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Michel Foucault

1926-1984

 

Excerpt from The Lives of Michel Foucault: a Biography, by David Macey:

In May [1975], the Collège [de France]’s academic year drew to a close and Foucault left for a brief visit to the United States, having been invited by Leo Bersani to take the post of visiting professor in French at the University of [California,] Berkeley. He had already been to America on a number of occasions, but this was his first visit to California. He at once took a great liking to the West Coast, which was always to have an almost utopian appeal for him. He was well received on campus, though it would be a few years before he finally made his triumphant breakthrough and became a major figure in the US. By now he had learned to enjoy the relatively relaxed atmosphere of American universities, and no longer resented the assumptions students made about his availability for informal discussion, as he had done on his first visits. His spoken English had also improved since 1971, and he no longer required an interpreter for all his talks.

Foucault was scheduled to give public lectures and a seminar, but only fragments of what was said have survived. Two fragmentary typescripts, one dated 8 May 1975, the other undated, and entitled, respectively, ‘Discourse and Repression’ and ‘On Infantile Sexuality’, indicate that he was working on an early version of Histoire de la sexualité....

The pleasures of California were by no means purely academic. Foucault discovered a gay society which was unimaginable in France and a sexual openness which enchanted and enthralled him. On this brief visit, he had little time to explore it, but came to know it well on later trips. It seems that it was now that Foucault began to develop his flirtation with the world of leather and sado-masochism, which were only some of the pleasures available. At this point, he made no mention of them in print and, when he did, it was in a strictly impersonal mode. California, in the shape of two gay academics, also offered LSD, which Foucault now took for the first time. The occasion was almost ceremonial, and had as its setting the desert, and as its background accompaniment a tape of Stockhausen. Rumours abound about the acid trip; this is one of the Foucault stories that everyone seems to know. Reports from those who claim that he told them that it changed his life should probably be treated with some scepticism; the insights granted by LSD tend to be short-lived and illusory rather than real. In November 1975, Foucault spoke nostalgically to [Claude] Mauriac of ‘an unforgettable evening on LSD, in carefully prepared doses, in the desert night, with delicious music, nice people, and some chartreuse’. [p. 338-340]

   
Excerpt from The Passion of Michel Foucault, by James Miller:

Foucault’s new scholarly interest in the self had grown out of his study of sexuality. Before his LSD epiphany in Death Valley in 1975, he had intended to devote the different volumes of his monumental History of Sexuality to a detailed account of topics like hysteria, incest, masturbation, and perversion, analyzing developments in nineteenth-century biology, medicine, and psychopathology. But in the course of reformulating his thoughts about sexuality in the late 1970s, his focus changed dramatically. Instead of trying to untangle the ways in which our modern sense of our selves had come to be tied up with a putatively scientific interpretation of a more or less fixed bundle of sexual drives and desires, Foucault leapt backward in time, embarking on a painstaking inventory of some of the quite different ways in which Western philosophers and theologians from Socrates to Augustine had thought about the self....

So it was that Michel Foucault, on the night of October 20, 1980, found himself facing a mob at the University of California at Berkeley.

That evening he was slated to deliver the first of his two Howison lectures on the campus; in these lectures, he would be offering the most succinct overview yet of where his research was headed — namely, back to the founding fathers of Western thought. His American public, however, knew nothing about this program. Students were still stuck on the grisly opening of Discipline and Punish — and the mysterious ending of The Will to Know. Bodies! Pleasures! Torture! Had philosophy ever sounded so sexy?

They began arriving an hour in advance, filling every seat in the large hall [Wheeler Auditorium]. And still they kept coming. Soon several hundred more people had gathered outside the hall, clamoring to get in. Police rushed to the scene. The doors to the hall were locked shut. Enraged, the crowd outside began to push and shout, pounding on the doors.

Foucault was nonplussed. Advised of the baying throng, he turned to Hubert Dreyfus, the Berkeley professor who was to introduce him, and begged him to do something, anything, to make these people go away.

Halfheartedly, Dreyfus addressed the crowd — and complied with Foucault’s wishes: “Michel Foucault says this is a very technical lecture, and difficult, and, I think, he wants to imply, boring; and he suggests that it would be better for everyone to leave now.

Nobody budged.

If the great man’s talk was to be obscure and difficult — so much the better! The promise of esoteric revelations was by now a part of his appeal....

By the time of his death, he had made arrangements to spend several months each year at the University of California at Berkeley. [p. 319-321, 327]

   

Tradition has it that Foucault’s favorite café while in Berkeley was the Espresso Experience (2440 Bancroft) and the coffee house is now sometimes referred to as the “Café Foucault.”

Read (And Listen To) More About It

  • Michel Foucault: the Culture of Self, lecture delivered 19 April 1983 at the Berkeley Language Center: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/audiofiles.html#foucault
  • Michel Foucault, Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia (S.l. : s.n., 1985). “Notes to the seminar given by Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, 1983. Compiled and transcribed from tape-recordings made by Joseph Pearson, who audited the lectures.”
  • David M. Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York : Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault: a Biography (New York : Pantheon Books, 1993)
  • James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1993)
  • Stephen O. Murray, Remembering Michel Foucault: http://www.culturecartel.com/review.php?aid=1000344
 
 

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Copyright 2002 Regents of the University of California. Email: benemann@law.berkeley.edu.