When Friedrich Nietzsche’s career ended in 1888 he was virtually unknown. Though The Birth of Tragedy written while he was still a professor, had created a stir in academic circles, his subsequent books went largely unsold, unread, and unreviewed. When Michel Foucault died in 1984, he was perhaps the most celebrated figure in the intellectual world. From Berkeley to Tokyo he was explicated, argued about, and interviewed, his lectures mobbed, his name and signature phrases ubiquitous.
This is one of the more spectacular ironies in contemporary intellectual history. For Nietzsche is the text, Foucault the commentary. The theme of James Miller’s intensely interesting new book is that Foucault’s life and work were a “great Nietzschean quest that is, an effort to think through-- and live out-- the consequences of Nietzsche’s profound, still imperfectly understood critique of modernity.
Michel Foucault was born in 1926 in Poitiers, France. Having resisted his father’s urging that he take up medicine, young Michel set out on the long, arduous path that ended, for a handful of the best and brightest, in admission to France’s ultra-elite undergraduate institution, the Ecole Normale Superieure. The ENS was the equivalent in prestige of Oxford/Cambridge or Harvard/Yale, but with a difference: it was the only such institution in the country and admission was based purely on scholastic achievement, with no concession to athletics, social background, or anything else that might introduce a modicum of atmospheric diversity. The result was an intellectual hothouse such as scarcely any Americans can have experienced and probably few can imagine.
Foucault’s acclaimed first book, Madness and Civilization (1961), charted the curious and revealing transition from “madness” to “mental illness” over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. What had previously been considered either an everyday phenomenon or a divine visitation became an object of scientific study and medical intervention. Madness was rationalized. How this happened and why-- what social and intellectual evolution this development fitted into-- was Foucault’s subject. The Birth of the Clinic (1963) told a similar story and asked similar questions about the institutionalization of medical practice generally.
Having caught everyone’s attention, Foucault posed these questions-- about the formal or structural relations among the prevailing conceptions of an era, and about the relation between such ideas and the economy, technology, and social organization of the time-- more directly in what may well rank as the number-one philosophical blockbuster of recent decades, The Order of Things (1966). Like most of Foucault’s writing, this book was dauntingly abstract and difficult. But it was also staggeringly original and ambitious, and so launched his inter national fame. Foucault capped this triumph with Discipline and Punish (1975), perhaps his best book: a carefully argued, elegantly written, mordantly ironic account of how criminal law and prisons evolve under the influence of the new Enlightenment of rationality and benevolence.
At the summit of Western intellectual life after Discipline and Punish, Foucault understandably faltered. He began, then reconceived and recommenced, a multi-volume history of sexuality, which led him ever further back: far beyond the Enlightenment to early Christianity, the Stoics, the Greeks. This almost vertiginously ambitious work was mostly published posthumously, though only the first, introductory volume, which appeared in 1976, has had as much impact as his earlier books.
Though it may not be evident from this breathtakingly compressed summary, Foucault was grappling with the deepest, most intractable dilemmas of modern identity. How has the very nature of selfhood, of individuality, changed since the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and why For those who believe that neither God nor natural law nor transcendent Reason exists, and who recognize the varied and subtle ways in which material interest—power-- has corrupted, even constituted, every previous morality, how is one to live, to what values can one hold fast.
These were also-- indeed, first of all-- problems. Karl Jaspers observed wonderingly that Nietzsche “did not so much think his problems as suffer them.” Likewise Foucault, according to James Miller. The Passion of Michel Foucault is not exactly a biography, nor an academic study, but a bold and sweeping interpretation of its subject’s lifework as an effort to enlarge, even explode, the moral and aesthetic sensibilities bequeathed us by three centuries of modernity.
Initially this effort, like Nietzsche’s, took a purely philosophical and literary form. But soon Foucault, unlike Nietzsche, found political activism possible, in fact virtually inescapable. While writing Discipline and Punish he founded Prison Information, a prisoners’-rights group. He traveled to Iran and wrote a good deal about the 1978 revolution. And as a prominent Parisian intellectual, his every public pronouncement was current journalistic coin throughout Europe.
But his main political commitment was to gay liberation. Actually, as Miller demonstrates, “political commitment” is misleading: homosexuality was Foucault’s theatre of selfhood, his obsession, his identity. His chosen companions on the “great Nietzschean quest” were Sade, Artaud, Blanchot, Bataille, and anyone else who could evoke the “limit experiences” and “extreme sensations” through which the dead end of Enlightenment rationalism and the “disciplinary society” might be transcended. Increasingly for Foucault such experiences took the form of sadomasochism and anonymous sex as practiced in the gay bars and bathhouses of San Francisco throughout the 1970s and early l980s. In the last decade of his life Foucault taught for several months each year at Berkeley. He constantly visited, continually discussed, and endlessly brooded over the bathhouses. And just as AIDS, too, was becoming internationally famous, he died of it.
Miller’s book contains an astoundingly vivid though non-prurient description of (mainly homosexual) sadomasochism, as well as the most persuasive argument imaginable that experimental sex is a plausible path to the creation of new values. Yet I, at least, am not persuaded. I believe-- to simplify drastically, atrociously-- that Foucault, like many of his peers, was emotionally starved while being intellectually force-fed at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and that his later, fantastic celebrity did him more harm than good. Sadomasochism, for all its undoubted satisfactions and its unquestionable moral legitimacy between consenting adults, is not, I would guess, what Nietzsche had in mind. Though Miller and many others may gag at the suggestion, I believe that my own heroes-- Morris, Shaw, Russell, and Lawrence-- are more likely guides over the bridge to the future than the “theorists of transgression” whom Foucault himself took as exemplary; and that even such all-too-human figures as Trotsky or Malcolm X are a nearer approximation to the Superman than this most tormented, least gay of 20th-centry philosophers.