Foucault's Virtual Passion


Foucault’s Virtual Passion

James Miller,
The Passion of Michel Foucault.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Pb: Anchor Doubleday, 1994.

According to Lou Salome, “we must direct our attention to the human being and not the theorist in order to find our way in Nietzsche’s works” (29). James Miller, in his The Passion of Michel Foucault, would play Lou Salome to Foucault’s Nietzsche, albeit in drag. While he was never an intimate of Foucault’s, and thus relies on the testimony of third parties, Miller can be seen as engaging in an adventure highly analogous to that of Salome in her 1894 study Nietzsche: The Man and His Works. In addition, the reception of this work on the part of some of Foucault’s disciples, it could be argued, merely replicates the jealous suspicions Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche directed toward Lou. In short, a life-long flirtation with suicide, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and the avid pursuit of difference and extremity in sexual practice, particularly through sadomasochism, form, as it were, the three-cornered prism from Foucault’s life through which Miller interprets his texts. More precisely, it is the resonances of these episodes – grouped together under the heading of “limit-experiences” – in numerous passages in his writings, that provide the basis for Miller’s principle of selecting quotations in a protracted exercise of “reading between the lines,” of picking up and threading together the fragments of “autobiographical allegory” (99). Miller insinuates that these experiences were really what was important to Foucault, the half-hidden truth of his being, and comprise the essential themes of his oeuvre, even though he never explicitly articulated their connection to his intellectual projects.

Far from depicting him as some “weirdo” or “nasty freak,” as David Halperin has charged (Salmagundi 97 (Winter 1993)), however, Miller refrains, at least on the surface, from forming any judgments about Foucault’s sex life. This aspect of his approach was sufficient to prompt the reigning Chief of Thought Police in the American academy, Roger Kimball, to determine that the “celebration of Foucault and all he stood for is at the top of Mr. Miller’s agenda in this book.” Predictably, Kimball wants to marginalize Foucault because of the personal interest in sadomasochism which has become unavoidable for Foucault scholars thanks to Miller, writing that, “Mr. Miller attempts to enroll in the ranks of virtue behavior and attitudes that until fifteen minutes ago were universally condemned as pathological” (The Perversions of M. Foucault 12). However, a careful examination of the structure of masochistic desire reveals deep similarities with the eroticization of pain in canonical expressions of Western religiosity. Miller betrays his sensitivity to this comparison through the title he has chosen. The choice is apt, both because of its evocation of spiritual struggle, and because of its punning suggestion that for Foucault the spiritual and the sexual were somehow inseparable.

The wildly conflicting reactions to this book by its reviewers from various segments of the intellectual community, gay and straight, left and right, merely reflects the profound ambivalence of Miller himself. A former SDS-era radical (see Democracy Is In the Streets) who has converted to American Prospect (where his wife is on the editorial board)-style neo-liberalism, Miller comments on political matters in a tone which is likely to find great favor in our current Simon Schama & Richard Pipes-defined climate of all-pervading squeamishness about revolutionary endeavors. Miller also admits to being both fascinated and repulsed by Foucault’s sexual proclivities. I cannot agree with those who have seen Milller’s extended speculations on the importance of sadomasochism for Foucault, and on his death from AIDS, as part of a straightforward effort to discredit the thinker.1 Nor am I completely comfortable with his handling of these matters. The simplest method of expressing the tension in only a few words is perhaps in terms of two possible comparisons. That is, the question may remain as to whether The Passion of Michel Foucault should be read, on the one hand, as an extended chapter in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals: the lesson being how tragically misguided modern culture has been to take its bearings from such paragons of degeneracy, in implicit contrast with a time in which deference was paid to a class of intellectual leaders who aspired to a distinctly more canonical norm of saintly character (namely, the clergy)? Or, on the other hand, if we are inclined to regard its subject’s sexuality in a less sinister light, perhaps we can use the profile of the philosopher contained in Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Wittgenstein as a model for reading The Passion of Michel Foucault: Is it a heuristic “queering” of an established author which politicizes the philosophical by joining it to the personal? It seems that in assessing what Jim Miller has done to Foucault, in perfectly Nietzschean fashion, the friend and the enemy are not so easy to distinguish, and a great deal depends upon the perspective one adopts.

Miller repeatedly emphasizes the deep fascination Foucault felt throughout his life with certain literary and artistic figures, from Goya to Roussel, and even Beckett, and invites us to read Foucault within a French literary tradition in which he could stand alongside Artaud and Genet. This aesthetic context is mainly a subtle framing device for legitimating an aesthetic treatment of the life itself. Indeed, Miller strives to enable Michel Foucault himself to emerge as “a work of art.” The point of all the literary references, in other words, is not that Foucault was a literary author, or even a Baudelairean dandy, so much as that he was a Nietzschean philosopher-hero who sought to give birth to himself. As the Ecce Homo which Foucault himself never had the opportunity to write, The Passion of Michel Foucault is a resounding, flamboyant success. Moreover, Miller improves upon Eribon by placing the weightiest lines of influence where, in my judgment at least, they belong in this case: not with Dumezil, or Canguilhem, or Hyppolite (as important as they were as teachers), but with Sartre, and with Nietzsche, and, perhaps above all, with Bataille – especially the Bataille who, as sociologist, placed the category of “transgression” at the center of what virtually became a mystical theology.

But apart from how Foucault became Foucault, how did Foucault become our Foucault, or, if you will, Foucault for us – that is to say, the academic phenomenon of the 1980s. In short, how and why did Foucault become a “patron saint,” especially within US universities in a certain period? Why did Foucault displace Marx as the favored thinker for academic leftists? Will his continued preeminence facilitate the academic encampment of movements toward “identity politics,” or will a closer examination of his texts and his life thwart any compelling articulation of such a thing as “queer theory”? These, it seems to me, were the key questions left unanswered by Didier Eribon’s preliminary scouting of the Foucaultian biographical turf. And Miller has certainly plunged deeper in all of these directions, whether he has returned with gold or dross.

The many ambiguities of Foucault’s legacy as a political philosopher will certainly not be resolved by Miller’s account, despite or perhaps because of the fact that the author is most interested in these aspects of Foucault’s career, and highly sensitive to their nuances. Miller’s recounting of Foucault’s engagements as both a political activist and a political theorist is generally quite informative and thorough. One exception might be Miller’s handling of Foucault’s intervention in the debate over “popular justice;” it strikes me as a bit one-sided, and the juxtaposition with material taken from Discipline and Punish is arguably an opportunistic short-cut toward giving the issue an unfair polemical spin. In addtion, given his keen interest in excavating the “frustrated liberal” trapped inside Foucault who was struggling to get out, it is odd that Miller has omitted the famous 1981 press conference in which Foucault made his new “declaration of the rights of man.”

The difficulty in extracting a single, coherent political outlook from Foucault’s writings and/or his example as an agent is really only one aspect of a larger problem: Foucault died in the middle of a very interesting and still-developing career. Thus, it is inevitable that the debates will continue, and perhaps more fiercely than ever, over various forms of the questions: a) What was he moving from? and b) What was he moving towards? Some form of quasi-Marxist radicalism? A rediscovered liberalism? And on what values did he base his later “ethic”: Those of Antiquity? Of Christianity? Of the Enlightenment? Each reply already has its partisans among Foucault scholars.

James Miller has a magazine writer’s skill for gliding over complicated matters, meanwhile rendering glib judgments which have an authoritative sound (Miller once in fact served as a book review editor at Newsweek). At times, his prose style crosses the border between fluency and awkward, irritating giddiness. Some passages deserve to be called “journalistic” in the pejorative sense (e.g., “Bodies! Pleasures! Torture! Had philosophy ever sounded so sexy!” 321). Moreover, Miller offers at least one hypothesis about Foucault’s intellectual development which, although it is set forth plainly as fact, is outright laughable: the insinuation that one “trip” on the hallucinogenic drug LSD in 1975 was singularly responsible for a major reconceptualizing of the project Foucault was working on at the time (251).

All in all, it would not be unfair to state that The Passion of Michel Foucault remains superficial on the level of philosophical content, and is also deliberately sensationalistic in its manner of presentation. Nevertheless, contrary to what the vast majority of those sympathetic to Foucault’s project within the academy seem instinctively to feel, I do not regard either of these factors as automatically counting against the book. The Passion of Michel Foucault is the most lucidly contextualized introduction to French thought of the period since Sherry Turkle’s Psychoanalytic Politics in 1978. It is our best response, so far, to those, Camille Paglia most formidable among them, who have challenged (“dared” would really be a more accurate term) us to read the French theories of the 1960s within and against the political history of the same period. The Passion of Michel Foucault is designed to appeal to a broad readership of non-specialists, but it is also capable, it seems to me, of providing a fine introduction to Foucault’s work for an audience of American undergraduates.

As for the book’s immediate, enduring, and none-too-suprising popularity, it would seem that Miller’s accomplishment is that he has taken one of the heavyweights of post-structuralist theory and placed him at the enigmatic center of a titillating Ann Rice novel for pseudo-intellects of all persuasions. At the same time, several external factors virtually guaranteed that this book would be given a hostile reception by Foucault specialists before it had even been published. Suffice it to say that these related both to how Miller himself was perceived, and to his publisher’s strategy for generating advance publicity for the book. So intense was the immediate resentment of both the book and its author that few of the critics of The Passion of Michel Foucault even deigned to put their sentiments into print; they had already determined en mass to greet The Passion of Michel Foucault with silent scorn. But perhaps Miller’s basic flaw in the eyes of the more humorless academic “Foucaultians” is that he had fun; he knows how to write popular history in the breezy New Left style (a trait he shares, incidentally, with Martin Duberman). What was tossed out of the Ivory Tower flies off the shelf at Tower Records. St. Foucault: crypto-Maoist or closet Jesuit? I, for one, declare: Let the people decide! It’s clear enough that Miller himself worships only at the Church of Rock and Roll.2

If Foucault once remarked that “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face” (The Archaeology of Knowledge 17), James Miller has restored the outlines of that face, in dramatic relief. And yet, for Foucault scholarship in the wake of James Miller, the question will remain: Why are we rightfully more concerned with the sex life of a philosopher named Michel Foucault than with that of a philosopher named, say, Saul Kripke? The answer, of course, is that Foucault himself was responsible for a critique of modern sexual morality which became the culminating project of his career. In that we can now begin to perceive the part it may have played in an uncompleted process of self-understanding and self-creation (and perhaps of hoped-for self-emancipation?) for its author, Miller’s book provides the occasion, if not the substance, for a fresh evaluation of Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

Lou Salome, referring to Nietzsche, stated that “external intellectual work and the inner picture of his life coincide completely” (4). However, the “coincidence” Salome revealed in her book on Nietzsche was a coincidence of opposites. Like Salome, James Miller found that he was dealing with a subject of such commanding originality and protean complexity that neither conventional biographical methods nor standard textual commentary could be adequate. Consequently, again like Salome, Miller devised a hybrid method – in this case what might be termed an authentically post-modern pastiche of the biographical and the interpretive, and drafted a highly readable “psycho-philosophical” novel with a character named “Foucault” as its protagonist. However, there are certain manifest limitations to this highly aestheticized method. At certain points, Miller seems to have fallen beneath a lower standard of intellectual honesty than even the most energetic deployments of sophistry about “regimes of power/knowledge” can excuse. One could cite numerous instances of Miller simply seeming to play fast and loose with scholarly standards of evidence.

In justifying this sort of strategy, he seems to abandon his new-found liberal sense of propriety to claim that the end justifies the means. “The proof is in the pudding,” he seems to want to say, and I have hereby rendered some more profound, though darker, “truth” of Foucault by distorting or altogether ignoring all traditional procedures for establishing just what the truth is.

To point to only one example, on page 34, citing the statement “sex is worth dying for” (which occurs on page 156 of the English translation of The History of Sexuality, Volume 1), Miller obscures the fact that in the passage this line is taken from, Foucault is in the process of delineating his famous distinction between “sex” and “sexuality,” and referring to the mystified, even fraudulant, qualities ascribed to “sex” by the prevailing discourse of sexuality, not setting forth his own views. Miller seems merely to be quoting Foucault out of context – rather egregiously, since, without any of the irony, we are left with a sense almost diametrically opposite to that of the original passage. The only justification I can come up with for Miller’s maneuver here (although Miller can still be faulted for failing even to attempt to explain or justify his own sleight-of-hand), is as follows: The operational premise of this examination of Foucault’s life/work is that we will be able to gain the greatest possible insight into precisely the intersection of Foucault’s work as a theorist with his life as a human being if we become willing to entertain the possibility that in his writings Focault may at times have been speaking about himself, or uttering his own feelings, without telling us that that is what he is doing. Alternatively, he may be making coded reference to some aspect of his own identity even when he seems to be speaking about something else, an alien position, something which he goes about attacking as though it stood distant from him. All that could validate this thesis is the possibility that Foucault the theorist was driven by a passion to overcome some of the very conceptions, ideas, and commitments by which he was, on some level, tempted. For those who actually knew Foucault, perhaps it does not seem that such validation could be so far off. More specifically, is it not time that we ask: To what degree was the 1970s and early 80s gay culture of California, in which Foucault repeatedly immersed himself, in the throes of the very ideology of “the liberation of sex-desire” to which so many pages of his Introduction (and perhaps the planned fourth volume?) of The History of Sexuality are painstakingly devoted to deconstructing? Re-reading Foucault’s work on sexuality in the light of Miller may lead us to inquire after the degree to which, by enacting a resistance to his own subjection, Foucault’s theory may have promised release from a torment that only grew deeper.


1. In a longer paper, I have argued that Foucault’s ethos (a concept which sublates the ditinction betweeen life and work) can be viewed as a paradigmatic instance of what Edith Wyschogrod has described as the “postmodern sainthood of depravity.”

2. Those of my generation who follow the contemporary music scene are likely to have forgotten that in the days before Kurt Loder and Eric Weisbard, guys like Greil Marcus and Jim Miller were the leading men of “rock and letters.” Miller once edited something called The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, to which he also contriburted articles on Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys.

Herculine Guibert is a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy, Boston College.