Forgetting Foucault

Forgetting Foucault

Over recent weeks I have chanced upon a few biographical articles on Michel Foucault. One was an account of Foucault’s use of LSD in Death Valley on a road trip with some fellow academics in the 1970s. Another was speculation that in the late 1970s Foucault was too close to neo-liberal ideas that would attack the French welfare state. They have led me in turn to revisit some of the discussion of the biographies and hagiographies of Saint Foucault, including his fevered embrace of sadomasochistic practices in the 1970s/80s San Francisco.

For a long time Foucault was an icon for me, driven by the mesmeric appeal of some of his thought and a personal identification with something in his personal struggle to think and to write. I read everything he ever wrote, and most of his interviews. Whether I understood them, I am not so sure. I have a copy of The Order of Things, which I bought as part of a prize for first year history at the University of Melbourne and so is signed by historian Geoffrey Blainey  (only four years younger than Foucault himself) and the writer who donated the prize, Judah Waten, (who died the year after Foucault) It sits on my shelf now unread for twenty or more years,  and is treasured more for those signatures than for Foucault’s melodramatic evocation of the effacement of humanity in sands of time. But in my twenties I collected Foucault’s thoughts obsessively, as if through the incorporation of these texts I would transform my status from benighted outsider into a public intellectual of standing. I tracked down his very early work on dreams and the practice of Ludwig Binswanger . It was symptomatic of my strange quest that my abiding memories of these texts are Binswanger’s descriptions of ways of being-in-the-world, more so than Foucault radical co-option of those ideas.

I even translated one text of Foucault’s that I could not find an English version – Foucault’s essay on Blanchot’s thought of the outside. I pursued the authors he wa fascinated by, such as the strange, enigmatic but ultimately tediously procedural spoiled rich kid, Raymond Roussel. The works that most deeply moved me were his tales of madness – in life, in writing, in suffering. It was not political Foucault that I found fascinating, although I tried to systematise all I knew of his erratic and unhinged statements on politics into some form of critique governmentality. I even conceived my PhD thesis as a kind of Foucauldian history of work and unions: I was tracing the ways in which a certain truth, a certain identity, was framed around the more fluid and undifferentiated lives of these workers. But while this idea fascinated me, it did not really help me write the work. It was his method and his style, the ravings of a self-proclaimed outcast, that both mesmerised me and paralysed me.

I wanted to borrow Foucault’s identity, his postures, his self-dramatisations, but found myself in a completely alien situation. And ultimately Foucault’s ideas and choices left me cold. He was a histrionic advocate of violence in a black velour suit. He championed the rights of spoiled, privileged men to practise sadistic cruelty. What violence did he practise and against whom? He imagined himself into a dramatic cultural revolution, and supported people’s justice He petitioned the French Government to abolish the age of consent and liberate paedophiliac men to practise their child sexual abuse on unprotected children. He loved death too much, and knew too little of life. His own judgement that taking LSD in Death Valley was the most important experience of his life, to my current mind, condemns him.

The most important thing I learned from my fascination with Foucault was how to forget Foucault. He was a Nietzsche without the suffering – the conscious self-presentation of priestly radicalism mesmerised me and millions more. Miller’s biography of Foucault presents itself as “one man’s lifelong struggle to honor Nietzsche’s gnomic injunction, ‘to become what one is.'” And perhaps this is what fired my imagination, even if I mistook Foucault’s fame and fashion for authenticity and value. Now I think a truer model of the transvaluation of all values was the lonely wandering of Friedrich himself. As Roger Kimball writes:

“But whatever one thinks of Nietzsche’s philosophy and influence, it is difficult not to admire his courage and single-minded commitment to the philosophical life. Wracked by ill-health—migraines, vertigo, severe digestive complaints—Nietzsche had to quit his teaching position at the University of Basel when he was in his mid-thirties. From then on he led an isolated, impoverished, celibate life, subsisting in various cheap pensioni in Italy and Switzerland. He had but few friends. His work was almost totally ignored: Beyond Good and Evil, one of his most important books, sold a total of 114 copies in a year. Yet he quietly persevered.”

The contrast with Foucault the wayward scion of privilege could not be stronger. Kimball uses Nietzsche’s words against Foucault himself, saying,

He epitomized to perfection a certain type of decadent Romantic, a type that Nietzsche warned against when he spoke of “those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness.” Foucault’s insatiable craving for new, ever more thrilling “experiences” was a sign of weakness, not daring.

In the end, I left behind some time in my 30s this icon of cruelty. By choosing life in all its mundane beauty, not melodramas of radical death, I learned to forget Foucault.


Madness & History

I am reading Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine (Thames & Hudson, 2015). The title is a wink to the English translation of Foucault’s Folie et Déraison, that is Madness & Civilization: a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. And the wink is not kind. The book in some ways is the culmination of a lifetime’s work by Scull to rectify the errors of Foucault, and, at its core, disputes Foucault’s poetic argument that madness is the shadow of reason, the suppressed transgression that must be put outside the bounds of civilization. Yet this argument is put in a graceless way, characterized by offhand snipes at the philosopher’s scholarly errors, rather than a respectful response to the strange beauty of Foucault’s poetry enclosed in history.


Source: Wikimedia Commons, Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516), Das Narrenschiff

Take, for example, Scull’s brief discussion of the theme of the ship of fools. Scull notes the image of the Ship of Fools was created as a literary trope, as in the 1494 text by Sebastien Brant, which was illustrated by Durer (and can be viewed here These artists created, Scull writes, “allegorical images which captured the sense of the mad as liminal figures, haunting the imagination, lurking half-seen on the very margins of civilized existence.” (p 114) So striking were these compositions and images, Scull acidly writes, “that, six centuries later, they would tempt the famous French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926-84) into embracing the wholly mistaken notion that these powerful paintings were representations of something real, instead of merely an artistic conceit.” (p 115)

That closing sneer – an artistic conceit – betrays the weakness of Scull’s book. It struggles to convey the experience of madness, the imaginative world of insanity, from both sides of the borderlands of reason, and is heavy with real context, reprising the history of the civilization in which the mad dwelt, and light on deep appreciation of its claimed topic – the culture of insanity. Its early chapters, and I am just part way through, tell us much background about empires and historical developments, following a tediously Eurocentric course, but are surprisingly thin on elaborating the images, stories and voices of insanity. If Scull had been prepared to question why a mere conceit exercised such a hold on the imagination, as seen in the selection of topic by artists and the popularity of the images and books, then he might have written a book with more of the poetic power of Foucault’s Madness & Civilization. Instead he seeks to tame the images of madness, to school the wild fertility of its symbolism with the dull discipline of pedantry, and domesticate madness securely within civilization, no longer a threat, but a “fundamental puzzle, a reproach to reason, inescapably part and parcel of civilization itself.” (p 411)

In contrast to Scull’s desultory dismissal of the imaginative resonance of the Ship of Fools, Foucault teases out the image and the social practice of the expulsion of the mad, balancing, if sometimes in too grandiose prose, the mundane realities and the flight of the symbols. He notes at the outset, despite Scull’s uncharitable sneer,  that it is a literary composition, possibly derived from the Argonaut cycle, and part of great mythic themes, revived and rejuvenated in the Renaissance. He does claim that these images, however, had a real existence, but the text is blurry about whether this reality is in the form of a boat (he gives one or two examples) or in the form of symbolic and practical expulsion. “Madmen then led an easy wandering existence. The towns drove them outside their limits; they were allowed to wander in the open countryside, when not entrusted to a group of merchants and pilgrims.”  (p. 8) What matters is less the form of transportation than that “the expulsion of madmen had become one of a number of ritual exiles.” (p 10)

But for a cultural history of insanity, the symbolism of an image is as important as the realities of its more humdrum real world enactment. And it is on the meaning of this crossover – the place of the Ship of Fools in registering how people imagined madness in history – that Foucault dwells on. And so this passage, which even now 35 years after reading its strange poetry, I recognise its importance for my own exiles to the borderlands of reason:

Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools’ boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks. The madman’s voyage is at once rigorous division and an absolute Passage. In one sense, it simply develops, across a half-real, half-imaginary geography, the madman’s liminal position on the horizon of medieval concern –  a position symbolized and made real at the same time by the madman’s privilege if being confined within the city’s gates: his exclusion must enclose him; if he cannot and must not have another prison than the threshold itself, he is kept at the point of passage. He is put in the interior of the exterior, and inversely. A highly symbolic position, which will doubtless remain his until our own day, if we are willing to admit that what was formerly a visible fortress of order has now become the castle of our conscience. (p 11)

This passage is history as poetry, with its marked words denoting a private symbolism of special importance to the writer, and its evocation of a modern dilemma of being trapped within the prisons of our rational minds. It reminds me of Weber’s reference to the iron cage of rationality and vocation that holds us. It evokes the manifestation of madness in history in a way that is beyond the powers of Scull’s more pedestrian imagination. To write of madness in history is a special responsibility: to prowl these borderlands and to come back and speak truthfully of the fears and the beauty, and also the simple mundane practicalities of what you find and how you experience it. It is not a challenge that can be readily undertaken within narrow academic conventions, and it is not a challenge that Scull rises to. Scull domesticates madness with scholarly precision to a trite chronology of (Western European) civilization; Foucault reanimates the history of madness poetically, with all the necessary errors of imaginative speech.

Source: Badius, Josse, 1462-1535.Stultiferae naves