, this filthy habit of writing for five or six hours a day’; and about one manuscript he wrote: ‘I willingly concede that the style is unbearable (one of my flaws is not being naturally clear).’ Didier Eribon quotes as ‘magnificent’ a passage from Foucault’s Naissance de la clinique that seems a case in point:

The living night is dissipated in the brightness of death ... Life, disease, and death now form a technical and conceptual trinity The continuity of the age-old beliefs that placed the threat of disease in life, and of the approaching presence of death in disease is broken; in its place is articulated a triangular figure the summit of which is defined by death. It is from the height of death mat one can see and analyse organic dependences and pathological sequences.

Even in his youthful Communist days, teaching at the École Normale Supérieure, he had been thought of as eccentric, orthodox Communist students there called him and his friends the groupe folklorique. In 1966, when Les mots et les choses appeared, he was attacked for his remark that ‘Marxism exists in 19th-century thought in the same way as a fish exists in water; that is, it stops breathing anywhere else,’ A writer in Cahiers du Communisme declared: ‘Michel Foucault’s anti-historical prejudice holds up only because it is underpinned by a neo-Nietzschean ideology that serves too well, whether he is aware of this or not, the designs of a class whose only interest is to mask the objective choice of a path toward the future.’ In an interview in the review L’Arc, Jean-Paul Sartre added: ‘Marxism is the target. It is a matter of establishing a new ideology, the final dam that the bourgeoisie can erect against Marx.’ A few years later, at Vincennes, Foucault was reproached for not having ‘done anything’ during the événements of May 1968. The fact that he had actually been in Tunis, protecting students from police brutality there, did not prevent his being labelled ‘a Gaullist’.

Within two years, however, Foucault had changed again, to become a left-wing radical activist and a target of obloquy from the Right. It may have been in response to the environment of Vincennes: it was almost certainly under the influence of his lover Daniel Defert. Already in the early Sixties, when he was teaching at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, Foucault had been severely criticised for having Defert appointed as an assistant in the philosophy department. In those lax days, that was virtually par for the course. At Clermont, Foucault was one of the turbo-profs, then known as ‘sputniks’, who commuted from Paris rather than live in the provinces: he crammed all his classes into one day a week so as to spend only one night in a local hotel. When finally he left Clermont, it was his old friend and colleague Jean Sirinelli who found him his place in Tunisia. Another former colleague, Jean Gattegno, responsible for books at the Ministry of Culture, telephoned Foucault to ask who he thought should be given the Grand Prix National des Lettres. Foucault’s nominee got it. Finally, when he was seeking admission to the Collége de France, Foucault ‘visited with influential professors’ to secure support.

At Vincennes, whether through favouritism or not, Daniel Defert became a lecturer in sociology. He already moved in Maoist circles, and this no doubt influenced his friend and colleague. At all events, as Didier Eribon says, ‘starting in 1970, Foucault became a public figure.’ He was to be seen at numerous left-wing demonstrations – tall, completely bald, with piercing eyes behind metal-framed spectacles, usually wearing a white polo-necked sweater, sometimes in company with Sartre, and often with Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. He campaigned for dissident students and teachers, for prison reform, against racism, against the holding of personal criminal records, and against Franco’s execution of prisoners in Spain. Not all the causes he backed were sound: a pamphlet he and his colleagues produced in 1971 declared:

These are intolerable:



     hospitals, asylums

     school, military service

     the press, television

     the State.

He also rhapsodised about the revolution against the Shah of Iran, and was discountenanced but not deterred when an Iranian woman wrote to Le Nouvel Observateur:

There are many Iranians, like myself, who are distraught and in despair over the idea of an ‘Islamic government’. They know what they are talking about. Everywhere, all over Iran, Islam serves as a screen for feudal or pseudo-revolutionary oppression. Often, also, as in Tunisia or Pakistan, in Indonesia and in Iran. Islam, alas, is the sole means of expression for muzzled populations. The liberal left in the West ought to know what an iron mantle Islamic law is capable of becoming, for societies who are eager for change. It should not let itself be seduced by a remedy that is worse, perhaps, than the illness.

In response, Foucault admitted that ‘the problem of Islam as a political force is one of the essential problems for our times and for the years to come.’ In the last of a series of articles for Il Corriere della Sera he added: Islam ‘is liable to constitute a gigantic powderkeg’. Altogether, in fact, if some of his proclamations seemed excessive, Foucault tended to qualify them later, and he actually deplored the greater excesses of the Maoists and La Cause du Peuple. He protested against the extradition of Klaus Croissant, lawyer to the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, but refused to condone the crimes committed by his clients. Defending the role of the intellectual as ‘trimmer’, and condemning political expediency from whatever quarter, he wrote in Le Monde: ‘My theoretical morality is the opposite. It is “anti-strategic”: be respectful when singularity rises up, and intransigent when power infringes on the universal.’ Characteristically, in September 1975, when a young militant asked him to discuss Marx, he exclaimed: ‘I never want to hear anything about that man again. Ask someone whose job it is. Someone paid to do it. Ask the Marxist functionaries. Me, I’ve had enough of Marx.’

It was in areas closest to his own academic work that Foucault was perhaps most tempted to adopt extreme positions. Although paradoxical, that was understandable. In Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique  and in Naissance de la clinique he made an original and lasting contribution to understanding the historical development of asylums and hospitals – an approach he later extended to prisons in Surveiller et punir. In doing so, he examined the assumptions or systems of thought underlying them. This was what made some miscall him a ‘structuralist’ and others unjustly impugn the authenticity of his research. In the written submission required of candidates for admission to the Collége de France, Foucault explained:

In Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, I wanted to determine what could be known about mental illness at a given period. Such knowledge, of course, is manifested in the medical theories ... They can also be seen in phenomena of opinion ... represented in theatre or literature ... But there was a dimension that seemed unexplored to me: it was necessary to study how madmen were recognised, set aside, excluded from society, interned, and treated ... in short, what was the network of institutions and practices in which the madman was simultaneously caught and defined ... Rather than perusing the library of scientific books, as one so happily does, I had to visit a group of archives including decrees, regulations, hospital or prison registers, judicial precedents. Working at the Arsenal or the National Archives, I began the analysis of a knowledge whose visible body is neither theoretical or scientific discourse nor literature, but a regular, daily, practice.

  The example of madness, however, did not seem sufficiently pertinent ... It seemed to me that clinical medicine, at the moment of its birth, put the problem in more rigorous terms ... The practice of medicine makes up an unstable mixture of rigorous science and uncertain tradition, but it is not limited to this; it is constructed like a system of knowledge with its own equilibrium and coherency.

  It could be generally conceded, therefore, that there are realms of knowledge that cannot exactly be called sciences and yet are more than mere mental habits ... This knowledge takes shape not only in theoretical texts or experimental instruments, but in a whole system of practices and institutions.

In Les mots et les choses and L'archeologie du savoir, he further examined the mental grip exerted by such ‘systems of thought’, largely determining what was ‘thinkable’ in any given period, Hence his conscious effort to challenge the orthodoxies of his own time: hence his relative tolerance of those who, he said, used his work as a ‘tool’ to promote the extremes of Laingian anti-psychiatry; hence his own rejection of the prison system.

It would be tempting to associate Foucault’s championing of the excluded – ‘lunatics’ and convicts – with his own sense of exclusion as a homosexual in the France of his day. As on other topics, Didier Eribon presents the evidence, but refrains from making the point. Although sometimes contusing because of its sparse use of dates, his biography is a warts and all portrait of a brilliant, erratic, difficult man, and a highly accessible guide to his changing political opinions and his complex enduring work. The translation is a little laboured but quite serviceable. In the prelims ‘Didier Eribon is hereby identified as translator of this work.’ That would seem to be taking ‘the death of the author’ rather too literally.

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Vol. 14 No. 20 · 22 October 1992

Richard Mayne’s review (LRB, 10 September) of Didier Eribon’s new biography of the French social theorist Foucault is infuriating. Mayne walks all around the key contradiction in Foucault: namely, that his entire theoretical edifice was designed to attack the Left, yet Foucault himself openly associated with the political Far Left.

Keith Flett
London N17

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