- On Owning Foucault
Lynne Huffer's new book, Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory, is a provocative contribution to what she calls the "Foucault machine"—that academic mechanism that is constantly pumping out new translations and new readings of the French philosopher. It serendipitously draws attention to Foucault's first major work, the History of Madness, at a moment when the unabridged volume has finally become available to Anglophone readers for the first time. Foucault's massive 1961 publication, although rarely read in its complete and original version, is usually acknowledged as an impressive work indicative of the great things that were to come from its author. At the same time, it is frequently criticized as an immature text that romanticizes and essentializes madness, makes an argument in 700 pages that might have been made in 200, unsophisticatedly approaches power as repressive rather than productive, and is marred by historical inaccuracies, drawing on literature and visual art rather than historical archives for its evidence. Foucault makes several autocritiques of the work in his 1973-1974 course lectures, Psychiatric Power, including a reproach of the 1961 book for being an "analysis of representations" (12). Huffer passionately and persuasively defends Foucault's tome on many of these counts. Through thought-provoking discussions of Nietzsche and Freud, as well as an attentive reading of Foucault's text, Huffer demonstrates, for instance, that Foucault already has a clear sense of the creative nature of power in 1961, that this work was already influenced by the genealogical Nietzsche, and that it contains a crucial and devastating argument against psychoanalysis that many queer theorists have been remiss to overlook in their cavalier comminglings of Freud and Foucault.
Beyond being an apology for Foucault's early work, Huffer's book advances the intriguing argument that the History of Madness is an ethical work, and that it should be read as an overlooked text in queer theory. In this way, Huffer effectively collapses the usual division of Foucault's work into early-archaeological, middle-genealogical, and late-ethical periods. Huffer also challenges the received view that Foucault's interest in the erotic came only late in his career. From his earliest major work, Huffer suggests, Foucault provides us with an ethics of eros in what should be seen as a foundational text in queer theory. We are reminded that in the fifties, when Foucault was writing the History of Madness, and in the early sixties when it was published (and on into the seventies), homosexuality was categorized as a mental illness. Homosexuals figure among the many victims of reason and confinement in Foucault's work, along with prostitutes, libertines, and all the others who defied the 'reason' of Enlightenment family values. Foucault once said that each of his books is a "fragment of an autobiography," and we may read the History of Madness as autobiographical in so far as Foucault was "mad" in a society such as ours if only (but perhaps not only) because he was gay. Huffer is surely right to point out that the History of Madness may be read in part as about the history of the experience of homosexuality and thus in terms of queer theory, although she may also overstate her argument in so far as "madness" and "sexuality" come to seem synonymous in her discussion.
In offering a new reading of the History of Madness as a queer text, Huffer also argues that we should read the History of Sexuality—a work which has already been foundational for queer theory—in a new light. She posits a number of correctives to the usual interpretations of the History of Sexuality. The first set of these correctives has to do with the failure to read the later work through the lens of the earlier work, while a second set has to do with what she sees as misunderstandings of the French text due to poor translations. Huffer suggests that if we understand the History of Madness as providing an ethics of eros, and if we note the continuities between this work...