Thursday, March 27, 2008

Foucault Must Be Tamed

Teaching radical political theory this term has re-sensitized me to the flatness of most academic and pseudo-academic chatter. By "flat" I don't mean "square"--I'm a giant nerd, and get unreasonably excited about what I take to be serious work on boring, dusty, old things. But I just watched the excerpts from the Foucault/Chomsky debate that are appended to Manufacturing Consent, and was blown away--with an intensity that reading Foucault just doesn't deliver--by the radicality of Foucault's stance.

Chomsky wants to justify every political act by reference to the authorizations of international law, and Foucault basically says to him: Why in god's name would you want to turn yourself into the police like that? Foucault is unstinting in his assertion of a Spinozan-Marxist power politics. He has no use for discourses of legitimation or legality, or for any other effort to take refuge in a clean conscience.

At first I was struck by the otherworldly quality of this debate, conducted in these terms. That two of the most famous intellectuals of the day could have a televised debate about how to conduct the revolution seems almost unthinkable only 36 years later. But then this sense of wonder was overtaken by a profound disappointment at the way in which Foucault's name is bandied about today, at least in my experience.

First, almost no one acknowledges his deep and abiding Marxism. I would almost go so far as to say that Foucault exists in Marxism like a fish in water. The terms and debates of revolutionary thought are the signposts and landmarks of his thought.

Second--and this follows from this forgetting--he is treated either as a nonsensical post-modernist or as a precocious and wayward child who, in the end, returned to the fold of classical liberalism (he's talking about the Greeks and the Stoics at the end of his life, so he must have been domesticated).

Finally--and for this I wish The Passions of Michel Foucault had never been published--he's treated as a circus freak and cautionary tale. "Flirt with nihilism and totalitarianism, kiddies, and you'll die of AIDS!" I can't tell you how many times I have heard it asserted as a simple fact of the matter that Foucault ran around the bath-houses knowingly infecting people with HIV. This sort of trash is even in print.

Anyway, I am obviously just ranting now, but I do want to come back to my opening. By "flat" I didn't mean "square," said I. Rather, I mean "like three-day old Mountain Dew"--sweet, syrupy, and utterly lacking effervescence. Moralizing, hectoring, and sanctimonious, perhaps.