Monday, 25 February 2019


If there is an intellectual tradition to which I feel a particularly close affiliation, it is the Marxist tradition.  I have read more in this tradition  - in philosophy, in literary criticism, in historiography, in sociology, in political theory - than in any other.  I helped organise a large conference last year in Maynooth University to mark the old man's 200th birthday.  I have taught classes and courses on Marx and his inheritors - Adorno, Lukacs, Gramsci and Jameson.   Yet I am not always confident enough to call myself 'a Marxist'.   This is due to at least two factors: 1) the child's or student's sense that he is likely to be found out, at some point, by someone more knowledgeable than himself; 2) my curiosity about other traditions, my wish to keep myself open to other modes of thought or politics that are left-of-centre.  So I am fickle enough, or liberal enough, to wish to understand liberalism or anarchism or feminisms.  And I retain an intense interest in and admiration of Michel Foucault.

Of all  the great generation of French thinkers of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, it has been Foucault who has remained an abiding fascination to me.  And of all this generation - Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Barthes, Lyotard, Bourdieu - it's been Foucault's work which I have read the most, and from which I have learned most.

This in spite of the fact that  Foucault himself was in many ways an aggressively anti-Marxist thinker.  Like many leftists of his generation, in France and elsewhere, Foucault had an early connection with Marxism, and much of his work is redolent with Marxist vocabulary and indeed Marxist themes.  But his brief membership of the PCF ended when the USSR violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and Foucault, in his brilliant way, had only contempt for Marxism thereafter.  It was, he scornfully opined, irredeemably a philosophy of the nineteenth century.  Foucault was intensely interested in history - it is his histories, if one can call them that, of insanity and psychiatry, of criminology and penology, of medicine, and of sexology, which we remember him for for now.  But, as Edward Said realised quickly, Foucault had no interest in 'History': any kind of divination in the historical evidence of 'grand narratives' or a totalizing architecture, any kind of optimistic patterning of a Hegelian or Marxist kind was something against which he set his face with the greatest resolution.  So Foucault was not an orthodox historian at all, and both Marxist and more conventional positivist historians expended (and still expend) large amounts of energy attacking him for his strange evidence and tendentious interpretations (yet what interest is there in any interpretation of the data of social or cultural history that is not in some way 'tendentious'?).  Foucault was rather, certainly by the 1970s, a Nietzschean genealogist, someone who wanted to undermine the Whiggish tendency in conventional historiography by thinking of historical processes not as the outworking of great ideas (liberty, democracy, enlightenment) or as the struggle of the oppressed for freedom or as the expansion of a 'mode of production', but rather as confused fields of force.  History writing, therefore, was a matter of reading texts and archives as palimpsests, scored over and torn by multiple energies and agencies.   The genealogist needed to be able to read in lateral or even reversed ways, as well as searching for conventional developmental patterns. And the knowledge thus produced must always be understood as perspectival,  partial, as the product of an interest, of an angle, even as a weapon: never a transcendent value in itself.  'Knowledge', Foucault declared, and one can imagine the mischievous, wolfish smile, 'is for cutting'.

Foucault's own life was equally remarkable.  He was born into an irreproachably bourgeois or haut-bourgeois family in Poitiers, but he left his home, ground his way through the machine that is the elite French training of philosophers at the great lycées of Paris and then at the École normale supérieure, and emerged in the 1960s as one of the major figures of the Parisian philosophical and literary avant-garde.  Yet, though it was in this decade that he published the epochal books that  made his name - History of Madness, The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things - he also spent some of this time as a peripatetic cultural official and agent, working for the French government in Poland, Germany and Sweden.  In 1966 he took up a position at the University of Clermont-Ferrand (though he commuted there from Paris).  When his lover Daniel Defert was deployed to Tunisia as part of his national service, Foucault taught at the University of Tunis for two years. In 1970, he was elected to a chair at the College de France in Paris, and he finally found his place, becoming an icon - for once the term's use is justified - of the city's intellectual life, protesting for prisoners' and gay people's rights, and delivering public lecture series which were attended by thousands.

Foucault died of AIDS in 1984.  He was only 57.  Since his death, though he had enjoined his friends not to play Max Brod to his Kafka and for no more of his work to be published, a slow trickle of his lectures, scattered essays and seminars has turned into a flood.  The fourth volume of the History of Sexuality has recently been published, and all thirteen of his College de France lecture series.  Foucault remains our contemporary in multifarious ways.  He is still a thinker to reckon with.  And he was a great writer, too.  Back in 2000, relaunching the New Left Review, Perry Anderson argued that it should be a matter of honour for those thinking, writing, teaching on the Left to write as well as or better than their antagonists.  Foucault - in his extraordinary account of the 'great confinement' in History of Madness, or his reading of Velazquez's Las  Meninas at the opening of The Order of Things, or his depiction of the torture and execution of Damiens in Discipline and Punish - is an exemplar of that standard.

Thomas Lemke is one of Foucault's most  important interpreters in Germany.  Here is an extract from his major study of Foucault, now published for the first time in English by Verso Books:

Foucault's Immanent Contradictions