For students of the humanities today, Michel Foucault (1926-84) is a demigod. An intellectual descendant of Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and philosopher/Nazi lapdog Martin Heidegger, Foucault – author of a four-volume History of Sexuality, among many other works – was for some time (and perhaps still is) the most cited humanities “scholar” in the world.
We put the word “scholar” in quotation marks advisedly. Even Foucault’s teachers weren’t sure whether his scholarship was solid. Many serious philosophers today (because a philosopher is supposedly what he was) consider Foucault a lightweight who owes his fame to his lurid subject matter – and to the fact that he came along at exactly the right historical moment, when Jacques Derrida and company had made French cultural theory all the rage in the American academy.
Lurid subject matter, you ask? Well, let’s start at the beginning. At school, Foucault was viewed by his fellow pupils as “aloof, sarcastic, and cruel.” Briefly a Communist in his youth, he grew into a young man with a dark, twisted psychopathology. A fan of the Marquis de Sade, he “came to enjoy imagining ‘suicide festivals’ or ‘orgies’ in which sex and death would mingle in the ultimate anonymous encounter.” Foucault drank to excess, was a heavy user of LSD and other narcotics, and engaged in promiscuous sadomasochistic gay sex.
But these aren’t just irrelevant biographical details. All these activities helped shape his “philosophy.” That’s especially true of S&M, with its fetishization of interpersonal power relationships. As Roger Kimball has written,
Foucault’s focus was Power. He came bearing the bad news in bad prose that every institution, no matter how benign it seems, is “really” a scene of unspeakable domination and subjugation; that efforts at enlightened reform — of asylums, of prisons, of society at large — have been little more than alibis for extending state power; that human relationships are, underneath it all, deadly struggles for mastery; that truth itself is merely a coefficient of coercion; &c., &c.
The key point here is that when it came to power, Foucault was a man of two minds: even as he professed to fear and deplore the exercise of government power, Foucault got a major-league frisson out of authoritarian regimes, got off on exercises of power within personal relationships, and downright worshipped physical force and violence. To top it all off, he thought this made him a pathbreaking philosopher instead of just a run-of-the-mill weirdo or creep. For him, indeed, S&M wasn’t just a kink but a radical breakthrough in consciousness — and he truly believed that his commitment to it made him not a self-indulgent sex addict in desperate need of therapy but a world-class intellectual visionary. As one of his several adoring biographers, James Miller, has written, Foucault held out the hope that once the age of AIDS was over, men and women alike would “renew, without shame or fear, the kind of corporeal experimentation that formed an integral part of his own philosophical quest.”
For Foucault, the meaning of life was all about transgression — and not just sexual transgression, either. He also wrote about “madness,” which he saw as a matter not of mental illness but of psychic rebellion against normality. Debating Noam Chomsky on TV in the 1970s, Foucault rejected “such ideas as responsibility, sensitivity, justice, and law”; Chomsky, although himself a useful stooge of the first water, was actually the more sensible and principled of the two, pronouncing later that he’d “never met anyone who was so totally amoral” as Foucault.
Politically, the Frenchman’s amorality took a number of forms. To quote Kimball, he “championed various extreme forms of Marxism, including Maoism”; in 1978, looking back to the Cold War era, Foucault asked rhetorically: “What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin’s USSR and Truman’s America?” (For Foucault, in other words, Stalin and Truman were equally unsavory alternatives.)
A recent article by Jeremy Stangroom in Philosophers’ Magazine recalled another example of Foucault’s useful stoogery: namely, his avid support for the Iranian revolution, as evidenced by several newspaper articles he wrote in 1978-79. In the armed uprising by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Foucault saw a hope for a new “political spirituality” that dreamed of “utopia” and that could – with any luck! – transform not only Iran but the entire Middle East and even Europe itself, if only Europeans could develop a sufficient “faith in the creativity of Islam.” In one of his articles published during those fateful months, Foucault rhapsodized about the glories of Islam and the golden future time that Iranians would enjoy under the benign reign of Khomeini:
With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others….between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights, but difference, since there is natural difference….each person, as it is laid out in the Quran, should be able to stand up and hold accountable he who governs.
For those of you who are too young to remember what happened in Iran after Khomeini took power in February 1979, Stangroom offers a few bullet points:
Public whipping was introduced for alcohol consumption. Libraries were attacked if they held books that were “anti-Islamic.” Broadcast media was censored….on March 3rd, Khomeini decreed that women would be unable to serve as judges; on March 4th, that only a man could petition for divorce; on March 9th, women were banned from participating in sport; and on March 8th, as predicted by many more pessimistic voices, women were ordered to wear the chador.
And naturally there were executions aplenty. When it came to executions, those early days of the Khomeini era in Iran brought to mind France’s Reign of Terror in 1793-4. One thing’s for sure: Foucault, a gay infidel practitioner of S&M and author of a shelfful of non-Islamic books, would have been one of the first people to be arrested and summarily beheaded had he actually resided in Khomeini’s Iran. Instead, he lived on until 1984, when – after several more years of sexual adventures and academic triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic – he died of AIDS in Paris at age 57, having never breathed a word of apology for his zeal for Mao or Khomeini, or (for that matter) any of his disgraceful political enthusiasms.