What I hate about Foucault
I never met or saw Foucault in the flesh. (He died in 1984.) My low opinion of him is based entirely on his solipsistic, mendacious writing, which has had a disastrous influence on na´ve American academics.
I miss no opportunity to throw darts at Foucault's scrawny haunches because he is the last standing member of the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists, whose work swept into American universities in the 1970s and drove out the home-grown radicalism of our own 1960s cultural revolution. I militantly maintain that the intellectual gurus of my college years -- Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Ginsberg -- had far more vision and substance than did the pretentious, verbose trinity of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault.
Derrida's reputation was already collapsing (thanks to the exposure of his ally Paul de Man as a Nazi apologist) when I arrived on the scene with my first book in 1990. Lacan, however, still dominated fast-track feminist theory, which was clotted with his ponderous prose and affected banalities. The speed with which I was able to kill Lacanian feminism amazes even me. (A 1991 headline in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera blared my Achillean boast, "I and Madonna will drive Lacan from America!")
Though much diminished with the waning of the theory years, Foucault still survives, propped up by wizened queer theorists who crave an openly gay capo in the canon. I base the rhetoric of my anti-Foucault campaign on Cicero's speeches in the Roman Senate against the slick operator and conspirator Catiline ("How long, O Catiline, will you continue to abuse our patience?"). Greek and Roman political history -- about which Foucault knew embarrassingly little -- remains my constant guide.
Yes, I have indeed written at length about my objections to the grossly overpraised Foucault, in a 78-page review-essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," published in 1991 by the classics journal Arion and reprinted in my first essay collection,
"Sex, Art, and American Culture." One of my observations was that Foucault's works are oddly devoid of women. Shouldn't that concern you as a feminist? It is simply untrue that Foucault was learned: He was at a loss with any period or culture outside of post-Enlightenment France (his later writing on ancient sexuality is a garbled mishmash). The supposedly innovative ideas for which his gullible acolytes feverishly hail him were in fact borrowed from a variety of familiar sources, from Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Durkheim and Martin Heidegger to Americans such as sociologist Erving Goffman.
Foucault's analysis of "power" is foggy and paranoid and simply does not work when applied to the actual evidence of the birth, growth and complex development of governments in ancient and modern societies. Nor is Foucault's analysis of the classification of knowledge particularly original -- except in his bitter animus against the Enlightenment, which he failed to realize had already been systematically countered by Romanticism. What most American students don't know is that Foucault's commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Sussurean linguistics (which I reject).
As I have asserted, James Joyce's landmark modernist novel "Ulysses" (1922) contains, chapter by chapter, far subtler and more various versions of language-based "epistemes" inherent in cultural institutions and epochs.
I'm afraid I bring rather bad news: Over the course of your careers, your generation of students will slowly come to realize that the Foucault-praising professors whom you respected and depended on were ill-informed fad-followers who sold you a shoddy bill of goods. You don't need Foucault, for heaven's sake! Durkheim and Max Weber began the stream of sociological thought that still nourishes responsible thinkers. And the pioneers of social psychology and behaviorism -- Havelock Ellis, Alfred Adler, John B.Watson and many others -- were eloquent apostles of social constructionism when Foucault was still in the cradle.
A massive work like W.E.B. DuBois'"The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study" (1899) shows the kind of respect for empirical fact-gathering and organization of data that is completely missing from Foucault, who selectively tailors his material to fit a monotonous, rigidly dualistic a priori thesis. For those in the humanities, where anti-aesthetic British cultural studies (shaped by the out-of-date Frankfurt School) has become entrenched, I recommend "The Social History of Art" (translated into English in 1951), an epic work by the Marxist scholar Arnold Hauser that influenced me in graduate school. No one in British or American cultural studies has Hauser's erudition, precision and connoisseurship.
Foucault-worship is an example of what I call the Big Daddy syndrome: Secular humanists, who have drifted from their religious and ethnic roots, have created a new Jehovah out of string and wax. Again and again -- in memoirs, for example, by trendy but pedestrian uber-academics like Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt and Brown's Robert Scholes -- one sees the scenario of Melancholy, Bookish, Passive, Insecure Young Nebbish suddenly electrified and transfigured by the Grand Epiphany of Blindingly Brilliant Foucault. This sappy psychodrama would be comic except for the fact that American students forced to read Foucault have been defrauded of a genuine education in intellectual history and political analysis (a disciplined genre that starts with Thucydides and flows directly to the best of today's journalism on current events).
When I pointed out in Arion that Foucault, for all his blathering about "power," never managed to address Adolph Hitler or the Nazi occupation of France, I received a congratulatory letter from David H. Hirsch (a literature professor at Brown), who sent me copies of riveting chapters from his then-forthcoming book, "The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz" (1991). As Hirsch wrote me about French behavior during the occupation, "Collaboration was not the exception but the rule." I agree with Hirsch that the leading poststructuralists were cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents' generations in Nazi France.
American students, forget Foucault! Reverently study the massive primary evidence of world history, and forge your own ideas and systems.
Poststructuralism is a corpse. Let it stink in the Parisian trash pit where it belongs!
SALON | Dec. 2, 1998