“Totally amoral”: Michel Foucault

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.

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Michel Foucault

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.

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Jacques Derrida

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.

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Roger Kimball

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.

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Foucault

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.”

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Noam Chomsky

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.)

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Jeremy Stangroom

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.

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Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

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.

michelfoucaultAnd 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.

Doublethink: Trumbo and the critics

Back in November, we took a good long look at the new movie Trumbo, which makes a hero and martyr out of blacklisted Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. During the last couple of days we’ve been examining reviews of the picture by critics who’ve somehow failed to grasp that, while the Hollywood blacklist may well have been a bad thing, that doesn’t mean that Stalinism was anything other than evil. 

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Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

We’re not done, because (as it turns out) there are plenty more clueless critiques of this film to ponder. Take this bemusing sentence by Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Set in the years after World War II, when fear of the ‘Red Menace’ – of creeping communism – spread across America, Trumbo details how fear and suspicion wormed their way into the movie biz, with actors and filmmakers branded as Stalinist sympathizers.”

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A protest to free the Hollywood Ten, with Trumbo third from left

But of course it wasn’t just “fear and suspicion” that “wormed their way into the movie biz”; Communism itself wormed its way into the film capital, as part of a highly calculated plan hatched within the walls of the Kremlin itself. And saying that Trumbo and his cohorts were “branded as Stalinist sympathizers” is like saying that Harry Truman was branded as a Democrat. Or a male. Or a Missourian. These guys were Stalinist sympathizers. They were Stalinist tools, Stalinist operatives – conscious and willing enemy soldiers in the war of ideas between the free world and the Soviet bloc. They were, quite simply, Stalinists  – full stop. Rea writes as if all this was invented by paranoid right-wingers, as if the “Red Menace” and “creeping communism” were nothing but feverish fantasies, as if Americans’ “fear and suspicion” of Communism were as unfounded as a fear of ghosts or vampires or werewolves.

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Trumbo wrote in the bathtub

One of the signal attributes of the totalitarian society depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was something he called “Doublethink” – the “power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” That’s what going on in many of these reviews: even while the critic accepts the fact that Dalton Trumbo was a Communist (how could he not?), he ridicules the “Communist witch hunt” as a paranoid, hysterical effort to unearth enemies of freedom where none at all existed.

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Cranston as Trumbo, writing in the tub

Then there’s Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, who knows very well what Stalinism was (and is), and who doesn’t try to disguise his fondness for it. “I cannot pretend to any objectivity when it comes to this subject,” he admits. “My mother and her first husband (who many years later was also her third husband) were both members of the Communist Party. My stepdad knew Dalton Trumbo, and worked on the defense committees for both the Hollywood 10 (a group of movie people, including Trumbo, who went to federal prison for refusing to answer questions before Congress) and for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists who were executed as Soviet spies.”

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The Rosenbergs

These are, it must be said, rather curious formulations: of course, the Hollywood Ten weren’t just “a group of movie people” but a group of dedicated members of the Communist Party, all of whom were dedicated to the overthrow of democracy in the United States; and the Rosenbergs weren’t just “executed as Soviet spies,” they were Soviet spies, who passed the atom-bomb secrets on to the Kremlin. (Ethel Rosenberg even lied to her two sons, assuring them in a goodbye letter that she and their father were innocent – a claim proven false many years later by declassified KGB documents.)

Yes, there have been a couple of intelligent, well-informed reviews of Trumbo. We’ll get to them tomorrow.