Foucault obituaries

To mark the 23rd anniversary of Foucault’s death yesterday, here is a selection of obituaries.

New York Times, June 2, 1984, Section B; Page 8, Column 5:

Michel Foucault, one of France’s most prominent philosophers and historians, whose writings explored society’s reaction to deviants, died yesterday in the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. He was 57 years old.

Mr. Foucault was hospitalized earlier this month for a neurological disorder, but the cause of his death was not immediately disclosed.

With his books on language, mental illness, crime and sexuality, Mr. Foucault earned wide recognition among philosophers and social scientists and gained a considerable following among European and American intellectuals. He argued that certain ideas, such as madness, delinquency and sexuality, are transformed by society to serve the convenience of social systems. Since 1970, Mr. Foucault had occupied the chair of History of Thought at the College de France in Paris, and had lectured frequently on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mr. Foucault’s name is most often associated with the philosophical school known as structuralism. His writings, as those of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, reject the view that man’s knowledge of the universe is based on observation of the external world. The structuralists argue that man is essentially a thinking animal who lives in a world that is intelligible to him only because he imposes his own order upon his experiences.

In addition to his academic work, Mr. Foucault was active in numerous social causes, including groups that advocated abolition of prisons. He also spoke out against human rights abuses and in favor of homosexual rights.

In a statement released yesterday, Pierre Mauroy, the Prime Minister of France, praised Mr. Foucault as ”one of the great French contemporary philosophers.”

”This great researcher,” he said, ”was also a teacher whose lessons extended far beyond the borders of our country.”

Le Matin:

‘For myself and many of my comrades, Foucault’s work was a key to the elaboration of a new way of acting politically.’

Toni Negri

Washington Post, June 27, 1984, B6:

Michel Foucault, 57, one of France’s best known contemporary philosophers and a leader of the school of structuralism who was a militant homosexual and an intellectual explorer of Western culture’s approach to both madness and sexuality, died June 25 at Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital, where he was being treated for a neurological disorder.

The third volume of his “History of Sexuality” was published two weeks ago. Entitled “Souci de Soi” (“Concern for Self”), it maintains that women have been oppressed by men in all societies throughout history. The series began in 1976 with “La Volonte de Savoir” (“The Will to Know”), followed earlier this year by “L’Usage des Plaisirs,” (“The Use of Pleasure”).

A theme of the volumes was that the pagan pursuit of pleasure, traditional Christian morality and modern licentiousness are derived naturally from the same human needs, but that sexual drive has been regarded as independent of the moral basis of all societies only since the 19th century.

Associated Press:

Foucault became a cult figure among students and intellectuals in Europe and the United States. During the past decade he lectured at major American universities and his Wednesday morning seminars at the prestigious College de France were most often packed.

The third volume of his “History of Sexuality” was published two weeks ago. Entitled “Souci de Soi” (Concern for Self), it maintains that women have been oppressed by men in all societies throughout history.

Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 8, 1984, p. 12:

FROM time to time the French celebrate a great thinker, as if surprised that they are still producing them. For 30 years, Teilhard de Chardin and Jacques Monod were the object of such hero-worship. Michel Foucault is the most recent case. A public spreading out to non-specialists guarantee unhoped-for sales. But the fact that people buy books, though soothing in itself, is no proof they are read or understood.

There were doubts on that score for “Le Phenomene humaine”, “Le Hasard et la necessite” and “Les Mots et les choses”. This could well be the case for Foucault’s last works, “L’Usage des plaisirs” and “Le Souci do soi”. They are less helpful for seeing us through to the end of the 20th century than for sending us back to Plato, Aristotle and Epictectus.It was Baudelaire who summed up the secret of these ambiguous successes: “Admiration,” he noted in “Mon Coeur mis a nu”, “begins where comprehension ends.”

Where Foucault is concerned, this groping admiration finds grounds in his “style”. People were frequently heard to say, when “Les Mots et les choses” began thudding on coffee tables in drawing rooms, that it was tough going but wonderfully written. What was meant by this was that for a philosopher, the author wrote easily, without too much jargon and used well-chosen words and phrases that sounded right. It’s true: Foucault’s prose “swings”, as jazzmen would say. The concern for euphony is ever present. It blazes with intelligence as in that twinkling eye which belied the dejection of the Chaval-like profile and the carefully cultivated tonsure.

But phrasing alone is nothing. Few contemporary philosophers have so established the truth of the saying that “Style makes the man” as he did. Film director Jean-Luc Godard says there is a moral philosophy in a tracking shot; there is more than a moral code in the literary aesthetics of “Les Mots et les choses” and the rest: he makes exacting demands upon himself, something for which our era of self-advertisement has lost the appetite even for the very idea. Foucault had a reputation of being intractable with reporters. Of course! He was the very opposite of what the media look for, against any appropriation of the public, concerned with the truth in the old university tradition and his own personal truth within the framework of this work; he was an ascetic of knowledge, in the sense that ascesis is not glum self-castigation, but erotic enjoyment of knowledge.

The shift in emphasis that Volumes 2 and 3 of “The History of Sexuality” result in are a perfect illustration of this mental discipline.

Foucault, we know, planned to examine the notion of sexuality such as it appears to have been in the 19th century. Along the way, the author considered that the concept of “desiring subject” had not been sufficiently explored in its remote origins. To borrow one of his well-known titles, the “archaeology” of this knowledge was missing. Others would have skimmed through Plato’s “Banquet” and gone back to their business. Not he, even if that risked holding up and upsetting his work and publication schedules.

Foucault was so remarkably different at a time when intellectuals, like politicians, no longer own up to their mistakes or their failings, that he took the trouble to explain he was neither a Hellenist nor a Latinist. This admission, along with other explanations on his change of course, is contained in the preface to “L’Usage des plaisirs”.This text should rank beside the “discours de la Methode” and Claude Bernard’s famous “Introduction a la medecine experimentale” considering the precision, verve and style with which the scholar’s obligations are evoked here.

Foucault does not merely set out to flush a truth out of its hiding place but also attacks its boring, ossifying certainties. With him the pleasure of discovery goes hand in hand with a destabilisation of the self. The phrase takes on the import of a personal confidence when it asks the question: what would be the point of relentlessly looking for knowledge if it only led to noting that one could think “differently”?

I recall Foucault talking in 1982, to his publisher’s representatives, about a collection of “lettres de cachet” (“Desordres de la famille”) that he had prepared with Arlette Farge: “A researcher scarcely finds more than one or two new things during his lifetime, and generally it’s at the beginning. Maybe I’m past the age of original intuitions?”

He said it without affectation or sadness, but with the sparkle of conviction. For the profane, his oeuvre constructed around the same curiosity about the West seen through madness, crime and sexuality is, more than a style of elegant devices, a moral philosophy of intellectual insecurity, an ascesis of distraction.

Bertrand Poirot-Delpech

One Response

  1. So, first day after his death today. 27.

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