Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.30

Paul Allen Miller, Postmodern Spiritual Practices: The Construction of the Subject and the Reception of Plato in Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault.   Columbus, OH:  Ohio State University Press, 2007.  Pp. x, 270.  ISBN 978-0-814210-70-3.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Todd Lee, Oberlin College (
Word count: 1534 words

It is practically a truism of literary theory that poststructuralism is anti-humanist as well as anti-classical, and that the "swerve into poststructuralism was a turning against humanism, against the traditional values of Western civilization."1 Miller provides a fundamental challenge to this proposition, and in a thoughtful and deeply researched study of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, shows the great extent to which these critical titans all relied on exegesis of Plato and other texts of classical antiquity to articulate their philosophies. In so doing, Miller addresses directly one of the most important questions confronting classical studies as a discipline: namely, the value and relevance of a classical canon in the face of poststructuralism and its off-shoots in deconstruction, gender theory, and postcolonialism. Miller is obviously not the first to address this question, but I believe he has offered a significant argument that inscribes the classics into postmodernism, as opposed to attempting to apply postmodernist methodologies to classical texts.2

His argument attempts to shift the position of the classics from the periphery to the center of a poststructuralist theoretical geography inasmuch as he argues that a student of these modern and dynamic texts would benefit also from an understanding of ancient philosophy. Miller studies not only the manifestly classicizing works of each figure (e.g. Derrida's Plato's Pharmacy , Lacan's seminar on the Symposium, Foucault's lectures on the Alcibiades), but also the broader intellectual climate of the France in which these works were written. He argues that these theorists used Platonic texts as a means of responding to each other in an ongoing dialogue on the nature of subjectivity and how philosophy can transform subjectivity. In this critical regard, then, Miller's book creates an alternative to the theoretical apparatus we currently employ and gives our discipline a new way of performing our identity: we are essential to poststructuralism and essential to the thought of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault.

In the first chapter, Miller argues that the discipline may have fundamentally misunderstood the poststructuralist corpus: it is not a set of "truth producing methods" that can be applied to classical texts "for publishable results" (a crime to which Miller readily confesses his guilt: cf. his Lacanian reading of Tibullus in TAPhA 129 [1999], 181-224), but a series of ongoing debates whose interlocutors respond to classical antiquity as well as to each other. He also contends that, with the exception of David Halperin's work with Foucault, our discipline has generally ignored the "classical sub-texts" of the writings of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, and instead has converted these debates into a critical apparatus of "deracinated methodologies" (4-5). I would hasten to add that feminists have been able to avoid this, arguably better than any other postmodern group.3

In Chapter Two, Miller sets the intellectual context for his study with an analysis of three French modernist dramas that rework classical tragedies and classical historical themes: Sartre's Les Mouches (1942, a version of Aeschylus' Choephoroi), Camus' Caligula (1945, drawing on Suetonius), and Anouilh's Antigone (1944). Miller reads these works as emblematic of the modernist use of antiquity, in his view, for allegory: "antiquity for these writers represents an open field of...allegorical possibilities. It is a way of representing the present" (60). He insists that, in contrast to this modernist and allegorical use, the postmoderns seek out not simply a "return to antiquity, but a reading of antiquity as the intimate other, as that which structures our self-relation without ever being identical to it."

One wonders, however, why Miller chose these particular dramas before other works of French modernism that might have provided far more than "allegorical" possibilities. Is Les Mouches a very good emblem of Sartre's philosophy, or Caligula of the philosophy of Camus? As Miller concedes, the basic problem of how to formulate an ethics that is more than a mere repetition of dominant ideology remains markedly similar for both modernists and postmoderns. And who would argue that the philosophical works of Sartre or Camus are not meant to provoke a radical critique of the adequacy of social constructions of meaning, inviting and necessitating a remaking of the self?

Chapters Three and Four present a provocative study of Lacan's use of Plato, which could serve well as an introduction for classicists to the thought of this controversial figure. Miller focuses first on Lacan's attempt in the seventh seminar to define the subject itself in its "relation to the discrete forms of meaning that structured its desire" (63), for which he chose Sophocles' character Antigone as a model of "pure desire." This desire is "re-founded" not in conformity with the "Real" (i.e. the social construction of history), but in adherence to "an inner, ethical imperative" that insists on a desire beyond the realm of social goods (ibid.). Miller continues with Lacan's reading of the Symposium in his eighth seminar ("Le transfert"), in which he uses the figure of Alcibiades to define a desire which yearns for the "good beyond all goods." The role of analysis is to "make this act possible, not to make us comfortable with what exists" (71).

In Chapter Five Miller turns to Derrida's La pharmacie de Platon (1972) and La carte postale (1980), in which he argues that Derrida used readings of Plato to articulate his responses to the "dialogic space inaugurated by Lacan." In Plato's Pharmacy, Derrida reads the Phaedrus as emblematic of the Platonic attempt at metaphysical closure, the construction of a closed logocentric system, wherein "meaning is finite and pre-exists the acts of interpretation and enunciation...[a system] designed more to police the realm of possible meanings than to create new possibilities of self-creation and understanding" (25). Plato and Socrates also play a central role in The Postcard, in which Derrida explores the relationship of Freud's theory of the pleasure principle to the theories of pleasure presented in the Philebus. Derrida uses Plato's attempts to clarify "pleasure's non-identity with the good on the basis of its ontological characteristics" (a phrase borrowed from Gadamer) to present his famous critique of Lacan in the essay "Le facteur de la verité'" or "The Postman of Truth." It was the written system of exchange and mediation between the ideas of Plato and Freud (in the form of contemporary philosophy) which Derrida termed "the postal system," and in this essay Derrida critiques Lacan for never looking beyond the system's limits, but instead contriving to operate within this "postal" system's hierarchy of meanings.

Chapter Six continues with an analysis of the importance of Plato to the thought of Foucault, who turned throughout his career to ancient philosophy in articulating his own positions, as well as his responses to Lacan and to Derrida. Miller begins with a focus on Foucault's seminar "L'herméneutique du sujet" (1982), which studies the Alcibiades among other texts to construct a model of philosophy as care of the self. Here Miller correctly stresses the importance to Foucault of Pierre Hadot's work, who himself interprets ancient philosophy as a form of spiritual exercise, practice, or askesis ("Le discours sur la philosophie n'est pas la philosophie").4 But Miller also argues that Foucault's late turn to the Alcibiades is a focused and precise dialogue with Lacan and Derrida as it was played out in their interpretations of Plato. Foucault saw Derrida as over-emphasizing "systems, categories, and metaphysics" as opposed to the relations, technologies, and social practices that were Foucault's emphasis. Miller also considers Foucault's exegeses on the Seventh Epistle, the Apology, Republic, Symposium, and Phaedrus, which were undertaken in The History of Sexuality and scattered essays written before his untimely death in 1984.

In a brief conclusion, Miller argues that the poststructuralist interpretations of classical antiquity can provide tools for our own discipline's self-analysis and askesis, "to look beyond the self-satisfied relation to the present that sees itself as the fulfillment of the past" (228), "to be genealogic and self-critical" (229).5

I admire this book: Miller has begun to bridge the gap between the classics and postmodernism by showing the prevalence of Plato in Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida. I would raise one objection, however. Is it possible to talk about the significance of Plato to postmodern thought without considering Nietzsche's mediation of Plato (and of Socrates)? Particularly for Derrida and Foucault, Plato and the character of Socrates are so imbued with Nietzsche's influence--an essential suspicion of Plato and Socrates, and an insistence that dialectical philosophy is concealing rather than revealing something--that one could say Plato did not exist for them without Nietzsche.6 I do not mean to imply that Miller does not know Nietzsche was crucial to the period; indeed, Nietzsche's name appears thirteen times in the book. But he is only mentioned en passant, and there is no consideration, for example, of The Problem of Socrates, or The Use and Abuse of History for Life; no works of Nietzsche appear in the bibliography. Surely these texts are seminal to postmodernism in a way that cannot be adequately described if we only observe that the postmoderns "used Plato." In other words, classicism or Platonism may be a distorted lens through which to analyze the interrelationship of Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida. As Miller notes, these three figures were all involved in many more dialogues than one triangular conversation based around the classics and Plato.


1.   David Richter, The Critical Tradition (St. Martin's 3rd Edition 2006), 955; compare Tzvetan Todorov, "Anti-humanisms," Times Literary Supplement October 5, 1985, 1041.
2.   Nos Grecs et leurs modernes: Textes réunis par Barbara Cassin. Éditions du Seuil (Paris, 1992). See especially Éric Alliez, "La pharmacie, Platon et le simulacre," 211-231; Francis Wolff, "Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault: Historiens du platonisme," 232-50; Jacques Derrida "Nous autres Grecs," 251-76; Christine Buci-Glucksmann, "Lacan devant Aristote: De l'esthétique," 363-82; Guy le Gaufey, "Lacan-Aristote, aller-retour," 383-9. See also Pierre Hadot, Foucault and his Interlocutors (Chicago, 1997), edited by Arnold Davidson; and Emily Wilson's The Death of Socrates (Harvard, 2007), 209-11 for a similar attempt to deal with Derrida's and Foucault's relationship with Socrates and Plato.
3.   I think immediately of the excellent work of Nicole Loraux, who has been so influential in classical studies both in the English speaking world and in France. Miller cites Loraux and discusses her work several times throughout the book, and notes (1 note 1) that he had intended to include the works of Cixous, Irigay, and Kristeva in his study, and plans to return to these figures. See also Miriam Leonard and Vanda Zajko (eds.), Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought (Oxford, 2006).
4.   Pierre Hadot Exercices spirituels et la philosophie antique (2nd ed. Paris, 1987), 89; see also Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Oxford, 1995).
5.   The conclusion is followed by a slightly bizarre and polemical five page appendix in which Miller directs his attention to David Halperin's readings of Foucault. I found this to be the least satisfying section of the book.
6.   The same question could be asked with regard to the influence of Heidegger.

Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:56, Friday, 03 April 2009