The French Philosopher and the Bay Area
Join us for a series that explores the work and life of Michel Foucault, a figure famous for his social theories of power, discipline, and surveillance, who also gained attention for his theoretical and personal struggles with concepts of sexuality.
Soon several hundred more people had gathered outside the hall, clamoring to get in. Police rushed to the scene. The doors to the hall were locked shut. Enraged, the crowd outside began to push and shout, pounding on the doors.
This excerpt from James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault describes the atmosphere of the thinker’s first lecture at UC Berkeley on October, 20th 1980. This visit was the first of several ones Foucault -an avid traveler- made to the Bay Area, which he came to love for its open-mindedness and the buoyancy of its gay community.
It is not the least surprising that enlightened, liberal-leaning Berkeley students would be attracted to an intellectual like Foucault. To say it crudely, he checks all the boxes of the radical intellectual. He teamed up with Jean-Paul Sartre to support social causes and encouraged the 1968 student protests during his stay in Tunisia, where he followed his partner during his military service. He stood up for the rights of society’s underdogs such as prisoners, mentally ill people, gay people (who were still often conflated with the previous group by many elements of society), poor workers and immigrants. In his work, he favored disquieting subject matters like prison, torture and sex (“Had philosophy ever sounded so sexy?” asks James Miller). He also famously experimented with drugs (if you do some research on Foucault, you will find countless mentions of his Death Valley LSD trip, which he himself described as a deeply cathartic moment) and struggled with societal expectations regarding his own sexuality.
It is hard not to be tempted to explore the sentimental meaning of this visit for Foucault. Indeed, in the Bay Area, he felt freer than in pretty much any other place he had visited before. In particular, the tolerant climate he encountered here undermined the very codified gender roles he had seen in action in both France and Tunisia, two pretty “macho” societies in their own way.
So, it might be naive to claim that his visit to Berkeley finally allowed Foucault to feel like himself, however, it is important to stress that, from a young age, he had been deeply impacted by the conflicting feelings the realization of his homosexuality roused. When one looks at Foucault’s life, it is difficult not to suspect that he must have felt a certain relief during his stay in the Bay Area.
FOUCAULT’S COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP TO HIS SEXUALITY IN HIS YOUTH
Born in Poitiers, a relatively unexciting city in central France, Foucault had a provincial bourgeois upbringing. His father, Paul, was a surgeon and expected him, as his eldest son, to follow him in the profession. However, not only did Michel show no interest in becoming a surgeon, he also allegedly called his father a bully and possibly changed his first name from “Paul-Michel” to just “Michel” because he did not want to bear his name.
How did it feel to be a homosexual youth in France between the 1930s and 1940s? Although Paris is known to have had a relatively substantial gay scene in the early 20th century, a provincial town like Poitiers would not prove to be as tolerant or to offer as many opportunities for young Foucault to explore his sexuality. On top of this, as a result of his conservative upbringing, it was still difficult for him to do so when he moved to the capital at a young age to attend a catholic high school. Indeed, the opportunities Paris’ underground gay life offered actually presented another challenge to Foucault who is said to have been crushed by shame and a feeling of otherness after every visit he paid to gay-friendly venues.
Many accounts describe him as being a solitary and moody young man who was obsessed with school performance. Didier Eribon, who wrote possibly the best appreciated biography of Foucault (simply titled “Michel Foucault”) talks of an aggressive young man with megalomaniacal tendencies that earned him his peers’ scorn. What is more, Foucault committed many acts of self harm, apparently attempting suicide on more than one occasion. The best documented incident happened when a teacher found him lying in a classroom of the Ecole Normale Superieure with several deep razor cuts across his chest.
Yet one should be cautious when trying to understand young Foucault’s acts of desperation and refrain from seeing them only through the lens of homosexuality. As central as it was to the definition of his identity, his sexuality was not his only concern. His inception as an intellectual was a painful process as well. In fact, Foucault was also deeply sensitive and proud when it came to academic achievements. In this regard, even minor setbacks, like not being ranked well enough at an exam, were capable of setting him off. The very detailed letter he sent a critic he thought misunderstood his work presents us with a great example of this self-righteous resentment. Clearly, his was a complicated persona.
Over the next decades, Foucault produced many pivotal works that skirted the lines between conventionally separate fields of social science while deeply altering the conversation on subjects like power structures, justice, mental health and, of course, sex. At the same time, he went on to live an eventful life.
Anne Errelis is a Guest Contributor at InQueery.