The Busy Afterlife of Michael Foucault

Louis R Godena louisgodena at
Mon Sep 30 12:18:23 MDT 1996

Like Virginia Woolf,  Edmund Wilson and the science-fiction writer Philip K.
Dick,  Michael Foucault--journalist,  critic, historian,  and one of the
most influential intellectuals of our age--hasn't let death slow him down.
Twelve years after his death by AIDS,  the author of *Madness and
Civilization*,  *Discipline and Punishment*,  *The Order of Things*,  *The
History of Sexuality*,  and *The Use of Pleasure* continues his prodigious
output,  only now under the guise of biography.

This is,  in one sense,  hardly surprising;  Fourcault himself said that his
life and work were one and the same.   He even went so far as to describe
his books--books about torture,  confinement,  sadomasochism,
homosexuality,  about every form of transgression and deviancy
imaginable--as autobiographical.    What,  after all,  was a biographer to
do?    Foucault is not merely written *about*--seven major books have
appeared in English over the past few years--his is a milieu that expanded
as its own externality;  he is inseparable from his ideas.    And his ideas,
it seems,  continue to change even in death.

A recent biography by James Miller incorporates the Nietzschena idea of the
"limit experience",  an experience that transform the self--one's way
thinking,  one's assumptions and beliefs--into the corpus of Foucault's
later works.   It's an idea that fits in well with Fourcault's method,  his
so-called  "archaeology of knowledge" whereby he aimed to usurp "universal
values" by digging beneath them,  looking perhaps for an era when different
"universal" and "eternal" values prevailed.    Foucault sought out the very
people who dared to go (in Nietzsche's phrase) "beyond good and evil."   The
madmen,  the criminals,  the morosely dysfunctional,  the "perverts".

This attraction even transcended Foucault's own politics.    Long after he
rejected Marxism,  he told Noam Chomsky that "when the proletariat takes
power,  it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert toward the
classes over which it has triumphed,  a violent,  dictatorial and even
bloody power.   I can't see what objection one could make to this."
Chomsky,  more adept at talking about boundary-crossing than actually doing
it,  later remarked: "I mean,  I liked him personally.  It's just that I
couldn't make sense of him.    It's as if he was from a different species or

Foucault famously described the gay bars and bath-houses of California and
New York as "laboratories of sexual experimentation",  and went on:  "I
think that it is politically important that sexuality is able to function as
it functions in the bath-houses.   You meet men there who are to you as you
are to them:  nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of
pleasure are possible.   You cease to be imprisoned in your own face,  in
your own past,  in your own identity."    At the same time,  paradoxically,
he was writing the last two volumes of his *History of Sexuality*, a work
that had nothing to do with American counter-culture.   Instead,  here
Foucault chose to withdraw into a study of early Christian and Greco-Roman
sexuality that is,  in style at least,  very sober and scholarly.

As we approach the twelfth anniversary of his death,  let us look forward to
the continuing work in progress that is the always pugnacious,  yet crisp
and surprising Michael Foucault.

Louis Godena

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