The French Philosopher and the Bay Area, Part 2

April 12, 2017 in inQueery


Missed the first post of our series on Foucault?  Catch up.


We already established that Foucault was an incredibly zealous student. By 1951, he was rewarded for his hard work: he graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure (and virtually immediately started teaching there.) A comical anecdote about his graduation reports that the valedictorian personally apologized to Foucault for having been unfairly ranked above him (Foucault was rated second best). In 1952, Foucault obtained a degree in psychopathology, which made him somewhat of an oddity: a specialist in humanities who was also deeply interested in the biological, or medical, dimension of the human condition.

The preparation of this degree required that Foucault work in mental institutions (“asiles de fous” or “insane asylums” as they were commonly called at the time). He notably interned at the centre pénitentiaire de Fresnes, a prison where he was able to first witness the way supposedly beneficial medical treatments are conflated with mental and physical confinement implemented by a totalitarian form of authority. This experience is at the roots of Foucault’s early and lasting concerns as a thinker and as a man.

Logically, his first major published work Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961) deals with mental illness and the way Western civilizations have handled the “in-sane” over the past few centuries. It sets the tone for his future work and affirms Foucault’s main intellectual and moral concerns in particular regarding the often coordinated use of power on individuals in society. Foucault’s ambitions were to take apart power structures  – theoretically at least – and to rehabilitate categories of people who had been marginalized.

These concerns had something to do with how Foucault perceived his own situation in society. A conversation he had with the philosopher Roger-Pol Droit on his own struggles with his sexual identity illuminates his interest in mental illness and the societal perception of it: “In my personal life, it happens that, as soon as my sexuality shaped itself, I felt, not rejected really, but like I belonged to a dark side of society. Very quickly, that turned into a sort of psychiatric threat: if you are not like everyone else, then you are abnormal; if you are abnormal, then you are sick.” (« Je suis un artificier », in Roger-Pol Droit, Michel Foucault. Entretiens, Odile Jacob, 2004).

Therefore, it seems like Foucault’s work was grounded in genuine sympathy for its subjects, which some might see as a threat to scientific integrity, which prefers the author to stay a neutral observer, but also denotes sincerity and dedication.  

It seems that Foucault’s work was somehow deeply empathetic.  Through his writings, Foucault was not only striving to create new paths for intellectual exploration:  he was trying to provide a coherent system of thoughts that established a potent relation between the thinker and the world.  Just like that, the boy who had no interest in bonding with his fellow students turned into an exceptionally generous thinker.

So we might be justified to say that intellectual work was Foucault’s main way to relate to his surroundings.  In life, he never seemed to feel quite at home:  he lived in Sweden, Poland, (an experience which will leave him very disillusioned with communism from which he had already distanced himself to some extent because the party condemned homosexuality as a “bourgeois vice”), West Germany and Tunisia.  On the other hand, in academia, Foucault excelled, his thought evolving steadily during his whole life and until the very end.

It is in the last years on his life that Foucault focused most heavily on the issue of sexuality.  The work that resulted from this effort helped durably expand the intellectual field of LGBTQ issues.  It is especially the case for The History of Sexuality, which was planned to span over six-volumes (Foucault had time to write only three).  The first volume, The Will to Knowledge (1976), enriched LGBTQ theory and had “a powerful influence on gay consciousness.”

On that matter, for Daniel Defert, Foucault’s long time partner, the success of his Berkeley lectures is not surprising as Foucault’s writings on sexuality may have been best understood in America. Defert contrasts French thinkers’ clumsy attempt to seek a universal gay identity to the American understanding of Foucault’s work as a problematization of the whole of sexuality (the success of Foucault’s ideas in America is notably exemplified by Judith Butler’s work). Defert points out that American academics have been leading the way on questions of gender and sexuality. In France, those themes have been slower to gain true academic importance, which makes Foucault somewhat of a precursor.

So, it seems that Foucault’s American experience has been deeply beneficial. Not only did he find a public that was receptive to some of his most innovative ideas, but also got introduced to a community of people who experienced modes of living that echoed his thoughts on sexual identity.

However, Foucault’s love story with America -and with the Bay Area in particular- was to be short-lived.


Anne Errelis is a Guest Contributor at InQueery.