Pseudo-intellectual Helen Pluckrose has a penchant for writing about Michel Foucault “ruining western civilisation” with his dangerous postmodernist ideas. No, Helen, Foucault isn’t a dangerous intellectual and he isn’t ruining western civilisation. He would feel delighted though, to hear faux intellectuals and the now imploding IDW attribute all sorts of nefarious things to him. In an interview given at the end of his life, Foucault quipped, an American professor complained that a crypto-Marxist like me was invited in the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern European countries for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean. Foucault evaded attempts to confine him to an identity, and in a 1983 interview with the journal, when asked about postmodernism he replied, what are we calling postmodernity these days? I’m not up to date.
Foucault rejected the notion of identity, and it’s vital to keep in mind that when he wrote about sexuality he had in mind the concept we now call gender: the term gender as we know it did not exist at the time. Having struggled with self harm and suicidal ideation as a young person, Foucault experienced the psychiatric system first hand. He initially set out to train in psychology/psychiatry but then changed his career path. He harboured deep criticisms of psychiatry and wrote extensively on the subject in his book Madness and Civilisation. He wrote about surveillance and discipline vis à vis power structures and societal governance in Discipline and Punish and felt strongly that society had experienced a shift in the wielding of power over individuals.
Essentially we have moved away from monarchs who have complete power over life and death toward a society in which systems and structures and institutions established to care for and protect the public exert power over individuals. Psychiatry has become an essential part of this power structure. Foucault did not believe psychiatry had a valid and reliable scientific underpinning. Incidentally Foucault had no use for Sexology either. He felt these fields made the human into a science experience, a subject for study and manipulation. Foucault never conceived of sex as a construct. The very notion that he did seems utterly ridiculous to me—why on earth would he write four volumes on a thing he believed imagined or imaginary? Foucault would be a gender abolitionist—he would see gender as the construct, more accurately, as a narrative imposed upon bodies, as a layer of biopower.
Biopower simply means power over life, much of what we would think of as population and public health Foucault conceived as biopower. A field of knowledge develops and particular norms emerge through a process of discursive formation–knowledge/power. Controlling by knowing and knowing by controlling captures the essence of knowledge/power. Power exists everywhere and resistance meets it. He conceived of society as a complex and dynamic web of power matrices interconnected or layered, together exerting power. Foucault saw power everywhere, and with it resistance because the two travel together. Power matters—more than truth because power can distort and cultivate truth narratives. It’s perhaps important to discern the subtle difference between objective reality and truth when reading Foucault.
Foucault evolved over his professional lifetime, anyone who has studied primary sources, writings and lectures/interviews, can see the shifts. Foucault also never intended to develop a theory of everything and he did not conceive of himself as a theorist. He would tell you he concerns himself with historical problematisations, and really, we could consider Foucault a historian as much as a philosopher. His writings on the history of medicine, in particular the plague, seem quite relevant to the present day, a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, as the entire planet struggles under the weight of heavy public health restrictions. Finally, Foucault never believed truth or reality didn’t exist, he believed that power mattered more and saw the linkage between knowledge and power as the crucial driving force of society.
Foucault’s fourth and final volume of his History of Sexuality was released in France in 2018 and will be released in North America this month. Much of his own writing and lectures and interviews you can find online, you really have no need to take the word of sources who have clearly never studied him. Acolytes of Stephen Hicks and his erroneous interpretation of Foucault have nothing to teach any of us about Michel Foucault and neither do wokesters who claim him as the father of queer theory and assorted other identity laden and woke fields of study.
I will end this missive with the very last line of the last lecture Foucault ever gave in his life.
“Only by deciphering the truth of self in this world, deciphering oneself with mistrust of oneself and the world, and in fear and trembling before God, will enable us to have access to the true life.”—Michel Foucault
*image: Michel Foucault in front of the Collège de France, May 1984. Photograph by Michèle Bancilhon.