[ D. Seiple Liberalism ]


Foucault’s  Masked Modernism





 D. Seiple   © 2002 



*     *     *

Expressing their thoughts in words of which they are not the masters, enclosing them in verbal forms whose historical dimensions they are unaware of, men believe that their speech is their servant and do not realize that they are submitting themselves to its demands.[1]


After nearly a century of going their separate ways, Anglo-American and Continental philosophers have been enjoying a remarkable convergence of focus during the last two decades, in what has been labeled “the linguistic turn.”[2]  Michel Foucault is an important figure in these considerations, for a number of reasons.  He participated in making the linguistic turn,[3] and he also seems to have envisioned a clear role for the philosopher.  He, like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, seems to have made some kind of “turn” in his own career, when he began to address ethical issues. Here I intend to indicate what that Foucauldian turn has been.  I think it shows that Foucault’s own mature project is a modernist one.  I also want to say something here about the almost hagiographic status Foucault has assumed among many in the LGBT[4] community.


            Foucault is a difficult writer to grasp.  He reads like a poet who has abandoned poetry in favor of writing about poetry writing.  The problem is: he’s still a poet, and all he has is poetic language – or, in Foucault’s case, all he has is “discourse”--  for saying something that can’t quite be said with the discursive resources he thinks he’s left with.  

            Foucault more than anyone else is perhaps responsible for the vogue now enjoyed by this term “discourse.”  In his so-called “archeological” writings from the ‘60s,[5] he began his “poststructuralist” account of discourse by attending to the discontinuities subtly reflected in language.[6]  Here social science is seen not as the transparent window onto “man” or “human nature,” but as a product of human entrapment in history and physicality.[7] 

The fuller impact of this begins to emerge from Foucault’s “genealogical”
 account of the underlying relations of power.[8]  Language is never simply transparent, in the way once thought in the Classical (early modern) age, just because it shows genealogical traces of power.  Propositional truth for Foucault takes on a Nietzschean significance – as reducible to what Foucault calls “strategies of power” or “games of truth.”  The flux of antagonisms is just all there is to it: no deep meanings or objective reference.[9]

Few notions in Foucault’s writings are as central as this term “power.”  Much of his time in the mid 1970s seems to have been spent trying to explain what he meant by it.  Power is not, he insisted, something had by one person and exercised over another, like the King over the subject.[10]  It is not a “thing to be possessed” at all. It’s a relation.[11]  For “where there is power, there is resistance, and… consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power.”[12]

            Foucault’s point here has been avidly taken up by an entire generation of political activists, especially in the gay movement.  What seems apparent to them – and what has virtually made Foucault a saint for AIDS activists over the past two decades[13] – is the sense that “normalizing discourse” has been brutally oppressive to gay people (and others).  We have been hospitalized, incarcerated or worse, through the “murderous knowledge-effects”[14] of homophobic speech, institutionalized for a time in mainstream psychiatry and still today in much theological anthropology.  Moreover, in liberal democracies up to now, domination has been achieved most effectively through discourse regulated by supposedly benign notions like  “health,” “sanity,” “normality” – and thus all the more difficult to oppose.  The dominant discursive “regime” seduces us into playing its own obfuscating “game of truth.”

But there is hope!  If we refuse to play the game of truth, we can’t be subject to its normalizing regimentation.  Through a relentless hermeneutic of suspicion, transgression and contestation, we can undercut all the discursive pretensions on the part of those who would dominate us. (Camp humor is one form of this.)  A whole generation of Foucauldians have told us that our only real freedom lies in resisting the power of the normalizing regimes that made us who we’ve been, so “the aim of an oppositional politics is therefore not liberation but resistance.”[15] This is pretty much the position of the non-assimilationist wing of queer politics.[16]  (For a further discussion of this, see “Queer Liberalism: Goldstein, Sullivan, and the Great Debate.”[17])  

Nevertheless, Foucault’s politics has not sat all that well with many of the older activists who actually lived through Stonewall.  In his work on sexuality,[18] Foucault declares that “power” is productive as well as repressive,[19]and later on explicitly rejects the identification of those two notions – of “power” and “domination.”[20]  And this has political repercussions.  It seems to put Foucault at odds with an earlier generation of post-Stonewall Gay Liberationists.[21]  For Foucault, it’s not as if our sexuality as “oppressed gay people” needs to be “liberated” at all, because it’s not as if any true sexuality per se is lying “down there anywhere” (Foucault is no sociobiologist.[22])  Our true sexuality isn’t being “repressed.” Sexuality itself (he would say) is a social construct, along with the rest of our culturally assumed identity, and that construction occurs through the incorporation of language in the process of “subjectivation.”  That doesn’t mean that bodies don’t ovulate or ejaculate.  Rather, the meaning of our sexual excitements, including probably the kind of attractions we are subject to, are a product of cultural discourse. 

What ties the phases of Foucault’s writing together is this notion that language is somehow at the bottom of who we are.  In his volumes on the history of sexuality, Foucault talks in fascinating ways about all this, and discourses at some length on the practices of early Christian spiritual formation, whose modern successor has been clinical psychology.[23]  Foucault wants to say that when it comes to our subjectivity, there is just no “there” there: existential phenomenology, psychoanalysis, religious asceticism – nothing is going to give us anything deeper than our discursive normalization creates in us.  This would make us, in a sense, cultural cyborgs who can short-circuit their own programming by a negative feedback loop.

But is this all there is to it?  Foucault in his later work was beginning to think there is more, and here, I think, he was beginning to turn – to turn back, in fact.


*The Turn*


Foucault’s real turn begins not as a break from his earlier work, but as a completion of it, through his interest in subjectivationthe process, in other words, of our own coming to be the persons we historically are.  Our own emergence as selves is not the uncovering of any ontologically pre-packaged essence – here we see Sartre’s lingering influence – but rather the occurrence of a discursive event.  Language can be self-referential for those who employ it, and as such can be ontologically productive.  In referring to ourselves through discourse, we incite ourselves into being.  We become, in our own history, what language calls us to be.[24]

Here we can see something important, and it’s something usually missed.  It’s what I call the Lyotardian turn in Foucault.  For all his standing as the annunciator of postmodernism, Lyotard nevertheless thought that postmodernism was a fascinating but temporary blip on the modernist screen – “a cyclical moment that returns before the emergence of ever new modernisms.”[25] My point is that Foucault, in his late work – cut short by death, before its fullest enunciation – is completing that Lyotardian turn back towards a new modernism.  The challenge that modernity has had to face, is to somehow recover the immutable without denying the ephemeral and contingent. [26]

Foucault is especially interesting at this point, because he’s trying to do both these things at once.  (a) First, as we’ve seen, he’s resisting the totalizing narrative of normalizing culture.[27]  (b) But secondly – and here’s the point usually missed – he has not really foresworn modernist theory altogether.  He has trouble admitting this.  He swerves from project to project, often with more rhyme than theoretical reason.  And yet the results at the end were clear enough.  He was certainly aiming to construct a model for socially alternative self-descriptions, a model that focused not on the content but on the process of producing content -- a model whose essential characteristics would actually allow for self-narrative autonomy on the part of the individual herself, and thus for freedom.[28]  Now it may seem to be an odd charge – or, perhaps, an unlikely compliment – to call Foucault a “modernist.”[29]  The key to this is his notion of “freedom” – not as some abstract metaphysical category, to be sure, but as a “practice.”  Foucault sometimes liked to say that the practice of freedom was the practice of freeing ourselves from our normalized selves.  But if we say no more than this, we miss one of Foucault’s main points.  Freedom is not just a negative attribute.  True, there are no “rules” to follow in becoming “free from ourselves,” because every strategy of truth has its own “regime” of discipline.  We need to follow a strict “method” no more than we need to disclose the repressed authentic self (which, once again, does not exist for Foucault).  Nevertheless, the practice of freedom means something, simply because there is an obvious difference between freedom and unfreedom. And when a thinker allows a binary opposition, you know he’s flirting with a non-postmodernist view of things.

All his points, I think, to an implicit essentialism[30] here when it comes to Foucault’s “care of the self.”  And this is not presented as just one option among others.  Foucault is clearly recommending it, though he is loathe to say so directly.  And though he often puts this as an interrogative rather than a proclamation,[31] Foucault is not just asking some jaunty theoretical question: he means it seriously, and he means to give a serious answer to it. 

His answer has a two-fold dimension, both political and ethical.  Politically, it means “detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.”[32]  Ethically, it means engaging in the practice of self-care, to avoid “the risk of dominating others and exercising a tyrannical power over them.”[33] This two-fold answer opens up a way of looking at Foucault that goes beyond how he’s probably thought of by many gay activists and taught in many gay studies courses.  And despite its avoidance of “liberation” talk, this answer is very much in the spirit of the consciousness-raising groups of the early gay liberation movement, where it was clear that domination, resistance, contestation, and suspicion are not the whole story. 

Simply put, freedom is one kind of power and domination is another kind of power  (“juridico-discursive”[34]).   “Domination” is the notion that has permeated feminist portrayals of patriarchal hegemony.[35]  Freedom, on the other hand, is “a non-disciplinary form of power.”[36] When we speak of our own power, in the practice of freedom, we are speaking about something that is other than domination and more than just resistance to domination.[37]




What kind of “power” is this “freedom”?  I think it has three essential components. 

(1)   Ecstaticism


First, it entails what we might call “Foucault’s ecstaticism[38]: his valorization, even eroticism, of so-called “limit”-experiences,[39] where “arbitrary constraints” get joyfully superceded, so that the fearfulness of the transgression itself gets consumed in the headiness of the bold moment. This is obviously tied to Foucault’s well-known fascination for S/M sexual practices.  It also has to do – depending on the rumor you accept —with Foucault’s allegedly disengaged, even cavalier attitude towards sexual practices during the early AIDS epidemic.[40]  It certainly has lots to do with his fascination over death itself.[41]  This deserves a fuller discussion elsewhere.


(2) The practice of autonomy.


Secondly, freedom is more than just the intensity of an ecstatic moment – obviously more than, say, the joyfulness of eager, NewAge-friendly college students moving to the Village for their first summer of love.[42]  Foucault’s late essay on Kant[43] is also an essay on Baudelaire, whose dadyisme Foucault much admired, and not just for its momentary intensities: “The deliberate attitude of modernity is tied to an indispensable asceticism” – which Foucault elsewhere called “askēsis.”[44]  “To be modern is not to accept oneself as one is in the flux of the passing moments; it is to take oneself as an object of a complex and difficult elaboration” – which is to make one’s body, behavior, and feelings into a work of art.[45]  This obviously involves fashioning oneself into the kind of autonomous subject who can do just that – which is the practice of subjectivation.   


(3) The ethics of subjectivation


a) Truth-telling.  Foucault’s whole genealogical project was based on the idea that everything about the self was socially constructed, including the meanings we subjectively ascribe to our experiences.  Not only are the human sciences, folk psychology,[46] spiritual formation, etc., obviously self-referential --  but the very act of self-reference is seen to be governed entirely by more fundamental forces (viz., games of truth) -- which would seem to mean that our own self-knowledge can’t be transparent to us: what we think we see inside is just a prop of the game being played upon us.[47] 

And yet……. The remarkable fact about Foucault, it seems to me, is that his last college course, in 1984, was in some ways a reversal of all this.  His life’s last work, it seems, was devoted to the ancient practice of truth-telling (parrhésia),[48] as if this were something important for us to incorporate, and not just to resist.  And it is just as interesting that Foucault at the end was favorably contrasting the truth-teller to the rhetorician – the one who represents, as it were, the mere “coincidence of speech with act.”[49] It’s worth asking why he contrasted his own preferred practice to that of the rhetorician, and not the modernist enunciator of totalizing, objectivist discourse.  If he’d wanted to preserve his postmodernist credentials, you’d think he wouldn’t have.

However, from another angle we can see that Foucault’s late view[50] seems to be the logical extension of what he had been saying with regard to the ontological function of discourse.  If one’s life does not embody one’s word (if logos does not fit bios), then either Foucault’s theory is entirely wrong to begin with, or else it really matters, for our own self-making, just how we discourse about ourselves.  And this involves more than just the words we use – rhetoricians use words too.  When it comes to talking in a certain way about ourselves, to invoking the power of language for our own self-creation, this involves resuscitating the old existentialist humanist virtue of seriousness and playing the game of truth, from the “inside.” 

Irony, because it lacks seriousness, does not have the self-making power of the truth game.  The problem with the rhetorician is not that what she says is false, but that she doesn’t really believe it that it’s true.[51]  Thorough-going irony doesn’t let one have such beliefs.  But, Foucault would have to say, one has to believe something about oneself, in order for self-making to occur, and the here the vehicle for the self-making has become truth-telling (parrhésia).[52] 

So Foucault at the end seems to have decided upon this surprising point: that the truth-teller must actually believe (as “true”) what she’s saying about herself.  Social artifacts, including the constructed self, are constructed only within a game of truth, and unless one believes in the “truth” produced in the game, one can’t even play it.  One misses then the chance to care for the self.[53] 

            (b) Normativity.  What shocked his liberal contemporaries was Foucault’s undermining of Enlightenment values – objectivity, rationality, authenticity.[54]  One dominant strand of the Enlightenment held that that values are embedded in the objective reality beneath the flux of history.  This is reflected in the modernist notion, preserved from the pre-modern era,[55] that once we find out who we really are, we generally know the kind of moral practice we should engage.

Admittedly, this has the ominous ring of “unrepressed authenticity” to it, and this flies in the face of what Foucault was saying even in the late 70s.  . But in the end – as I read him -- Foucault would have been ready to grant something like this. He still finds it difficult to say that explicitly.  But he does say it.  He says that the practice of freedom brings with it not only an “ethos” towards oneself, but a certain kind of relatedness to others. By the last year of his life, Foucault would be agreeing with the interviewer who announces that the care of the self “always aims for the well-being of others” and that this involves a non-dominant exercise of power.[56] Foucault himself calls this “ethical.”  By attending to our selves, at the level of what Foucault’s favorite Christian Fathers would undoubtedly call “spiritual,”[57] we become the kind of persons who are able to treat others non-hegemonically.  For “if you take proper care of yourself, that is, if you know ontologically what you are…you cannot abuse your power over others.”[58] He’d just have trouble explicitly stating that this is something we really “should” do.




Foucault wanted to combine the task of truth-telling with the genealogy of the subject, whereby we tell the truth about what we have historically become.   We are “post”-Enlightenment beings – not in the sense that we are beyond modernism, but in the sense that we are constituted by its awakened reverence for human autonomy.[59] In one of his last essays, even though he explicitly rejects some aspects of the Enlightenment and the entire “thematic of humanism,”[60] Foucault clearly valorizes a humanistic stance he calls the “attitude of modernity.”[61]This is not what people – even his own disciples  -- usually remember about Foucault.  But at the end of the day, Foucault does have implicit and minimal but still essentialist notion of what freedom means.  For “what is Foucault laying open for us, if not a truth which frees us for self-making?”[62] 

Here I think is what Foucault essentially wants to say:  He wants to say that “freedom” is a condition of self-production in which the fear of one’s own limitations no longer coerces us into exercising domination over others; one whose “will to truth” does not retain an “invidious universality” underwritten by a  “vocation of exclusion.”[63] In just this sense, freedom is an exercise of “mobile” power relations that “allow the participants to adopt strategies” to avoid states of domination.[64] Ethically speaking, taking care of oneself – which he otherwise describes in terms of “seeking one’s salvation”[65] -- is the specific practice of self-creation which frees a person to take care of others as well, even if that means nothing more than renouncing all abusive domination over them.[66]  Freedom, Foucault says, is “the ontological condition of ethics.”  And ethics is the way that freedom unfolds when “informed by reflection” – by the self-attentiveness of the philosopher.[67]

In that case, the notion of “taking care of the self” can be given some transparent and fixed assignment in any of the diverse language games that make self-creation ontologically possible.  Its parameters must be minimalist enough so as not to exclude any of the non-dominating discourses that culture might invent.  But just because its discursive role is fixed, the discursive signification of its sign (i.e., the very meaning of the term ‘care of the self’) is also more or less firmly fixed.[68]  This is certainly a move that many, many postmodernists, unlike Foucault himself, would resist.  

So Foucault had finally found much in modernism to admire – especially its self-referentiality and its emphasis on freedom.  This is why he refused to position himself as an opponent of the Enlightenment.[69] Yet others will be doing that positioning, pro or con, on his behalf.  For Foucault stands to the twentieth century much as Kant did to the eighteenth: his work is a transition, so that there will be a pre-Foucauldian and post-Foucauldian world, just as there has been a pre- and post-Kantian.  And hordes of erstwhile and contestation-ridded disciples will be vying for his legacy.




D. Seiple


















Bernauer, James W. "Michel Foucault's Ecstatic Thinking." In The Final Foucault, edited by James Bernauer and David Rasmussen, 45-82. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1987.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Edited by John T. McNeill. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

Dreyfus, Hubert l., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Flynn, Thomas. "Foucault as Parrhesiast: His Last Course at the College de France (1984)." In The Final Foucault, edited by James Bernauer and David Rasmussen, 102-18. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. "The Birth of Biopolitics," translated by Robert Hurley and  others. In Ethics: Subectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 73-79. New York: The New Press, 1997.

———. "The Discourse on Language," translated by Rupert Swyer. In The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, 215-37. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971.

———. "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," translated by P. Aranov and D. McGrawth. In Ethics: Subectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 281-301. New York: The New Press, 1997.

———. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1978.

———. "The Masker Philosopher," translated by Robert Hurley and  others. In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 321-28. New York: The New Press, 1997.

———. "On the Genealogy of Ethics." In Ethics: Subectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 253-80. New York: The New Press, 1997.

———. The Order of Things. New York: Random House, 1970.

———. "Subjectivity and Truth," translated by Robert Hurley and  others. In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 87-93. New York: The New Press, 1997.

———. "Truth and Power," translated by Colin Gordon, et al. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, 109-33. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

———. "Two Lectures," translated by Colin Gordon, et al. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, 78-108. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

———. The Use of Pleasure. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.

———. "What is Enlightenment?" translated by Robert Hurley and  others. In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 303-19. New York: The New Press, 1997.

Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Mdernity. Translated by Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1990.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Patterson, Stephen J. The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus. Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1993.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, 227-54. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Seiple, D.  “Michel Foucault and the Totalizing Discourse of September 11th.”  Unpublished paper.

Taylor, Charles. "Foucault on Freedom and Truth." In Foucault: A Critical Reader, edited by David Couzens Hoy, 69-102. New York: Blackwell, 1986.


* D.Seiple received his M.T.S. at Drew Theological School and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia.  His publications include articles in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Critical Texts, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and The Dictionary of Literary Biography.   He is co-editor (with Casey Haskins) of Dewey Reconfigured (SUNY Press), and the working title for his forthcoming book is “Spiritual Autonomy: The Philosophy of Christian Neo-Liberalism.”  D.Seiple is an Independent Scholar and researcher at Union Theological Seminary, and WebEditor of Philosophy’s Labyrinth (www.dseiple.com).   He is reachable at dis3@columbia.edu.

[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Random House, 1970), 297.

[2] An emphasis on the importance of language, on the context and texture and form of linguistic usage, has permeated the work of the later Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Saussure and Quine, Rorty and Levi-Strauss – just to name a few.  One consequence of this has been a reversal of the tradition role of philosophy – away from epistemology, at least as usually undertaken, and towards… well, towards what?  That, alas, is not altogether clear as yet.  The linguistic turn has also at least seemed to undercut metaphysics as well, precisely because many philosophers nowadays doubt that language can reach beyond itself, to anything more metaphysically robust than just another sign.

[3] However, the turn to language is really (for Foucault) a “demotion of language”: language, once both transparent and performative, became not only an object to be studied like any other, but also the medium in which any such study must be expressed.  So language “always reemerges on the side of the knowing subject – as soon as that subject expresses what he knows” (Foucault, The Order of Things, 296).

[4] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered

[5] Especially in The Order of Things and The Archeology of Knowledge.

[6] Foucault, like most of his contemporaries on the French left, became increasingly disillusioned with the French Communist Party by the early 1960s, and was also reacting against the existentialist humanism of Sartre, at just the time when Sartre was making his own “turn” toward the Maoism of his later years.  Now the problem with all of these late modernist intellectual currents, according to Foucault (and Deleuze and others), was closely related to Lyotard’s heralded incredulity toward “metanarratives”: these were the grand schemes of history, like Marx’s story about the march of the proletariat, or less radical but still grand descriptions of the world based on unified empirical science or humanism – which had all been contenders for the crown of privileged modernist narration.  The famous problem with this is that every metanarrative presupposes a totalizing (and, Foucault would eventually insist, a totalitarian) application of language, a “universal” point of view.  Marxists were notorious at this, and the history of the Left is strewn with ever more desperate attempts to force the recalcitrant facts of actual history into the ideal framework evoked by Marx’s single-minded vision of historical materialism.  The same was less obviously true of empirical science, but Kuhn and Feyerabend would soon be trying to change that with their own stories of radical ruptures and discontinuities in science (as Stephen J. Gould would also do more specifically for evolutionary theory).

[7] Our very forms of knowledge, always rendered linguistically, are contingent products of intersecting cultural energies that ebb and flow; and this makes the human sciences themselves bound to plunge into the discontinuity of history and disintegrate over time.  They will never perfect themselves into a theory and practice of global human intelligence, as projected even today by much science fiction and film.

[8] Foucault had glimmerings of this early on, and took it up again in the early 70s after rereading Nietzsche.  There are (he says in the “Discourse”) certain “rules of exclusion” by which discourse operates.  We are not, for instance, permitted to say just anything in polite company.  We are encouraged to regard the so-called “insane” persons in an exclusionary way, and we encouraged (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) to speak about things in certain “truthful” ways. The latter exclusion – the will to truth and the exclusion of falsehood – is especially potent, because it is “masked” by its own pretensions: it claims to be transparent, to offer us a window onto the landscape of reality itself, and while our attention is diverted to what’s being described, we miss the forces of the underlying desire and power that conjure it all up to begin with.  See Michel Foucault, "The Discourse on Language," translated by Rupert Swyer, in The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971), 219.

[9] Though what about the words we use to say all this?  Do those have any extra-linguistic reference??

[10] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1978), 94.

[11] And it is in some sense what the British idealists used to call an “internal relation” – one whose parts are in some way constituted by their place in a complex of elements. 

[12] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, 95.

[13] David M. Halperin, Saint Foucault (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 16.

[14] Halperin, Saint Foucault, 150.

[15] Halperin, Saint Foucault, 18.

[16] Unfortunately (perhaps) this view has seemed less and less typical of a community that’s gotten more and more hooked on “Will and Grace.”  We are pretty “normal” after all (many of us happily think), and so the queer left’s remarkably single-minded passion for remaining on the outside is hard for many to fathom.  (And there are certainly some real troubles with the gay left, at least in its Foucauldian form.  Let’s remember that no normalizing discourse is beyond the target range for resistance – even the language one needs to remain a member of a progressive political community.  So this might account for at least some of the fractiousness of gay political groups.)  Nevertheless, I think it would be a mistake to miss the inspirational force behind this queer vision.  Taken to its limit, this is a sublime vision of not being tied to the coercion of our own mortality, because, as we shall see, it rests on the power to transgress the fear of our own limitations.

[17] http://www.dseiple.com

[18] La Volonté de savoir (translated incongruously as Introduction to the History of Sexuality, Vol 1).

[19] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, 10-12.

[20] Michel Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," translated by P. Aranov and D. McGrawth, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 283.

[21] They do not always notice this – e.g., See Richard Goldstein, The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right (Verso, 2002).  In cases of social marginalization – pre-Stonewall homosexuals, for example -- it does not turn out for Foucault that anyone’s “true self” was being violently “suppressed” and in need of personal/political “liberation.” The situation seems in a way even more insidious (or perhaps more interesting) than that. He’s saying that many of us have been created, by culture, into beings whose entire identity just is the tangled tension of the closet. There are probably fewer of us like that in New York, proportionally, than, say, in Macon, Georgia, but for many even now, personal freedom can be exercised only by “submission to….insidious forms of authority, to even more deeply internalized mechanisms of constraint” (Halperin, Saint Foucault, 19). We are made into who we are by accepting certain culturally constructed “truths” about ourselves.

[22] He would certainly think that our recent preoccupation over the “gay gene” will be no more lasting than the old notion of a pre-formed “human soul”

[23] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1985), 5.

[24] Here the Heideggerian resonances are unmistakable.  For a brief account of Foucault’s early interest in Heidegger, see James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 46-50.

[25] Thus, although he has polemically endorsed the slogan of a ‘postmodernism’ and has been involved in the defense of some of its more controversial productions, Lyotard is in reality quite unwilling to posit a postmodernist stage radically different form the period of high modernism and involving a fundamental historical and cultural break with this last.”  Frederic Jameson, Introduction to Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1984), xvi.

[26] See Foucault’s discussion of Baudelaire in “What is Enlightenment?”  Baudelaire, the poet of modern life, wrote that modernity, especially in art, shows itself in two “halves” – “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent,” and “the eternal and immutable.”  This unstable polarity marks the various forms of modernity.  Prior to modernity, European culture had for the most part renounced the contingent.  The world was a veil of tears, perhaps, or a screen of illusion, and our true home was in some other realm, beyond earthly time.  With modernity, we became aware of the fact that we ourselves are “moderns”: we, as individual selves, are entirely subject to historical contingency; the parameters of our existence are set by evolutionary biology, and contemporary culture directs us even more narrowly.   The implication here is that we ourselves – our inner makeup as well as our outward destiny -- are not obviously grounded in anything but flux.  The course of history is radically unstable, and this alone makes us giddy (or anxious) about our own position in the maelstrom: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold” (Yeats).

[27] He does not accept the domineering strategies of social organization that frequently do violence to the innocent.   And Foucault’s public advocacy on behalf of the incarcerated or otherwise socially oppressed makes him very much a man of his word: for on occasion, he actually practiced behind street barricades what he preached in the classroom. See Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 178ff.

[28] Moreover, this model is a model Foucault exemplified in his own life’s practice. It is a self-referential model.  In this sense, Foucault is very much a product of  “liberalism” – by which he meant not a coherent doctrine (“the social contract,” etc), but “a form of critique on governmental practice.” Despite his attempt to mask it, he has not given up an essentialist theory of the individual good.  He ties it to freedom from coercion -- and that is the basis for his overall “critique of governmentality.”  What’s really a challenge is to see how Foucault, still consistent with his own historicist assumptions, can give any content to that vision of the good.  How, in other words, can he fulfill the modernist project of reaching the immutable behind the ephemera.  On his view of liberalism, see Michel Foucault, "The Birth of Biopolitics," translated by Robert Hurley and  others, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 77.

[29] One strand of high modernism after all is the fixation on the self through the disclosure of subjectivity – through the recovery of “man’s unnoticed everyday self-interpretation,” and Foucault was famous for his Nietzschean view on this: our notions about ourselves are likely to be self-deluded and deserve our suspicion rather than our earnest self-disclosure.  On this, see Hubert l. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), xxiii.  But strand in Foucault’s thinking I’m following up here was moving in a different direction, even as it made use of that same suspiciousness.  One might even say here, in a Hegelian vein, toward the Aufhebung of suspicion itself – though Foucault was not in general fond of “dialectics.”

[30] This is a notorious term of opprobrium among postmodernists generally and many feminists, suggesting the very totalizing discourse that allows for exclusivity and marginalization.  But do all essentialisms allow for that?  Whether some essentialist discourses have been exclusivist is hardly even controversial. The question is whether all essentialist discourses are necessarily exclusivist – a claim which presupposes the very essentialism supposedly at issue.

[31] “Knowing thyself” he says is really “a much broader interrogation…What should one do with oneself.  What work should be carried out on the self?  How should one ‘govern oneself’ by performing actions in which one is oneself the objective of those actions…?”  See Michel Foucault, "Subjectivity and Truth," translated by Robert Hurley and  others, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 87.

[32] Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power," translated by Colin Gordon, and others, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 133.

[33] Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," 288.

[34] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, 82.

[35] Based on the claim, for example, that “women are ‘innately’ sexually oriented only toward men, and…that the lesbian is simply acting out of her bitterness toward men.” See Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and David M. Halperin (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 229.

[36] Michel Foucault, "Two Lectures," translated by Colin Gordon, and others, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 108.

[37] Michel Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?" translated by Robert Hurley and  others, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 315.

[38] James W. Bernauer, "Michel Foucault's Ecstatic Thinking," in The Final Foucault, ed. James Bernauer and David Rasmussen (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1987), 45-82.

[39] Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?" 315.

[40]“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” (Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 375).

[41] In “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom” (p 289)  he agrees with his interviewer’s comment that “the fear of death, of finitude, of being hurt, is at the heart of the care of the self.”  Foucault’s concern over death took an ironic turn in his own life. Michel Foucault died early on in the AIDS epidemic.  It is not absolutely clear that he knew he had been infected, but the record indicates both that he did die of the disease, and that his family tried to suppress that fact.(Miller, p. 23). We know that he knew about AIDS.  We know that rumors spread about his allegedly intentional carelessness with sex in those days (Miller, p. 375), when it was so easy to have sex without thinking about the danger – or, in Foucault’s case allegedly, by eroticizing it.   So there are lots of rumors and charges about Foucault’s last days ,Miller . pp  24-5) and we don’t really know for sure whether any of it is true.  And here is one of Foucault’s great successes.  Foucault’s entire career can be read as one grand effort to make us “interrogate” normal ways of thinking.  He didn’t think that authorship, any more than Truth, was a very useful notion.  And here we are, debating whether we really can formulate a “true” biography of Foucault the man.  He would have been pleased.

[42] Foucault puts the same point this way: The practitioner of freedom is more than just a Baudelairean flâneur – the “idling, strolling spectator,” a collector of aesthetic curiosities to enhance his storehouse of memories. See Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?" 311.

[43] Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?"

[44] Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, 9.

[45] Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?" 311-12.

[46] E.g. New Age spirituality

[47] So we cannot turn to existential phenomenology, whereby the hermeneutics of everyday self-reflection is supposed to disclose our true authenticity.  Likewise, Foucault regarded the Christian practice of “confession” as a strategy for inciting the confessor to make himself over, ever more exactingly into the image prescribed by the normalizing discourse of the Christian community.  Foucault for a long time held strictly to that kind of view.

[48] It is not entirely clear all that Foucault meant by this term, but we do have an account of that last course in careful interpretive notes taken from one of his students.  See Thomas Flynn, "Foucault as Parrhesiast: His Last Course at the College de France (1984)," in The Final Foucault, ed. James Bernauer and David Rasmussen (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1987), 102-18.

[49] Flynn, "Foucault as Parrhesiast: His Last Course at the College de France (1984)," 103.

[50] See his apparently different take on the Sophist rhetoricians (Foucault, "The Discourse on Language," 218).

[51] "The rhetorician, in Foucault’s view, was the open contrary of the parrhesiast….he did not have to believe what he said.”  See Flynn, "Foucault as Parrhesiast: His Last Course at the College de France (1984)," 103.

[52] In James Miller’s controversial biography, we also have what we might call an “parrhesiastic” interpretation of Foucault’s last days, constructed out of an earnest eyewitness account by Hervé Guibert.   (“…when the philosopher [Foucault] confided on his deathbed in Hervé Guibert…. Foucault, in effect, was conceding his own inability, when all was said and done, to escape from the duty to tell the truth – above all, the truth about who he was, and what he had become” -- Miller, p. 358). Well, who knows?  There are serious difficulties in trying to reconstruct the personal life of such a self-consciously masked man. (See, for example, Michel Foucault, "The Masker Philosopher," translated by Robert Hurley and  others, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 321-28.)  But I think it is fair to say that in some way or other, the genealogy of self has an essential relation to this kind of truth-telling.  And how could it not?  How can we be clear about what games of truth are running our lives unless we own up to what our discursively structured motives really are?  In this respect he certainly is resisting one aspect of modernity – viz., the masking function that modernity has typically performed.  Perhaps he is even trying to reach back (with Nietzsche) behind modernity, to the Greek poets, for whom language was “not merely announcing what was going to occur, but contributing to its actual event, carrying men along with it and thus wearing itself into the fabric of fate” (see the “Discourse,” p. 218) But even if that is one strand of modernism he rejects, at the same time we see  Foucault reinstating modernist “seriousness.”

[53] And this seems to mean that, sometimes at least, the hermeneutics of self-reflection do not fail after all, because self-interpretation, however suspiciously performed, does eventually achieve a productive story about one’s own constructed identity.

[54] Halperin, Saint Foucault, 18ff.  See also Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Mdernity, translated by Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 238-92.

[55] See, for example, reference to the Imago Dei (image of God) supposed to be inscribed in humankind. E.g., John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, edited by John T. McNeill, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I, iii, 1.

[56] Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," 287.

[57] Foucault admittedly tended to characterize Christian spiritual formation in negative terms: “insofar as individual salvation is channeled—to a certain extent, at least – through a pastoral institution that has the care of souls as its object, the classical care of the self disappeared, that is, was integrated and lost a large part of its autonomy.” (See  Michel Foucault, "On the Genealogy of Ethics," in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 278).  In fact this has always been a site of contestation among various “Christians,” beginning at least with the first-century struggle between teacher (didaskalos) and bishop (episopos) – on this see, e.g., Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1993), 171ff.  One needs to be careful, in any Foucauldian account, of totalizing such an account into a one-sided description of the multi-centered power-relation. 

[58] Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," 288.

[59] Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?" 313.

[60] Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?" 314. However, even this latter point is controversial, and I think it is right to say that his last work’s preoccupation with agency and self-construction shows that “Foucault’s polemic with the humanists had turned to dialogue” (Flynn, "Foucault as Parrhesiast: His Last Course at the College de France (1984)," 115).

[61] Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?" 309.

[62] Charles Taylor, "Foucault on Freedom and Truth," in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. David Couzens Hoy (New York: Blackwell, 1986), 69-102.

[63] Foucault, "The Discourse on Language," 220.

[64] Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," 283.

[65] Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," 289.

[66] A modernist like Kant would say similarly something like: “We have a moral obligation to treat others as ends in themselves, as autonomous beings worthy of respect… [etc]”

[67] Foucault, "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," 284.

[68] The extent to which this also involves literally shared phenomenological content among self and other remains an open question.  Even to raise this question, however, indicates how far we have traveled back from post-modernism.

[69] Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?"