A professor's posthumous promotion

Saint Foucault
February 16, 1996

Michel Foucault deserves a place in a hagiography according to David Halperin because "the guy was a ****ing saint". This polemical, impassioned tone predominates in Saint Foucault and constitutes both its strength and weakness.

The book comprises two essays, the first being a study of the stimulating impact Foucault's work has had on gay politics, in particular the "queer" movement. Halperin persuasively shows how Foucault's critique of the normalising codification of the body through a heterosexual notion of desire and his exhortation to reinvent bodily practices along the lines of a contestatory notion of pleasure have been inspirational for many emancipatory gay and lesbian practices, such as fist-****ing and sadomasochism. These practices enscapsulate the Foucauldian understanding of resistance to the "government of individualisation" through a "complex and difficult" labour performed on the limits of the self - that is, on that which appears natural or inevitable in identity. Emancipation therefore should not take the form of liberation of a repressed inner essence but of a ceaseless reinvention of the self that challenges dominant norms.

The second essay is a critique of recent biographies of Foucault. Halperin's attention is directed mainly at James Miller's biography, which he criticises for treating Foucault's life - his alleged suicide attempt - sexual practices and drug-taking, in a sensationalist fashion that depoliticises the impact of his work. This essay is less effective, partly because of the contradictions in which Halperin becomes enmeshed. To write the biography of a man whose most well-known work is an attack on the idea of the author because of its falsely unifying effects on the process of textual interpretation is problematic. Foucault also famously declared in The Archaeology of Knowledge: "Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same". Halperin acknowledges these difficulties, but the tone of the essay turns from irony into polemicism - explained by the late revelation that Miller described him in an unfavourable light in the biography. The debate over biographical accuracy suddenly appears peripheral to the determination to pursue personal grudges.

Although a provocative read, one of the frustrating elements of Saint Foucault is Halperin's tendency to frame certain problems in the form of rhetorical questions that remain unanswered. For example, the issue, discussed by Foucault in a late interview, that what society finds unacceptable about gay relations is not the sexual but the emotional elements, is mentioned but rapidly dismissed. Similarly, the question of how a ceaseless reinvention of the self may have a political impact without crystallising into a relatively fixed identity politics is not pursued. The complex reaction - particularly from within the lesbian community - to the emancipatory practices that Halperin sees as central to queer practice is also sidestepped.

The main weakness of the hagiographical style, however, is that it seems to lead Halperin into a reductionist understanding of power relations. Although he endorses the Foucauldian idea of power as a set of heterogeneous, uneven and potentially reversible relations, he implicity falls back on to a dualistic, "them and us" understanding of power. The homophobia of academic institutions is not denied, but Halperin's relentless presentation of himself and Foucault as "victims" effaces their conflicting positions as both marginalised gay men and privileged academics in elitist, patriarchal institutions.

This simplifying tendency is evident also in Halperin's dismissal as a reactionary of anyone critical of Foucault's work, including Judith Butler who, while aware of the shortcomings of Foucault's thought, uses him to great effect in her ground-breaking work on performativity. Similarly, the exchange between Foucault and feminist thinkers is reduced to the question of whether he was an "anti-feminist monster" or not. The encounter is much more complex. Most feminists acknowledge the enormous impact of Foucault's thought for an understanding of the construction of feminine identity. At the same time, his notorious position on rape, his rejection of foundational values, his alleged "gender blindness" - these all present problems for feminists. These difficulties should not be forced into a polarity of acceptance or rejection, rather they map out future sites of intellectual engagement. Despite these shortcomings, Halperin's book is highly engaging and as he says: "if Michel Foucault had never existed, queer politics would have had to invent him".

Lois McNay is fellow and tutor in politics, Somerville College, Oxford.

Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography

Author - David M. Halperin
ISBN - 0 19 509371 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £14.99
Pages - 246

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