The French Philosopher and the Bay Area, Part 3

April 26, 2017 in inQueery

A recent ad for Defert’s nonprofit, AIDES



As rich and complex as his life was, the events that surrounded Foucault’s death are themselves deeply compelling as they reveal so much about the times in which it occurred.

It is well known now that Foucault died of complications related to AIDS. However, at the time of his death, the situation was significantly less clear in great part because of the stigma that surrounded this still barely understood condition.  Accounts say that Foucault started feeling ill in the summer of 1983.  Yet, his symptoms did not point to AIDS but rather to some kind of pulmonary infection. In a 1994 interview, Daniel Defert, explained that, since Foucault seemed to recover after this first crisis, he assumed that he did not suffer from AIDS, which everyone at the time thought to be a quick killer.  And so, even if Foucault was steadily losing weight and growing weaker, there were no true concerns about him suffering from AIDS.

In June of 1984, Foucault’s state deteriorated and he was hospitalized. After three weeks, he died.  When he picked up the hospital report on his partner’s death, Daniel Defert read “AIDS” (“sida”) as the cause of death.  He then realized  that the doctors had known for a while but did not break the news to the couple partly because they knew there was no cure available and as to allow Foucault to continue working (he went on teaching and finished two books in February of 1984).

Foucault’s death created a great commotion and indulged some of society’s less than savory impulses.  Notably, there was a conspicuous display of noxious curiosity on the part of the press which got excited about the possibility of France’s top intellectual (since Sartre’s passing in 1980) dying of this mysterious new disease.  A climate of ambivalence prevailed: obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post mention a neurological disorder while, according to The Independent, Foucault was “the first celebrity publicly known to have died of AIDS.”  Publicity was a real concern: after the fact, Defert understood that the hospital personnel were very vigilant about the true nature of Foucault’s illness leaking to the press. It is not clear if what they worried about most was their patient’s privacy and well-being or the risk of their establishment being associated to the disease. Indeed, it is no secret that HIV/AIDS was widely misunderstood in the early 1980s and that infected people were strongly stigmatized.  For instance, Defert recounts a striking anecdote: shortly after Foucault’s death, he ran into a journalist he vaguely knew. Instantly, the man’s face took on an expression of dread. Defert understood that this frightened reaction was due to the fact that, at the time, he was the only person in all of Paris to be known to be possibly infected with AIDS.

The logical next step for Defert was to get tested, not an easy deed at the time.  As there existed no standard procedure yet, Defert recounts having had to pay several visits to the doctor, wait an excruciatingly long time and, finally, strongly voice his disapproval of the way he was treated before finally getting his test results back (he was HIV negative).  The ordeal he was put through, added to the shock of his longtime partner’s tragic death, inspired him to found AIDES, the first French nonprofit to raise awareness of AIDS and provide support for people who are HIV positive.  It is still active today.


While the profusion of introductions to Foucault’s work highlights his lasting intellectual influence, the abundance of literature on his life underlines how prone to biographical exploration it is. What is more, the sensationalist title of James Miller’s book also indicates how thrilling it can appear to outside observers: are we talking about the passion Foucault himself felt or the one he incites in others? In any case, few philosophers stir up so many contradictory and powerful feelings. Sadly, these very feelings can obscure his actual thought and preclude a thorough analysis of his works.

Indeed, could we go as far as to claim that it was Foucault’s unusual and dramatic fate rather than his intellectual achievements that granted him his spot in the pantheon of modern thinkers? Some critics certainly seem to think so. For instance,  the American academic Camille Paglia called Foucault:  

“a deity in the humanities but whom I regard as a derivative game-player whose theories make no sense whatever about any period preceding the Enlightenment.”

To Paglia, Foucault’s status as “a deity” is completely disproportionate compared to the actual scientific value of his work, which “make[s] no sense whatever.”

In a 1992 article for The Independent focusing on the life of Louis Althusser -a friend of Foucault’s- Gilbert Adair sums up this problem pretty deftly:

“Philosophers, pure thinkers, are not really supposed to have faces or bodies. And what all of these thinkers shared was a mistrust of the ‘subject’, of the author as the privileged creator and interpreter of his own work, of the legitimacy of biographical information as a support to the comprehension of a text. Yet they, too, had lives, and those lives have now returned, with a vengeance, to haunt their work.”

It is thus important to remember that, like everybody else’s, Foucault’s life is not just a means but an end in itself. However, there are many things in it that shine a light on the hardships that gay people had to face during the past century and still do now to a certain extent. In particular, Foucault’s sexual identity struggles raise the issue of queerness in a school environment, which is still a complex matter today with the transgender access laws being rolled back by the new administration. Fortunately, Foucault gave us some weapons we can use to continue affirming gay identity and rights.



Anne Errelis is a Contributor at InQueery.