BOOK REVIEW / Rootless in Academe: The passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller, HarperCollins pounds 18: The lives of Michel Foucault by David Macey, Hutchinson pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
MICHEL FOUCAULT darkened the once radiant intellectual sky of Paris. He was a decadent figure, deliberately perverse of thought and freaky in appearance. He is there in baroque pose on the jacket of James Miller's book, his kimono-ed figure sombre against the brilliant emptiness of a doorway, his shaven skull and steel-rimmed lenses a gleaming endorsement of Miller's witty description of him as 'a metaphysical Eraserhead'.

For Foucault the body had priority over the soul, a figment that he typically wrote off as 'the body's prison'. He got himself up accordingly, so that the decor of his life might be seen to go with his ideas, which are a shotgun marriage of the austere to the excessive. His lead in this, as in a great deal else, he took from Nietzsche, who believed that a philosopher's life shouldn't be something separate and unknown but should be incorporated into the show, until private experience and published oeuvre form a seductive whole.

Foucault worked long and cleverly at this. He refused in his lifetime to wear any of the usual official name-tags: was he a philosopher or was he a historian? Orthodox philosophers disowned him as an eccentric; so did orthodox historians. Where academic disciplines were concerned, he was by his own wish one of the homeless. Or rather, he was someone who had done away with disciplines, the grand theorist who taught that the putting of people into categories is a less innocent business than it seems, since all classification is a tacit form of social control.

Foucault is better to read about than he is to read. His big historical books aren't easy: they are peculiarly dense with assertions and shy of spelling out the logic which might have explained what so many assertions are doing in one place. There is something presumptuous about his mode of argument, and that is not altogether right for so free a spirit. Nor does Foucault's style help, because he has a great love of verbal effects and a wish to dazzle as much as to instruct. Even when he was writing journalism, or when he spoke out publicly on political issues, he tended to the oracular, as if fearing even then to be caught with his style down. A populist Foucault wasn't, not even a pretend-populist like Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he more than once took to the streets as a dissident in the 1970s but for whom he had little or no time personally. Unlike that of Sartre, Foucault's following was an esoteric one - university students and teachers who had read his books and who rallied to their enigmatic author when he belatedly came out as a political militant, after 1968.

That was a key moment for Foucault, even though he wasn't actually in Paris during the May 'events' of that tumultuous year. He was in Tunis, teaching, and supporting the students who were demonstrating there against Bourguiba, at greater risk to themselves, as he later stressed, than their bourgeois counterparts in France. But once he was back in Paris, Foucault was co-opted by the radical young as an inspired senior whose politics were as impudently unrealistic as their own. If he was anything at all, it was an anarchist, an extreme libertarian, anti the prevailing political arrangements in both East and West, and anti the repeatedly touted alternatives to them. He had had three constricting years in the Communist Party in the early Fifties before retiring from political view. But in the headstrong Seventies he resumed his activities as a convinced if erratic oppositionist, capable of backing both good causes - the Solidarity movement in Poland when the French government shied away from it - and bad, as when he welcomed the Ayatollah's regime in Iran.

But commitment was only a sideline for Foucault, and it isn't for his episodes of militancy that he is read, admired and, in some quarters, idolised today. If there are now Foucauldians abroad on the campuses of our own and other lands, it's because of the two hugely influential books he published, one on madness and how it has been perceived historically, the second on the ideology of judicial punishment. Foucault wrote a good deal more than this, but it's by the arguments he made in the books known in English as Madness and Civilisation and Discipline and Punish that he entered modern intellectual history.

These books he called 'genealogical' studies of their subjects and they contain his Big Idea: which is that, once they are properly read, the archives of the past turn out to be the written record of the methods by which one group or category in society exercised its power for the control of others. Power is at work not just in the obvious places where we've always known to look for it, in legislatures or the judiciary, but everywhere in a society, because the Nietzschean will to power is a biological force and society is the arena where it finds satisfaction. Thus the 'mad', for Foucault, are not the unfortunate class of those condemned to suffer for some pathological reason, but those whom this or that society at this or that time has decided are 'mad' and has treated accordingly. His genealogy of 'madness' reveals the different patterns of coercion and exclusion that have been exercised over time against a socially stigmatised group. Foucault hardly hides that he is on the side of the mad, as defined by him, and against all organised attempts to control them - a generous, indeed a reckless position which goes a long way towards explaining the hold his ideas have subsequently gained over successive cohorts of students, who now look on Foucault as the great empowerer of the powerless, a class that naturally includes students themselves.

Yet Foucault was so extreme a progressive as to be uniquely reactionary. He could not agree that our modern - as we suppose, more civilised - understanding and treatment of madness, or our modern concepts of punishment, were an improvement on the old. He saw little that was enlightened about the Enlightenment, with its coldly rational notions of human betterment. His book on punishment begins, notoriously, with a sickening description of the bungled torture and slow execution of an 18th-century French regicide, as an example of the ferocious penalties once judicially inflicted on the body of the criminal. Most of us would say that corporal punishments of that kind were an abomination, and that their replacement by a system of incarceration marked a moral advance. Foucault says different. He dares to suggest that there might be cathartic benefits to be had from a spectacle of extreme savagery, and that in a calculus of cruelty the gentler rigours of the penitentiary might count as a regression, since to be perpetually under surveillance for a long period may be worse than to be tortured. The pleasure of inflicting and suffering pain was also to be taken into account - not for nothing had Foucault steeped himself in the manic pornography fantasised by the Marquis de Sade in his prison-cell.

Since it seems improbable that our kind of society will ever legislate a return to judicial torture, we have to assume that in arguing as he did Foucault was out to provoke, not to persuade. He dwelt in detail on the sufferings of the regicide so as to make us aware of our own complicity, of the element of fascination present in our response to them. This was to think dangerously, against the grain, as Nietzsche had said a philosopher should. Added to which, in Foucault's case, there was a need to live dangerously, to go to the limit in the body as well as in the mind.

Just how dangerously this discreetly gay Paris professor had lived we didn't learn until some time after his death. In the later 1970s, Foucault was taken up in a big way in the United States, especially at Berkeley, a university noted for its explosive and ambitious radicalism. In breaks from his teaching Foucault made voluptuous excursions into the homosexual counter-culture of San Francisco. James Miller has some uncomfortable pages which itemise the kind of thing Foucault may have got up to there with his fellow S-M adepts, as he lived out the rigmaroles of domination and submission he had earlier uncovered in symbolic form among so many actors in the historical past.

By all accounts, Foucault was excited as never before by what he found in California - the LSD first of all and then the orgiastic sex, which answered to his frequently expressed desire for anonymity, to be 'without a face'. Aids was then only a rumour; but had he known about it, the risks he was taking would only have appealed to him the more. Foucault took an enviably positive view of death: 'To die for the love of boys: what could be more beautiful?' were his words to a gay colleague. It was almost certainly while he was in California that the HIV virus was passed on to him, and back in Paris, in 1984, he died from the results of it, aged 57. The newspapers gave him extraordinary coverage, but none of them hinted, not even those who knew, that he might have had Aids.

The truth, however, was that Foucault had in part willed his death, and it is that final convergence of his life's experience with his philosophy that has surely caused the biographers to arrive in numbers. In no time at all we have had three Lives of Foucault. The first, by Didier Eribon, was a cautious affair, too taken up with the strategic ins and outs of his academic life in France. The second and third have appeared, whether by design or not, in the same week: one of them is British, the other, James Miller's, American. Of the three, Miller's is far and away the most robust, intelligent and valuable, an outstanding intellectual biography of an elusive thinker whose ideas have never before seemed so coherent or so genuinely respectable. Miller has been to the philosophical sources to which Foucault himself went and his accounts of the major books are conspicuously thorough and definitive. The Passion of Michel Foucault is at once a humane and an essential book.

David Macey is unfortunate to have had his Life come out simultaneously with Miller's; at any other time it might have seemed worthy enough. But by comparison, The Lives of Michel Foucault is pedestrian, strong on the facts of Foucault's life (of which Macey gives many that Eribon and Miller either didn't know or decided to leave out), but timid and routine in the account it gives of Foucault's ideas. Foucault above all demands that whoever writes about him rise to an arduous occasion; of those who have tried so far, James Miller alone has done so.

(Photograph omitted)