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The adversary among us

Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976, Michel Foucault , Translated from the French by David Macey, Picador: 352 pp., $26

August 31, 2003|Michael S. Roth | Michael S. Roth, president of the California College of Arts and Crafts, is the author of "The Ironist's Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History."

The first time I went to hear Michel Foucault speak in Paris in the winter of 1981, I arrived very early. I knew he was a star: In the United States he was an academic hero who could fill an auditorium at any university. In Paris, Foucault was an intellectual celebrity, an authentic monstre sacre. The press reported or published his views on a wide range of subjects, and no matter what he chose to speak about in a lecture format, he would have an audience of mostly young people eager to hear him report on his latest (usually obscure) research. It was good I came early, for the auditorium in the College de France was almost full, and there would soon be many disappointed intellectual tourists who had to settle for the audio feed in an adjacent hall. Foucault made his entrance and stood in the front of the room. His bald pate rose above the circle of minicassette recorders. What would he say? That morning he spoke of rather obscure details in Greek philosophy. We needed the source text to follow along, but very few of us had it. We were there to see Foucault and hoped to understand why what he was saying about the Greek way of life might be relevant to radically changing our own. We would be encouraged to change, and to see that the signs of change (or of instability) were everywhere around us; but we would learn nothing about what changes were desirable or preferable.

Foucault took his lectures at the College de France very seriously, even if he had no illusions about the nature of his audience and their reasons for being there. He worked on the talks, using them to clarify his thinking and to report on the difficulty of his research agenda. He certainly knew he was a hero to many, a scholarly charlatan to some. He didn't seem to care. He wanted to discover something in the past that would unlock important aspects of the way we lived now. He wanted to use history to undermine the secure footing of the present; he wanted to explore philosophy in order to make us "think otherwise."

This was his project in the early 1960s when he wrote "Madness and Civilization," a book arguing that we needed to control and confine the experience of madness in order to feel confident of reason. This was his project in the 1970s when he wrote "Discipline and Punish," a book arguing that our progress toward greater civility and humane treatment of prisoners masked the creation of a disciplinary society that enforced ever-greater degrees of conformity. We needed a culture of the prison to conceal the ways in which our civic and educational institutions produced a society of enforced homogeneity. This was his project in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he showed that our so-called liberation of sexuality concealed a pernicious effort to contain desire in neat categories of identity. We needed a notion of sexual "repression" and techniques to overcome it to obscure how the "power" running through our lives packaged us into beings forced to remain true-to-ourselves and hence less polymorphously adventurous than we might be.

Foucault died in 1984, at age 58, an early victim of AIDS. He was at the height of his powers, and he was still wrestling with some of the most difficult historical and philosophical questions. In his final years he wanted to understand how we came to believe in and practice ethical modes of life. And he wanted to understand how we might find pleasure, and perhaps some happiness, in the constraints and the companionship of these modes of life. He did not think he -- or perhaps anyone else -- could legitimate any particular mode of life.

Foucault gave the lectures that make up "Society Must Be Defended" in 1975 and 1976. The first volume of his history of sexuality ("The Will to Knowledge") was about to be published, and he was deeply concerned with the relations of knowledge and power. The lectures take a provocative, even aggressive stance, one that seems timely. Foucault's thesis is as simple as it is bold: He reverses Clausewitz's dictum "War is a continuation of politics by other means" into "politics is a continuation of war by other means." In other words, Foucault's thesis is that war is a permanent feature of political life and that the theory of the legitimacy of political sovereignty is a ruse hiding the ongoing war that is organized political life. Foucault put it neatly: "We are therefore at war with one another; a battlefront runs through the whole of society, continuously and permanently, and it is this battlefront that puts us all on one side or the other. There is no such thing as a neutral subject. We are all inevitably someone's adversary."

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