Review: Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida

Review in the LRB (login req’d) of Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by William McCuaig.

Among other observations in this long review, it is remarked:

It is a terrible irony of the Foucauldian anti-medicalisation argument that Foucault himself died of Aids at the age of 57, that he didn’t practise safe sex, and didn’t know about HIV transmission until a few months before his death. (It is even said that Foucault initially discounted Aids as a mythical homosexual-targeting disease invented by the medical superstructure to control male homosexuality; in this sense, he was a literal victim of his own conspiracy theories.) In other words, we might all have benefited had Foucault undergone some ‘medicalisation’ and ‘hygienisation’.

Yes, if what Batuman says is true then that is an irony–but don’t we need to separate out “anti-medicalisation” from anti-normalization? Foucault after all went to hospital (Salpêtrière) and took advantage of medical services during his illness. And I suppose it will not be known for sure outside his friends and family how much it was clear to them and to Foucault that this was AIDS (Macey says several of Foucault’s colleagues understood it was AIDS); remember this was 1984 when it was still called the “gay cancer” and as such rather unbelievable–why would a cancer target gays and only gays? Foucault was certainly not the only one to wonder about this–if we even grant he did so (citations please).She also repeatedly accuses Foucault of being a conspiracy theorist.

In fact, Foucault was rather accused of being “silent” about AIDS (by Jean-Paul Aron for example). Foucault’s partner, Daniel Defert also created AIDES after Foucault’s death, in partnership with the UK Terrence Higgins Trust and the UN HIV/AIDS program (UNAIDS). AIDES is (according to Wikipedia) the largest NGO in France working on HIV and I don’t think it supports a thesis of being “anti-medical.”

I’ve read through some of Elif’s blog and its dry, witty sense of humor appeals to my quirky side. And perhaps Batuman would agree with the remarks above, for she writes of Roudinesco’s treatment of Canguilhem:

In her first chapter, ‘George Canguilhem: A Philosophy of Heroism’, Roudinesco relates Canguilhem’s work as a doctor in the French Resistance to The Normal and the Pathological, the influential book in which he challenged the prevailing definition of normality. Canguilhem defined health as the ‘stable’ condition of life, and pathology as a reaction or a process rather than a ‘fixed constitution’. Roudinesco plausibly argues that Canguilhem’s thesis was informed by his experience tending to wounded résistants under an occupation which must have presented all the features of an unfathomable pathology. For Canguilhem the maquisard, the Resistance had to be assimilated into the realm of the possible – just as, for Canguilhem the philosopher of medicine, pathology had to be assimilated into the realm of normality.

Overall, the book (and review) might be most interesting for readers of Althusser. Roudinesco, who was friends with him and his wife, whom he murdered, apparently spends some length defending him. Batuman doesn’t make this book sounds appealing, and at the end of the review I’m not much wiser as to what the book is about, except that it is a “Freudo-Marxist biography.”

Anyway, finally we have this:

Sartre would have liked House, in which people get sick from existence rather than essence.

Touché! I’ve never seen House (not having cable TV) but my biggest question is why it stars a British comedian, Hugh Laurie, best known for Blackadder and his show with Stephen Fry…?

The reviewer, Elif Batuman, blogs here.

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