restricted access The Passion of Michel Foucault (review)
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Indiscreet Jewels:
Can We Talk about the Passion of Michel Foucault?
James Miller. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

In Diderot’s tale, the good genie Cucufa discovers at the bottom of his pocket, in the midst of worthless things—consecrated seeds, little pagodas made of lead, and moldy sugar-coated pills—the tiny silver ring whose stone, when turned, makes the sexes speak. He gives it to the curious sultan. Our problem is to know what marvelous ring confers a similar power on us, and on which master’s finger it has been placed: what game of power it makes possible or presupposes, and how it is that each one of us has become a sort of attentive and imprudent sultan with respect to his own sex and that of others. It is this magical ring, this jewel which is so ineloquent concerning one’s own mechanism that we need to render loquacious in its turn; it is what we have to talk about. We must write the history of this will to truth, this petition to know that for so many centuries has kept us enthralled by sex: the history of a stubborn and relentless effort. What is it that we demand of sex, beyond its possible pleasures, that makes us so persistent? What is this patience or eagerness to constitute it as the [End Page 681] secret, the omnipotent cause, the hidden meaning, the unremitting fear?

Among its many emblems, our society wears that of the talking sex.

Between each of us and our sex, the West has placed a never-ending demand for truth: it is up to us to extract the truth of sex, since this truth is beyond its grasp, it is up to sex to tell us our truth, since sex is what holds it in darkness.

But is sex hidden from us, concealed by a new sense of decency, kept under a bushel by the grim necessities of bourgeois society?

It would take an American living in a complete media-isolation biosphere, an American blissfully unaware of O. J. Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt, the 600 hours of televised Menendez trials (which Nobel laureate Toni Morrison admitted to being glued to), Bob Packwood hearings and Michael Jackson not to concur with Michel Foucault’s rhetorical question: “On the contrary, it shines forth: it is incandescent” (History 77). I should like to frame my presentation of James Miller’s book around Foucault’s emblem of the talking sex and the questions inspired by Diderot’s fable in order to read Miller’s book as Foucault would have—as a cultural symptom. For Miller’s Passion (as in all symptomatic projections, it is Miller’s and not Foucault’s desires that frame this narrative) is best seen as an example and symptom of tabloid liberalism—Michel Foucault: The Untold Story. This is intellectual history as pornography, biography as propaganda. The book jacket promises: “in revelations as fascinating as they may be shocking to some readers, The Passion of Michel Foucault provides the first detailed account of Foucault’s lifelong obsession with death, suicide, drugs, and sadomasochistic eroticism—even under the mounting threat of AIDS in the 1980’s.”1 In Miller’s own words: “The crux of what is most original and challenging about Foucault’s way of thinking as I see it, is his unrelenting, deeply [End Page 682] ambiguous and profoundly problematic preoccupation with death, which he explored not only in the esoteric form of his writing, but also, and I believe critically, in the esoteric form of sado-masochistic eroticism” (7). Yet this is not the first account of Foucault’s death from AIDS, his frequentation of the San Francisco leather scene or his “homosexuality.” Didier Eribon’s biography (which Miller repeatedly draws on for his sensationalist rendering) already covered this biographical ground, and Hervé Guibert fictionalized these experiences in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life and The Secrets of a Man (Mauve le Vierge).

What is distinctive about Miller’s rendition, however, is its position as a socially...