“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.

Defending de Man

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Paul de Man

Deconstruction seeks to turn coherence into incoherence. Paul de Man‘s own variation on it can fairly be described as outright nihilistic, systematically taking statements that have explicit meanings and dissolving them (as a murderer dissolves a corpse in quicklime) until the statements are utterly barren of even the slightest hint of signification.

So it was that when de Man, who died in 1983, was exposed four years later as a wartime Nazi,  defenders sought to take his newly discovered pro-Nazi wartime writings and deconstruct the Nazism – and anti-Semitism – out of them. At the same time, they did their best to twist the arguments of de Man’s critics out of all recognition.

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Harold Bloom

One example. When it was announced that a symposium would be held to discuss de Man’s Nazi articles, The Nation quoted an anonymous critic described as being “close to de Man” (and widely assumed to be another Yale eminence, Harold Bloom) who expressed disgust: “Paul must have known the Jews of Belgium were being carted away. We are discussing the butchery of the Belgian Jewish community, down to the babies. To treat this as one more item about which to have a symposium is outrageous.”

In response to this statement, Jacques Derrida, deconstruction’s founder, professed outrage, pretending that the unnamed critic had sought “to forbid the right to assembly and discussion.” (“What,” he asked, “does that remind you of?”) In other words, forget de Man’s Nazi past – Bloom (if Bloom it was) was acting like Hitler himself! Of course, the critic “close to de Man” had never proposed forbidding anything.

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Jacques Derrida

That was only the beginning of Derrida’s dubious, desperate defense. In the spring 1988 issue of Critical Inquiry, he published a 62-page essay that, as David Lehman put it, oozed “slithering elusiveness.” Employing a wide range of slick rhetorical devices, Derrida sought to prove that de Man’s written words don’t necessarily mean what you think they do – and/or that he may have written one thing even as he was thinking something else. Had de Man, asked Derrida, articulated anti-Semitic views even as he criticized “vulgar antisemitism” in the very same piece? Well, then, didn’t criticizing “vulgar antisemitism” amount to criticizing “the vulgarity of antisemitism” itself? Was he not, in fact, condemning the very anti-Semitism he had pretended to profess?

It was by means of such lame language games that Derrida sought to get de Man off the hook. “Borrowing Derrida’s logic,” commented Lehman dryly, “one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that its author was conflicted on the subject of the Jews.”

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David Lehman

Other champions of de Man were even more brazen than Derrida. One critic named S. Heidi Krueger actually tried to sell the case that de Man’s most offensive wartime piece, entitled “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” was, like Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal,” meant ironically. In other words, it was one big joke. De Man may have assumed the voice of someone who hated Jews, but his underlying point, maintained Krueger, was to mock anti-Semitism.

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George Orwell

Then there was deconstructionist Richard Rand, who, by means of a truly audacious example of rhetorical sleight of hand, claimed to establish that de Man could not be anti-Semitic because, in a very important sense, de Man was himself Jewish. Huh? Rand went on to acknowledge that de Man was not Jewish “biographically speaking,” but explained that this didn’t matter: what counted was that those who were now accusing de Man posthumously of anti-Semitism were themselves, in reality, anti-Semites, who were displacing their anti-Jewish bigotry by charging de Man with the offense that they themselves were actually guilty of.

As Lehman observed, Rand’s argument illustrated “the eerie similarity” of deconstruction to the totalitarian up-is-down, yes-is-no rhetoric that George Orwell dubbed doublethink.

signs“Happy the deconstructor,” wrote Lehman, “who can prove, or at least get himself to believe, that black is white, that the four raised fingers of a hand make five, and that those who excoriate Paul de Man’s anti-Semitism reveal themselves to be anti-Semites.”

The whole 1987-88 de Man dustup is recounted at length in Lehman’s excellent 1991 book, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. In the end, despite the brilliant efforts by the Yale crowd to spin them into non-existence, the plain facts about de Man could not be shot down. And they destroyed his image forever.

As it turned out, however, there were even more revelations to come – years and years later. We’ll get to that next week.

De Man’s deceptions

They were called the deconstructionists, and a few decades ago they were the stars of academic literary studies in the United States. Based largely at Yale University, the critical school was founded by Jacques Derrida, whose fame and influence were almost matched by the group’s second most important member, Paul de Man.

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Paul de Man

During his lifetime, this is what was generally known about De Man’s background: born in Belgium in 1919, he moved to America in 1948, taught at Bard, studied at Harvard, then joined the faculty at Cornell. At a 1966 conference he heard a speech by Derrida, whom he befriended and whose critical approach he began to adopt in his own work. His star rose steadily during the last years of his career, which he spent as chair of Yale’s department of comparative literature.

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Ortwin de Graef

He died in 1983, fêted and respected around the world. And then the roof caved in. In 1987, a Belgian grad student and de Man devotee, Ortwin de Graef, was poking through some old archives when he ran across two hundred or so articles that de Man had written for a couple of Nazi-run newspapers, Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land, during the war. Now, it had never been entirely clear what de Man had done during the war. He had led people to believe that he’d belonged to the Resistance, but the details had always been sketchy. De Graef’s discoveries showed that de Man, far from standing up to the Nazis, had worked for them, written for them, and supported them. Although his topics were mostly literary, he managed to bring to them a political – which is to say a consistently pro-Nazi – approach. As lliterary critic and Harvard professor Louis Menand has put it, de Man “championed a Germanic aesthetic, denigrated French culture as effete, associated Jews with cultural degeneracy, praised pro-Nazi writers and intellectuals, and assured Le Soir’s readers that the New Order had come to Europe. The war was over. It was time to join the winners.”

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Louis Menand

The New York Times reported on de Graef’s findings in December 1987. The mainstream press, for the most part, crucified de Man. But many of his friends, colleagues, and fellow practitioners of literary theory tried to find a way to declare de Man innocent. To do so, they employed the slippery “logic” (which is anything but le mot juste here) of deconstruction itself, which revels in complexity, obscurity, and incertitude, and is eager to find ambiguity everywhere – even (or perhaps especially) in flat-out, perfectly clear statements that contain no real ambiguity whatsoever. In some cases, indeed, deconstruction essentially goes so far as to turn day into night, up into down, and wrong into right. We’ll look at a couple of those cockeyed defenses tomorrow.