When Michel Foucault died in June 1984, he was the most famous intellectual figure in the world. It was, one might say, a title he had inherited on the death of Jean-Paul Sartre in April 1980. This was not because his intellectual stature was uncontested—rather the reverse: admirers thought him a genius, detractors thought him a charlatan, and the precariousness of his reputation added to the excitement. His French colleague, the philosopher Gilles Delcuze, declared that this would be “the century of Foucault,” while English and American critics were prone to accuse him of “diffusing his meaning very thinly through an immense verbal spate,”1 and of rendering entirely opaque issues that were intrinsically merely very difficult.

The fame of Foucault’s ideas rests on what makes them hard to accept—his talent for stating them in such extreme terms that they were literally incredible. Thus The Order of Things (1966) claimed that biology did not exist in the eighteenth century because “life itself did not exist,” while the same text announced “the death of Man,” and described the individual as merely a “rift in the order of things.” None of these claims is exactly plausible. Does he really mean there was no life in the eighteenth century? How could personal identity be just an illusion?

When they are made plausible by paraphrase, the claims lose their fizz. It may be that until the rise of modern biology, nobody thought of a science of life—but that is a plausible point about the use of “life” as an organizing concept, not a discovery about life itself. Foucault’s announcement of the “death of Man” offers the view that nineteenth-century theories of human nature, and political theories built around the idea of liberating that “human nature,” are obsolete or incoherent; mankind as such is left in much the same state as before. Once again, plausible claims about concepts and theories have been set out in a misleading fashion as if they were claims about the world.

The reduction of individuals to mere rifts in the order of things seems to boil down to the claim that individual thinkers and actors matter less to the “archaeology” of ideas than the systems of description and explanation and justification that they employ. But Foucault’s program for intellectual archaeology amounts to a process of uncovering and describing systems of ideas with little or no reference to the role of individuals in their creation; it was not a discovery but a prior (and highly contestable) methodological decision that there was no room for individuals in this inquiry. The views that most of us entertain of ourselves are left entirely untouched.

A different implausibility infects Foucault’s moral positions. Madness and Civilization (1961) characterizes the humane reforms of nineteenth-century psychiatrists as retrograde, and claims that we treat the insane more cruelly than ever because we try to work on the souls of the mentally ill, and treat their strangeness as a moral offense. Discipline and Punish characterized the reformative aims of the prisons of modern liberal societies as more illiberal than the torture and physical mutilation practiced in earlier societies for much the same reasons. Both seemed to imply that liberal democratic societies were more oppressive than the despotisms of earlier ages and even than their totalitarian contemporaries.

Here it is hard to suggest a less exciting but plausible paraphrase. Critics have for thirty years complained that it is mad or wicked to suggest that liberal societies are really worse than totalitarian ones, and that judgment seems right. Those impeccable liberals John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville said over a century ago that democratic societies ran the risk of doing just what Foucault says they do—contriving a new form of despotism and controlling each of us in a silent, unobtrusive fashion by working on our fear of being at odds with our fellows. But one cannot imagine either of them agreeing that liberal societies were anything but a vast improvement on their competitors and predecessors.

If Foucault had only engaged in rhetorical overkill, he would not have had the impact he did. Part of his magic was that readers always felt that there was real substance beneath the flash and glitter—though they disagreed on whether it was worth the effort it took to unearth it. Foucault worked on three kinds of intellectual projects; they were at the same time very different from one another and yet quite naturally connected, and all were fascinating. Madness and Civilization (1964), published in English in 1965, and Discipline and Punish ten years later examined society’s treatment of what sociologists have labeled as “deviance”—behavior and beliefs that violate our notions of “normality.” The first contrasted three stages in the history of the modern notion of mental illness: in the background lay the medieval acceptance of the insane as a familiar feature of the human landscape, to be followed by what Foucault termed “the Great Incarceration” around 1650, when ancien régime France locked up the unemployed, the mad, and the otherwise irritating in the “general hospitals,” the process ending in the creation of modern mental hospitals in the nineteenth century. The contrast that gives the book its rhetorical impact is the contrast between a society that accepts “fools” and one like our own that practices “out of mind is out of sight.” This claim has been much disputed, but it has provoked a lot of interesting work on just who did get locked up by whom and when and for how long.


Discipline and Punish works in a similar way. Its great contrast is between a penology that aims to make the authority of the state visible and tangible in its effects on the body of the criminal and one that incarcerates criminals in order to work upon their minds. Its unnerving feature is not this contrast but the thought that the prison is an apt image of modern society. In the modern world, power operates on us not only at dramatic moments such as public executions, but always. The French title of the work, Surveiller et Punir, conveys more neatly than the English the implication that modern society is a vast mechanism of supervision and inspection, more completely unfree than any other. Few readers have been wholly persuaded. Discipline and Punish opens with a prolonged and gruesome account of the execution by torture of Damiens, the incompetent would-be assassin of Louis XV. He was sentenced to be torn to pieces by six horses, to be stabbed and have his wounds salved with burning sulphur and molten lead, and a good deal more in the same vein, and many critics have wondered what could lead anyone to suggest that Bentham’s proposals for prison reform were actually worse than what was inflicted on Damiens.

Foucault’s purpose was not to draw up a moral scorecard. It was philosophical, or as he called it, archaeological”; he wanted, as he wrote later, to ask, “What are the games of truth by which man proposes to think his own nature when he perceives himself to be mad; when he considers himself to be ill; when he conceives himself as a living, speaking, laboring being; when he judges and punishes himself as a criminal?” The reference to “thinking his own nature” is important; the target of Foucault’s inquiry was always the ways in which our patterns of thought impose on us a particular idea of the nature of whatever we are studying, whether the nature of madness or the nature of criminality.

That sentence from The Use of Pleasure refers obliquely to the works just mentioned, and to one of the books in which Foucault articulated this philosophical program. The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) display the second kind of project to which Foucault devoted himself. They spelled out the claim that we make sense of experience only by using ideas that we take on trust; we never look at the world directly but always through the lens of such ideas. The thought is itself neither novel nor alarming. Foucault’s own concerns were both. The main one was to show how forms of knowledge supported various forms of power: the power of doctors over lunatics, of police over civilians, of experts over laymen, and, in the last resort, the power of society over all its members. It is a thought that has become a cliché in radical intellectual circles.

It is also the thought that underlies Foucault’s skepticism about the intellectual and political role of the individual. His belief that structures of thought—what he called epistemes or “knowledges” and later “discursive practices”—dictated the nature of experience leads to the view not merely that the objects of science exist only where the science exists—hence the claim that there was no “life” before biology—but that our identity as individuals is part of our “subjection.” Western liberal society prides itself on its individualism, but Foucault thought this was absurd. The “individual” was, so to speak, created to facilitate the needs of our tidy-minded society. He said in The Archaeology of Knowledge that his notorious evasiveness as an author was part of a strategy to escape this subjection. “I am no doubt not the only one who writes to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to the police and bureaucrats to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”

Such claims were part of the linkage between power and knowledge whose assertion made Foucault famous. Foucault never identified knowledge with power, never said that ideas were “true” if and only if some person or institution could get them accepted, and he became indignant when commentators suggested that he had. Nonetheless, he went out of his way to suggest that the idea of a “disinterested truth” with no implications for the exercise of power belonged in the realm of fairy tales. If power and knowledge are not identical, they are Siamese twins.


In talking of “archaeology,” he drew a distinction that readers ignore at their peril. What he offered was not a history of ideas; history is, or offers, a connected account of change, a story about the way one thing leads to another. Foucault deliberately did not. He wanted to uncover discrete layers of human thinking and acting, just as the archaeologist uncovers different levels of Troy, say. How successful he was is another matter. Critics have complained that his periodizations are unthinking and banal—he talks of “the classical age,” “the modern age,” and so on as though thought patterns fall neatly into such boxes and turn up with the beginning of a new century to expire at the end of it or the next. Others have complained that his “facts” are contestable—for instance, that he writes in Madness and Civilization of the incarceration of the mentally ill in modern hospitals and compares it to the isolation of lepers in the Middle Ages, without ever mentioning that most mental patients are short-stay patients who go home after a few weeks or months and are anything but incarcerated.

These complaints are telling but they may miss the center of the target. Foucault was writing philosophy rather than history. He explicitly appealed to “the familiar practice of Western philosophy” when he explained that he lined up different ways of treating the same “thing”—madness, illness, crime, sex—in order “to examine both the difference that keeps us at a remove from a way of thinking in which we recognize the origin of our own, and the proximity that remains in spite of that distance which we never cease to explore.” That doesn’t entirely clear him of the charge of picking the facts he wanted and ignoring the ones he didn’t.

Rhetorically, his practice of laying out sharply contrasted visions of the world was effective, and the contrasts deftly chosen. Foucault touched the nerve he did only because his readers really were struck by the contrast between the way the executioners of Damiens declared the majesty of royal authority in their very public and barbaric mishandling of the wretched man’s body, and the way Bentham’s ideal prison, the Panopticon, was supposed to remodel the prisoner’s character by silently supervising his every thought and gesture. Modern societies are oddly embarassed by trying to get criminals to go straight, where our forebears were oddly unembarrassed by public butchery. But this does not deflate the complaint made about Foucault that we are not all “modern,” and that the American enthusiasts for capital punishment who parade outside prisons to demand more and nastier penalties for murderers, rapists, and drug dealers would have been quite at home in Damiens’s Paris. Foucault agreed that actual people had thoughts and attitudes that did not belong in the age they lived in, but he never said what it took to change the definition of the age.

The third of his projects was the history of sexuality. It culminated in the two last books to appear during his lifetime: The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self (1984). In one way they are continuous with what he had already done; the first studies the ideas about proper sexual behavior prevalent in Athens in the fourth century BC, the second the ideas on the same subject prevalent in Rome in the first and second century AD. They are motivated by the idea that just as madness, criminality, and illness were thought of very differently at different times, so was sexuality. Foucault had already claimed in characteristic style that “sexuality” was no older than the nineteenth century, so it is no surprise that, much as before, he says he is sharpening our understanding of our concept of “sexuality” by showing what the world was like when that concept was absent. But these last two books also break with the older ones; Foucault decided that he could not do what he had done before and discuss the modern understanding of sexuality as a product of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. “One could not very well analyze the formation and development of the experience of sexuality from the eighteenth century onward, without doing a historical and critical study dealing with desire and the desiring subject.”

He was driven back, beyond the Christian concern with “the flesh” and into antiquity. He was also driven to concern himself with the ways in which “subjects,” identifiable individuals, were supposed to manage their sexual activities, in Greece as a matter of maintaining their character as free men and citizens, and in Rome as persons who were immune to the hazards of life under the Empire, as persons whose “selves” were under rational management even if much else in life was not. This interest in how subjects handle themselves was novel. Foucault’s history is, in these two books, still not quite history; there is no account of where the views he discusses come from, nor is there an account of attitudes to sexual conduct in the centuries intervening between those in the two books. But these books were not intended as narrative history. Whatever their character, they represent an impressive work of self-criticism and imaginative exploration in alien territory; Foucault threw away a vast amount of abortive research when he struck out for antiquity, and there is an unusually diffident tone to his admission that he was “neither a Hellenist nor a Latinist.”

The results are engaging. It is impossible to be untouched by the contrasts he draws between ourselves and the Greeks. The Greeks were quite uninterested, for instance, in anything we recognize as sexual morality. They were extremely concerned with the place of sexual intercourse in a healthy life, Hippocrates’ Regimen for Health includes in its recommendations for good health in winter “more frequent sexual relations, especially for older men whose bodies tend to become chilled,” but with no more emphasis on sex than on the benefits of eating roasted rather than boiled meats in a damp season. More seriously, Foucault persuasively links the sexual advice that educated Greeks gave one another to their concern with freedom; sexual excess displayed the domination of mind by body and was frowned on and being the penetrated partner in a sexual relationship entailed a loss of status. It takes little imagination to see why homosexual relations with younger boys required delicate and fastidious handling. The evidence induces familiar anxieties: we have no idea what “the Greek in the street” thought about sex, though we can be sure that Plato’s views were a typical for instance.

Sadly the third volume, The Confessions of the Flesh seems unlikely ever to see the light of day, so we shall not discover what Foucault might have done with the Christian discovery of “the flesh,” But what there is is enough to set commentators some puzzles about Foucault. The most obvious is whether Foucault had had a change of mind about the “subjection” of the subject. In both volumes, he is at ease with the thought that individuals engage in serious moral projects—not “moral” in the sense of responding to the moral prohibitions of Christian ethics, but moral in the sense that they were answers to the problem of living a satisfactory life. This presumed control over one’s life is at odds with Foucault’s earlier talk of the nonexistence of the individual. He was at pains to stress that the Greeks conceived of satisfactoriness in aesthetic terms, as though the main point is that our notions about morality were not theirs. One might jib by observing that their notions about aesthetics weren’t ours either, and that in a sophisticated philosopher like Plato all values dissolve into Truth. But this is a worry about one book; the larger anxiety is about its author.

The anxiety is this. Foucault did not merely write a series of books that cast doubt on the role of human agency in history, politics, and above all in thinking. He behaved as though he took that position seriously. He tried to make it impossible for his readers to identify him with what he wrote. He gave numbers of interviews about his work, but never stuck to one story about what it meant, why he had written it, and what he subsequently thought of it. One style predominated. He was a “dandyish” author who often refused responsibility for his texts or what the reader might make of them. It is true that when a distinguished historian like Peter Brown acknowledged Foucault’s influence in his masterly The Body and Society. Foucault was happy, and returned the compliment by drawing on Brown’s work—as he acknowledged in The Use of Pleasure and in the last interview he ever gave.2 But mostly, he evaded his questioners and abused his critics. Still these last books appear to rescue the author from nonexistence by suggesting that we are all capable of authoring our own lives.


During Foucault’s lifetime, those who want to do what James Miller does and tie the life and the ideas together were given two strikingly discrepant injunctions. One suggests an unbridgeable gap between writer and text. The claim in The Archaeology of Knowledge that he wrote to be invisible was characteristic. “I am not interesting,” he said more than once, and what he meant was that readers would learn nothing about his books by learning about him. This is in line with the structuralist view that authors are only the representatives of the intellectual practices of the day. He was fascinated by the idea of somehow losing his name, and once gave a long anonymous interview to Le Monde, printed as an interview with “a philosopher.” That it would have been obvious to everyone who that philosopher was was somehow left unsaid by Le Monde. He seems more matter of factly to have thought that readers ought to read his work uninhibited by any relation to the author, but found an unnerving way of putting this harmless and liberating point. Miller mentions another interview on The Archaeology of Knowledge: “My book is a pure and simple ‘fiction,’ ” Foucault told his friend Raymond Bellour. “It’s a novel, but it’s not me who invented it.”

Conversely, he suggested that we might want to know everything about an author, and there was no sharp line between life and text; “I believe that…someone who is a writer is not simply doing his work in his books, but that his major work is, in the end, himself in the process of writing his books. The private life of an individual, his sexual preference, and his work are interrelated, not because his work translates his sexual life, but because the work includes the whole life as well as the text.” That opens up a wider terrain for investigation, and a dangerous one. One wonders how any biographer is to proceed when its subject has so ostentatiously declared himself invisible, and has employed such strikingly idiosyncratic methods to declare his own lack of individuality. Clifford Geertz’s remark that Foucault was “an impossible object” is all too apt; he might seem an equally impossible subject for an intellectual biography.

The Passion of Michel Foucault is not a biography, although it tells the story of much of Foucault’s life. Miller’s purpose is to give an account of what he describes as Foucault’s “lifelong struggle to honor Nietzsche’s gnomic injunction ‘to become what one is.’ ” Foucault, like Nietzsche, thought that “what one is” was to be created rather than discovered, so becoming who he was was an essentially dramatic project, a matter of living his life according to a script that he had to make up in the course of acting it out. As the book’s title suggests, Miller believes that Foucault’s quest to endow his life with a meaning focused particularly on his death. Death was the event that Foucault believed revealed the “lyrical core” of a man’s life.

That Foucault died of AIDS in June 1984, and may well have contracted the disease by engaging in sadomasochistic sex in the bathhouses of San Francisco, renders the subject a sensational one. So does the accusation that Foucault deliberately infected others with his disease, thereby discrediting himself, his ideas, and his American epigones. Unsurprisingly, some of Foucault’s admirers have denounced Miller’s undertaking, either as mere gossip mongering or as likely to stir the homophobic pot. So Paul Rabinow complains that it is “cheap and obvious and easy. He’s trying to write a sexy book that will make a lot of money,” and Judith Butler objects that “it dovetails nicely with the culturally reactionary position of people like Patrick Buchanan.”3

To forestall disappointment among readers with a prurient curiosity about poststructuralist sexuality, it must be said that Miller’s patient, puzzled, and good-natured discussion of assorted forms of sado-masochistic sexuality is quite brief, and far too clinical to be much of a turn-on. And I’m not sure what Pat Buchanan would make of Miller’s own professed hope that one day the threat of AIDS will retreat and leave us free to take up Foucault’s search, that is, to “renew, without shame or fear, the kind of corporeal experimentation that formed an integral part of his own philosophical quest.” One might for all that complain that the chapter headings sometimes strive for the scandalous. “Be Cruel!” is not an apt headline for a chapter on the events of 1968, even if some anonymous spirit did chalk it on a Sorbonne wall; l’imagination au pouvoir was both more famous and more in the spirit of the times.

My guess is that Miller’s book will enhance Foucault’s reputation rather than the reverse. People who think that Foucault has been vastly overrated as a philosopher, historian, political activist, and social critic have not been waiting for news of his sexual tastes to make up their minds, while the genuinely curious will find that Miller’s cautious, and even somewhat flat-footed, account of Foucault’s ideas makes both them and his life intelligible, and makes both intermittently persuasive. Foucault’s politics, whether in theory or in practice, seem no more plausible than before, but Miller’s account of Foucault’s bouts of near-insanity, his flirtations with suicide, with the politics of the “Maoist” left in 1970s France, and the drug culture of California, gives one a good sense of the kind of personality that would find modern liberal societies peculiarly oppressive.

That is about as far as one’s intellectual illumination goes. Miller does not suggest, and indeed repudiates, the implausible thesis that only someone who lived like Foucault could have thought like Foucault: every one of Foucault’s ideas can be found (expressed with far less brio) in writers of very different sexual proclivities and very different attitudes toward death. Miller points out that Gilles Deleuze, who greatly admired, and was greatly admired by, Foucault, explored the philosophy of sadism while living a quiet domestic life with his wife and two children.

Miller is rather successful in giving a dramatic shape to Foucault’s life. Foucault was not a nice man, though he could be charming, and nobody is likely to end by liking him much. But readers will find much to admire in the sheer dash of the intellectual life and the courage with which he faced death—and the astonishing energy that allowed him to produce twenty books in a career so abruptly cut short.

A vast quantity of academic commentary on Foucault has appeared since Folie et déraison was translated into English in the mid-1960s, but for many years commentators subscribed to the myth of “reticence” that Foucault cultivated, and analyzed the work, not the author. Since his death that has changed. The last few years have seen Foucault as the subject of a striking biography by Didier Eribon and the central figure of an even more striking novel. Neither hid Foucault’s sexual tastes from the reader. Eribon’s best-selling Michel Foucault, published in Paris in 1989, and now out in paperback in this country, frankly acknowledges the role of Foucault’s homosexuality in shaping his intellectual interests, his career, and the manner of his death.4 Eribon had often interviewed Foucault for Le Nouvel Observateur, and knew a great deal about his private life, and said from the start that no biographer could ignore it.

Nonetheless, Eribon preserved a certain discretion: “I decided to tell the facts when telling them was necessary to an understanding of some particular event, some particular aspect of Foucault’s career, his work, his thought, his life—or his death. I passed them over in silence when they were connected only with the secret territory that every individual creates in his or her own life.” Indeed, Eribon says firmly that his purpose is to render Foucault’s ideas intelligible, not by discussing them directly but by reconstituting “the intellectual landscape” in which Foucault developed, and placing his major works against their proper background.

Eribon is illuminating about Foucault’s ambiguous relationship to Gay Liberation—since Foucault did not believe that an individual’s sexual tastes reveal a deep truth about his or her nature, he couldn’t take the urge to say “I am really gay” with the naive seriousness of many gay activists. But he confines the discussion of Foucault’s interest in S/M to half a paragraph in which he also discusses Foucault’s tastes in drug-taking, and skates lightly over Foucault’s experiences in San Francisco at the height of the bathhouse scene. Still, he does not flinch from the fact that what Foucault liked about California was the chance to embrace the pleasures of the flesh, and that one of those pleasures was “the use of strategic relationship as a source of pleasure (physical pleasure).” “Strategic relationship” is a rather deft way of referring to the alternation of domination and submission that Miller discusses more ponderously.

Of less intellectual interest but of much other interest is a novel that appeared in Paris the following year and also attained best-sellerdom. To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life was written by Hervé Guibert, a young French writer who had known Foucault since 1977, and who had visited him almost every day in the dreadful month of June 1984 while he was dying. Guibert had taken copious notes of the experience which he then incorporated into this autobiographical novel—his relationship with Foucault makes up about half of it. Unlike Foucault himself, who never said that he was suffering from AIDS, and may just possibly have been unsure that he was Guibert makes no bones about being infected: the experience of having AIDS is just what the novel is about and its main purpose is to allow its author to stare down not only his own imminent extinction but Death itself. Guibert says that Foucault would have been enraged if he had known that Guibert was taking notes for his novel all the time he was dying: but the idea of keeping Death under control by literal means is one that Foucault might have sympathized with.

Guibert put Foucault’s sexual predilections firmly in the public eye. “Muzil [his pseudonym for Foucault] adored violent orgies in bathhouses. He didn’t dare frequent the baths in Paris for fear of being recognized, but when he went off to give his annual seminar near San Francisco, he went at it to his heart’s content in that city’s many bathhouses, which have since been closed because of the epidemic and turned into supermarkets or parking lots.” More alarming was the suggestion that Foucault engaged in something like a suicide pact with his companions. “I remarked to him, ‘Those places must be completely deserted now because of AIDS.’ Don’t be silly, he replied, ‘it’s just the opposite: the baths have never been so popular, and now they’re fantastic. This danger lurking everywhere has created new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities. Before, no one ever said a word; now we talk to one another. We all know why we’re there.’ ” It seems that Foucault did not set out to infect unknowing sexual partners with his disease; but it seems equally clear that he took pleasure in the thought that sex had become a form of Russian roulette.

The other background that casts a lurid light on Miller’s book is Foucault’s standing as the patron saint of very diverse political attachments—the anarchist politics of 1970s Paris, the radicalism of Foucault’s American admirers, or the milder liberalism that commentators like Richard Rorty wish to extract from him.5 There is a striking absence of consensus on the political implications of Foucault’s work. Some radical critics think his work cannot have any implications: if all societies are simply doomed to deprive their members of liberty, there is little to be done and no space for politics.6 But Foucault has many admirers who believe that a politics of liberation can be extracted from his work even if it defies conventional categories: in such a politics, the role of “limit experience”—flirting with death, sado-masochistic sex, drug-taking is deeply contentious. Not that a politics that owes something to Foucault must take this path: the most mildly reformist might agree with Foucault that we should expose oppression in institutions like prisons and mental hospitals by encouraging the inmates to speak up for themselves.

Foucault’s political career adds to the confusion. He was a member of the French Communist Party for three years in the early 1950s, and an ardent anti-Communist thereafter: he was persona sufficiently grata with governments of the Fourth and Fifth Republics to be appointed to posts in Sweden and Poland that were both cultural and diplomatic in nature, and to serve on the Gaullist reform commission that tried to modernize the universities in the mid-1960s. Although he is one of the anti-heroes of La pensée 68,’ he “missed” May 1968, since he was at the time teaching in Tunis. He made up for lost time by siding with the “Maoist” ultra-left in the early 1970s, but became disillusioned along with most of his companions within a few years. While he was of their number, he alarmed even some of them by his defense of “popular justice,” the idea that the working class and its allies should punish their class enemies without waiting for the courts to find them guilty of anything in particular. He was a passionate supporter of the Iranian Revolution, and wrote some silly articles for the Italian press, in which he predicted inter alia that there could not be a “Khomeini Regime.”7

In his last years he spoke out on behalf of gay rights, and against the abuse of human rights in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The skepticism of his philosophical account of personal identity and individuality made no difference to his political rhetoric. He appealed on behalf of the human rights of oppressed Polish workers in passionate terms and denounced the tyrannical regime of General Jaruzelski with no embarrassment or self-consciousness. He broke with the French ultra-left when he defended the right of Bander Melnhof terrorists in France to have legal representation when they were threatened with deportation but denounced the terrorism itself as merely criminal. What positive conception he possessed of a less oppressive society remains mysterious.


James Miller’s account of Foucault is not a hagiography, and his doubts about Foucault’s work are never far below the surface. It is a portrait of the anti-hero as hero. Foucault took unpromising materials and made of them a life whose dramatic qualities were authentically those to which its author subscribed. Foucault’s early life was miserable. He was born in Poitiers in 1926, his father was a prosperous surgeon, Paul Foucault, who named his son Paul-Michel—the name appears on Foucault’s tomb—and hoped that he would follow him into the same profession. His son determined to do nothing of the sort. In a short story, Herve Guibert says Foucault told of the nightmare experience of being taken by his father at the age of nine into the operating theater to watch an amputation. The story appears not to be true, but no doubt symbolizes the hostility that led Foucault to remove the “Paul” from his hyphenated given name.

Foucault got his secondary education during the war in his home town. He was intellectually ambitious, however, and went off in 1945 to join his peers in Paris at the Lycée Henri IV, from which he duly passed on to the Ecole Normale Supérieure. His career was difficult—he failed the aggrégation in his first attempt, though he passed out fourth at the second try—and he was universally disliked by his fellow students. “His fellows thought him half mad,” says Eribon, “and passed around stories about his odd behavior. One day someone teaching at the ENS found him lying on the floor of a room where he had just sliced up his chest with a razor. Another time he was seen in the middle of the night chasing one of the other students with a dagger.” Already, he was painfully aware of the way his homosexuality set him apart from most students, and condemned him to surreptious encounters in slummy bars. He would return from these encounters sick and ill. Unsurprisingly, he was put under psychiatric care more than once during this time.

He was taught by some of the most famous French Marxists—Jean Hyppolite at Henri IV and Louis Althusser at the Ecole Normale—but it was Nietzsche who he always said was the crucial intellectual influence on his life, and it is the Nietzschean strain in Foucault’s life and work that James Miller pursues. In fact he pursues two Nietzschean strains. One is what Foucault drew from the Nietzsche who stressed the temporariness and transitoriness of all our most cherished theories, and cast doubt on the idea that there was any certain starting point in philosophy. This Nietzsche would have reminded Foucault how differently the Greeks saw life, and would early have persuaded him of the futility of looking for a fixed human nature behind the variety of human behavior. The other is what Miller sees as the project of “becoming what one is.” Like Nietzsche, Foucault thought this project demanded an openness to experiences beyond those that we count as defining normality; on this view, the interest in madness, in deviant forms of sexuality, and in criminality falls into place.

Miller gives less attention to an influence that may have been intellectually as important. The French tradition in the history and philosophy of science, represented in Foucault’s life by his supervisor Georges Canguilhem and by Louis Althusser at the Ecole Normale, emphasized the importance of “ruptures” and “breaks” in the growth of scientific knowledge. Science was not the accumulation of particular pieces of knowledge, but the imposition on experience of changing conceptions of reality, of how it operated, and what counted as knowledge of it. Intellectual history was not the history of individuals but of these structures. Galileo’s heliocentric universe was not a development of the geocentric universe that preceded it, but its revolutionary overthrow. Its acceptance was not a matter of adding one new belief to an old stock but of agreeing to see the world quite differently. This was the terrain of power as well as of knowledge, and a terrain that Foucault made his own. It was also a style of intellectual history that was plausibly described as structuralist or “anti-humanist.” The interesting actors in history were structures and systems of belief, not individuals.

After the Ecole Normale, Foucault spent four years engaged in rather desultory research into the history of psychiatry. Miller is more impressed by Foucault’s admiration for Samuel Beckett and his passionate affair with the young composer Jean Barraqué. This involved alcohol, drugs, and mutual cruelty to an extent that turned Foucault off alcohol and turned Barraqué off Foucault. In 1955 Foucault went off to be director of studies at the Maison Française in Uppsala. All accounts agree that he was efficient, an excellent teacher, and a great success; photographs picture him as the sort of elegant young Frenchman that British students of my generation longed to become—black corduroys over a white turtleneck, rimless glasses, a quizzical air.

Uppsala let Foucault make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly. He found heaps of unread histories of psychiatry in the university library, and began to write the dissertation for the Doctorat d’état that would let him become a professor in a French university. This became Madness and Civilization—the English edition is an abbreviated version of the nine-hundred-page Folie et déraison. It secured him the chair of philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, to which he commuted one day a week. There, too, Foucault was an effective teacher and administrator—and good at choosing assistants. He was not uncorrupt: he gave his lover, Daniel Defert, a post in the department, dismissing the claims of a better-qualified woman with the remark, “We don’t want any old maids here.” Defert and Foucault had met in 1960, and their amitié amoureuse lasted until Foucault’s death. It was Defert who induced Foucault to shave his cranium and give the world the striking image of the intellectual as monk and satyr.

Defert went to Tunisia to do his military service: Foucault became restless and applied for a post in Tunis. By now he was famous. Madness and Civilization sold well; The Order of Things was a smash hit and rapidly sold a hundred thousand copies. Foucault disliked its best-seller status; he needed careful readers, not hype, and while he wished for success, it was success with people such as Georges Canguilhem, the supervisor of his thesis, rather than the readers of Le Figaro. In Tunis, he lived austerely, and lobbied for an appointment to the Collège de France, the pinnacle of the French academic system.

He got it, but not in one step. The Gaullist government had set up a new university at Vincennes, and Foucault was appointed to head the philosophy section. While Vincennes was being built, May 1968 was brewing, happening, and fizzling out. Vincennes opened in January 1969, and for the two years Foucault was there, it was mostly in a state of siege. Many radicals who had been enthusiasts of the place decided that it had degenerated into a kindergarten and had nothing further to do with it; Jacques Lacan gave one lecture and quit, and Foucault, who enjoyed his first battles with the riot police, soon declared that he was fed up with working among madmen.

Happily for him, he was elected to the Collège de France, and in 1970 took up his chair—not in philosophy or psychology, but in “the history of systems of thought.” For the next thirteen years he gave the course of twelve lectures that the chair demanded, exploring the subject that fascinated him, the connections between power and knowledge. The fruits of the search became best sellers; Discipline and Punish appeared in 1975, and is perhaps the best known of his books in the United States, though it was less well liked in France.

He became a cult figure in the US; in 1972 he visited Attica prison, a year after the murderous riots, and paid the first of several visits to Berkeley in 1975. By the end of the 1970s he was thinking of leaving Paris for the Californian paradise of sun, sea, good drugs, and wild sex. It was not just California, but a fellow professor at the Collège de France that turned his interests toward the subject of his last books. He had projected a Histoire de la sexualité to follow his Histoire de la folie at least in the early to middle 1970s: Paul Veyne, the ancient historian, called his attention to the striking contrasts between classical conceptions of sexuality and our own. What it would have come to if death had not taken him, it is hard to know; he promised several different volumes, but published The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self just before he died in 1984—he saw the first reviews as he lay dying.

Miller ties the books to the inner life mostly by the simple device of reminding us that at any given moment Foucault was still brooding on death, still trying to “flee from myself,” and still thinking unhealthy thoughts about torture and murder. Where Foucault’s own broodings are lacking, he offers us a few of the surrealist novelist Georges Bataille’s fantasies about a carnival of tortures, and the occasional nastiness from Justine and Juliette. Much of the time, The Passion of Michel Foucault is stronger on biographical than on intellectual interest, but two claims lend it intellectual substance.

The first is that Foucault’s oeuvre was less outrageous than the controversies suggest. When Madness and Civilization was published in 1965, it fell on fertile ground. Many writers had been thinking “anti-psychiatric” thoughts; Erving Goffman’s Asylums was, in its dry way, a treatise on “normalization” and on the power of “total institutions” to make the wretches incarcerated in them accept the viewpoint of those who might indifferently be regarded as their healers or their jailers. R. D. Laing’s essay The Divided Self rested on “existential psychoanalysis,” and was anything but “anti-humanist”; but Laing and Foucault were rightly seen as allies by anyone who was struck by the thought that “mental illness” was a construct of the doctors, not a natural or inescapable reality for the patient.

Similarly the themes of The Order of Things fit neatly into the structuralism of the 1960s. Many critics at the time even described Foucault as a disciple of Lévi-Strauss—Foucault and Lévi-Strauss knew that was absurd, but it was anything but absurd to describe Foucault as in general terms a structuralist. More interestingly, Foucault’s concern with “coupures” and his claim that new “knowledges” or epistemes are brought into existence and imposed on us by a more or less political process very much resembled the project of T.S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The differences are mostly in Kuhn’s favor: he wrote the history of science rather than the archaeology of all knowledge, and in an infinitely more lucid prose. Still, the enterprises have much in common. As for Foucault’s denunciation of the project of Bentham’s Panopticon, in this he had been anticipated by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose “Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham” takes a strikingly similar line about the wickedness of reformative plans that involve total control even over the criminal. It is a nice irony of intellectual history that the totalitarian possibilities of liberal reform should have been attacked from such different perspectives.

Miller’s other suggestion is that we may take Foucault’s striking claims about the political consequences of “the death of Man” fairly calmly. The claim that Man was dead gave Les mots et les choses best-selling status; but Foucault was not pleased. He said that the thought that man is dead is not very interesting, and in fact it isn’t. Foucault’s target was the Marxists who identified freedom with the liberation of man’s “essential nature” from social and economic constraints. To deny that there was any such nature to liberate brought that particular project to an end, but it said nothing about what individual and collective politics should be pursued by people who had never subscribed to that kind of Marxism in the first place.

What is clear is that it is unfair to complain that Foucault had no interest in freedom. Liberation was always a goal worth pursuing. The difficulty that writers such as Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor complain of, and that Miller stresses, is that it is impossible to discover what Foucault supposed liberation involves. Or rather, it is not all that difficult to see what he was against, but harder to see what he was for. Miller’s interest in Foucault’s biography somewhat distorts this simple point. He treats Foucault’s membership in and leadership of the GIP, the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, founded in 1971, mostly as a matter of internal struggles within post-1968 gauchisme, and leaves it to the reader to find much else in it. The GIP was inspired by Daniel Defert, whose politics at this time were Maoist, and it is of interest to Miller as an anti-Sartrean exercise.

The target, as always, was Jean-Paul Sartre—the world’s most famous living intellectual, and the very embodiment of France’s venerable tradition of moral dissent. Within this tradition, as Foucault once summed it up, “the intellectual spoke the truth to those who had yet to see it, in the name of those who were forbidden to speak the truth: he was conscience, consciousness, and eloquence.” It was in this Olympian spirit that the postwar existentialists had told people, as Foucault sarcastically put it, “what freedom consisted of, what one had to do in political life, how one had to behave in regard to others, and so forth.” These were just the sort of overweening claims to moral authority that Foucault was determined to renounce for himself, and to undermine in society as a whole.

But this misses the point, Foucault was entirely sincere in his detestation of the ill-treatment, violence, poor food, and the other evils of the French prison system. It was not the task of intellectuals to tell other people how to gain their freedom—who, these days, thinks otherwise?—but it was certainly one of their tasks to describe its absence, and, as with the GIP, to do it by letting the victims of oppression speak for themselves. What Foucault counted as oppression was what anyone else would have counted as oppression. The same point might be made about his attacks on communism in Eastern Europe, or his complaints about legal discrimination against homosexuals. To that extent, one might sympathize with Richard Rorty’s view that a sensible liberal was struggling to emerge from the misleading rhetorical shell.

The obvious and convincing complaint against Foucault and Foucault’s politics is that he ought to have said more plainly that liberal Western societies were freer and more humane than their totalitarian competitors, that we have gained more than we have lost in abolishing judicial torture. He was simply silly in the 1970s; along with innumerable others, most of whom had the excuse of being younger than he was, he was swept away by the 1960s passion for a lyrical politics. He was, as others have been, guilty of generalizing too swiftly from a few striking instances, and unwilling to accept the constraints of ordinary life. Larger claims about his evil influence on the politics of our day are as unsustainable as the suggestion that the schizophrenic homeless on the streets of New York have ended there because of Foucault’s critique of the mental hospital.

It is much too soon to evaluate his intellectual influence. It is irritating that the worst aspects of his literary style should be the easiest features of his work to emulate and that graduate students endlessly recycle the confusions between knowledge and power that he denounced as a misunderstanding of his work. But what ought we to say about his stimulating effect on studies of mental illness by researchers skeptical of Foucault’s claims? Without Foucault’s eruption into the history of ideas, it is not clear that so much work would have been done. Again, Ian Hacking’s deft and highly readable study of the rise of statistical science, The Taming of Chance, was, says its author, sparked off by Foucault’s approach to the history of science, and enthusiasts for Foucault can readily produce a catalog of works so inspired. It is easy to say that Foucault’s work caught an already flowing tide in intellectual history, but that would be too grudging.

As for his life, it was exemplary neither as a career in evil nor as something for the rest of us to emulate. The charge of infecting the unwary with AIDS cannot be sustained; the conduct of his life might be criticized as imprudent, but it was his life, not ours. As for Foucault’s “passion,” I am not persuaded. Surprisingly, Miller is readier than Hervé Guibert to subscribe to the idea that Foucault’s project of “becoming who one is” was successfully accomplished in a “beautiful death.” Guibert gives a much more painful account of Muzil-Foucault’s mental deterioration and confusion than does Miller, and paints a perfectly horrible picture of the bodily torments of the last few weeks. Worse, perhaps, from James Miller’s point of view, Guibert quotes Muzil-Foucault saying of his impending death: “You always think that in a certain kind of situation you’ll find something to say about it, and now it turns out there’s nothing to say after all.” It seems that not everything could be turned to use in the poetic project of Foucault’s life.

This Issue

April 8, 1993