Foucault’s Blender

An Account of Chillin’ in the California Desert With the Great Philosopher

Most books about philosophers that I’ve come across aren’t primarily concerned with the social lives of the great thinkers. I can’t recall too many accounts of bar-hopping with Kierkegaard, doing shots with Nietzsche, or karaoke with Hannah Arendt. Even the biographies tend to be serious in tone, charting the growth of ideas and systems of thought while relegating any hilarious anecdotes to the sidelines.

But now we have Simeon Wade’s Foucault in California, which narrates a few days during the life of the French philosopher and epistemologist Michel Foucault (1926-1984), whose works are known in English as Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization, and The History of Sexuality, among other titles. Wade’s work dares to be different. Foucault in California provides not only an intellectually stimulating precis of some of Foucault’s bolder ideas, but also a funny and engaging account of the man in some of his less weighty moments.

A Rumored Manuscript

Wade’s bookcame close to disappearing forever without coming before the public’s eyes. In a lengthy foreword, Heather Dundas, a graduate student in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California, tells of how she heard of the rumored existence of a memoir by a former disciple of Foucault’s who’d persuaded the philosopher, who was teaching at UC/Berkeley, to come down to Southern California and explore Hollywood, Claremont, and Death Valley over Memorial Day weekend in 1975. Back then, Wade, who died in October 2017, was an assistant professor based in Claremont.

Though unsure about the merits of the rumored manuscript, Dundas was thinking of writing a satire about the verbose, ponderous theorizing that has grown common in cultural studies at some U.S. colleges and universities and figured that the manuscript might be useful background reading. Dundas tracked down the author of the rumored manuscript and arranged to meet Wade at a Starbucks.

From that point on, things didn’t play out at all as Dundas expected. She took to Wade, found that they had much to talk about, and discovered in his manuscript a work that surpassed all her expectations. Dundas decided that numerous other writers already had cannily satirized the theory that has crept into cultural studies. Malcolm Bradbury’s My Strange Quest for Mensonge comes to mind. (In that short novel, Mensonge is the name of an academic specializing in cultural theory. It is also a French term for “hoax” or “fraud.”) Another example is James Hynes’s novel The Lecturer’s Tale, in which one of the tenured professors, Victoria Victorinix, “had survived three or four paradigm shifts in literary theory,” publishing works with titles like Daughters of the Night: Clitoral Hegemony in LeFanu’s Carmilla.

Foucault informed his dense, challenging work on the origins and growth of prisons and clinics designed to classify, confine, and control the behavior of those deemed aberrant or deviant with vast historical knowledge. Wade’s awe of Foucault’s scholarly accomplishment was matched only by his curiosity about Foucault as a man. His book provides an intriguing account of how a young disciple of the philosopher prevailed upon Foucault to come and hang out with strangers united by an interest in, or in some cases a reverence for, Foucault’s work.

Ze Desert, It Is Beautiful, No?

Foucault in California recounts how, during his time in Claremont and in Death Valley, Foucault repeatedly proved himself to be anything but a stiff, aloof academic more interested in theory than in actual human beings. He asks his American friends to show him how to make a Tequila Sunrise, shares his musical and cinematic tastes with his hosts, and praises the beauty of the desert in the strongest terms. Foucault is clearly having a blast.

In the awesomely vast reaches of the Southern California desert, Foucault may have found the antithesis of a confined, rigidly organized society where surveillance and punishment (to translate literally the title of a work that has somehow come to be known in English as Discipline and Punish) have become the norm. The accounts of Foucault’s bantering, joking, and partying with Wade and his group of friends reveal a side to the man that those familiar with his theoretical texts may never have imagined.

Wade accomplishes a great deal in 131 pages. Besides the accounts of joking and socializing, there is much here that will surprise conservatives who may have thought of Foucault as the enemy because of his one-time membership in the French Communist Party and his identification with left-liberal causes. Wade provides verbatim accounts of discussions and debates that Foucault had with his American hosts during the weekend. Foucault takes several politically incorrect positions. Some may come to view Foucault in a different light upon learning the following.

Some Surprising Ideas

Foucault was a staunch supporter of Israel. At a time when Third World rhetoric raged at the U.N. and Marxist-influenced “national liberation movements” in the Middle East and elsewhere drew much of their support from academia, Foucault yielded to none in his support for the Jewish state. “I am very sympathetic to Israel,” Foucault tells his hosts, and his timing is propitious. Israel in 1975 needed all the help and support it could get, with memories of the Munich Olympics atrocity in 1972 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 still fresh and Operation Entebbe and other critical counterterrorist operations just around the corner.

Foucault saw serious limitations to Marxism as an ideology and to the thought of philosophers influenced by Marx. In the course of the many philosophical discussions described in this book, Foucault speaks dismissively of both Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser because of the degree of Marx’s influence on their thought. Marx, Foucault explains, was more of an agitator with an agenda for his own time and place than a thinker who could foster genuine knowledge and understanding for future generations.

“Marx did not write books for our edification or for scholarly exegesis but to get something done, to start something, to speak to workers. So we ought not to treat Marx as a text,” Foucault says. This jaw-dropping admission bolsters Foucault’s scathing assessment that Sartre’s reliance on Marx, rather than on serious historians, stunted Sartre’s own thought. “[Sartre] was convinced by Marx and never got any further. Consequently, his understanding of history was negligible. We cannot learn anything from Sartre’s historical analysis,” Foucault says point-blank.

Foucault chafed at ideological conformity, or what we today call political correctness, in academia. One of the things Foucault likes so much about California is that, in 1975, political correctness hasn’t yet ruined things there as it has in France. “You have such intellectual freedom and vitality here. Ideological dogma and partisanship are still so rampant in France that compared to California we live in France under an intellectual reign of terror,” Foucault tells his hosts. It is no surprise to learn that Foucault has had fallings out with French leftists who have criticized him for teaching at the Collège de France, sponsored by the French government, and for voting for François Mitterrand when many on the left considered electoral politics a waste of time and yearned (questionably, in Foucault’s view) for a revolution.

Foucault did not share the high-minded dismissal of American ways and manners exhibited by some of his countrymen. It’s common for some Europeans to sneer at the openness and friendliness that people in some parts of America show to strangers, at our way of saying “howdy,” as if such reflexes betray a certain innocence in the worst sense of the term. But the scoffers are wrong, Foucault tells his hosts. “We probably spend at least three-fourths of our time in very short encounters with people, in chance encounters. This way of relating to people, then, is very important,” he says. Foucault’s admiration for the quality of life in parts of America goes hand in hand with his appreciation of our friendliness.

To Foucault, California has much to admire. “I love California. You live in one of the choice places on Earth….Los Angeles has such wealth, such amazing affluence. The architecture is remarkable. And there is the immense size. Paris is so much more limited. You can walk across Paris in two hours,” he observes. It is hard not to detect a broader, pro-American attitude in Foucault’s appreciation of Californian freedom and splendor.

The world has changed since 1975, but political correctness is as stifling, noxious, and damaging as ever. Foucault would not have appreciated it any more today than he did then. Simeon Wade’s intriguing book is not only a great read, but will help dispel false assumptions about a highly relatable, genial man and important thinker.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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