- Michel Foucault
Didier Eribon has written an excellent biography of Michel Foucault, one that will probably take its place as the standard for some time. Eribon has done thorough research including extensive interviews with individuals who played significant roles in Foucault’s life from his early childhood and comprehensive reading of his works and private writings. The book is well-informed, judicious without being remote, sympathetic without losing a critical edge. And Eribon understands Foucault’s difficult corpus well enough to take note of the irony of his undertaking. Foucault stood firmly against interpretations that privileged the author’s intentions, unity, authority. So this biography, if it be Foucaultian, cannot contribute to an interpretation of Foucault’s works.
Eribon is especially good on Foucault’s student life, evoking with particular atmospheric verisimilitude French intellectual life after World War II. The rigors of entry into the Ecole Normale Superieure, the teaching of Jean Hyppolite, the circle of friendships with those who would later do important work—all of this makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the extraordinary efflorescence that in the United States is called poststructuralism. The period of Foucault’s travels to Sweden, Germany, Poland and Tunisia are also illuminating. Eribon devotes separate sections or even chapters to Foucault’s major writings. In these he sketches the reception of the books and Foucault’s reception of the receptions. His attention to the content of the works is adequate but certainly not extensive or novel.
Foucault’s political activity after 1970, during his years at the College de France, his work with the prison information group, and the countless protests and petitions in which he participated, are also extensively recounted. Eribon’s account of Foucault’s advocacy of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, derisively regarded as Foucault’s biggest political blunder, is remarkable in its ability to allow credence for Foucault’s position without pretending that such credence might not require for many a deliberate abandonment of one’s critical faculties.
Foucault’s politics have often been attacked by Marxists for adherence with the positions of the New Philosophers who garnered a certain presence in France in the late 1970s. For these Marxists such an association discredits all of Foucault’s thought as a kind of right-wing liberalism. These tactics are proof enough of the exhaustion of their author’s intellects as well as of the political perspective they attempt to further. For Eribon’s account makes clear the serious dedication of Foucault to a critical politics, one perhaps that does not fit neatly into the categories of the major European parties but certainly one that is in no way conservative. Interestingly enough, Eribon mentions the term “new philosopher” only once, in connection with a review Foucault wrote of a book by Andre Glucksmann. Although in the period before May ‘68 Foucault was perceived as politically enigmatic and perhaps “untrustworthy” for those on the left, after 1970 there can be no doubt of his firm commitment to anti-authoritarian politics and of his search for a new style for the politically engaged intellectual, one that would deal more effectively than the French Communists or even the Socialists with a critique of current configurations of domination.
I found only one inaccuracy in Eribon’s Foucault. It concerns the chapter on Foucault’s visits to the United States, which Eribon in general describes very well, with none of that ambivalent snobbery/envy one finds too often in French discussions of this country. The error is a small one, in no way affecting Eribon’s overall discussion, but since I was involved in the incident I feel I should set the record straight. Eribon refers in passing to a lecture Foucault delivered to a huge crowd at UCLA in 1981. Actually this lecture was given at a conference I organized for the Humanities Center at USC on October 31st of that year. On that occasion, before a large audience, Foucault presented an important paper disputing critiques of his view of power and arguing that his concern was with the subject’s relation...