“Did Foucault invent fisting?”

“Did Foucault invent fisting?”

This was a question I was once asked by an anthropology student in our department. I quote it today because it’s symptomatic of the often legendary or rumor-laden mythology that sometimes surrounds Foucault’s private life, particularly when it comes to sex and homosexuality.

By way of commenting on the story that the University of Michigan is thinking of changing its gay support group name to be more inclusive (as predictably decried by Andrew Sullivan here) this guy offers us the following potted history of the politics of homosexuality, concluding:

Then, Saint Michel Foucault happened on the scene with his death from AIDS in 1984. Foucault’s original claim to fame was Archeology of Knowledge, published in 1971. He lectured at U.C. Berkeley as a visiting professor during the Radical Sixties, crossing into San Francisco’s Miracle Mile of S&M extremism. He and his lover back in Paris seemed quite “ordinary,” but according to Edmund White, Foucault “turned into a S&M slave” for other S&M leather men to gang fist him while trashing Folsom Street’s more derelict bathhouses and backrooms. According to White, Foucault did not contract AIDS by being fisted or wasted (he sure could have, Edmund).

While “intellectually” a historian by profession, Foucault ventured into some provocative areas with his corpus, indicting penology, psychology, and criminalization of aberrant behavior. While few read his most promising work of 1971, many became enmeshed with his relational ontology of binary differences, male/female, straight/queer, sadist/masochist, gay/lesbian, etc. And since many gays and lesbians major in English language and literature, this Postmodern bullshit from France is the elite nonsense de jour. Ironically, Foucault is not a Postmodernist, but a structuralist, from which springs his Relational Ontology in a schizo-affective, S/M binary sort of way.

I only quote this rubbish extensively in order to make the point that some people seem all too happy to pass comment on work that they have a stunning unfamiliarity with. Also to point out that this is another example of something I’ve noted before, that Foucault is simultaneously not read (eg., “no one reads him any more”), and yet exerts a massive influence on the gullible.

No one is forced to read Foucault (or to like his work) but it seems to me that if you’re going to offer forceful opinions (“bullshit,” and whatever a schizo-affective “relational ontology” is supposed to be) you might want to know more about him than whatever Edmund White said of him in a couple of sentences.

10 Responses

  1. For an academic, you are not a very careful reader.

    I clearly wrote that Foucault was a structuralist, and that postmodernism is bullshit. Indeed, John Searle, a great admirer of Foucault, wrote “postmodernism gives bullshit a bad reputation.” Perhaps you do not know enough about French Intellibabble to distinguish was even English theory students do.

    Foucault’s schizo-affective S&M behavior is well-known to those of us who sadly came into contact with him on his San Francisco’s Folsom haunts. He could be a pathetic drug-crazed slave acting in the most humiliating manner one could only charitably characterize as a severe psychic disturbance and deviance. Sucking-sidewalks at 4 a.m. stoned out of his mind wandering out of the Barracks was not a pretty picture.

    His aberrant psychosexual traits aside, his “Archeology” remains a great work; subsequent writings are merely informative. His seminal work prepared the groundwork for social constructionism (weak version), and his indictments of the Psyche Industry over the ages remains true to today. His Relational Ontology, which permeates all his writings, has been co-opted by those who READ “power” relations INTO his work. You might want to read his essay, “What Is Enlightenment?” to discover “power” relations was a marginal interest.

    While Postmodernism is bullshit, Foucault is not a postmodernist. Duh? And try to read more closely so that you do not misstate my comments.

  2. Well, Foucault is actually normally viewed as a post-structuralist. I can’t think of any contemporary scholar who views him as a structuralist. Foucault also famously denounced any claims that he was a structuralist and even removed the few uses of the word “structure” in his writing, from re-editions of the French editions of “Naissance de la clinique”/”The Birth of the Clinic” and “Les mots et les choses”/”The Order of Things,” in order to be very clear that his work is not a contribution to structuralist discourse.

    Further, as someone who has studied and written about Foucault’s entire work, including not just all his books, but his articles, interviews, and lectures, “Relational Ontology,” also as far as I know, is not a phrase that Foucault ever uses.

    It is also certainly not true that “L’archeologie du savoir”/”The Archaeology of Knowledge” made Foucault famous. Today it is probably his least read work. He really became famous nearly ten years earlier, with the publication of his first major work “Histoire de la folie”/”Madness and Civilization.” His fame was then firmly and completely established with the publication of his third major work “Les mots et les choses”/”The Order of Things,” which was actually a best-seller in France, despite being a dense intellectual book. “L’archeologie du savoir”/”The Archaeology of Knowledge” followed both these works by several years.

  3. I certainly do not want to denigrate or humiliate anyone, but some people seem as fundamentalist as their Pentecostal and Evangelical counterparts. It would be linguistically “pure” to assert that Foucault used relational “ontology,” since he was not a philosopher (which did not prevent his rampant misuse of “epistemology, ethics, and logic” — both linguistically and conceptually — but hey, he forgot to use “ontology.” Just like Evangelicals cannot find the word “trinity” and therefore deny Christianity’s central doctrine. Believe me. Relational Ontology is all Foucault is about. Only a literalist would make such a starkly inane comment. But we have plenty of them.

    When you can tell the rest of us the difference between a “structuralist” and a “post-structuralist,” then let us all know. Yes, we all know “post” means “after,” but after “what,” means “what?” French intellectual psychobabble is linguistically coy, that way no one can pin them down. Lacan. Derrida. Butler, Lyotard, etc., prize the incoherency of their rhetoric of indeterminacy, that’s why only English Departments suffer their nonsense on this side of the Pond.

    Alas, Foucault was not so obscure. And his Archeology is indeed a seminal work that intelligent people can prize for its boldness and prescience. And Relational Ontology is unmistakably his DOMINANT motif. One cannot read a single page of Archeology without making that observation, oh, but “ontology” is foreign to the “post-structuralists” and “postmodernists” who misuse all of English’s other normative language. Like “trinity,” though, it must not be used if it cannot be literally found. On the playground of the clueless and literalist fanatic on Georgia’s deep read clay, perhaps, but not on the West Coast of U.C. Berkeley.

    Is the Deep South so deeply immersed in its own literalism and obscurity? How very QUEER.

    P.S. No, Foucault did not invent FISTING. The Marquis de Sade writes of it, and gay porn showed it before anyone knew a Foucault. The Anvil and Barracks had their slings, with buckets of Crisco. What most of us never understood, why does anyone think FISTING sexy? And if a FIST, what larger apparatus to get you off? How about an ebony six-foot dildo, 18″ diameter. Without the need for crystal meth. How about gang rape? How about torture? How about burning skin, devouring scat, pissing on each other?

    Whatever DEVIANCE leads men to behave in such a aberrant fashion also lead Hitler, Himmler, Stalin, Mao, and other fucks to annihilate millions of people for their twisted inverted “pleasure.” But make NO mistake. GAYS are not QUEER. QUEERS are sick! Even if intellectually brilliant, such deviance is not GAY. Gays are biologically normal; Queers are DEVIANTS. Queer Literalists are no different than their Evangelical brethren, seeking out prostitutes, brothels, and other-abuse. But DEVIANTS all. Get help, but not from the Psyche folk that even Foucault despised. Or did you MISS that too?

    • For someone who whines a lot about “psychobabble” as rhetoric that appears convincing but is really BS, you commit the largest fallacy of all: concluding based on the fact that you don’t enjoy fisting that no one does.

  4. Generally (and in a very brief and cursory definition) structuralism is understood to the be study of underlying static systems of meaning or discourse that may define a particular text, culture, artifact, practice, etc. Whereas post-structuralism questions the essentializing claim that any culture or practice can be reduced to a single underlying system of meaning or discourse. Post-structuralism still examines these sorts of systems of meaning and discourse, but sees them as shifting, unstable, sometime contradictory or incommensurate with each other, and often in tension.

    A quick searh of the internet turns up many resources defining this distinction as well, including books on the subject. They may not agree exactly with my general definition above, but the topic of structuralism, as distinguished from post-structuralism, is hardly obscure or controversial.

    I certainly would not insist that a person’s work cannot be analyzed with terms other than those used in the work itself. But “relational ontology” is not a standard philosophical concept, as far as I know. So it is difficult to see how this is obviously the sort of philosphy Foucault engages in, when it has no standard meaning nor any clear meaning here. Perhaps you could define it. It would also be more meaningful if you could site a passage from Foucault’s work that you think represents “relational ontology” and explain in terms of that passage how a “relational ontology” is being evoked by Foucault. This phrase could be meaningful, but it would need a lot more explanation to make it obvious that it applies to Foucault’s work.

    Anyway, I am not the owner of this blog (just a reader) and I actually got my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, so if place defines authority, as you seem to think, I certainly bear all the authority you ascribe to yourself.

  5. Well I am the owner of this blog and comments are moderated until content can outweigh insults.

  6. I utterly loved this thread, 2 years after the fact!

  7. The Introduction to Foucault’s THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE includes these words: “What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing—with a rather shaky hand–a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform my itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again.”

    Isn’t this a literal description of fisting at a gay sex club during the late ’70s or early ’80s?

    • Foucault was liked to tell people that fistfucking was the only sexual practice invented over the course of the 20th Century, but neither he nor anybody ever claimed that he invented fisting. He was into fisting and studied its history. Leo Bersani told me once that Foucault’s favorite sex club down South of Market was the Slot, a major epicenter of fisting from from the time Jack Haines opened it to the time the city closed it down prior to the 1984 Democratic Presidential convention. Since South of Market is being designated a cultural heritage site I suggest the the sidewalk in front of where the Slot used to be should be marked by its own a cultural heritage plaque. It was a laboratory of sexual experimentation.

  8. […] my curiosity and delved more deeply into portraits of Foucault’s personal life, the “rumor-laden mythology” that surrounds his life as an incorrigible submissive and highly deviant academic in San […]

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