The debate over the relationship between an author’s life and the texts that author produces has been an enduring one in the modern history of French writing. The influential nineteenth century critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve insisted on examining biographical details in order to interpret works by individual authors. Later, Marcel Proust would take strong exception to this tendency. His emphasis on the autonomy of art continued to be felt throughout the development of modern formalist criticism. Aesthetic formalism culminated in the structuralist and semiological elevation of the linguistic sign over the controlling authorial presence in any text, and critical skepticism about the significance of authorship would continue even after rejection of the structuralist faith in the stability of the sign.
The subject of James Miller’s quasibiographical The Passion of Michel Foucault, increasingly regarded as one of the greatest French thinkers of the twentieth century, came to intellectual prominence with the publication of his ambitious, baffling, and incendiary book Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (1966; The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970). To his lasting chagrin, Foucault came to be associated in the minds of many in France and abroad with structuralism and the efforts of such contemporaries as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan and later with the poststructuralist intellectual landscape he shared with his occasional adversary Jacques Derrida. As Foucault would point out tirelessly, he indulged in little of the structuralist jargon and had no sympathy with structuralism’s well-known hostility to history.
What Foucault shared with these writers was a more or less antihumanist reaction to the existentialist preoccupation with the self or subject. His impressive body of work on madness, medicine, prisons, and sexuality strongly challenges historians’ uncritical assumptions that what is called the “self” is a transhistorical, inevitable, and unproblematic reality. Foucault’s late work in particular, which redirected his temporal gaze toward classical antiquity, charted the gradual fashioning of “technologies of the self” that served to produce the self through ethical disciplinary practices that trained attention on the care and cultivation of “selves.”
This is where Miller’s study intervenes decisively in the crowded field of critical and biographical studies of Michel Foucault. He is by no means the first to remark on the paradox of investigating the self that was Michel Foucault in the face of that author’s self-negating discourse. Foucault was seemingly just as eager to efface himself as a subject as he was to dislodge the subject as cornerstone in the edifice of Western humanism. Most significant is that Miller parts company with other studies by arguing that this same Foucault came increasingly to affirm his own quest for self-definition, arrived at through what Foucault liked to call “limit-experiences” made available through extremes of sexual and narcotic experimentation. Miller argues forcefully that these episodes profoundly shifted the direction of Foucault’s work away from problematics of power to genealogical (in Friedrich Nietzsche’s sense) investigations of the self that held deep personal meaning for him.
In a breathtaking postscript to his book, Miller confesses that it was precisely Foucault’s rumored sexual exploits that led him to immerse himself in the latter’s writings and to embark on this study. The rumor that arrested Miller’s attention and made Foucault more than just another author whose books adorned his shelves involved Foucault’s final visit to San Francisco, the city he professed to prefer to Paris, in the fall of 1983. According to this rumor, Foucault, aware that he had contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), visited the gay baths and leather bars of Folsom Street and knowingly exposed a number of casual sexual partners. Miller presents this scenario as one of a self-destructive death wish expressing itself as a murderous impulse. The truth of the rumor is never definitively settled in Miller’s book but lurks behind the pages that detail Foucault’s involvement in the gay sadomasochism subculture. Miller insists that he does not intend to be judgmental and that discussion of Foucault’s most private activities is necessary for a full understanding of the link between the author and the subjects of his work. He also calls attention to hints dropped in Didier Eribon’s 1989 biography, Michel Foucault: 1926-1984(published in English translation in 1991) about Foucault’s use of drugs and his fondness for the urban gay subculture of “cruising.” He attributes Eribon’s reticence to pursue those topics further both to his friendship with Foucault and to a Gallic sense of discretion. When he began to present his findings at conferences and in academic journals as early as 1990, Miller was faced with objections that his work was “homophobic” and that there could be no rational explanation for his relentless inquiry along such lines. For all Miller’s disclaimers to the contrary, one cannot shake the feeling that diminishing the reputation of a celebrated thinker whose politics he questions is central to Miller’s agenda.
Miller, himself an important political theorist, is director of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. As a writer, he is known for his keen interest in radical politics and a wide range of topics in modern cultural history, including modern French political theory. He is the author ofRousseau: Dreamer of Democracy (1984) and History and Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty (1979). In the interval between those two studies of European political theory and the present study of Foucault, Miller published his acclaimed history of American political struggles of the late 1960’s titled “Democracy Is in the Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago...
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