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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.1/2 (2005) 186-201

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Remembering Foucault

London South Bank University

Forgetting Foucault?

Is it time to forget Michel Foucault? Over the past quarter of a century there have been a number of injunctions for us to do so. The first, which became notorious, was a sharp polemical intervention from Baudrillard in 1977. Foucault was already, it seemed, too powerful, so "to forget him was to do him a service; to adulate him was to do him a disservice." This was not so much a forgetting as a Baudrillardian wishing away. Like the Gulf War, perhaps, Foucault did not really happen. A second essay, written by David Halperin and republished in his book How to Do the History of Homosexuality, is more reasoned and significant, if not yet better known.1 Here the point, forcefully made, is that in the rush to adulate, preserve in aspic, and see a Foucauldian orthodoxy we have forgotten what Foucault actually set out to do: "Foucault's continuing prestige, and the almost ritualistic invocation of his name by academic practitioners of cultural theory, has had the effect of reducing the operative range of his thought to a small set of received ideas, slogans, and bits of jargon that have now become so commonplace and so familiar as to make a more direct engagement with Foucault's texts entirely dispensable."2 Halperin's essay is a form of rescue: a reclaiming of a radical figure and line of thought, a figure sainted not because of his holiness but, like Genet, because of his transgressiveness and profanity. [End Page 186]

I want neither to engage in a polemical dismissal of Foucault and his legacy nor to find an original Foucault buried beneath a tonnage of overreverence, ancestor worship, and system building. I don't want to find the halo around his head, but neither do I wish to forget Foucault. I want to remember him, to remember why I found his work so important. At the same time I want to query/queery his legacy, not as an act of lèse-majesté or intellectual betrayal nor as a rejection of my earlier self, which grabbed at every bit of Foucauldiana that was published, but as a tribute to the stimulus he provided. The best tribute we can pay to Foucault is not to forget but to remember his own refusals and to use him. As he said of Nietzsche's work: "I prefer to utilize the writers I like. The only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest."3 I am going to use Foucault's work as I have always done, as a box of tools, as he said in reference to Deleuze, to take up and put down as necessary and in the process probably deform it, making it groan and protest, not seeking the truth of Foucault or even my own truth but trying to understand why we came to see certain ways of thinking as offering us some approximation to certain truths about sexuality in history and, more precisely, to use the understandings we got from reading Foucault to try to understand our present uncertainties.4

To be more specific and to come clean, I want to do two things: first of all, to show why Foucault appealed to those of us who came to be labeled in the 1970s and 1980s as social contructionists, and then to argue that, while not forgetting Foucault, we need to go beyond him in three key areas: first, the matter of identity/subjectivity; second, the historic present, "after Foucault," in which we are actors; and third, the issue of ethics and values. To do that, I suggest, we need to remember what we learned through our encounters with Foucault. So first, let's look at Foucault's contribution to "the social construction of sexuality."

Reconstructing Social Constructionism

The harsh and mechanistic term "social construction" has become deeply unfashionable since the late 1980s, when the...


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pp. 186-201
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