Foucault's Politics in Biographical Perspective

By Miller, James | Salmagundi, Fall/Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Foucault's Politics in Biographical Perspective


Miller, James, Salmagundi


For the past five years, I have been working on a book, now finished, about Michel Foucault. My book is not a biography, though in outline it follows the chronology of Foucault's life; nor is it a comprehensive survey of his works, although it does offer an interpretation of a great many texts. It is, rather, a narrative account of one man's lifelong struggle to honor Nietzsche's gnomic injunction, "to become what one is." Through a blend of anecdote and exegesis, I have approached Foucault's writing as if it expressed a powerful desire to realize a certain form of life; and his life as if it embodied a sustained and at least partially successful effort to turn this desire into a reality. In order to obtain evidence for the second half of my hypothesis, I have conducted interviews in the spirit of an investigative journalist, gathering information about various aspects of Foucault's life, particularly in the United States, that have been hitherto undocumented and, therefore, largely unexamined. In the spirit of an intellectual historian, I have sketched the broader cultural and social context within which this life unfolded. And in the spirit of a literary critic, I have highlighted a handful of recurrent phantasies and imaginative obsessions that gave to Foucault's life a characteristic color and mood, informing both his composed texts and his everyday behavior. My aim has been to conjure up "neither the pure grammatical subject nor the deep psychological subject," as Foucault himself once put it, "but rather the one who says T in the works, the letters, the drafts, the sketches, the personal secrets." What follows is a brutally condensed summary of a much longer argument about Foucault's changing political convictions, drawn from my book; which will give some idea of where my approach has led.

All of Foucault's work hinges on an idea of experience. Near the end of his life, Foucault briefly defined his basic idea in this way: "experience," he explained, was a form of being "that can and must be thought," a form "historically constituted" through "games of truth." The appearance of the word "game" in this formulation underlines the claim, fleshed out in Foucault's various historiographic studies, that truth is part of a human activity, a form of life; its rules are not something fixed, given once for all; new games of truth-scientific and political, poetic and psychological-come into existence, while others, falling into disuse, are forgotten. "The history of thought," as Foucault once explained his lifework, was an "analysis of how an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices" that had long been accepted "without question," came to seem questionable, inciting "discussion and debate," provoking the formulation of fresh concepts, which articulated experience in fresh ways-and, in turn, provoked new questions, in a process of unending critique.1

Foucault's own thought grows out of an empirical conviction that any field of experience is always, in some way, problematic. In practice-so his various historiographic critiques of reason suggest-we can probe any boundary, question any limit, challenge the rules in any game of truth we may find ourselves playing. And that is not all: More often than most people dream, we can change the rules of the game. We have that kind of power; it is merely a question of using the power, even if few of us ever will, inhibited as we are by the conventions of ordinary language, common sense and conscientiousness, reinforced by the threat of punishment and a more diffuse, hence insidious set of fears: of being branded as queer, crazy, abnormal. The goal-the trick-is to unleash the power in our selves; and thus to tap the energy essential for realizing Nietzsche's injunction, "to become what one is."

Extending a tradition of critique inaugurated by Kant and rendered properly historical by Ernst Cassirer, Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, Foucault sometimes studied games of truth in what he called their "positivity. …

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