August 28, 2007
An extract from Roger Kimball’s long, amusing essay, The Perversions of Michel Foucault, in which he casts an eye over Foucault’s pretensions, and those of his biographer, James Miller:
“In some ways, The Passion of Michel Foucault is a revival of [Miller’s] earlier book [Democracy is in the Streets], done over with a French theme and plenty of black leather. Hence it is not surprising that when Mr. Miller gets around to the student riots of 1968, his prose waxes dithyrambic as gratified nostalgia fires his imagination. It is as if he were reliving his lost - or maybe not-so-lost - childhood.
‘The disorder was intoxicating. Billboards were ripped apart, sign posts uprooted, scaffolding and barbed wire pulled down, parked cars tipped over… The mood was giddy, the atmosphere festive. ‘Everyone instantly recognized the reality of their desires,’ one participant wrote shortly afterward, summing up the prevailing spirit. ‘Never had the passion for destruction been shown to be more creative.’
Foucault himself, unfortunately, had to miss out on the first wave of riots, since he was teaching at the University of Tunis. But his lover Daniel Defert was in Paris and kept him abreast of developments by holding a transistor radio up to the telephone receiver for hours on end. Later that year, Foucault was named head of the department of philosophy at the University of Vincennes outside Paris. The forty-three-year-old professor of philosophy then got a chance to abandon himself to the intoxication. In January 1969, a group of five hundred students seized the administration building and amphitheatre, ostensibly to signal solidarity with their brave colleagues who had occupied the Sorbonne earlier that day. In fact, as Mr. Miller suggests, the real point was ‘to explore, again, the creative potential of disorder.’ Mr. Miller is very big on ‘the creative potential of disorder.’ Foucault was one of the few faculty who joined the students. When the police arrived, he followed the recalcitrant core to the roof in order to ‘resist.’ Mr. Miller reports proudly that while Foucault ‘gleefully’ hurled stones at the police, he was nonetheless ‘careful not to dirty his beautiful black velour suit.’
It was shortly after this encouraging episode that Foucault shaved his skull and emerged as a ubiquitous countercultural spokesman. His ‘politics’ were consistently foolish, a combination of solemn chatter about ‘transgression,’ power, and surveillance, leavened by an extraordinary obtuseness about the responsible exercise of power in everyday life… Foucault posed as a passionate partisan of liberty. At the same time, he 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, he asked: ‘What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin’s USSR and Truman’s America?’ It tells us a great deal that Foucault found this question difficult to answer.”