The True Foucault

The True Foucault

The issues most important to Michel Foucault have moved from the margins to become major preoccupations of political life. But what did Foucault actually teach?

Michel Foucault and Jean Paul Sartre demonstrate in front of the Renault factories to protest against Pierre Overney's assassination (Photo by Josee Lorenzo\INA via Getty Images)

Suddenly, it seems, everyone has a lot to say about Michel Foucault. And much of it isn’t pretty. After enjoying a decades-long run as an all-purpose reference point in the humanities and social sciences, the French philosopher has come in for a reevaluation by both the right and the left.

The right, of course, has long blamed Foucault for licensing an array of left-wing pathologies. Some conservatives have even made Foucault a catchall scapegoat for ills ranging from slacker nihilism to woke totalitarianism. But a strange new respect is emerging for Foucault in some precincts on the right. Conservatives have flirted with the notion that Foucault’s hostility to confessional politics could make him a useful shield against “social justice warriors.” This presumption was strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Foucault’s critique of “biopolitics”—his term for the political significance assumed by public-health and medical issues in modern times—provided a handy weapon for attacking liberal fealty to scientific expertise.

As Foucault’s standing has climbed on the right, it has fallen on the left. A decade ago, left attention focused on whether Foucault’s discussions of neoliberalism in the 1970s suggested that his philosophical commitments harmonized with the emergent free-market ideology: hostile to the state, opposed to disciplinary power, and tolerant of behaviors previously deemed immoral. (In full disclosure, I contributed to this debate.) Recently, the locus of the leftist critique has, like its conservative counterpart, shifted to cultural politics. Thus the social theorists Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora maintain that Foucault’s politicization of selfhood inspired the confessional antics of “woke culture,” which seeks to overcome societal ills by making the reform of one’s self the ultimate managerial project. At the same time, Foucault’s standing has suffered a debilitating blow in the wake of recent claims that he paid underage boys for sex while living in Tunisia during the 1960s. These charges have brought new attention to places in his writing where—like some other radicals of his era—he questioned the need for a legal age of consent.

What is going on here? Why does Foucault now feel like our contemporary, almost forty years after his death? Why are leftists turning against him? And why are some conservatives adopting him?

First, the current debate over the political implications of Foucault’s thought is symptomatic of our off-kilter politics, in which populists style themselves as countercultural radicals. Second, our high-octane public discourse draws increasingly on ideas that used to be confined to the academy or rarefied intellectual circles. This is certainly true of progressive conceits—white privilege, gender theory, critical race theory—but it also bears out on the right, as seen in young conservatives’ increasing familiarity with the canons of nationalist and even fascist thought. As academic culture seeps into political debate, it is no surprise that a thinker of Foucault’s stature would be thrown into the mix.

Third, and most important, the early twenty-first century has become Foucauldian. Consider the topics that Foucault helped to pioneer as objects of philosophical reflection: mental illness, public health, gender and transgender identities, normalization and abnormality, surveillance, selfhood. Once confined to the margins of political thought, these issues have become major preoccupations with important stakes in everyday life, in the Western world and beyond.

The problem is that it has become all too easy to conflate Foucauldian subject matter with Foucault’s thought. In the very discussions that invoke him, the deeper wellsprings of his philosophies are often overlooked. Consequently, Foucault seems at once ultra-contemporary and—to use a term favored by his preferred philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche—curiously “untimely” (that is, unfashionable or inopportune).

Foucault’s reputation is coated with thick accretions of polemical interpretation and partisan appropriation. A century ago, Marx’s theories found themselves in a similar situation, as their interpretation became a point of contention in the burgeoning socialist movement. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács felt compelled to ask: “What is orthodox Marxism?” Strange as it might sound, a similar question is in order for Foucault. What is orthodox Foucauldianism? What did Foucault actually teach?

Foucault was a protean thinker whose interests frequently changed in the course of his thirty-year career. Although he held many opinions, we must not forget that he was, at his core, a philosopher—not a historian (despite the historical character of his thinking) or an ideologue or a political commentator.

Aristotle began his Metaphysics with an assertion: “All men by nature desire to know.” First and foremost, Foucault sought to explore this claim—not as a self-evident truth but as an idea to be rendered strange and surprising. Foucault’s inquiry is not the traditional problem of epistemology (“What is knowledge?”) but a cultural question: “Why do we value knowledge?” In his essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche wrote, “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’—yet only a minute.” These words capture the spirit—if not the tone—of Foucault’s quest. Why are so many human activities colored by our thirst for knowledge? What would it mean to live without being haunted by the will to know?

The origin of Foucault’s interrogation lies in his early engagement with what is known as German idealism. Beginning with Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century, the thinkers of this tradition emphasized the way that consciousness shapes the world. If you can see a landscape, Kant maintained, it is because your consciousness is hardwired with a conception of space and time, and also of logical categories such as unity and plurality. Subsequent idealists, most famously G.W.F. Hegel, wrestled with the relationship between the “subject” (i.e., consciousness) and “objects” (external reality). Whereas some idealists in other philosophical schools made extravagant claims for subjectivity, reducing objective reality to figments of the self’s imagination, the signature concern of the German idealists was understanding what makes objects graspable to consciousness—how we can know our world.

German idealism provided Foucault with his core philosophical vocabulary. His originality lay in his transposition of the framework of German idealism onto historical and cultural concerns. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault showed that mental illness emerged as an object only with the development of a form of subjectivity rooted in empirical science. In The Birth of the Clinic, he examined the kind of subject required for modern medicine to emerge—specifically, one that was capable of understanding disease as immanent in mortal bodies. According to Foucault, both the subject and objects—consciousness and external reality—are shaped by history. Although he was often mistaken as a relativist, he never claimed that truth varies from perspective to perspective. His point was that what counts as true changes over time—even though, at any given moment, truth can assume a fixed and unassailable character. In his idiosyncratic way, Foucault was the last German idealist.

Foucault also subscribed to a distinct historical narrative in which the advent of what he called “humanism” (or, in more technical terms, philosophical anthropology) was modern history’s decisive turning point—and a deeply problematic one. A somewhat hasty reading of Foucault leads many to conclude that, through this narrative, he denounced the false claims of universality made in humanity’s name (for instance, the way that “humanity” incorporates ethnocentric or gendered assumptions) or suggested that humanism was a disingenuously emancipatory discourse that slyly incorporated pernicious forms of power. Perhaps Foucault agreed with these claims, but they were not the reasons for his philosophical anti-humanism. In his books from the sixties, Foucault’s histories always begin with paradigms rooted in an essentially religious worldview (in the Middle Ages, say, or the Renaissance) and culminate with a modern scientific outlook, in which knowledge is confined to the boundaries of human understanding. Contrary to the view that Foucault is a thinker of “discontinuities” (which Foucault, as if covering his tracks, encouraged), these narratives are often patently teleological. Indeed, they follow the historical schema popularized by Auguste Comte, the nineteenth-century apostle of positivism: we start with theological knowledge (reality as God’s creation), move onto metaphysics (in which reality is tethered to an intangible world of rational entities), and ultimately arrive at positive or scientific knowledge (reality as facts grasped by the human mind). For this portrayal, Foucault harnessed the insights of Martin Heidegger, specifically his claim that scientific knowledge is contingent on a conception of human beings as “subjects” whose capacities for understanding are essentially finite. A limited creature (rather than an infinite creator) can only grasp the world as a subject—that is, as a consciousness with necessarily circumscribed horizons.

What intrigued Foucault was that this apparent epistemological humility underwrote an enormous expansion of knowledge’s cultural authority: never was knowledge as important as when human beings lamented their inherent intellectual limits. And so experiences previously seen as being beyond knowledge’s realm became objects of scientific understanding—phenomena tainted by human finitude rather than attributes of a transcendent universe. Madness became mental illness, death spurred the expansion of medical knowledge, language was grasped as a web navigable only to the creature that had spun it. The fateful project of grounding knowledge in human finitude has, paradoxically, extended that “most mendacious” moment of world history well beyond its allotted minute.

Foucault wanted to break his culture’s addiction to knowledge. This goal shines most clearly in his history of sexuality. Although he believed that sexuality is a social construct, his more fundamental insight was that modern sexuality had made a “Faustian pact” with truth. What we like most about sex is understanding it—talking about desire, analyzing it, dissecting it, exploring it. Foucault’s assertion that the West has embraced a “sexual science” while the East has cultivated an “erotic art” indicates—despite, and perhaps because of, its crass orientalism—his deepest concerns about what it would be like to experience sex without viewing it as a clue to some elusive secret about ourselves. This is the basis of his programmatic statement that we should reacquaint ourselves with “bodies and pleasures.” Sex, Foucault speculated, could become a realm of experience emancipated from the will to know.

His pronouncements on politics were made in a similar vein. He is commonly associated with a bleak assessment of modern society, in which power, far from being confined to the state and economics, is disseminated through a network of disciplinary institutions—schools, hospitals, social services, asylums, and prisons, among others. Many are familiar with Foucault’s claim that the authority wielded by such entities is derived from their claims to specialized knowledge, which he succinctly dubbed “power-knowledge.” But, to Foucault, this argument was just one part of a broader framework. He relentlessly insisted that, even if power is a pervasive force in our collective lives, it always manifests itself in concrete struggles. He wanted us to see practices such as the military regimentation of bodies or the relationship between therapists and patients as akin to hand-to-hand combat—judo matches, rather than Orwellian thought control. Power is always an effort to control someone’s conduct: finding the right hold, identifying vulnerabilities, creating incentives for compliance.

Foucault was not a neoliberal, but he thought neoliberalism raised important questions. Specifically, he wondered about the capacity of welfare states to make fully rational healthcare-related decisions about millions of people. In an interview in 1983, he mused, “Take the example of dialysis: how many sick people are placed on dialysis, how many others are denied access? Imagine what would happen if one exposed the grounds of these choices, resulting in a kind of inequality of treatment. Scandalous rules would be brought to light!” Foucault’s point is neither that science is true nor that it is false (or merely “constructed”), but that invocations of science will rarely settle political disputes—because even issues as seemingly grounded in science as public health are in fact replete with nonscientific assumptions and interests.

Thus, while for Foucault power and knowledge were always intertwined, he also maintained that one must de-intellectualize power. This is one of the many reasons why he was skeptical of Marxism. Rather than challenge Marxism’s claim to being a science, Foucault argued that Marxism’s problem was wanting to be a science. His point was not that knowledge has no place in political struggles but that politics is always irreducibly about power—and frankly acknowledging this fact is preferable to believing that knowledge somehow cleanses us of power’s stain.

This view is often seen as cynical, but I am surprised that it is not more often seen as unduly optimistic: for Foucault, the necessary corollary to the claim that all relationships are saturated with power is that they are also all, in principle, reversible. As Hegel understood, there are no master-slave relationships in which masters, simply by dominating their slaves, do not put their authority at risk. Furthermore, Foucault’s conclusions about power dovetailed with his insights about sex: just as bodies and pleasures should avoid becoming used for endless analyses of sexuality, we should, in politics, pursue overt struggles for power as an alternative to power-knowledge.

Had Foucault ever been asked point-blank if he were a relativist, he might have answered, “If only—if only it were possible to overcome the will to truth.” He invites us to see truth not as reality’s fabric but as a cultural artifact, something that humans do. This does not mean that truth doesn’t exist: science unveils the laws of the physical universe; statistics identifies regularities in large numbers; art can present a picture of the world or express inner emotions. Indeed, Foucault’s beef with truth is precisely that it does exist—and exists so intensely. Although one can read Foucault’s recently published Confessions of the Flesh as condemning confessional practices, he also shows that confession became widespread among early Christian ascetics because it was exciting. Truth is not just imposed on us by power relations; we get off on it.

Foucault’s friend Paul Veyne once remarked that, whereas Heidegger was concerned with truth’s ontological basis, and Ludwig Wittgenstein with truth’s meaning, Foucault’s question was why truth is so untrue. No doubt this refers to Foucault’s recognition that truth is contaminated by power and that its criteria change over time. But the stakes of this claim are greater. Foucault demands that we question the value we assign to truth—whether truth allows us to lead the lives we wish to live.

Which brings us back to the present. In many ways, we are all Foucauldians now—in the ways we think about gender, normalization, psychiatry, confinement, surveillance. But rarely has politics seemed as intoxicated by truth as it does today, on both sides of the spectrum. As offensive as it may be to liberal sensibilities, right-wing conspiracy theories such as QAnon and “Stop the Steal” all partake in a politics of truth. This does not mean that their claims are plausible but rather that their aspirations to efficacy are premised on being “right.” (The shift from thinking in terms of the former to recognizing the latter is, in a sense, the essence of Foucauldian critique.) In a more academic vein, Jordan Peterson, too, places truth at the center of political debate when he charges that social justice warriors—inspired by what he absurdly calls Foucauldian “postmodernism”—willfully disregard the rough justice of the natural hierarchies identified by evolutionary science.

This will to truth is by no means confined to the right. If those of us on the left aspire to a broader understanding of mental health, if we value transgender identities, and if we promote institutions that embrace heterogeneity, it is generally because they appear to us as true, as justified by what we know. Even the background metaphorics of the term “woke” are steeped in notions of truth—a dash of born-again Christianity mixed in with an Enlightenment recognition of the world as it is. The conception of history advocated by many on the left in recent years seeks not simply to explore alternative narratives but to get the American past—and slavery, most importantly—“right.” “Believe science,” the liberal mantra of the pandemic, is also based on a view that the truth should be able to settle key political disagreements once and for all. It is striking that the contemporary left draws on almost all the truth forms—Christian, enlightened, scientific—upon which Foucault cast his critical eye.

To the extent that one can even speculate about such things, however, I imagine that Foucault would have supported initiatives like the 1619 Project and seen them as concurring with his genealogies of power, not to mention his politics of liberation. He was, as is commonly recognized, acutely aware of how historical narratives often exclude particular individuals, and he recognized the power of narrating history from the standpoint of marginalized groups.

But Foucault’s deeper project of weaning us off of our addiction to truth is as alien to our present as it was to his own time. “Speaking truth to power,” an idea that seems more relevant than ever, seems to have a pleasantly Foucauldian vibe to it. In fact, Foucault’s lesson is more accurately (if somewhat tautologically) phrased as “fighting power with power.” As union and community organizers realize, knowledge only gets you so far: the task of organizing is to confront power where it manifests itself, such as the workplace or housing regulations, and to limit its effects through strategic leveraging of collective strength. As that crypto-Foucauldian Saul Alinsky once observed, “No one can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation.” If politics is fundamentally about power, what surplus value do we get from also claiming to be right?

Those questions are as difficult to ask today as at any point. And so, as we continue to argue over a semi-fictionalized Foucault, the genuine philosopher remains more untimely than ever.

Michael C. Behrent is a history professor at Appalachian State University. He is the coeditor of Foucault and Neoliberalism and is working on a book on the young Foucault.

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