Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.07


Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault. Translated by Betsy Wing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. Pp. 390. $27.95.


Reviewed by David M. Halperin, MIT.

Those who want to find out the really important facts about Michel Foucault's life -- such as when he started to shave his head, and why -- will be disappointed by Didier Eribon's biography: it displays an oddly pre-Foucauldian indifference to Foucault's own technologies of the self. But it does contain quantities of fascinating information, and anyone intrigued by Foucault will find it both absorbing and instructive.

Here, for example, are some things I learned from it about the publishing history of The Order of Things (1966). Foucault preferred the English title to the French, having originally intended to call his book La Prose du monde, then (when a posthumous text by Merleau-Ponty turned up with that title) L'Ordre des choses; Les Mots et les choses was a back-up title which Foucault's editor Pierre Nora ultimately prevailed on him to adopt. The chapter on Las Meniñas was added to the book at the last moment, with some hesitation (Foucault thought it "too literary"), having been published earlier as an independent essay in Le Mercure de France. Although Foucault's old pal Althusser, as well as Pierre Daix, embraced the book, it was routinely regarded as a right-wing polemic, because its joint critique of phenomenology and Marxism was understood, correctly, as an attack on the tradition of French leftism represented by such figures as Merleau-Ponty and, above all, Sartre (in fact, the proofs contained numerous attacks on Sartre, but Foucault removed them before publication). The book went through six printings in its first year, a total of 21,500 copies. Godard satirized its vogue in La Chinoise (1967) and said in an interview that it was against people like "the Reverend Father Foucault" that he wanted to make films, so that future Foucaults would be prevented from presuming to say, with reference to the present era, "'At such and such a period they thought...'" "Marxism is the [book's] target," Sartre remarked; "it is a matter of establishing a new ideology, the final dam that the bourgeoisie can erect against Marx." "Poor old bourgeoisie," Foucault commented later, "with only my book for its ramparts!" In the context of this political feud, "structuralism" functioned as a code word for anti-Marxism, and that is one of the reasons Foucault -- though an enthusiastic and, at first, admitted practitioner of it -- came to repudiate the label, especially once he had, belatedly, thrown in his lot with the Maoists; he wrote L'Archéologie du savoir partly to dissociate himself from the structuralist reading of The Order of Things. And at one point he became so dissatisfied with the earlier book that he even asked Nora to stop printing it.

This is high-class entertainment. Eribon has worked hard, read widely, and turned up a lot of material, some of it quite obscure. But his basic approach is journalistic (he is an editor of Le Nouvel Observateur) and his preferred mode of inquiry is the interview. The book that results from this method is not a full biography in the conventional sense but a kind of "inside story" designed to serve as background to the public life of the man who was for a time France's leading intellectual. It reads like an academic version of a Hollywood gossip column (most of the information in the preceding paragraph derives not from archival sources -- Eribon has not seen the proofs of Les Mots et les choses, for example -- but from what various people recounted to Eribon years after the actual events). The name-dropping alone is breathtaking: everybody who was anybody in French social and cultural life turns up in these pages, from Simone Signoret to the ayatollah Khomeini. What interests Eribon, and what he does a superb job of reconstructing, is the shifting network of Foucault's personal, academic, intellectual, and political allegiances over more than three decades. He tells us when Foucault started and stopped being friends with dozens of important people; who wrote letters of recommendation for him, voted to hire or not to hire him, gave his books good or bad reviews; how Foucault positioned himself with respect to numerous intellectual movements and trends; when he joined the Communist Party (1950), when he quit the Party (1953), when he became a Maoist (1969), when he exclaimed, to a young militant who had unwisely accosted him in the heat of a demonstration in order to invite him to speak about Marx to a study group, "Don't talk to me about Marx anymore!... Ask someone whose job it is. Someone paid to do it. Ask the Marxist functionaries. Me, I've had enough of Marx" (1975). It would be tempting to retitle this book Michel Foucault: The Career, to think of it as a highly personalized, behind-the-scenes account of the making of a reputation, but in a country with one (state-run) university system based in the capital, and one centralized intellectual life, philosophical and political fashions cannot meaningfully be disentangled from -- nor can they be reduced to -- matters of personal loyalty and professional patronage.

Here, for example, is Eribon's description of Foucault at work on The Archeology of Knowledge: "He wrote furiously and struggled violently with notions of enunciation, discursive formation, regularity, and strategy.... Foucault knew that the stakes were considerable. He had been introduced as Sartre's successor, and the challenged master had launched a harsh counterattack. The fight was on, and if he wanted to make off with the winnings, Foucault must not disappoint the expectations of an eager crowd awaiting the next heated exchange." That Eribon obviously intends this passage to be read not as satire but as high drama conveys more powerfully than anything he could say the agonistic and public character of French intellectual life; it also conveys, more significantly, the disciplinary requirement imposed on Foucault by his public role as a professional "man of knowledge" (and felt occasionally even by those of us lesser folk who work at some remove from the 6è arrondissement) -- the requirement to play what Foucault himself would later call, in another context, "games of truth."

It was precisely in order to define, expose, and resist the disciplinary régimes that regulated his own discursive practice -- whether by compelling him to speak the truth as a state-supported intellectual or by denying him the authority to speak the truth as a madman, left-wing extremist, or homosexual -- that Foucault undertook his political critiques of institutionalized rationality. The story of his life makes it possible to interpret his work, both as a thinker and an activist, as a series of evolving responses and resistances to the "conditions of possibility" that governed his own énoncés. It is this determination to understand the relations of power immanent in his own intellectual, institutional, and erotic practices, to oppose or renegotiate those relations of power from a position already structured by them, and to discover strategies that might frustrate the technologies of a socially empowered rationality which scrupulously isolates, deauthorizes, and silences the mad, the sick, the delinquent, and the perverse -- it is this struggle that represents the real drama of Foucault's life.

The outlines of that drama, though visible in Eribon's narrative, almost entirely escape its author. This is no nowhere more striking than in the pages that document Foucault's virtually simultaneous early experiences as both a patient and a practitioner of psychiatry. While studying for his licence and aggrégation in philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (which he entered in 1946, shortly before his twentieth birthday), Foucault came under the tutelage of instructors who were interested in psychology, who organized classes in psychopathology and even took their students to see patients at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Foucault was himself experiencing severe psychological difficulties in adjusting to communal life at the ENS: there were apparently episodes of self-mutilation and even a suicide attempt in 1948 (followed by several others, real or staged, during the next years), for which Foucault's parents sent him to consult a psychiatric expert at -- where else? -- the Hôpital Sainte-Anne. At the same time Foucault, having obtained his licence in philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1948, went on to get another one in psychology in 1949, as well as two diplômes from the Institut de Psychologie de Paris in 1949 and 1952, where (while working for the second one -- in pathological psychology, no less!) he studied with the very specialist whom he had consulted as a patient in 1948. Part of Foucault's training at this stage involved treating patients himself; at the same time, from at least 1950, he had been diagnosing and experimenting on human subjects while working as a technical assistant in electroencephalographic laboratories that a friend had set up in the Hôpital Sainte-Anne as well as at the main hospital of the French prison system. Foucault became fascinated with Rohrschach tests in the late 1940s, performing them on as many fellow students at the ENS as he could ensnare, and he retained that fascination for a good twenty years, teaching rigorous classes on Rohrschach theory at least as late as 1967. Psychology originally presented itself to Foucault, then, in at least three guises at once: as a normalizing imposition, as a therapeutic opportunity, and as a self-authorizing practice.

The perennial, inane question as to whether Foucault was a philosopher or a historian could not in fact have arisen for the greater part of his career, for the simple reason that he was regarded as neither: "should his classification be psychology? or history of science?" asked an academic memo in 1960; two years later a dean's recommendation for tenure noted that "his specialty is psychopathology." If Foucault's formal appointments in the 1960s were in philosophy departments, that is partly because psychology, like sociology, had not yet achieved the status of an independent academic discpline in France and was routinely housed within philosophy programs.

How the tormented youth of 1948 evolved into the suave cultural emissary of 1955-60 (during which time he held quasi-diplomatic appointments at French cultural centers in Sweden, Poland, and West Germany), then into a government apparatchik in the mid-1960s, and ultimately into a consummate academic politician who in 1981 apparently declined Mitterand's offer of the post of cultural attaché in New York in the hope of being named, if not Ambassador to the US, then at least Director of the Bibliothèque Nationale -- that is one of the many mysteries in Foucault's life which Eribon does not attempt to penetrate and which he barely pauses to notice. In fact, Eribon tries to avoid dealing with messy personal matters: Foucault's serious depression in 1977, for example, elicits only perfunctory speculation as to whether "some people close to him ... had reservations" about the first volume of his History of Sexuality. While not squeamish about Foucault's gayness, Eribon isn't much interested in it either: he seems to consider it his duty to give us the basic facts; he records various of Foucault's dicta on the subject of homosexuality; and he mentions one instance in which Foucault's career suffered from anti-gay discrimination (Foucault was denied a post as assistant director of higher education in the Ministry of Education in the mid-1960s). Otherwise, he treats Foucault's homosexuality as if it were FDR's polio -- a handicap which our hero, in his quest for greatness, managed to overcome (until the end, that is, when it brought him into final, unmerited collision with HIV-disease). Eribon records a sum total of two affairs, with the composer Jean Barraqué in the mid-1950s and later with the philosopher Daniel Defert; the latter crops up, typically enough, at the point in Eribon's narrative when Foucault procured for Defert an assistantship in his department at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, thereby incurring the widespread disapproval of his colleagues. An inattentive reader might be pardoned for concluding from Eribon's exposition that after Foucault and Defert became lovers in late 1960 Foucault never had sex with anyone else ever again. And yet much of the impetus for Foucault's late work on pratiques de soi came from insights into the transformative potential of sex which he gained from his experiences in the bathhouses and S/M clubs of New York and San Francisco. For a thorough exploration of the connections between Foucault's changing awareness of himself as a sexual subject and his analysis of late antique ascesis, we must await Jim Miller's powerful account of Foucault's life and work, scheduled for publication by Simon & Schuster in early 1993.

Despite these lacunae, Eribon's biography tells us more than enough to explode the hostile caricatures of Foucault that have been put into circulation recently by assorted theory-bashers. For example, far from being an ivory-tower critic of Marxism who dismissed the realities of oppression and whose notion of power is so totalizing as to exclude the possibility of political resistance, the fifty-year-old Foucault did not hesitate to do physical battle with the police, fighting at sufficiently close quarters to sustain a variety of serious injuries -- including, on one occasion, cracked ribs: "it is the cop's job to use physical force," he explained in 1975; "anyone who opposes cops must not, therefore, let them maintain the hypocrisy of disguising this force behind orders that have to be immediately obeyed." Moreover, Foucault's political activism was hardly restricted to such high-profile endeavors as founding Libération or holding an audacious press conference in Franco's Madrid to denounce the fascist government's planned execution of eleven young militants (Foucault and his fellow VIPs were quickly arrested and deported, the militants later executed). Eribon documents how tirelessly Foucault took part in the real dirty work of political organizing -- going to meetings, writing manifestoes, and even driving three thousand kilometers to Warsaw in the fall of 1982, less than two years before his death, with a van full of medical supplies and printing materials for the beleaguered members of Solidarnosc.

And there are other surprises. Despite Foucault's failure to inquire very deeply into female sexual subjectivation in his History of Sexuality, he was not the anti-feminist monster that his gay-baiting detractors often claim him to have been; on the contrary, he was consistent in supporting the establishment of political organizations by marginal groups, including women, and he intended Libération to give voice to the various emerging tendencies within the women's movement. Despite his critique of truth as a regulatory concept in the human sciences, he did not feel at all inhibited about appealing to truth when attempting to expose the realities of torture, police brutality, and governmental injustice. And despite the frequently heard complaint that Foucault's critique of the ideology of authorship harmonized all too cozily in his case with consistent selfpromotion as an author, Eribon shows that Foucault was in fact willing to play fast and loose with the author function, penning innumerable unsigned tracts, essays, manifestoes, and even writing the memoirs of a young hitchhiker whom he had picked up and whose colorful life story he published under the hitchhiker's own name.

The discontinuities in Foucault's thought, his constant shifts of position, the essentially improvisatory character of much of his work -- all of which is well documented by Eribon -- serve as a salutary reminder not only that, as Foucault himself often insisted, he was not a systematic thinker, but also that it is both hazardous and superfluous to treat Foucault's oeuvre as a single body of thought, the unitary "work" of a unitary "author." If we learn anything from Foucault, it is not to canonize him as the exponent of some authoritative doctrine but rather to see in him an inspiring example of someone whose acute and constantly revised understanding of his own social location enabled him to devise some effective but unsystematic modes of resistance to the shifting discursive and political conditions which circumscribed his own practice. That ability to reflect critically on and to respond politically to the circumstances that both enabled and constrained his own activity may account for why Foucault's life, as much as or perhaps even more than his work, continues to serve as a compelling model for an entire generation of scholars, critics, and activists.