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  • Seizing Power: Decadence and Transgression in Foucault and Paglia
  • John V. Walker

From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence—we have to create ourselves as a work of art.

—Michel Foucault


The 1990s have to this point occasioned a new space, a new opportunity for those who are still interested to (re)read the works of French critic/philosopher Michel Foucault. James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault, for instance, a meticulously researched and well considered book, calls into question North American “Foucauldian” scholarship, which he feels

enshrined Foucault as a . . . canonic figure whose authority (the authors) routinely invoked in order to legitimate their own brand of “progressive” politics. Most of these latter-day American Foucauldians . . . are committed to forging a more diverse society in which whites and people of colour, straights and gays, men and women . . . can . . . all live together in compassionate harmony—an appealing if difficult goal, with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition.


Miller finds Foucault’s “progressive” followers to be victims of their own misreadings, willful or otherwise, of a thinker whose transfigurative radicality stretches far beyond “accepted” limits. “Unless I am badly mistaken” Miller writes, “Foucault issued a brave and basic challenge to nearly everything that passes for “right” in Western culture—including everything that passes for “right” among a great many of America’s left-wing academics” (384).

Even more controversial on this issue than Miller is Camille Paglia, whose Sexual Personae has of late caused such a stir in academic circles. In her earlier provocative essay, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” a lengthy and often hilarious skewering of postmodern scholarship’s excesses, David Halperin becomes the unlucky symbol of all that has gone wrong (in Paglia’s view) with North American academia. Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality is here lampooned as the soppiest sort of politically correct, liberal-humanist scholarship, with actual knowledge and research taking a back seat to the recitation of currently fashionable dogma concerning the fate of the marginalized and disempowered in Western society.

Who is ulimately culpable, in Paglia’s eyes, for the sloppy scholarship of Halperin and others like him? None other than Michel Foucault.

Paglia dismisses Halperin as a mere Foucault acolyte, one of those “well-meaning but foggy humanists who virtually never have the intellectual and scholarly preparation to critique Foucault competently,” but who instead merely rehash the “Big Daddy’s” own shaky (in her opinion) arguments in a quest for personal legitimacy (“Junk” 174). Supporting Paglia’s depiction of Halperin as a self-appointed defender of the Foucauldian faith is his own somewhat petulant criticism of Miller’s book recently published in Salmagundi.1

At first glance, then, it appears that nothing could be more diametrically opposed than the views of Paglia and Foucault: Paglia goes to great lengths to legitimate such a notion, and her most vocal critics often fit snugly (smugly?) into the “American Foucauldian” category delineated by Miller, creating the impression of a sort of binary split between the two camps.

What I have found, however, upon a close reading of key texts by both authors, is the reversal of this idea, a collapsing of the supposed space between the two. My “positive” Paglian reading of Foucault will suggest that, contrary to what Paglia herself has said, Michel Foucault’s work and life are the epitome of the aesthetic propounded in Sexual Personae, an aesthetic which finds its culmination in dandyism: rather than opponents, they are actually comrades in transgression and decadence, fighting what is forever fated to be a losing battle “against nature.”

The Problem with Power

“The soul is the prison of the body” (Discipline 29). It was with this famous line from his critically lauded 1975 opus Discipline and Punish that Michel Foucault solidified his fame among post-Woodstock Rousseauian academics in North America. Rousseau’s theory, as enunciated in The Social Contract and other works, that the human subject was basically an innocent victim of corrupt societal forces, seemed, at least, to dovetail neatly with Foucault’s expressed view that, contrary...

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