Updated: Aug 1, 2022
When Michel Foucault left Sweden after a stint as a university lecturer there, he reported that it was antiseptic and overmedicated—it was a sterile vision as to what awaited the whole planet in the future, prosperous drug-induced coma. This is a strange comment for a gauchiste and it is a comment that provides the springboard for my main thesis: contrary to the endless demonisation heaped upon Foucault by the right—particularly the North American right—over the past 30 years, Foucault in fact inclines more to the right than the left. You see, to complain about overmedication and antiseptic conditions really constitutes an attack from the right, from the radical right at that—it is the radical right, in popular form men like Alex Jones, who complain that life has become overmedicated and antiseptic; rarely does the left, who adore science and technology, complain that the world has become antiseptic and overmedicated; they want that, it is their utopia—the place where nobody feels pain.
In particular, Foucault expressed a concern about madness—about the madman’s position in society. When he went to Sweden he taught French for beginners to Scandinavian students. “There will be few—and less in the winter, when the suicides begin,” a colleague informed Foucault, as regards class sizes. “There will be few, less when the suicides begin,” seems to me to sum up the entire Scandinavian worldview and experience—if not the entire Northwest European experience; after all, it is how we find out if you have “the right stuff”. As it happens, Foucault hated the Swedish winters—let alone the incipient suicide waves from despondent Swedish francophiles.
Nonetheless, madness and sanity—the madman as a legitimate figure—constitute an important line in Foucault’s work; and this chimes with the radical right again, for it is the radical right that is “schizo” and suffers from a condition whereby, “Nobody believes what I say, they say I’m mad—but I’m not mad, I’m not. You believe me, though, don’t you, M. Foucault? You can see it…you can see that the adverts for the railway…the ones with the chickens…you can see the daddy chicken is black and the mummy chicken is white…they’re mixed-race chickens, M. Foucault…I tell you…” <<Eh, bien. Assiez-vous…c’est un langue—un langue de poulet>>.
In fact, Foucault would not be so sympathetic—as we shall see, Foucault was an icy Greek statue not a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. He was not dear old RD Laing to whom you could confess your deepest, as we say today, “issues”; and yet, Foucault had the madness in him—he was Fou-cault after all, and “fou” in French is “mad”. His nickname at university was “Fuchs”—the fox, Foucault was “crazy like a fox”; and, given his interest in the history of sexuality, the Fuchs fooked too. In neat synchronicity, the priest who officiated at Foucault’s funeral recited a poem by an academic friend about a fox—the friend did not know the nickname, but he had the right expression to lay the “crazy fox” to rest.
Consider Foucault’s actual political commitments: two years in the French Communist Party, the PCF, as a young graduate student—he left after he was unimpressed by a Party hack’s attempt to explain why “the doctors’ plot” against Stalin he had vociferously defended as a genuine conspiracy had been, in a blink of an eye, declared retroactively to have never taken place. Remember, for context, that at the time, in the 1950s, the PCF was France’s largest opposition party—to join it at the time was the equivalent to joining Labour in Britain in the same period; it was not a nutcase eccentric move on Foucault’s part. After this brief stint in the PCF, in which he was inactive as a militant, Foucault became unpolitical—when de Gaulle returned to power in the late 1950s, Foucault joined his supporters in the streets; supporters for what was essentially a polite coup. For a time, some said Foucault was a Gaullist—a moderate conservative, in Anglo-American terms.
At other times, they said he was a technocrat—in an interview, Foucault brushed away all these labels; by then, in the late 1970s, the PCF claimed that Foucault had created an ideology to protect the bourgeoisie—an accusation carried on even today, postmodernism as the ideology of “neoliberalism” (just so you know where that canard comes from—quack, quack). For his part, when a student asked Foucault to explain Marx to him, Foucault brushed him off—go speak to the gentlemen whose job it is to explain Marx, they are paid to do it…Foucault was no Marxist, no “postmodern neo-Marxist”.
What Foucault became, in fact, was an anarchist—not an ideological anarchist, not in the formal sense that he followed Bakunin or Kropotokin; rather, he was a Nietzschean anarchist. The true anarchist is on the right; real anarchy is order—if you strip off the bureaucratic distortion, what remains is the natural order; and so leftist “anarchists”, who claim that the state causes inequality, always have to smuggle a state back into their anarchy to guarantee equality; hence the right is true anarchy, we honour those who fly the black flag—as I do. This is government by synchronicity—synarchy—and, as such, it is the order that chaos births.
I like to get behind people, you know—to psychologise them. However, this is difficult in Foucault’s case. There is an irony in that Foucault spawned the term “self-care”—as a girl who has just split up with her bf might say on the phone to her mother, “I’m concentrating on self-care right now.” I think that means that you order Delieveroo for a week and get very drunk on Friday night and sleep with a stranger, though I am not entirely sure. The term comes from Foucault’s formulation “care of the self” and it has diffused into the global cultural ecosystem through California, since it was in California that Foucault, late in his career, adumbrated this concept. It has since, via half-digested graduate seminars and California narcissism, morphed into a media term for girls in their mid-twenties—the idea being that you pamper your-self, I think.
Strange to report, Foucault loathed the whole California “get in touch with your real self movement”, although he was at home in California—he loved a club sandwich and a coke, a real American achievement; and perhaps a demonstration that for all the bluster about French cuisine, the frogs know what’s good for them really. Foucault, as with his sometime associate Deleuze, would think that the idea that you can “get in touch” with your “real self” is an illusion—there is no “real self” to touch; just manifolds of power to be finessed—potentials to fine tune. “Care of the self”, although related to Foucault’s late exploration of ancient Greece, really connects to the idea of the mask that you finesse. It is an idea from Nietzsche: there is no “you”, just masks—some crude, some finely honed—that you craft to present to people; the play of masks is a work of art. “My life as a mask”. The “care of the self” is the care of the mask, to get out a really sharp craft knife and hone the wood really smoothly this time. So no, Foucault did not mean that you need to treat yourself at the nail bar off Wiltshire…
If you want a word to sum up Foucault, despite his massive public impact over the last forty years, that word would be “discreet”. Foucault was a discreet man, hidden behind his masks. Yes, he was a public figure but sometimes “to go naked is the best disguise”—you see these people, but you never know them. A man who wears many masks…who donates money to the Dominicans…who prefers a religious library over the Bibliothèque National…who associates with the Algerians in the ghetto…with prisoners…with Maoist students…with the actress Julie Christie…
Even Foucault’s death was discreet: I expected, as with many Aids cases, that he died in a lingering way—in fact, hardly at all. He was in hospital, his brain was under pathogenic attack—there was treatment, a brief improvement. He sat down to watch television, he died. It was quick and…discreet. Whether he knew he had Aids or not…as with many things in life, many unintegrated things, he did and he didn’t—French doctors had the jitters over this diagnosis, they would just leave the notes out for the patient to glance at “by accident” (some accident); yet he was never incapacitated, he lifted weights up to the end—and then…you never see foxes at night, just hear them.
Discipline and Punish—or, as it should be known, on the reverse side, Cure and Heal; and, indeed, the two are related—you have to cut to cure. Foucault came from a medical family, an involved medical family—there is a Rue Dr. Foucault to honour a medical relative who died in poverty among his sans-culotte patients. Foucault’s father was a surgeon—and a surgeon is a butcher; thus, in order to “make a man of him”, Foucault père took his young son to watch a leg amputation. The mask, the scalpel that shapes the mask. Unfortunately, Foucault, the eldest son, was a pédé (that’s “a fag” in English, y’all) and so did not follow the family profession—that was left to his younger brother. So the story behind Foucault is a son who has disappointed his father and makes up through activities that are related to his father’s profession but in a para- way; hence Foucault produced books about “the birth of the clinic”—about the semiotic metalanguage of medicine and science. Really, he was a frustrated doctor—he just wanted to please dad...(don’t we all?).
Foucault’s sadism and masochism—more rumoured than actually attested to—were undoubtedly brutal because he had the surgeon’s attitude from dad; he had the butcher’s attitude—and just imagine what that might have been like in a nightclub like Mineshaft off NY’s meatpacking district…crisco central (be careful not to skid on floor, the mixture of blood & baby oil & faeces has its own unique hydrodynamic). Foucault’s observation that fist-fucking was the only genuine sexual innovation of the 20th century gives you a clue as to where this went—ten or twelve bottoms lined up in a row on the club floor. Incidentally, “meatpacking district”—surely that is some euphemism, some joke; a fudgepacker, a meatpacker—every book says “Mineshaft, meatpacking district”; and that must be a joke, right?
So, as with his father, though he was his mother’s boy, Foucault was a hard and reserved man. As with many academics who celebrate “exuberance” and “the liberation of repressed desire” he was a totally orthodox and committed hardcore worker—a total good boi bourgeois striver; at his desk day after day, even when he was dying. The fact is people who produce works about “the dialectic of desire” or “liberation of the pleasure principle” are almost all very dull people who received top marks at school and then plodded off to some concrete and glass campus to dutifully produce works about “freedom of the libido” and “pathways of desire” in the spirit of the Protestant work ethic they abominate but instantiate. They cannot help but be what they are.
The unfortunate problem is that what constitutes a release valve for the academic striver, a way to creatively escape their middle-class over-examined technocratic perfection, then leaks, via the university and university-trained journalists, into the wider society; it leaks down to girls who talk about “self-care” in a smug way, as if their self-indulgence has some complicated justification behind it—it leaks down to people who really do need to be “disciplined and punished”, because to “surrender to desire” constitutes their default setting. Then again, perhaps I am unfair to Foucault: when everyone else argued sex had been repressed and needed to be released, he said the system had always stimulated sexual desire—tickled your fancy, got you humming along to your workday…
Incidentally, I should add that Foucault was not that bright. I doubt his reputation will last very long, and his ideas are quite slight; it just so happens that he had a big impact in local terms, in the last forty years. I can tell this is so because Foucault failed his oral exams time and again from school up to the elite Parisian colleges he entered.
Behind the scenes, as ever, was “the mother”—the mother who pulled strings with her upper-middle-class contacts. Indeed, if you want another word to describe Foucault it would be “bourgeois” (the family had a second home in the country, Foucault had a Jaguar as a new lecturer in Sweden)—ah yes, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. Foucault had a problem with orals—orals are important in continental Europe (yes, I know); and he always mucked up these examinations, even when coached and crammed. So, if the parental aid had been turned off, I doubt he would have ended up in the centre of French academic life. Foxes are cunning, but not necessarily geniuses.
Foucault had a bald head—any fool can see that. When he shaved it all off he said he “revealed his true face”—again, the masks. Yet this also alludes to Foucault’s spiritual dimension; he was fascinated by Japan and made a brief visit there—along with a desultory comparison of Zen to Christianity. Schizos are often bald, it gives them their powers—there is strength to a consciously shaved head; not even with a monk’s tonsure, just totally bald. The bald truth—the true face, Enlightenment. Foucault? Religious? But he’s one of these postmodern relativists…I know your game; you’re just counter-signalling all the rightists who hate postmodernism, Foucault in particular—I get your game, you think you’re so clever…
Yet Foucault went to Iran and praised the spiritual element to the power struggle there—he said we need to bring the spiritual back to the power struggle in Europe; and lo, the left did wail—and lo, the feminists did point out the status of women in Islam. Foucault was unperturbed by the feminists because like a good surgeon and a certain type of homosexual he detested women—women are not hard and sharp like a knife, you see; nor are they discreet, women are flagrant. A female graduate student, late in his career, approached him to enlist his support for a “Foucaultian feminism”—she was given short shrift, directed to the archives (get lost, bitch).
Again, this is the anarchist life. Foucault disliked the PCF, and he disliked the Soviet Union so much that when forced to stop over in Moscow he refused to buy anything there—not even his beloved caviar (yes, Michel Foucault was bourgeois to the last). Given that the PCF was a powerhouse at the time, especially in French intellectual life, to go against it was not insignificant. Now, granted, in France at the time to be a Communist was to be “on the right”—Foucault, along with assorted freaks, was shipped off to an experimental university in the suburbs, Vincennes, that was essentially a loony bin for French leftist intellectuals. The plan was to take all the troublesome students and lecturers and dump them on the edge of town and let them sort it out amongst themselves, Battle Royale style—so that the various student factions would vociferously attack the Communist students in the stairwells (rightists, you see—they wore suits and ties, totally bourgeois).
At the time, Maoism, bizarrely, was where it was at for the French intellectual left. This might seem peculiar, given the Maoism is based on peasant revolution and France was among the first industrialised countries wherein the peasantry have played no significant economic role for at least a century. However, psychologically and culturally, “the peasant” has huge significance for the French—the paysan has similar status to “the right to bear arms” for Americans and an “Englishman’s home” for the British. So, contrary to Marxist theory, Maoism found a home in France because the French have this great emotional love for the peasantry and the peasant as “an idea”.
Yet Foucault was never really a formal Maoist activist—he was always collateral; for sure, he was involved in the riots in the university—and he gloried in the running battles with the riot squad that slowly destroyed the expensive TVs and equipment the French government had outfitted Vincennes with. Foucault had particular views on how the TVs, the notable technological development, should be placed in the barricades. Yet Foucault always retained a certain independence; and, eventually, came to condemn the gauchistes—specifically, he complained that they betrayed each other all the time, talked about solidarity and then when the chips were down vanished. Ultimately, this is the right’s case against the left: the left has no loyalty, not even to each other—and so they eventually eat each other.
Foucault is, of course, all about power—and this he takes from Nietzsche, true and false are tricky categories; we only study the ways “true” and “false” have been used to pursue certain agendas (behind certain masks). Indeed, Foucault’s whole career was spun off from a single comment by Nietzsche—who was the master—to the effect that we need a history of punishment, of crime, of…So Foucault took up the thread. Foucault’s basic idea is that there is a language of clinics, of madness, of prisons, of sexuality—a metalanguage. Foucault, who was a philosophical historian, came along and unpicked the genealogy of these metalanguages in particular contexts—as with Nietzsche, he exposed the power play behind “morality” and “normality”.
To take his first project, his project on madness: Foucault traces how madness changes—how madness was constructed, one might say—from the early 19th century onwards. Before then, mad people had a certain status; for example, Lady Macbeth starts to tell the truth about her murder as she goes mad—and the Fool in Lear is the “mad man who speaks the truth”, whereas the “wise old king” is a deluded fool. The Egyptians used to say, “Be kind, he is with God,” as regards the mad—and, indeed, in ancient times the philosopher experienced “divine madness” as divine revelation. So the madman, for medievals and earlier, was not necessarily pathological—if he wandered the lanes and said, “The birds speak to me about God because the birds are angels,” it was just fair comment.
What changed was that the Quakers—sinister, passive-aggressive people—started asylums where the mad were to be treated (“kindly”, of course—they always kill you with kindness, paranoids know). The idea arose that the mad were “being difficult” and were “immoral”; they needed time in a nice quiet asylum in the countryside to examine their consciences and labour and then they would correct themselves and become “normal people”—hardworking Quakers who eat porridge oats and never hurt anybody. “What’s normal?” as RD Laing might interject, “Is pacifism ‘normal’?”. So to “be mad” moved from “possible mystic insight, truth-speaker” to “bad person, malingerer, immoral”; and this went along with a certain scientific veneer, whereby the madman was probed in various ways—and “corrected” in a rationalistic fashion.
As the Soviet Union demonstrated with the way it used psychiatry to suppress dissidents, nothing is less scientific than psychiatry—nothing is less certain than “reality”; and, really, psychiatry is the least scientific branch in medicine, everyone knows that—it is where the wannabe doctor-novelists end up because the field cannot generate the hard and sure results found in, say, surgery. After all, it is Britain’s leading psychiatric-psychological centre, the Tavistock Clinic, that has just had its department devoted to facilitating sex-change operations among the young closed down. It told young people, in essence, that there is no such thing as a man and a woman. “It’s peer-reviewed and scientific, not postmodern nonsense!” The idea that racists, sexists, and homophobes are mentally ill is implicit in the language of the left—the -phobe has an irrational fear, a possibly psychiatric condition connected to latent homosexuality; it needs treatment, not punishment—not M. Foucault and his whips.
Indeed, when the French revolutionary regime, so relates Foucault, shut down the old mad houses in order to establish the modern asylum system, one justification they gave was that the enemies of the revolution were hidden in the mad houses—they needed to be driven out, weeded out by “the science”. The reactionaries are in the mad houses, the truth-speaker is mad—the man who is with God is mad…Who was Europe’s biggest rug-biter? Who was “that mad man”? Why did Enoch Powell close the asylums? Why is Stalin never regarded as mad? Reality is insanity.
Although Foucault does not take the argument in this direction, there is an implication in what he says: the revolution is an error—the revolution births Bentham’s panopticon, the “total security state” that watches your every move as an individual; in the old days, the chain gang marched down to Devil’s Island, now everyone is alone in his cell—examine your conscience, we will enter your very mind and, as with A Clockwork Orange, will reprogram you from within. This is the modern science of mental health—as fully instantiated in the USSR, hence Foucault opposed Soviet psychiatry so vociferously.
Foucault knew that before this attitude took hold it was understood that there is a book of nature, and that you could grasp the world by analogies and synonyms contained within nature—the rhythm of life. It was this truth that mad men often spoke, as with the mad poet John Clare—who wandered many byways and highways in 19th-century Britain, on permanent pilgrimage. “Not productive, immoral,” whisper Quaker elders...God is banned—only the disciplinary regime remains. You can make money or you can organise a revolution to kill the rich—those are rational enterprises, you can be Rockefeller or Che Guevara; however, you are not allowed to be mad. This is how it works: the middle class, followers of Adam Smith, overthrow the aristocrats and priests because they are “lazy” and “irrational”; then the religious enthusiasm is taken up—it must go somewhere—by a man like Che who polishes off the middle class because they do not do real work; the final destination is a gigantic labour camp, perfectly sane.
Foucault never fully explored this route, yet he had a friend—a painter who dedicated a book to him—Klossowski who followed a Gnostic tradition, who wrote Basileus Philosophorum Metaloricum (it spells “Baphomet”, you know). He was highly aesthetic, researched how for the ancients the statues breathed and lived and shot light from their eyes—for the symbol was united with the marble. Foucault did not choose that path; he became a more conventional gauchiste—yet in his street-fighting days Klossowski resurfaced and suggested that Foucault should recruit a platoon of thirty beautiful boys to march against the riot police; the riot police would be stunned by their beauty and surrender—shades of Mishima here.
Foucault was always on the mask side, when asked in his first TV appearance how he would teach psychology he replied that he would make a mask to wear—as with Anthony Perkins in Psycho—and go from there; again, the scalpel and the psycho—the psycho surgeon. The aesthetic play of masks is not really what the left is about—it contains its own elitism, in fact.
Let’s not get too cute—Foucault was still on the left in a conscious way; he was against “the power structure” as stood. When things became too primal he backed off. So, for example, there was a famous case in a northern French mining village where a local girl was raped, tortured, and murdered—it was Bluebeard’s Castle territory; the suspect was a respectable bourgeois man, involved in the local Rotary Club—and known to beat the girls at the local brothel. Parisian leftists arrived in the dingy village to capitalise on the “class crime” and found to their dismay that the prolonged detention the police employed against the suspect was the same measure that they endlessly protested about when deployed against their militants.
The local prosecutor was very conventional and he proceeded forcefully against the suspect. In the child-like view of the ’68 left, rich bourgeois pigs were just released automatically whereas migrants and leftists were hassled by the cops—it never struck them that, for example, the prosecutor just administered justice; he sought any perpetrator of a sex crime with all methods available to him, just as he might have used the same methods against leftists who smashed department store windows (“But, your honour, it was an attempt to dismantle the ideological state apparatus, to prosecute me is a crime against human rights…I have a petition signed by Sartre right here.”). In child leftist world, there were “goody” proletarians and “baddy” bourgeois pigs—and the bourgeois could do what they wanted without consequence, just like some bad prince in a children’s story.
The childishness these people display is neatly exemplified by a cause Foucault supported: the Vietnamese boat people. The same intellectuals who, only a decade before, had raised money for the Vietcong were horrified to see the “human rights crisis” caused by people who fled the victorious Vietcong for their lives by boat. Yet if the same intellectuals had not run interference for the Vietcong there would have been no boat crisis—yet they adamantly insisted it was “good” Vietnam was “independent”. But you contributed to this. <<Mais non, c’est mon duti tu ztand vorr ze rightz humanie, en eni cironstance.>>
This wet liberal attitude was also demonstrated by a self-proclaimed liberal who tagged along with Foucault’s Maoists who declared that he “expected to be shot once the revolution happened.” At one level, such people think the revolution will never happen—it’s just an intellectual game for them; at another level, they actually want to self-harm; except they harm others too, the darling French left, having contributed to the boat people crisis, demanded they be admitted to France as refugees—a call from the idiot bleeding hearts that was resisted by the PCF (“We have enough of ‘em in our council flats already, thanks.”)
Nevertheless, an attempt was made to turn the “bourgeois Bluebeard” incident into a “class crime”, with placards to that effect hung by the suspect’s house. However, when Foucault and his fellow leftist saw what actual “people’s justice” looked like they found they did not like it, not one bit. The road to “people’s justice” is short and it always ends in “hang the paedo”. So the local miners wanted to castrate the suspect and drag him along behind a car—and the general opinion was that the bourgeois town, physically segregated from the miner’s village, was filled with “queers”. The ’68 press at first cynically supported the general “hang the paedo” mood; then, soon enough, was reprimanded for “fascism”. It became too primal, too biological—it was to do with sex, you see. Foucault, whose vision of “people’s justice” derived, somewhat anachronistically, from the French Revolution, found himself chastened before what it actually involved—real anarchy is really rightist, really.
Foucault’s fascination with madness dated from his mentor at university, Louis Althusser. Althusser was even more discreet than Foucault, being invisible—he was the ultra-bright neurotic intellectual type, so that his decisions were suitably idiosyncratic; so just when everyone moved away from the Communists, he ditched Catholicism and joined them; and when everyone ditched Stalin, he became more rigid and “Stalinist” in his thought than ever. He was also a quasi-schizo and depressive whose shuttles between mental hospital and university were disguised as “holidays”. Eventually, Althusser murdered his wife, strangled her, and was politely shuffled off to a mental hospital—the genuine bias in the French justice system not being for businessmen but rather for left-wing intellectuals (“Excused on account of the size of his brain, m’lord.”)
Foucault visited him in his permanent confinement in mental hospital—a confinement that led him to produce a memoir entitled The Future Lasts Forever; quite evocative and beautiful, I think. So his proximity to the fragile Althusser probably set Foucault down the path to madness in the first place—and, given that Althusser taught in a tiny university that formed the French elite, it gives you an insight into the influence of the left on French politics; the people who trained France’s future bureaucrats—future Macrons and so on—were often active straightforward Communists; and, indeed, Foucault, after his investigations into prisons and sexuality, was invited by the government to contribute to a commission, albeit anonymously, on matters that ranged from pornography to the age of consent. As it happens, Foucault would have approved because, late in his career, he suggested that everything should be written anonymously. Kill narcissism, kill the ego—adopt the anonymous mask.
Or, alternatively, kill yourself—it was rumoured that Foucault once attempted suicide, as a young student. His final words when asked in his beloved California what was next for him: “I’m going to take care of myself.” He went back to France—and died. “He took care of himself, alright.” Self-care. Curtains.
The bottom line: if you follow Foucault all the way through, split modernity, you end up back at the book of life. Many have noticed this—among them the ikon carver Jonathan Pageau—if you follow postmodernism all the way through you arrive back a religious view of the world: the view of the mad truth-speaker. The people most condemned by the “rational anti-postmodern” conservative, those who advance transgenderism, are surgeons not postmodernists—and we want a surgeon for the psyche, what we want to do is cut this idea, an idea called modernity, out. It will hurt, but what doesn’t kill you…