James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault

Passion of Michel FoucaultThe Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a long time we’ve been told that this century’s momentous changes in American culture owe their vocabulary and their sensibility to Michel Foucault. The French philosopher and cultural historian has been credited with—to give just a few examples—Ta-Nehisi Coates’s influential ruminations on “the black body,” anti-police and prison abolitionist activists’ denunciations of “the carceral,” the expansion of queer identity beyond born-this-way liberal appeals to a radical understanding of myriad possible gender and sexual configurations or what Foucault himself called “bodies and pleasures,” the dismissal of health as alibi for the medical “correction” of non-normative bodies, and the skepticism about liberal legal norms of evidence and rational dispute in adjudicating the testimony of those marginalized by liberal society. Yet on the penultimate page of James Miller’s classic and controversial 1993 intellectual biography, The Passion of Michel Foucault, we find this startling assertion:

During the 1980s, a number of Americans working in a university setting enshrined Foucault as a kind of patron saint, a canonic figure whose authority they routinely invoked in order to legitimate, in properly academic terms, their own brand of “progressive ” politics. Most of these latter-day American Foucauldians are high-minded democrats; they are committed to forging a more diverse society in which whites and people of color, straights and gays, men and women, their various ethnic and gender “differences” intact, can never­theless all live together in compassionate harmony—an appealing if dif­ficult goal, with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Unfortunately, Foucault’s lifework, as I have come to understand it, is far more uncon­ventional—and far more discomfiting—than some of his “progressive” admirers seem ready to admit. Unless I am badly mistaken, Foucault issued a brave and basic challenge to nearly everything that passes for “right” in Western culture—including nearly everything that passes for “right” among a great many of America ‘s left-wing academics. (Italics in original: Miller’s “Preface” and “Postscript” are set entirely in italics.)

In tribute, perhaps, to Foucault’s own elusiveness, Miller proffers his book’s thesis only in a concluding paratext. It is precisely Foucault’s elusiveness that makes a book like this necessary. Though Miller amusingly reports that the philosopher was baffled by the prose of Jacques Lacan, his own writing, while more lucid than Lacan’s, also relies heavily on befuddling abstractions and pregnant neologisms. He also, often silently, shifted ideological positions over his four-decade career. Moreover, as Miller emphasizes, his corpus’s two dominant tendencies—a delirious form of literary criticism, on the one hand, and a more sober-seeming social science prose on the other—need to be collated and integrated if one is to understand Foucault’s thought as a whole. Finally, despite Foucault’s well-known critique of the “author-function” that mystifies the heterogeneity of every text by attributing it to the comprehensible psyche of a single individual, Miller reveals Foucault’s seemingly contrary conviction that a philosopher’s lifework is a kind of long confession, a Nietzschean journey to “become what one is.” Consequently, there can be no real separation of the life from work, and biography is philosophy’s unavoidable complement.

The Passion is an intellectual biography, not a scholarly doorstopper of minutia nor (despite its reputation) a scandal-mongering page-turner. In his opening chapter, Miller does begin with Foucault’s ambiguous death in 1984, about which more later. Then he returns to and moves rather quickly through Foucault’s upper bourgeois childhood in Poitiers as the son of a surgeon and his studies at the elite Lycée Henri-IV and then the École Normale Supérieure (where an instance of self-mutilation in a hallway strikes the narrative’s keynote of Foucault’s life-long death wish).

Miller stresses the dominance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Marxist humanism over French intellectual life, and the wish of Foucault’s generation to escape from its stultifications. The biography accordingly dwells at length on the sources and influences Foucault would adopt to escape this Existentialist faith in the individual and collective agency of the human subject: Sade, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Artaud, Blanchot. For Miller, these are more crucial forces in Foucault’s intellectual development than the structuralist thinkers (Saussure, Lévi-Strauss) with whom he is more commonly associated. Miller’s Foucault, a reticent and semi-suicidal outsider to his society, drew less on scientific concepts than on thinkers and poets of the nothing, of death, of finitude, of ecstasy, of madness—of precisely what the monolithic midcentury state, whether in Gaullist or Stalinist form, could not assimilate. Yet the dark nimbus of fascism and cruelty surrounding many of these avant-dissidents’ names haunts Miller’s portrait of this supposedly progressive intellectual.

How did Foucault come by his reputation for progressivism? Through a series of books—most notably Madness and Civilization (1961) and Discipline and Punish (1975)—that made a case not on behalf of Marxism’s preferred agent of historical transformation, the industrial working class, but rather for that non-class of lumpenproletarians perennially scorned by Marxism, here reconceived by Foucault as those madpeople and criminals subjected to and normalized by modernity’s supposedly humane disciplinary institutions—the asylum, the hospital, the prison.

His identification of a new oppressed class, and his observation of oppressive power structures working in precisely those institutions meant in the modern period to correct the “barbarities” of ages past with their torture chambers and ships of fools, would change the western left forever. The “abnormal” subject (rather than the worker) was now the protagonist of history, power (rather than exploitation) the mechanism of oppression, and modern scientific and liberal institutions (rather than capitalist economics) the enemy. Foucault’s anti-psychiatry stance is now in abeyance—a recent viral Tweet promised that “under socialism all men will be sent to therapy,” an old chestnut of Stalinist terror that redefines political dissent as mental illness in an instance of exactly the thinking Foucault meant to challenge. But the drift of his thought, toward the emancipation of western reason’s underside, still defines for many what it means to be on the left today. If the left once promised, per the Internationale, “reason in revolt,” Foucault offered unreason in revolt.

Miller notes that these books were not well-received by historians, who found them over-simplified or simply erroneous in detail. Of another of his books, The Order of Things (1966), the work that made him an intellectual star in France to rival Sartre, Foucault himself allowed, “My book is a pure and simple ‘fiction’ […] It’s a novel, but it’s not me who invented it.” For Miller, Foucault’s works should not be read as cultural history or social science, but rather as an attempt to give aesthetic expression to what Foucault elsewhere called “the thought from outside,” the thought that can’t be thought or find utterance within any rational language or institution:

That his task is difficult, Foucault concedes: “The perception that tries to seize” madness and unreason “in their unfettered state belongs neces­sarily to a world that has already captured them. The freedom of madness is only audible from high in the fortress where it has been taken prisoner.”


To interrogate a culture from the perspective of such a demonic fall is “to question it from the margins of history.” And to express this experience requires, not scholarship, and certainly not rational argument (which would rob limit-experience of its tragic power) but rather artistry—the fury of a poet like Artaud, the monstrous imagination of a painter like Bosch…

Is this a case, then, of aesthetics misapplied to politics? Of an aesthetic that should, by its own terms, never be politicized, since to politicize it would be to formalize it systematically, to bring the outside in and therefore normalize its disruptive potential? Yet, as Miller reports, Foucault involved himself in politics. At the radical University of Vincennes, he participated in the literally riotous aftermath of May 1968. He debated Noam Chomsky and wickedly assured the humanistic American anarchist that there are no intelligible grounds for believing in a human nature to which justice or freedom might pertain. Revolution was the insurgency of a suppressed vitality as such; to search for laws or essences was beside the point. Likewise, he held colloquy with Maoist intellectuals and outflanked them in his fervor for revolutionary violence, dispensing with liberal legal forms:

Popular justice would best be served, he countered, by throwing open every prison and shutting down every court. Instead of instituting a process of “normalization,” and rendering judgment according to laws, it would be better simply to relay fresh information to the masses (as had happened at the tribunal at Lens)—and then let the popular “need for retaliation” run its course. Exercising their power without inhibitions, the masses might resurrect “a certain number of ancient rites which were features of ‘pre­-judicial’ justice.”

More benignly, he helped to found a prisoners’ rights organization, the Prison Information Group, that allowed the grievances of France’s incarcerated populace to be heard. He retained the aesthetic character of his interest in crime itself as an appealingly deranging “limit-experience,” shown when he edited the confession of a famous French murderer, Pierre Rivière, who slaughtered his pregnant mother and his siblings. Foucault commented on the killer’s style, and even the normally level-headed Miller blanches:

Riviere’s memoir, he declared in yet another interview, was “so strong and so strange that the crime ends up not existing anymore.”

The crime ends up not existing anymore?

Foucault began regularly visiting America—Miller provides a vivid and memorable account of his first LSD trip in Death Valley in 1975, psychedelia scored by the beeping and whirring of Stockhausen—and moreover involving himself in San Francisco’s sadomasochistic leather scene. This led to his interest in a project on sexuality and in overturning the juridical regulation of sex. He and Guy Hocquenghem, the founder of France’s gay liberation movement, pushed for an almost totally anarchic approach to sexuality (along, it must be said, with almost the entirety of the mid-to-late 20th-century French literary and academic establishment):

Foucault and Hocquenghem also favored substantially liberalizing the laws regulating sex between adults and chil­dren. Indeed, both men argued in principle against the imposition by law of any age of consent. “No one signs a contract before making love,” quipped Hocquenghem during a joint radio appearance in 1978. “Yes,” agreed Foucault, “it is quite difficult to lay down barriers,” particularly since “it could be that the child, with his own sexuality, may have desired that adult.”

In another public conversation in these months, Foucault went even further, suggesting that it might make sense to abolish altogether the criminal sanctions regulating sexual conduct—even those punishing rape.

In a brilliant footnote that deserves to be part of the main text, Miller usefully contrasts this Foucauldian stance not with Marxism but with the contemporaneous feminism of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin:

As Leo Bersani has pointed out, correctly in my view, the inner logic of the critique made by MacKinnon and her ally Andrea Dworkin points to “the criminalization of sex itself until it has been reinvented.” […] As Bersani also points out, there is at the same time a paradoxical similarity in the thinking of MacKinnon and Foucault: for both in fact agree on the desirability—and possibility—of “reinventing” sex, and also on the desirability of “desexualizing” and “devirilizing” the body. But of course, the means they advocate in order to approach these (perhaps utopian) ends could not be more different, since the inner logic of Foucault’s (Nietzschean) critique points to the decriminalization of all sex (in principle including even incest, boy-love, and rape), in order to lift the burden of guilt until such time as the body and its pleasures have been reinvented.

Second-wave feminists argued, to summarize rather crudely, that since women were reduced to minority status by a patriarchal society, the attendant power dynamic meant that even adult women could no more consent to sex with men than a minor could. Consensual sex would only be possible after a complete revolution in society and in its definition of sex and gender. Foucault’s thesis is an inversion of this: he agreed with the need for total revolution and redefinition, but thought moving toward that goal required the exploration of every heretofore forbidden possibility; for this reason, even pedophilia and rape itself should at least be legitimated if not decriminalized. As an aside, the common reader could be forgiven for thinking it regrettable that these two extremes of puritanism and libertinism exhausted for decades the discussion of eros in the academic humanities.

But through all these moments rightly scarifying to the ordinary American liberal, from Maoist people’s justice to abolishing consent laws (and to his extremely misguided support for the Iranian Revolution in 1979), Miller underscores Foucault’s commitment to the ideal of freedom. If books like Discipline and Punish seem rather to stress our confinement within the discourses, languages, and institutions that define and stabilize our subjectivity, there is still something in each of us that transcends this web of power and knowledge, that can resist and alter conditions.

Toward the end of his life, Foucault found his way to the traditional political home of those who treasure individual liberty. Foucault expressed his turn to liberalism—not unlike Susan Sontag’s in the same period and Albert Camus’s in the generation before—in his Collège de France lectures of the late 1970s:

But in these 1979 lectures, Foucault introduces an entirely new—and complicating—dimension into his historical view of the nineteenth cen­tury. For liberalism, in stark contrast to Machiavellianism, is defined, as Foucault puts it, by the maxim, “‘one always governs too much’—or at least, it is necessary to suspect that one governs too much.” As a conse­quence of this liberal principle, “governmentality cannot be exercised with­ out a ‘critique.'” Every form of government must be examined, not merely in terms of the goods and well-being it manages to secure for its subjects, but, even more, in terms of the legitimacy of its claim to rule. Why is it necessary for the state to govern any given aspect of life at all?

Foucault moreover rejects the revolutionary tradition that assigns “governmentality” the goal and guarantor of freedom:

Despite his newfound appreciation for the diversity of the liberal persuasion as it emerged in the nineteenth century, Foucault conspicuously omitted any mention of the republican strand of French liberal thought that runs from Rousseau to Durkheim and beyond. This was no oversight. As he remarked in an interview, it was Rousseau’s reverie—of a republic of virtue, to be instituted through an untrammeled exercise of popular sovereignty—that had inspired some of the most intolerable aspects of modern “governmentality.” […] Rousseau’s reverie was Foucault’s nightmare. He dreaded situations in which others “enveloped him on all sides,” making him constantly aware “that he is watched, judged, and condemned.” The totalitarian implications of institutions that aimed to routinize such situations he had conjured up in the pages of both Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish, by detailing the horrors of Pinel’s model asylum and Bentham’s model prison. The utopian effort to forge communities of “ethical uniformity,” as Foucault put it, trapped any human being who didn’t conform into “a relation to himself that was of the order of transgression, and in a nonrelation to others that was of the order of shame.”

This is a decisive rebuke to the Maoism he had endorsed only a decade earlier, and we hardly have to wonder what the Foucault of these lectures would think about radicalism as practiced today in “the republic of virtue” known as social media. Instead of “ethical uniformity,” he celebrated “the art of not being governed.”

As Miller’s use of “totalitarian” suggests, Foucault in this period adopted anti-communism, famously attending a rally for Vietnamese refugees alongside Sartre and championing the proto-neoconservative nouveaux philosophes. Miller could not have known this in 1993, but a document declassified in 2011 reveals that these developments were not lost on the CIA. The Agency veritably gloats, in this 1985 research paper, that “Michel Foucault, France’s most profound and influential thinker” had come to the conclusion that “‘bloody’ consequences…have flowed from the rationalist social theory of the 18th-century Enlightenment and the Revolutionary era.” But isn’t this what Foucault had been saying all along? How could the scourge of humane mental hospitals and reformist prisons believe in the enlightened state promised by socialism? Wouldn’t such a total state just be another normalizing institution? According to Miller, Foucault advocated liberalism, particularly in its Anglo-American variant, because it promised a minimal state that would leave people alone, let us be in our Nietzschean quests to become who we are. That the result would be an increasingly omnipotent and omniscient state-enabled technological reign of the corporate monopolies, was neither necessary nor obvious, and there is no reason to believe that Foucault would have supported such a monstrous distortion of the liberal spirit.

The question of freedom brings us to Foucault’s death, and to the reason I called Miller’s biography controversial above. Miller saves another important fact—his impetus in writing the book—for the Postscript:

One evening in the spring of 1987, an old friend who teaches at a university in Boston, where I live, relayed a shocking piece of gossip: knowing that he was dying of AIDS, Michel Foucault in 1983 had gone to gay bathhouses in America, and deliberately tried to infect other people with the disease.

Yet by investigating Foucault’s life—not only reading his works but interviewing his intimates for this richly-documented narrative—Miller comes to a very different conclusion. He does report Foucault’s memorable remark about AIDS to the American critic D. A. Miller: “‘To die for the love of boys: What could be more beautiful?'” Miller suggests, though, that Foucault never knew for sure whether he had the disease, for one thing, and for another, that his sexual partners in 1983 would have been as fully aware of the risks as he was:

Evidently he had been uncertain, perhaps to the day he died, whether or not he actually had AIDS. Given the circumstances in San Francisco in the fall of 1983, as best I could reconstruct them, to have taken AIDS as a “limit-experience,” it seemed to me, would have involved engaging in potentially suicidal acts of passion with consenting partners, most of them likely to be infected already; deliberately throwing caution to the wind, Foucault and these men were wagering their lives together; that, at least, is how I came to understand what may have happened.

Staking it all on his own ongoing reinvention of bodies and pleasures, Foucault died as he lived, and Miller argues that he died more or less blamelessly. That has not been the view of Foucault’s enemies, however, for whom his manner of dying was the necessary corollary of his scandalously amoral philosophy. For example, Camille Paglia, in her rollicking 1991 polemic against French theory, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” says,

The fruits of Foucault are wormwood. He was a Herod without a Salome. This was a man of mutilated psyche: if what I have reliably heard about his public behavior after he knew he had AIDS is true, then Foucault would deserve the condemnation of every ethical person.

As a fellow Wildean, I appreciate the Herod line, but I have to say that I’ve never found issuing ethical condemnations against major writers to be an instructive or valuable activity, especially not when the matter in question is an unproven and unprovable allegation about a writer’s personal life.

Miller usefully narrates a late conversation between Foucault and the liberal German thinker Jürgen Habermas. Habermas told Foucault that as soon as he found out about Heidegger’s Nazism, he freed himself from the philosopher’s influence. Foucault observed, by contrast, that philosophers of other, decidedly non-Heideggerean persuasions—Kantians, exponents of Stoicism—had joined the Nazis just as readily as did the Rector of Freiburg. In other words, it’s not so easy to discern the relationship between thought and politics. There are no moral guarantees. Every work of philosophy or art no doubt has a politics, in the sense that it at least implicitly posits a vision of human nature and society, but the practical political effect of any given work may be either completely null or completely unpredictable. Hence, to judge an author’s work on the sole basis of the author’s or the work’s overt politics is both foolish and useless.

I went into Miller’s biography having only read as much Foucault as anyone with an advanced degree in the humanities was made to read—basically the contents of The Foucault Reader—and had long ago written off the philosopher as a tiresome nihilist whose name every 1980s Anglo-American literary academic invoked to dismiss with maximal sarcasm any liberatory hopes or humane sentiments found in classic novels, poems, and plays. I finished The Passion of Michel Foucault convinced that the philosopher, while his prose isn’t always to my taste and while his views were often stupendously irresponsible, was nevertheless an admirably searching thinker and writer—a man who never rested on his laurels or settled for received ideas, who went on an endless and genuinely brave quest to “think differently.” Did he make grave mistakes? Yes. Anyone who accomplishes anything worthwhile does. Still, as with so many 20th-century writers, I can’t help but think how much more admirable this person would have been had he never gone anywhere near politics.

I began with the question of Foucault’s influence today. Everyone knows we are all Foucauldians now. Miller’s book left me with questions about this certainty, though. How would Foucault fare among the bien-pensant today?

Would a writer who affirmed that “[t]he main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning,” the writer who famously commanded, “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same…[m]ore than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face,” embrace any politics of identity? Insofar as we do have identities, we should get rid of them, because what is an identity for Foucault except the tissue of confining discourses the powers of our time have woven around us?

I think, too, of his late-life realization that liberalism was the best protection for whatever vitality lay under institutional power. What could be more unfashionable if not utterly impermissible on today’s left? The practical political implications must give us pause. Writing in two center-right publications, the scholar Blake Smith suggests, first, that Foucault, were he still with us in 2020, would side with those protesting against pandemic lockdowns, on the grounds that the protestors are challenging statist power over life, and, second, that Foucault would side against those toppling statues and monuments to protest white supremacy, on the grounds that they are enabling and abetting an identitarian “race war.”

I introduce these provocations not to endorse them, but as a thought experiment about how well we understand our traditions and their consequences. We can’t take the classics for granted, not even the paradoxical classics of a revolutionary heritage. Miller quotes Foucault’s highly literary motive in opening Discipline and Punish with the famously nightmarish and novelistic scene of the regicide Damiens’ execution:

The opening pages are a perfect example. Anonymous yet uncanny, they amount to a commentary “à la Borges,” as Foucault once called it­—a commentary that represents nothing but “the reappearance, word for word (but this time solemn and considered), of that which it comments upon.” As he explained, the “novelty” (and philosophical burden) of such a commentary lies “not in what is said, but in the occasion for its return,” its curious repetition, its loving reiteration…

Foucault’s initial quest was to dissolve his identity in ecstatic practices, literarily and bodily, that could not be assimilated to any function, norm, or routine. He later came to believe that the minimal self or substance beneath power and discourse could be shaped as a work of art. He died not as a revolutionary but as an aesthete.