The Real Foucault

tags: cultural history, Michel Foucault, Critical Theory

Michael C. Behrent is a history professor at Appalachian State University. He is the coeditor of Foucault and Neoliberalism and is working on a book on the young Foucault.

Suddenly, it seems, everyone has a lot to say about Michel Foucault. And much of it isn’t pretty. After enjoying a decades-long run as an all-purpose reference point in the humanities and social sciences, the French philosopher has come in for a reevaluation by both the right and the left.

The right, of course, has long blamed Foucault for licensing an array of left-wing pathologies. Some conservatives have even made Foucault a catchall scapegoat for ills ranging from slacker nihilism to woke totalitarianism. But a strange new respect is emerging for Foucault in some precincts on the right. Conservatives have flirted with the notion that Foucault’s hostility to confessional politics could make him a useful shield against “social justice warriors.” This presumption was strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Foucault’s critique of “biopolitics”—his term for the political significance assumed by public-health and medical issues in modern times—provided a handy weapon for attacking liberal fealty to scientific expertise.

As Foucault’s standing has climbed on the right, it has fallen on the left. A decade ago, left attention focused on whether Foucault’s discussions of neoliberalism in the 1970s suggested that his philosophical commitments harmonized with the emergent free-market ideology: hostile to the state, opposed to disciplinary power, and tolerant of behaviors previously deemed immoral. (In full disclosure, I contributed to this debate.) Recently, the locus of the leftist critique has, like its conservative counterpart, shifted to cultural politics. Thus the social theorists Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora maintain that Foucault’s politicization of selfhood inspired the confessional antics of “woke culture,” which seeks to overcome societal ills by making the reform of one’s self the ultimate managerial project. At the same time, Foucault’s standing has suffered a debilitating blow in the wake of recent claims that he paid underage boys for sex while living in Tunisia during the 1960s. These charges have brought new attention to places in his writing where—like some other radicals of his era—he questioned the need for a legal age of consent.

What is going on here? Why does Foucault now feel like our contemporary, almost forty years after his death? Why are leftists turning against him? And why are some conservatives adopting him?

First, the current debate over the political implications of Foucault’s thought is symptomatic of our off-kilter politics, in which populists style themselves as countercultural radicals. Second, our high-octane public discourse draws increasingly on ideas that used to be confined to the academy or rarefied intellectual circles. This is certainly true of progressive conceits—white privilege, gender theory, critical race theory—but it also bears out on the right, as seen in young conservatives’ increasing familiarity with the canons of nationalist and even fascist thought. As academic culture seeps into political debate, it is no surprise that a thinker of Foucault’s stature would be thrown into the mix.

Third, and most important, the early twenty-first century has become Foucauldian. Consider the topics that Foucault helped to pioneer as objects of philosophical reflection: mental illness, public health, gender and transgender identities, normalization and abnormality, surveillance, selfhood. Once confined to the margins of political thought, these issues have become major preoccupations with important stakes in everyday life, in the Western world and beyond.

Read entire article at Dissent