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The Treason of the Clerics | The Nation

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The Treason of the Clerics

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Unlike some other stars of Parisian intellectual life, Michel Foucault was always reluctant to air his opinions about big political issues. It was not that he was uninterested in politics or indifferent to human suffering, just that he was suspicious of the sort of thinkers--"universal intellectuals," he called them--who consider it their privilege and duty to set the world to rights, as if history had appointed them to speak on its behalf, or morality had summoned them to be the conscience of the human race.

About the Author

Jonathan Rée
Jonathan Rée is the author of, most recently, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses--A Philosophical...

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Anyone who has read his books--from Madness and Civilization and Birth of the Clinic, published in the early 1960s, to the multivolume History of Sexuality, which he was still working on when he died in 1984 at the age of 57--will understand why Foucault would not presume to speak in the name of others. He was in his way a hands-on historian, who spent half his life peering at brittle old documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale. He was also a social theorist with a special interest in small-scale processes, or in the "micro-power," as he called it, that travels through the "capillaries" of the institutions by which we live. On top of that he was an accomplished writer in a particular French tradition, and an admirer of the "radiant uncertainties" of the Surrealist poet Raymond Roussel. There is a Surrealist exuberance in all of Foucault's works, and he was constantly on the lookout for themes that refused to align themselves with the normal ways of the world--tales of oddballs, fantasists and fanatics, or idiosyncrasies, exceptions and discrepancies. He was, you might say, a poet of the uncommonplace: a philosopher of the unphilosophical, a historian of the unhistorical and a politician of the unpolitical.

As a student in Paris in the early 1950s, Foucault had a three-year fling with the Communist Party. It ended badly on both sides, and though he remained on the left, he became an unforgiving critic of leftist conservatism, sentimentality and nostalgia. His political activism would from then on be confined to supporting scattered groups of prisoners, psychiatric patients and young unemployed immigrants, and encouraging them to organize themselves on their own terms, without reference to warders, nurses or social workers, let alone political parties or, for that matter, Surrealistic littérateurs like himself.

It goes without saying that he did not blame his misfits, lunatics, delinquents and eccentrics for deviating from conventional norms; his originality was that he did not praise them either. He was perhaps the first thinker to identify the perversity of the kind of progressive thinking that expects the oppressed to conform to a preconceived model of resistance or revolt. According to the progressive norm, genuine victims of injustice will be ennobled by adversities, strengthened by misery and purified by suffering. They will bear witness to their authenticity by playing a starring role in the good old drama of democratic resistance to oppression. And they will gratify their patrons by bringing new vigor and militancy to the part, and perhaps a dash of cathartic revolutionary violence, not to mention unimpeachable moral authority. If Foucault had a mission in life, it was to discredit the progressive model of the perfect rebel.

The main argument of his never-to-be-completed work on the history of sexuality was that the cheerleaders of "sexual liberation" could be as pompous, despotic and self-deceiving as the repressive prudes they took pride in defying. The ideas of the self-appointed liberators could, as Foucault noted, be traced to the Freudo-Marxism of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, but he regarded them as part of something far larger. Speaking in Tokyo in April 1978, he went so far as to suggest that the bogus mantras of sexual liberation could be heard throughout the entire history of "the West." We Europeans, Foucault said--or rather, cutely correcting himself, "we others"--have been engaged for millennia in a quixotic adventure unparalleled in the rest of the world: an earnest quest for the truth about ourselves in the form of "the truth about our sexuality." Throughout the twentieth century, moreover, we "European others" have been regaling ourselves with a tale about how Freud eventually exploded the age-old hypocrisies, allowing sexuality to be "released from its fetters" at last:

First movement: Greek and Roman antiquity, where sexuality was free, and capable of expressing itself without hindrance.... Next, there was Christianity, which--for the first time in the history of the West--imposed a great prohibition on sexuality, saying "no" to pleasure and to sex.... But then, beginning in the sixteenth century, the bourgeoisie found itself in a situation...of economic domination and cultural hegemony; it took over the...Christian rejection of sexuality and made it its own, enforcing it with unprecedented rigor and severity, and perpetuating it into the nineteenth century, until at last...the veil began to be lifted by Freud.

In order to avoid misunderstandings with his Japanese audience, Foucault spelled out his opinion that the Freudo-Marxist epic of sexual liberation was "misleading and untenable, for hundreds of reasons." But in the History of Sexuality he simply presented a parade of awkward and bizarre case studies and left his readers to draw their own conclusions. His aim, after all, was not to replace our old smug certainties with new ones but to help us formulate some uncertainties of our own, as radiantly tentative as possible. Dogmatics and polemics could never be his style.

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