Michel Foucault by Didier Eribon, translated by Betsy Wing

It was inevitable that a biography of Foucault would be written and it is fortunate that the 'official' life has come out first. Written by a journal-ist and friend of Foucault, this absorbing historical document - a discreet account of the genealogy of the works set against the academic and political context, rather than an interpretation of them -reads like a rebuke to current biographical culture and expectations.

There are enough references here to see how a debunking book might be written: a book that emphasised the 'mystery' of Foucault's contacts with Gaullists, his Californian sado-masochist escapades, or one which portrayed his occasional period misogyny as part and parcel of the impossi-ble 'maleness' of his thought. Eribon's account is frank enough to include the information that Foucault speedily installed his partner in an assis-tantship at Clermont University in the early 60 s, and that when questioned about this preferment over an older applicant, a woman who was better qualified, replied 'Because we don't like old maids here'. Indeed, a cruder unofficial account is on the way, though a British publisher prepared for the possible legal costs is yet to be found for it. If Foucault's life and death are really held to be more interesting than his work, one can add the evi-dence of a rather good roman â clef from his circle, Hervé Guibert's To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (Quartet, 1991).Eribon's book will serve, most importantly, as a document that renders more explicable Foucault's politics. It is also an effective adjudication on the points in the interviews where Foucault was overly clear about his past.

Immediately after the war, Foucault emerged as a brilliant student at the École Normale Superieur, specializing in psychology. An important influence on his education, as it was on the older generation of Merleau-Ponty and Sartre against which Foucault defined himself, was Jean Hyppolite's reintroduction of Hegel. 'It was he [Hegel] who started the attempt to explore the irra-tional and integrate it into an expanded reason, which remains the task of our century.' This is not Foucault, but Merleau-Ponty in 1945, oddly pre-dicting part of Foucault's work.

In the early 50s, Foucault, like many others, joined the Communist party, and latterly rear-ranged this episode as an attempt at 'Nietzchean Communism' - a weird anarchistic hybrid. This is revealed by the facts as an elision of what seems to have been a fairly orthodox three years in the party, that ended after Foucault could no longer tolerate the criticism of homosexuality as a 'bourgeois vice'. The experience of coercive self-deception that was a necessary feature of party membership while Stalin remained alive - group calls to condemn Picasso's Stalin portrait as a lie, for example - were described by Foucault in 1981: 'Being obliged to stand behind a fact that was the total opposite of credible was part of that exercise of "ego dissolu-tion," part of the search for some way to be "oth-er."' Disgracefully optimistic reasoning by anyone's standards, and the kind of thinking that makes one feel justified in simply taking the bits of Foucault's work that seem useful, rather than bothering with its unity as a system.

Fortunately Bataille, Nietzche and the poet René Char-'Develop your legitimate strangeness' - were at hand to fill the gap left after having the Party. In Uppsala, working brilliantly and conscien-tiously as a teacher and cultural attaché, Foucault prepared his early work on madness, and for his entry to the peculiar rituals of French academic life. There he met a mentor, Georges Duhamel, bought a Jaguar and some snazzy suits and worked for the first time in an archive of historical and legal docu-ments. He began to enjoy himself.

Foucault spoke of the need he felt to distance himself from the intellectual currents of the period such as Marxism and phenomenology. His first important affair, with a musician, was clearly part of this process: 'I was able to feel myself a foreign-er in the world of thought in which I had been trained In a period when we were being taught to privilege sense, lived experience, the carnal, origi-nating experience, subjective contents, or social significations, encountering Boulez and music was to see the 20th century from an unfamiliar angle: that of a long battle about the formal.' This need to approach things from the outside is a recurrent feature of Foucault's thought, and it is fascinating to see it in the analytically difficult evidence of the influence of music. A biography, in presenting the fullness of a life and its contacts, indicates the books that were not written as well as those that were.

Through the 60s, producing a steady flow of books, Foucault figures as a dandy and part of a lit-erary avant-garde, and a philosopher and teacher of immense energy. A question remains over how structural is his espousal of 'transgressive' litera-ture (Artaud, BataiIle, Sade, Roussel), that unexam-ined commitment to avant-gardism that perhaps makes possible the confidently 'aesthetic' ethics of self-fashioning of the late work. Likewise the 'docile bodies' of the early work offer little escape from the discourses of knowledge and power, and show little sign of the 'resistance' that, as a political thinker, Foucault always required at some stage, though in his very peculiar oblique way.

His apparent coolness towards the events of 1968, when Marxist debates that were for him somewhat historic began to be replayed, is instruc-tive. Thereafter his public life as an agitator is a model: he appears as always preoccupied by questions other than his Maoist fellow-travellers, but refuses to accept the distance on which the status of 'intellectual' normally insists. His strategic cam-paigning on penal and psychiatric reform, energet-ic arranging of international committees of support, and pure physical bravery (in the face of the Spanish police in 1975, as part of a protest with Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Costa -Gavras) are thoroughly impressive. An episode that one had heard of his enthusiastic coverage of the Iranian Revolution for Corriere della Serra - turns out in fact to have little connection to that dismal left-wing habit of appropriating the latest anti--colonial struggle. Here we are now in possession of the important facts, as we are of a useful basis to explore whether we consider Foucault a philoso-pher or a historian, and of what we might do with the 'toolbox' he has left us.

Issue 7

First published in Issue 7

Nov - Dec 1992

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